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On a clear late spring night, three suited young men strode purposefully down a deserted street, their eyes

set on a large manor-like house with light blazing from the garden. Or, two of them did. The other lagged behind, looking like he very much wanted to be somewhere else. Ichigo glared at the backs of Keigo and Mizuiro mutinously. He had nothing better to do but this was definitely not the way he wanted to spend his night. It was nights like this that he wished he had enrolled in weekend activities. That would have made him less of a target for his roommates' nighttime crusades. Ichigo had no idea what this particular one was going to be or why he had to wear such a fancy suit (that, no doubt, left a big dent in his bank account) but he had the distinct feeling that he didn't want to know. However, his feelings were completely disregarded, as usual, when Keigo turned to him with the look of someone about to go over the plans to breach an impenitrable fortress, "Right, men, this is it. That house over there is holding a fancy party the like of which we poor students can never imagine. However, that should not stop us being able to sneak in-" "Wait, wait, wait." Ichigo interrupted, "You're not seriously thinking of gatecrashing, are you? Those guys have probably got security guards covering every inch of the place. There's no way we can get in there!"

"Then, we'll just climb over the wall." Mizuiro stated, calmly. That was Mizuiro's job on nights like this: to skate over every objection Ichigo raised and help Keigo push him into whatever they wanted him to do, "Anyway, it is not just about going to a fancy party. This is for your sake more than ours, Ichigo." "What d'you mean?" Keigo puffed himself up in an important sort of way. Or, what would look important on any other person. On him, it just looked stupid, "This, my dear friend, is Phase One of 'Operation Strawberry-Picker'!" "Operation...what?" Ichigo just gave him a blank look, What kind of twisted thing are they thinking of? Whatever it is, it probably involves me and it doesn't sound good. Keigo then put on a very idiotic-sounding mock-professional voice and intoned, "Ichigo, it has recently come to my knowledge that you, a man of good looks and good humour, are still a lonely and miserable virgin." "Yeah. So?" Ichigo scowled, not liking the way this was going, "Now, as your trusted friends and roommates, we would be ashamed, ashamed, to admit that we did nothing to solve this situation. So, we have found the party with the most lovely ladies in town that you can meet, greet and get friendly with between the sheets!" He waggled his

eyebrows suggestively, "WHAT?" Ichigo burst out, leaping away from his mad friend, "You're making me go to a fancy party just so I could pull a girl and get her to sleep with me?" "Well, perhaps not all on the same night." Mizuiro put in, "I know you can keep your carnal desires in check better than Keigo." "What do you mean?" Keigo rounded on him, "I have perfect control over my privates!" "Maybe now, you do. When you get in the party, who knows?" "Mizuiro, you meanie!" "Right, that's it." Ichigo turned and began to walk away, "I'm going back. If the shop's still open, I'll get the money back for this suit." "No, wait!" Keigo got hold of his suit tails and began dragging him back with strength Ichigo did not expect of him, "You must do this or you'll regret it forever! If we don't help you one the way to Enlightenment, we'll be the worst friends ever-URGH!" This comment earned him a hard kick in the face from a very annoyed Ichigo, "Quit your whining! You're already the worst friends ever for forcing me here!" "Come on, you two." Mizuiro's voice came from...somewhere. After a moment of searching, Ichigo

found his friend already on top of the wall and looking around for any guards, "It'll be over by the time you two have finished bickering." They had to drag Ichigo over the wall in the end, nearly ripping his suit, before they got him over the wall and into the shrubbery below. After quickly straightening their clothes out, they crept across the lawn until they came to a courtyard where people were dancing to a slow tune played on an outdoor piano. Everyone was either in suits or dresses that probably cost more than the building the three of them lived in. Ichigo felt incredibly out of place in this overly-formal environment and he wondered what on earth Keigo and Mizuiro were thinking bringing him here. This was probably the last place he would ever find a girl who would like him. Every girl he saw seemed to have a partner or did not look at all interested in finding one. Keigo and Mizuiro drifted off, wishing him hushed 'good luck' messages, leaving Ichigo wondering whether he should attempt to hide in the crowd or find the quickest way out of here, Then again, he told himself, Mizuiro would probably drag me back by the hair if I tried. So, reluctantly, he approached the guests, trying to act natural. There were a lot of people present. Enough to fill one of his lecture halls. Now that he got closer, he noticed that some of them looked distinctly suspicious, despite their

formal attire. One even had spiky, electric blue hair, making him very relieved. At least his own wild orange mop would not stand out so much compared to his. Bluehair was with a smaller man who looked more suited to the occasion with his short black hair and solemn, chalkwhite face. He vaguely heard his voice over the general murmur and music; it was just as monotone as the rest of him. Determined not to talk to anyone, Ichigo drifted aimlessly to the buffet. However, he took one look at the platters and decided against picking anything. Some of it didn't even look like food, Posh people are so weird about some things. His opinion seemed to be shared by a gangly man taller than Chad who popped a piece of something in his mouth and promptly spat it out so it landed on the head of his sandy-haired companion, "Geez," He sneered, turning around, giving Ichigo the view of a white eyepatch, "this is why I eat before coming here." The other man also had an eyepatch, a round black one, and seemed to strangely like what Eyepatch One rejected, "Please, don't say that kind of thing out loud, Nnoitra-sama." Eyepatch Two said, rather timidly, as he helped himself to what Ichigo could only presume was some kind of fish wrap, "Hey, who told you to act like my mother, Tesla?" snapped Nnoitra. The pair walked off at that point, Nnoitra still sniping at Tesla, seemingly to look straight

through Ichigo. As Ichigo picked a glass of champagne from a waiter and downed it in one go, a horrible thought struck him. What if these people were people like the Yakuza? Some of them certainly didn't look like lawabiding businessmen, Crap! Ichigo thought, If they found out I'm a gatecrasher, I'm dead! He made a solemn vow to himself that, should he get out alive, he would kill Keigo and Mizuiro for bringing him here. Presuming they made it out alive too, Ha, serve them right for doing something like this if they get caught. Now convinced that he had to get out of here quick, he pushed down his panic and acted like he was walking aimlessly away for a stroll around the garden. He made it away from the crowd and turned around the mansion, where the place was apparently deserted. Still, there could be guards lurking around so he had to be careful. He could tell that they weren't anywhere near the gate but he couldn't be too careful. Just as he was about to begin to start sneaking to the wall, a voice made him freeze, "Come to get away from the crowds too?" Whipping around in shock and horror, he saw a tall figure standing at a pair of ornately-decorated French doors flung open seemingly to let in the breeze that was ruffling Ichigo's hair. He could not see the figure very well since their back was to the light but he could tell by the very deep voice that it was a grown man,

"Ah, no." Ichigo scrambled for something to say that would get him away fast, "I was just, ah..." Ichigo was never a good liar and his mind had gone completely blank with panic, "Now, now, there's no need to fear me." The voice was warm and friendly, though it had a coldly commanding undertone to it, "I came away from the party to relax myself. No one will mind if we stay away." Ichigo breathed an inner sigh of relief. At least, the stranger had not caught onto the fact that he was a gatecrasher. But, before he could think of something to get him away, the stranger reached out and took hold of his hand, making Ichigo jump again, "Why don't you come here and have tea with me?" Before Ichigo could get a word in edgeways, he was being gently but firmly pulled into the dimly lit room and pushed into a very new-looking sofa. As he tried to pick a believable excuse out of his scrambled brain, his companion was pouring steaming tea into very expensivelooking cups. Ichigo was suddenly scared to move suddenly in case he broke something. He was already guilty of gatecrashing, he didn't want to add damage to property to his record. This meant that making a run for it was definitely out of the question. The cup was pushed in front of him and the dim lamp above their heads was adjusted so it shone more brightly

and illuminated the pair of them. Ichigo finally got a good look at his companion. He was approximately in his late twenties or perhaps early thirties with broad shoulders and large hands. His brown hair was smoothed back off his face, going no further than his chest and allowing only one lock to hang between a pair of sharp dark chocolatecoloured eyes. What Ichigo noticed most of all was the presence the man had. The feeling of superiority and authority radiating off him, especially from his eyes. Eyes that made Ichigo feel like his thoughts were written all over his face and made him think that he probably knew that the boy before him was not meant to be there. However, the tone in which he spoke next was friendly enough with a little less of the ominous undertone, "I do hate large gatherings. I don't even know half of the people there. I tend to prefer my solitude and a few companions. Are you the same?" "Uh...I suppose so." Ichigo took a sip of the scalding tea to stop him meeting those eyes, realising only too late the possibility that the drink might be spiked. However, after a moment, nothing happened so he supposed that it was alright, "Did you come with Grimmjow?" "Yeah." Ichigo grasped this opportunity and his brain finally started working, "I'm his second cousin. We don't talk much, though. We live kind of far away."

"Ah, so that's why he hasn't introduced me to you." Lovelock (as Ichigo started calling him in his head) nodded, "I suppose you and him are not the best of friends." "No." Ichigo went on, a bit more comfortable now that he had a good cover story, "I'm only staying with him now because my parents are away on business." "Is that so?" Suddenly, there was a distant crash and tinkle of glasses that nearly made Ichigo drop his teacup. Lovelock sighed, not in the least bit bothered by the noise, "Must be Zommari again. The man drinks like a fish. If he keeps doing this, he will be banned from these gatherings for sure." Ichigo almost breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment, he was sure that it had been Keigo, "So," Lovelock took a long swig of tea and observed Ichigo lazily, "what brings you to this event? You do not look like the sort to be a social butterfly." "I'm not." Ichigo agreed, feeling more and more at ease. So much so that some truth spilled out of him before he could stop himself, "I was forced here to try and find a girlfriend. My friends are getting at me for still being a virgin." "Sounds like you're not fond of the fairer sex either,

hm?" Ichigo blinked and stared at the man. The way he said it just sounded so...suggestive. However, before Ichigo could respond, he went on, "I had a few girlfriends in the past but they were all the same, really. They were more in love with the concept of my person and not really myself as a person, if that makes any sense to you." "Yeah, I think so." This did ring a bell with Ichigo, "They like watching you but, as soon as they get to know you, they realise that you're not all they hoped you'd be." "Indeed." Lovelock nodded, solemnly, "As I always say, admiration is the state furthest away from understanding." "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, taking a gulp of cooled tea. It was very easy to talk to this man. He didn't feel like a suspicious stranger anymore and more like a good friend, "I have not been in a relationship with anyone for nearly two years." Lovelock went on, "What about you?" "Ah, I broke up with my last girlfriend a year ago." Ichigo shrugged, "We were always arguing anyway. And, she kept saying how useless I was at being romantic." Lovelock sighed sympathetically, "Women. They're either obsessive and submissive or critical and short-tempered. You can never find a good one." "And, when you do, they're taken." They lapsed into an agreeing silence, both draining their

cups. All thoughts of escape had gone from Ichigo's head now. He had almost forgotten he wasn't meant to be here. He turned his face to Lovelock. He had to admit that he could see why he might have been popular with the girls. His face was rather handsome, uncovered by his hair to show its full attractive glory. His immaculate clothing and hairstyle was the perfect picture of an aristocrat and Ichigo could imagine well-toned lean muscles under his clothes... He snapped out of these thoughts when he realised how much these mental images were starting to affect him when he glanced down and noticed his very hard manhood, Shit! He thought, How the hell did that happen? The hell am I thinking? He hastily picked up his empty cup and placed it on his lap in an attempt to hide it. Lovelock was thankfully not looking in that direction and continued talking, "I have gained some infamy among my circle of friends for being very uninterested in romance. Is it the same with you?" "Ah, kinda." Ichigo nodded, his mind wandering briefly to Mizuiro and Keigo, "There were times when my friends would joke that I had no preference in the fairer sex at all." "Well, I haven't had that yet." Ichigo muttered, darkly, "But, it might be only a matter of time." He wasn't going

to admit that he himself had been wondering in his private moments if he was homo, "You talk about it like it's a bad thing." Lovelock said, lightly, setting aside his cup and turning slightly to face Ichigo. He now wore an enigmatic smile on his face that made his eyes seem even sharper, "The way I see it, the only bad thing about being homosexual is what certain, uneducated people would think of you." Ichigo suddenly became very hot under his shirt as the other man shifted closer, his fingers lightly brushing the back of Ichigo's hand. The heat built more and more with every movement, especially around his groin, Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Ichigo could feel the heat creeping into his face and was sure that Lovelock knew exactly how aroused he was, "My dear friend," Lovelock's already baritone-like voice now took on a whole new sensual quality that made Ichigo irresistably shiver, "you and I have quite an understanding, although we have know each other for less than an hour." They were very close now. But, Ichigo amazingly didn't feel too uncomfortable. The part of him that wanted this unexpected intimacy to stop was becoming weaker, to be replaced with mindless, heated passion. The like of which he had not felt during his time with Inuoe or Rukia. He absently noticed Lovelock taking the cup out of his hands and setting it on the table.

Strong arms wrapped around him, pulling him closer to a wide, warm chest. Ichigo's head was gently tilted upwards and, knowing what was going to happen, he closed his eyes as a pair of lips pressed against his. Lovelock wasn't desperate for attention like Inuoe or aggressively demanding it like Rukia but slow and leisurely, going at an almost dream-like pace that Ichigo immediately took a liking to. Almost unconsciously, Ichigo draped his arms around the other man's shoulders, immersing his fingers in gelled hair and messing it up. Lovelock deepened the kiss after a long moment, pushing Ichigo's head back further. The feeling of his tongue upon Ichigo's lips shocked him at first but he soon got over it and opened his mouth to admit it entrance. None of Ichigo's girlfriends had ever used their tongues when kissing. Then again, their kisses had been very quick compared to Lovelock. The feeling was more pleasant than Ichigo had thought it would be. It did not feel invasive or strange at all as the organ explored his mouth. The best part, though, was when it touched with his, curling around it and encouraging it to move until their tongues were dancing in slow, loving circles. After a while, air became a nagging problem and they had to seperate, though they did so as sluggishly as possible and did not move their arms an inch. They only paused to gaze at each other for a moment before Lovelock began

kissing his way down Ichigo's neck, his hands pushing away the clothes from Ichigo's shoulders. Ichigo could only sit motionless, not in the least bit inclined to move as the other man pleasured his skin. He didn't know how long he had been there but he honestly didn't care. Whatever he was going to do can't have been important. Suddenly, Lovelock stopped, making Ichigo snap out of his trance to stare down at him. The other man raised his head so their eyes were level, dark chocolate staring into deep amber, "If you want me continue, I suggest taking our activities to a more appropriate place where you and I would be more comfortable. It's still an 'if', though. I will not be displeased if you want to leave it at this." Ichigo was silent for a moment. He was being given an opportunity to back out, something he had not expected. He tried thinking of a few reasons why he should leave now: Keigo and Mizuiro would probably be wondering where he was, having sex with a complete stranger was completely wrong and he was still a gatecrasher. However, these excuses became weaker as the seconds went by. Keigo and Mizuiro were most likely caught up in pulling girls at the party, Lovelock wasn't a total stranger since they'd just had a good conversation before and, even if he was a gatecrasher, Lovelock didn't know that yet. Besides, it would be horrible to leave it at this. Not now Ichigo was so in the mood. So, with all this in mind, he leaned forward so their

foreheads were touching and murmured, "Let's go for it." Lovelock's lips stretched into a smile, "Very well. Just one more thing, how old are you?" "Twenty in a few weeks." Ichigo answered, breathily. This made Lovelock's smile widen, "Good, good. I turned twenty-seven recently so there is not much of an age gap between us. Perfect." And, without further ado, he had swept Ichigo up in his arms like a new bride. Ichigo's stomach did a backflip as he left the sofa and was carried out of the room, "H-hey!" He gasped, "What-where are we going?" "Just to one of the bedrooms." Lovelock's smile widened and he rearranged Ichigo so his head was resting on the crook of his neck in a way that was more comfortable than Ichigo would let on. Up the stairs and across a wide landing, they went. Everything was dimly lit with only the light coming from the party to guide them yet Lovelock did not falter, striding towards a room at the end of the corridor and nudging the door open with his foot. In an instant, Ichigo was laid gently upon a bed so large that he could easily lie across it both ways in a veryexpensively decorated room, "H-hold on." Ichigo couldn't help but stammer, "Should we be here? Isn't this someone's room?" Lovelock laughed, "I'm sure he won't mind us using it." His hand got straight back to work undressing Ichigo and,

not wanting to feel too submissive, Ichigo reached up to pull the other man's clothes away. Ichigo had been right; even in the dim light, he could see that Lovelock was the owner of a fine set of muscles, well-defined and supple. The sight of them filled Ichigo with a strange sort of excitement that he had never felt when he had seen girls naked. Or, if he had, it had been much more muted than this. Lovelock continued lavishing his body with kisses, stroking Ichigo's skin with reverence. It was a novel experience for Ichigo but it felt surprisingly good and not at all embarrassing to be in this position. Lovelock moved his lips down his chest and stopped at one of his nipples. As soon as he started swirling his tongue around it, a jolt of pleasure went straight through Ichigo, making him cry out in combined shock and ecstasy. He could feel the seam of his trousers coming under more pressure as he became harder and harder when Lovelock moved his attention from one nipple to the other, coaxing the both of them into hardness. It was a long time (or, it felt like a long time) before Lovelock took hold of the zipper on his pants, pausing to look up at a panting Ichigo, "Last chance." He teased, smiling mischieviously, "Do it." Ichigo gasped, now no longer caring if he wasn't supposed to be here or doing this. He was too addicted to the pleasure this was giving him to quit now. He closed his

eyes lazily as the rest of his clothes were pulled away and a rustle of material told him that Lovelock was fully naked as well. A little spark of anxiety flared within him at what was going to come but that was soon extinguished by Lovelock's hands wrapping around his cock and slowly massaging it. With every little move, an incredible rush of pleasure went through him, the like of which he had never expected or remembered feeling before. Ichigo threw his head back and moaned, bucking his hips to gain more friction. All that mattered in his mind now was that he kept feeling that pleasure. Lovelock was only too happy to oblige his desires, running his hand up and down faster and faster with every second. Finally, the pleasure became too much; his orgasm was coming, "Gonna...cum..." Ichigo managed to gasp out before, with a dizzying final burst, he came over Lovelock's hand. Ichigo sank back into the mattress, feeling like that orgasm had taken nearly everything out of him. In the haze, he became dimly aware of the mattress shifting. Lovelock was delving into the bedside table, looking for something. Finally, as Ichigo gained more and more awareness, he found what he was looking for, "Wh-what's that?" Ichigo formed his sigh into words, inclining his head at the bottle, "Lubricant." Lovelock murmured in that sensual way again, "It's to reduce the pain and make it easier for me to

penetrate you." Penetration. Now, that was something Ichigo had not given much thought to. He had always been told that it hurt the first time and, indeed, Lovelock had said that the lubrication would reduce the pain. Before he could think of something to say, however, his legs were being carefully pushed up and out and something poked at his backside, "Ahh! What the fuck?" He tried to squirm away but one of Lovelock's large hands held him still, "Relax." He murmured in a soothing kind of way, "This is just the preparation. What you feel now is my finger. I do not plan on penetrating you properly until you are appropriately prepared. I know it must be painful but, if I do not do this, penetrating you will be nothing but pain with little pleasure. And, I don't want you to be in pain. You don't look attractive at all when you're in pain. So, just lie back now and let me take care of you." Ichigo found it very hard to resist pulling away as the finger wormed its way further into him. It felt oddly cold and slimy and Ichigo wondered briefly if it was that lubricatant stuff on it. The finger began a slow, even rhythm of pushing in and pulling out until the initial pain faded. Just as Ichigo was starting to get used to the feeling, however, he felt the intrusion widen and realise that a second finger was going in this time. He winced as it not only started the push and pull rhythm but began making scissor movements so his entrance was

painfully stretched, "Wh-what the hell are you doing?" He gasped, "That h-hurts!" In response to this, the fingers pushed in deeper than they had before and hit something that made Ichigo let out a scream of pleasure much louder than the ones that had escaped him before, "That's it." came Locklock's voice from above him, "Focus on the pleasure, not the pain." Ichigo gripped the pillow as the fingers hit that spot again, the sounds of pleasure from his mouth now sounding more animal than human. A third finger was added but Ichigo didn't even notice the pain. He was too preoccupied with the intensity of the ecstasy that was rolling over him, accompanied with an almost comforting feeling of being filled. Suddenly, he felt the fingers withdraw and disappear. He could not stop a small whine of disappointment escaping him at the feeling of emptiness they left behind. He wanted the pleasure to continue. A musical chuckle came from above him, "Don't worry, my darling. You will not be empty for long. Besides, you look too beautiful when you're in pleasure for me to stop now." After a moment, he could feel something heavy pressing against him and Lovelock's face came into view, still smiling serenely though his hair was a little dishevelled. He gently carressed Ichigo's cheek and leaned down to kiss him once more. Lost once more in the leisurely dream-like feeling that came with this, Ichigo raised his arms and wrapped them around Lovelock's body, tracing

every ridge of his spine with his fingers. In the meantime, Lovelock was bringing up his legs so he was straddling Ichigo's hips and bringing his manhood very close to his entrance. When their lips broke apart, Lovelock whispered against the other's mouth, "When I begin to penetrate you, it will feel painful but the lubricant will ease it. Just relax and resist your instinctual desire to try and push me out. Keep yourself nice and open. Don't panic, I'll be gentle. Now, let's begin, shall we?" They began to kiss again and, as soon as Ichigo had begun to relax, he felt something that definitely wasn't a finger pushing into him. He furrowed his eyebrows and cried out against Lovelock's lips at the feeling. As the pain intensified, Ichigo, being unable to vocally express his discontent, clawed at Lovelock's back, surely making scratches. Lovelock merely tangled his tongue with Ichigo's as he inexorably eased himself in inch by inch. He only lifted his face away from Ichigo's when he was fully sheathed, leaving Ichigo panting and trying to adjust to the pain, "F-fuck..." Ichigo groaned as Lovelock became still for a moment. Lovelock's lips lowered to his face once more, "I'm going to move in a minute. Remember what I said. Do not focus on the pain, only the pleasure." The pain was beginning to recede now and, seeming to sense this, Lovelock pulled himself out just as slowly as he'd come in. Then, without

warning, he slammed back in hard and fast. This would have been painful if Lovelock had not found that sweet spot again that sent his body arching off the bed and his hips pushing back against Lovelock's. He tried to tell him to go faster but every thrust hit that same spot again and made him incapable of coherant speech. Lovelock, seeming to be able to think more clearly than Ichigo, turned his attention to his neck, kissing, licking and nibbling the soft skin, making little red and purple marks that the younger man would only notice later, "Rather sensitve, aren't you?" Lovelock murmured, "It's so easy to get a reaction from you." Normally, Ichigo would have snapped back but his mind was in no state to think of any retort so the comment went ignored. Lovelock took hold of Ichigo's manhood (now very hard once more) and began pumping it as he had done before, further increasing the electrifying pleasure coursing through him and quickening his release, "I-ah!I'm clo-uh-close...!" Ichigo managed out. The next thing that came out of his mouth was a loud scream as he came once again over both their stomachs. Lovelock only lasted another thrust before he gripped Ichigo's shoulders tightly and Ichigo felt a warm, wet rush inside him as the older man came inside him. Lovelock slid out after a few seconds and moved to Ichigo's side, allowing the younger's legs to slump back onto the bed. The both of them lay side by side, panting

and slowly regaining their senses. After a while, Lovelock spoke, "I don't know about you, dear one, but I feel so much more pleasure with you than I have with any woman." "Mmm." Ichigo could only nod. After two orgasms, he was now completely exhausted. Appearing to understand this, Lovelock reached out and gently pulled Ichigo towards him so the younger man was resting his head on the older's chest. The muscles were extremely warm and comfortable, sending Ichigo to sleep in minutes. A/N: I think we all know who Lovelock is (even if Ichigo doesn't). I do plan on continuing this story but I'm not sure where to take it. Any suggestions would be nice, along with some helpful reviews! The sound of birdsong greeted his ears as Ichigo woke. After a moment, he realised how odd this was. Since his apartment was in a very busy area of town, he would never have a opportunity to hear birds singing when he first woke up. Still, it was a nice sound and he decided to just lie there for a while, enjoying the ability to listen to them. However, reality caught up with him very quickly and the events of last night came rushing back to him. Praying feebly that it might all be a dream, he opened his eyes and his heart sank when he found himself still lounging on Lovelock's chest. Lovelock...just what is his name anyway? Ichigo tried to think back and could not pick out

any moment when they gave each other their names. Lovelock was still sound asleep so Ichigo decided to seize this opportunity to escape. Carefully, he slid off Lovelock's chest and out of bed. Lovelock did not stir once but Ichigo was still cautious. As soon as he stood up and took a step forward, his pelvis flared with pain, "Argh-" He quickly clapped a hand over his mouth but too late. He fearfully glanced at the bed and his heart stopped when he saw Lovelock shifting. However, he merely turned over so his back was facing Ichigo and lay still. Ichigo hurried to throw his clothes back on as fast as his new limp would carry him. It took a lot longer than he would have liked since Lovelock had been wearing exactly the same kind of suit as him, making him need to doublecheck every item of clothing to make sure it was his. Twice, he had put on a piece of clothing only to realise that it was Lovelock's. Finally, he managed to find all his clothes and, after quickly checking his pockets to make sure he hadn't left anything behind, began to tiptoe towards the door. He was just about to take hold of the handle when the sound of voices outside made him freeze, "Ya okay, Izuru? I was kinda rough wit' ya, wasn' I?" "It only hurts a little, Gin-sama."

Looks like we weren't the only ones getting it on last

night. Ichigo thought, absently, before retreating quickly and quietly from the door. The last thing he needed right now for other people to see him. He would definitely get a lot of unwanted questions if he was caught. He glanced around the room, his heart beating faster and faster with nerves. The longer he deliberated here, the more chance there was of someone coming into the room or Lovelock waking up.
The window seemed the only opportunity available but Ichigo hated the idea of jumping from the first floor when he already had a limp. Still, there was no other option. With that, he crept over to the window and began undoing the latch. Thankfully, it opened without a problem, allowing Ichigo to climb up onto the windowsill. Even though it was only the first floor, the drop still looked too high, making him hesitate. As he was glancing around, looking for anyone in the now silent garden, he spotted a drainpipe right next to him, That'll have to do. He reached out and carefully eased himself onto the metal pipe, praying that it wouldn't give out under his weight. However, he managed to shift himself down and get to the ground without incident. After another quick glance around (and pulling up his jacket over his head to cover his distinctive hair), he darted out from the shrubbery and sprinted across the garden. He managed to pull himself over the wall but landing made

his backside ache again. After a moment of getting over it, Ichigo dashed away from the mansion as though a hundred security guards were after him, ignoring the nagging pain that resulted from it. He reached the shopping district, where he had got his suit, and leaned against a lamppost to catch his breath. Looking up, he could see that it was still early in the morning. The shutters of the shops were down and there were only a few cars around. There were no people on the sidewalk to be seen and Ichigo realised just how odd he would look, leaning against the lamppost and wearing a fancy suit. And, he realised with a small jolt of fear, how easy it would be for Lovelock or someone else from that house to find him. The old fear that had gripped him last night took hold again, along with the idea that the house might have been owned by people involved in crime. He began unconsciously glancing around, as though expecting to see armed security guards charging towards him. The street was still quite deserted but he knew he wasn't out of trouble yet. Sitting down in the bus shelter (he winced at the pain that flared up again as soon as he sat down), he went over his options in his head. He needed to get away from that house as quickly as possible, preferably without too many people seeing him. He stood out because of his orange hair as it was. Wearing an evening suit in broad daylight would just add to that. Unfortunately, his apartment was about eight miles away, No way am I walking that far the

way I am now. He thought. As he reached for his wallet, he remembered that he had cleaned it out buying the suit (he was really starting to hate the damned thing now) so calling a taxi was definitely out of the question.
He did have a train and bus pass in his wallet, along with a train timetable. His heart sank when saw that the first trains to where his apartment was left in three hours and he groaned aloud when he looked up at the bus timetable, only to see that the first bus arrived in two hours. He really did not like the idea of hanging around in one place for an extended amount of time. In his mind, that would make him a sitting duck, just waiting to be caught,

Don't panic, don't panic. He told himself but it did him no good. His glanced around became more frequent and, after a few seconds, he left the bus shelter. He managed to calm himself down a bit by walking down the street and was able to think rationally after a while, I'll just have to call someone and ask them to give me a lift. They'll be annoyed but it's my only choice.
So, he pulled out his phone and began reeling through the names in his contacts list, So, who's going to be the unlucky person to be woken up by me today? He briefly contemplated calling Keigo and Mizuiro just to get his own back on them for leaving him in this situation but, just as he was about to hit 'call', another awful thought struck him. He had no idea where the pair of them were. He didn't know if they had been caught or not. Though he

knew it would serve them right if they were caught, it occured to him that calling a person in prison looked very suspicious if you weren't a lawyer. And, if Keigo and Mizuiro had already blabbed that they weren't alone when they were gatecrashing, then he would be doomed. Quickly scrolling down, he finally halted at Renji. As much as he liked Renji and didn't want to annoy him by waking him up so early, it was the most convenient. He lived close by, after all, and that was where the three of them had changed into their suits after buying them. He could even ask Renji if he could bring his street clothes along. Relieved at finding a good solution at last, Ichigo eagerly pressed 'call' and pressed the phone to his ear. After three rings, a sleepy voice said, "Whadyawant?" "Renji, it's me. Ichigo." "Ichigo?" There was a noise and Ichigo guessed that he was sitting up, "Why the hell are you calling this early?" "Ah, I need a lift back to my apartment." "Wha-why?" Renji yawned, "Aren't Keigo and Mizuiro with you?" "No. Um, I'm not sure where they are actually." "What?" "Just get down here, will you? I'm in the shopping district close to the bus stop. Bring the clothes I left with you last night." Ichigo snapped, irritably. Couldn't

Renji figure out that he was in a hurry? "Okay, okay. See you in a bit." Renji hung up and, at that moment, all Ichigo had to do was wait. All the time he was sitting there, he kept looking to and fro for the security or, worse, the police. Finally, Renji's car pulled into view. A cheap car considering his high-status job in the Gotei 13 corporation that probably had a high pay to match. Renji wound down the window, revealing his hair falling over his face (he hadn't bothered to put it back), "Hey, Ichigo. Your clothes are in the back if you want to get changed before we set off. Damn, you look weird in a suit." "Shut up." Ichigo growled as he opened the back door and shut himself in the car. His clothes were in a shopping bag, in which he unceremoniously stuffed his suit. If he had his way, those clothes would never see the light of day again. Once he was back in his normal clothes, he climbed over the seat and pulled on his seatbelt with a little more ferocity than was needed. As Renji started the engine, Ichigo gave a small snort, "Never knew you liked Chappy stuff, Renji." "I don't!" Renji snapped back, "That's Rukia's. I borrowed it." "Rukia?" Ichigo repeated, amazed, "Yeah. We got together a couple of months ago. We're living together now. Yeah, I know she was your ex.

Actually, she wanted me to leave you there this morning when I told her I was coming to get you." Ichigo felt a glowing surge of gratitude towards his friend, "I'm more surprised Byakuya let you near her. He always hated me and you'd be even worse to him. He really gave me hell when Rukia broke up with me." "Yeah. And, y'know what's worse? He's my boss." "Shit...that is worse!" Just as Ichigo was about to relax, Renji suddenly said, "So, what were you three doing last night? Keigo never told me. You guys just got changed and left." "Ugh, don't ask." Ichigo shook his head, "Keigo being crazy again." "Yeah, I figured that much. Come on, what happened?" Ichigo really didn't want anyone to know what happened last night but, again, his mind went blank and he couldn't think of a good story. So, he reluctantly settled for the truth, "They dragged me to this fancy party to try and get me with someone so I could lose my virginity." Renji snorted, "Keigo really is nuts." "Yeah. And," He paused for a moment, "the worst part is that he succeeded." Renji nearly crashed into a lamppost, "WHAT?" He roared, after pulling up on the curb and ignoring the

driver that had been behind them screaming, 'Bloody kids! You think you own the road!', "Were you drunk or...wait, you haven't been raped, have you, Ichigo?" His hand dove into his pocket for his phone but Ichigo quickly replied, "No, no, it's not like that! I agreed to it, I knew what I was doing!" Renji paused, phone in hand, clearly with the intent of calling the police. Finally, after a moment to calm down, he asked, "Who was it?" "Ah..." Ichigo again racked his brains for Lovelock's name, "I, uh, don't know his name actually." "His?" The other man repeated, dumbly. Then, a big grin spread across his face, "Heh, never thought you were that kinda guy, Ichigo. No wonder Rukia was never happy with you." "Shut up." Renji merely chuckled, "Wait until Rukia hears about this!" "Shut up!" This time, Ichigo whacked him round the head with the Chappy bag, "You tell her and you're dead!" "Okay, okay, I won't tell. Anyway, what did this guy look like? A load of Gotei 13 workers live round here. I might know them." "Ah, tall, brown hair, brown eyes." Seeing no reaction,

Ichigo went into more detail, "Wears his hair slicked back with a bit hanging in his face." That definitely rang a bell. In fact, it probably rang every bell in Renji's head since, as soon as Ichigo had given that description, he grabbed the other's shoulders and shook him violently while yelling, "ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL ME THAT YOU SLEPT WITH AIZEN, FRICKIN', SOUSUKE?" "Who?" This name meant absolutely nothing to him, which made Renji even more incensed, "HE'S ONLY THE FLAMIN' HEAD OF THE FIFTH DIVISION IN THE GOTEI 13 AND THE BOSS OF THE LAS NOCHES CORPORATION!" Ichigo didn't know much about big businesses but he wasn't stupid. This Aizen Sousuke definitely sounded like an important person and he felt his stomach drop as he realised the implications of this. There was no way a poor university student like him could ever stand up to a big bureaucrat like him in court, "It must have been his party, too." Renji went on, sounding very worried, "I heard around the office it was his birthday a few weeks ago."

Oh, crap. Ichigo's stomach plummeted further. Not only had he gatecrashed a party attended by Aizen but he had gatecrashed Aizen's party. His crime now seemed worse and worse with every moment. Renji started the car again

and drove twice as fast as he had before, as though a hundred police cars were after him. After a while, Ichigo found his voice again, "What's this Las Noches Corporation? Is it Mexican or something?" "Started out in Mexico, I think. Then, it moved to Japan. Aizen bought it last year. It's been doing really well since he took charge of it, though. It's almost rivalling the Gotei 13. I don't know exactly what goes on there; I've never been to one of their buildings. I do know that it's got a really bad reputation. I heard a rumour once that nearly all of their employees were in prison before they started work there." Ichigo remembered how criminal-like the guests at the party had looked and he felt even worse. Now, he knew that Aizen had a whole gang of criminals working for him. He probably wouldn't get to court if Aizen ever found out. He'd probably send his employees to beat him up or even kill him, "Fuck." Ichigo breathed. Then, something occurred to him, "Wait, Renji, I don't think I told him my name either. I told him that I was somebody's second cousin." A look of relief splashed over the redhead's face, "Great. At least, you've got a bit of sense in you." Renji finally reached Ichigo's apartment complex. Though the danger in his mind had somewhat lessened, Ichigo was

still very aware that the doors looked very breakable. At least, he was near the top floor and there was more than one way to the ground floor so he would hear any hired thugs coming and might have a chance to escape. When he reached his door, the voices of Keigo and Mizuiro from within made a wash of relief come over him. So, they hadn't been dragged off to prison or beaten up and left to die, Even though they deserve it for getting me into this. Ichigo thought, viciously. Keigo was screaming at Mizuiro, "It's them! It's them! Get the frying pan! Get the baseball bat! Get my mummy!"

So, they know they're in trouble. Good. Ichigo's fear had long gone, since he was so distracted by thoughts of what he was going to do to those two. He waited a few more moments to let them really panic before he pulled out his key,
"Do it slowly." Renji muttered, before the key could meet the lock, "Make them really scared!" Grinning at this idea, Ichigo slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, relishing in Keigo's screams of, "They've got a key! They've got Ichigo's key! They must have taken it off his body!" "You're enjoying this, aren't you, Ichigo?" Renji commented, as an evil-looking expression spread over Ichigo's face, "They dragged me to that party. They deserve

everything bad they get." Ichigo had never been one for practical jokes before but he was prepared to make a big exception. Ichigo made a long, drawn-out performance of opening the door, glad that he'd hadn't got round to putting oil on the squeaky hinges yet. Renji was starting to grin too. In fact, he made the situation even better by putting on a gruff voice and saying in a loud mock-mutter, "So, which one do you want to go for first?" A whimper came from the main room, making Ichigo have to fight down a laugh. Imitating Renji, Ichigo replied, "Aizen-sama wants them alive. Who knows, they might get to meet their berry friend again before they're finished." The whimper was louder this time and there was a moment when both Renji and Ichigo had to stifle sniggers, "Brilliant, brilliant!" Renji whispered, before putting on his thug voice again, "Right. Let's go get 'em." They could now hear Keigo's panicky jibbering and, like with the key and the door, they took slow and lumbering steps to further draw out the other two's terror. They couldn't say anything else since they'd stuffed their fists into their mouth to stop their laughter. They finally came to the door and, as Ichigo slowly pushed it open, there was a final little squeak of terror and a sound of something falling to the floor before Keigo was silent,

"Keigo! Keigo!" cried Mizuiro, sounding actually frightened. Ichigo pushed the door open the rest of the way to see what had happened. In the middle of the main room were all the mattresses in the apartment, pulled together in the kind of fort children would make. Beside it was Keigo lying unconscious on the floor and Mizuiro attempting to revive him, He fainted. He ACTUALLY fainted! This was too much. Ichigo and Renji met each other's eye for a moment and then burst out laughing. Ichigo doubled up with laughter with tears streaming down his face and ended up rolling on the floor, unable to contain his mirth. He didn't remember laughing so much since he was a child. When he finally managed to pull himself together, Mizuiro was standing with his hands on his hips, looking like a wife about to tell off her husband for coming back late. And, sure enough, the first words out of his mouth were, "Where the fuck have you been?" Ichigo, still laughing, pulled himself up and wiped his face, "That was not funny!" "Ye-yes, it was, Mizuiro!" Renji could barely speak for laughter as he too stood up from where he must have been rolling about on the floor too, "Oh, I haven't laughed this much since Yumichika stuck a wig on Ikkaku with superglue."

Mizuiro couldn't seem to come up with a retort for that and, instead, turned to Ichigo with a look of thunder, "The question still stands. Where have you been? Do you know that me and Mizuiro couldn't sleep because we were worrying about you?" "Wow, I'm flattered. So," Ichigo managed to fully suppress his laughter, his face settling back into the normal scowl, "what happened with you guys?" "We were thrown out." Mizuiro said this in a voice of damaged pride, "You know Keigo's bad at lying and good at causing a scene. We were dragged out by security and we had to call Ikkaku to get back here. It was only then when we realised whose party we'd gatecrashed Now, stop messing about and answer my question!" Ichigo was saved from answering by Keigo stirring. Bleary eyes raised up to him and, after a while, he started screaming again, "I'm dead! I'm dead! I've left the world of the living and Ichigo's come to haunt me for all eternity! Waahh!" He covered his face, "I didn't want to die this way! I'm too young to die!" "Yeah, well, that won't save you." Ichigo advanced menacingly on his friend, "You're not dead, Keigo, but don't get too happy. You and Mizuiro are about to face much worse!"

The bright sunlight hit his eyelids in a very unpleasant

way, making Sousuke roll over to evade it. He did not want to wake up yet. He wanted to stay in bed for as long as he could before work. He was feeling far too comfortable to get up now. It was a long time before he properly identified the source of his satisfaction, Ah, yes. That young man. He opened his eyes and looked around for a shock of orange hair. It disconcerted him to find that he had completely vanished, leaving only a few stains and a lingering warmth on the bedsheets. Sousuke frowned, How rude! To think I was going to treat him to breakfast this morning! He closed his eyes and reasoned with his annoyance, Ah, well. I can call Grimmjow and have him drag his second cousin back by his ludicrously coloured hair. So, he pulled himself out of bed and pulled on a dressing gown before picking up his suit and folding it as neatly as he could on his bed, ready for a cleaner to pick it up and put it back to its pristine shape. He tried to smooth back his hair but gave up after a few tries, That boy did a marvellous job of messing it up. Any more and my hair would look as unruly as his. So, with his hair still in a mess, he opened the door and went downstairs. Hirako was already at the table, nibbling a piece of toast like a rabbit and reading the Sunday newspaper. Gin and Kira were also present, thought they looked a little dishevelled. Sousuke supposed that they had been using

one of the spare rooms to have some fun, Nice to know that I wasn't the only one. Perceptive as ever, Gin's squinting eyes picked out the telltale signs of the night's activities on Sousuke too, "Had a bit o' fun las' night, huh, Aizen-taichou?" Sousuke merely gave him a small smile and picked up an apple from the fruit bowl, "He, he, so ya did. I did 'ear a few screams from yer room. 'E sure was vocal, wasn' he? I could 'ear 'im from where I was." "What?" Hirako's toast dropped from his mouth onto the newspaper and he stared at Sousuke, "You...did it last night?" "'E sure did!" Gin's smile widened so much that it was in danger of extending beyond his face. "So, Aizen-taichou, feel like sharin' the story wit' us?" "Not at the breakfast table, Gin." Sousuke replied, placidly, "Finally!" Hirako put in, "I thought you were never going to find someone! And, wait, did Ichimaru say it was a he?" "And, he would be right." Sousuke kept his serene tone, though privately relishing the look on Hirako's face. It felt so good to be the only one who was calm while others were getting so wound up, "It seems the party was not a total waste of my time."

"Hey!" Hirako was so easy to infuriate, which was why Sousuke loved to do it, "It was your birthday party and I organised that party specially for you!" "Yes, I know you did." Sousuke took a small bite from his apple, "Without my consent, Hirako-san." That did it. That old reliable trick that always made Hirako upset and today was no exception, "Why won't you call me Dad? I've told you enough times!" "Because you're not my father." With that, his adoptive father sulkily stomped out of the room, muttering something like, "Ungrateful little brat..." Gin sniggered appretiatively, "Tha's Aizen-taichou fer ya. Cold as ever." Sousuke sat down at the table and poured himself some tea, contemplating what to do with that flighty young man. He could call Grimmjow and have him dragged back but that was too simple for his tastes. Besides, that would probably scare the boy a bit too much. He wanted to frighten him a little to pay him back for running off but not so much that he would scare him away. It wasn't like Sousuke to excercise self-restraint. Normally, he would have called Grimmjow as soon as he woke up and he would have had the boy before him by now. Still, there was something about that boy that made him unwilling to show the usual unquestioned, cruel

authority that he was wont to have. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on but it was the same thing that made him more gentle and considerate towards the boy than he normally would have with his bedfellows. With this in mind, he picked up the phone on the counter and dialled Szayel's number. Of course, his call was answered on the first ring. Every call he made to his employees was answered on the first ring, "How can I help you, Aizen-sama?" And that was always the polite and respectful greeting given, "I would like you to find some information for me concerning an orange-haired boy living in the area who will soon turn twenty. And, who possibly is related to Grimmjow." The more he thought about the little information the boy had given him, the more he realised that he may not have been completely truthful. He did seem a little anxious around him and didn't seem to know who he was. A very unusual thing, nowadays, "As you wish, Aizen-sama. I will have any information I find sent to you within the hour." "Thank you, Szayel." He put the receiver down and pulled a laptop towards him. Szayel had been a world-class computer hacker and virus creator before being employed by the Las Noches Corporation. Sousuke himself had assigned him to Head of Technologies and he was doing his job admirably.

Whether he was doing his job legally or illegally wasn't Sousuke's business to know. After all, there was no way he could be prosecuted for something he didn't know about. Half an hour after Sousuke had half-heartedly immersed himself into dull administration to pass the time, an email from Szayel appeared. He instantly abandoned his work and opened it with almost childish eagerness:

Aizen-sama, I could not find anyone of that description related to Grimmjow but I did find this person who matches every other description.
Below it was a profile of a scowling face under a mop of orange hair, Now, there's my man. He was Kurosaki Ichigo, attended a local university and lived in an apartment with two of his friends. He had two young sisters living with their father and had lost his mother when he was nine. And, he was not in the slightest bit connected to the Gotei 13 or Las Noches corporation. After a moment's contemplation, he picked up the phone again and called Yammy, the head of security around his home. That was answered on the first ring, too, "What can I do for you, Aizen-sama?" "Tell me, did you have any trouble at the party last night?" "Just a few gatecrashers. It was no trouble throwing

them out, though. I was just thinking about asking Szayel to track them down so I can rough them up a bit later." "No, no, that won't be necessary." Sousuke said at once, "I don't mind a small thing like that so long as they didn't do any lasting damage." A gatecrasher, hmm? After placing down the receiver, he turned to the side, "And, how much longer do you plan on looking over my shoulder, Gin?" Despite the pleasantly threatening tone of Sousuke's voice, Gin still grinned as he surveyed Ichigo's photograph, "'E's kinda cute. Not as cute as my Izuchicky but cute." Kira blushed deep crimson. It was common knowledge that he hated that nickname so Gin made a point of only calling him that when someone important was in the room and never when they were alone together, That man has such an strange mind. Always has. Sousuke thought as he turned back to the profile, Gin peered more obviously over his shoulder, "So...did ya prep 'im or not?" "I did. I was very careful to." Sousuke replied, evenly, "Really?" Even Kira looked quietly surprised, "Tha' was nice of ya. Ya don't 'ave to do that. As fer me, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't." Kira blushed again and looked away. Sousuke suddenly realised why he was standing instead of sitting, Poor boy. Then again, he always comes back so he must enjoy it in some way,

"Anyway, why did ya?" "Something I learned over the years is that, if you want to get something, you have to be a little adjustable. One method of persuasion will not work with everybody." "Well, if ya wanted to look friendly, ya should 'ave worn yer glasses, ya silly man!" Gin said in a mock-chastising tone. The fact that he could get away with calling Sousuke that was a true mark of how much Sousuke liked him, "I know. Still, I was fine without them this time." With that, he turned back to the rest of Szayel's message. On the profile were numourous ways of contacting him. A mobile phone number, his email address, his apartment address...As he read these, he considered the possibilities. He could have someone come to his apartment and deliver a message. Perhaps even force him to come back to the house, No, I decided before that having someone drag him back here isn't appropriate. That's what Yakuza and criminals do, after all. Although Sousuke could never say he was completely innocent, he did not consider himself a criminal and often like to make sure he did not act like them. It would not be proper for someone of his reputation, after all. He could contact him by his phone or email address. That was certainly scare him, making him think that his private information wasn't safe anymore, No, that might make

him change everything and leave the country. I can afford the necessary things to chase him but I have my own commitments here. He almost shuddered as he thought about how full his in-tray would be when he got back, Or, worse yet, he could call the police. That's the last thing I want. It would be very damaging to my reputation if I got into trouble with the law.
At the bottom of the message, however, was the answer to his problem. Syazel had wrote:

His family are organising a surprise party for his birthday next month. They are in the process of renting out a large summer house and they are inviting a lot of people to attend.
It was one of those rare moments when he could have sworn that Szayel was psychic. Below was the address of the summer house and a photograph of a picturesquelooking house overlooking the sea. It looked very isolated with trees surrounding it. The perfect place for people to make as much mess and noise as they wanted. As he looked at the photo, a Gin-like smile spread across his face as a brilliant idea came to him. "You're GAY?" Keigo's face was inches away from Ichigo's, making his eyes look even wider. His face would be funny if they hadn't been talking about something so serious, "YOU'RE GAY?" "Yeah, I guess." Ichigo shrugged, nonchalantly. He was

getting used to the idea of his sexuality now. The initial shock at the revelation had worn off, as well as the fear of Aizen coming after him. It had been three days since that night, after all, and nothing had happened. Renji had sworn to keep what Ichigo had told him a secret and Ichigo had tried to keep it from Keigo and Mizuiro. However, Mizuiro's constant questioning, Ichigo's inability to tell lies and Keigo spotting the lovebites on Ichigo's neck that morning eventually revealed it over breakfast, "Well, no wonder you haven't had a relationship in ages." Mizuiro stated, calmly, "You were looking for the wrong kind of people." As always, he seemed completely nonplussed by this piece of information. Keigo was completely the opposite; he had been screaming 'you're gay' for the last ten minutes as though it wouldn't go into his head otherwise. Ichigo was sure everyone in the apartment building had heard him, Great. So much for keeping it between good friends. Then again, at that moment, he did not really consider Keigo a good friend, "So..." Though glad that Keigo had stopped shouting, Ichigo became very unsettled by the almost-seductive tone in his voice, "...are you suddenly finding me attractive or-?" "Not a chance in hell." Ichigo proved his point by kicking Keigo square in the face, sending him ten feet across the room into the bookcase that showered him with at least

half its contents. To Ichigo's disappointment, none of the heavy ones fell on him. Mizuiro sighed and looked up from his phone, "So, were you top or bottom?" A flush of heat rushed to Ichigo's cheeks at this, How the hell can he ask that so calmly? Mizuiro had always been completely casual when he was talking about sex and it seemed that homosexual sex would be no different. Before he could think of a reply that didn't sound stupid, Mizuiro gave him a knowing smile, "Bottom, then." Ichigo bristled but said nothing. After a moment, when Keigo had begun stirring under the book pile, Ichigo got up and marched off to the shower.

(A month later...)
Ichigo woke early, which was lucky since his bedsheets were a total mess. The wet patch around where his hips was solid proof of what he had just been dreaming about. He groaned in annoyance and began to collect the stained sheets into a pile to hopefully put in the wash without anyone noticing. He'd hoped that he wouldn't have that dream while he was staying at this summer home with his family. It was awkward enough to explain to his sniggering roommates; he didn't want to imagine how his

father would react. He would probably never hear the end of it. He hadn't even plucked up the courage to say that he was gay. Not because he thought his father would be angry. Quite the opposite. He knew his father would be too happy and unwilling to keep the secret. He would probably blurt it out to his whole university through a megaphone or put it on a big sign above his clinic, That crazy goat-face would probably do all of those things and more! He had managed to tell all his friends without much incident (this news actually did a wonderful job of cheering up Inuoe for some reason) but his dad was someone who definitely didn't need to know. Ichigo grumpily pulled on a dressing gown and crept over to the airing cupboard. Quietly as he could, he pulled out the extra bedclothes and, equally cautiously, pulled them onto the mattress. Now, he had nothing left to do but sit on his bed and think things over again. There was no way he could go back to sleep again and risk wrecking the replacement sheets. He remembered how the owner had given him a funny look and muttered to him in a very suggestive way, "I want to see those bedsheets properly ruined by the time you leave!" That sandal-hat pervert. Probably thinks all teenagers do nothing but have sex! Couldn't he see that we're a family, not a bunch of students. Probably couldn't see anything from under that stupid hat of his!

There was no way he was going to let Sandal-Hat see the state of the sheets. He just hoped that Yuzu would have the good sense to wash them before they left. Every single night since he had gatecrashed that party, his dreams had been frequented by Aizen and they very often ended with him reliving the events of that night. This was very odd, considering that he had seen hide nor hair of Aizen or his henchmen since that night. Not even a visit from the police. Keigo and Mizuiro were very glad of this but Ichigo was strangely saddened by it. Even upset, on occasion,

He could have at least sent a description of me to the police. He thought to himself, as he had done so many times before on sleepless nights, At least, it would show that he acknowledged what we did! This lack of retaliation to Ichigo's gatecrashing (he was sure Aizen would have realised that he wasn't someone's second cousin by now) made him feel oddly cheated, like Aizen didn't care that he had charmed Ichigo and stolen his virginity all in the same night.
That was the one thing he had kept a total secret, even from Keigo and Mizuiro. Renji knew what he and Aizen did that night but he had been true to his word and kept the secret. All of his friends knew he was gay by now but they didn't know that he was no longer a virgin. Whenever they asked him how he knew he was gay, he would simply say, "It just came to me."

He would never in a million years admit that his virginity had just been thrown away in a one night stand to a man who he didn't know at the time and at a party where he wasn't even supposed to be. Ichigo could only imagine how everyone would react. His friends would call him stupid and careless, his reputation would be in tatters and, if the Gotei 13 got wind of it, that would surely get rid of any chance of getting the job in their business he had been aspiring to. Ichigo normally did not read the newspapers (claiming that he had enough worries in his life without knowing what everyone else in the world was doing) but his eyes often gravitated to the articles that mentioned Aizen. He did not read the articles obsessively but, from skimming, he could tell that Aizen had suddenly left his post as head of the Fifth Division without any prior notice to seemingly 'devote all his attention to the Las Noches Corporation'. There were many comments in the articles from other Gotei 13 workers about Aizen's 'unprofessional conduct' and the like. Aizen too seemed keen to let his liason with Ichigo stay secret, Probably thinks it'll damage his reputation. Ichigo thought, dismissively. Still, it was better than him selling the story to a gossip magazine and allowing journalists to hound him wherever he went. That was something. Noises from downstairs interrupted his musings. His father's voice and others accompanying it, along with

clanking and crashing, That Sandal-Hat must be here again. Sounds like he brought a few of his friends and some booze too. It was strange of his father to invite some of his friends over at night. Usually, he was too busy in the clinic or preparing his good-morning attack on Ichigo. Then again, since Ichigo moved out, all that could have changed. Besides, he wasn't making too much noise so there was no reason to go downstairs. He also didn't want his father to suspect why he was up at this hour. He went back to thinking and, of course, Aizen took up his thoughts immediately, Why the hell can't I stop thinking about him? He demanded of himself for the upteenth time that month, It's obvious that he doesn't care about me so why should I care about him? Tears were pricking in his eyes once more, I'm so stupid! Any idiot would know not to have sex with someone you don't know, especially if it's the first time! The first time was meant to be something special with someone he loved above all else, whether man or woman, and not in a one night stand with a smooth-talking business man. Ichigo pulled his legs up to his chest, clutching his hair. He had thought trying to convince himself that Aizen didn't care would make himself feel better but it was quite the opposite. Instead, he had become more and more upset with every week that Aizen didn't do anything. It was more than feeling cheated. It was like...being betrayed. It was stupid, though. There was never anything between him and Aizen apart from the

sex and there never would be. He had even tried to be interested in other boys to get over it but, every time he spent some time with his male friends, he would long for a deep baritone voice that was both polite and chilling at the same time along with a relaxed and aristocratic manner. None of his friends had that. He was sure his friends had noticed him acting strangely but they'd had the good sense not to ask him. Anyone who asked, Ichigo decided, would have a kick to the face,

Yep, life is shit. Ichigo thought in a deadpan kind of way, You gatecrash a party, have sex with a stranger... Ichigo groaned and slumped back onto his bed, staring at the ceiling ...and you fall in love with him for no good reason.

The night was clear and pleasantly heated, The perfect night for a party. It was the exactly the same kind of night as the one when Sousuke's party had taken place and he had first met Ichigo, That's a good sign. Sousuke turned away from the open window and stared at himself in the mirror. He was wearing his clear-lensed glasses with his hair lying ungelled around his face. He had adopted this look for when he was working in the Fifth Division building or when he needed a disguise, Ichigo would not recognise me when I am wearing these.

As he adjusted them a little, Gin poked his head around the door. Sousuke turned around and spread out his arms to give him a good view of his very common clothes, "What do you think? Do I look like an ordinary youth?" "Yer clothes do but I can ne'er say ya do." Gin nodded, "Close enough." Sousuke nodded. "Will you and Izuru be alright house-sitting with Hirako-san? I know I called you on short notice." "Don' worry. Me and Izu-chicky will keep Hirako in line." He could tell Kira was behind Gin and probably blushing. As Sousuke left the room, Gin suddenly said out of the blue, "Ichigo definitely wouldn' recognise ya." Sousuke ignored the comment. Gin had been teasing him about Ichigo for the last month so he had long since learned to pay no heed to it. As he walked downstairs, it struck him how odd it felt to be in a very cheap shirt and jeans (he couldn't remember the last time he had worn jeans). He was used to expensive and elegant clothing so such casual clothes were a novel experience for him, "Don't burn the house down, Hirako-san!" He called over his shoulder as he opened the front door, "Hey, that's something the dad says to his son! And, you're supposed to tell me what time you'll be back!" "That's something I tell my father, Hirako-san. He is not here."

Closing the door in Hirako's furious face, Sousuke smirked as he strode towards the car. He had picked Ulquiorra to be his driver that night, as he simply did as he was told without asking any questions and would not mind if he was kept waiting a long time. He also did not make any comment at Sousuke's strange choice of clothing either, Perfect. The pale man started up the car (Sousuke had picked out his cheapest and least conspicuous one for the journey) and drove away from the house. Ulquiorra was not a conversationalist either so that gave Sousuke plenty of time to be alone with his thoughts. He knew from the guest lists that Szayel had sent him that a lot of Gotei 13 employees were attending so he needed to avoid the crowd. It would not do for him to be seen by Gotei 13 workers at this present time. However, he might get away with letting a few of the Eleventh Division workers see him. Those hooligans would probably be blind-drunk by the time he got there. Still, one could never be too careful. Besides, if his impression of Ichigo was correct, he would probably be avoiding the crowds anyway, making it easy to persuade him to a quiet place, I wonder what his reaction to the surprise party was. He got the feeling that he wouldn't be thrilled by it. Just like he wasn't when Hirako had announced that his birthday party was being organised a month ago, Still, I would never have met Ichigo otherwise so I suppose I should be...somewhat

grateful.
His thoughts had an incredible tendency to wander to the young man whenever he had a free moment and sometimes, not even then. Although thinking about Ichigo was a nice activity, it did make it hard to concentrate on his work. Being in charge of two large workforces at once was no easy task at best. The lamppost light was fading, telling him that they were out of the city. Only ten more minutes and he would be there. Sousuke vaguely wondered what Ichigo was doing now. He had sent people to keep an eye on him for the past month, of course. More for his safety than an obsessive need to know exactly what he got up to. There would be plenty of time to find out more about Ichigo later. Now, he had to focus on tonight's events. As he went over the possible strategies in his head, a dim light appeared in the distance. As the car drove closer, he could pick out the large summer house ablaze with lights, illuminating the sea beside it. A lovely place for a holiday. He had learned that it was owned by one Kisuke Urahara (there was a name he hadn't heard in a while) who had no use for it and instead rented it out to people, mostly gangs of teenagers. Sousuke did not know exactly why Urahara had this preference but he did have a very good idea, Perverted old man. The sounds of revelry met his ears as they got closer, along with drunken singing and loud music the like of

which that would not be heard within a mile of Sousuke's house. He just hoped that he would not have to be too close to the partygoers for too long. If he was lucky, Ichigo would be somewhere away from there, Still, the reward would outweigh the suffering. Ulquiorra pulled off the road onto a small patch of ground by the side of the road. He just got a view of trees lining the stretching road ahead before Ulquiorra turned off the headlights. He turned around in his seat and asked in his usual monotone, "Is this satisifactory, Aizen-sama?" "Yes." With that, Sousuke opened the door and left the car, "Return here at about half past five tomorrow morning." "As you wish, Aizen-sama." The engine started up again and, as Sousuke walked purposefully up the road, he could hear the car turning round and driving away, leaving him quite alone in the darkness. Any other feeble-minded person would have been quite frightened to walk through a dark rural area towards a secluded house but Sousuke knew that was just childish nonsense that came from watching too many horror films. So, he did not once succumb to the weakness of glancing around in fear as though he thought something would jump out at him. He simply went casually on his way like it was broad daylight. Of course, nothing happened and, soon, the house

appeared before him. After passing the many cheap cars and ignoring the few that were already shifting side to side, he carefully moved around the building. The scene before him was of at least thirty people packed tightly around a stereo that looked far too small to produce that much noise. They were all leaping about like mad things and were so close together that it vaguely reminded him of penguins keeping together for warmth. At a glance, he could tell that Ichigo wasn't among them. There was no orange head among the throng, though he did recognise the bright red of Abarai Renji, Well, I never thought I'd see him again. Unfortunately, none of them looked drunk enough to not recognise him. Those who were drunk enough were the ones he recognised from Eleventh Division and he was not about to go anywhere near them. Those hoodlums would probably try to start a fight with him and, as well as delaying his search, would very likely result in his cover being blown. However, he did catch a snatch of Madarame Ikkaku's conversation before he moved on, "...totally stuck in a rut. I tell ya. As soon as he found out he's gay, he's got all miserable for some reason. Won't even come out and have fun! I need to teach him to be tough again..." Sousuke immediately presumed that he was talking about Ichigo and quickened his pace. He certainly did not want Ikkaku to get it into his head that he needed to find

Ichigo now. He didn't like to think what that ruffian would do to him; Sousuke shuddered to think of it. So, he slipped through the patio doors into the living room. Everything was covered in tacky decorations that he had never seen even when he was a child and there were tables groaning with cheap party food and equally cheap alcohol. Not even thinking about going near any of it, Sousuke did a quick scan of the room, Where is that boy? He thought, starting to become a little exasperated. As he walked out into the hallway, a door banged open in front of him and he was immediately met with bright orange. A smile spread across Sousuke's face, There you are, "Whoa!" Ichigo tripped over an empty beer bottle and fell straight into Sousuke's chest, Can this get any better? "Oh!" Sousuke gasped in fake surprise, "Are you alright?" His kind persona came just as naturally as it always did, That's good. I was worrying I might have lost my touch since I haven't used it in a while, "Ugh..." The boy didn't sound too drunk, just a little disorientated, So, he will probably remember what happened tonight, "...shouldn't have had that third beer. Or, those chips." "Do you need to lie down?" Sousuke was careful to say it in a way that didn't seem suggestive and, of course,

succeeded, "Yeah, great, thanks." Ichigo managed to raise his flushed, sweaty face, "I need to get out of here." With that, Sousuke carefully pulled one of Ichigo's arms over his shoulders and half-carried him up the stairs. Ichigo was no heavier than he had been a month ago so it was no trouble. Upstairs was nice and deserted, although the beat of the music permeated through the walls, "Here." Ichigo clumsily pointed to the room immediately on Sousuke's right, "That one's mine."

Ah, good. If it's in his room, it's even better. Sousuke obligingly opened the door and guided Ichigo inside, letting him slump face-down onto the bed. The bedroom thankfully faced away from the party, allowing more moonlight to seep in, but that music was still unbearably loud and the thumping beat was shaking Sousuke's ribcage. So, while Ichigo was starting to regain some awareness, he set about closing all the windows and the door to try and shut out some of the noise (and any unwelcome visitors).
Ichigo laboriously rolled over onto his back and wiped the sweat off his forehead, "I fucking hate these things." He groaned. He was talking perfectly well with no slur, "I can't believe Dad just did this when he knows I hate them!" Sousuke sat down on the bed beside Ichigo, "Your father

organised this?" He asked, innocently, "Yeah...the bastard." Ichigo growled, finally looking up into Sousuke's face, "Didn't even ask me if I wanted a party. He just sprung it on me. I hate surprises at best. Mind you, he's that crazy that I should be grateful that he didn't hire a clown and a bouncy castle." Sousuke remembered the story about Isshin becoming very frivilous and silly after he started a family but he never thought it could be true. He let Ichigo go on into a snarling rant, "He hasn't even been nice enough to stick around so I could drown him in the sea for this. As soon as the guests started arriving, he just took my sisters and shoved off. I don't even know some of the people who came here and half of the people I do know are the people I don't want to be in the same house with! Stupid goat-face...is just a quiet meal out too much to ask?" "What made him think that you would like something like this?" Sousuke asked, with more genuine sympathy than fake. This was close to the situation he had been in a month ago after all, "Because it's what all teenagers want in his mind. I haven't seen him in nearly a year and he's probably got it in his head that I'm exactly like that. I daren't even tell him that I'm gay-" He clapped a hand over his mouth, realising his mistake but Sousuke just smiled back,

"I'm sure he won't be angry with you." That was the truth; he could not imagine the Isshin he knew to be angry at his son for something like that, "Besides, everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves so it can't be that bad. Perhaps, not me but everyone else." He feigned the shock Ichigo had shown a moment ago, "I'm sorry, that was rude." "Nah, you're right. Same here." He sighed, "Just glad I'm away from it now. Ikkaku will probably start chasing me again soon, trying to force more booze down my throat. Keeps telling me to man up and enjoy myself."

I might of known Ikkaku would do something like that, that Eleventh Division swine. Of course, Sousuke let none of that disgust show on his face. Instead, he reassured Ichigo, "The door's locked. He won't find you here."
"Really? Ah, thanks." A comfortable silence descended. Sweat was still shining on Ichigo's face so Sousuke began to slowly brush it away. This was definitely the right thing to do as Ichigo sighed and closed his eyes lazily, "That feels nice." Encouraged by this, Sousuke slowly pushed his fingers through the locks of his hair, parting them into seperate spikes and gently stroking his scalp. Just as slowly, he trailed his fingers down his cheek and settled on his chin, pulling it up slightly. Still keeping the slow leisurely pace that he loved, Sousuke leaned over Ichigo and pressed his lips against the other's, Ah, he tastes just as divine as I remember.

Ichigo, far from being surprised by the sudden gesture, relaxed at once into the kiss, raising his arms to wrap around Sousuke's neck and pull him closer. It did not take much to persuade Ichigo's mouth open; he just had to run his tongue over the young man's lips and they parted at once. Although there was a slight acrid taste in his mouth, it still made his normally-calm heart race to feel around Ichigo's mouth with his tongue. Soon, their tongues were dancing together like they had that night. The only difference was that Ichigo was more relaxed and not so hesistant as the first time, which made it all the better. After a while (and, against his will), Sousuke broke the kiss much too hastily for his liking, "I'm sorry." It was hard to feign hesistance, especially when it contradicted so much with his feelings, "It was just..." "No, it's okay." Ichigo surprised him by pulled him back down, "I need this." He smashed his lips against Sousuke's very eagerly, My, my, Ichigo has got very confident with this. This kiss was shorter but far more intense as Sousuke was pulled closer to the boy and there was more aggressive tongue-dancing on Ichigo's part. When they broke apart once more, Ichigo lay panting and even Sousuke had to pause to get his breath back (along with rearranging his glasses), "Sorry." Ichigo gasped, after a long moment, "I just...lost it."

"Is there something wrong?" Sousuke was astonished at how his conversations with Ichigo had been sincere so far, "Well, it's just..." A familiar blush appeared on Ichigo's face, making Sousuke smile inwardly at the pleasing sight, "...this isn't my first time I've been with a man. The first time...I didn't even know he was then. Then, I find out he's this bigshot businessman." "Are you both in a relationship?" "Well, no..." You mean, not yet. Sousuke mentally corrected, "...I haven't heard from him since then. We weren't even together, he just persuaded me into sex." Hmph, that makes me sound like a pervert. His indignance soon faded when he saw how saddened Ichigo suddenly looked,"I know it's mad that I should even think he would be interested in me but..." "You are?" He did a very good job of conceiling how elated he felt as Ichigo nodded, Ah, you are a very good chooser, Ichigo, "I know. It's stupid. There's no way he could see me as anything more than a one-night stand." This bitter statement made Sousuke stiffen, Did I come across as heartless to him? Or did he believe those dratted newspapers? He decided at that point that he had heard enough. Before Ichigo could get another word out, his lips had been covered by Sousuke's once more. When they

broke apart again, Sousuke quickly said, "It's alright. I'm having a hard time getting over someone too." "Yeah?" Ichigo's despair vanished at once, "Well...I guess a bit of sex wouldn't do us any harm. It's not like we're both virgins anymore." Sousuke briefly wondered if it was the alcohol making him so forward or because he was so hung-up on the one who'd taken his virginity. He briefly contemplated revealing his identity at that point; it would be lovely to have Ichigo screaming his name. Still, he had to remember his plan and Ichigo's willingness was just what he needed to move that plan forward. For the fourth time that night, their lips locked together and, this time, Sousuke finally got used to the acrid taste in Ichigo's mouth so he could enjoy the boy's wild taste to the fullest. He didn't taste at all like the fruit but more spicy and thrilling; a strong taste that would remain in Sousuke's mouth for the rest of the night. They had to break apart to pull off their shirts (Sousuke remembered why he preferred buttoned shirts) but they were soon distracted anew by the feel of the other's skin. The supple, healthily-tanned muscles were exactly as Sousuke remembered, unspoiled by scars or signs of age and reminding him of Grecian statues. He was quite certain that Ichigo was just as impressed by the other's body and he was proven right when Ichigo began brushing

his fingers reverently against his torso.

I see my lovebites have faded. Sousuke was soon remedying that by showering kisses over Ichigo's neck. Ichigo responded magnificently as always, making those endearing little noises of pleasure at the intimate touch that Sousuke loved. He almost regretted waiting so long to see Ichigo again. Still, absence made a heart grow fonder or so they said.
He eagerly moved his lips down his chest, coaxing the nipples into hardness and revelling in the gasps of pleasure from Ichigo, He's as vocal as ever. Splendid. Sousuke teasingly kissed his way down Ichigo's heaving chest and began working on removing Ichigo's belt. He didn't ask Ichigo if he wanted to back out this time. That would just waste valuable seconds that should be spent pleasuring the boy beneath him,

Time to try something different, I think. Sousuke said to himself as he pulled away Ichigo's trousers to reveal that the young man was already hard, How considerate, Ichigo. With that, Sousuke lowered his head and experimentally brushed the head of Ichigo's manhood with his tongue. The young man's gasp of shocked pleasure was all the encouragement he needed to take the head into his mouth. He took his time leisurely bringing his mouth bit by bit to the base, massaging Ichigo's manhood with his tongue as he went.
He could not help but smirk in satisfaction at the sound

of Ichigo's moans and the feel of the boy's hands in his hair. Ichigo could moan in such an arousing way that no girl could ever accomplish. His own manhood was becoming very hard indeed, demanding attention but there would be time for that later. Not to mention that he tasted a lot sweeter than he had imagined he would, I'm doing rather well considering this is the first blow job I've given. Now, let's speed it up a little. He moved his head up and down Ichigo's shaft, sucking a little harder with every second. After a long while, Ichigo's gasps formed words, warning Sousuke of his upcoming release. Smirking again, Sousuke simply deep-throated Ichigo and massaged his balls until Ichigo gave a scream before something hot and salty shot into the other's mouth. The feeling was like he'd swallowed scalding tea too quickly and he was tempted to spit it out. Nevertheless, he licked all the remaining drops of cum off Ichigo's member, relishing in the taste, "Y-You okay?" Ichigo panted, "Yes, I'm alright." Much better than alright. Sousuke had to agree with what Gin said to him a long time ago; he really was the king of understatements, Now then, enough of this foreplay. Reaching into his pocket, he found the small bottle of lube he'd had the foresight to take with him before undoing his own belt. Ichigo's eyes roved over Sousuke's body, half-lidded and still yet to regain his senses after his orgasm. He didn't even

protest when his legs were spread apart, Ah, he looks so beautiful. He was almost loath to break the calm spell but he steeled himself and covered his fingers copiously with the lube. Ichigo gave a small jolt as Sousuke began to push his first finger inside but thankfully didn't try to pull away. Again, he wondered if it was because of the alcohol making him more relaxed or because he knew what was coming. His passage still tightened around Sousuke's finger, trying to push the intrusion out, but was quicker to relax and get used to it, Ah, Ichigo is being very considerate. I am glad I don't have to hear him in pain. This certainly did a good job of quickening the preparation. He was scissoring open his entrance in no time and could spend more time searching for his prostate. Sousuke's smile widened as he found that little spot within Ichigo that made him arch off the bed, crying out in unrestrained pleasure and making Sousuke wish he'd brought a camera. Another finger was added and every breath Ichigo took was used to cry out to the moonlit room. Sousuke reluctantly drew his fingers out to a disappointed whine from Ichigo. Using the rest of the lube, he covered his own manhood liberally and leaned over Ichigo to kiss him again. Having his lips over his mouth did a wonderful job of stifling any noise of pain as Sousuke's shaft was pushed slowly into Ichigo's warm

passage. Eventually, he was fully inside, Ichigo tightening around him. When their kiss was broken, Sousuke murmured, "Are you alright?" simply to enhance his persona. He knew that he had not hurt Ichigo, "Yeah...fine..." Sousuke remained inside the young man for only a minute before he pulled back and slammed back in, striking Ichigo's prostate in the process. Sousuke's pleasure was doubled by Ichigo's marvellous reaction, arching his back and throwing his head back once more along with pushing back against Sousuke. The action made most of his rational thought disappear; all he wanted now was the young man beneath him. As he thrust again and again, he fell upon Ichigo's chest and created more lovebites than he had the first time. Sousuke found himself sychronising his thrusts with the beat of that infernal music that still managed to get through the closed windows. Ichigo did not fail to scream in pleasure with every thrust; every sound he made only heightened his arousal. He quickened his pace and began pumping Ichigo's manhood to produce more of that delicious sound. It finally came to a climax when Ichigo managed to piece together the incoherant sounds coming from his mouth into a warning as Sousuke felt his own release draw near.

Ichigo only lasted another thrust before he gave a scream louder than the others and came all over their stomachs. His passage tightened and that was all Sousuke needed to release inside him with a groan of satisfaction. The two men slumped onto the bed, panting from all the exertion. Sousuke's glasses were askew, though it was a miracle that they stayed on through all that. After he had got his breath back, he nuzzled into Ichigo's neck, "Did I make this party worthwhile?" "Mmm." Was all Ichigo seemed able to manage out. He did not protest as he was gently pushed onto his side with Sousuke spooning him. The faint music outside changed to a slower and more pleasant tune, allowing them both to fall asleep easily.

Birdsong greeted Ichigo as he woke, along with a familiar ache in his backside, Oh, crap. was his first thought. It was just like waking up in Aizen's bed a month ago and reality caught up with him just as fast as it had before, I don't believe it. I've done it again! How could I sleep with a man I don't know AGAIN? This time, he didn't have his old excuse of the other man charming him. It had been Ichigo who had demanded it, And for what? Just to try and get over Aizen! He felt sick at himself; how could he mess around with another man's feelings for his own ends?

Wishing that it had all been a dream, he rolled over and opened his eyes. At first, he thought he would get his wish. The man was nowhere to be seen. The window was open, allowing a warm breeze into the room and making something flutter on his bedstead. A piece of paper from what looked like an office notebook was pinned to the wood just above Ichigo's head. Confused, he pulled it off...and his stomach dropped at the logo at the top. An interlaced L and N stood above the words 'Las Noches Corporation', Shit, shit, shit, shit! In his panicked mind, all kinds of possibilities occured to him, Aizen must have been watching me after all! He must of seen be do it with that other man and now he's jealous or something! He was sure for a moment that the note would be surely some kind of threat; so much so that his hands shook a little as he unfurled it. Upon it was fancy looping writing which said:

Now, we're even.


Underneath was a phone number and the message: 'If you don't call me, I'll call you.' The letter was ended with an ornately-written set of initials: AS. He could have ripped the fragile paper in half, Why, that...! A/N: I'm not sure the first part was that good but I'm confident the second part was okay.

Ichigo stared at the number he had just dialed, his thumb hovering over the 'call' button. He swallowed hard, as though he was about to throw himself off a hundredfeet tall cliff. The note from Aizen was in his other hand; he checked it over and over again to see if he'd got the number right. If he got the wrong number, he was sure he would lose his nerve. It had been a week since he had slept with Aizen for the second time. He had left that god-forsaken summer house (his father with many bruises inflicted by Ichigo after the party) and had come back to his apartment. The note stayed in his pocket for the whole week as he wondered whether to call or let Aizen call him. However, both prospects were terrifying. He had no idea what to say to Aizen but he certainly didn't want to get a call from him when he least expected it. Like in the middle of a lecture or in front of all his friends. So, in the end, he decided to call Aizen himself. At least then, he could pick a time that wasn't awkward. He was only grateful that Aizen had not called him already. Ichigo made specific arrangements for it, however. He told his friends he was going for a solitary morning walk and made sure that he was far away from anyone he knew that might interrupt him. The forest outside his town was the perfect place so he found a clearing and quickly dialed the number. Finally, after much hesistation, he hit the 'call' button a

bit more forcefully than necessary and snapped the phone to his ear. For a moment, all he could hear was the distant sound of the other phone ringing and the sound of his quickening breathing. He was very tempted to hit the 'stop' button at that point but he held his fingers still and waited. On the fourth ring, a deep warm voice came through the speaker, "Good morning, Ichigo. I was just about to call you." "Oh, ah..." His mind went completely blank again and all he could think of to say was, "...hi...Aizen..." "I don't mind if you call me Sousuke, you know." There was a little hint of amusement in Aizen's voice, "It would seem strange for you to address me so formally if we've been intimate twice, would it not?" "Y-yeah, I guess it would...Sousuke." Ichigo began to feel hot around his neck again, not knowing what to say at all. It felt strange enough to call Aizen by his first name, "Uhm...I was...ah..." He must sound so stupid to Aizen; he could feel the heat rising to his face, "You're not as articulate on the phone as you are in person." "I...I just...don't know what to say." Ichigo finally gave up with a sigh and waited for Aizen to start laughing, "Understandable." Aizen's tone did not change a bit and

did not sound at all amused, "What can one say to the man who charmed you into bed twice? I know just how you feel." Ichigo could feel the heat in his face increase, "Yeah...um, are you busy?" That's got to be the lamest thing that I could possibly say, Ichigo thought, glumly, but Aizen was not swayed, "No, not particularly. I'm only needed in the office if there's trouble. The amount of trouble has reduced significantly since I arrived so I have a lot of free time. Anyway, where are you? It sounds like you're outdoors." He added, when a loud bird call broke the air, "Yeah. I wanted to get someplace where I wouldn't be disturbed." "My house would suit that purpose. Perhaps I could give you a lift there." "Okay." Ichigo gave him directions to where he was and the call ended with almost cheerful 'see you soon's. When Ichigo hung up, he let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding, Well, that could have gone better. All he had to do was wait for Aizen to appear now. He sat down on a tree stump and stared up at the sky, watching the clouds crawl across the sky above him. The weather had been good today, despite the forecast of rain. After a while, he heard a noise behind him and, turning

around, he saw a man coming out of the trees towards him. He soon recognised him as Aizen, his hair slicked back again and wearing clothes that were a little too smart to be worn while walking in the woods, "Hello again, Ichigo." His smile widened, "I hope you were not waiting too long." "Nah, it's okay." Ichigo shrugged, still not knowing what to say. He simply got up and followed Aizen back down the path. Aizen's car was less flashy on the outside than he had expected (though he knew that it was still expensive) but, when he thought about it, he realised that it suited Aizen in a way. On the inside, the seats were covered with new-looking leather that sqeaked as he sat down. The car started with a noise quieter than any car Ichigo had been in and Aizen steered them through rural roads that were completely deserted. Ichigo had never been down these roads before and was just about to ask when Aizen turned to him with a rather serious look on his face, "Let me ask you one thing, Ichigo. Does anyone know of our relationship?" "No." Ichigo shook his head, "Well, apart from Renji, they don't." "Abarai?" "Yeah. I told him when I was leaving your house last

month," That was the best way he could think of phrasing it, "and he was the one who told me who you were." "I see. Has he told anyone?" "No. I made him keep it a secret." "That is good. As I'm sure you've heard in the news, I have become rather disreputable, especially among the Gotei 13. I am sure that the revelation of you being intimate with me will not go down well with your friends." "Yeah, I figured that. Anyway, have, ah, you told anyone about us?" "Only a close friend of mine and my guardian. Since you are keeping this secret, it's only fair that I should as well." "Right. Is that why you're driving this way? So, no one'll see us together?" "Precisely." He sighed and leaned back in his seat in a resigned kind of way, "I find it strange that Las Noches is the corporation with the bad reputation when the Gotei 13 are just as bad, if not worse." "What?" Ichigo's head snapped around to stare at Aizen so fast that he cricked his neck, "Oh, yes. I know, I was once a captain. But, let's not talk about that. It's not a pleasant conversation topic. Let's talk a little about you. You're at university, aren't you? What are you studying?"

The rest of the car journey was taken up with small talk about Ichigo's university life. Though Ichigo didn't mind talking about his day-to-day life, he had the impression that Aizen was not very willing to talk about his own life. Whenever Ichigo would ask him a question, he would answer very vaguely and then turn a question back to Ichigo. Before he could ask him why, though, they reached Aizen's house. The place looked more colourful in daylight with its red brick walls, gleaming windows and ornamental trees towering over the wall in seemingly every shade of green. Still, all this did nothing to disguise how cruel and forboding the iron gates looked. He was suddenly glad that Mizuiro had made him go over the wall that night since he knew they would have never been able to avoid the spikes in the dark. It would be like trying to climb through thorns. As he looked up to the wall, he suddenly noticed a line of spikes running along the top of the stone that definitely wasn't there before, "Your visit was enough to tell me that my security was clearly not good enough." Aizen suddenly said, making Ichigo jump, "Not that I wasn't unhappy with your intrusion. In fact, I am glad you did but, next time, it may not be someone as favourable as you that breaks into my house." A small remote control device was produced from the glove compartment and, upon the press of a button, the

gate creaked open in a way that gave Ichigo the creeps. He was even more spooked when it closed behind them. Ichigo didn't have the time to really appreciate how well manicured the garden was the last time he was there and he started to hope that he hadn't trampled on any flowerbeds on his way out. Aizen actually held out his arm like he was about to lead Ichigo onto a dance floor when they got out of the car. Ichigo took hold of it but he still felt weird for doing it. The door opened before they could get near it and a mop of silvery hair poked out accompanied by a drawling voice, "Hey, Aizen-taichou. Ya're back already...ah!" A man's pale fox-like face with squinting eyes appeared, "Say now, what 'ave we 'ere?" Everything about the man gave him the creeps at that moment: his drawling voice, his practically-invisible eyes and the way he was peeking around the door like he was spying on something he shouldn't. Not to mention that grin that stretched his face far more than a face was meant to stretch. Ichigo vaguely wondered if it hurt to grin like that, "Hello, Gin." Aizen smiled, completely oblivious to how suspicious Gin looked, "Come out here and say hello to Ichigo." "Oh! This is Ichigo?" Gin suddenly looked much more interested. He even opened his eyes a little, showing that they were the colour of ice and creeping Ichigo out even more. Seeming to delight in Ichigo uneasiness, Gin

bounced outside and began walking around Ichigo, staring at every inch of him as though he was the newest sports car model, "Hmm, very nice, very nice. 'E's a load cuter in person." "What d'you say?" Ichigo snarled. He did not appreciate being addressed like he was some kind of cuddly pet one bit. He was starting to wish the fox-face would leave them alone. Even Aizen did not look happy at Gin's comment, "Please, do not speak about my friend like that." "Yer really like understatin', Aizen-taichou!" Totally unruffled, Gin went on in that irritatingly condescending voice that seemed as permanent as his grin, "Still, callin' 'im a friend is real somethin' comin' from ya so I guess i's okay. Besides, 'e still don' 'old a candle to 'ow cute my Izuru is. Speakin' o' which," He turned back to the house and called with his hands cupped to his mouth, "Izuchicky! Izu-chicky! Come an' meet Ichigo!" "Izu-chicky?" Ichigo repeated, as Aizen followed Gin inside, "It's what Izuru likes to be called when he and Gin are alone together. So, naturally, Gin only calls him that when he's in important company." "What?" Ichigo stared at him, "Why?" He knew that he would have kicked Aizen's ass long ago if he did anything like that to him,

"That's just Gin's personality. And, Izuru's personality allows him to tolerate it." "They're both nuts, then." Ichigo muttered, half to himself, "I often get that impression." Aizen nodded. The entrance hall looked just like an Western Renaissance manor. Ancients portraits hung on the walls, priceless-looking ornaments sat on the tables and a grand marble staircase stood at the end of the room. It made Ichigo feel very underdressed in his simple shirt and jeans. Descending the staircase was a skinny, nervouslooking man that he presumed was Izuru. Even at this distance, Ichigo judged him as the sort who would take being humilated lying down. Gin bounced over to Izuru and slung his arm around the other man's shoulders, pulling him like he was a dog on a leash. When he was closer, Ichigo could see that Izuru had pale blond hair hiding half of his face and only allowing one sapphire-blue downcast eye to be visible. His face was currently flushed red with embarrassment and Ichigo began feeling a bit sorry for Izuru, Having a partner like Gin must be hell, "Go on, Izu-chicky. Say hello to Ichigo-kun." Gin gave Izuru a good bash on the back, making him stumble forward, "K-Kira Izuru." Izuru nervously held out a hand. If he was

blushing any deeper, Ichigo would sure that his hair would start turning red, "Hey, Kira." Ichigo took hold of his hand, trying to be as friendly as he could, "I'm Kurosaki Ichigo. Nice to meet you." "Oh! Ah, likewise." Not surprisingly, Kira looked amazed that someone was being nice to him. Then, Gin ruined it by popping in between them and saying, "Aw, ain't ya sweet, Ichi-berry." "It's Ichigo, not Ichi-berry." Ichigo replied, firmly, just to make it clear that he would not roll over and take it like Izuru. Gin merely pouted at this, "Why d'you 'ave to get someone 'oo's no fun, Aizentaichou?" "No fun? You're not talking about me, are you?" A sleepy voice came from above them. Looking up, Ichigo saw a pair of droopy eyes between a long sheet of blond hair leaning over the banister on the top floor. What really caught Ichigo's attention was that he recognised that voice, "Hirako-sensei?" He burst out, making the eyes widen, "Ichigo?" They both stared at each other in astonishment before Hirako climbed up onto the banister and jumped down, landing next to Ichigo and without showing any signs of being hurt, "My God, it's been a long

time!" "Yeah, I know. Hey, when did you grow your hair?" "Do you two know each other?" Aizen cut in, looking curiously between the two of them, "'Course, we do, Sousuke!" Hirako chimed, "I was his old martial arts instructor!" "Wow, really?" Gin put in, "Well, they do say i's a small world!" "And, they'd be right." Hirako nodded, "Anyway, the hell are you asking me what I'm doing here, Ichigo? What the hell are you doing here?" "'E's Aizen-taichou's new boyfriend!" piped up Gin, before either Aizen or Ichigo could open their mouths. Hirako stood there with his mouth open in shock for about two seconds before he could find the ability to speaker again, "Is this true?" He directed at Aizen, "Yes, I suppose it is." Aizen stated, with a totally straight face, before turning to Ichigo with a smile, "We might as well make it official." A big grin spread across Hirako's face, showing off his large and abnormally-straight teeth, "You've finally picked a good one this time, Sousuke." He clapped Aizen on the back, "You mark my words, you

won't regret getting together with him! Now then," He clapped his hands happily, "who's up for brunch?" As they trapsed to the kitchen, Ichigo noticed how shocked Aizen looked at Hirako's reaction, "What's up?" He asked, "I have never seen Hirako-san react like that to any of my lovers. He is never normally this hospitable." "Hey!" Hirako rounded on him, "Can you at least call me Dad in front of your boyfriend?" "I don't want to give Ichigo any false impressions, Hirako-san." The way Aizen said it suggested that he was doing it deliberately to wind him up and it certainly worked. Hirako ground his teeth and stalked off to the cooker while Gin giggled, "'E never calls Hirako-san Dad." He muttered to Ichigo, "Aizen-taichou jus' does it to annoy 'im. I's so funny!" The kitchen was a clash of modern and old-fashioned designs. It seemed to contain every cooking technology made and all of it was the latest model, the like of which Ichigo had only ever seen in catalogues and all of it probably cost more than the building he lived in. Ichigo was about to ask Hirako why he was living here when Aizen turned to him and said, "Hirako-san said that he taught you martial arts. Which ones did you learn?" So, the conversation was mostly about martial arts and

which ones everyone at the table had learned as they ate. It turned out that Hirako had trained Aizen, Gin and Izuru too after leaving the dojo. Also, Hirako had made a wager with Aizen that, if he lost a match to him, he would have to call him Dad. Which meant Aizen never lost a match since. Just as Ichigo opened his mouth to ask Hirako why he was here again, Hirako cut in with, "So, anyway, enough of this banter. Ichigo, since when were you Sousuke's boyfriend?" "Doncha remember?" Gin put in, "'E was the one Aizentaichou 'ad some fun with durin' the party." "Huh?" Hirako frowned, "I didn't invite you, did I?" "He gatecrashed." Ichigo's insides went cold at Aizen's casual reply. For a moment, he was sure that he would be in deep trouble but Aizen went on, equally casually, "I don't mind, though. It was he that made sure the party was not a total waste of my time. And, then," He put an arm around Ichigo, smiling broadly, "I returned the favour a week ago at Ichigo's party. A party that he did not want, that someone else organised and that he wanted no part in. You see?" Hirako looked absolutely dumbstruck, staring from Aizen to Ichigo and back to Aizen again. Feeling his face flush, Ichigo added, "My friends gatecrashed the party and forced me to come. I wouldn't do it on my own." "I'm glad they did." Aizen laid a cheeky little kiss to

Ichigo's hair, "You must remember to tell me where they live. I would like to send them flowers." "Wait, wait, wait a minute." Hirako cut in, "You gatecrashed his party so Sousuke gatecrashed yours?" "That is what I did." Aizen nodded, "But, away with this talk. Whatever crime Ichigo has committed, I will forgive and it is I who commands this house, after all. I will not let you force any punishment on him." "I wasn't going to punish him." Hirako flushed a little, "I was just going to get the facts straight." "Ya're a little slow, aintcha, Hirako-san?" Gin put in, his grin extending, "Was 'e like this when ya knew 'im, Ichiberry?" "I told you, fox-face!" Ichigo snarled, "It's Ichigo, not Ichi-berry!" "That's a sure way to make Gin keep calling you that, Ichigo." Aizen chuckled, "If he is told not to do something, he will surely do it. Unless, it is my word. Gin, do not call Ichigo Ichi-berry. It irritates him." "Oh, okay, okay. Sorry, Ichigo." "You see?" Hirako's eyes widened in slight surprise, "He must like you, Ichigo. I've never seen him tell Gin to stop annoying anyone. Well, I have to admit, this is pretty amazing to see you and Sousuke together. If I'd have known how

well you'd get along, I would have introduced you two long ago!" "I would not change our time of meeting, Hirako-san. If I had met him at any other time, I don't think I would be so inclined to like him as much as I do. Now then," He stood up, "I think I would like to be alone with Ichigo for a while, if you'll excuse me." "I'll excuse you if you call me Dad!" Hirako snapped, scowling. Aizen merely smiled serenely back and replied, "Then, I'll just have to be rude and go without being excused. I do hope you'll forgive me, Hirako-san." Leaving Hirako fuming, Aizen led Ichigo out of the kitchen. Ichigo took this opportunity to properly look around. The last time he came here, it had been dark and he had not had any chance to see just how richly decorated everything was. He wondered just how old this house was and how long those priceless ornaments had stood in their places, "Do you like my house, Ichigo?" Aizen asked, "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, earnestly, "You must be loaded." "Oh, this was not bought. I inherited this from my family." "Whoa, seriously?" Ichigo's eyes widened. He didn't know those kind of families that passed down houses still

existed. A mysterious smile appeared on Aizen's face in response to Ichigo's amazement but did not reply. Instead, he led Ichigo down the corridor and into a room that looked vaguely familiar, "Is this yours?" "Yes. It is the same room where we were intimate for the first time. I did say that its owner wouldn't mind us using it." "You sneaky bastard." Ichigo shook his head, making Aizen laugh, "Yes, I suppose I am." He seated himself upon the windowseat, beneath the very window that Ichigo had escaped from over a month ago. When motioned to join him, Ichigo sat down next to him but, before he could settle there, Aizen quickly said, "Ah, ah, ah, not there." He patted his own knee, "Here." Blushing madly, Ichigo shifted upon Aizen's lap and allowed him to wrap his arms around his body. The sun peaked out of the clouds and filtered through the window, brightening the room and making the colours more vivid. The bedsheets were a deep blood-red with white designs all over it, two colours that continued to appear in various other things in the room: the curtains, the vase on the desk and the suit hanging on the wardrobe, "You really like this place, don't you?" Aizen murmured into Ichigo's hair,

"'Course, I do. If this place was any better, it would be a palace!" "Would you like to come and live here?" "Wha-?" Ichigo started and blushed deeper, "Hey, we've only known each other for a month!" "And, yet, we have already made love twice. Besides, your presence would make this house almost bearable." This statement made Ichigo blink in surprise and look up at Aizen's still-smiling face. There was something in that smile though. Something sad and almost lonely, "What do you mean?" "Ichigo, this house was built to house more than a dozen people, not one. I have lived here all my life and have hated the loneliness of the place for the most part of it. I covet my solitude but one cannot live totally alone for all their life. Hirako-san's presence is appreciated but we do not have much of an emotional bond. Which is why Gin and Izuru are always welcome here. Gin and I have known each other since we were children and he is good company." Aizen's tone was unreadable so Ichigo did not know whether he was lying or not. Still, he knew that it was lonely at the top so he knew that Aizen could not be lying completely. Still wearing that cryptic smile, Aizen leaned close to Ichigo and breathed softly against the other's lips,

"Of course, you are even better company." With that, he pressed their lips together and Ichigo stopped thinking about Aizen's story. His mind slipped into the dream-like state it always did when Aizen's lips were upon his. Their arms encircled each other, bringing their bodies closer and making their skins heat up at the contact. When they seperated, it took Ichigo a while to remember where he was and what they were talking about, "You know," Aizen murmured, "your hair was what attracted me at first. It caught my eye and, soon after, the rest of you followed suit. You're a very magnetic person, Ichigo." "Ah, thanks." Ichigo muttered into Aizen's jacket, still a little befuddled from the kiss, "Tell me, Ichigo. What attracted you to me?" "Uh..." Ichigo tried to think back to the night he first met Aizen. It took him a while to remember and, even then, he wasn't sure, "...your voice." "Ah, yes," Aizen's sensual baritone sent little shivers down his spine as he whispered in his ear, "I'm told that's my most prominant feature. I suppose people say the same thing about your hair." "Yeah." Ichigo sighed. Now that he realised it, Aizen's voice truly was mesmerising. Hypnotic, that was a good

word for it. The way it made him forget any worries he had and drew him to Aizen. He lounged lazily upon the older man's broad chest and began kissing his neck. Ichigo wasn't really sure of why he was doing this. It just felt right to and Aizen's sighs of satisfaction only encouraged him. He couldn't help but moan in gratitude when Aizen began doing the same to his neckThen, the spell was rudely broken by the loud honking of a car horn outside, Ichigo jumped and nearly fell off the windowseat at the noise, "What the deuce-!" Aizen gasped, staring out of the window. Upon looking out too, Ichigo could see a dark-coloured car that was more practical than flashy at the gates, sounding the horn and clearly demanding to be let in, Hirako burst in at that moment, hair all over his face and looked harrassed, "Who's that?" Aizen demanded, "Tousen. He says it's urgent." "Can it not wait until a more appropriate time?" Aizen groaned and Ichigo had to agree with that sentiment, "No!" Hirako snapped, looked more agitated than Ichigo had ever seen it. Though he wanted nothing more than to be close to Aizen, he could dimly recognise that something was very wrong, "It's about Ichigo." That got Aizen alert. He and Ichigo sprang up, both completely out of their dreamy trance, and followed Hirako downstairs. A moment after they had got to the

hall, the door opened. A dark-skinned man with covered eyes and a copper-coloured guide dog by his side walked in. They were soon followed by a lean man with a face with three straight scars down one side and wearing an official-looking uniform that looked like something staight out of the Victorian times, complete with white silk gloves and cap. Ichigo supposed it was he who had been driving the car. Gin bounded out of the kitchen with Izuru at his heel, "Well, if it ain't Tousen! I was wonderin' 'oo was makin' all that racket. Yer car horn sure is loud, ain't it? 'Ello, Sajin!" He approached the dog with his hand outstretched but was immediately met with loud indignant barks and snarls, "Aw, 'e still don't like me." "What's all this about, Kaname?" Aizen asked, in a stern and serious voice that made Ichigo involuntarily stiffen, "The police are close to issuing a warrent for your arrest." Ichigo's eyes widened and so did Hirako's. On the other hand, Aizen remained completely calm, "Is that so?" "Hang on!" Ichigo burst out, making Tousen start, "What's this got to do with me?" Tousen's brow creased for a moment and then turned to the uniformed man, "Who is that who spoke, Hisagi? I do not recognise his voice."

"His appearance matches the description of Kurosaki Ichigo, sir." Hisagi replied. When he turned towards Tousen, Ichigo spotted a tattoo on his cheek of the number 69, "It seems that the charges were not fully fabricated." "What charges would these be, Kaname?" Aizen's voice had a menacingly pleasant edge to it, "And, why do you think this is worthy of my notice? Have you not dispatched some of the Espada to smooth everything over?" "I have, Aizen-sama. Starrk and Halibel have been sent. However, it is Kuchiki Byakuya who is pressing the charges so it may take longer than usual to prevent your arrest." "Byakuya?" Ichigo repeated, stunned, What the hell's Byakuya got against Sousuke? With an irritated sigh, Aizen strode across the hall, "Perhaps, we should take this discussion to the drawing room over some tea. I can see that this is not going to be brief. Of all the rotten luck!" So, the group trapsed through another door, which led to a well-decorated room with many chairs and sofas and let in bright sunlight through a pair of ornately decorated French doors. This struck a chord of memory in Ichigo and, after exchanging a look with Aizen, realised that it was the same room where he and Aizen had tea before

going up to his bedroom. As Hirako poured out the tea (muttering something like, "...might as well be his housekeeper..."), Aizen gestured to Tousen and Hisagi, "Ichigo, this is my business associate and good friend, Tousen Kaname, and this is his assistant, Hisagi Shuuhei. Hisagi, Kaname, this is Kurosaki Ichigo." Ichigo shook hands with both of them but he had the feeling that neither were very pleased to meet him. The pair struck him as being rather stuffy. When everyone had a cup of tea presented to them (Sajin growled lowly when Hirako got too close to Tousen), Aizen finally addressed Tousen, "Now, Kaname, tell us about this whole affair from the beginning." "Hisagi first informed me that Kuchiki Byakuya was going to press charges against you. Naturally, I thought it was another fabrication from the Gotei 13-" "What?" Ichigo burst out, before he could stop himself. Tousen glared at Ichigo's general direction for interrupting him and Aizen cleared his throat, "Over the past fortnight, there have been two seperate occasions in which captains of the Gotei 13 attempted to press a court case against me. Since they know of no truthful event that would warrent such an eventuality, they have given completely fabricated stories of my misdeeds to the police. Up until now, they were quickly revealed as false and I did think that the police told the

Gotei 13 that they would not accept any more allegations against me since it's wasting their time." "Yeah." Gin put in, grinning in amusement, "They were pretty tall tales, anyway. Tha' Soi Fong made 'em up along with tha' idiot captain of the Seventh Squad. Wha' was 'is name? Ah, never mind. Anyway, they nev'r were really bright. First, they told 'em that Aizen-taichou 'ad tried ta set an office buildin' on fire." "A quick check of the completely intact building made that allegation completely void." Aizen added, smirking against the rim of his teacup, "Then, they went ta the social services and told 'em that he'd knocked up 'is fukutaichou." Ichigo pulled a face, which made Aizen chuckle, "A test and my solemn word that I had never even slept with her soon made them leave me alone. Ah, don't be so alarmed. I know I can easily get myself out of trouble if the situation arose. My wallet will be enough to fend off any police officers coming to call but it can't wipe memories, unfortunately. While I was working for the Gotei 13, being involved in unsavoury deeds was frowned upon very harshly. Which is why I was careful to keep the unsavoury activites I got involved in private and worked hard to give the police no reason to bother me. Just to maintain a good reputation, you know." "I guess that's gone out the window now."

"To an extent, yes. I still have my dignity, though." "But, I don't get it." Ichigo frowned in confusion, "Why are they trying to get you arrested?" "'Cos they're sore losers, tha's why!" Gin sang, "Aizentaichou was in charge o' Las Noches fer years 'fore anyone in the Gotei 13 knew. Las Noches got real big when Aizen-taichou was in charge and they're rivallin' the Gotei 13. 'Course, they didn' like it so. Ya should 'ave been there in the board meetin's. Ever'one was so pissed!" "So, naturally," Aizen took over the story, "when I finally revealed that I had been in charge of Las Noches all along, they got very angry. They accused me of trying to tear apart the Gotei 13 from the inside out and passing on their secrets to Las Noches." "Were you?" Ichigo's impression of Aizen was that he wasn't beyond that kind of thing, "Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't." Another smirk, "In any case, their anger was completely behind closed doors. After a week, they came up to me, offering a coalition between the two corporations. They had already arranged negotiation meetings without asking my consent but I was already firmly against the idea. Nothing I said could make them change their minds so, as I'm sure you know, I cleared out my desk that same night and left only a note of resignation behind. I'm surprised you two

didn't do the same, actually, as my two highest employees." "Ah, I could nev'r leave my Izu-chicky alone in the Third Squad!" Gin reached over and clung to a bright-red Kira in an unnecessarily-protective way, "The Ninth Squad would not prosper without my attention." Tousen stated, emotionlessly, "As I was saying, Kuchiki is trying to accuse you of kidnapping and raping Kurosaki, Aizen-sama." "Wha-?" Ichigo cried, "Who the hell told him that shit?" "Yeah!" Hirako nearly knocked over his tea in fury, "Who said that about Sousuke, eh?" "From his statement, it seems that Abarai Renji brought it to his attention first this morning." "What?" Ichigo shot up, curling his hands into fists, "He told Byakuya?" Hisagi's head jolted up and Ichigo realised belatedly what his statement implied. However, Aizen came to the rescue and quickly explained to the both of them what was going on between them. Neither looked very satisified by his tale but they didn't say anything. Ichigo had the feeling that Tousen disapproved of this by the look on his half-hidden face. When Aizen had finished, Tousen cleared his throat, "In any case, it seems that the charges are once again unjustified. The fact that

important men of business can be so dishonest sickens me." He added in a low voice that suggested he might be talking to himself, "Where's Renji?" Ichigo demanded, a plan forming in his head, "At the police station with Byakuya, Starrk and Halibel when we left." Hisagi stated, shortly, "Right." He put down his untouched cup of tea, "I'd better go down there and sort this out." "Wha'?" Gin's eyes opened as he stared at Ichigo dumbly. Aizen too looked shocked at this announcement and he quickly said, "Starrk and Halibel will bring this to an end on their own. There's no need for you to get involved." "It'll be quicker if I do it." Ichigo insisted. He would not let anyone get in the way of what he wanted to do, not even Aizen, "Kidnappers generally don't let their hostages go, do they?" "Well, no, but-" "Well, then," Ichigo began to march stubbornly towards the door, "I'm going to march down to that police station and give Renji a good ass-kicking for breaking his promise to keep this secret!" Strong arms wrapped around his waist and his progress to the door was halted by Aizen pulling him to his chest

before breathing into his ear, "Don't hit him too hard, please. I would like to get my hands on him myself for making Kaname ruin the mood earlier." "I'll try." Ichigo raised his hand to Aizen's smooth cheek before giving him a wicked grin, "Not making any guarentees but I'll try." They kissed again briefly before Ichigo called a farewell to the others and hurried out of the door, more invigorated than ever. He almost ran to the police station with renewed energy and peered through the glass doors. He could see a huddle of people at the front desk but the splash of bright red told him at once where Renji was. The sight made his fury flame up within him; how could he reveal the secret now after a month of faithfully keeping it? And, to Byakuya, of all people! With that, he threw open the door, making it bang loudly against the wall and marched furiously over to his friend (or, perhaps, former friend), "RENJI!" He roared, grabbing the other man by the hair and tugging him back fiercely, "YOU'RE DEAD!" "Oh, ah...hi, Ichigo." Renji tried a casual tone but failed miserably, making Ichigo even angrier, "Kurosaki, take your hands off my fukutaichou." A familiar cold voice came from his left. Turning his head, he met the slate-grey eyes of Kuchiki Byakuya, his glare just as frigid as he remembered it,

"This is Kurosaki Ichigo?" A deep female voice came from his right. Looking round, he saw two people he'd never seen before. One was a scruffy-haired man wearing an incongrously smart suit who looked as though he'd like nothing better than to collapse on a bed and sleep the day away. The other was an exotic-looking woman with warm brown skin beneath a mass of yellow hair who hid half her face with a thick white scarf. He supposed it was her that had spoken. Remembering what Aizen had said, he asked, "Are you two Starrk and Halibel?" Both looked mildly surprised, "How d'you know?" The sleepy man that Ichigo guessed was Starrk surveyed Ichigo with a bit more interest than before, "Sousuke told me." Ichigo had said it so offhandly and yet there was such a shockwave that went through the room at those three words. Halibel's startlingly green eyes widened, Starrk looked more awake than ever, Byakuya took a step back and Renji actually jumped. Before Ichigo could properly enjoy the effect he created, the police officers present took the opportunity to intervene, "Excuse me, sir. Are you Kurosaki Ichigo?" "Yeah, that's me." "Well, that's odd. Kuchiki-sama was telling us about how you were raped and held captive by one Aizen Sousuke."

"Well, then Kuchiki-sama is full of bullshit!" Ichigo declared, fearlessly. Byakuya's glare didn't scare him a bit now. The memory of Aizen's kiss emboldened him even more and he went on, "Do I look like a guy who would let some business bigshot do that to me? I'd kick his ass into next year before he even got close!" The policeman's eyes widened and he stood there silent for a moment in shock before composing himself and continuing in a professional tone, "Are we to presume that the charges against said Aizen Sousuke are completely false?" "Absolutely!" Ichigo nodded, resolutely, not giving either Renji or Byakuya time to speak, "Well, then," Starrk stepped languidly forward, regaining his laziness once more, "I think that's settled then. I didn't think Aizen-sama would do that kind of thing. If he did, I would have walked out straight away. Kids getting hurt doesn't gell with me." "Nor does it with me." nodded Halibel, serenely, "Still, Kurosaki Ichigo, one question remains. What is your relationship with Aizen-sama? You addressed him by his first name like an equal." Without missing a beat, Ichigo looked straight into her yellow-lined eyes and said determinedly, "Sousuke's my boyfriend." A greater shockwave went through the room. Halibel and

Starrk gave simultaneous gasps of surprise, Byakuya started more violently and Renji gave a noise that was somewhere between astonishment and defeat, Man, I wish I had a camera. Ichigo thought, viciously. Halibel was the first to recover and spoke in a more polite tone than before, "Well, it seems that this has all been a misunderstanding, then. Would you like me to drive you home, Kurosaki-sama?" "What the hell's with the 'sama'?" Ichigo pulled a face, "Just call me Ichigo. I'm not your boss. Anyway, there's no need. Renji's going to drive me home," He grabbed hold of the offending man's ponytail again, "to make up for starting all this! Damn it!" He groaned, as he caught sight of the clock while he dragged a moaning Renji towards the door, "Keigo's probably going nuts!"

When the door banged shut, there was a small silence before the police officer cleared his throat, "As you said, ma'am, this is clearly all a misunderstanding. Kuchiki Byakuya, I must warn you that, if any member of the Gotei 13 approaches us with more nonsensical charges against Aizen Sousuke again, the police have the right to fine you for wasting our time and resources and Aizen Sousuke can also sue you if he sees fit." Byakuya whirled around and left the police station, trying to maintain his dignity in defeat. Starrk and Halibel soon followed. As they got into their car, Starrk turned to

Halibel (she always drove since she did not trust the man not to fall asleep at the wheel), "Aizen-sama's boyfriend, eh? What do you make of him?" "He's...different." Halibel said, at last, without revealing any obvious emotion, "Yeah." Stark nodded, leaning back in his seat, "It's a 'he' for a start. What do you reckon? A keeper?" Halibel did not answer. She only kept her eyes on the road ahead.

A/N: Reviews, plz? Ichigo all but threw Renji by the ponytail into the car waiting for them on the corner, "Drive!" He snapped at the redhead, throwing himself into the passanger seat and pulling the seatbelt so hard across himself that it almost snapped. Blood still pounded in his ears with rage and he wanted nothing more than to get Renji as far away from the police station as possible so he could kick his ass without the trouble afterwards, "Uh, Ichigo..." Renji's face began to go as red as his hair with mortification, giving Ichigo an enormous sense of satisfaction, "...hear me out here...I wasn't lying or anything. I really did think-" "What part of 'drive' don't you understand?" Ichigo erupted, raising his fists. If this continued then he would

pound Renji to a pulp right that instant, police be damned. Knowing when his life was seriously in danger, Renji shoved the key into the ignition and the car started with a satisfying-loud roar. Ichigo kept glaring at Renji for the whole journey, trying to think of how he could give him a kick to the face without crashing the car. Renji had the decency (and enough will to live) to not say anything else that might goad the other man. They reached Ichigo's apartment building quicker than they normally would (probably because Renji knew better than to test Ichigo's patience) and Ichigo began dragging Renji by the ponytail again, ignoring all protests. When they got to Ichigo's floor, the door closest to the stairs opened and a pair of glasses flashed in the sunlight streaming through the corridor window, "Any reason why Keigo is making all that noise, Kurosaki?" Ishida sneered, looking rather annoyed, "He's always making noise. What's your problem?" The answer to that question soon became apparent. Even as they stood there, they could hear Keigo's voice screaming, "OH, HE COULD BE DEAD AND IN A DITCH ALREADY! WHY WON'T RENJI CALL US?" Ichigo slowly turned to Renji in fury, who tried to cower away from the glare he was receiving, "You told Keigo?" Ichigo snarled in a quietly fuming tone,

"I...I..." Renji completely lost the ability to speak under Ichigo's stare and, after a few tense moments, Ichigo turned back to Ishida with what he hoped was an apologetic expression on his face, "Sorry, Ishida. This is my fault." "I can see that." Ishida replied, tactlessly, "Just shut him up, please." With that, he closed the door between them, Great! Ichigo thought, angrily, Now, Ishida's pissed at me. His neighbour never took kindly to being woken up too early. Which was why Ichigo could not fathom why he had chosen an apartment so close to where Keigo lived, The landlord probably didn't tell him, poor guy. Still keeping a firm hold on Renji's hair, Ichigo found his key, jammed it in the lock and threw open the door so hard that he wouldn't have been surprised if the thing came off its hinges. After slamming the door behind him, a scream came from the living room, along with something large and annoying flying at him, "ICHIGO! YOU'RE ALIVE! I THOUGHT YOU'D-URGH!" Keigo never got to finish his sentence as Ichigo's foot slammed into his face and made him tumble back the way he came. Ichigo didn't see what he'd landed on but he smashed into it with a satisfyingly loud crash, I hope he breaks his jaw so much that he'll never talk again and can only eat through a straw! Mizuiro marched in at that moment, doing his angry-and-

concerned-mother act and looking more angry than Ichigo had ever seen him, "And, what time do you call this?" He snapped, actually whacking Ichigo in the face with a spatula,"Do you realise that I have had to spend three and a half hours trying to stop Keigo tearing the city apart looking for you? I've had Ishida knocking on the door telling him to shut up and Chad had to help me!" "Sorry, Mizuiro." Ichigo lost most of his anger in the face of Mizuiro's worry, "I really didn't think I'd be gone this long." If he was perfectly honest, he hadn't really thought it through at all. He'd just told Mizuiro and Keigo that he was going for a walk, nothing more. Ichigo realised belatedly that he should have at least called home when he was in Aizen's car to tell them that he would be late back, "Where HAVE you been?" Mizuiro demanded, "And-Renji! What are you doing here?" "He's going to have his ass kicked, that's what." Ichigo snapped, his anger returning in full force. With that, he dragged Renji more forcibly than before into the living room and threw him on a feebly-stirring Keigo, "And, I'm gonna start RIGHT NOW!" Renji tried fruitlessly to escape but Ichigo had already advanced on him with an evil grin on his face, "H-hey, Ichigo. C'mon, you've made your pointGURGHHHH!" Renji's pleading was cut off by Ichigo planting his foot into his stomach, knocking the wind out

of him, "WHY THE FUCK DID YOU TELL BYAKUYA? DIDN'T I TELL YOU TO KEEP IT A SECRET?" "I'm sorry!" Renji cried, raising his hands as though in surrender, "I came round here and Keigo said you were gone! I just panicked! I thought Aizen had kidnapped you or something!" Ichigo raised his foot, this time aiming for his head but, suddenly, a large arm clamped around his shoulders and pulled him away, "WHAT THE FU-" His head snapped round, only to meet with the sight of Chad holding him back, "Sorry, Ichigo." He intoned, in his usual calm tone, "But, I'd like to know what's going on before you murder Renji." "I would, too." Mizuiro appeared at Chad's elbow, "When Renji came in here, he kept going on about this Aizen person kidnapping and raping you. Though, one look at you can tell me that isn't the case. An explanation, please." So, Keigo and Renji were given icepacks and the five of them sat down around the living room to hear Ichigo's story. Ichigo spent most of the telling with his eyes to the floor. Explaining it out loud made everything sound a lot worse. At least Keigo had the decency (or, perhaps, the concussion) to keep quiet all through it.

When he had finished, he finally got up the courage to look at his audience. Mizuiro and Chad were rather unconcerned by it (though, it was harder to tell with them), Renji looked as though he had been smacked across the face and Keigo sat there with his mouth open, making him look rather gormless. Mizuiro then, to Ichigo's astonishment, began smiling, "I did think you weren't a virgin anymore. The way you were limping when you came in a month ago made it obvious. Isn't it great, Asano-san?" He turned to Keigo, "Operation StrawberryPicker has been a success." "EHH?" Keigo squealed, "Why did you just call me Asanosan?" Ichigo was suddenly reminded of Aizen and Hirako and, at that moment, his friends' exchange seemed ten times funnier. Then, Renji had to ruin it all by clearing his throat and saying, "Ah, I did see Aizen at your party. I thought it was the drink getting to me at first but, when Keigo told me you'd gone, I thought he might have threatened you to come with him or he'll kill your friends or something." "If he did threaten to kill you, Renji, I'd say 'go ahead'!" Ichigo snapped, still very irritated. Renji flinched and began flushing as red as his hair. Mizuiro, sensing an argument, cut in with, "What I'd like to know is why Renji thought he had cause to panic. Is this Aizen dangerous?"

"No." Ichigo replied, before Renji could get his mouth open, "He's just got a bad reputation among the Gotei 13 because he walked out on them." "He was passing on confidential stuff to Las Noches!" Renji countered, "He only announced he was the head of Las Noches a few months ago when he'd been involved with them for years! I'm warning you, Ichigo, he wrote the book on lying and you can never know if he's telling the truth or not! And, he's the boss of Las Noches, for fuck's sake! That means he doesn't mind doing something illegal to get what he wants!" "He's a business bigshot, not a Yakuza leader!" Ichigo snapped back, his face heating up in outrage, "He's had dozens of opportunities to kidnap me already and he hasn't. What does that say to you?" "That he's just biding his time." Renji's voice grew dark and he actually glanced round as though he thought a spy from Aizen would leap out from behind the bookcase, "Waiting until we all look the other way and you're too far away to get help before he snatches you from under our noses and locks you up for the rest of your life!" Ichigo stood there speechless for a moment. Was Renji really that determined to hate Aizen that he would make up something like that? Did every Gotei 13 worker feel that way? In that case, would every one of them react in the same way if word got out that he was Aizen's boyfriend? Ichigo's hands balled into fists. His lingering

anger at having his moment with Aizen interrupted only made him even less inclined to let Renji talk that way about his boyfriend. He didn't remember ever feeling this territorial over Inuoe or Rukia but, then again, he didn't think about them in the same way that he did about Aizen, "Are you really as stupid as you look?" Ichigo snarled, injecting as much venom as he could into his voice, "When was the last time you met him? Do you really think you know him?" "Do you really think you know him?" Renji growled back, standing up with his fists raised, "You've only met him three times and I bet you didn't have much time to have a chat with him the first two times! He even pretended to be someone else the second time. How the hell can you say that he's trustworthy?" Ichigo was spared having to shout at him by his phone blaring in his pocket. Pulling it out, he saw Aizen's number on the screen. With an air of defiance, he flipped open the phone and said, very clearly, "Hey, Sousuke." Renji froze in place, eyes wide. Of course, he knew exactly who Ichigo was talking to, "Hello, Ichigo. Have you finished dealing with Abarai?" "Not even close." Ichigo groaned, "You won't believe the kind of shit he's coming out with about you." "Well, that's to be expected." Aizen did not seem to take

any kind of offence at this news since his calm tone did not change a bit while he was speaking, "He is a highranking Gotei 13 worker and it's only natural that he should possess the general opinion the corporation has of me at the moment. Please, don't break your friendship with Abarai over it. It's not worth getting very aggravated by it. It will pass soon, once they have found a new captain of the Fifth Division and got used to the idea that I no longer work for them." "How the hell can you take it so calmly? Do you get pissed off by anything?" "I'm regrettably only human, Ichigo. I do become irritated by some things. Getting my time with you cut short, for one. Are you blushing?" "No." Ichigo lied, as he felt his face heat up, "Say, is Abarai close at hand?" "Yeah. And, he's going to get pretty damn close to my fist in a minute." He added viciously, as Renji began making frantic hand movements at him while mouthing, 'Turn it off! Turn it off!' Aizen gave a musical kind of chuckle, "I would rather like to talk to him myself. Try and assuage his worries, you know." "Good luck with that. Words don't get through his thick skull."

"Oh, I know. He worked in the Fifth Division under me for some time but I had to transfer him to the Eleventh after a few months. His continued bad behaviour at the office was just intolerable. Still, it's only good manners to try and I am rather proud of my ability with words. Let me speak to him." "Alright." Ichigo pressed a few buttons to turn up the volume so he could still hear Aizen's voice and then held out the phone to Renji, hitching the evillest grin he could muster onto his face, "He wants to talk to you." After a moment, Renji took hold of the phone with an air of trying to conceal the fact that he was scared, "Hello?" "Hello, Abarai." Aizen's voice came clearly through the speakers, making Renji recoil a bit at the volume, "It's been quite a while since we've spoken. I would ask you how you've been doing since I last saw you but I am quite eager to speak to Ichigo again and am not inclined to hear your stories. Let's get straight to the matter at hand, shall we? I've heard that you are quite concerned about my relationship with Ichigo." "Yeah." Renji gained some of his defiance once more, "You lied to all of us in the Gotei 13. Lying to him would be easy for you." Ichigo wanted nothing better than to punch Renji so hard that his tattoos flew off his face but he kept his rage down for the moment. Aizen, of course, was not swayed

by this, "Let me assure you, Abarai, I would never lie to the one I love." Ichigo felt himself going red in the face. It had been the first time that Aizen had said plainly that he loved him. Renji had to ruin the moment yet again by snarling in the phone, "Listen here, Aizen. If you do anything to him, you'll have me to deal with." "I suppose this is going to be a typical greeting from a friend of Ichigo's?" Ichigo chuckled appreciatively, "I have asked Ichigo not to take your hatred of me personally so please don't give him an excuse to sever ties with you. I would hate it if he lost a friend on my account." "Don't give me that, Aizen." Renji was not having any of it, though, "I'm not falling for that act. Scratch what I said before. Make that when you do something bad to him!" Ichigo raised his fist but, as though he had sensed this, Aizen quickly said, "Hand the phone back to Ichigo, please, and don't think about stopping this call. It will only anger Ichigo." Renji paused for a moment, looking from the phone to Ichigo's outstretched hand. He probably did very much want to hit the 'end call' button and throw the phone against the wall but the look on Ichigo's face and the memory of how much the hits had hurt was stopping him.

Finally, most reluctantly, he extended the phone to Ichigo. Fighting down the urge to smirk with triumph, Ichigo turned the volume back down and put his ear to the phone, "I told you it was pointless." "Like I said, it was only good manners to try. Now then, are you free tonight?" "Yeah, I'm free tonight." Ichigo said, rather more loudly than he should just to see Renji's agonised reaction, "What have you got in mind?" "Well, I think a first date is in order. I happen to have an extra ticket to the performance of The Merchant of Venice and I really don't want to go with Hirako-san. Would you care to accompany me?" "Sure." Ichigo liked that play but had never seen it performed, "Excellent. Do you still have that suit you wore when we first met?" "Uh, yeah." Ichigo remembered with a stab of guilt that he'd thrown it into the back of his closet and not taken it out since. It was probably in such a bad state that it was not fit to wear, Damn. That means I'll have to see Ishida to fix it up for me, "Good. I'll pick you up at six o'clock so we can have dinner beforehand." "Where?"

"Oh, a restaurant close to where I live that I'm rather fond of. I'm sure you'll like it. So, where do you live?" After giving Aizen his address, they ended the call with jovial 'see you soon's and Ichigo looked up from his phone to see the effect the call had created. Chad and Mizuiro were now mildly surprised, Keigo was mouthing like a fish out of water and Renji could not have been more stunned and horrified if Ichigo had just announced that he and Aizen were getting married that night, "Okay, Sousuke's picking me up at six. I'm gonna go and get Ishida fix up my suit." "Suit? Are you going somewhere fancy?" Mizuiro glanced up, "Yeah. Dinner and a play." Ichigo shrugged, "And, when are we going to expect you back?" His friend glared at him in a way that demanded a straight answer, "Ah, I dunno. He didn't say how long the play would be." "Well, are we going to expect you back tonight or not?" "Uhm..." Ichigo realised a little too late what he was referring to. Before he could think of an answer, however, Renji snapped out of his horrified trance and grabbed Ichigo's arm, "Are you insane?" He said it as though Ichigo was about to do something very dangerous that would very likely get him killed, "You just flaming told him where you live!"

"I know where he lives. What's the problem?" However, Ichigo was sure that Renji could think of some problem, "I'll tell you what the problem is! He could sneak in here and kidnap you in the middle of the night without anyone noticing!" "Renji!" Ichigo threw his hands up in the air, finally having had enough of Renji's nonsense, "Why the hell would he kidnap me in the middle of the night? We've already had sex twice, I'm not rich and I'm not famous! There's no way he can gain anything from kidnapping me so why don't you use your head and get off my case?" With that, he marched into his room and began to search for his suit. After throwing aside about half a dozen items of clothing, he heard the front door open and close. Now he was in private, he allowed the Aizen-ish smirk of triumph appear on his face as he found the old Chappy bag and found that his suit was just a bit creased with no real damage.

It was with great trepidation that Renji returned home. He had called Rukia to say he was going to the police station with Byakuya and he'd be home late but he hadn't contacted her since. The chance that Byakuya had told her exactly what happened in the police station was very high. If he was really unlucky, Byakuya would be waiting at the house right now ready to give him hell for

embarrassing him like this. Sure enough, as he turned into his drive, Byakuya's car was parked in front of it, Oh, crap. He thought, First Ichigo, then Aizen, now him. Is everyone out to get at me for this today? Knowing that it was not wise to keep his captain waiting, Renji hastily parked his car in the drive (nearly knocking over one of the flowerpots in the process) and marched up to the house. Gulping nervously, he twisted the key and opened the door, "I'm home-ARGH!" "YOU FOOL!" It was amazing that someone so small could punch so hard. Rukia's head didn't even reach his shoulders and yet he was sent toppling back outside from the force of her blow, "HOW DARE YOU MAKE SUCH A FOOL OF NII-SAMA IN FRONT OF THE POLICE? DO YOU REALISE HOW THIS WILL AFFECT HIS REPUTATION?" "Enough, Rukia. You'll attract the neighbours' attention." Oh, shit. Byakuya had appeared in the hall, glowering menacingly at Renji. Gulping again, Renji decided it would be better if he spoke first, "I'm really sorry, taichou. I just panicked and I presumed too much." "No, Renji." Byakuya replied, coldly, "It was I that presumed too much. I presumed too much of your brainpower that I believed your nonsense."

The statement hit him ten times harder than Rukia's punch had and Renji began to wish he could just disappear right now. Just let the floor open up and swallow him whole. Anything to escape Byakuya's glare. Finally, Rukia grabbed his wrist and began leading him like a dog on a leash into the kitchen. Shoving him into a chair, she sat opposite him so it looked like she was about to interrogate him. He was just waiting for her to shine a bright light into his eyes and slap him around a bit, "Since when was Ichigo Aizen's boyfriend? Even I thought he'd have better taste than that!" So, Renji told the story to an attentive Rukia and a bored-looking Byakuya. By the end of it, Rukia had her mouth hanging open like Keigo, though she could do it without looking stupid and she soon recovered herself, "I knew Ichigo was an idiot but this one really takes the biscuit!" "You should not extend your aid, Renji." Byakuya intoned, "You should not care what blunders Kurosaki makes." "Well," Rukia folded her arms, meaning she was feeling very annoyed, "Aizen certainly bewitched him, alright. Having sex with Ichigo within an hour of meeting him! I would have been lucky if I had sex with him within the decade of meeting him!" "We all know that Aizen is very good with his words." Byakuya stated, in a noncommital kind of way, "And, that

Kurosaki's mind is simple enough to be tricked by them. No doubt Aizen didn't have to try very hard to win him over." "Why are you so desperate to get Ichigo away from Aizen, anyway?" Rukia put her head to one side, making her hair fall over one eye so it was half-concealed, "The way you're talking sounds like you really want to split them up." "I was thinking that myself." Her brother nodded, "It wouldn't be anything to do with Hinamori-" "No!" Renji snapped at once, "It's nothing to do with her. I never even thought about her when I was at Ichigo's place!" He knew it was a very poor lie. That night, they went on their usual evening walk around the neighbourhood. Byakuya had conditioned this habit into Rukia, claiming that walking was the best way to keep in shape. Renji still found it hard to integrate it into his usual routine. It didn't help that Byakuya had decided to accompany them on that evening. It was bad enough that he had stayed at their house and stubbornly refused to leave,

He knows I'm always really uncomfortable around him. Renji realised, He's staying around me just to punish me for showing him up. He lagged behind to make it more bearable and, thankfully, Byakuya chose to walk ahead with Rukia, Perhaps, he's getting sick of seeing me now.

He glanced around the street. It was a nice area of the town with many expensive houses and reputable establishments. Renji knew he was lucky to live here after previously dwelling in one of the more crowded and violent districts of town. Still, he couldn't help but feel out of place here. Like he was inches away from committing a very bad faux pas so everyone would look down on him. He glanced around self-consciously and his eyes landed on a couple leaving a fancy restaurant that he had only visited once when. He saw the orange hair and he immediately stopped in his tracks. Over the usual hubbub of the people chatting around him, he could dimly the happy conversation between Ichigo and Aizen. Both were in smart, almost-identical suits and were heading towards a fancy car with a pale-skinned driver. Rukia became aware of her frozen boyfriend and marched to his side. Just as she was about to tell him off, she noticed Ichigo. Byakuya too fixed his eyes upon them with more interest than he had so far shown in the pair. Ichigo had just said something that made Aizen chuckle appreciatively. Then, he said something that made Ichigo laugh in turn. It looked like the perfect picture of a content couple with absolutely nothing wrong with it. As they watched, Aizen wrapped his arms around Ichigo and kissed him, making a few people look round in amazement,

"I may vomit." Byakuya stated in a deadpan tone. Rukia stuck her nose in the air and followed her brother, dragging Renji along with her. His eyes remained on the car Ichigo and Aizen disappeared into until it drove from sight. He wished that he could have thrown open the door and plucked Ichigo from Aizen's arms. For the rest of the walk, the horrible feeling that he had a very limited time to get his friend away from Aizen increased. If he waited too long, Ichigo would probably not be Ichigo anymore and it would be too late. With every step he took, his worries increased. Ichigo was clearly very in love with Aizen, more than he had been with any girl. Love made people do stupid things. He knew this all too well. And, he was clearly refusing to believe anything bad that was said about Aizen, This could turn bad. Renji thought, dolefully, But what can I do to put a stop to this? All the while, Momo's face stayed in his mind.

The day at the Sixth Division was more hectic than ever and this was made even worse by Byakuya letting slip at the morning's captains' meeting that Renji's friend was now Aizen's boyfriend. By midday, everyone seemed to know and Renji's lunchbreak was plagued with calls from Ichigo's disbelieving friends within the Gotei 13 for a full account of their relationship or to confirm what they had heard.

By the end of the hour, he was ready to throw the phone against the wall. Relating the story ten times was really started to wear on him. He was sure that some of the details had been lost or changed in the repetitions. Just as he picked the first piece of paper off the top of his inbox, the phone blared again. Gritting his teeth (and not bothering to look at the caller ID), he snatched up the receiver and snapped, "Yeah, Abarai-fukutaichou of the Sixth Squad speaking!" "Uh, hi, Renji." Izuru's nervous voice came through the speaker, "Is this a bad time?" "No, no." Renji relented. He didn't want to scare the perpetually anxious Izuru, "I've just been having loads of calls today. It's alright. I can talk now." "Oh,uh...if you say so. I was just wondering," Here it comes. He's going to ask about Aizen and Ichigo, "if you could stop trying to make it seem like Ichigo and Aizentaichou's relationship is the worst thing that could happen before the apocalypse." "What?" Renji had not been expecting that and his mind went blank for a moment with surprise, "I mean," Izuru seemed to gain courage from the other's silence, "it's just a piece of gossip and Aizen-taichou doesn't even work here anymore. It's not like his relationship with Ichigo was the cause of Aizen-taichou's resignation. It's not important and it's only making

Ichigo look bad. And, you know, it's not good to talk about your friend behind his back!" Renji frowned. This sounded dangerously close to defending Aizen. He had to admit that Izuru was right on a few points (Ichigo was definitely about to lose some friends for his choice of lover) but it was not wise to say that kind of thing at this time. Renji was only glad that Izuru had the sense to say this over the phone and not in a crowded room. After a long pause, Renji finally thought of something to say, "He's not a captain anymore. Stop calling him Aizentaichou. You're getting as bad as Momo." "Oh, right! Sorry!" "It's okay, it's okay." "So, uh...are you going to stop telling everyone about Ichigo and Aizen-tai-I mean, Aizen?" "Well, it wasn't me who first let the Gotei 13 know. It was my taichou." "But, you're the one spreading the whole story around and, well, you shouldn't." "Fine, fine." Renji nodded, as his computer's screensaver flicked on from lack of attention, "I'll tell the next person who asks to get it somewhere else." "Alright." Izuru sounded a little relieved but still nervous, as always, "Thanks, Renji. I was just getting

kinda worried. I don't want you to lose Ichigo over this." A sing-song voice chimed in the background on Izuru's end, "Izuru, wha' are ya doin' on the phone?" "See you later, Renji." With that, the call was hurriedly ended. Renji put down the phone sighing, Poor Izuru, He thought, as he finally began his afternoon paperwork, He's really having a rough time at the moment. He had been expecting Izuru to be glad that people were talking about Ichigo and not about him. Up until now, Izuru had been slowly becoming a magnet for scandal. Nearly all the nasty rumours going around the offices seemed to concern him. The worst of them were that he was sleeping with his captain and that said captain, one Ichimaru Gin, was one of Aizen's closest confederates. He sincerely hoped that neither of them were true. He had known Izuru since they had first joined the Gotei 13 and he knew how much he put into his work. Renji could only imagine how upset he would be if he was fired. To make matters worse, Izuru lived in a house that was paid for by the Gotei 13; an offer that was offered only to high-ranking individuals. That meant, if he was fired, he would also be homeless,

This is all Aizen's fault. Renji thought, firmly, If he hadn't left and taken charge of Las Noches, things wouldn't be half as bad for Izuru. Everyone knew how good Izuru was at his job and how much he loved it. He knew that, even if the rumour about him sleeping with

Ichimaru was true, he could probably just get away with it because a lot of people would support him. If it turned out that Ichimaru was working for Aizen too, though, that support would vanish. At this moment, the Captain-Commander was taking a very hard stance against those associated with Aizen outside the workplace. Anyone who had any ties of loyalty or even friendship with the former Fifth Division captain might as well clear out their desks. Momo was lucky to still have her job under Yamamoto-soutaichou's scrutiny. Still, there could be a change of heart anyday now and losing her job would do nothing to maintain her sanity. As for Ichigo (who had often told Renji how much he would like to work in the Gotei 13), any chance of gaining a job in one of their offices had now evapourated into nothing. Even in the unlikely event that he was hired, he would be treated as a total social pariah and would never be allowed to rise to a high, well-paying position. Renji ran a hand through his hair, dislodging some strands out of the ponytail he always wore. He remembered something he vaguely heard Aizen say to Ichigo over the phone, "It will pass soon, once they have found a new captain of the Fifth Division and got used to the idea that I no longer work for them." If only it was that simple. He thought. The Gotei 13 had taken Aizen's resignation as a very personal blow and it would take a long time for their hatred of him to pass, if it passed at all.

Ichigo raised his head from the pillow, wishing that the alarm clock was three hours fast and that it wasn't time to get up yet. When he last felt like this, it was when he still lived at his family home and he was about to be on the receiving end of his father's 'good morning' attacks. Now, he did not fear a dropkick preceeded by a crazy scream. He was worrying about who was going to try and get him to stop being with Sousuke (he'd got used to calling him Sousuke now). It had been two weeks since the secret came out (once Renji had first revealed it, it seemed that he could not stop repeating the story to everyone he knew) and, within that time, the amount of numbers on his phone had halved. It was incredible considering how many people had called him over that short space of time. They were either begging him to tell them that what they heard wasn't true (Ichigo soon disappointed them) or to list the many reasons why being involved with Sousuke would come to no good (Ichigo ended those calls very quickly). Sometimes both. When those people realised that Ichigo was not to be swayed, they had stopped all correspondance with him. They wouldn't answer their phones and cancelled all the arranged outings they were have with him. Thankfully, not all Ichigo's friends were from the Gotei 13 and those that weren't seemed to be on his side. It had been Keigo

who had given him the idea to take the numbers of his former friends off his phone in a sort of private protest and Mizuiro kept saying how silly the Gotei 13 were being over this. Chad too had stopped all correspondence with Gotei 13 workers, an action copied by Orihime (who was now on excellent terms with Ichigo again), and Tatsuki had taken it upon herself to kick out (sometimes literally) any of them that came to their apartment building. As for Ishida, he didn't associate with Gotei 13 workers anyway so he just talked about them more disdainfully than usual. Despite all the troubles, Ichigo had been on four other dates with Sousuke. Either meals in a restaurant or just a nighttime walk through the forest outside town. They hadn't slept together and, to anyone looking at their relationship now, one would say that they were 'taking it slow'. Sousuke was always affectionate and made good conversation with his usual aristocratic and eloquent flair to it. In fact, the nicer Sousuke was, the more Ichigo began to dislike the stupid Gotei 13,

Speaking of which, Ichigo thought, resignedly, as his phone began blaring, adding to the din provided by the alarm clock, who is it going to be this time? He dived for the device and glanced at the screen, Oh, crap. The word on the display was worse than the name of one of the Gotei 13 workers. Sighing in irritation, he flicked the phone open, "Hey, Dad."

"Ichigo, my beautiful son!" Ichigo had to hold the phone a foot from his ear to stop himself going deaf, "I can't believe you don't call me when you have so much news-"

Click. The call was ended and the phone was flicked shut. He was not in the mood to deal with his insane father and definitely would not talk about Sousuke with him, Whoever told him is going to be killed slowly and painfully! He vowed to himself. As he threw himself out of bed, the phone rang again. Ichigo considered burying his phone in his clothes and leaving it to ring unattended until the battery ran out, Then again, that would probably make the nutcase come around here. The thought of his father coming to visit was unbearable. So, reluctantly, he picked up the thing again, "Yeah, what?" He snapped into it,
"Oh, no! My precious boy is upset! Do you need your daddy to make you feel better?" "Yeah, I need you to leave me alone! That'll make me feel better." He retorted, hotly. Ichigo fully expected his dad to run crying to the poster of his dearly departed mother, saying how he had failed to bring up a nice polite son. The pause that followed startled him, therefore. For a moment, he thought his dad was in shock from his rudeness. Then, a serious voice came through the speaker, "Son, I hear you're with Aizen Sousuke."

It took him a while to identify the voice as his father's since he was that unaccostumed to hear it so solemn, "Yeah, why? What's up?" He had a good idea what his father wanted to say, though, "Shunsei told me last night. I tried to call you then but your phone was off." "Yeah. I was with Sousuke. I didn't want anyone calling me." "Oh, I see. So, where did you two go?" "Just outside town." Ichigo was surprised by the pleasant conversation but glad that he wasn't facing criticism for once, "Nighttime walk, you know." "Ah, that sounds romantic. Mind you, from what I heard, you two have done more than that." "Uh, yeah." There was no point denying it anymore. Everyone seemed to know about it and he mentally braced himself for his father's reaction, "Well, son. I suppose I should say congratulations on losing your virginity at last. We should throw a big party-!"

Click. Ichigo really should have known better than to think his father could be serious for long. A normal father would have disapproved of his son having sex too soon and would certainly make it known but, of course, his dad could never be called a normal father. In fact, he

really couldn't be a normal anything. Ten seconds later (in which he hoped his little sister, Karin, had given him a good smack around the head for his behaviour), his phone rang for a third time, "Sorry." Serious voice, again, "Got a bit too excited there. Now, son," He cleared his throat, as though he was about to say something important, "I know you're a grown man and I can't force you to act in a certain way anymore. I'm not going to disown you just for doing something I don't like and I'm not going to demand you do anything. I just want to give you some advice about Aizen and a bit of information about him that you might not know." "Yeah?" This was sounding dangerously close to a reason why he shouldn't be with Sousuke but Ichigo kept the call going, "Go ahead." "Okay. I don't know what Aizen's told you about himself but he's not had a very good love-life until now. His last girlfriend tried to kill herself when he let her go. Or, so she said. She was confined to a wheelchair after that and I think she died of illness a few months ago. She never went near Aizen since." "What?" The subject of Sousuke's love-life had never been raised in conversation. In fact, Ichigo realised that he did not know much about Sousuke at all. Most of the conversation was about present problems or Ichigo. If

Ichigo asked anything about Sousuke, the answers would be very vague and the conversation would be directed elsewhere, "Yeah. Leapt off one of the Gotei 13's buildings, poor thing. She was lucky not to die from that, really. 'Course, Aizen acted like he was sorry and he paid for her hospital treatment to make up for it. I don't know whether he really was or not. There are some people saying that he was the one that pushed her off." "There's idiots!" Ichigo snapped, "It's only a rumour! It probably isn't true. He's got a good alibi." "What was her name?" "Hisana, I think." "What? Byakuya's wife?" Ichigo had heard about Byakuya's wife being in a wheelchair and how she died from illness in early March. Hisana had been Rukia's older sister, although the pair of them had been raised apart by divorced parents, and she had convinced Byakuya to legally adopt Rukia into the Kuchiki family when the parent looking after Rukia died. He never knew she had been involved with Sousuke, though, "Yeah. Of course, Aizen tried to pay the hospital to look after her then but she wouldn't have it. She didn't want anything to do with him. It was her pride that killed her,

really. The illness was quick and Byakuya only knew when it was too late to get any good doctors in to save her. Anyway, that's not the reason why the Gotei 13 don't like you being with Sousuke. You see, the first one he had was a girl called Hinamori. She only lasted about a month before he dumped her." "What's so bad about her?" "Well, it looked like a normal failed relationship at first. She was too clingy and he wanted some space to himself. Anyone could see that. Then, a year after that, she started stalking him. Sending him loads of emails, ringing him up constantly, following him so she could take photos. She even tried to break into his house at one point. 'Course, Aizen couldn't take it and sent her to a therapist." "Geez." Ichigo breathed in amazement, "I know. But, you know, a week after she had been declared sane, she started doing it again. So, he put her back into therapy and, as soon as that was over, she stalked him again and the beat goes on." "Fuckin' hell!" Ichigo gasped, "She must be a real nutcase." "She is now. She was never like that before she got involved with Aizen. She was a strong woman before all that. A good worker and I think she's the fukutaichou of the Fifth Division now. She might be made the new

captain if she stays sane. 'Course, that might be a bit too much to hope for at this point." "Huh. No wonder Sousuke left." Ichigo tried to joke, "If he had her for a fukutaichou." "Don't joke about this, Ichigo." It was so odd to hear that coming from his father directed at him. Normally, it was the other way around, "Look, the bottom line of all this is that all of his relationships have not ended well. After the one that tried to kill herself, Aizen publicly swore himself off love. If girls were interested in him, he would just ignore them until they gave up. His friends used to call him Lovelock behind his back. Not just because of the way he wears his hair sometimes." Ichigo started at this incredible coincedence but didn't say anything, "I suppose you've been getting a lot of calls lately trying to get you to stop going out with Aizen, huh?" "Yeah." Ichigo grimaced at the unpleasant memories, "Well, you shouldn't blame them. They knew all this and they're worried you might get hurt, that's all. And, just be careful with Aizen, okay. Lately, he started humouring the women who fancied him only to dump them in a really humiliating way. He might just be playing you on in the same way." "He's not." Ichigo said, at once,

"I'm just saying it's a possibility. And, don't fall out with your friends over it, okay? They're just trying to be helpful." "I wouldn't fall out with them if they weren't being such assholes about it!" Ichigo snarled, "Well, you can fall out with them over that. So, the bottom line is: be careful around Aizen and his friends, okay? I know the Gotei 13 are overreacting to this whole thing but they've got some reason to. That said, you shouldn't be overly cautious. If he really is homosexual and he loves you, being too careful with him could put him off love again and make him worse. It would probably turn him against men as well as women." "Okay." It was the first time that Ichigo had been told that it would be good to be in a relationship with Sousuke and that softened the criticism, "I'll remember that." "Good. Oh, and, one more thing. Don't ask him about Hinamori or Hisana when you're out with him. It's not something you talk about on a date and it might be a touchy subject to him. And, you'd best not tell anybody else about this either. I was told to keep this all a secret but, after a bit of thought, I've decided you should know." "Wait a minute, Dad." The thought suddenly occured to him as he thought his father's words over, "How do you know all this? Did Kyoraku-san tell you?"

"Oh, I heard it here and there. Anyway, I've been serious too long! Time for Daddy's Special-"

Click. He cut the call off for a third time in disgust. This time, the phone remained silent. His father clearly had nothing more to say. Or Karin had knocked him out. Finally, Ichigo threw on a dressing gown and ambled to the kitchen. Keigo was snoring with his head on the table while Mizuiro was filling a glass of ice-cold water to throw over him, "Did your father call today?" He asked, calmly,
"How d'you know that?" "Just a lucky guess. I heard you yelling at someone to leave you alone." "Yeah. My dad called me about Sousuke." The water plunged over Keigo's head, making him shriek and start so suddenly that he toppled out of his chair onto the floor, "Was it the usual?" Mizuiro asked, over Keigo's shouts of rage, "Yeah." Ichigo lied unconvincingly but Mizuiro did not follow it up. He sometimes wondered whether his friend could read minds. He always seemed to know when Ichigo wanted to keep something secret and often respected that. Keigo was quite the opposite but, thankfully, he was too disorientated by his rude awakening to realise what they were talking about. Just then, the doorbell rang, "I'll get it." Ichigo stood and hurried to the door,

thinking it would be Ishida to complain about Keigo's noise again. No sooner had he got the door open and before he could manage out a greeting, his lips were captured by a nowfamiliar mouth. After realising who it was, Ichigo relaxed and wrapped his arms around broad shoulders, immersing his hands in stiffly-gelled hair. Although this had now become routine, it never became dull. Ichigo relished in the kiss and the tranquil trance that came with it. Not even the thrills of pleasure that came with Sousuke's tongue could break it. Finally, they seperated and a melodic voice murmured against his lips, "Thy plainness moves me more than eloquence." "Sousuke." At last, he got a chance to look at Sousuke. He was dressed rather plainly in a way that suggested he was trying to be inconspicuous, "What brings you herehey!" He gasped, startled, as he felt large hands slide under his dressing gown and stroke his bare skin. Ichigo was very glad that he'd gone to bed wearing at least his boxers, "Have you just woken up?" "Uh, yeah." His mind always stopped working properly when Sousuke was around. Especially immediately after they'd been kissing, "Ah, good. It seems I've caught you at a very good time."

The creeping fingers slid around his body and began tracing up and down his spine, "I have decided to treat you to breakfast this morning." "Huh? Where?" "Oh, just at my home. I intended to treat you the morning after we first made love and, since I woke up early this morning, it occurred to me that I should fulfill that neglected intent. Besides, Hirako-san is eager to see you again." "Well, ah," Sousuke's hands were moving rather close to the waistband of his boxers now, "l-let me just get dressed first!" "Of course. Perhaps I may make so bold as to ask permission to enter your home?" "Sure, sure, go ahead." Sousuke stepped over the threshold, closing the door behind him. At that moment, Mizuiro poked his head around the kitchen door. As soon as he saw Sousuke, he flashed a charming smile and strode into the hall, "Well, well, this must be the Aizen Sousuke we've heard so much about!" "That, I am." Sousuke took the hand offered to him graciously like he was being introduced to an important politician, "And, you must be Kojima Mizuiro. Ichigo mentioned you a few times in conversation."

"That's right. Though, I suppose he talks more about Asano-san than me." "EEEHHH!" Another shriek came from the living room as an emotional Keigo bundled into the room, "Why do you keep calling me Asano-san instead of just Keigo? Have all our years of friendship been nothing to you?" Ichigo caught Sousuke's eye and the both of them sniggered. This caught Keigo's attention; he hadn't even noticed Sousuke was there until then. He stared at Sousuke stupidly for a few seconds before Ichigo finally cleared his throat, gesturing between the pair of them as he said, "Aizen Sousuke, Asano Keigo. Asano Keigo, Aizen Sousuke." Keigo's brain switched on again and he bounded up to Sousuke with a bit too much energy for someone who had been fast asleep a few minutes ago, "Yo, Aizen-san! Nice to finally put a face to the name!" "Likewise, Asano-san." Ichigo had the impression that Sousuke was trying to wind Keigo up like he would with Hirako but, unfortunately, it didn't work. Keigo still remained bouncy and happy so Ichigo began edging towards the bathroom, "Right, ah, make yourself at home, Sousuke. I'll be ready as soon as I can." "Don't delay." Sousuke gave him one last smile before

allowing Mizuiro to lead him into the living room. Ichigo shut the door behind him and tried to get his thoughts back to full working order. As usual, he began thinking of thousands of ways he could have done that encounter better. He shouldn't have stuttered, for one. He threw his dressing gown and boxers onto the toilet cistern and stepped into the bath. Their bathroom was very small so it could not accommodate both a shower and a bath so the last owner had installed a shower on top of the taps so it was both in one. So, after drawing the curtain and positioning the showerhead on its clamp, he started the water running and began thinking with mixed anxiety and excitement about what he and Sousuke would do that day, as he always did when he was about to go on a date. He knew he was being girlish for doing it but he couldn't help himself. Ichigo was really looking forward to see that enormous house again, along with Hirako. He would even be glad to see Gin and Kira. That mansion of a home also felt like a haven away from those gossiping Gotei 13 workers, I'll leave my phone at home. He decided, I'm not just going to leave it switched off in my pocket. It's pointless having it on me if it's not switched on. He felt around the haze of steam for the sponge, frowning as he only felt an empty holder, Damn it, Keigo. Why the hell do you have to put it in the wrong place every time you use the shower? Knowing his idiotic friend had probably left it on the side of the sink again, he

groped for the shower curtain. It was very hard to see with all the steam and the fact that the curtain was only a plain uncoloured one did not help matters. The rings rattled and the sponge was pressed into his hands, "Ah, thanks." He muttered, thoughtlessly. It was only when he was rubbing the thing against his arm that he realised that someone was in the bathroom with him. As he was looking around for a silhuoette, a pair of naked arms slid around his waist from behind. It was lucky that someone was behind him or he would have surely slipped over when he jumped with shock, "Do be careful." A deep voice murmured in his ear, "I wouldn't want you to be hurt." "Sousuke!" Ichigo gasped, turning redder than he had already been from the heat of the water as he realised that his boyfriend behind him was very naked, "Wh-what do you think you're doing?" "Well, I did not have time to get ready properly this morning so I think I should catch up now." "You...you..." Ichigo was speechless with amazement at Sousuke's audacity, "Your friend gave me permission. He said that, since we already have knowledge of what our naked bodies look like, I should take this opportunity for intimacy that we have been neglecting of late."

"Wha...so, you just thought you'd waltz in while I'm having a shower, did you?" Ichigo spluttered. He was sure that it had been Mizuiro who said that. It was the kind of shameless idea only he would make, "Actually, it was your friend who thought that. I would much rather do this upon your bed but I'm always open to trying new experiences." "You...you frickin'..." Ichigo couldn't think of a suitable reply, not only because he was so shocked at Sousuke's actions. Hands and lips were wondering over his body. Kisses were peppered all over his throat and shoulders while long fingers ran down Ichigo's torso and slowly trailed down towards his manhood. Soon, that mindless passion came over him as those sneaky fingers began running up and down his length. His body squirmed at the pleasure building inside him, pressing against the other man behind him for support. Ichigo could vaguely feel Sousuke's hardness pressing against his backside as he ground his hips shamelessly against it, moaning without holding back. He only noticed that Sousuke had lowered them into a sitting position when he felt the hard surface of the bath on his backside. The water sprayed onto his chest but he barely noticed it. Not when there was so much else to be felt. He just leaned his head back so it rested upon Sousuke's shoulder and pulled his legs up and apart so the pleasuring fingers had more room to move.

The pleasure inexorably accumulated until, at last, he could bear it no longer and he came with a final scream before slumping against his lover, panting harshly. He had almost forgotton how good sex with Sousuke could be. Sousuke himself gazed lovingly down at Ichigo between strands of soaking hair. Their lips met again and, without Sousuke's guidance, Ichigo turned in his arms, pressing his lips harder against his boyfriend's. He knew what was coming and he thought that, if he perhaps got lost in the kissing trance again, it might take his mind off the pain. It didn't do any such thing, however. He felt the full sting as Sousuke's finger push its way into his backside. Ichigo couldn't stop himself wincing and digging his fingers into Sousuke's shoulders. His boyfriend didn't ignore the pain, however. His other hand reached down and carrassed his limp manhood until it was hard and Ichigo found he could endure the pain. All the while, Sousuke murmured soothing little words to distract him from the hurt of the preparation. He felt a second finger being added and the extra throb of his entrance being stretched came with it. Soon enough, what Ichigo now knew was his prostate was found, making his back arch and his head fling back with the rush of pleasure that went through him. He could barely feel the water spraying against his back anymore and he didn't care that was wasting water. All that mattered to him now was that he kept feeling that pleasure. A third finger was pushed in and the feeling of

fullness made him cry out even louder than before. And, then, the fingers were taken out and Ichigo moaned in disappointment, even though he knew he was going to be filled again. As he regained some of his senses, an idea occurred to him. Just as Sousuke was slowly pushing him back, Ichigo grabbed hold of his broad shoulders and pushed him down so he was above his lover. Ichigo had read about this in one of the advice books that Mizuiro had thrust upon him when he found out about his relationship with Sousuke. He had been most reluctant to read them and most of them had weird, perverted ideas that Ichigo wasn't going to approach. However, there were a few good points that Ichigo found interesting, even if he would never admit it, "Ichigo, if you wanted to take control, all you had to do was say so." Sousuke murmured, "I do hope you know what you're doing." "Just shut up and hold still." Bracing himself for the inevitable pain, Ichigo angled Sousuke's manhood to his entrance and, after a deep breath, impaled himself upon it, "Fuck...fuck..." He gasped, as his backside burned and made him regret his actions for the briefest of moments. When Sousuke's hands invited him to rest upon the older man's torso, however, his reluctance was completely lost. After a minute or so, his body became used to the intrusion and the pain lessened. Remembering the advice, he carefully moved his body up away from Sousuke's

length but, just when it was almost out, hands grabbed his hips and pulled him hard and fast back down again. Ichigo's cry of pain became one of pleasure as his prostate was hit dead on, "You...you..." Ichigo managed out but he only had time to observe Sousuke's smirk before his hips were pushed up and down again. Now forgetting Sousuke's intervention, Ichigo began an even rhythm of moving his body up and down, riding Sousuke's manhood and making sure he aimed for his prostate every time. He was occasionally helped or encouraged by the older man, who bucked his hips up to meet him. The water relentlessly spraying upon them provided an excellent lubricant so each thrust was easy and pleasurable. Ichigo knew that they was making a lot of noise with their pleasured animalistic moans and gasps; his roommates (and, possibly, his neighbours) must know exactly what he was doing but he didn't care. They seemed as far away as stars to him now and only he and Sousuke remained in a world the size of a bathtub. Sousuke must have been stroking him since he could feel that his climax was near. Yet, when he felt that he was ready, nothing came. Looking down, it took him a while to notice his boyfriend's finger upon the slit of his manhood, stopping him from cumming, "Sou-Sousuke..." Ichigo gasped, as the older man stopped him from slowing down, "...what, ah, are you, uh, doing...ah!"

"Let's cum together." purred Sousuke, "No..." Ichigo moaned, as his prevent release made his manhood hurt, "...please..." He tried to bat the hand away but it would not be moved, "Just a bit...more..." Sousuke's voice became stilted, telling Ichigo that his release was close too. Sure enough, after two more thrusts, Sousuke threw his head back and Ichigo felt a hot rush as cum flooded into his passage. Sousuke's hand moved away and, with a dizzying rush of pleasure that made stars wink before him, Ichigo's release finally came. Completely drained, Ichigo slumped forward, his face against Sousuke's heaving torso. After a long moment, Sousuke slowly and carefully moved Ichigo off him as though he were made of glass and finally turned off the shower, momentarily disappearing in the thick steam around them. When he reappeared, he was smiling smugly, "I knew you'd enjoy it once you got started, my dear Ichigo." "You really are...a sneaky bastard...aren't you?" Ichigo panted. Sousuke merely chuckled and leaned down to kiss him again briefly before murmuring, "And, you love it. Now then, I think it's high time we made a move. Hirako-san will be wondering where we are." Ichigo didn't feel like he had the strength to stand up but Sousuke helped him up and out of the bath. Sousuke

was also helpful enough to grab a towel from the rack and rub Ichigo's hair with a playful ferocity, "Hey, gerroff!" He snapped, grabbing the towel off him. His face began to go red and not because of the immense heat in the air, I don't believe it! I let him fuck me in the shower! A little voice in the back of his head reminded him that he had taken control so he wasn't totally blameless in this, Oh, shit, Ishida's going to get on my back for this! Once he had dried himself off (he tried to be quick), he noticed a small pile of clothes that definitely weren't Sousuke's. At first, he was glad that he didn't have to make a trip to his room and then he realised what this meant. Unless Sousuke had brought them in, someone had been in here while they were having sex, When I find out who it was, they are dead! When he threw on his clothes, he found Sousuke, fullydressed, at the clouded mirror attending to his hair. Seeming to have conjured hair gell from mid-air, he was busy arranging his hair into its normal slicked-back style. In no time at all, he was finished and looking as impeccable as ever. Not like he had just been doing it his boyfriend in the shower. Ichigo scowled, "How the hell can you look so normal?" "Natural talent." With that, he turned from the mirror and held out his arm like a gentleman, "Shall we?" "Uh, 'kay." Though he still had a limp, Ichigo took the arm

and strode out of the bathroom. Steam billowed out with them, making it difficult to see for a few minutes. When that cleared, Keigo and Mizuiro came into view, each with an annoyingly-knowing smile, "Well, I see you've both finished." Mizuiro said, with a completely straight face. Keigo tried to speak but soon came under a fit of the giggles which was soon ended by a death-glare from Ichigo, "Yes. Thank you very much for letting me use your shower." Sousuke made it sound like he had not been doing anything suspicious, "Your generocity is much appreciated." "No problem, Aizen-san." Mizuiro met Sousuke's eyes as he spoke and their faces split into identical, sneaky grins before they exchanged farewells and they left Ichigo's apartment. Sousuke let Ichigo lean on him as they walked; although Ichigo was regaining some of his strength, he was still drained. They had not gone two steps down the corridor when a very harrassed-looking Ishida poked his head out. Ichigo flushed red, knowing that neighbour had definitely heard him. As unflappable as ever, Sousuke smiled politely, "Hello, are you a friend of Ichigo's?" A nod from Ishida, who was surveying this new person critically, "How do you do? I'm Aizen Sousuke." "Ishida Uryu." Ishida gave a polite nod, though he looked

like he was definitely putting two and two together, like only he would, "Sorry I can't meet you properly but I'm trying to work. Oh, and Kurosaki," He turned his baleful gaze upon Ichigo, who could tell that Sousuke had made a very bad impression on Ishida, "I suggest that you give serious thought to investing in soundproof walls." He ducked back into his apartment and the door snapped shut between them, "Not the most social person, is he?" Sousuke muttered, lightly, "That's an understatement." Ichigo moaned. He was never going to hear the end of this, he just knew it. Totally unembarrassed, Sousuke simply led them downstairs and to the flashy car in front of the building that was being admired by passers-by. Ulquiorra was at the wheel again and made no comment at Ichigo's limp. Ichigo would have thought that he couldn't speak at all if he hadn't said, "Yes, Aizen-sama." to Sousuke's order to take them to his house. Sousuke pulled on both their seatbelts (he insisted on doing both despite protests) and gently placed an arm around Ichigo so the younger man could rest his head comfortably on a broad shoulder. The last thought that entered Ichigo's head before he drifted off was, Mizuiro and Sousuke are a lethal combination. A/N: Hope that lemon made up for my absence. See you

next week! "Ichigo?" He was being gently shaken awake, "Ichigo, we're here." Blearily opening an eye, Ichigo found that the car had stopped and they were in the drive of Sousuke's house. Ulquiorra was patiently holding the door open, looking more like a clothed marble statue than ever. He managed to spur himself into wakefulness and pull himself out of the car, though it hurt his backside to do it. Ulquiorra closed the door and silently returned to the drivers' seat with the intent of taking the car back to the garage. Hirako was standing on the doorstep, looking as annoyed as Ishida. Though Ichigo knew that he would be irritated at their late arrival, he had the very bad feeling that something was wrong. Sousuke sensed it too, "Why the long face, Hirako-san?" "You're not going to believe this." Now, Ichigo knew something was definitely amiss. Otherwise, Hirako would have become annoyed at Sousuke refusing to call him 'Dad', "The Gotei 13 have got wind of Gin working for you." "So, they fired him on the spot?" A nod from Hirako. However, Sousuke failed to look unhappy. On the contrary, his expression did not change a bit, "Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later." He sighed, "He is one of my closest confederates in Las

Noches, after all. I always told him that it would be better to leave of his own accord rather than to be sent away. Is he inside?" "Yeah. And, wait a moment. I haven't told you the worst thing." "What is this worst thing you speak of?" Sousuke finally began to show some concern, even if it was in a miniscule tensing of his jaw, "They also found out about Izuru sleeping with him." "Ah." Sousuke frowned, "So, him too?" "What?" Ichigo burst out, "Kira isn't even working for Sousuke!" "I know." Hirako nodded, "It seems that the Gotei 13 is throwing out everyone who's the slightest bit connected to Sousuke outside work. Boy, this is really getting out of hand. This is going to turn into some kind of witch-hunt soon." "Indeed." Sousuke ran a hand through his hair, "Come, Ichigo. We may need your help to cheer Izuru up." So, they hurried into the house, which suddenly looked less impressive with the news of Kira's plight hanging over their heads. They found him on Gin's lap in the drawing room with rather red eyes and messy hair, making it very clear that his misfortune had hit him hard. When he saw them, he sprang up at the sight of them as

though he'd just received an electric shock and quickly bowed to them in hasty politeness, like he just been surprised by his superiors, "Ah! Aizen-sama! Kurosakisan!" "Hey, hey, chill out." Hirako called from behind them, "They ain't going to do anything to you." "I'm sorry for your misfortune, Kira-kun." Sousuke said, in a rather coldly-professional manner, as though he'd said this to thousands of people before, "And, that I contributed to it." "No, no, it's not your fault, Aizen-sama." "Don' ya lie ta him, Izu-chicky." Gin seemed completely unaffected by the whole affair to the point of being insulting. If Ichigo had been in Kira's position, he would have kicked Gin's ever-grinning face into the carpet by now, "I's totally 'is fault!" "It's called tact, Gin." Sousuke sighed, "I suggest you try it. You may get further in life." "Really?" Gin raised an eyebrow, "I though' tha' was called lyin'." "Same thing, really." "Ah, tha', I can do. Doncha worry!" "You okay, Kira?" Ichigo turned to the quivering blond, "Ah, nothing to worry about, Kurosaki-san. I'm sure it'll

be fine. There's no need for you to worry about me." The way he said it clearly said that he really thought exactly the opposite, "Come on, just call me Ichigo." Ichigo motioned for him to sit down and seated himself beside the other. Perhaps if they sat down, it would help the highly-strung man calm down a little, "I'm no one important. I'm just Sousuke's boyfriend." "I have never heard a more contrasting pair of statements." Sousuke appeared behind him, looping his arms around his neck, "While we're on the subject, where did you get such nonsense about not being important? I absolutely forbid you to say that again." "Y'know," Ichigo turned his head up so he met Sousuke's upside-down eyes, "I'm the kinda person who doesn't listen to people who forbid him to do something. So, sorry if I ignore that because it's true. I am not anyone important." He reached up and cheekily flicked his nose, making his boyfriend recoil and Hirako laugh loudly, "Hasn't changed a bit!" Even Kira chuckled into his hand, "I really admire you, Kurosaki-san - ah! I mean, Ichigo!" He jumped at a look on Ichigo's face, "Oi, relax, will you? I'm not going to crack out a whip." "I could if ya want me ta, ya dirty little thin', Izu-

chicky." Gin piped up, with a rather suggestive look on his face, "Shut up, Fox-face!" Ichigo glowered furiously at him. That silver-haired nuisance really had no concept of time and place, "That's what I admire about you, Ichigo." Kira said in a smaller voice than usual, "You're so strong. You don't let anyone walk over you, no matter who they are. I can't be like that." "Aw, don' worry, Izu-chicky." If he interrupts again...Ichigo spotted a tea set on the table with cups full of untouched and cold tea and an idea occurred to him, "I love ya anyway!" "I mean, you can talk that way to Aizen-sama and get away with it. You're not even scared to do it." "Ah, he isn't my boss." Ichigo shrugged, "I've no reason to be too polite." "Well, I wouldn't be so attracted to him if he was." put in Sousuke, "Ichigo's attitude towards me is very refreshing." "Ah, if Sousuke was his boss, he'd probably act just as disrespectful." Hirako shrugged, "I know him." "If he keeps doing me in the shower, I would!" Ichigo snapped, shamelessly. It was truly a mark of how much his attitude to sex had changed since, a month ago, he

definitely wouldn't have said that kind of thing in front other people. At this statement, Kira and Hirako's eyes widened and Gin sniggered dirtily after meeting Sousuke's eyes, making Ichigo glower furiously at him. Sousuke simply gave him an only-slightly apologetic face, "Your friends' idea, not mine. Sorry, I'll keep that kind of thing in the bedroom if you like." "You'd better." Ichigo glared up at his boyfriend mutinously, "Or, I might make you the one on the bottom next time. Got it?" "I understand you perfectly, Ichigo." Sousuke's face was completely placid, as though he didn't understand that what Ichigo had said was a threat, "Hey, hey, stop talking about this kind of thing!" Hirako called dramatically, "I'm not as young as I used to be. My ticker can't cope with hearing about my young son doing this kind of thing!" "Never could, never will, hmm, Hirako-san? Anyway, we're not interested in your son. I think we're talking about me, Hirako-san." Hirako fumed at Sousuke's evil smile and even Ichigo had to laugh at the look on his face, "Don't laugh." Hirako snarled, "It only encourages him." "Au contrare. The look on your face encourages me, Hirako-san."

Hirako spluttered with rage and, finally, with a toss of his waist-length hair, he flung himself from the room in a fury in the childlike way he always did. Ichigo could not meet Sousuke's eyes without sniggering. Kira too began to laugh now Hirako was out of earshot, "You see, I could never be so rude to Hirako-sama like that." He said, once he had overcome his fit of mirth, "You and Aizen-sama truly are a perfect match. Neither of you let are afraid to talk disrespectfully to someone. I know I could never be like that." "Ah, it's better tha' ya ain't." Gin lounged back on the sofa carelessly, "Ya wouldn' be nearly as cute if ya weren'."

That's IT! Ichigo had finally had enough of Gin's comments. He picked up an abandoned cup and turned to Sousuke, "Are these expensive?"
"Yes, but Hirako-san bought them and I've never liked that design." He seemed to know exactly what Ichigo was going to do and added, "Mind you, they are easily fixed when they break." "Right." With that, Ichigo flung the cup as hard as he could across the room. It struck Gin right on the forehead and split cleanly in two. Kira gave a small scandalised squeak like the sound a mouse made when its tail had been trodden on as Gin fell backwards and upended the sofa with a cry of pain. Sousuke sighed in a

mockingly-sorrowful way, "You should know better than to irritate Ichigo, Gin. I thought you would have learned from Abarai's example." "Ow, ow, ow." groaned Gin, making Ichigo huff in satisfaction, Serves him right for being such an creep, "Ya know, I take back ever'thin' I said abou' ya, Ichigo. Ya really ain't cute." "Good!" Ichigo replied, viciously, "Glad we straightened that out!" "Are you alright, Gin-sama?" Kira hovered frantically over Gin as though he had just been pulled from the wreckage of a car, "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." Gin waved a hand jovially, "Shocked me more than it hur' me. Don' worry, Izuchicky. I don' need an ambulance." "Yes. I'm sorry, Ichigo, but it will take more than that to hurt Gin. Might I suggest," Sousuke said in a low voice that everyone in the room could hear, "using the teapot next time. That is much heavier and will hurt a lot more. Now then," He seated himself in the most lavish-looking chair, "enough of this playfulness. I would very much like to hear how you were both fired." "Well, i's like this." After fending off a panicky Kira, Gin began, "Byakuya 'eard about me and Izu-chicky bein' together. Don' know where from but he did."

"From Renji, probably." Ichigo said, bitterly, "You know he can't keep a secret for long." Kira's face twitched in a way that looked like he wanted to retort angrily but thought better of it. Only Ichigo seemed to notice since Gin went on regardless, "Maybe, maybe. Anyway, Izu-chicky gets hauled up in fron' o' the soutaichou along with me and I though' it was just gonna be a stern talkin' to. Izu-chicky's too popular ta be kicked ou' jus' fer tha'. Bu', when we get there, it turns out tha' someone 'ad told 'im I was workin' with ya, Aizen-taichou." "Who?" Sousuke raised an eyebrow, "I dunno. Neither does the soutaichou. 'E jus' got a call this mornin' from someone 'oo wouldn' say 'is name. They said tha' I was definitely workin' fer ya." "Did he present any proof?" "Didn' need ta. Tha' was all the soutaichou needed ta tell me ta clear my desk." "But, that's not fair!" Ichigo burst out, scandalised. Even with someone like Gin, proof needed to be produced and one could never rely on an anonymous call, "Ah, the Gotei 13 ain't bein' fair now, Ichigo-kun." Gin shrugged, his face not changing a bit. Ichigo vaguely wondered if he had been taking lessons from Sousuke on how to keep the same face no matter what they

encountered, "Yamamoto's gettin' real paranoid abou' Aizen-taichou. 'E's workin' really hard to weed out anyone 'oo's workin' fer him. Anyway, Yamamoto fires me an' tells Izu-chicky tha' 'e can keep his job if he promises ta never talk ter me again." "And..." Kira did not look up to meet any of their eyes, "...and, I said no." "I was so proud o' 'im!" Gin chirped, moving across the room to pull Kira into a choking hug, "My Izu-chicky stood up ta the soutaichou 'imself and said he'd rather be with me than keep 'is job!" "I..." A blush appeared on Kira's face, although a small smile was on his face, "I was thinking of Ichigo-san when I did it. When Yamamoto-soutaichou gave me that choice, I thought 'what would Ichigo do in this situation'? And, I thought you'd do that so that's what I did." "Hmm, would you agree with that, Ichigo?" Sousuke asked, though he probably knew what the answer was, "Yeah, pretty much. I probably would have given the old fart a kick in the face as well but yeah, that would be what I'd do." Sousuke gave a loud laugh that made Gin open his eyes in surprise as though he had never heard him laugh before, "Oh, you do say such entertaining things, Ichigo! Can you imagine Yamamoto's face if Ichigo did that to him, Gin?"

"Yeah. Tha' is kinda funny." Gin giggled, "Anyway, the reason tha' Izu-chicky's so upset is tha' he lived in a place tha' was paid for by the Gotei 13. They 'ave these houses that they reserve for high workers. One o' the perks." All mirth was immediately drained from the room. It took Ichigo a little while to realise what this implied; if Kira had been fired, that meant the Gotei 13 had likely stopped paying for the house. As he went on thinking, he realised that the Gotei 13 would not want an ex-employee taking up one of their precious houses. The terrible conclusion flashed into his head: by being loyal to his lover, Kira was now homeless. Seeing the crestfallen look on Ichigo's face, Kira hastily uttered, "It's not that bad. Gin-sama's been very kind and said that I could live with him." "Very kind? Ha!" Gin laughed rather cruelly, "Now, ya realise it! I've been offerin' ya to live with me fer a year now! Ya're just acceptin' now because ya don' have anywhere else!" "I...I didn't want to trouble you, Gin-sama." Kira's eyes lowered, "Nah, nah, don' talk like tha'! Now, ya can be my housewife! Ya don' have that irritatin' job ter get in ya way anymore. Ya should be happy! I certainly am. I was really worryin' when that washin' was gonna get done-

whoa!"
SMASH! The teapot shattered on the wall behind where Gin's head had been a second before and a furious Ichigo shot up, glaring at Kira, "How can you like him? He's a total creep!" "H-he's not too bad once you get used to his sarcasm. He's, ah, quite funny, sometimes." Kira insisted, shaking like a leaf in the face of Ichigo's fury, "Yeah. And, Izu-chicky's a hardcore masochist!" Gin added, stirring up Ichigo's anger again, "Ah, shall we withdraw to the kitchen before you murder my friend, Ichigo? Hirako-san will probably have breakfast ready by now. Would you care to join us, Gin? Kira?" "Nah, thanks." Gin picked up his abandoned jacket, "Izuchicky still needs ta finish movin' 'is stuff inta my place and, besides, I ain't going in a kitchen full of sharp objects when Ichigo-kun's there!" "Probably a wise move." Sousuke chuckled. As Gin led Kira out of the room, Ichigo amused himself with imagining how he could carve out Gin's voicebox with various kitchen appliances. When he and Sousuke reached the kitchen, Hirako was laying the table, still looking annoyed, "What was that smashing sound?"

"It was me." Sousuke said, without hesistation, "I lost my temper with Gin and a cup and the teapot accidently smashed when I was moving around in a temper." "You could just say you threw them at him. Anyway, couldn't you have thrown something else? That crockery wasn't cheap, you know!" "I thought that crockery would hurt him a good deal more." Ichigo stared at his boyfriend. Here he was, taking the blame for Ichigo and his face hadn't changed a bit. It made him realise that Renji was right when he said that Sousuke was a good liar, "Well, I won't make you pay for them if you call me Dad." "In that case, I'll have the money to you before the day's done, Hirako-san." With a glower of fury, Hirako slammed down a rack of toast on the table, dislodging half of the pieces placed in it, and marched through a side-door, "You didn't have to do that, you know." Ichigo muttered, hoping Hirako wasn't listening, "I know but he would have probably made you pay for them and I don't think you have sufficient funds to cover the cost." Ichigo nodded. He most likely didn't have that money and, although he didn't like lying, he was grateful to Sousuke for taking the blame. Hirako returned with a full

teapot and huffily sat down, determinedly not looking at Sousuke, He still acts like a total kid. Ichigo thought, No wonder he and my dad get on so well. Birds of a feather... "I must admit, Gin's case has made me worried about Kaname." Sousuke commented, sipping his tea, "Still, he and Hisagi are well-liked among the Gotei 13 and good workers so it may be some time before they are suspected or discovered." "It's mad, though," Ichigo shook his head, still disbelieving how cruel the Gotei 13 could be, "to kick Kira out when he doesn't even work for you." "I know. Even I must admit that the decision was very unfair. The soutaichou is only damaging his own corporation by doing this, though. Kira was a good worker and popular among the other captains and fukutaichous. Even if he was my closest associate, this still would not have been taken well. Yamamoto will only have himself to blame for the reprucussions." "Say, Ichigo," Hirako put in, "I'm surprised you haven't met Kira before. He and Abarai were old schoolmates and both once worked for Sousuke in the Fifth Squad." "Seriously?" Ichigo found it very hard to imagine the brash, quick-tempered Renji being friends with the submissive, timid Kira, "Yes." Sousuke set down his tea and picked up a piece of dislodged toast, "I picked them especially, thinking they

would be very useful workers. Of course, Abarai didn't turn out quite as I hoped he would but Kira served me well. How did you and Abarai meet, may I ask?" "Well, he was getting beaten up by thugs and I was passing by. I helped him out and we've been friends ever since." "How noble of you. Were you not at all frightened by the ruffians?" "Nah. I used to get in fights with them all the time in high school. Because of my hair colour, you know." "I guess you felt an affinity with the guy." Hirako said while surveying a newspaper on the table, "You've both got weird hair colours, you know. I bet the first question you asked each other was 'is your hair colour natural'." "I don't really think you're one to talk, Hirako-san." Sousuke stated, gesturing at Hirako's long blond hair. Seeing this put another thought in Ichigo's head, "Did Kira get picked on for his hair too?" "I believe he was defended by Abarai whenever someone tried. Speaking of Abarai, are you still in contact with him?" "Yeah, sometimes." Ichigo shrugged. Though Renji still answered his phone, the conversation was mostly interrogating him about his dates with Aizen and scanning Ichigo's accounts for hints of foul play,

"Good. Remember what I said, this emnity with me will blow over in time." "Doesn't look likely at the minute." Ichigo scowled, darkly, thinking of Kira, "No, it doesn't." Hirako agreed but, seeing the look on Ichigo's face, added, "Don't worry. That soutaichou will have some sense knocked into him sooner or later." A silence fell over the group as they got down to eating. Being a poor university student that was normally in a hurry to get to his first lecture, it was very rare that he had time or resources to enjoy a proper breakfast. Now, however, time was on his side and Sousuke offered the best food he'd had away from dates with him. It made him really consider moving here. However, if he did, it meant having to put up with Gin on a regular basis and that was something he definitely wasn't prepared to do at the moment, "What I don't get," The thought finally occured to Ichigo, "is why Byakuya of all people was the whistleblower. I would have expected someone who was in Third Squad or at least someone who was mates with Kira or Fox-Face to know about this." "That Renji kid probably told him." Hirako shrugged, "He seems to like telling secrets. At least, that's if the way he dealt with Ichigo's secret is anything to go by." "Yes, that's what Ichigo thought." Sousuke nodded, "But,

I would have thought Byakuya would have the good sense not to listen to him after the last time he took an accusation from Renji seriously. Besides, Renji is wise enough to know what harm he would do to his friend by revealing this secret and he would never willingly betray him." A phone rang and Sousuke hastily pulled it from his pocket, "Hello, Szayel. What have you to report?" A silence, "I see. Well, pass the word on to Kaname. He must be warned." The call was ended, "I have just received word from my sources that Byakuya is putting many efforts into finding any who are still connected to me. Hinamori has just been summoned to the soutaichou again." The name made Ichigo glance around in recognition before he could stop himself. However, he quickly covered his actions by asking, "Why's Byakuya doing that?" "I can make a good guess." Hirako said, slowly, "You see, Byakuya's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it comes to Sousuke. Don't ask me why but he'd take any opportunity to bring him down. That's probably why he believed Renji the first time." "Why? What's Byakuya got against him?" Ichigo had to ask to make it sound convincing, even though he didn't think the tone of his voice really sounded like he didn't know,

"A few of my business dealings with me were not successful and it made his good reputation among the Gotei 13 workers turn sour. I suppose he blames me for it." Sousuke lied perfectly again and, if Ichigo had not known the truth, he was sure that he would have been convinced by the very plausible explanation. He knew Byakuya took any damage to his reputation personally. Hirako's eyes flicked suspiciously between the two men before he said, "Is that it? I always thought that Byakuya was a spoiled brat but I never thought he'd react like that over something like that!" "He's an asshole, alright." Ichigo nodded, wanting to get away from the risky subject, "I used to date his sister so I know." "Whoa, really?" That got Hirako's attention and amazement, "Was she any good?" "No." He said that very resolutely, "She was always moaning and arguing with me. I kinda feel sorry for Renji. He's dating her now." The conversation turned to safer subjects and the morning passed very well. It was only when Sousuke was driving him back to his apartment did his thoughts turn again to Byakuya. Though he managed to say farewell with the usual loving kiss, Ichigo was still distracted by it. His thoughts were more upon what he didn't know rather

than what he did. Sousuke did not seem like someone who would push his lover off a building to him but he was an excellent liar and could probably cover his crimes well. Renji's accusations, that had seemed so stupid and improbable before, suddenly came to the front of his mind and, for the first time, he thought hard upon them. If he knew what Byakuya was doing, he must be spying on the Gotei 13 somehow. It was impossible to spy on someone legally so his men must have been using illegal methods. Maybe, computer hacking or stalking. As the idea of stalking came into his head, he glanced nervously behind him, as though expecting someone shifty to be following him up the stairs to his apartment. Suddenly, it was like the last month had never happened and he was still worried about what Aizen was going to do to him for gatecrashing his party. The terrible fear was coming over him again, Damn it, Dad! Why did you have to tell me about Hinamori and Hisana? I wouldn't be like this if you'd kept quiet! He let himself into the apartment and called to his roommates but, since he was so lost in thought, his own voice seemed distant. Mizuiro poked his head out to greet him with a smile, "Hi, Ichigo. How did-" He broke off at the look on Ichigo's face, "Is something wrong?" "No, I'm just thinking about the test in a few weeks." It was a very poor lie but his mind was not up to fabricating a good excuse. He hastily shut himself in his room and

threw himself on the bed. Staring at the ceiling, he continued thinking. He remembered his father's warning about how he liked to lead his lovers on before dumping them. But Aizen seemed happy enough on their dates in Ichigo's company and, if he wasn't, why would he invite him on so many? It wasn't like Ichigo was forcing them on him. If anything, Aizen was forcing them on him, albeit gently. They had talked freely and easily but there was still the nagging matter of why Aizen was so reluctant to talk about himself. He wished he could have asked Aizen about Hisana but, even now, he could not think of a way he could have done so without arousing suspicion. He hated all this speculation and unconfirmed rumours that his father had forced on him. His mind would not be at rest with them all bouncing around inside his head. Again, he wished that his father had never told him about Sousuke's love-life. It wasn't his business to know, after all, and he had been so much better off not knowing. He now fully understood what the phrase 'ignorance is bliss' meant. If only he could easily get the information out of his head so that he could be blissfully ignorant again. He rolled over onto his side and caught sight of his switched-off phone that he had been using to converse with his father that morning. He tried to assess his relationship with Sousuke. It certainly couldn't be called a conventional romance.

They'd had sex before their first date not once but twice. The second time, he hadn't even known it was the same person! Aizen had so flawlessly acted unlike himself that night that Ichigo could not fully blame the alcohol he'd consumed for not recognising him. If he could act as good as that, would it not be possible that he could act like he loved Ichigo? Argh, I don't even know how to tell if he's acting or not! An instinctual voice in the back of his head firmly said, He's not. He's not acting, he really loves you and you're just being as stupid as those Gotei 13 workers. You know you love him so why are you being so suspicious? Yes, that was one firm fact that he could still cling to: he loved Aizen, more than he'd loved any woman. He was enchanted by the man and could never say no to an opportunity to be with him,

But, those women he let go so carelessly probably thought that as well. A crafty voice that sounded remarkably like Gin replied, That didn't stop him dumping them and hurting them like that, did it?
Ichigo lay there, not knowing what to think. He would be happy and comfortable pretending he didn't know about Aizen's past relationships but the information refused to be forgotton and would not leave his attention no matter what he did to banish it. In the end, after a long half-an-hour of hard thought, he decided that he would just take whatever fate threw at

him. If Sousuke had been leading him on all this time, it would be his own fault for being fooled by it and it would be his job to come out of that experience stronger. He always did. Whatever didn't kill him made him stronger, after all. And he wasn't a spoiled brat that couldn't take rejection,

I'll show them. He said to himself, as he sat down to a hastily-made lunch that suddenly seemed rather unappetising compared to the splendid breakfast he'd had at Sousuke's house, I won't go insane like Hinamori or try to kill myself like Hisana. No, if he dumps me, I'm going to give him the ass-kicking of a lifetime, even if his goons kill me afterwards!
This stubborn resolution kept him from worry through the uneventful afternoon. This was perhaps lucky since, just ten minutes after Mizuiro had gone out to get the food for dinner, there was suddenly a knock at the door and a muffled call from outside, Probably one of Keigo's friends and drunk already by the sound of it. Ichigo thought. He was proved wrong when his bedroom door was thrown open, making him sit bolt upright in alarm. A whiteskinned man with equally pale hair was standing there in clothes that looked like he'd just been through the roughest alleyways in town, "Hey-ya, King. Or, should I say, Queen?" "Go away, Shiro." Ichigo snarled, standing up. The last

person he wanted to see was his deranged albino cousin, "Ah, yer always so nice to lil ol' me, Queen. Makes me glad I came to visit." "Look, just say what you want to say and get lost! And, why are you calling me Queen?" Normally, it was King, the nickname that had been forced upon Ichigo when they were little. Ichigo called him Shiro because he knew it annoyed him (Shiro wanted to be called Horse instead for some bizarre reason), "Well, I 'eard abou' yer boyfriend so I didn' think King suited yer anymore. A King ain't fucked by anyone." He advanced on Ichigo. Everyone who saw the two of them together (those occasions were as rare as Ichigo could make them) marvelled at how alike they were. Shiro was more like his albino twin rather than his cousin. Up close, Ichigo had to suppress a shudder at Shiro's yellow, hawklike eyes and black sclera that was a side effect from a medication he took to cure some illness (and the main reason why no one went near him since it looked so freakish), "So, was 'e good? Did ya like takin' it up the ass?" "Shut up!" Ichigo snarled. Only Shiro could annoy him like this. Only he knew how to get under his skin like this, seemingly by instinct, and, the more irritated Ichigo became, the happier Shiro was, "I bet yer did. I bet ya screamed like a bitch when he

fucked yer. Is tha' why yer so miserable, Queen? 'Cos ya don' 'ave yer man's cock inside yer?" If his phone hadn't rung at the moment, Ichigo would have hit him. He unfurled his fists and seized the device, "Hello?" He didn't look at the display since he was so eager to stop talking to Shiro. A deep voice made him freeze, "Hello, Ichigo." "Oh! Ah, hi, Sousuke." Shiro gave a whoop of malevolent glee, "It's 'im! Callin' up 'is pet bitch, tellin' 'im to suck some dick!" "Why, you-!" "Ichigo, are you alright?" "Oh, yeah. Sorry, Sousuke. My shit-for-brains cousin's here. You know, the one I told you about last week?" "Ah, the insane albino. Is that why you seemed unhappy as you left this morning? I was thinking I may have done something to upset you." "Don't worry. Shiro always annoys me." Ichigo seized onto this excuse, happy to be able to talk to Sousuke again. It seemed that, when he was conversing with his boyfriend, all worries about him seemed to fade, like his voice had some power to push away what troubled him, "Well, you should have said something, silly boy."

Sousuke's musical chuckle came through the speaker, making Ichigo smile almost unconsciously, "Would you like me to rescue you from him?" "I'd love that. But, don't come here. I'll come to you." He hated to think what Sousuke would make of Shiro. He was the one who finally scared Inuoe off, after all. Although Sousuke was most certainly made of stronger stuff, he still did not want the two to meet, "I'll tell you what, some of my associates are in the area. I'll ask them to pick you up at your apartment building. Just wait outside and they'll be there in a few minutes." "Great, thanks." The conversation was ended and Shiro was still sneering at him, "Tha' guy takin' yer back ter 'is bed, huh, Queen? 'E gonna strap yer down and give it ter ya until ya pass out?" "Be quiet, Shiro." Ichigo marched from the room and tried to lock him in the apartment, Let him be Keigo's problem. He thought, as he tried to shut the door in that white face. Shiro beat him to it, however, and forced the door open so now Ichigo had him as an unshakeable companion all the way downstairs. Inuoe was unfortunate enough to be coming up the stairs when they got to the third floor, making Shiro leer in a horribly perverted way at her, "Hiya, Inuoe-Big-Tits."

She gave a scream of fear at the sight of him and ran at top speed to her apartment. Ichigo groaned, "Will you just GO AWAY, Shiro?" He snarled, "What are you doing here, anyway?" "Well, yer dad tol' my dad so I decided ter skip work and congratulate yer personally. I swear, if yer stayed a virgin any longer, I woulda tied yer down and fucked ya so hard tha' yer would never sit down without hurtin' again!" "YOU FUCKING WHAT?" Ichigo whirled round to face a totally unrepentant Shiro, "No. Me, fuckin' yer! 'Oo cares if we're cousins? Yer too damn sexy fer yer own good. It's a crime that someone with an ass like that was a virgin 'till 'e was nearly twenty!" "If you keep talking shit like that," Ichigo growled, quietly, "I am going to throw you down the stairs and break your spine in half so you'll never walk again, got it?" "Sure thing, Queen." Whipping back round to face forward, Ichigo tried to ignore Shiro's taunting. It was difficult, as always, and his nails dug painfully into the palms of his hands from clenching his fists for so long. Shiro was the biggest pervert Ichigo knew and was totally unashamed of it. He infamously declared at a family reunion that, "Be it human, animal or vegetable, I'll do anything to anything!"

He had been bundled upstairs to bed by his father as soon as he'd said it and was given a good kicking from Ichigo for saying that in front of Yuzu and Karin (who were only twelve at the time). Still, Shiro stalked him down the stairs, "C'mon. Tell me. 'Ow much does 'e pay yer? Yer may be hot but yer ain' good enough fer someone like tha'. Yer from two diff'rent worlds, ya know. I bet 'e pays you really well. 'E's loaded, ain't he? Yer should let me have a share of yer earnings. It ain't fair that yer should keep so much money ter yerself, ya whore. I could use a bit o' pocket linin' righ' now. Or, maybe, I should offer yer some overtime work, slut. I'll make it worth yer while." He forced his eyes to stay ahead, even though he'd like nothing better than to beat Shiro's colourless face black and blue, Don't rise to the bait. The words of Uncle Zangetsu came to his head, He's not worth it. He wants you to react and trying to beat him up will only make him worse. Finally, he reached the ground floor and kicked the door open, imagining it to be Shiro's head. Ichigo was very glad to see a long dark car that he knew belonged to Sousuke's men. No one in this area would have such a nice car. Even Shiro had to give an admiring whistle, "Nice wheels. Yer man knows 'ow to travel in style. I bet he fucks yer in the back seat of tha' thing all the time." To keep himself calm, Ichigo pictured tying Shiro to the

back bumper by the wrists and driving around at top speed with his cousin screaming in agony. The driver's door opened and a flash of blue that Ichigo found vaguely familiar appeared. A well-built man with eyes as blue as his wild hair and an open shirt flapping in the wind stepped out. He was bearing his stunningly white and sharp teeth in a shark-like grin that could give Shiro a run for his money, "Hey, second cousin." He sneered at Ichigo, making him remember at once who this man was, "Hi, uh, Grimmjow." "That's right. Grimmjow Jaeggerjaques' the name. I'm the Sexta in Las Noches. That means I'm the sixth most powerful man in the place so you'd better not give me any shit." The warning wasn't really necessary; Ichigo vaguely knew about the Espada from talks with Sousuke about Las Noches and knew at once that this wasn't a man to be crossed. However, this meant nothing to Shiro so he just surveyed Grimmjow with distaste, "Yer some bigshot, are ya? Heh, ya don' look like much of one. Ya look like an ordinary punk to me. Yer bribin' this Aizen ta let ya be in Las Noches or are ya an arse-monkey like Ichigo?" "What did you say?" Grimmjow exploded, his face colouring with rage at Shiro's smirk, "You say that again

and I'll flatten you to the ground, with or without my car!"


Shiro opened his mouth to defiantly say it again and it certainly looked like a fight was about to start. Before another word could be said, the back door of the car opened and a sleepy voice came from within, "Quiet, out there. I'm trying to have a nap." Starrk and Halibel emerged, both surveyed Shiro with disgust after nodding politely to Ichigo, "Who's this?" Halibel asked, "My cousin." As always, Ichigo was ashamed to admit it, especially when Shiro was gazing at Halibel in the same revolting way that he did with Inuoe, "The name's Zangetsu Taikei. They call me Horse 'round town, though. Yer wanna see why, baby?" He leaned forward, fingering the fastening on his jeans in a way that should never be done in public. Ichigo raised his fist but Halibel beat him to it. Raising a leg, he planted her foot straight into his groin, the sharp high-heal of her boot going straight into the most painful place. The sight made Grimmjow and Ichigo grimace and go, "Oooh." in unison. That had to hurt a lot. Shiro's eyes widened, showing more blackness than Ichigo had ever seen. A gurgling sound escaped from his throat that sounded like a dying gasp and his motionless

body fell sideways onto the pavement, "If you're a horse," Halibel stated, calmly, "then it's time someone put you down." With that, she turned round and got back into the car. Starrk looked uninterested down at the whimpering Shiro, before saying, "Now, that, he had coming." "Damn right." Ichigo nodded, holding back his laughter while Grimmjow chuckled evilly. As they all got into the car, the blue-haired man said, "He's lucky Halibel got to him before Starrk did. You always looks like he's half-asleep but, let me tell you, he wakes up pretty damn quick as soon as someone tries to come onto his wife." "Wife?" Ichigo repeated, glancing round at the two other passangers. They both nodded and flashed their wedding rings, "And, lemme tell ya." Grimmjow added, "the last person who tried to perve on Halibel before today hasn't woken up since." A cold rush went through Ichigo as Stark held his jacket open, revealing two black pistols stuffed into the inside pockets, "I'm taken too." Grimmjow added, conversationally. He held up his left hand, where a gold ring flashed on his finger, "You've seen my husband before, haven't you?

Ulquiorra Schiffer." "Yeah, I have." Ichigo nodded, though he marvelled at the idea that Ulquiorra would ever want to be seen with someone like Grimmjow. Then again, Ichigo being with someone like Sousuke was even stranger, "What about that little shit back there?" Grimmjow asked, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Shiro, writhing in agony on the pavement, "Ah, leave him." Ichigo shrugged, carelessly, "His brother will be here in a minute. Yep, there he is. Hey, Tensa!" He rolled down the window and waved at the solemn, darkhaired boy who looked incredibly like a younger clone of his father. He even wore a dark coat like him. Tensa glanced at him and gave a cheerless wave before turning his attention to Shiro. As they drove off, Ichigo saw him haul up his older brother with incredible strength for someone so skinny and stuff him into a car a few yards away. He had to laugh at Shiro's plight as the car drove away, "Right," The car revved into life as Grimmjow turned the key, "I'm going to make a detour to Starrk and Halibel's place before we get to Aizen-sama's house. That okay?" "Yeah, fine." Ichigo said, in a noncommital way, "I don't think Sousuke will mind." "Geez." Grimmjow hissed in a half-admiring kind of way, "I don't think I've ever heard someone call him by his

first name before!"

A/N: You have to admit, Shiro really did have that coming! In the time the car journey took, Ichigo and Grimmjow had become the best of friends. They exchanged stories about their dates and how they had first met their boyfriends (Grimmjow had been very amused and impressed upon hearing that Ichigo and Sousuke had slept together within an hour of meeting each other). Grimmjow also gave him suggestions of future dates and how to make sessions in bed more interesting without being too graphic. The three in the car were also very interested to hear about how the Gotei 13 was taking their relationship, "Da-amn! And, I thought Aizen-sama were tough!" Grimmjow exclaimed, when he'd heard about Kira's misfortune, "You'd think that this was the Middle Ages and that these corporations were kingdoms." Starrk put in, startling Ichigo (who thought he'd fallen asleep until then), "Nah, that was probably a dream you had once." Grimmjow sniggered, "So," Ichigo tried to make his voice offhand but failed

miserably, "what do the people at Las Noches think of me?" "They think all sorts at the office." Grimmjow shrugged, "They either think you aren't good enough to be with Aizen-sama, they don't care or think you must be pretty damn good if you scored with the boss. Mind you, they don't dare say anything bad about you in front of Aizensama." "Why not?" "He makes you regret it." Grimmjow said, darkly. Ichigo had the impression that Grimmjow had learned that the hard way, "Well, he doesn't really do anything nasty personally." Starrk reasoned, "He's just got this glare that makes you feel like you've turned to ice. It's kinda hard to explain but everyone's scared of it. And, if he's really angry, he'll set Tousen-sama on you." Grimmjow grimaced and his fingers twitched on the steering wheel as Starrk added, "He really knows how to give you a hard time, his assistant is just as bad and that guide dog is vicious." "Forget guide dog. It's a guard dog." Grimmjow groaned, "Have you ever seen it? It hates everything that moves apart from Tousen. The last time that thing got its teeth in me, I thought it was going to tear my arm off." Looking down, Ichigo noticed that his left forearm was covered in bandages where Sajin had probably torn into him, "I've

never liked dogs at the best of times." "Dogs aren't that bad." Starrk put in, "I've got a couple back home." "You must have at least a dozen, perhaps more." Halibel interrupted, in an annoyed manner, "Heaven knows how many times they've knocked over my fish tanks." "Fish are food, Halibel, not pets." Grimmjow insisted, "I'll make you into food for my piranhas if you keep talking like that." Grimmjow kept his mouth shut at that. The car took them up a rural road outside town lined with high, overgrown hedges that made the fields beyond invisible. The road was only wide enough to accommodate one car at a time, making Ichigo hope that no car would come at them in the opposite direction. That would be an awkward situation. Fortunately, there was no one else on the road. At last, they turned into a gap in the hedges and, out of nowhere, a large old house appeared. It was not as fancy or as big as Sousuke's home but it was still an impressive sight. Standing only two stories high, shuttered windows were dotted around the walls and a large pond (or, quite a small lake) stood in front of it so Grimmjow had to drive slowly and carefully around it. As soon as Starrk and Halibel got out, an army of dogs appeared for all angles; from under hedges, behind the

house, out of the windows and seemingly from thin air. All raced towards Starrk and mobbed him, wagging their tails and barking with glee at the sight of their master. Grimmjow fervantly locked his door and jumped violently when one leapt up to paw at the window. Ichigo had to admit that, after a while, the amount of dogs that were around the car was a little unnerving, "SIT, DUMBASSES!" A high-pitched voice rang out over the din of barking. This din desisted immediately and the innumerable dogs were still. Beside him, Ichigo could feel Grimmjow wince and shrink in his seat, "Lilynette." Was his only answer to the questioning look from Ichigo. Lilynette turned out to be a small, skinny girl, wearing raggy clothes that looked suspiciously like dogs had torn great chunks out of them and an eyepatch over her left eye. She seemed to be in a towering temper, her small fists raised like Ichigo's would when he was about to punch someone, as she marched towards the car, "Hey, Lilynette." Starrk waved lazily, seemingly oblivious to the girl's rage, "'Hey, Lilynette'? IS THAT ALL YOU CAN SAY?" She stomped hard on his foot, making him scream and hop around in pain, "YOU'RE LATE! WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU IN THE LAST HALF AN HOUR?" As she ranted on, swearing in a way no girl her age should

do, Grimmjow reached for the ignition, "Better get out of here before she sees me." He muttered. The car edged out of the drive, careful not to knock over any of the dogs. Then, once they were on the road, Grimmjow slammed his foot on the accelerator so the house was out of sight in seconds, "What's so bad about Lilynette?" Ichigo asked, once they were back in town and Grimmjow had relaxed a bit, "She's a fucked-up kid." Grimmjow said, dismissively, "She's not Halibel's daughter. She's from his last marriage and she was screwed up before the divorce. I've never seen her when she isn't angry over something. Everytime she sees me, she picks a fight with me. Not that I can't beat her, it's just that those dogs do anything she says." He gave a small shudder, "I hate dogs." "Is that why she wears an eyepatch? Because she came off worse in a fight?" "No. It's a birth defect, I don't know what." The rest of the journey was spent in good conversation which was suddenly interrupted when they got to Sousuke's house. Grimmjow suddenly froze at what he saw and, without warning, pushed his head down, "Hey!" "Shut up." Grimmjow hissed, "Keep your head down." Ichigo could tell by the tone of his voice that something

was wrong and that he was possibily in danger. As the engine idled, Ichigo could vaguely hear shouting and crashing. He wondered if there was a fight going on and strained his ears for a voice he recognised. He could vaguely hear someone with a Spanish accent talking and then, a shout of pain accompanied by the sound of a body falling. Beginning to get nervous, Ichigo carefully poked his head over the dashboard, pulling his shirt over his head to cover his bright hair. A man bigger than Chad and wearing a white guard uniform was standing in front of the gate, making a motion like he was cracking his knuckles. Before him were three men in dark suits, seemingly unconscious. The glimmer of a bald head caught Ichigo's attention, "Ikkaku!" He gasped, without thinking, "Shut up!" Grimmjow snarled, pushing his head down again, "Who are those guys?" "Gotei 13 workers." Ichigo dropped his voice this time, "They're from the Eleventh Division. Ikkaku's a friend of mine." "Is that so?" Grimmjow bared his teeth menacingly at the windscreen, "Then, what the hell is he doing here?" The Spanish-accented voice came again (that probably belonged to the guard) and, this time, Ichigo could pick out words, "Come on, I know you're not dead! Either come at me again or fuck off!"

There was a mixture of groans and curses. More voices sounded. He vaguely recognised the voice of a low-ranker (Maki-something), jabbering away, "Sorry, sorry, sir! Didn't mean to waste your time!" "You will pay for hurting my beautiful face." Ichigo might have known Yumichika would be with them. He was never far away from Ikkaku, "You just make sure to pass the message on to Aizen!" Ikkaku snarled, though it sounded slightly distorted, like he was talking through a damaged jaw, "You may have beaten us but you won't last a minute against my captain." "And, you tell your captain that he would not last a second against me!" The guard called, as sounds of fleeing people faded into the distance. Ichigo sat bent over and frozen with shock. It sounded like they were trying to threaten Sousuke. Grimmjow started the car and moved down the road to the gate. He poked his head out of the window and called to the guard "Hey, Yammy! What was that all about?" "They were trying to get over the wall so I beat them up. The usual, no?" "What did they want with Aizen-sama?" "They wanted to tell him to leave this Kurosaki person alone or he would have them to deal with." Ichigo's blood ran cold. He had been hoping that it

wouldn't come to this but, with Eleventh Squad, it was just too much to hope for. Zaraki Kenpachi was even more unforgiving than the rest of the captains and never hesistated to take matters into his own hands. Ichigo was convinced that the rumours of him being an ex-convict were completely true. The first time they had met, they had fought and the result had been a draw. Ever since then, Kenpachi would demand a rematch whenever he saw Ichigo, who certainly did not want a repeat of that incident. Despite his violent intentions, he was oddly protective over Ichigo, making his intent to induct Ichigo into the Eleventh Division very clear. Sousuke was waiting on the doorstep when they entered and hastened to Ichigo's side at once, "Are you alright, Ichigo? Did those Eleventh Division hooligans get to you?" "No, no, I'm fine. They didn't see me." "Splendid. Thank you, Grimmjow." With a small nod that looked rather forced, Grimmjow started the car and slowly moved out of the drive (trying to avoid the flowerbeds that were dangerously close to the gate). Looping an arm around Ichigo's back, Sousuke led him up to the house, "So, did you two get along?" "Yeah, he's great." Ichigo nodded, making Sousuke smile, "I thought you two would make good friends. That's why I sent him. Your journey would be very dull with just

Ulquiorra for company." They entered the house, that looked much brighter than Ichigo had ever seen it. The late afternoon sun was shining in through every window, that were all thrown open to let in the cool breeze. Hirako was lounging upside down on an armchair in the drawing room when they came in, fanning himself with a newspaper, "Oh, hi, Ichigo." He opened one weary eye, "You weren't gone long." "Shiro came to visit." "Oh, God." Hirako groaned, "No wonder you wanted to get away." "You know about this Shiro, Hirako-san?" "Yeah. Insane kid, he is. I taught him martial arts along with Ichigo. Well, I don't think he learned any moves. He just liked to beat everybody up." To amuse Sousuke and Hirako, Ichigo related the story of Shiro and Halibel. Hirako was laughing madly by the end of it, "'Bout time someone did that!" "I do take great pride in my employees." Sousuke said, in a calm voice that was punctuated with quiet laughter, "Now, back to business. I don't know if you realised it, Hirako-san, but we were under seige a moment ago." "What?" Hirako jolted in shock but, unfortunately, he had been lying in such an odd position that this action made him lose his balance and do a kind of backward roll

into the hard wooden coffee table. Cursing loudly, he managed to pull himself up and glare at Sousuke for laughing, "You could have told me! I live here, you know!" "Yes, I've noticed. Anyway, I didn't think it important enough to tell you. Yammy dealt with it without hindrance." "Oh." Hirako nodded, "So, who was it? Door-to-door preachers?" "No, not as bad as that. They were from the Gotei 13. Eleventh Division workers, I believe." "Huh? What were they doing here? They weren't trying to sell us something, were they?" In a very unappropriately casual voice, Sousuke replied, "For what they said, I believe they were threatening to kill me if I maintained a relationship with Ichigo." "Huh?" Hirako's eyes bulged with disbelief and his jaw dropped, "They said that?" "Yes. I heard them from my bedroom. I'm surprised you didn't. Oh, Ichigo, before I forget, they also said that they'd just come back from your apartment and thought you were here." "What?" Ichigo gasped. The feeling of ice cascading into his stomach went through him at the thought of Ikkaku and Yumichika storming his apartment. As though reading his mind, Sousuke pulled out his phone,

"Call your roommates." Seizing the phone, Ichigo dialed Mizuiro's number, wanting a truthful account rather than the frenzied and exaggerated one he'd receive from Keigo. The phone rang three times. Each time made Ichigo more nervous until, "Hello, Kojima Mizuiro speaking." "Mizuiro, it's me." "Ichigo!" Mizuiro's voice was hushed and scared, as though he was afraid of being overheard. This confimed most of Ichigo's fears; that someone from Eleventh Division was in the apartment, "Thank God! I need you to get that Zaraki out of here now!" "Kenpachi?" Horror flooded him. He could kick out any other member of the Eleventh Division but definitely not Kenpachi, "Yes, Zaraki Kenpachi! He came in here half an hour ago, demanding to see you. I said you weren't here and he just barged in, saying he wouldn't leave until you came back!" "Shit!" Ichigo gasped, "Can't you get the police to kick him out?" "I can't. He's smashed the main phone and Keigo's phone too! I managed to hide mine before he could get to it and he's stopped us from getting out! He knocked out Keigo just a minute ago when he tried to escape." Ichigo was silent, trapped in a trance of horror and not

knowing what to do. He couldn't face Kenpachi; that was suicide. He couldn't stay away either, not when his friends were suffering. After a while, he said, "Okay. Sit tight. I'll call the police." "Oh, good. Hurry!" Ichigo ended the call and was just about to press the nine button when Sousuke took the phone from his hand, "No need." He said, smiling in a rather ominous kind of way, "I know someone who can deal with Zaraki much better than the police can. I presume he's forced himself into your apartment?" At Ichigo's nod, his fingers flew across the numberpad and, in a moment, he was saying into the device, "Hello, Nnoitra. I have a job for you." "Who's Nnoitra?" The name rang a bell but Ichigo asked Hirako anyway. Hirako's face had darkened at the name, "He's the Quinta in the Espada. Fifth most powerful there and very strong. You wouldn't think he was by the way he looks but I've never won a fight against him. I've never heard of him losing to anyone and there's plenty of people he's fought with him. He's as psycho as Shiro and loves fighting. Don't worry. He'll be a fine match for Kenpachi." "I hope so." Nearly all those descriptions could also apply to Kenpachi. Sousuke ended the call and threw himself down on the chair,

"Come, Ichigo. Sit by me. You look a little frazzled." As soon as Ichigo sat down, arms wrapped around him and a hand slipped up his shirt to massage up and down his back, "There's nothing to worry about. I am not so careless to allow these ruffians to get their hands on you." "And, I'm not weak enough to let them get their hands on me." Ichigo retorted, cheekily. In response, Aizen gave him an affectionate nip on the neck and began grazing upon the senstive skin there like the gentlest vampire that ever existed. That relaxed trance came over him again as he leaned his head back and the last thing he saw before closing his eyes was Hirako going on tiptoe out of the room, "You know, Ichigo," Sousuke murmured against his skin, "Nnoitra will be able to beat Kenpachi back for now but I know that he will not give up his task." "Yeah, I know." Ichigo wished he'd talk about something else. He didn't want to talk about Kenpachi right now, "I cannot let him achieve his goal. Your apartment building is not very secure, as we've seen. My house is very secure, however. Perhaps you would be better moving here for the duration...and perhaps afterwards." "What?" Ichigo snapped out of the spell and stared down at the smirking man,

"Yes. You should move in with me. We have continued this 'taking-it-slow' charade for long enough and you will be much safer from Kenpachi here. I can ask Ulquiorra to collect some of your possessions from your apartment when Nnoitra is done if you like-" "Wait, wait, wait a minute!" Ichigo's mind struggled to process this possibility. Him, moving into this big house? Of course, the prospect of being with Sousuke for as much time as he liked was very attractive but he couldn't just make his mind like that. He needed to consider everything before a decision. If his friends (and former friends) had reacted badly to his relationship with Sousuke, what would they think of the news that he now lived with him? That might be enough to sever the few friends he still had left in the Gotei 13 and could even ruin his reputation. But, did he really care about that anymore? Since his apartment building was on the opposite side of town, he would probably not be able to see his other friends as much. Then again, he wouldn't be reluctant to get a safe distance from Keigo and Ishida. But, there was Mizuiro, Inuoe and Chad. He didn't want to be isolated from them. After he voiced this to Sousuke, he simply said, "You would be free to visit them whenever you please. I would be glad to meet them too." No matter what he thought of, he couldn't really find something that could really prevent him from moving in,

What the heck, let's go for it, "Alright."


Sousuke's smile widened, "Excellent. I'll call Ulquiorra now."

Hirako didn't mind Ichigo's extended stay at all. He was very happy at this, in fact. Of course, Sousuke expected this; he could not think of any reason why Hirako would deny him. He was beginning to really appreciate his guardian's presence here now since he was sure that any other person would be at least hesistant about letting someone like Ichigo stay for an indeterminable amount of time for suspicious reasons. Sousuke almost called him 'Dad' over dinner as a way of thanks but decided against it when he remembered how much fun it was not to. The day passed pleasantly. With Gin's undivided attention upon Las Noches, the chances of him being called the office were significantly reduced so he could spend the whole day in the house with Ichigo. Ichigo, who clearly loved being in such a big house, adjusted well and was content to sit behind Sousuke, reading over his lecture notes, until the Las Noches work was done (and Sousuke completed his daily work much more quickly than usual). That evening, when they had all got bored of chatting in the drawing room, Hirako suggested that he tested Ichigo on his martial arts skills, "I bet you've grown

rusty over the years." He said, making Ichigo grin wickedly back, "In your dreams!" All the furniture was moved away and Sousuke settled himself on one of the shifted armchairs to watch. The pair of them stood still for a moment in combat positions, creating a pleasurable atmosphere of suspense. Then, Hirako leapt forward and Ichigo blocked just in time. Hirako was not so fortunate and he was soon staggering backwards from a kick to the hip. The man was so thin and lanky that Sousuke was surprised that the hit did not break a bone. There was surely not enough muscle to cushion it properly. Always, Sousuke kept his eyes on Ichigo and spoke encouragement to him in thought. The younger man certainly had not grown rusty over the years. His blows exceeded Hirako's and, within five minutes of furious fighting, Hirako fell to the floor with Ichigo's fist an inch away from his throat, "Submit?" "Alright, alright." Ichigo sportingly helped Hirako to his feet, who winced at some pain he must feel in his leg, "My God, you haven't got rusty." "I am inclined to think you have, Hirako-san." Sousuke's comment made his face contort with indignance in a way that never failed to be amusing, "Hey, I'm not as young as I used to be! My body isn't

doing what I want it to do anymore." "Really? No wonder you aren't married." Though Sousuke managed to keep a straight face, Ichigo had to stifle a snort of laughter. Every time Ichigo laughed at a joke Sousuke made, it gave him such a light, cheerful feeling that never possessed him if it was someone else laughing. Snarling furiously, Hirako stormed out of the room like a moody child, slamming the door behind him. Ichigo's eyes met Sousuke's and they let out the laughter they had been holding in all at once, "You like pissing him off, don't you?" "He becomes so amusing when he's angry. So, naturally, I infuriate him whenever I can." Sousuke stood, having noticed the sheen of sweat on Ichigo's forehead. In the lamplight, it made his flesh glow and shimmer in an almost otherworldly kind of way. His fanciful mind thought that this, accompanied with his vivid hair, made him look like a spirit of fire from some ancient mythology. The only other time Sousuke had seen him like that was after their intimate delights, And, speaking of which, it would not be right to abstain from indulging again now he's living with me, "Ah, you're covered in sweat, Ichigo. Come. Why don't you let me help you clean it off?" He added a suggestive little inflection to his speech as he said the last sentence that Ichigo noticed and understood at once. An

attractive blush spread over his cheeks and he stammered, "I-I can clean it off myself, thanks! Where's your bathroom?" The smile would not leave his face as he led Ichigo to the spacious bathroom upstairs. It was clear that he was just as impressed by this as he was by the rest of the house. Sousuke supposed it would be impressive to someone who had not seen it before with its immaculate tiles and ornate designs clashing spectacularly with the top-ofthe-range appliances dotted about the place. It was certainly a more impressive sight than the small, squashed bathroom in Ichigo's apartment. Still, that room had the feeling of being lived in, whereas this looked like something out of an interior designs catalogue. And, in Sousuke's opinion, not in a good way. Ichigo turned to Sousuke, snapping him out of his reverie, "Do you mind?" "Not in the slightest. Why?" "That means look away!" "Why?" Sousuke repeated, grinning, "Just look away!" "Alright, alright." Most reluctantly, Sousuke looked around. Irritating Ichigo was only funny for so long. He repressed the urge to peek over his shoulder as the

rustling of clothes being removed reached his ears. The memory of their activities that morning were clear in his mind, making him smile even more. He considered an encore but he already had plans of what to do with him that evening and they seemed more favourable than just doing the same thing again. When the shower curtain rings rattled, Sousuke finally looked around. He could only see the tantalising outline of Ichigo through the semi-transparent shower curtain. Even though he could see no detail, it gave him an opportunity to admire Ichigo's body shape. A body welltoned by years of combat training, shapely limbs that had been giving Hirako bruises a few minutes before; it was certainly getting him in the mood for their evening activities. Anticipating the moment when he would lay his hands all over that body made the seam of his trousers around his groin very strained indeed. Ichigo took less than five minutes to completely clean himself but he, most annoyingly, insisted that Sousuke looked away again, He clings to a prudish attitude even now. How endearing. Sousuke held out a spare dressing gown for him to wear and placed his clothes carefully into the washing basket like they were priceless heirlooms from some long gone era of history, "Where am I going to sleep?" Ichigo asked. A question that stunned Sousuke for a moment, Surely, it is obvious! "Where else but in my bed?"

His eyes widened, so Sousuke got a better view of their dark amber colour, "Your bed?" "Can you think of a reason why not? You have already slept in it once and I trust you found it to your liking." The same expression that had appeared when he had been considering whether to move into Sousuke's house came again. Ichigo's face could by no means cover his thoughts. Sousuke found it so easy to identify what the younger man was thinking. This fact comforted him; it meant that Ichigo could keep nothing from him, "Alright." He finally said, "Come along, then. I'm sure you'd like to unpack before we retire. Your bags have already been taken up." "You love talking in that old fashioned way, don't you?" "It's a habit of mine, picked up from the many old books I've read." Ichigo's bags had been deposited neatly in front of Sousuke's wardrobe, in a way that was clearly done by Ulquiorra rather than Hirako. Soon, their contents were emptied and placed rather clumsily in various parts of the room in a way that easily distinguished Ichigo's possessions from Sousuke's. The orange evening sunlight streamed in through the window, giving everything a warm glow that never came into his room at any other time. As he'd expected, Sousuke noticed that Ichigo's

already bright hair had taken on a whole new vibrant quality, Ah, I wish I had a camera. The artistic satisfaction he felt was immense, "Come here, Ichigo." Sousuke lounged lazily on the bed, beckoning him with a finger in the most lustful way he could. Ichigo just gave him a blank stare, "Are you serious? We did it this morning." "Oh, come now, Ichigo. Do you have any idea how tempting you are in that dressing gown?" "If you're going to perve on me, I'm taking this off!" "That would be very agreeable. Please do." Ichigo spluttered, like he had in the shower that morning, going red in a way that was made brighter by the sunset light, "You-you have got to be the most sneaky, arrogant person I've met!" "And, the most handsome and charming?" He chuckled at the sight of the younger man's struggle for an answer, "I'll take that as a yes." Ichigo's stricken face was just too amusing, "Now, come over here, Ichigo, so I can kiss you." After a pause, Ichigo finally cautiously approached him. Sousuke's fingers brushed his smaller hand and kissed the knuckles like a Western gentleman. It only took a gentle pull to bring his lips upon his. As their lips shifted around to find the perfect fit, Sousuke's hands carefully

moved around Ichigo's lean body to bring it on top of his. The weight didn't bother him; it was quite pleasant to have a warm body covering his. Or, nearly covering. Ichigo wasn't quite big enough to completely cover his broad chest. Before they broke apart, Sousuke had managed to move the dressing gown off his torso and was able to run his hands over the muscles he remembered from the morning. Muscles that were still nicely hot from the shower. Ichigo's former reluctance had fallen away and he was busy feeling around Sousuke's neck with his lips. Just as the older man was about to turn them over so he was in the dominant position, Ichigo held him back with another wicked-looking grin, "I'm in control this time. You talked me into this, I get to call the shots. That's fair." He said this with an almost childlike insistance that left no room for contradiction, Is Ichigo's purpose in life to be as endearing as possible? "Well, if you insist." So, Sousuke lay back and let Ichigo continue his attentions. It wasn't exactly what he had planned but he wasn't adverse to new experiences. He found it quite relaxing after a while and began thinking that he'd like to do this more often. Ichigo's hands were rough and calloused but endevoured to be as gentle as possible when carressing his lover's body. These fingers soon found his trousers and slowly, teasingly, pulled down the zip,

"You are a tease, Ichigo." Sousuke murmured, "Just shut up and keep still." Sousuke simply smirked and raised his legs to let Ichigo easily remove what remained of their clothing. When the dressing gown had fallen to the floor, Ichigo lowered his face to the older man's manhood and, before anything else could be said, he took the head into his mouth. Since it was so unexpected, Sousuke could not keep back a cry of surprised pleasure. When he'd recovered himself, he gasped, "Wh-what are you doing?" in a voice with more surprise in it that he'd intended, "I told you." Ichigo grinned, only vaguely visible, "I'm calling the shots here."

He surely can't mean what I think he means! Sousuke was about to say something when he could feel something warm and wet encircle his length, making him throw back his head in pleasure. Later, he had marvelled at how easily he had lost control but, at that present moment, he was just revelling in the new euphoria that Ichigo's ministrations were bringing. It was the only thing he could do not to swear when Ichigo took his whole length into his mouth, sending another jolt of pleasure through him.
It was common sense to think that Ichigo would be hesistant and nervous but he was a lot more confident than Sousuke had expected. It was quite a shock to see

him take to this carnal act so well when he had been so prudish before, Oh, he's a devil in disguise. Sousuke managed only this coherant thought before the pleasure built up and his release became increasingly imminant. When he could resist it no longer, a giddy wave of ecstacy crashed over him as he came into Ichigo's mouth. As he slowly returned to his senses, he could hear the faint sound of coughing and, looking down, he saw Ichigo with his hand over his mouth. When his name was called, the younger man looked up and seemed quite alright, "I'm fine, I'm fine." He insisted, "Tasted better than I thought it would, actually." He said in such a nonchalant way that Sousuke blinked and stared at him,

Is that how I talk to him? Just then, he was distracted by Ichigo fumbled in his bedside cupboard. It took him a little while to realise what he was looking for, "Second drawer down." Ichigo finally found the lube, "Ah, thank you very much." Sousuke reached out for it, only to have it pulled back away from him,
"Not this time." An evil-looking grin appeared on Ichigo's face, "I'm using it now." With that, he squirted some onto his fingers and began pushing up Sousuke's legs, "You're not going to do what I think you're going to do, are you?" "Maybe." With that, he pushed a lube-coated finger into Sousuke's entrance.

Only just managing not to wince, the older man groaned, "I never should have let you meet Grimmjow. He's clearly a bad influence on you." The only answer was a particularly harsh push of the finger, making Sousuke wince, "Could you be a bit more gentle, please?" Ichigo was obligingly gentler and, soon, another finger was added. These fingers delved deeper than before in a rather uncomfortable way and were feeling around for something instead of pulling out. Sousuke was about to tell him to stop it when they finally struck a little bundle of nerves that made his back arch and a highly uncharacteristic shriek escape his lips, "Whoa." Ichigo stared at his handiwork, "Didn't think you'd react like that." "Neither...did I..." Sousuke panted, trying to get a hold of himself. Ichigo did not let him have such an opportunity since his fingers were pushing out and in again, striking his prostate every time and renewing Sousuke's euphoria. He barely noticed the third finger being added for, by that time, he was completely insensible to anything except the pleasure coursing relentlessly through him. Then, without warning, it was stopped. Ichigo had pulled his fingers out and was applying the lube to his length. Sousuke would have seized him and turned them over so that he was on top if he'd had enough sense in him. Another thing that was preventing him from doing this was a carnal, animalistic desire to be filled the like of

which he'd never felt before. What did it matter how it was done? He only had time to vaguely wonder if this was how Ichigo felt just before Sousuke filled him before Ichigo began to position his manhood at Sousuke's open entrance, "You ready?" He asked, "Yes." Was all Sousuke could pant out, barely registering the question. Ichigo's hands were laid upon his boyfriend's shoulders and he began to slowly move his hips forward. Sousuke had to clench his teeth to stop the cry of pain escaping him. All that came out was a pained hiss. In retrospect, however, it wasn't as painful as it could have been. Ichigo was slower than necessary and he had used a lot of lube. It didn't stop Sousuke's fists clenching the sheets beneath him and his breath coming in sharp gasps. Ichigo finally stopped, letting Sousuke have a chance to catch his breath, Good heavens, did Ichigo hurt this much when I had finishing filling him? Sensing his distress, Ichigo leaned forward and kissed him with a lover's tenderness. Relaxing into those lips (that were much fuller than they looked from a distance), Sousuke reached up and wrapped his arms around the lean body above him, "You okay?" Ichigo whispered in his ear, when they broke apart, "Fine." Sousuke felt that he'd got used to the pain

somewhat, "You're doing quite well considering this is your first time as a dominant." "Yeah. And, I guess this is your first time as a submissive, huh?" "Yes. It's, ah, rather strange, I must say." The younger man responded by carefully sliding out of him and, when only the head remained inside, he turned a wicked grin to the man below him, "Sousuke, brace yourself." And, he shoved back in. The pain was shortlived, to be replaced by a much harder hit on his prostate that invoked a much more potent strike of pleasure. Again and again, it was struck and the sounds Sousuke could not choose but make were so primitive that anyone listening would surely not be sure whether it was his voice or not. Ichigo lowered his head and kissed Sousuke's body like Sousuke would do to Ichigo, though he was nice enough not to give him any lovebites. A steady beat of thrusts was established, each carefully aimed to strike the right place. Sousuke could not hold onto his cool, unshakeable manner anymore and it was useless to try. He should have made some witty comment about how good Ichigo was but his moans could not be pieced into word-like syllables. Finally, the pleasure built in him again until it was too much to take. He at once sympathesised with Ichigo, who could never get a sentence together when he was in the

middle of their intimacy. His mind was too attentive on these wonderful feelings to give any brainpower towards warning his lover. At last, even he could not hold it in any longer and he came all over their chests. Ichigo only lasted another thrust before he too emptied himself inside Sousuke's passage. Sousuke only faintly felt Ichigo collapse upon his chest. He just lay there, panting and trying to regain the power of speech. He could not believe how out of control he had just been since he had imagined that his mind could surely stand being penetrated. Ichigo recovered first, grinning that wicked grin again, "I guess you could say we're even now." "Hmm?" His jumbled mind could not think of a reason why he would say that, "Well, you got the idea to fuck me in the shower from someone I know. I got the idea to fuck you from someone you know. We're even." For no real reason, Sousuke found himself laughing, "You're despicable." "And, you love it." Was the last thing Ichigo said before he settled down on his lover's chest. The last thing Sousuke thought before he too drifted off was, I hope Gin doesn't visit tomorrow. He'll surely see the signs of what we did! A/N: There you go! The first time (I think!) in an

AizenIchi fic where Aizen was the uke! I hope I did it convincingly. I'm not too sure... The sound of birdsong greeted Ichigo again but, this time, he knew he had nothing to fear. He was meant to be here. As nice as the sound was compared with his irritating alarm clock, he wished the birds would turn their clocks back a few hours early so that he could stay lying on Sousuke's chest for a bit longer. Presently, he felt the body beneath him shift a little and long fingers slide into his hair, stroking it lazily like one would to a spoiled housecat. "This is how we should have woken that night after the party." Sousuke's deep murmur was not at all intrusive and made Ichigo barely emerge from his state of halfsleep, "I see you have learned not to run away from me." "You would have probably called security on me when you found out I was a gatecrasher." Ichigo pointed out, "Is that what you thought? On the contrary, I would have presented you to Hirako and drew his attention to the fact that it was someone he did not invite that made me happy. Ah, think of the look on his face." The mental image of Hirako's face twisted with indignation and fury made Ichigo chuckle until Sousuke spoke again, "I am grateful that your friends forced you to intrude, you know. At that time, I had my mind on many unpleasant

things and my spirits were low. That gathering was forced on me and it was the last thing I wanted. I did not even have the will to greet any of the guests or taunt Hirako but stayed in the drawing room with my tea set, wallowing in my melancholy. Then, you came and caught my eye. You struck me as someone who might distract me from my gloom. And, you managed that and more magnificently." "Why were you so depressed?" Ichigo asked, shaking himself out of his sleepiness and looking up with interest. Sousuke did not meet his eyes but looked up to the ceiling, "Like I said, I was thinking about many unpleasant things. Many of which cannot be helped. I had no right to dwell upon them and should have moved away from them by then." Ichigo had the distinct impression that Sousuke was trying to stay away from the subject and that any further attempt to get an answer from him would come to nothing. So, Ichigo simply laid his head back on his chest and, after a while, he could feel Sousuke bend his head forward to kiss his lover's hair, "Still, that's all behind me now. Mostly thanks to you." Ichigo only smiled and closed his eyes lazily as his hair was stroked again. He really was beginning to feel like a favourite cat; he half-expected Sousuke to begin

scratching behind his ears. In the silence, Sousuke went on, "You know, last night made me think that our personalities are rubbing off on each other." "You think so?" "Yes. You've became quite the devil last night, saying that you wanted to get even with me. Just like I did last month." "Yeah. I got the idea from you." The conversation wasn't accusing or unpleasant since they were both far too lethargic for that. It was more like an exchange of affectionate teasing with no malice intended from either side, "Hmm. And, you are rubbing off on me, too. As of late, I have become rather more, shall we say, reckless. I am normally a very cautious person and, two months ago, I would say my gravest fault was the tendency to overassess things and the desire to have everything under my control. Now, I have become less inclined to assess every possibility and more willing to throw caution to the winds." He then took hold of Ichigo's shoulders and, with a devilish smirk that suited him so well, rolled them over so he was on top of Ichigo, "Taking risks can become very addictive. Rather like you."

With that, he lowered his face and captured Ichigo's lips. Moaning appreciatively, Ichigo raised his arms and pulled his boyfriend closer. Though being on top for a night was an interesting experience (and, a less painful one), Sousuke was more suited to that role. Ichigo knew he must have made a few mistakes and it felt strange to dominate someone older and larger than himself. Since he was small, it had been against his nature to let anyone dominate him but, in Sousuke's case, that nature weakened. It felt right to let Sousuke take a bit of controlThen, a loud bang split the silence and Hirako's moreannoying-than-usual voice called, "Wakey, wakey, lovebirds!" The pair in bed leapt apart and stared at Hirako, who bounded through the door with great gusto and pulled the curtains open, allowing intrusive sunlight to hurt their eyes eyes, "Can't you see what we're doing, here?" Ichigo snarled, "Oh, I know what you guys are doing!" Hirako flashed a shark-like grin at him more dazzling than the daylight, "Just one look at you tells me what you were doing! That itch well scratched, eh?" "Hirako-san," Sousuke groaned, "for the sake of courtesy, don't you think it prudent to let Ichigo sleep for as long as he likes?"

"Not in the slightest!" Hirako replied, looking digustingly cheerful. Ichigo turned his face back to Sousuke's chest, Urgh, if he gets any more like my dad, he's going to start attacking me. That was something Ichigo definitely didn't want first thing in the morning, "C'mon! C'mon! Up, up, up!" He actually began nudging them out of bed. In response to this, Sousuke turned the both of them over so his back was facing Hirako and the window, thus providing Ichigo with shade and protecting him from the blows. A rush of affection towards his boyfriend came over Ichigo at that very moment, "Okay." Hirako stopped trying to push them Sousuke off the bed (and nearly crush Ichigo in the process), "I'll make you a deal, Sousuke. You call me Dad and I'll let you both sleep in." Ichigo silently prayed that, for once, Sousuke would swallow his pride and do it. Of course, in Sousuke's case, asking him to swallow his pride was a bit too much to ask and, sure enough, "Well, Ichigo, I think we have slept enough. I'd rather like some breakfast right now, Hirakosan." Hirako took that defeat rather well and simply walked out of the room with a grin still on his face. When the door closed, Ichigo turned angrily to his boyfriend, who was looking unmistakebly disappointed, "What's up with you?" "I believe I have just been outsmarted by Hirako-san."

"Well," Ichigo shrugged, his anger disappearing as soon as it had come, "it was a lose-lose situation." "Either way, you won't tell anyone else, will you?" Ichigo shook his head and Sousuke slid out of bed. As soon as he stood, he winced and Ichigo knew exactly why, "That wears off around noon. You might want an ice pack." "I'd rather not. My pride has been damaged enough already. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going for a shower." The lack of insinuations meant that Sousuke was in a bad mood so Ichigo let him go. Once he was gone, Ichigo got out of bed and strolled over to his wardrobe, revelling in the fact that he could walk without pain after the night's activities. He soon found his clothes where he'd put them. They were now suitably untidy, which was a stark contrast to their state when they were in Ichigo's bags. They had been folded with an almost obsessive neatness that suited Ulquiorra perfectly. Just as he was in the process of pulling on his trousers, he bashed his foot against a low cupboard. He hopped about on one foot, swearing loudly, and, when the pain had ebbed away, he noticed that the cupboard had come open when he had bashed it. He took a peak inside, hoping he hadn't broken anything. What he found was a memorial with a picture of a woman that would be identical to Rukia if she had not had such a gentle expression on her face. Rukia could never be described as gentle.

It took a moment to realise who this must be, Hisana. Ichigo had never met Hisana and all he knew about her was from Rukia and his dad. Now that he saw her face, he was awed by how similiar she was to her little sister, Man, they could be twins! After a quick check around and finding that nothing was damaged, he closed the doors and pulled on the rest of his clothes. Though he hated people who ranted on about omens and superstitions, a small part of him thought it was a very bad sign indeed to hurt himself on the memorial of his boyfriend's ex, That's stupid. He told himself, It was an accident. There's no such thing as bad omens. Still, it felt disrespectful and he was only glad that nothing had been broken by his clumsiness. As he sat on the bed and waited for Sousuke, he found himself staring at the rather unimpressive-looking cupboard that held the memorial, What's Sousuke doing with a memorial of a woman he dumped? He remembered his dad telling him how Sousuke had paid all her hospital bills and attempted to save her life by doing that before she died, Maybe, he blames himself. I know I would. This thought made him feel a bit better about his boyfriend. At least, he wasn't completely heartless towards his previous girlfriends and Ichigo was sure that Sousuke would never have pushed Hisana off that building. Sousuke returned, looking immaculate as usual and with no trace of a limp, "Painkillers do work, it would seem."

He explained, when Ichigo gave him a questioning look, "Ugh, why didn't I think of that?" Ichigo groaned, "Because you had your mind on other things, I hope." He reached out and began playing with Ichigo's jacket, "Like, marvelling at how you managed to capture the attention of someone like me?" "Stop it." Ichigo moaned, half-heartedly, as Sousuke's lips reached his neck, "You really are full of yourself, you know that?" "I know I have plenty to be proud of. It would be foolish and ungrateful not to acknowledge them, wouldn't you agree?" Sousuke's lips made their way around his neck as he slowly lowered his body onto Ichigo's lap. In a moment, Ichigo was gently pushed down onto the bed and their lips were locked together again. Sousuke's lips were as wide as his, making them a perfect fit. He only vaguely realised this as the kissing trance was settling in again"Oi!" The both of them jumped apart again. Hirako was at the door, looking more serious than before, "Playtime's over. Tousen's just arrived and he wants a word with you, Sousuke." "Not again." Ichigo groaned, as Hirako left the room, "My sentiments exactly." Sousuke replied, standing up in a resigned kind of way. A distant doorbell rang, making him sigh, "We might as well get it over with quickly. I

doubt it's going to be anything important." By the time they reached the hall, Tousen, Hisagi and Sajin were already there, "There is trouble, Aizen-sama." Tousen began speaking as soon as they had left the stairs, "Last night, Gotei 13 workers were caught breaking into a Las Noches building." "What?" Ichigo burst out, making Sajin growl lowly. Grimmjow's bandaged arm came to mind, making Ichigo back away a few steps, "Have you gathered a motive?" Sousuke asked, with more composure than Ichigo could ever manage, "Another attempt to find out who among the Gotei 13 are still working for you. Though they were caught, they discovered that I work for you, Aizen-sama." "Oh, no. Don't tell me they fired you as well." Hirako groaned, poking his head around the kitchen door, "I am as good as dismissed now but that is not all my news. The Gotei 13 intervened before any charges could be formally pressed and the intruders were not punished." Sousuke frowned but said nothing, allowing Tousen to go on, while Ichigo stood there, amazed that the Gotei 13 could do something so underhanded and criminal-like, "The Las Noches employees are worried and security is being doubled as we speak. Aizen-sama, your presence is needed. This feud between the corporations has gone on long enough and the Gotei 13 are out of

order." "Indeed." Sousuke nodded, gravely, "They seem determined to drive me to take legal action against them. I'm sorry, Ichigo." He leaned down and kissed Ichigo's cheek, "Looks like I'll have to be out today. I'll return as soon as I can." "Don't go easy on them." Ichigo called after him, as Tousen, Hisagi, Sajin and Sousuke left. Before the latter closed the door, he turned back and added, "Make sure Hirako-san doesn't burn the house down!" "Hey!" Sousuke's snigger could be heard as the door closed. Hirako and Ichigo were now alone in the hall, except for the faint smell of cooking wafting from the kitchen. The silence was broken by Hirako groaning, "The Gotei 13 are just getting worse by the day. It makes me kinda glad that I left when I did." "You were in the Gotei 13?" "C'mere. I'll tell you over breakfast. I just hope Sousuke manages to grab something before he starts work. It's not good to miss breakfast." When Ichigo sat down and helped himself to toast, Hirako began, "The martial arts teaching was kind of a sideline. I used to be the captain of the Fifth Division, believe it or not. When Sousuke was eighteen, I took him

on as my fukutaichou." "Eighteen?" Ichigo repeated. He hadn't even been thinking of getting a job when he was that age, "Yeah. Back then, the Gotei 13 were a bit less fussy about who they employed. If you were of age, you took a course and an exam to see if you were fit and, if you passed, you were in. I heard a couple of unconfirmed rumours that they took on little kids back then. I know, nowadays, you need a degree before you can get in or something. Is that right?" "Yeah. Because of some trouble caused by teenagers or something." "Well, it doesn't matter. Anyway, Sousuke became my fukutaichou and, a few months later, Gin came along to take the Third Seat. A year after that, me and a few others got together and decided that we were getting a bit sick of the Gotei 13 for one reason or another. Lousy pay, incompetant workers, the usual reasons. For me, it was because of the soutaichou's attitude. You know how much of an old fart he is. There were about seven of us: five captains and two lieutanents. We also had a guy from the Kido Corperation. You know what that is, don't you? "For a while, we just griped about our troubles outside work and never thought of leaving. We had to hang onto our jobs, after all. Anyway, I was on the phone to Hiyori and Sousuke overheard me. When I hung up, he came up

to me and said 'why don't you leave the Gotei 13 and make your own corporation'." "And, you did that?" "Well, it took a bit of persuasion from Sousuke and a few others to say yes. So, we handed in our leaving papers and created Vizard Inc." He said the name with a great sweep of his hand like he was showing Ichigo the prize exhibit in an art gallery, "Uh...I've never heard of it." Ichigo admitted, rather irritated by Hirako's enthusiasm, "Ehh!" Hirako's grin vanished abruptly and a look of utter shock came across his face as though Ichigo had said something very offensive, "What do you mean, you haven't heard of it?" "Sorry. I don't read much about big businesses." "Well," Hirako relented a little, "I guess you wouldn't even if you did. Vizards Inc isn't really that big compared to the Gotei 13 and they try to outdo us in every way. It's hard work, making your own business, you know. The Gotei 13 are always competing with us and we often can't get a look-in." "Were they as paranoid about connections to you as they are about Las Noches now?" Hirako grimaced, clearly remembering something he'd rather forget, "Were they ever! And, you know the

weirdest thing? Sousuke wasn't suspected in the slightest, even though he was the one who gave me the idea. That's how good he was with the Gotei 13 back then. It was old Urahara who got the blame, along with the head of the Kido Corporation, Tessai. Urahara was kicked out and Tessai was put under so much pressure that he was forced to resign." "Urahara? He used to work for them too?" "Yeah. He was the old Twelfth Division captain, poor guy. He wasn't even involved that much and liked the Gotei 13. Anyway, how do you know him? You sounded like you've met him before." "He let us rent a summer house a few weeks ago. Perverted weirdo, if you ask me." "Well, I guess some things never change. And, let me tell you the weirdest thing about this whole story: Sousuke got my captain's position just a few weeks afterwards. You'd think he'd suggested it to me just so he could steal my old job!" Ichigo chuckled with him, since that sounded like something a sneaky bastard like Sousuke would do. Once they had finished laughing, Hirako went on, "I suppose I shouldn't complain, though. We can all make ends meet, even though the company's kinda small. I just got to thinking the other day, since the Gotei 13 probably won't take you because of Sousuke, that why don't you

come and work for us when you finish university?" Ichigo blinked in surprise. He hadn't given much thought to his work prospects; his relationship with Sousuke had driven it clean out of his mind. His first thought was that Hirako was right about the Gotei 13 not wanting him. Then again, he wasn't really inclined to try for a job there anymore. Ichigo had only thought of joining the Gotei 13 because all his friends were there and one of the easier ways to find work. Ichigo questioned Hirako about Vizards Inc. and Hirako was only too happy to tell him all about it with a gusto that he'd only ever seen with salesmen. So much so that Ichigo got the distinct feeling that Hirako had decided a while ago that he wanted Ichigo to work there. Sousuke returned after lunchtime and Ichigo was shocked to see him limping a bit so even Hirako noticed, "What's up, Sousuke? Hit your leg on something?" "Yes." Sousuke managed to lie perfectly and, when Hirako left the room, he shot a glare at Ichigo, "You lied about it lasting until noon." Ichigo gulped, feeling nervous sweat upon his forehead and suddenly being unable to look Sousuke in the eye, "Sorry. I guess I was a bit...rough." "Gin noticed." Another jolt of embarrassment gripped him because he

knew what this meant to Sousuke, "Oh, ah...sorry." "Thankfully," Sousuke relented a little, "only he noticed and everyone else thought the same thing as Hirako. Still," The slightest hint of a scowl appeared on his face, "Gin kept asking me about it whenever he was alone with me until I ordered him to stop." "Uh..." Ichigo cast around for something to say, before his mind lighted upon something, "...why was Gin at work? I thought he would be helping Kira move in." "That's what I suggested to him after the first insinuation. He did tell me that Kira finishing moving his possessions to Gin's house yesterday and he's settling in now." Sousuke seemed a bit happier, now that they were away from the tense subject, "Gin also says that he plans to propose to Kira at some point." "Huh?" Ichigo blinked in surprise. The image of Gin being romantic was completely alien to him, "Yes. Gin intends to make Kira his husband so that he does not have to worry about finding work and be fully dependent on his lover." Ichigo wasn't sure whether this was a selfless reason or not, "Anyway, I'm sure you're wondering about the intruders from this morning?" "Yeah." Curiousity materialised in his brain as soon as

Sousuke had said it, "Who were they?" As the conversation went on, Ichigo discovered that it had been people from the Sixth Division and they may have been acting on Byakuya's orders, although there was no proof. If he wasn't irritated at the Sixth Division captain before, he certainly was now. Though he didn't voice it aloud, his mind raged at Byakuya's ridiculous vendetta. Why did he have to pursue this grudge against Sousuke because of Hisana now, after all these years? What right did he have to keep persecuting him, when it was clear that Sousuke was sorry about it? Ichigo's thoughts remained with plans to knock some sense into Byakuya remained long after the conversation had ended, while he was scanning his university notes while Sousuke worked on his laptop again.

Though Ichigo still marvelled at the splendour of the house, he was beginning to realise why Sousuke disliked the place after his first full day there. Everything looked too old-fashioned and, though it looked magnificent in daylight, it took on a rather creepy quality at night. The old lamps threw the carvings on the wall into sharp relief and cast weird shadows on the portraits. If they flickered, it made them look like some of the animals or people were moving and Ichigo sometimes had to do a double take to make sure they weren't.

It became increasingly difficult not to be superstitious in that house. The fact that it was so old put fantasies about the haunted houses from the films his family liked to watch in his mind. However, everything was well-cared for with no cobwebs and decay, which made it look like a preserved manor open to tourists in Western countries. Definitely not something to be lived in. Ichigo had been able to throw the crockery around when he was angry but, when he was in a better mood, the old fear of damaging something very expensive came into him, almost making him scared to go too close to the ornaments around the house. Sousuke's presence made it bearable, since he did a wonderful job of distracting Ichigo from his surroundings, but Ichigo still couldn't help but feel that he didn't belong here. The house's splendour seemed to mock him, constantly telling him that this belonged to a weathly and prosperous person and not a penniless, scruffy university student. Still, Ichigo ignored these thoughts. They were stupid, after all. It was just a house and couldn't speak to him, no matter what the movies tried to tell him. Still, he could not relinquish an irrational dislike of being in the place for a long time unless he was in bed with Sousuke. Despite dark predictions from the weather forecast, every day dawned bright and cloudless, making the house

look less unnerving so Ichigo felt more comfortable with a bit of exploring. Hirako took it upon himself to Ichigo's personal tour guide while Sousuke was working, telling him the history of every ancient object in the house with Ichigo only half-listening. What Hirako didn't show him was the most intriguing, though. On his third day of living there, Sousuke finished work early and took him into the pantry. There, he showed him a secret passage, the entrance of which was hidden in a corner concealed by a heavy rug. According to Sousuke, his grandfather had found it after it had been abandoned for nearly a century and had it repaired so it was safe for use, "What did he use it for?" Ichigo asked, "I have no idea. But, I am inclined to think that he used it to defy doctor's orders to stay in his room and rest. I myself used this passage for rebellious purposes myself when I was a teenager and after that." "Is everyone in your family a sneaky bastard?" "That may be. Why else would my ancestors build something like this and keep it such a well-guarded secret? Even Hirako doesn't know about this. It's much more amusing to see him confused and raging when I have disappeared without his knowledge." He pulled the heavy-looking trapdoor open, revealing a low passage below. Ichigo guessed that he would just be able to stand up in it, while Sousuke would have to crouch

down a little. Sousuke went first and held out his arms to help Ichigo down. A flick of a switch later and the long, straight passage was lit by cheap neon-white lights lining the plain metal walls that clashed very spectacularly with the old grandeur above it. As Sousuke was closing the door, he said, offhandly, "My grandfather didn't think it was worth spending a lot of money on it with needless decoration. It wasn't as if we were going to hold any parties or bring any people we wanted to impress down here, after all." Ichigo still found its very presence amazing. Sousuke led him down the small path, their feet clanking on the metal floor. There was no real need to; it was completely straight so he could see the door on the other side the whole time and it was only a short passage, which Ichigo was rather thankful for. Though it wasn't the dank, torch-lit, winding passage he'd expected it to be, Ichigo still found the place rather claustrophobic and the neon lights hurt his eyes after a while. When Sousuke opened the other door and pulled him out of the passage, they were just outside the walls of the house and on the edge of the forest. The door was hidden by a clump of bushes that looked very innocuous to someone who didn't know the passage was there. As Sousuke covered the trapdoor, Ichigo stared up at the house again, "Seriously, how old is this place?" He asked, after a long pause,

"I believe it was built a few centuries ago by Western immigrants. There are a few houses like this dotted around the country and most of them are owned by the descendents of the ones that built them. My family bought this one from them before they were forced out of the country." "And, did your family have anything to do with them being forced out of the country?" Ichigo asked in a mockinnocent voice. They exchanged a knowing smile and a chuckle, "They might have." They began to walk around the walls towards a rough footpath that led up the hill marked by a signpost so covered with ivy that the inscription on the wood was completely hidden, "From what I hear, they were quite fascinated by the architecture and that was what made them want to possess it. They were also fascinated in the Western ghost stories that involved big manor houses like this. For my part, ghost stories aren't to my taste at all." "I don't like them either." Ichigo nodded, "My family loves them, though. They always forced me to watch Don Kanonji and all that crap." "Hirako has a bizarre liking for him too." They reached the path and Sousuke went on ahead, pushing back the serveral bushes that hung in their path, "I can never understand why. I personally find Kanonji's methods of glorifying the dead most distasteful."

"Yeah. I hate that 'spirits are always with you' crap." Their conversation was mostly about how bad Don Kanonji was as they climbed up the footpath, careful not to slip on the steeper parts. Finally, they reached the top, from which they could see the whole city spread out in the afternoon sun. Wiping his forehead, Ichigo leaned against a tree, panting. He was not used to climbing hills since he had always lived on flat streets. Sousuke, however, was obviously used to it since he didn't show any outward sign of strain. Just as Ichigo got his breath back, he heard the distant sound of Hirako's voice from the house, "Sousuke! Ichigo! Where are you?" The pair of them couldn't help but snigger at how exasperated Hirako sounded, "Oh, this is like being a teenager again. I love it!" Sousuke smiled widely as the sight of Hirako going out into the garden to search for them. Their mirth escalated when Hirako began stamping his foot with fury and screaming, "Where the fuck are those two? Hey! Sousuke! I know you can hear me, wherever you are! Don't you think about doing your little running away trick again! You're twenty-seven, for fuck's sake! Isn't this getting old now?" "It doesn't matter how old I get." Sousuke said, smiling widely, "It's still funny." He beckoned Ichigo away from

the house and they began walking through the trees. Ichigo lagged behind a bit, listening to Hirako's fading screams. Even though it had been funny to start off with, he began thinking that Sousuke was perhaps pushing this a bit too far, "You really like making Hirako suffer, don't you? What did he ever do to you?" "It's not what he did, so to speak." Since he was so close to him, Ichigo could see Sousuke's face tighten ever so slightly around the eyes, marring his usual relaxed smile, "It's his presence here that annoys me." "What does he do in your house, anyway?" It suddenly struck Ichigo that he didn't know what role Hirako played in Sousuke's home. He had his own room so Ichigo knew he wasn't a frequent visitor like Gin, "Is he your housekeeper or something?" "It would be much easier if he was. He's actually the legal owner of this house and my guardian." Ichigo blinked in surprise, though he really should have realised it before. He supposed that he'd thought Hirako's demands to be called 'Dad' were a joke up until now, "So," Ichigo tried to say this as tactfully as possible, "your parents are dead?" "My mother is, yes." He said this remarkably casually, as though he was commenting about the weather, "My father, on the other hand, decided he did not want to continue his parenthood career so he resigned when I was

seventeen." Ichigo stood there, speechless. The way he talked made it sound as though his father had done nothing but left a worthless job and certainly not like he'd done something as terrible as abandon his own son. Sousuke went on, in the same impossible casual tone, "My grandparents took this rather personally and completely wrote my father out of their Will. Therefore, the house was left to Hirako since he was their good friend and thought he was the best person for it. I must admit, they were right. He is a good man of business and knows how to handle finances. Certainly saves me a job. However, he seemed to have got it into his head that I was also bequeathed to him so it's my duty to correct him whenever he tries to enforce this." "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Ichigo raised his hands to silence him. His thoughts were whirling too much to take in any new information, "You're saying your dad just walked out on you?" "That's the general gist of it, yes." Sousuke nodded, still incredibly unruffled, "Oh, don't be so astonished, Ichigo. The matter was settled long ago and there is nothing else to be done so there's no point discussing it further. Now," He was behind Ichigo in one step and placed his hands on the younger man's shoulders, "there's something I want to ask you, Ichigo. What made you suddenly decide to be in the dominant position a few

nights ago? Other than getting ideas from Grimmjow?" "I dunno." This question surprised him but, after a bit more thought, he said, "I suppose...it's because I was thinking about what Shiro said to me before I came here." "What did he say?" "Well...he made fun of me for being on the bottom. He called me a slut and thought you were paying me to have sex with you." The hands on his shoulders tightened and he could feel Sousuke's lips close to his ear, "You shouldn't let petty taunts like that get to you. Like I believe you said before, this Shiro constantly makes it his mission to make you miserable." "I know." Ichigo nodded, looking down, "He just really knows how to get under my skin. He always gets to me, no matter how much I try to ignore him." It was by looking down that he noticed something. The hill was steeper here, almost completely vertical so it looked like a small cliff. It wasn't high like a sea cliff but he could tell that, if he fell off the edge, the fall would shatter his legs at the very least. Maybe, permanently. Sousuke's hands were resting lightly on his shoulders and his lips brushed against his hair. If those arms suddenly straightened, Ichigo would go straight over the edge with no hope of regaining his balance. Suddenly, the drop

looked so much higher; high enough to kill him, in fact. His heart pounded in his chest as the seconds went by and the image of Hisana's memorial burst into his head. His mind constructed the image of her broken body, a body identical to Rukia's but with the limbs sticking out at odd angles and a blood of blood swelling around it. As that image burning more and more vivadly before his eyes, he flung himself from the edge and away from Sousuke in a moment of pure panic. That moment passed as quickly as it had come and he found himself leaning against a tree, panting and dripping in cold sweat, "What's the matter?" Sousuke was in front of him in an instant, gripping his shoulders like he was about to shake him, "You look like you've seen a ghost. Do you have acrophobia?" "Uh, yeah, yeah." Ichigo nodded, grasping an excuse again (even though he didn't know what 'acrophobia' meant), "I've got it really bad. I'm sorry." "No, Ichigo." Sousuke's hands relaxed their grip and slowly slinked around his waist to pull the younger man closer, "It is I that should be sorry. I have clearly scared you so you cannot tell me me the truth." Ichigo gasped. He should have known Sousuke would not buy it but it was still a shock to be exposed as a liar. He buried his face in Sousuke's shoulder, I won't look at his face. I can't look him in the face,

"You need not look me in the face." It wasn't the first time that Ichigo thought he could read minds, "I know that you are hiding your knowledge about my past from me." "H-how d'you know-" "It wasn't hard to guess. You know, you are a terrible liar, Ichigo. Your face completely betrays you. I've known about your doubts for days now. The only reason that I did not say anything was because it's not something I like to talk about and I thought your doubts would pass with time." Of course, he knew. Why did Ichigo ever think that he could lie to the man? The arms around him tightened slightly, bringing him closer, "I overwhelm you, don't I?" It wasn't a questionn but a statement, "Your defiance is muted around me, which allows you to endure being dominated." Ichigo just gave a small nod, hoping that Sousuke couldn't feel the heat coming off his face from all the blushing. It was all true; Ichigo knew it. A part of him had always been scared of Sousuke. Sousuke was powerful, haughty and always got his own way. Thinking back, Ichigo realised how many times he'd allowed Sousuke to have his own way without complaining as much as he ought to have done. Like, when they'd had sex in the shower for example. But, A voice in his head

reasoned, You got distracted by Kira getting fired and you got even with him a few nights ago. Sousuke's hands lifted and stroked his hair affectionately, "It's alright, though. I'm not so silly to take every dishonesty like a personal insult. I know I have not been completely honest with you on a few occasions. But, I do make a point to be more honest with you than anyone else." The fingers trailed down, playing with the locks at the nape of Ichigo's neck, "Would talking about your doubts make me less frightening to you?" "You're not frightening." Ichigo said, shaking his head, "I just didn't think you'd want to talk about it." "I don't." Sousuke agreed, "But, it's clearly bothering you so I must confront it." With Ichigo still in his arms, he lowered himself down so his back was against a tree and Ichigo was sitting on his lap, "Did you hear it from your Gotei 13 friends?" "No. I got it from my dad." "Ah, good. Then, you may have received a less exaggerated version. Now, just a moment ago, you were thinking of Hisana's injury, yes?" "Yeah." Ichigo could feel himself flushing again, "I was terribly grieved by it. I loved Hisana and was intent on making her my bride before it happened." He gave a heavy sigh and ran a hand through his hair, "I

don't know what exactly happened. She told me that she threw herself off the building because she didn't want to be in a relationship with me anymore." Ichigo looked up, frowning, "I heard that you broke up with her and that made her want to commit suicide." Sousuke's face tightened more than ever, "That's a lie. It was Hisana who refused to see me after the incident. The day before, she told me that she never wanted to be apart from me and, then, when she's at the hospital, she told me to leave her at once. I don't even know why she wanted me gone." More emotion than ever was on Sousuke's face. He looked like he was doing all he could to hold back tears. Ichigo wrapped his arms around his neck in an effort to comfort him. not really knowing what else he could do. He was not very good at comforting people and the last person he tried to comfort ended up having a nervous breakdown, "I loved her, Ichigo. Even though she rejected me, I paid the hospital bills as penance for whatever I had done and pleaded with her to change her mind but, still, she would have none of me." His hands clenched into his hair, ruining the immaculate style, "I still don't know why and I probably never will." Ichigo wanted to say something to contradict this but he couldn't think of anything. His mind was still whirling

from the new revelations before him and the new mystery. If there had been nothing wrong with their relationship before, then what would make Hisana do such a thing? He knew from the many stories about her that she was sweet, gentle and loving; certainly not the kind to throw herself off buildings and break up with her loving boyfriend for no apparent reason, "Maybe, she was scared into it." Ichigo theorised aloud, without really meaning to, "Ichigo," Sousuke cut across his musing with a stern voice, "there is no point thinking about things that can't be helped. There is no more to be said on this matter. I have talked more than enough on the subject and this is the last time I will discuss this. Is that understood?" "Alright." Ichigo nodded. After a small pause, Sousuke tilted the younger man's face up and kissed him gently, "I suppose you know what they call me when they think I'm not listening." "Yeah," Ichigo nodded, entranced again, "Lovelock." "Indeed. They intended to imply that I could not love. That every bit of it was gone. However, I would like to use that nickname against their allegations. You see, in my mind, 'lock' implies that there is love still within me. Locked away, waiting for the key that fits." "I think I know where this is going." Ichigo smirked, "If

you're going to talk about me being the key, don't bother." Sousuke made a sound that was somewhere between an exasperated sigh and a chuckle, "You are incredibly unromantic, you know." "I don't like all that mushy stuff." Ichigo shrugged, "I can see that. You are a man of action, not words. Which is why I don't expect you to tell me how much you love me." "Nah." Ichigo smirked, "I'd just kiss you until you suffocate." "Hmm, that sounds like a challenge." A devilish look appeared on Sousuke's face that made it look so much more (there was no other word for it) sexy. With a single, fluid movement, he lunged playfully at Ichigo, "Come here, you!" Soon, they were rolling about on the grass, lips locked and limbs tangling around their bodies in a carnal frenzy. All rational thoughts and sensibilities had gone from their hands as soon as Ichigo's back had touched the ground. And, it was probably the same for Sousuke too. When Sousuke's hand shot up his shirt, it looked like they were certainly going to be intimate there and then, if not for the loud voice making them both jump, "Now, see here, you two!" Hirako was standing above

them, his hair all over the place and his teeth bared with rage, "If you wanted some time alone, all you had to do was ask! You didn't have to take off without telling me! Geez, give me a fucking heart attack, why not!" "It's clear now why I wanted to be away from the house." Sousuke glared with quiet mutiny up at his guardian, "Yeah!" Ichigo snapped, very annoyed at the sudden return to reality, "You keep interrupting us!" "I wouldn't if you told me you didn't want to be disturbed!" Hirako then cleared his throat, ridding himself of all rage, "I'll leave you guys to it if Sousuke calls me Dad." "Well, then," Predictably, Sousuke stood up, tidying his clothing, "I think this is hardly the time and place for such activities. Come, Ichigo. I imagine it's time for dinner, isn't it, Hirako-san?" Though Hirako's face twisted like a comic-book character's, Ichigo suddenly found it less funny since he knew that he had good reason to be upset.

A/N: I wasn't going to have Gin visit at first but, since the demand was so big, I decided to have him notice at work as a compromise. Over dinner, Sousuke brought out a bottle of wine, seemingly as a way to apologise to Hirako. White

Pharaoh; his favourite, and one Ichigo remembered him drinking from his times teaching in the dojo during breaks despite many commands from various people not to drink while fighting. Sousuke and Ichigo took a glass as well (although Hirako was loath to share the drink) and, before they got started on their food, Hirako raised a toast, "To Sousuke and Ichigo! Let's hope they stay together!"
"And," Sousuke added, "here's hoping your stay at my house will extend." He pressed his lips against Ichigo's cheek before taking a sip of wine. Hirako giggled as he emerged from his empty glass, "Look at you, Ichigo! You're blushing!" "Shut up." Ichigo tried to cover his burning cheeks by taking a gulp of wine. The fizzy liquid made his throat pleasantly tingle, distracting him from his embarrassment a little. Hirako put down his drained glass and began pouring a third, "Seriously, Sousuke," Hirako's voice had begun to slur a bit, "how did you and Ichigo just vanish like that? You got a teleporter out back or something?" "Don't be silly, Hirako-san." Sousuke replied, not looking up from his food, "Those don't exist." "Oh, you're no fun." Hirako's voice was beginning to slur and he had just finished his third glass of wine, the food in front of him lying forgotten. He tried to pour another

glass but found the bottle empty. Cursing, he stalked to the pantry to open another bottle. Ichigo stared after him, disbelieving and disgusted, "Since when was he a drinker?" "A few months after he started Vizards Incorporated. He only does this every once in a while over dinner." Sousuke replied, completely unrattled. This made Ichigo think that this was a common occurance now, "Probably the stress of running a company. I should know." "You're not gulping down booze at ninety miles an hour, though." "Well, I am much more adept at dealing with my stress in a mature way." Sousuke returned to his dinner placidly, "I would have liked Hirako to have excercised some selfcontrol during your visit but I can see that my hopes have come to nothing. Please, just ignore him. Attention will only encourage him and, if he becomes too much to bear, I will take him to his room." Ichigo tried to imitate Sousuke's unruffled manner, trying to ignore Hirako staggering back with an open bottle. This time, he didn't bother pouring it into a glass and just glugged it down like it was beer. After a long swig, he slammed the bottle so hard on the table that Ichigo was surprised it didn't break, "Oh, tha's much better!" He slurred, struggling to sit down without slipping off the chair.

Sousuke ignored him, going on eating as though nothing had happened. Ichigo's attempts to do the same came to nothing. His eyes still slid to the drunken Hirako, who was swaying and slurring worse than ever. Usually, Ichigo saw a drunken person as something amusing (if it was a stranger) and sometimes annoying (if it was a friend). A drunk Hirako was just...pathetic. He had respected Hirako as his teacher and seeing him reduced to drinking heavily made him distinctly uncomfortable, Just as he'd cleared his plate, Hirako slid out of his chair and swayed his way over to Sousuke like his legs were made of jelly, "Soushuke, why won' ya call me Dad, huh? Am I not a good Dad?" He sounded mournful, like a naughty child trying to apologise for something he'd done wrong. Sousuke simply sipped the last of his wine (he had just finished his first) and answered with a completely uncaring tone, "You're not a father, Hirako-san, so whether you are a good one or not is out of the question." Hirako gave a wail of disappointment and tried to get closer. In the process, he tripped over his own gangly legs and landed on Sousuke's shoulders, hugging him and sobbing like a great baby, "Ye're so mean, Shousuke! Yer used ter be so nice. Yer used to come ter me all the time when you were little." "That's enough, Hirako-san." Sousuke stood up very suddenly, as though he'd just remembered an urgent

appointment that was five minutes away, "To your room. You're upsetting Ichigo." This was not strictly true. Ichigo wasn't upset by the scene, he just started to feel sorry for Hirako and rather annoyed at Sousuke's lack of sympathy. The guilt at making Hirako worry that afternoon increased, extending to feeling bad for laughing at how angry he became every time Sousuke would refuse to call him 'Dad'. Sousuke pulled the lanky man insistantly from the room and Ichigo tagged behind, listening to Hirako's drunken rantings with a morbid interest, "Ya remember when you used ter sneak out when yer were a kid, Soushuke? I coulda thrown yer out the firs' time I saw you there but I didn'. Yer used ter love playin' with me. Ya used to bring Gin with yer sometimes 'cos ya liked it tha' much. Why d'you go all cold on me?" The only answer he got was Sousuke pulling him so hard up the stairs that he knocked his shin against the top stair with a painfully-audible clunk, "Argh, ya BASTARD!" Hirako's voice suddenly rose, making Ichigo reel back in shock. He was beginning to worry about the man growing violent, "Hirako?" Ichigo called, realising too late that it was perhaps a bad idea. The blond man glanced around with bleary eyes as he was dragged without pause up the stairs. Thankfully, he did not turn his rage upon the younger man but, instead, he beckoned him clumsily

closer with a hand. After jogging up to him, Hirako said quietly and with less of a slur than before, "You gonna bring him back, Ichi?" This statement puzzled Ichigo for a moment but it struck a hidden chord in him that made him listen, "You gonna bring back tha' nice lil' kid that used to sneak inter my garden? Tha' moneyhungry bastard got to him before I could get 'im out of there. But, yer gonna get 'im out, huh?" "You should not listen to his ravings, Ichigo." Sousuke put in, not even looking at Hirako but keeping his hardened eyes straight ahead, "He always talks nonsense when he's drunk, just like anyone else." He opened the door to what Ichigo supposed was Hirako's room and, before Ichigo's eyes, kicked Hirako into the room before almost slamming the door between them, "I'm sorry, Ichigo." Sousuke didn't sound in the least bit sorry for what he'd just done, "I thought you may find his drunken antics amusing but they just became unpleasant." The thought occurred to Ichigo that Sousuke had not broken out the wine to cheer up Hirako but to further humiliate him. Ichigo was really starting to feel terrible for Hirako now and anger at Sousuke for being so unfairly cruel. Sousuke went on acting as though nothing had happened, which annoyed Ichigo further, "Say, Ichigo, you mentioned something on the television tonight that was relevant to your course. I believe it's on in five minutes."

A glance at his watch told Ichigo that he was right so the pair of them headed downstairs, leaving a now-silent Hirako shut up in his room. They watched the documentary in a special television room, where there was a screen big enough to be in a cinema fixed on the wall. As Ichigo sat on the squashy sofa that had probably been standing in the same place for decades, he watched the images on the overly-big screen with only half his attention on what they were telling him, even though he knew this was important. Sousuke had definitely acted like he didn't want Ichigo to pay attention to what Hirako was saying. Like, Hirako had about to reveal something that mustn't be known. From what he could gather, Sousuke and Hirako had known each other before Hirako was bequeathed the house. Sousuke had sneaked out of this house when he was a child (probably using that secret passage) and into Hirako's garden many times. From what he had heard from Sousuke's emotionless explanation, he knew that Sousuke's relationship with his parents had not been a good one. The idea that Sousuke often ran away from home only confirmed this thought. However, it could only a thought at this point. Sousuke was clearly not going to talk about his parents and would prevent Hirako from doing so if it was in his power to. For now, Ichigo could only speculate. He really hoped that Sousuke hadn't been beaten.

Children getting beaten by their parents was always a horrible concept to him; he could never understand the mentality of someone who would do that to their own flesh and blood. Ichigo's own father threw punches and kicks at him but only because he intended his son to dodge or counter, never for any malevolent purpose. He was too loving to his children to even think of doing something like that. Unconsciously, Ichigo moved a bit closer to Sousuke, who was sitting next to him and watching the documentary with just a little more attentiveness than Ichigo. His boyfriend noticed this but only wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders and said nothing. Ichigo just could not attend to what was being shown on the screen and, instead, picked out any clues from his memory about Sousuke's parents. The knowledge that Sousuke's mother was dead made a horribly vivid image form before his eyes, very different from the documentary. The image of a nine-year old boy waking up to find the body of his mother lying dead upon him. Her back was bleeding where the hit-and-run driver had struck her and, thanks to her running out in front of her foolhardy son, the young Ichigo had been saved. It was not a thing that he wished upon anyone else and he felt a small rush of new sympathy for Sousuke, making him nuzzle a bit closer to the broad chest as the documentary finally drew to a close. As the screen

blinked off, Sousuke tilted Ichigo's head up, giving him a hard piercing stare that made the younger man feel that his thoughts were open for examination, "You're worried about something again." Sousuke stated, in a way that did not allow for contradiction, "Is it about what I told you about my family this afternoon or Hirako-san's drunken ravings?" "Both." Ichigo answered, truthfully. There was really no point lying to Sousuke, "You shouldn't." Sousuke leaned back lazily on the sofa, pulling Ichigo down so the younger man was lounging upon him, "Ichigo, for all your attempts to appear strong, you are a rather sensitive person." "I'm not!" Ichigo blushed furiously at the allegation. He definitely did not want to be called 'sensitive' by anyone, "I did not mean to imply that you were weak. I mean, you react in a rather unnecessarily exaggerated way to things that are best left ignored." Ichigo frowned, "What do you mean?" "I am beyond family ties and what Hirako said is nothing but the ramblings of a drunkard. Even if these things were not true, it does not do to intrude too far into a person's private matters." "A lot of things are private to you, aren't they?" Ichigo said, with a bit more venom than he'd intended,

"I guard my secrets well." The only indication that Sousuke was irked was a curt edge to his reply, "And, so do you, I take it?" Ichigo just scowled at the floor and tried to think of a good comeback. His mood got worse and worse as he scanned his brain for one and came up with a frustrating blank. After a few moments, Sousuke pushed Ichigo up with a bit more force than normal and stood, "I'm going to check on Hirako-san. Knowing him, he may have fallen on his face and suffocated." He didn't sound remotely worried. In fact, he spoke as though he had just volunteered to get some snacks, "You can go up to our room and wait for me if you want." Ichigo sat completely still where he was as Sousuke left the room and listened to the receeding footsteps. He considered staying here stubbornly and not moving until the man agreed to tell him everything. Five minutes after this idea occurred to him, however, he realised how much of a stupid idea this was, Fuck, I'm acting like a kid! No, worse. I'm acting like my freakin' dad! Of course, Sousuke was perfectly entitled to his own secrets, just as Ichigo was entitled to his, and, if Sousuke's privacy was compromised, Ichigo's could be as well. So, he stood up and made his way to their room, making sure to tread softly and not appear like he was still angry. The lamps were unlit upstairs and everything was rather spooky-looking with only strips of moonlight

from the windows to illuminate the corridor. Yellow light escaped out of a door that Ichigo knew led to Hirako's room. As he walked past, he heard Hirako's slurring voice through the wood, "You money-hungry bastard! Ruining your whole family!"

Don't think about it. Ichigo's thoughts threatened to cling to that and draw all attention to it, Don't get into another argument. He just might kick you out and leave you to handle those Eleventh Division thugs on your own if you keep doing this. He entered the room and, after a moment's fumbling, found the switch. The room immediately lost its haunted-house look and everything had a warm glow to it that only appeared in lamplight or bright sunlight.
Seeing how dark it was outside, he pulled off his clothes and tossed them aside. His shin knocked against one of his still-unpacked bags and that collided with Hisana's shrine. One of the doors slowly swung open in a creepy kind of way. Against his will, Ichigo could envision the screechy music that would accompany an event like this in a horror film, just before a skull rolled out to settle at his feet,

Damn, this place is really starting to get to me. Ichigo shook his head, trying to clear it of all those fantasies. He took hold of the door and closed it firmly. The last thing he needed was to scare himself by letting the superstitious part of him run wild. When this was done,

he climbed into bed and waited for Sousuke. In about ten minutes, Sousuke returned, his clothes in slight disarray, "Hey." Ichigo raised a hand in greeting, "Did he give you a hard time?" "Well, when he wakes up, he will realise that he needs a new window." He didn't seem to be in a bad mood but Ichigo thought it would be better to say it anyway, "Hey, Sousuke, I'm sorry for being such an ass earlier. It wasn't my business to poke my nose in your secrets." Sousuke's expression warmed instantly and he slid onto Ichigo's lap, "That's good. Now, make this night pleasurable and all will be forgiven." "Hey!" Ichigo stared up at his smirking lover, "I apologised! That should be enough!" "Oh, come now, Ichigo. You're not going to deprive me of my pleasures, are you?" Ichigo gave him an evil smirk, trying to rival the older man's expression (and not having a lot of success), "Only if I'm on top again." "You do that and I'll make you sleep on the floor." Though it was meant to be a threat, there was no malice in Sousuke's voice, "How about I move back to my old apartment, hmm?" Ichigo retorted, with the same malice-less tone that made the threat completely meaningless. Sousuke

remained still for a while. Then, he took hold of Ichigo's face and crashed their lips together. The same mindless, heated frenzy from that afternoon came over them and their mock argument became nothing. They fell upon the bed, rolling about as much as they were able and having a playful fight for dominance with both their bodies and their tongues. Finally, Sousuke won and, when Ichigo's lungs began to hurt from lack of air, they broke apart with a great gasp. As Ichigo strained to get his breath back, Sousuke began kissing his way down Ichigo's chest in the path his lips always took. Ichigo knew what was going to come as soon as his boxers were pulled away and almost shivered with anticipation at the sound of clothing being removed above him. What he felt was not a hand or a mouth upon his manhood, though, but something stiff and long. Glancing down, he realised that what he was feeling was Sousuke's own aroused length rubbing against his own. Despite the new method, the friction this brought was still as pleasurable as ever. Ichigo began bucking his hips seemingly by instinct to gain more of that feeling. Both of them got harder and harder by the second and, when Ichigo had a fleeting moment of awareness, he could see Sousuke above him with sweat shining on his face from the building arousal. It was an unspoken agreement that they would cum together so Ichigo held

his release back as long as he could until he heard Sousuke's cry of ecstasy above him. Their cum mingled in a sticky puddle around their hips, making that area hot and slippery. Ichigo was so drained by the orgasm that he did not resist Sousuke turning him so he lay face down upon the bed. His sluggish brain only realised it when he felt the sheets upon his face, "Huh..." He turned his head with equal sluggishness and glanced up at Sousuke, "...hey, what are you doing?" "I heard it was less painful if I take you when you're face down." "Who told you that?" Ichigo had the funny feeling that he knew already, though, "Gin. Kira told him that once, so, naturally, Gin only takes him when Kira is face-up." "Urgh..." Ichigo shook his head, "...I feel sorry for Kira." "Me too, sometimes. Now then," Sousuke leaned over to the bedside table and, along with retrieving the lube, fiddled with the lamp so the room brightened a little, "I've decided that I prefer it with the lights on. All the better to see that lovely hair of yours." As if to prove his point, he folded his fingers into the mass of orange and massaged the scalp in a way Ichigo only ever associated with Sousuke.

The now- familiar squirting sound of the lube bottle reached Ichigo's ears and, soon, he was feeling his entrance being probed. Though this had now become routine, Ichigo knew it would never get dull. The probing fingers would always sting at first but he knew that it would not be for long. Being accustomed to the feeling made Ichigo's muscles relax more quickly and, before long, another finger was added. The scissoring motions were harder to endure, though, and Ichigo had to squeeze his eyes tight shut to stop himself hissing in pain. He couldn't stop himself screaming in pleasure when his prostate was struck, however. He fisted the smooth white sheets beneath him and threw his head back. This motion always reminded him of a dog howling at the moon but, of course, when he was in the throes of pleasure, he couldn't be expected to produce a straight thought, "Ah, finally." Sousuke's voice was only just registered in Ichigo's clouded mind, "I thought you were never going to make those lovely noises." "Just shut up...and do that again." "You do tell me to shut up a lot, don't you? And, I thought you liked my voice." "I do." Ichigo just wanted the pleasure to start again and was in no mood for a discussion of any kind, "You just talk way too much."

"Yes, I know you're not a man of words." With that, Sousuke's fingers pushed him again, striking his sweet spot again and making Ichigo writhe with pleasure at the wonderful invasion. If Shiro had been in the room, he would have laughed himself silly at how Ichigo moaned in an animalistic and entirely shameless way. Still, Ichigo did not attempt to hold any control over himself, just to spite his cousin who could only get prostitutes to have sex with him if he had the money and could never hope for a long-term partner. When Sousuke had finished the preparation and Ichigo had a moment of clarity, he suddenly found Shiro's perverted attitude funny. Images of him perving on girls, who all ran away and left him on his own, amused him as Sousuke slicked lubricant over his manhood. Sousuke's words that morning came into his mind again, that their personalities were rubbing off on each other. It struck him before he felt Sousuke's length pierce him that he certainly wouldn't be able to think so scornfully of Shiro before he had met Sousuke. Ichigo's passage was invaded again and he could feel the hard, unbending intruder ease itself into him. Instead of trying to push it out, he persuaded his body to welcome it and try to aid its course inside. Sousuke stilled when he was fully inside and his warm body leaned over Ichigo, his lips brushing against the back of the younger man's neck, "How do you like this new position, hmm?"

"Yeah...it's good." Ichigo didn't really have enough mental power to compare the two positions so he just said it in the hope that Sousuke to get moving so the pleasure could start again, "Good. I wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable." With that, his hands moved to take hold of Ichigo's hips and drew back. The awful feeling of emptiness lasted only a few moments before, all in a rush, he was filled and his sweet spot was struck again. Soon, they were back in the rhythm of Sousuke thrusting and Ichigo moaning. The headboard actually began banging against the wall as the bed jolted forward in time with the two upon it. Sousuke caught Ichigo's hips as they pushed back against the older man's thrusts and pulled them up so Ichigo was kneeling. With the new opportunity to maneouvre, large hands snaked around his waist as the thrusts went on uninterrupted. Sneaky fingers found Ichigo's already hard manhood and began to stroke it, keeping to that same rhythm their activities adhered to. All the heat in his body seemed to go straight to his groin, building unstoppably until it became too much to take and it hurt to deny himself release. By the harsh breaths above him, Ichigo could tell that Sousuke was nearing his release too. They moved faster and faster, trying to speed their release. It worked; the pair of them only lasted two more thrusts before their cries of giddy pleasure mingled, accompanied by their simulataneous

orgasms. Ichigo sank a few inches into the bed, his breath coming in short gasps like he'd just run a mile. The comedown was always nice and gentle with Sousuke's body slumped almost protectively over him. It was one of the few moments that Sousuke seemed to be on an equal level to him and not miles above. He, who was much older and wiser than Ichigo, panted from the release and could not hold himself up from exhaustion. Ichigo found it absolutely endearing in his hazy state. As Sousuke regained more of his old self and began pulling the sheets over the two of them, Ichigo glanced around the room again. The warm yellowy light coming from the lamp was like bright candlelight, making the colours of the room much more friendly. It reminded him faintly of the rooms that appeared in those sickly Western period dramas that only showed hetero couples he had been forced to sit through when he had been dating Inuoe. Sousuke's lips touched the back his neck and his hands turned the younger man over to face him. His eyes were half-closed, only showing a mere slit of deep brown. His hair was falling out of its elegant style and errant strands were falling in his face. Only half-conscious of what he was doing, Ichigo reached up and lazily immersed his fingers in the mass of brown like Sousuke would do with him.

He was rewarded with a gentle smile and an equally gentle kiss to the forehead. As Ichigo regained more awareness and released that he wasn't as tired as he normally was after sex, he murmured, "Hey, Sousuke?" "Yes, my Ichigo?" "Why do you have to be so mean to Hirako? I mean, he's helping you and you humiliate him at every opportunity. I know he's not a bad guy." "Oh, I know he isn't a bad person." Sousuke's smile did not falter, "My taunts are not meant to be personal insults. They are similar to someone kicking their cat when they're irritated." "So, you just make fun of him because you're annoyed at something?" "Well, we all need an emotional outlet, don't we? And, Hirako's reactions are always amusing so I have more incentive." "You seriously must have been bored in this house if all you had to do was pick on Hirako." "I was." Sousuke nodded, before raising his hands to stroke Ichigo's hair again, "Of course, you are a good way of allieviating that boredom." "So, does that mean you can stop making fun of Hirako?" "I could but I am not really inclined to." The smile brightened, making Ichigo frown,

"Well, could you stop it anyway? He's my friend, you know." Sousuke's smile faded a little and, after a pause, he met Ichigo's eyes, sighing, "Very well. You've twisted my arm. I'll be nicer to him if you wish. Just don't expect me to call him Dad just yet." "Fine by me." Ichigo shrugged. He just didn't want another repeat of Sousuke getting Hirako drunk to make him look like a fool and kicking him around. On a whim, Ichigo leaned forward and pressed a kiss against Sousuke's lips. When they seperated, Sousuke gave an amused little chuckle, "Well, that is certainly an incentive to treat Hirako-san better." With that, he reached over Ichigo's head and turned off the light, plunging the room in darkness. Slowly, Ichigo's eyes became used to the gloom and he began to pick out the moonlight shining through a gap in the curtains, giving the room the barest bit of illumination. That moonlight just happened to fall upon the low cupboard that held the shrine to Hisana. Its polished wood glimmered in a slightly eerie way in the pale light and a nasty feeling of guilt coiled in Ichigo's stomach that he, once again, had made love to Sousuke in a room where a memorial to his ex-lover had been. Ichigo wondered if Sousuke had made love to Hisana on

this bed many years ago and he felt even worse. As weariness began to take him and sleep slowed his thoughts, he had the idea to suggest moving the shrine the following morning. He did not want more nights ruined by these guilty feelings.

It was a full five minutes before his brain could comprehend where he was through all the pain. Shinji had no idea how long this damned headache would last, however. He didn't even want to think about it. With a momentous push, he shoved himself free of the sheets and promptly collapsed onto the floor. Glancing up through hazy vision, he noted that, once again, he'd slept the wrong way so his feet had been resting on the pillows. It always baffled Shinji why he found himself in this position every night, sober or hung-over. Not that sleeping upside-down wasn't comfortable to him, it was just very strange to him, This fucking headache is also very weird. I wasn't out with the Vizards last night, was I? He vaguely remembered looking for Sousuke and Ichigo, who had suddenly decided to disappear on him, and then sitting down to dinner with them but that was it. An experimental sniff of his shirt told him that he had been drinking White Pharaoh, Shit, did I get drunk in front of Ichigo? The door opened rather more softly than expected and Sousuke entered, immaculately dressed and the perfect

opposite of Hirako, "Just woken up, Hirako-san?" He asked, innocently. The smile of his was definitely not innocent though. It never was, "Damn it, Sousuke! You got me drunk on purpose, didn't you?" Shinji burst out, furiously, That sneaky little-! His head throbbed at his own loud voice and he couldn't hold back a groan as he slumped back down onto the plush carpet, "Since you're in such a bad mood, I suppose you wouldn't accept these from me then, would you?" A rattle drew his attention upwards and his eyes lighted on a glimmering bottle, full of little capsules just visible through the brown glass. Shinji knew this bottle well. It was his holy grail on the morning after a big party. As though trying to give him an extra push to accept the gift, his head gave an extra hard twinge that shattered his anger at once. His hand lashed out like a hunting snake and snatched up the bottle. He was not too desperate, though, and he checked that the pills were the right ones before throwing them down his throat. Shinji was not stupid, whatever Sousuke thought, and he didn't put it past his adopted son to give him the wrong pills for an evil joke. When his head had cleared, Sousuke was still there, making Shinji wary of a possible delayed reaction from

the medication. So, he waited in silence for a few moments, waiting for his stomach to turn or his eyes to pop out or something. Nothing happened. After a minute, Sousuke said, "You are feeling better, aren't you?" "Yeah...uh..." Just as a test, Hirako tried to stand up. His legs worked without any problem. A bit shaky but working well, "Is it so hard to believe that I gave you medication that would simply benefit you?" Sousuke raised an eyebrow with that amused little smirk on his face. That smirk looked different to Shinji somehow. Maybe it was his recovering brain playing tricks on him but Sousuke's expression seemed somehow softer and not as evil as it was wont to look, "If you must know, Ichigo asked me to be more pleasant to you." "Oh." Was all Shinji could say while, in his mind, he thanked whatever god was watching over them that Ichigo was now Sousuke's boyfriend, I knew he'd be a good influence on him! "Now, while I'm here, do you mind giving me some help?" Damn, I knew it was too long to last, "I'm moving something from my room into the next one and it's too big to do by myself."

Yeah, right. I bet it's as light as a feather and he's just lazy. However, Shinji agreed, wanting Sousuke to keep this kind mood as long as possible. So, they went to

Sousuke's bedroom. Walking into the room, he still could not believe it was the same one. And, that was saying something because Shinji did most of the cleaning and was sure he knew the place by heart at this point. Normally, Shinji had no trouble keeping the place tidy because Sousuke hardly ever moved anything. In fact, it was easy to mistake Sousuke's room for one of the spare rooms if he was very unattentive. Now Ichigo had moved in, however, there were empty bags, used clothes thrown on the floor, the desk and windowseat were strewn with university papers and, of course, the bed was in a total mess, I bet those sheets need changing too. Shinji thought, disgruntled at the thought of extra washing, I really need to persuade Sousuke to get a housekeeper! Why the hell is he so against it? Probably to give me more work, that's why! However much he dreaded the amount of work, he was somewhat glad of the mess in the room. There was now no way he could mistake this room for an unused one now and there was a more homely feel about the place that had never been associated with the place before, Yep, Ichigo really is a good influence. Speaking of which... "Hey, is Ichigo downstairs?" "Yes, he's getting some breakfast before we go out. Now then, shall we?" He lowered himself and took up the side of a low cupboard,

"Whoa, Sousuke!" Hirako gave a small jump as he recognised it, "You want to move Hisana's memorial?" "Yes." Sousuke nodded, still waiting for Shinji to take hold of it, "I've just realised that it's in very bad taste to make love in a room that contains a memorial. Even worse if it's a memorial to an ex-lover." Shinji could see his point and, so, he lowered himself to pick up the other end. Carefully, so that they wouldn't break anything inside, they lifted the memorial and moved it into the neighbouring room, putting it down in a place where it faced the window and where the sun shone brightly upon it, A good place, I think. Shinji said to himself. When Sousuke went downstairs, Shinji carefully opened the memorial. Looking straight at Hisana's picture, he sighed, "I don't know if Sousuke's been talking to you much. God knows he's a bit funny about discussing you. Anyway, I just want you to know that he's doing okay. Ichigo's really good for him. I can see it already. He's acting just like he did when he was dating you. Those two might actually marry at some point in the future. 'Course, I know he still loves you but Ichigo's the best thing for him right now. I know you'd understand."

Ichigo woke to the sunlight permeating through the curtains and birds singing outside. A sound that had now

become very familiar to him and, in his mind, associated with the big house. Sousuke was still asleep and everything was silent around him, which meant Hirako was probably still in bed too. Not wanting to be the first person up, Ichigo closed his eyes and tried to get back to sleep. Sleep evaded him, however, and after a few minutes of lying in bed, he became impatient. Sitting up, he glanced down at Sousuke, who was just a mass of brown hair poking out from under the sheets, I bet his hair gets stuck to the pillow because of all that hair gell he uses sometimes. Ichigo thought, smiling to himself at the mental picture of Sousuke raising his head with the pillow still attached. Sliding out of bed, he predictably winced at the now familiar pain in his backside. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, though, and Ichigo vaguely wondered if there was a point in the future when sex stopped hurting afterwards altogether. Ignoring his clothes on the floor, Ichigo found freshly laundered ones in the wardrobe, Who does the cleaning around here? Ichigo thought, as he pulled on his crease-less shirt. In his apartment, he, Keigo, Mizuiro and others on their corridor would pay Ishida to wash their clothes (and sometimes fix, in Ichigo's case). Orihime was often called on to do the dusting and other chores in her friend's apartments. The only difference between the two was

Orihime would do it with a smile while Ishida would do it with a grumble. Ichigo had once heard Tatsuki call Ishida and Orihime 'the cleaning ladies'. When Ishida wasn't listening, of course,

He must like it, though. Ichigo thought, when he'd finished dressing, He'd slam the door in our faces if he didn't. As he turned to leave the room, he realised with a small pang of guilt how untidy the room was thanks to all his stuff cluttering up the place. Deciding that he'd just put some of his papers away before going down to breakfast, he picked up a big wad of work off the desk and, as he was lifting them off, something fell out from between them onto the desk with a small clunk.
It was his phone, thankfully undamaged from its fall. Frowning, he tried to think how it had managed to get there and why he was only finding it now. Then, he realised with another pang of guilt stronger than the first that he had put it there when he'd unpacked days ago and forgotten that he had switched it off. Dumping his papers back onto the desk, he whisked up the device and pressed the on button. The screen flashed with the message that he'd missed over a dozen calls, more messages coming in by the second. Some of them were from Gotei 13 workers that still didn't want to believe Ichigo's relationship with Aizen so he decided to ignore those. There was a lot from Renji, mostly from yesterday. A look at the

messages showed Renji becoming increasingly panicky from Ichigo's lack of correspondence, I suppose I'll have to call him. Ichigo thought, sourly, He'll think I've been kidnapped again if I don't. Sitting on the windowseat (Sousuke's favourite place to sit with Ichigo on his lap), he found Renji on his very diminished contacts list and pressed the call button. After two rings, Renji's frantic voice came through the speaker, "Ichigo! Are you okay? I knew it, he has kidnapped you, hasn't he? Don't worry, I'll-" "Renji." Ichigo snapped, in a stern voice that he tried to keep as quiet as possible for Sousuke's sake, "I'm not kidnapped. I've just had my phone off for days because the Gotei 13 wouldn't stop bugging me. And, I'm sorry I made you worry." The old headache he always got when trying in vain to persuade someone that Sousuke was not forcing him into anything reappeared, "I'm just calling so you wouldn't go nuts and think he's kidnapped me again." There was a pause. Then, Renji spoke again, sounding a bit less frantic then before but clearly not convinced, "Okay. I just got worried, you know. Everyone here's convinced that Aizen's threatening you or something." "Are they?" Ichigo snarled, through clenched teeth, "Can't you tell them to stop it?" "I try. But, I can't do much without it looking like I'm in with Aizen."

That made Ichigo's anger fire up again. So, that was how the Gotei 13 was thinking, was it? Sousuke had been wrong; this clearly was not going to blow over in a day or two. In fact, it was getting even worse, "So, ah..." Renji was always the one to break an awkward silence, "...how are things with Aizen? I heard from Keigo that you'd moved in with him." "Yeah, we're fine." Ichigo's headache lessened as the subject changed, "We haven't been out much, though." "Why not?" His voice sounded suspicious, "The Eleventh Division tried to make Sousuke break up with me a few days ago by trying to break into his house. Didn't you hear about it?" "I heard Kenpachi's in hospital but that's all." Ichigo blinked in surprise at this news, Damn, this Nnoitra really is good! He didn't even think Kenpachi's skin could be cut by mortal methods until now, "What did he do?" "Broke into my apartment and scared the crap out of Keigo and Mizuiro, that's what." Ichigo snarled, his dormant anger rising again, "He said he wouldn't leave until I came back and smashed up the phone so Mizuiro couldn't call the police on him." "Shit," Renji breathed, clearly astonished, "I knew he was keen to get you away from Aizen but I didn't think he'd do this. Wait, who put him in hospital?"

"Someone from Las Noches." Ichigo said, offhandly, "Shit," Renji repeated, "that guy must be good." "I know." "Oh, crap!" Renji suddenly gasped, "Kuchiki-taichou's coming! Sorry, Ichigo!" The line went dead. Ichigo went back to the messages he still hadn't checked. Most of them were from Keigo, giving him the same frantic attempts at reaching him. He could only imagine how crazy Keigo was becoming from Ichigo's lack of response and he began to feel very sorry for everyone else in the apartment building. Simply for their sake, Ichigo found Keigo's number and waited for the insanity to be screamed at him. Nothing came through, however. Not even the ringing tone, Huh? It took a moment before he remembered that Kenpachi had smashed Keigo's phone as well as the main one when he'd broken into their apartment. Kicking himself for his stupidity, he found Mizuiro's number and was glad to hear the ringing on the other end. Three rings later, Mizuiro's voice burst through, "Ichigo, is that you?" "Yeah. Sorry I didn't call. I, ah, forgot." All panic went from his voice in an instant, "Suppose you and Aizen-san have been busy, huh?" The suggestive tone in his voice made him scowl and, as if in response, his

backside gave another twinge, "So, I guess it would be too much to ask for a trip out with me, Keigo, Tatsuki, Orihime, Chad and Ishida, hmm?" Just as Ichigo was about to answer, Sousuke rolled over, his eyes half-open and voice heavy with sleep, "Are you talking to one of your friends?" "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, covering the phone with a hand, "Mizuiro just invited me for a day out with him and the gang." "Is that so? Where?" "Where?" Ichigo repeated into the phone, "Oh, just around town. You can bring Aizen-san if you want." "We're going around town." Ichigo relayed to his sleepy boyfriend, "Mizuiro said you can come if you want." "Tell him I'd love that. It would be nice to meet your friends." "He says he'll come. Where are we going to meet?" "Shall we say...shopping district in an hour? Just outside the big department store?" "Sure." The call was ended, "Well, I suppose I'll have to get up now." Sousuke sighed. With that, he began to sit up...and the pillow came up with his head, stuck to his hair. When he realised, he just

sat in dignified silence for a moment and said, with a completely deadpan face, "It's going to be one of those days, I just know it." Ichigo stifled a snigger as Sousuke detached the pillow from his hair, which was now frozen in a weird, spiky style that was flat on one side where the pillow had once been, "You really need to lay off the hair gell today." Ichigo hid his smirk behind his hand, "Yes, I think so. I've run out, anyway." "Seriously, how much do you use a day?" "Well, I have to get a new bottle every few days. Does that answer your question?" "You definitely need to lay off it then!" Ichigo could not imagine how anyone could put that much gunk in their hair every morning. Ichigo himself barely had the energy to even get dressed in the morning, let alone spend hours on his appearance. Not to mention that there was no way he could afford that kind of thing being a poor university student. On the way out, Sousuke added, "Why don't you go down and have breakfast? I intend to see to Hirako-san before we leave. He may fall down the stairs and break his neck while we're gone." By the tone of his voice, it didn't sound like was very concerned, though. It was the kind of tone that made Ichigo feel that he had to remind Sousuke of what he had promised last night.

Sousuke came down as Ichigo was midway through breakfast, dressed casually and his hair lying relaxed around his face. Without the gell, it was thick and wavy, parted neatly to stay out of his eyes. Ichigo vaguely remembered his hair in this style when he'd gatecrashed the party in the summer house, along with the addition of glasses. Seeing him dress so casually was strange enough without the new hairstyle and Ichigo began to think that Mizuiro and Keigo probably wouldn't recognise him, "I wonder, Ichigo," was the first thing out of his mouth, "should I wear my glasses or not?" "Would it make a difference?" "No. I can see perfectly well without them but I used to wear them when I was in the Gotei 13. When I had a good reputation to keep." Ichigo could see why he'd opted for this appearance. He definitely looked more normal and approachable. He would even look kind and gentle with his glasses on, as Ichigo vaguely remembered, Geez, who would have thought just a different hairstyle and a pair of glasses would be a good disguise? Only Sousuke could pull that off, "Nah. I think you look better without the glasses." Ichigo said, after a long pause, "Very well." With that, Sousuke picked up an apple from the fruit bowl and sat opposite Ichigo, nibbling it in a bored kind of way, "Anyway, how many friends of yours

are coming?" "Uh," He did a quick name count in his head, "six." "I assume that, among those six, are Asano-san and Kojima-san?" "Yeah. There's also Orihime, Tatsuki, Chad and Ishida." "Ishida?" Sousuke raised an eyebrow, "I had the impression he wasn't on good terms with you. Or, perhaps, it was me he didn't like." "Nah, definitely me. I'm surprised he agreed to come, actually." "I'm rather surprised that Inoue-san agreed to come. Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought she was one of your former girlfriends." "Oh, we're good friends now. It's weird but she started being cheerful around me when she found out I was gay." "Is that so?" He paused while taking a large bite out of the apple. As soon as he swallowed the mouthful, he said, "I suppose it's a comforting thought for her. It implies that your relationship failed because of something to do with you, not her." "Oh. I never thought of it like that before." Ichigo supposed that he should have realised it earlier, though. Then again, he could never understand how womens' minds worked at the best of times. When they'd finished breakfast, they still had twenty minutes to go before

they were due to meet Ichigo's friends. Hirako was still upstairs and Sousuke decided that they should walk to the shopping district instead of taking the car. It was a very pleasant day with a bright sun overhead and a light breeze to stop them getting too hot. Ichigo remembered these streets vaguely since he had run through them when escaping Sousuke's house. Everything looked a lot nicer when he wasn't sprinting through them like he was being chased by hungry dogs. He could notice how nice the houses were and how big the front gardens were now he was going at a reasonable pace. By the time they reached the shopping district, everyone else was already present, huddled around the bus stop. Orihime was chatting animatedly to Tatsuki, Keigo was talking nonsense to Mizuiro (who was doing a spectacular job of ignoring him), Ishida was leaning against a lamppost with his arms folded and Chad towered over them, looking around. He was the first to spot Ichigo and Sousuke. After Chad silently raised his hand in greeting, Mizuiro looked up from his phone and waved jovially at them, "There they are, the happy couple!" "Nice to see you, Kojima-san." Sousuke smiled back. Mizuiro stole the task of introducing Sousuke to the group, leaving Ichigo to just stand around awkwardly while everyone greeted his boyfriend. Keigo bounced up

him, grinning like a lunatic as ever and commenting on Sousuke's new hairstyle. Orihime gave her usual jubilant greeting that made it sound like she had been really looking forward to meeting him. Tatsuki clapped Sousuke on the back, saying how impressed she was that he managed to stand being Ichigo's lover (everyone else found it impressive that Sousuke took Tatsuki's hit without showing a sign of pain). Chad just raised his hand in greeting again and intoned that any friend of Ichigo's was automatically a friend of his. Ishida just said, "Hello." and when back to reading the bus timetable. It was almost instantly agreed that the first place they would visit was the big department store a few streets away. Sousuke and Ichigo lagged behind while the others made plans for what they were going to do once they were there, "You have quite an odd assortment of friends, Ichigo." Sousuke commented, "You can't talk." Ichigo replied, thinking about Gin and Hirako, "Yes, that's true. Still, I did not mean any offence. They seem to be decent people and they are very attached to you. Especially, Sado-san." "Yeah, I've known him since middle school. When we were two weirdos getting attacked by thugs every other day." "You said that rather casually. Was it really just a part

of your daily routine to get away from them?" "Yeah, pretty much. I'd think there was something wrong if they didn't come after my ass by Thursday." "And, Sado-san felt the same?" "Well, he never fought them, really. He only swung a punch if those thugs were attacking someone. If they weren't and they were picking a fight with him, he'd just stand there and take it until they ran off." "My goodness, the man must be made of steel." "Yeah, he gets that a lot." The conversation went onto Ichigo explaning how he'd met Orihime when her brother died at his father's clinic, how he and Chad had saved Keigo and Mizuiro from thugs on their first day of high school, how he and Ishida had declared themselves so-called rivals in high school because they'd got into an argument over whether the Gotei 13 Corporation or the Quincy Corporation was better and how he'd known Tatsuki since he was small. Sousuke listened to all of this as attentively as he always did, making the occasional appropriate comment. He was very good at listening but those eyes made Ichigo feel like he was a bit too good at it. Like he knew exactly when Ichigo was trying to sugar-coat his misdeeds and those of his friends. There was really no way of knowing whether Sousuke could see through Ichigo's white lies or

not since he would not comment. When they got to the department store, no one could decide where to go first. While the others playfully bickered, Sousuke suddenly tapped Ichigo on the shoulder and pointed to a shop to their right. Through the window, Ichigo could see a familiar silver-haired head close to a pale blond one. By this time, Tatsuki had noticed them looking and asked, "He a friend of yours, Sousuke?" She was already showing admirable courage by calling Sousuke by his first name without asking, "A business associate of mine, yes. Is it alright if we go and say hello?" "Sure. We'll come with you. Orihime wants to get something from there, I think." "Mmm-hmm." Orihime nodded, sending her chestnutcoloured hair flying about her shoulders, "I want to get a new cooking pot. My tuna, chocolate and wasabi chilli dip burned a hole in the last one." Everyone apart from an oblivious Orihime grimaced. It had been generally agreed in high school that Orihime would grow out of this experimental cooking stage when she realised that no one else liked it but her and she got a bit of cooking experience under her belt. However, they were all wrong; Orihime had just got worse as she got older and was completely ignorant of everyone else's dislike of her cuisine.

Orihime skipped off to the cooking utensils without another word as soon as she entered the shop with Tatsuki tagging along, Probably going to try and persuade her out of cooking again, "She's, ah, not going to cook for us tonight, is she?" Sousuke murmured in Ichigo's ear, "No." Ichigo answered, resolutely. He'd had enough of Orihime's cooking when he was dating her to last a lifetime and he wasn't going to inflict that kind of torment on Sousuke. Gin and Kira were standing in front of a wall where many luridly coloured aprons that immediately instilled a sense of disgust in Ichigo, along with a desire to instantly turn around and get a safe distance away from them. Even women wouldn't be seen dead wearing some of them. A completely unashamed Gin was brandishing one of these monstrosities at Izuru like a red rag to a bull. The one in his hands was ludicrously frilly and so brightly yellow that it could blind someone, "C'mon, Izuru. Jus' try it on for a moment and I'll take a picture. We don' 'ave to buy it. Go on, put it on!" As Izuru shook his head frantically, Ishida gave a sniff of disapproval, "The man must be blind. That is an affront to clothing." "Nah, he's just a creep." Ichigo said, at once. His voice made Gin look round with a big evil grin on his face,

holding the horrible apron towards the group, "Per'aps, Ichigo would like it."

WHAM!
Gin went skidding down the aisle, the apron flying into a passing old lady's trolley. Said old lady glared at the thing through glasses that made her eyes look five times bigger than they actually were and threw it aside onto the floor, shaking her head and muttering to herself as she walked away, "Kids today..." "Say, Ichigo," Sousuke whispered, "how about we kiss in front of that woman? No doubt, her old fashioned ideals will make her even more incensed by that sight!" "Are you kidding?" Ichigo hissed back, flushing at the idea of kissing in public during the day, "That would give her a heart attack!" "And, your point is?" "Ugh." Ichigo shook his head, as he picked up the apron (careful to hold it at arm's length so no passing shopper would think he was interested in buying it) and putting it back on the hook, "Since when did you like pranks so much?" "Oh, I'm a trickster at heart, Ichigo. I blame Gin. He was a very bad influence on me when I was young." Gin was, at that moment, picking himself up off the floor and trying to avoid a fussing Izuru, "I'll take tha' as a no,

then?" His grin still survived his obvious pain, "I can see why. Yellow don' suit yer. Oh," He spotted Ichigo's friends behind him, who were eyeing Gin with varying degrees of suspicion and distaste (mostly in Ishida's case), "well, well, ain't this a fun lil' get-togeth'r? These ain' new Las Noches recruits, are they?" "No, Gin. These are Ichigo's friends." "Ah, yeah. I thought they didn' look like Las Noches material. They didn' look weird enough. Well, maybe tha' big guy there would-" "Do you want another kick to the face?" Ichigo snarled and would have charged at him if Sousuke hadn't held him back, "Leave it, Ichigo. We've made enough of a scene already. Gin, please don't make fun of Ichigo's friends. I cannot be held responsible for any injuries you gain when Ichigo hits you for it." "Sure, sure, Aizen-taichou. So," His grin took on a whole new level of creepiness as he surveyed Chad, Ishida, Keigo and Mizuiro, "nice ta meet ya all. I'm Ichimaru Gin, assistant manager of Las Noches. This 'ere's Izuru, my partner." "Hello." Izuru's face flushed deep crimson as he bowed politely to the group, "Aw, ya're so cute when ya're blushin', Izu-chicky!" Gin

wrapped his arms around Izuru's neck in a choking hold that could never be considered affectionate, "Isn' 'e cute, everybody?" Sousuke saved everyone from answering by cutting in with, "Gin, do you have any reason for being here? Other than humiliating Izuru in public?" "Oh, me and Izu-chicky were jus' shoppin'. Gettin' the groceries, ya know. 'Course, Izu-chicky could do it on 'is own but I 'ad a real bad feelin' this mornin' tha' I really shouldn' let 'im out alone. And, I was righ', too! We were jus' 'oo should we see walkin' out the florist's but one Kuchiki Byakuya?" "What?" Ichigo blinked, amazed. He didn't think for a moment that Byakuya ever did his own shopping. He seemed more the type to send someone to do it for him rather than mingle with the commoners, "Yeah. 'E spotted us on th' way out. Ooh, if looks could kill, Izu-chicky would jus' be a heap o' ashes on the floor! It was a good thin' I was there or Byakuya woulda probably turned 'im inta a nervous wreck! Am I psychic or wha'?" "He was coming out of the florist's, you say?" Sousuke sounded rather interested in this comparitatively tiny detail, "Yeah. Oh, I know wha' ya're thinking." Gin's grin faded and his eyes opened a bit, looking more serious than

Ichigo had ever seen him. He almost looked normal, "Take my advice, Aizen-taichou. 'E won' change 'is mind jus' because ya brought a few friends. Oh, wha' the heck." Gin shrugged, sorrowfully, "Ya'll never listen ta me. C'mon, Izu-chicky. We've still got five more shops ta go." With that, he flung an arm around Kira's shoulders and began to walk away. Then, after two steps, he turned back, grin hitched back onto his face, "I see Ichigo came in 'ere limping. Tha' means the natural order has returned, huh, Aizen-taichou?" "Gin," Sousuke's voice became menacing and his face darkened, "I'm going to give you to the count of three to get out of my sight. One." He never got past one. Gin had already dashed around the aisle and disappeared from sight, "What did he mean when he said 'he won't change his mind'?" Ichigo asked, turning a confused face to Sousuke, "If you all don't mind," Sousuke turned the group, pointblank ignoring Ichigo, "I would like to make a trip to the florist when we're all done. Now, Ichigo," He reached behind him with a wicked smile on his face, "are you sure I can't tempt you with this one?" He held up a white, lacy apron decorated with red strawberries and butterflies, both designed with simpering faces, "You buy that," Ichigo was so angry that he was beyond shouting now. His voice was low and growling, "and you

sleep on the sofa for a week!"


"Point taken." The apron was put back on its hook, where it would hopefully remain until the end of time. They met with Orihime on the way out (who was carrying a pot large enough for a small child to curl into) and set off. The rest of the trip passed pleasantly and Sousuke proved to be a good companion. He didn't speak unless spoken to but he was always polite enough, unless he was making the odd condescending joke about Keigo which everyone would laugh at (including Keigo, who was used to that kind of thing by now). After lunch, they set off for the florist as Sousuke requested. Orihime soon became entranced by the sunflowers and Mizuiro's hay fever started acting up so Sousuke was allowed to browse on his own. After a few minutes' careful searching, he found a rather subdued bunch of plum blossoms wrapped in simple white paper between two bouquets bursting with marigolds, "You're not going to give those to Ichigo, are you?" Ishida asked, in a way that told Ichigo that an insult was on the way, "No. I don't think Ichigo would really appreciate flowers." "You're right. He's so uncouth that he would probably eat them." Ishida easily caught the punch Ichigo threw at him with a bored expression on his face.

Sousuke led the way out of the florist after the plum blossoms were paid for and made a beeline for the graveyard. When they reached the gate, Keigo got the creeps without warning and hid behind Mizuiro, Stupid baby. Ichigo thought, disgustedly. It was awful to see a grown man cower behind another just because of a few slabs of stone sticking out of the ground, not to mention downright embarrassing if said man was a friend. So, they left the coward with Mizuiro outside and the other four followed Sousuke up the path between the tombstones. All of them were respectfully silent. Every one of them (except Tatsuki) had lost someone important to them and held reverence for the place in their minds. It was a good thing that Keigo and Mizuiro didn't come in with them; Keigo would make a fool of himself at the most inappropriate time and Mizuiro would just tap his phone, uncaring of his surroundings. Tatsuki was more respectful and kept as silent as the rest of them. This made Ichigo wonder who Sousuke was going to pay his respects to. His mother? Or, maybe Hisana? At last, they came to the very top of the hill where only the richest people's tombstones were. The people governing the graveyard charged an extortionate amount of extra money to lay people to rest in this small patch of ground that overlooked the city. Ichigo supposed that the view from here looked nice and a small unconscious pang of jealousy struck him that no one in his family would ever be buried here, Rich people always get the

best things, even when they're dead!


At last, they came to a small tombstone between two plum trees where a small bunch of pink and red flowers was already laid. The fruit upon it was ripening and looked ready to pick, though some were clearly overripe and they had to watch their step so they didn't tread in a fallen rotting one. Without a word or gesture, Ichigo, Tatsuki, Orihime and Chad stopped a few yards away from it to give Sousuke some privacy. Even from where he stood, Ichigo could see the name upon the stone:

Kuchiki Hisana
Now, Ichigo realised the significance of the plum blossoms. The story about Hisana's death had circulated around his circle of friends, that she'd died just as the plum tree outside her window in the hospital began blossoming with Byakuya by her side. A fairytale-like death and one that had made Orihime cry when she'd heard it. As they stood watching Sousuke, Ichigo noticed her big child-like eyes shining with tears. The plum blossoms were laid before the stone with only a slight rustling of paper. Sousuke remained where he was for a few moments, crouching before the grave for a moment and probably giving silent prayers to Hisana, before standing up and making his way back to the group, "I had the idea that you would lurking around here, Aizen Sousuke." From behind one of the plum trees, the

shadows assumed the form of Kuchiki Byakuya, wearing his usual fancy suit and his permanent expression of distaste, "Ichimaru is never far away from you." He turned his condescending face to Ichigo, "Did you actually think that bringing your latest conquest would sway me?" "Hey!" Ichigo raised his fists in fury at this accusation, "I am not a conquest! What the fuck have you got against Sousuke paying his respects, huh?" Byakuya's lip curled in a way that meant no good, "Clearly, you do not know. I should have known. You wear your heart on your sleeve and let your emotions rule you like a child would. Obviously, that child brain of yours does not have the brain capacity to find out why your master has such a bad reputation among decent people." "Quit making it sound like I'm Sousuke's bitch!" Ichigo roared, taking a step towards the stupid, arrogant man, "And, who are these 'decent people' you're talking about? The same people that fired Kira just because he was Gin's partner?" "Kira Izuru was co-conspiring against the Gotei 13 along with Ichimaru Gin. Did you not know or did your dear 'Sousuke'," He said the name as though it was a disgusting swearword, "not think it important enough for his favourite toy's unlistening ears?" "Please do not think our relationship is anything as crude

as that." Sousuke intervened before Ichigo could get any closer to attacking Byakuya, "I am merely paying my respects to a women I loved and I believe I have as much right to do so as you." Byakuya's face twisted into a look of utter loathing. Ichigo had only seen that face once before; when he had run into Byakuya for the first time after breaking up with Rukia, "If you persist with these outrageous lies-" "They're not lies!" Ichigo cut in, "I know Sousuke loved Hisana!" "If he loved her," Byakuya's tone was quiet and icy, his eyes like two cold and polished stones, "then explain to me why she now lies in ashes!" Ichigo couldn't find a reply. He stood there, his body alive with jolts of anger and frustration at the unfairness of this whole situation and at Byakuya's pig-headed refusal to see sense. Sousuke saved Ichigo's humiliation by saying, "I do not know. No one does, apart from the unknown culprit. Byakuya, Hisana would not have wanted us to fight over her. Our mutual love for her should make us friends, not enemies. I am grateful to you that you made her happy in her final years and share your grief for losing her." "Silence." Byakuya snapped, taking a step toward's Hisana's grave, "Do not insult Hisana's memory with your lies. She told me quite plainly that you were involved in

her accident because you made her an offer she had to refuse and she thought it was the only way he could escape you. Do you intend to imply that she is a liar?" "I would never slander her with such a title but that accusation is false." The haughty man turned away with a disgusted sniff, "You seem to have lost your touch, Aizen. That lie was not convincing at all." Without another word, he gathered up the bunch of plum blossoms and, in plain view of the group, ripped the delicate flowers to pieces. Blind rage overtook Ichigo at that instant. Bellowing like a wounded bull, Ichigo lunged at the man, only to be held back firmly by Sousuke. A scuffle to his right told him that Tatsuki had done the same and she was being restrained by Chad. Superbly disregarding the anger around him, Byakuya took out a cigarette lighter and ignited the fragile paper. The flames spread to the ruined petals and, soon, the flowers were totally consumed, "Hisana will not have anything that has come from you or from anyone associated with you. This is your final warning, Aizen. Come here again and I shall make you very sorry indeed." With that, he let the smoldering bunch fall to the ground and strode away, "Oh, and, one more thing." He added as he was walking, "I advise keeping your pet on a leash. He is very poorly trained."

"GET BACK HERE, YOU FRICKIN' SHIT!" Ichigo screamed at Byakuya's back, struggling against Sousuke's arms, "GET BACK HERE SO I CAN PUT YOU IN THE GROUND WITH HISANA!" "Hush, Ichigo." Sousuke's voice cut across his shouts in a quiet voice, "He's not worth it." Tatsuki was screaming too but her words were muffled by Chad's hand. She kicked and wriggled but still he would not let go. It was a true credit to how strong Chad was if he could restrain an international standard fighter like Tatsuki. When Byakuya was out of sight, she and Ichigo were finally released and Tatsuki was free to scream, "YOU ASSHOLE!" at thin air, "Easy now, Arisawa-san." Sousuke spoke in a remarkably calm voice that did not fit the situation a bit, "It would have been the worse for you if you attacked him." "You seem rather unruffled by all this." Ishida pointed out. He was wearing an expression of disgust that was horribly like Byakuya's, "I expected it. I really should have taken Gin's advice." "This has happened before?" As Ishida said this, Orihime, who was crying uncontrollably now, gave a little mournful cry at the thought, "A few times. Byakuya is determined not to let me near Hisana's grave as he labours under the misapprehension

that I was involved in an incident that nearly killed her five years ago. It was the same incident that left her confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life." Orihime gave another little cry at this piece of information, "How awful!" She managed through her sobs, "Of course, we know you weren't involved." Ishida said, at once, "It's quite obvious. Gotei 13 workers tend to be very bone-headed so, naturally, Kuchiki would not see it." Keigo was still cowering behind Mizuiro when they left the graveyard and Ichigo was suddenly more glad that he had been left behind than ever. God knew how the idiot would cope with Byakuya; he would probably be inconsolably silly for the whole day. Outside the graveyard, it was generally decided that everyone should call it a day. No one was in the mood to continue any light-hearted activities after the incident with Byakuya. After saying their farewells, Ichigo and Sousuke walked back to the house briskly since the clouds overhead were threatening rain, "I hate Byakuya." Ichigo finally voiced his feelings when the house came into sight, "He's such an ass all the time and he always has been." "He comes from a very affluent family and has experienced both the strictest and most indulgent upbringing. This kind of behaviour is to be expected. Still, he has broken the mould somewhat. I'm sure you

know that Rukia and Hisana's parents were not rich or of any status. He broke his family's code twice when he married Hisana and when he adopted Rukia. There may be hope for the Kuchiki family yet." "It doesn't mean that he's got an excuse to be an ass." "That is true. I cannot say that I have nothing but kind feelings for the man myself-" "You would be really weird if you did." "Well, quite. Anyway, the worst thing Byakuya's done to me so far is prevent me from attending Hisana's funeral." "What?" Ichigo turned his head so sharply that he almost cricked his neck to stare in amazement at his evertranquil boyfriend, "Yes. I wasn't invited but I intended to go anyway. Byakuya foresaw this and posted guards around where the ceremony took place. My emotional state wasn't its best when I arrived and the constant refusal to be let in made me even worse. In the end, I had to be dragged bodily back to my car and driven away until it was over." Ichigo swore in disgusted amazement. To think that Byakuya would allow his men to do something like that to Sousuke just because he tried to attend Hisana's funeral! "I was most furious after I was taken back home and I would have hired Grimmjow and Yammy to take my revenge on those men had Hirako-san not stopped me."

"You should have done it anyway." Ichigo replied, viciously, "Byakuya needs taking down a notch." "It would have only caused more trouble and I did have a reputation to keep back then. Besides, that would only give Byakuya more incentive to hate me." "I don't think he needs much more as it is." Ichigo stated, as Yammy greeted Sousuke and opened the gate for them.

The room was very quiet, apart from the faint sound of trees brushing together in the wind outside. None of the windows were open and there was a pleasantly stuffy air in the room that contained the musky smell of sex. So, Ichigo did not have the faintest idea what had woken him. He could still feel trickles of wet cum lingering upon his thighs so he couldn't have been asleep for long. Seeing nothing in his direct line of sight, he closed his eyes again, thinking that it might have been just a bad dream that he didn't remember. He had only been lying still for a few moments before there was an ominous creaking sound coming from somewhere in front of him. He didn't think anything of it though; old houses always made funny noises and this one was no exception, for all its modern technology. Thinking that Sousuke hadn't shut the door properly, Ichigo didn't react. Until it happened again. A long, low creaking

noise. The sort one would hear in cheaply made horror films just before the villain made his entrance. Thinking that it would probably go on all night if he didn't put a stop to it, Ichigo carefully lifted himself from the bed so he didn't wake Sousuke and turned to the door. Which was tightly shut. Frowning in confusion, Ichigo turned to the wardrobe. Which was tightly shut too, Okay, this is getting kinda weird. He scanned the whole darkened room for any sign of what might have made the noise. He turned his head to the door again and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar low cupboard with its doors hanging open. At first, Ichigo tried to deny what it was but the eerilyshining picture frame confirmed that it was indeed Hisana's memorial. Seeing it open seemingly by itself was creepy enough but its very presence was even more scary. After all, he knew that Sousuke had moved it out of their room that morning. He'd noticed that when they'd come back and was quite glad to see it out of sight, When did he move it back? However hard he tried to remember, Ichigo could not recall seeing the memorial back in their room since Sousuke moved it. Then again, he didn't look carefully around the room every day, "Hey, Sousuke?" Ichigo reached back and began to shake the older man's shoulder. No sooner had he performed the second shake did a hissing voice pierce his ears, "Leave him alone!"

Ichigo jumped violently as though he'd received an electric shock, making the bedsprings squeak indignantly at the sudden movement, No way. His stunned brain tried to reason with his racing heart, No way, that can't have been...No, it's just Hirako playing a joke. Or, maybe the wind. Or both! No matter what he thought, he couldn't get his nerves to settle. He could not ignore the knowledge that Hirako wasn't a person to play practical jokes and that, in the silence, Ichigo could hear his snores along the corridor outside, "Leave this place." It was a woman's voice, soft and gentle. Very definitely something Hirako could not force his voice to do. Ichigo gulped and tried to think of other logical explanations rather than face the superstitious one glaring him in the face. He unconsciously sat very still, as though he was hiding from something and any movement would betray his prescence, until, "Leave before he hurts you." "Fuck." Ichigo breathed, taking deep breaths to try and calm himself down, C'mon, there's a logical reason for this. There's no such thing as ghosts. He tried to tell himself but his mind just wasn't listening anymore. The ever-shrinking rational part of him was amazed with himself for getting so jumpy over this. Then again, it was all very well to say and think that he wasn't scared by ghosts but, when it confronted him, he was utterly

defenceless, "He's a liar. A rotten, rotten liar." "Hey, stop it!" Ichigo finally burst out, snapping himself out of his shock and horror and finding some anger at last, "You've had your joke now stop it now!" "Ichigo," A deep voice thick with sleep came from his side and Sousuke's hand crept onto his shoulder, "what's the matter? Have a bad dream?" Ichigo opened his mouth to tell Sousuke what had just happened then stopped himself. The whole story sounded ridiculous and Sousuke had no patience for ghost stories. Not to mention, Ichigo supposed he would like it even less if it involved Hisana. Besides, he wasn't about to admit that he'd acted like a total coward. So, he nodded, praying that Sousuke was too sleepy to notice he was lying, "Yeah. Sorry, I woke you." "Don't worry. Come here." The older man wrapped Ichigo in his embrace and buried his face in orange locks, "It must have been a very bad one. I can feel your heart racing." "Yeah. Really bad. Don't remember much, though." "I see." The conversation was ended and Sousuke went back to sleep almost at once. Ichigo lay in Sousuke's arms, taking advantage of the lack of strange voices to think more clearly. He could not help but feel comforted

by being in Sousuke's arms. His nerves eased and his heartbeat slowed to a rhythm close to Sousuke's, that he could hear faintly with his head pressed against the broad chest. To make an effort to calm himself further, he reached up and stroked Sousuke's gell-less hair. He was beginning to see why Sousuke liked to play with Ichigo's hair. The repetitive exercise was rather soothing after a while, especially when Sousuke's hair was not stiff with the gunk that he normally smothered it with. As of late, he had only used it when he had to go to the office but Ichigo was happy about this. He liked Sousuke's natural style a lot more, especially when he was carefully combing his fingers through the soft wavy locks. Once he was calm again, he began to think about explanations for what might have happened. Was it just a very realistic bad dream? He remembered times when he'd been so immersed in a dream that the return to reality confused him. A quick glance back however dispelled all such assumptions. The memorial was still there. The only other explanation he could think of was someone playing a joke. Perhaps there was a prerecorded message on an audio device hidden somewhere and the person who turned it on was the thing that woke him in the first place. Yes, that was probably it. He had half a mind to look around the room for it but being in bed with Sousuke was far too comfortable for

him to be bothered. So, he just nuzzled closer to his boyfriend and went back to sleep. By the time he'd woken up that morning, he'd almost completely lost his fear of the memorial and the strange voice. He only remembered when Sousuke looked around the room and made a small noise of surprise when he spotted the low cupboard, "I thought I'd moved that." He said, frowning, "Yeah, I thought you did too." Ichigo nodded, rather unsettled by the idea that Sousuke had no idea that it had returned either. Without asking how Ichigo knew about the memorial, Sousuke called, "Hirako-san!" After a pause, there was a faint, "Call me Dad and I'll answer!" "Never mind that now. Did you move Hisana's memorial back to my room?" The door opened and Hirako poked his head around the door, looking like a caveman with his face covered with hair, "Why the hell would I do that?" "If you have not, then explain to me why it is back in my room." "Huh?" Hirako looked around and spotted the low cupboard (though, how he could through all that hair was a mystery), "What the hell's that doing there?" "That's what we'd both like to know. I presume you don't

have an explanation then, Hirako-san." "No. That's weird." Hirako pushed back some of his hair and lowered himself to have a closer look, "And, what's it doing open? Man, this is getting spooky." "Hisana's ghost didn't wake you in the night, did it?" Sousuke asked Ichigo in an unfittingly joking fashion, "No." "Good. The last thing I want is Hisana to haunt me on top of her husband pursuing his vendetta against me." Ichigo remembered the voice but, again, decided against telling him. Now that the incident with the voice was long over, he had decided that, if it didn't come again, there was no point in raising the issue. However did it would probably not pull that joke for a second time. In Ichigo's experience of pranks (having been on the receiving end of a few), he knew it was never as fun for the trickster to perform the same joke twice. As Hirako and Sousuke carried the memorial back out of the room, no thoughts of ghosts entered his mind. He only thought of how stupid he'd been to fall for such a stupid joke. Did the culprit really think he was a superstitious coward? As his anger grew, his resolve not to look into the matter increased. Showing interest would only hand the trickster another victory and, if ignored, they would get bored of it soon. So, as he began the usual morning routine, he made the decision not to mention it

to Sousuke even if it did happen again.

Ichigo kept his eyes on the windscreen, seeing his university loom ever closer. The long summer was over at last. The coming of autumn was quite visible by the blanket of clouds smothering the sky. It looked like it was about to rain any minute so many people outside were wearing waterproof coats, even though the air was not very cold. Sousuke was beside him in the car, wearing a suit as he was going to the office after dropping Ichigo off. He'd had the good sense to take a normal-looking car so people had no reason to stare. Ichigo did not like the idea of people knowing that he was being driven to university by his rich boyfriend. That would definitely give the delinquents that hung around the building something to bully him about. Not that Ichigo was afraid of being bullied, for he knew that he could beat those punks up any day of the week and be able to walk away practically unscathed. It was just annoying to deal with them every day. The number of people who picked on him had decreased as he got older but there was always one idiot out there, wanting to have a go at the 'orange-haired freak'. Sousuke pulled up in a side-street, out of sight of the main gate and where there were only a few students walking leisurely to their lectures, "I'll pick you up here

when your lectures are finished, alright?" "Fine." Ichigo nodded, scooping up his bag. He was just about to leave when Sousuke suddenly gripped the door handle, preventing him from leaving, "Hey!" "You've forgotten something." "Huh?" Ichigo scanned his brain for the things he needed to bring and looked down into his bag, mentally checking items off the list. Sousuke chuckled and took hold of the younger man's chin. With that, he pulled his face around and pushed his mouth against his. Ichigo's brain became hazy and, by instinct, his arms wrapped around Sousuke's broad shoulders to pull the older man closer. When they broke apart, Ichigo was still dazed but not dazed enough to ignore Sousuke saying, "You won't forgot that again, will you?" "Uhh," Ichigo pulled his mind back to the present with some difficulty, "no." "Good. Alright, have a good day." Ichigo stumbled out of the car, nearly tripping over the pavement and up-ending his bag as he did so, It's going to be one of those days. He thought to himself. Sousuke merely gave him a cheery wave before closing the door and driving off without another word. Ichigo managed to will himself not to watch the car until it disappeared. That was an incredibly girlish and stupid thing to do,

definitely not like him. He strode down the streets, trying to force his mind into his university mentality and not allowing it to linger on the kiss he'd just received. He tried to get his head ready for taking in new things but it was very hard to make it settle on anything education-related. All his mind could think about was warm, smooth lips massaging his...Damn it, Sousuke! You've gone and distracted me! Ichigo could only imagine the teasing comments Sousuke would make if he ever voiced this out loud. The university itself was a cluster of mismatched buildings, small by national standards. Ichigo had picked it because it was the nearest to his apartment and didn't really pay attention to the other details. He'd given himself a massive headache looking at all the universities and being told by numourous people time and again that he needed to take this choice in his life seriously. He'd chosen the nearest one just to shut them all up and put an end to all the trouble. Thankfully, the nearest one happened to be a good one so all the annoying advice thankfully vanished. Keigo and Mizuiro were waiting outside the gate, Keigo already in the full swing of education-related nerves (that he'd first developed in childhood) while Mizuiro was tapping away at his phone. After performing a clothesline on Keigo for trying to jump on him, he followed Mizuiro onto the campus. A few clusters of students hung around

the entrance, chatting unconcernedly and seemingly unaware or unwilling to be aware that they had seminars or lectures in a few minutes. Among the mass of humanity, a red flash caught his eye and Ichigo's stomach dropped. This would be the first time in weeks he would meet Renji face to face. Certainly, they'd talked over the phone but that was it. He'd completely forgotten that Renji was taking classes on his days off work. Simply to bolster his credentials and no other reason. He tried to think of what to say to him but Keigo spoiled it all by screaming, "WHOA, RED PINEAPPLE AT TWELVE O'CLOCK! RENJI, IT'S GOOD TO SEE YO-URGH!" He was quickly silenced by a quick kick to the gut from Renji. It was at this moment that Ichigo could identify the people who were in their first year from everyone else. They were ones that looked scandalised were obviously people who had never seen this ritual before. The others were just shaking their heads, some muttering, "Asano's getting beaten up early this year." "You know," A voice from somewhere below them said to a moaning Keigo on the ground, "in the normal world, people don't make a scene like this."

Rukia. Ichigo's insides grew colder still. Rukia had thought very poorly of him when their relationship broke down, which made classes with her rather painful, God knows what she thinks of me now, "Good morning, Kuchiki-

san." Mizuiro was calm as ever with a big smile on his face, "How have you been this summer?" "Not bad." She was cheerful enough to Mizuiro, revealing none of her bad-tempered nature, That's the worst thing about her. Ichigo thought, She can go from nice to evil in a second. That was soon demonstrated when she turned slowly to Ichigo and her face darkened, "Morning, Ichigo." "Hey, Rukia." Ichigo raised his hand half-heartedly and began to walk towards the entrance, hoping she didn't...

WHAP!
"Argh!" His face smashed against the hard concrete by the force of the small woman's hit. Though, it felt more like he's just been hit by a car, I knew it was going to be one of those days. He had the feeling that being knocked down by a girl half his size was just going to be one of many humiliations that day, Next thing I know, Sousuke will come here and insist on making out with me in front of everyone! Feeling the stares of everyone around him, Ichigo pulled himself up, glaring at Rukia, "What the fuck was that for?" "Don't turn your back on me, fool!" She snarled, looking like she wanted nothing more than to knock him back down, "I'm trying to knock some sense into you." Rage took hold of him again. The same rage that had been building up for half the summer at the Gotei 13 that had

just been waiting to burst out at someone. At that moment, it looked very much like Rukia was going to be that someone, "If this is about Sousuke, it's none of your damned business! It's about time you Gotei 13 people got the message that I'm not going to give up on him just because you tell me to!" He was very lucky that none of those words strongly implied that he was gay. He wasn't ashamed of it but saying it in front of so many people was still too embarrassing to consider, "If you had any common sense, you would listen to us!" Rukia retorted, glaring up at him. Ichigo had fully expected her to have a permanently upturned head since she always needed to look up to have a conversation with anyone, "Hey, guys." Mizuiro finally looked up from his phone and said, "why don't we get somewhere quieter? Everyone's staring at us." "Fine." Rukia marched off with her nose in the air and would have disappeared into the crowd completely if Renji hadn't followed her, his red hair serving as a beacon for the three of them to follow. As they walked through the crowd, Ichigo's wrath escalated ever further, making him oblivious to the people he knocked into as he walked, Who does she think she is, giving me orders about my love life? It's none of her business who I go out with! Fuck, what the hell makes her think she knows what's good for me? She's my ex so she obviously

doesn't know what makes me happy.


They came to the hall where their first lecture was to take place. At present, it was completely deserted and perfect for a good argument to take place. Rukia stopped about twenty paces from Ichigo and turned, hands on her hips like she was going to whip out pistols at any moment. The look on her face made Keigo emit a squeak of fright and flinch away. Even Mizuiro had to avert his eyes. Ichigo met the gaze with steely determination, like he had done so many times before, Here it comes, "Ichigo, I know I should not care who you decide to fall in love with but I can't stay quiet about this!" "You're right." Ichigo cut across her before she could get another word out, "You shouldn't care! What the hell gives you the right to lecture me?" "Because, before we were dating, I was your friend!" "And, you're not now, are you?" "Who says I'm not?" That statement threw him. Ichigo had certainly not expected this and, for a few seconds, he was struck dumb, having no idea what to say. When he found the words, he was no longer shouting, "What do you mean?" "I mean," Rukia's voice steadied too, "that I still consider you a friend, even though we broke up." "Huh? Then...how come you didn't talk to me

afterwards?" "Because, I was still angry. And, you ignored all my calls!" She added, with a hint of venom, "Oh, right." After weeks of rejection, it was quite strange to hear of someone who supposedly hated him wanting to make up with him. It took him a moment of standing rather lamely on the spot before saying, "That still doesn't mean I'm going to listen to you about Sousuke." "So, you are on first name terms with him?" Rukia raised an eyebrow, still not looking convinced, "Yeah. I have been for ages. What about it?" "You do seem to be rather fond of him. Renji was convinced that Aizen was forcing you against your will. Then again, that's Renji for you, isn't it?" Ichigo felt a rush of warm affection towards the small woman at that moment and had to fight down a grin at the scandalised look on Renji's face. It was so nice to have someone agreeing with him for a change, "Now, I may be part of the Gotei 13 but I'm not a high enough worker to be very influenced by the corporation's campaign against Aizen. I don't have to be as careful as the seated workers about my views unless the higher-ups get really paranoid. That means I have the opportunity to think more rationally."

"So, what's your point?" "Well, we all know that you are a penniless university student that cannot even afford a car so Aizen has no financial gain to get from you. Nor are you well known so he cannot leech off your fame. In fact, you are below him in every respect." "Are you going to keep going on and on about how common I am?" Ichigo growled, warningly. Though Rukia had not been born rich, she certainly adopted to aristocratic characteristics very quickly, "Let me finish, Ichigo. As I said, you are below him in every respect and, if his family still believed in oldfashioned sensibilities, they would press him to forget you." "I don't think Sousuke would take any notice if they did." Ichigo pointed out, "That may be. What I'm trying to say is that I know Aizen is not taking advantage of you for any material gain." "Good." Ichigo nodded, firmly, Finally! Someone gets it at last! "However, I cannot overlook Aizen's previous relationships-" "Look, if this is about Hisana," Ichigo was being very tactless but he didn't care, "I don't want to hear it.

Sousuke wasn't involved in her accident and I know he loved her before then." "So, I suppose Nee-sama threw herself off a building for no reason, did she?" Rukia's voice began to rise, an argument threatening to begin again, "What was his excuse for it? Come on! Tell me!" "He doesn't know what happened. He wasn't there." Ichigo insisted, even though he knew it didn't sound convincing, Geez, every time I tell the truth, it never sounds convincing! "Is that so?" There was much venom in Rukia's voice that Ichigo expected her to start spitting poison at any minute, "Nee-sama was the kindest, gentlest person I knew. I visited her after her 'accident', as you call it, and she told me that Aizen had let her go so she threw herself off a building because she couldn't live without him!" "That's not true. I told you," Ichigo's head was beginning to ache already, "Sousuke told me he loved her. That story about him dumping her is bullshit!" "Oh, so, now you're calling Nee-sama a liar?" "No!" "Then, what are you saying?" Ichigo's mind went blank. There was no other explanation for what he was trying to say that Rukia couldn't turn

into an argument. Seconds dragged by and, in every one of those seconds, Rukia's face became more contorted with rage, "Got nothing to say, huh? Well," She marched over to him in three large strides and grabbed his ear, forcing it down to her mouth so she could shout right into it, "when you're lying in a pool of your own blood with your legs shattered and your dear Sousuke standing over you, grinning like a lunatic at a job well done, don't come crying to me!" The small woman had no chance to scream at him further since people were starting to come into the hall for the upcoming lecture. Ichigo shuffled to his usual seat near the window and within running distance of the door, massaging his ringing ear, Great, now I probably won't be able to hear the lecturer! Thanks a bunch, Rukia! "She's as bad as her brother." Mizuiro stated, calmly. It was a marvel that he had heard anything since he'd been playing his phone during the whole episode, "She won't be told anything. Oh, Tatsuki told me about the encounter in the graveyard." He added, seeming to sense Ichigo's confusion in the air for his eyes never left the screen, "I feel sorry for Sousuke. It must be really terrible having these false accusations thrown at him all the time." "Yeah." Ichigo nodded. So long as one person was on his side, he didn't care if the whole world turned against him,

"Say," Mizuiro suddenly said, after a little pause, "correct me if I'm wrong but did you notice that what Hisana supposedly told Byakuya and what she supposedly told Rukia about why she threw herself off that building are two totally different stories?" "Huh?" "Yes. Tatsuki told me that Byakuya said it was because she wanted to escape Sousuke and Rukia just said it was because Sousuke dumped her and she couldn't live without him." "Oh, yeah." Ichigo nodded, seeing that his friend did have a point, "But, neither of them are true, of course." Mizuiro added, as an afterthought, as the lecturer entered the room. The lecture went by in a haze of droning words that completely disguised the unfunny jokes woven into the teachings. Ichigo made some vague notes; nothing much, just enough to jog his memory when he needed to study. In between the note making, he found himself gazing out of the window and wondering about Hisana. She had told Byakuya and Rukia completely different stories but why hadn't either of them noticed? The fact that Hisana's stories didn't match just proved that she was lying. Even though he wouldn't admit it aloud, it was certain that she had been making things up.

His theory of her being scared into leaving Sousuke came back into his head, seeming all the more possible. But, who would want to do something like that? And, why? His mind immediately conjured up an image of Byakuya. He may have done it to get her away from Sousuke so he could be free to marry her, But, even he wouldn't hurt Hisana like that! It was just baffling. Nothing Ichigo could think of made sense. He knew he was missing something but just didn't know what. The second lecture passed in a similiarly dreary way with Ichigo barely able to pay attention. He gave up thinking about the Hisana mystery halfway through and looked around the hall. Rukia stayed on her side of the lecture hall with Renji. It was so easy to ignore the glares she shot at him when there were so many people to block them. Renji just buried himself in a book that Ichigo knew he wasn't really reading. The day Renji really read a set textbook in plain view of others was the day hell froze over. Five minutes before the lecturer dismissed them, it started to rain. Just small spots at first and then getting heavier by the second until it came down in drops bigger than his thumbnail, Well, that's just great. He thought, glumly, I hope Sousuke brings an umbrella with him! When the lecture came to a close, most people lingered, searching for anything waterproof or just unwilling to go out into the torrent,

"Dear, dear," Mizuiro sighed, looking at the window that was nothing more than a collection of grey swirls thrown together in a random order, "And, me without an umbrella. Hey, Ichigo, how about we have some tea in the cafe until the rain stops?" "Nah, sorry. I told Sousuke to pick me up right after my lectures." Keigo gave a wail and collapsed upon the desk in front of him in ridiculous sorrow. Ichigo groaned, "What's the matter now? Do you need your bottle or something?" This made the few people staring giggle and walk away so they couldn't hear Keigo sob out, "You never spend any time with us anymore! You're always off with your boyfriend!" Now, that made a few people's heads turn. Anyone who looked like they were about to make fun of him were quickly silenced by Ichigo glaring menacingly around the hall, deliberately making his expression say to people 'you make any smark remarks and you're dead', "Asano-san does have a point." Mizuiro nodded and Keigo, amazingly, didn't scream at the way his friend addressed him. He was probably too busy sobbing over Ichigo spending a lot of time with Sousuke, "You are very preoccupied with Aizen-san, aren't you? Don't try to deny it. I know you were thinking of him all through the lecture."

Ichigo felt his face grow hot and glanced down at the graffiti on the desk before him that must have been there long before he started university, focusing on the little heart with two English initials in the middle. They just happened to be S and I, "Anyway, I was wondering how long you intend to stay at Sousuke's place." "I dunno." Ichigo shrugged, vaguely noticed that Rukia's head had snapped round to stare at him like a rabbit that had just heard a gunshot, "He said as long as this whole thing with the Gotei 13 is called off. Just in case Kenpachi decides to break into the apartment again." "I know. Still, I was thinking the other day that...well, you seem to have adjusted rather well to living with Aizensan. I wondered if you were thinking about moving there permanently." "Huh?" Ichigo looked round, dumbly. He hadn't given it that much thought at all but, now that he did, he realised that Mizuiro was right. No matter how creepy the big house was, he still liked it a lot, Well, who wouldn't like living in a big house with their lover? "Clearly, you haven't." Mizuiro broke the silence, "Well, I'm just saying that I wouldn't mind if you did move in. God knows it's a nice house and we wouldn't mind having a bit more room to ourselves, wouldn't we, Keigo?" He didn't wait for an answer and Keigo didn't look like he'd

heard either, "He'd also appreciate not being smacked in the face every morning. We can just save that for university. Plus," His smile brightened in a way that meant no good, "we'd be free to rent your room out at a ridiculously high price!" "Ugh," Ichigo rolled his eyes, "no wonder you and Sousuke are good friends. You're both sneaky bastards." "Kenpachi was out of line." Ichigo leapt out of his seat in shock and whacked the small of his back against the desk behind him, "Argh! What the-Rukia! Where did you come from?" There she was, standing close enough to touch with Renji a little way from her like a bodyguard, Wasn't she on the other side of the room a minute ago? Fuck, she's fast! Was she like that when I was dating her? "None of us in the Gotei 13 had any idea that Kenpachi invaded your apartment and it certainly won't happen again. You don't need to go around thinking that Aizen will keep you safe. I'll put in a word with my taichou to stop-" "Rukia, leave it." Ichigo turned his back on her. Ignoring her shouts, he pulled out his phone and flipped it open. As soon as the small screen flickered into life, a message appeared before him from Sousuke. Pressing a button, he found the message to be without a hint of text speak and written with perfect grammar:

Sorry, I am going to be late back. The trouble at the office is taking more time than I thought so I've sent Grimmjow and Ulquiorra to pick you up. I'll be glad to see you after this is over. Sousuke.
Putting the phone away, he began to move towards the door, putting more effort into ignoring Rukia. He would bet everything he owned that the Gotei 13 were the cause of that trouble. Kenpachi may have got carried away but that didn't excuse the rest of them. The weather outside wasn't getting any better and Ichigo cursed loudly as he stepped out of the building only to get drenched in seconds, I knew it was going to be one of those days. First, I trip, then Rukia yells at me and now I'm soaked! His mood worsened with every step and Rukia made it no better by following him doggedly as he walked, hitting him on the hip with her bag when he wouldn't answer her. Finally, salvation came in the form of a loud yell ringing over the drumming of raindrops, "HEY, ICHIGO! OVER HERE!" Grimmjow's hair stood out like a beacon in the grey surroundings and (Thank the Gods!) he was holding a big rainbow-coloured umbrella over himself that looked like it could easily cover two people. As Ichigo hurried towards him (kicking up water that splashed Rukia with every step), a car drove past out of the campus and carelessly splashed Grimmjow. He did not take it well at all;

whipping round, he shook his large fist and screamed after it, "YOU DO THAT AGAIN, PUNK, AND I'LL SPLASH YOU WITH ACID!" Keigo whimpered at the shout like a dog that had just been hit and Mizuiro put his head to one side in a curious kind of way. Renji and Rukia simply gazed at him with distaste, muttering to each other, "Las Noches..." "Hey, Grimmjow." Ichigo ignored the idiocy behind him and approached the blue-haired man without fear, "You okay?" "Yeah." Grimmjow nodded, still scowling, "I just hate getting splashed. Anyway, who are these guys?" "My friends." Ichigo nodded, though he knew he knew he was using that term in its most generous sense so he amended, "Well, these two are anyway. That's Asano Keigo - stop hiding behind Mizuiro, Grimmjow won't biteand that's Kojima Mizuiro." "Hey." Grimmjow grunted, looking them over and clearly not impressed, "What about those two?" "Ah, they're just a couple of annoying people I know." Ichigo shrugged, making Renji splutter with shock at the casual insult. Rukia however exploded. Raising her bag, she screamed louder than she'd had all day, "YOU COMPLETE BASTARD, KUROSAKI ICHIGO!" Her books never reached Ichigo, however, for Grimmjow's

spare hand had caught her wrist before she could strike a single blow. No sooner had she realised what had happened, the same hand grabbed her ankle in one unstoppably fast movement and pulled it up so she was dangled upside down, making her long dress fall over her face to reveal her Victorian-style bloomers and the bottom of an equally old-fashioned vest. With an almighty shriek of rage and embarrassment, she endevoured fruitlessly to cover herself up but her arms were too short. Her fallen bag had burst open, her books spilled everywhere, becoming steadily soaked by the continuing rain, and her loose notes were becoming little more than piles of mush on the pavement. Everyone just stood, aghast at Grimmjow's action, "So," He said, completely calmly over Rukia's screaming, "who's the midget bitch?" "I AM KUCHIKI RUKIA, YOU FREAK!" Came Rukia's voice from below them all, "PUT ME DOWN AT ONCE OR I'LL...I'LL...!" "Tch." Grimmjow scoffed, "You ain't gonna do nothing to me, Granny-Knickers. I eat bitches like you for breakfast. Ones that are worth eating, that is. Not the kind of girl who wears that kind of underwear. Let me give ya a bit of a advice, that is a real turnoff. And that's coming from me!" "Grimmjow," Even though Ichigo did not like Rukia very

much at that moment, he never found the sight of women being picked on by a man funny. Moreover, he wanted to stop Mizuiro and Keigo staring at the struggling Rukia, "let her go." "Well, if you say so." Grimmjow shrugged, carelessly letting go of Rukia's ankle so she fell headfirst onto the grass on the path verge. Renji, finally spurred into action, rushed to help her. A bad feeling began to settle in Ichigo's stomach as the small woman picked herself up though he didn't know why. Grimmjow was completely unrepentant and, as though it justified the act, commented to Ichigo, "I was told to stop anyone who tried to attack you in uni." "She wasn't really attacking me." Ichigo pointed out, "Yeah, you're right. She couldn't really do anything to ya by the look of her." Ichigo didn't answer. He couldn't answer. The words stuck in his throat at the look of pure anger on Rukia's face. Now, he knew why he had that bad feeling. It was the same feeling he'd had when he was dating her and he knew there was a shouting match on the horizon. However, her expression wasn't the worst thing about the sight before him. It was the fact that Rukia was crying. He could see that clearly even on her raindrenched face. And, Rukia never cried. The small woman opened her mouth and Ichigo inwardly braced himself,

"YOU UTTER BASTARD, KUROSAKI! YOU ENJOYED WATCHING THAT, DIDN'T YOU?" "No, I didn't-" "I WAS GOING TO ASK MY BROTHER AND UKITAKETAICHOU TO STOP PERSECUTING YOUR DEAR SOUSUKE WHEN I GOT HOME BUT NOW YOU'VE GOT NO CHANCE! THE WHOLE ELEVENTH DIVISION COULD COME AFTER YOU AND I WOULDN'T CARE! WHEN AIZEN GETS THROWN IN PRISON AND YOU'RE LEFT ALL ALONE, I WON'T HELP YOU! IF YOU GET KILLED BY AIZEN BECAUSE HE'S SICK OF YOU, I WON'T GO TO YOUR FUNERAL! AND IF I DO, IT'LL BE TO TELL YOUR BODY WHAT AN IDIOT YOU WERE! I FUCKING HATE YOU, YOU...YOU QUEER!" With that, she gathered up the ruins of her books, not even bothering with her useless notes, and ran away, howling. Renji hurried after her without a backward glance and Ichigo couldn't help but feel sorry for him. It was he who was going to get the full blast of Rukia's wrath heaped upon him. Keigo came out from behind Mizuiro at last, whimpering more than ever (he'd been peeping around to look at Rukia's bloomers). Mizuiro just returned to his phone, looking rather embarrassed, "Hey," Grimmjow finally looked a bit worried, "is she a rich kid or something?" "Yeah. She's Kuchiki Byakuya's sister."

Ichigo's information made Grimmjow's eyes widen in shock, then groan with dread, "Crap. That means more trouble for Aizen-sama, doesn't it?" "Yep." Ichigo nodded, grimly, "Byakuya's not going to like this." "Oh, fuck." Grimmjow shook his head, "There goes my next paycheck." "What have you done this time?" A monotone voice came from behind Grimmjow. Ulquiorra had appeared out of nowhere, as soaked as everyone else, and was glaring hard at Grimmjow, "It was clearly so important that you had to keep me waiting in the car for the best part of fifteen minutes." "Oh, sorry, Ulqui. C'mon, Ichigo. The sooner we get out of this damned rain, the better." "Oh, right." The incident with Rukia had made Ichigo completely forget about going back to Sousuke's house. He said farewell to Keigo and Mizuiro (who had definitely missed their bus back) and walked at Grimmjow's left side, while Ulquiorra was on the right so the three of them were all under the umbrella. The car was idling close to the gates and, thankfully, the heater had been left on. It was only when he'd got into the warmth that he realised how cold it had been outside. In complete contrast to Ichigo and Grimmjow, Ulquiorra seemed completely oblivious to the sudden change in

temperature. Ichigo wondered if the pallid man had any temperature perception at all as they drove away, the roar of the engine accompanied by the relentless squeaking of the windscreen wipers. Though Ichigo's body was warming up, the cold feelings of dread and guilt remained in his stomach. He really should have stopped Grimmjow before he did something like that or at least acted like he cared about Rukia's dignity instead of staring like the other three idiots. He should have stopped Rukia's hands himself so Grimmjow didn't have to intervene. He shoud have known Grimmjow would get the wrong idea when she tried to hit him with her bag. But, of course, it was no good thinking those kind of things now. The damage was done and, when Rukia was finished crying and screaming at Renji, she would go straight to her brother to tell him what a Las Noches employee had done to her, Another reason for Byakuya to hate Sousuke. Oh, God, when will this end? "What's up?" Grimmjow's voice invaded his thoughts and, when he looked round, he saw the blue-haired man staring at him, "You've been kinda quiet." "Just thinking." Ichigo shrugged, "About the Gotei 13." "I know. They're really starting to get annoying now. Most of us thought it was funny at first but, now, it's just going on for too damned long."

"Tell me about it." Ichigo nodded, "It's been what? Two months now?" "More than that, I think." "I believe," Ulquiorra put in without looking round, "that the Gotei 13 would be more successful if they focused more on their company rather than trying to eliminate the competition. Still," He added, with a hint of pride in his voice, "even if they did, they would not stand a chance against Las Noches." "Well, yeah, 'course." Grimmjow nodded, fervantly, "There ain't any Gotei 13 guy who can outdo us." "Or, Aizen-sama." Ulquiorra added, with particular emphasis on the name, "Oh, speaking of which, how's things going between you and the boss?" "Yeah, we're fine." With the distraction, Ichigo's mood brightened a bit, "Oh, and Grimmjow, I took your advice about the swapping places thing." This did not produce the effect he'd intended. Grimmjow spluttered in shock and Ulquiorra jolted ever so slightly in his seat, "I didn't think you'd do it!" Grimmjow said, in a high voice, "Yeah, I wasn't that good at being on top anyway." Ichigo shrugged, only realising now how much this bit of information would shock the two of them, "And, Sousuke

didn't like being on the bottom either." Grimmjow slumped forward, his head in his hands, "Ugh, that's my paycheck definitely gone. Thanks a lot, Ichigo." Ulquiorra stopped at a set of traffic lights and noticed something out of the window, "Grimmjow, is that the albino you told me about?" The other two in the car peered out of the window with interest. What they saw made Ichigo groan, "Oh, fuck." Shiro was standing by the side of the road, standing out in his pale clothes and without anything remotely waterproof to shield him against the hammering rain. He was leaning against a lamppost, talking to a pair of girls in dresses that looked several sizes too small for them and revealed far too much skin. That kind of clothes that didn't look suitable to be worn in public, let alone in such weather. Both appeared very similiar from behind apart from their hair; one had a mop of short blonde and the other possessed dark pigtails, "Aivirrne and Mallia." Grimmjow shook his head and sat back, as though the sight wasn't of note, "Who?" Ichigo frowned, confused, "Loly Aivirrne and Menoly Mallia. Ex-Las Noches employees. Looks like they're hookers now." "I cannot say I'm surprised." Ulquiorra stated, tonelessly, as the traffic light turned to green, "It was

the only thing those trashy women could do right." "Is that why they were fired?" Ichigo asked, glancing out of the back window at the three still conversing, "They couldn't do anything right?" "Not exactly. Ya see, Aizen-sama slept with them a couple of years ago. Hey, don't look at me like that. He must have slept with a dozen women before he met you and that's just the ones we know about. Anyway, they were only one-night stands. He didn't date them or anything and I can't say I blame him. But, those two didn't take the hint. They started annoying him and they were pretty much doomed from there. You do not annoy Aizen-sama if you like your body the way it is." He fingered the bandages on his arm, "They were lucky, actually. They only got flesh wounds round their eyes but they still wear those stupid eyepatches to cover them up. Those spoilt bitches should be glad they've still got both their eyes intact." "Why would your deranged cousin want anything to do with them, Kurosaki?" Ulquiorra impassively cut across Grimmjow's rant, "Ah, he's probably trying to find his next bit of sex." Ichigo shrugged, "He's in the right place, then." Grimmjow said in an equally offhand way, "Those two would seduce anything that stood still long enough. You have no idea how

annoying they were when they worked in Las Noches. I was real glad to see them go. Anyway, what I wanna ask you, Ichigo, is when those scrawny little things started following you around?" "Huh?" Ichigo frowned, puzzled. That sort of statement made him sound like a crime boss with ill-chosen followers, "Ya know, that whimpering idiot and the guy with the phone." "Keigo and Mizuiro? We've been friends since high school. I saved them both from a gang of bullies and we've been together ever since. They were my roommates until I moved in with Sousuke." "Grimmjow," Again, Ulquiorra cut into their conversation, "Kurosaki's sensibilities differ greatly from ours. He thinks friends, we think followers." "Oh, right." Grimmjow nodded, seeming to understand, "Sorry. Misunderstood there." Finally, the dark shape of Sousuke's house loomed out of the grey cloud of squiggles. After a small pause and the faint sound of Yammy greeting Ulquiorra, there was a slight scraping of metal as the gates opened and, after a little more driving, the car came to a halt. Glad that the incessant squeaking had finally stopped, Ichigo stepped out of the car...only to get assaulted by a deluge of rain that had not relented in the slightest since he'd got in

the car. Growling in frustration, he hurried up the sodden drive and, thankfully, Hirako was waiting on the porch to usher Ichigo inside, "C'mon, c'mon!" He beckoned, feverishly, "Get in out of the rain." Ichigo stumbled into the hall and heard the door slam behind him, the noise reverberating around the hall. He had no time to even take his shoes off before Hirako had shoved him into the living room and onto the biggest, squashiest sofa in front of the roaring fire before dashing out, saying something about 'getting something to warm you up'. The heat immediately hit him in waves and his clothes felt a lot colder. Hirako soon burst back into the room, carrying a fresh set of clothes (which happened to contain one of his favourite shirts), "C'mon, c'mon!" He said again, acting as though they were working within an unforgiving time limit, "Get those clothes off now! Oh, don't be stupid. I'm not a perve, I'm a parent! Now, get out of those wet things!" Hirako all but ripped Ichigo's soaking clothes, throwing them dangerously close to the fire and assaulting him with a fluffy towel, "Hey, hey! Get off!" Ichigo tried his hardest to push away the gangly limbs that seemed to be trying to rub his skin off rather than the rainwater, "I can do it myself!" Snatching the towel away, he finished drying himself off (doing a much gentler job of it than Hirako had) and

pulled on the dry clothes. The sodden rags that had once passed for clothes were draped over the radiator by a calmer Hirako. When he'd left the room and left Ichigo alone, the faint sound of the door being opened reached his ears and, a few seconds later, Sousuke entered, miraculously dry and serene as ever, "Did you get caught out in the rain, Ichigo?" "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, dourly, "Something else happened to make you unhappy, didn't it?" Sousuke, of course, knew seemingly by instinct that it had not been a good day and slid onto the armchair beside him, immersing his lips in Ichigo's rain-darkened hair, "Yeah." Ichigo said again, though without any emotion but content in his voice, "It's been one of those days." "Have you been in another argument with a Gotei 13 worker?" "With Rukia. You know, Hisana's sister." "Ah, I see." Of course, you do. Ichigo wished, once again, that he could pick up Sousuke's thoughts just by looking at him like Sousuke could do with him. But, he had never been very good at reading people at the best of times and Sousuke was almost impossible to read, "I suppose she has more reason to hate me than the average Gotei

13 worker, however misguided." "I tried to stand up for you." Ichigo pointed out, "I told her you weren't involved in Hisana getting injured but she wouldn't believe me." "I did not expect her to. Did she get angry?" "Very. But, she really exploded when Grimmjow held her upside down by her ankle." "I presume he did it because he thought she was attacking you?" "Yeah. But, the worst thing is that, before that, she was going to ask her brother and her captain to stop getting at you so much. Now, she won't." Ichigo didn't feel that he was really saying it in a way that adequately portrayed the gravity of the situation. Before he could try again, however, Sousuke sighed, "Ah, well. I doubt they would have paid much attention to her anyway. The unseated workers aren't very well regarded among the captains and are often overlooked. Besides, Byakuya is too stubborn to let his opinion change just because his little sister disagrees with him." "I guess so." Ichigo nodded. That did sound reasonable but it did not stop him feeling guilty about Rukia. They had been so close to patching up their friendship and, now, that chance had been snatched away from him. For the first time, he really began to feel the loss of his

friends because of his relationship with Sousuke.

The sun was shining through a few sparse gaps in the clouds as Sousuke drove him to university. This made Ichigo confident that he wouldn't get caught out in the rain again like he'd done for the past week (he still kept a coat stuffed in his bag, just in case). He was dropped off at the usual place and, after sharing a goodbye kiss with Sousuke, hastened to the university. It was looking like a normal day. Normal clothesline on Keigo, normal smalltalk with Mizuiro and the prospect of a normal boring lecture. The same routine Ichigo had fallen into and he was thankful for it. At least, Rukia didn't come near him anymore. Any attempt at civil conversation with her would be, at best, awkward and, at worst, painful. However, when he was looking absently around the lecture hall, he noticed something that shook him out of normality. Rukia's usual space was empty and Renji was looking around awkwardly. This was immediately a odd sight. Rukia always made a point of never being late to anything. It was supposed among their circle of friends that it was a habit that Byakuya had conditioned into her because he wanted her to have a spotless record in everything, as was the least expected of a Kuchiki, "Say, where's Kuchiki-san?" Mizuiro's head raised from

his phone and his eyes fixed on the empty seat, "She's always here by now. You can't miss her when she's glaring at you like that." "Don't know, don't care." Ichigo shrugged, though that traitorous superstitious part of him made a sneaky connection between Rukia's disappearance and the voice that had spoken to him that night, Stop it. You're not to meant to care about either of those things. Ichigo told himself, sternly. Trying to distract himself, he tried Renji's trick of reading one of his course books, immersing himself in theories and studies by long-dead people. Just so he could keep his mind in solid facts rather than wild fantasies. It kept his mind away from such things until the lecturer entered to tell them all that the lecture were cancelled. With a little groan at the change in routine, Ichigo's hand shoved into his pocket for his phone. Out of nowhere, Renji appeared at his elbow, "Hey, I can give you a ride if you want." "Oh, okay." Ichigo nodded, stunned by the unexpected helpfulness. He removed his hand from his pocket and followed Renji from the lecture hall after calling farewells to Keigo and Mizuiro. Renji seemed a bit distracted as they left the building and Ichigo supposed it was because of Rukia being missing. Renji's car was parked just outside the main gate and they both got in without saying anything. When the doors

were closed, Renji said, "I'm gonna check to see if Rukia's home first if that's okay." "Yeah, go ahead. Sousuke's not expecting me for ages. There's no hurry." With that, Renji started the car and they moved away from the university. All gaps in the clouds had vanished, though there was a fuzzy circlular outline of the sun just visible through them, casting everything in a dreary light and making all bright colours suddenly dingy. That meant Sousuke's house would probably look creepy even in the day. Renji's house came into view, the lawn well-manicured and flowerpots neatly arranged as always. It wasn't very different from a few months ago when Ichigo and his friends would often be invited for a night of boozing, fast food and cheaply-rented films. That was all before Ichigo met Sousuke and, even though it wasn't very long ago, Ichigo couldn't help but feel the big gap between the past and the present. Back then, he'd been among dozens of friends and friends of friends. He'd spent nights scowling at open displays of affection from couples, disgusted at how shameless they were. Renji broke Ichigo out of his reverie by saying, "You can wait in here if you want." "Sure." Ichigo nodded, vaguely, keeping his eyes on the windscreen. Now his mind was on the subject, Ichigo

began to miss the friends he'd lost when he got together with Sousuke. He'd been able to shrug it off before because he thought that they were just being idiots and would come around eventually when they'd got over the shock. Even when their stubborn refusal to accept his decision had extended to months, he could ignore it because he had Sousuke to distract him. Now, however, he was spending more time away from Sousuke when he was at university so the real world was catching up to him fast and the gap in his contacts list became more pronounced,

I've still got Keigo, Mizuiro, Tatsuki and Orihime, though. Ichigo said to himself, And, I suppose I've got Renji and Ishida too. And, it's not like my family have turned their backs on me, either. All in all, he decided, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. There was no point moping over lost friends like a shallow girl who needed half a million friends and relied on them for everything.
He was so lost in thought that he didn't notice the figures advancing behind the car. He only realised what was happening when his door was flung open, making him jump. He didn't even time to identify the culprit before his vision suddenly went black. A bag of some kind had been forced over his head and he was tugged away from his seat like he was a major criminal about to be taken to a high security prison. He tried vainly to pull the thing off but more hands held

his arms down. He tried calling out for help but all cries were muffled by the stifling material. He could vaguely hear people's voices but they made no sense. He could hear incoherant shouting but could not identify the words. In a few moments, he was being forced into a car. He knew this because he could feel the hard door smacking against his shoulder as he was thrown across something smooth and squeaky. There was the heart-stopping sound of car doors being slammed and a car starting up, Shit, shit, shit! His mind went into panic mode as he felt hands pull him into an upright position and throw a seatbelt across him. In his state of mind, it felt more like a binding rope rather than something to keep him safe. The voices continued around him and Ichigo could pick out two female and one male. The shouts were fading into nothing and, soon, only the sound of the car engine could be heard over the voices of his kidnappers,

Fuck, I don't believe it! He snarled at himself when he thought that word, How the hell could I let myself get kidnapped? I didn't even put up much of a fight! To try and make up for that, he struggled to free his stillrestrained hands as hard as he could but the grip would not loosen. He couldn't even reach his fingers up to claw at the hands holding him. As he tried to wriggle out of his seatbelt, another hand pushed him back, holding him back by the neck by fingers that were inches away from tightening,

"Let me go! Let me go, you sick fuck!" Ichigo screamed, hoping his voice was heard more clearly this time, "Quiet." A low and horribly familiar voice reached his ears, "Doncha go strugglin', Ichigo. I don' want ter damage yer now. It'll spoil all the fun later." "Shiro." Ichigo breathed in horror. He didn't want to admit to himself that he was scared of his insane cousin but he was absolutely the last person he wanted to be kidnapped by. The fact he knew who his kidnapper made the situation even worse. He knew how much of a shameless psycho he was and dreaded what kind of 'fun' Shiro wanted with him. His very tone of voice made a shudder go up his spine. They drove on (Just who's driving? Ichigo wondered). He supposed he was in the back seat with Shiro and he knew two women were present since they spoke to each other from time to time, though he couldn't identify their voices and no names were mentioned. Ichigo wished that the car would never come to a halt but, at the same time, wished it would soon stop so he might have a chance to escape. If only he had called Sousuke and refused Renji's invitation. Then, he wouldn't be in this situation. Sousuke was probably still at work, oblivious to his boyfriend's distress, and Ichigo had no way of contacting him. His phone had been left in his bag that was still in Renji's car and, even if Ichigo could call Sousuke, he had no idea

where he was being taken at all. Finally, the car engine stopped and there was nothing but silence. Not even a telltale noise in the air to give Ichigo a vague idea where he was. Then, he heard seatbelts being undone and doors being opened. Shiro grabbed his wrists and forced him out, shoving him roughly so he almost fell over. Although Ichigo tried his best to pull free, Shiro's hands just would not let go. He tried kicking behind him but it was just no good. As much as he hated to acknowledge it, Shiro was stronger than him and easily forced him away. There was another slam of a door behind him. This one sounded louder like a big garage shutter that immediately put the picture of an abandoned warehouse in his mind. At last, the bag was wrenched away and confirmed his suspicions. It was indeed a large, abandoned-looking building. The sort that nobody went near and was the perfect hiding place for criminals. Ichigo expected thugs to start coming out of the shadows, waiting to beat him to a pulp. Instead, two familiar girls came into his line of sight, wearing skimpy clothes and looks of disgust. It was Loly Aivirrne and Menoly Mallia, the girls Shiro had been talking to a week ago. It hit Ichigo like a thunderbolt that Shiro had not been trying to get some sex that day but plotting an ambush with them. Ichigo swallowed. He didn't like attacking girls whatever they did to him. It was a civalrous attitude that his father had

hammered into him from early childhood. He could hit any man and think nothing of it but he was very uncomfortable with attacking women, even if it was selfdefence, "Alrigh' then, ladies." Shiro drawled, still maddeningly out of sight, "This 'ere's the guy that caught Aizen's fancy. Whaddya think?" The one with the pigtails' face contorted with rage (he didn't know which was which), "He's nothing." She said, at once, "He doesn't even look worthy to be in Aizensama's presence." "HEY!" Ichigo yelled, partly because he was so angered by this statement and partly to make his presence more obvious in the hope that anyone might be nearby, "Shut up!" Pigtails lifted a foot and slammed it in Ichigo's face. For such a skinny looking woman, she could certainly deliver a blow that hurt a lot. Shiro's hands suddenly left Ichigo's wrists and, looking up, he saw the albino smack the girl so hard that she fell to the ground, "Loly!" So, that one was was Loly. The blond one, Menoly, hurried to her friend and helped her up, "Damn it, Zangetsu, what did you do that for?" She snarled, "Not the face." Shiro insisted, sharply, "I 'ave some standards, ya know." "Hah!" Loly gave a harsh laugh like a dog, "I didn't see

any the last time we were together!" "Shut up, bitch!" He smacked Loly again, who would have fallen if Menoly hadn't been holding her up, "Now, yer can 'it 'im anywhere tha' isn' th' face and tha' doesn' kill 'im. Then, I'll take 'im. Oh, no, ya don't!" Ichigo had taken advantage of the distraction and tried to make a run for it. Shiro spotted him, however, and rugby-tackled him to the ground, "D'ya want me ter tie yer up, huh? Or, are yer gonna sit there like a good bitch and take it?" "YOU FUCKING-" The next thing he saw was the inside of the bag again as Shiro threw it over his head and held his wrists behind his back again, "I knew yer wouldn' keep quiet. I bet yer scream like tha' all the time when yer man is fuckin' yer." "Don't talk about Aizen-sama that way, you pasty-faced freako!" Loly screamed, sounding more aggravated than ever, "He's not that little gutter rat's man!" "I know, I know. I was jus' sayin' it so Ichigo could understand. If yer knew 'im as long as I 'ave, yer'd know 'ow dumb 'e is." "Fine, whatever." Menoly's voice sounded a bit calmer but still held a tone that told Ichigo she would still pound him into the floor given half the chance, "Hey, Loly, crowbar or baseball bat?"

Oh, fuck. "Hmm...tough call...let's just go with fists for now and see how it goes."
"Fine by me." There was a small pause. Ichigo's panic was making every sound around him magnified. He tried to struggle free again but to no avail. Shiro kept hold of him even when he rocketed back from the force of the foot on his shoulder. Loly had to be wearing some kind of heavy boot because there was no way a normal kick from such a thin girl could hurt that much. Before the pain had even begun to fade, another hit was delivered to his gut. And, another. Then, there was another pause, in which Ichigo tried to keep himself from coughing up something that might be blood or bile. Perhaps a mix of both, Shit. He thought, If I get out of this alive, I'm never going to hear the end of this. He could imagine the thugs that once ran at the sight of him laughing their asses off at the story that would soon be circulating amongst them. That Kurosaki Ichigo, the terror of the alleyway hoodlums, kidnapped and beaten by his deranged cousin and a couple of weaklooking girls, all without putting up a good fight. Sousuke's face appeared on the black material, making some condescendingly teasing remark about being all talk. Then, Hirako saying how he was disappointed in his former student. He could almost hear the drawling voice say, "I didn't train you for all that time just so you could

get beaten up by your cousin!" Worst of all, would be the reaction from his father, screaming at the top of his lungs, "I'VE FAILED! I'VE FAILED TO TRAIN MY SON INTO A PROPER MAN! OH, MASAKI, FORGIVE ME..." And so on.
Now, that was something he could never stand. He would rather be killed than bear the brunt of his father's heightened insanity, Hirako's disappointment and Sousuke's amusement, That's it! No more Mr Nice Guy! I'll even hit women to avoid that! As he heard what might have been the baseball bat being tested on something metal, a voice like Sousuke's came into his head, The direct approach is useless. I need to think about this a bit more. Like Sousuke would, he tried to think of what they might do and what gaps in their plans might be presented to him. He started pulling back his legs under him so he was kneeling. If Shiro loosened his grip in a pause between blows, he would be able to push himself forward, out of the bruising grip on his wrists, stop himself falling with his hands and kick out out with one of his legs, hopefully distracting Shiro long enough to get the bag off his head and take out Loly and Menoly. Thankfully, Shiro's limited brainpower came to his aid as he gave a low laugh and murmured, "Given up, 'ave yer? Or, are ya savin' yer fight for when I get my cock in yer?"

No sooner had Shiro's hard fingers become complacent and eased, Ichigo was ready. With new fury at this statement to aid him, he gave an almighty shove forward and, to his delight, the fingers came away. Before they could snatch him back, he brought them forward onto the floor before him and, once steady, his foot lashed backwards and connected with flesh. Shiro gave a grunt of pain but Ichigo had no time to bask in his success. He pulled the bag off his head and leapt off the floor like a sprinter towards the startled women. Loly lunged at him with a long baseball bat but missed. It whooshed through the air, just past Ichigo's right elbow, just before he delivered a good hard blow to her stomach. She gave a strangled cry of pain before collapsing to the ground, unconscious. With a shriek of indignation, Menoly feverishly seized a crowbar from a upturned crate and charged with a high battlecry towards him. This time, Ichigo could not dodge and the crowbar struck him a glancing blow on his right elbow, though it wasn't enough to incapacitate him by a long shot. She met the same fate as her friend, the crowbar sent clattering to the floor. Ichigo did not think of taking on Shiro. Pain still flared around his stomach and arm and, even in his adrenalinefueled state, he had enough sense to know that he was in no shape for a full-on fight. He needed to get out of here, to escape Shiro's sight and find the police or a friend. He ran aimlessly to the walls, hoping to find a door left unlocked. Perhaps the door he'd been forced

through before. He couldn't get far, though. He had not gone five yards before a pair of muscled arms curl around him and bring him unceremoniously back down to the floor. The happiness at the prospect of escape within Ichigo was gone like a soap bubble as he met the furious eyes of Shiro above him. Shiro could always be mistaken for Ichigo's identical (but practically monochrome) twin but his body was slightly but significantly bigger and broader from training hard and long practically since birth. Zangetsu Senior had obsessively taught his boys every combat art in existence and Shiro was the polished result of all that hard work. This crushed any chance of Ichigo being able to escape, no matter how hard he struggled. Shiro just grabbed his wrists and held them down on the floor, his hands like shackles once more, "Fiesty, aincha, King? I knew yer would be. I bet yer man loves it. It ain't fair ter keep a piece of ass like tha' all ter 'imself. 'E should share." The implications of this went through Ichigo at once, echoing Shiro's taunts from weeks ago. Back then, Ichigo thought he'd been saying those kind of dirty statements to provoke him and make him throw the first punch. He didn't think his cousin had meant what he said. Now, with Shiro on top of him and (it turned his stomach when he noticed) grinding his hips against his backside, the horrible prospect of being raped splashed into the

forefront of his mind. He'd never had sex with anyone but Sousuke before so the differences between him and Shiro were painfully plain. Shiro had Ichigo's shirt between his teeth and was actually ripping it off his back like a lion ripping chunks of flesh off its prey. Ichigo never thought it could be possible for a human to tear material with one's teeth before. As his ruined shirt was pulled away and the cold air hit his skin, he feverishly clawed at the floor in a ditch attempt to scramble away but all was in vain. He could feel Shiro's lips upon his shoulders; cold, chapped and with a tendency to bite painfully, a far cry from Sousuke's soft, smooth mouth that would kiss him so tenderly. Ichigo screwed his eyes tight shut and screamed as loud of as he could, abandoning all pride and not caring for the teasing he'd get later, "STOP! GET OFF ME! GET THE FUCK OFF ME NOW!" "Uh, uh, uh!" Shiro grabbed a scrap of ripped clothing and fasioned it into an effective gag, "Yer not screamin' yet. Save tha' for later. C'mon, King. Relax. So wha' if we're cousins? I'm gonna give yer the best sex of yer life so yer gonna forget all abou' tha' Aizen fucker."

Sousuke's fingers drummed idly on the steering wheel, searching the scattering of students for orange hair. He knew it was too much to expect Ichigo now, though. He

was early after all and had come sooner than he usually did simply by accident. Or, perhaps it was a subconscious longing to see Ichigo again, Yes, maybe it's that. He thought, absently. His phone was being repaired after Zommari had trodden on it (naturally, Sousuke was taking twice the price for repairs out of his paycheck for that) so he couldn't send a suggestive message to Ichigo to pass the time. With the lack of distraction, his thoughts turned to the mysterious reappearance of Hisana's shrine in his room a few weeks ago. Ichigo had been acting very oddly a few nights ago. In a way that clearly told Sousuke that he was keeping something from him. He remembered how he had shouted out and woken him that night, telling whoever he was addressing to stop playing a joke that was clearly upsetting him. It may have been a very vivid bad dream. It may have been something else, though he could not for the life of him think what that might be. He'd had no time to investigate that day or the days following since Kaname had called him to the office over more trouble with the Sixth Division breaking in again. An occurance that was so frequent that it was almost routine. He was surprised that there were still Sixth Division workers remaining to be caught. So many were arrested yet there were still break-ins practically every night. But, Sousuke wasn't really bothered by it. They never

found anything of note anymore and he was not such a trivial man to be bothered by meaningless attacks on him like that. So, his attention was focused on his boyfriend. Whatever it had happened that night, it had definitely scared Ichigo. The same Ichigo that hardly ever dared to show fear and would constantly put on a tough front no matter what the circumstance, It must have been terrifying to him. Sousuke could not help but think that there was a connection between the memorial's unexplained move and Ichigo's terror. Still, Ichigo was not superstitious and frequently made claims to not believing in ghosts of any kind, Ah, nothing makes sense! The pieces don't fit at all. Just, what am I missing? While he was so deep in thought, the time Ichigo was due to arrive came and went. After five more minutes passed, the passager door opened and closed, shaking Sousuke out of his pondering, "Ah, do forgive me, Ichigo. I-"

Chick-chick. Sousuke found himself staring right in the face of Kuchiki Byakuya and down the barrel of a shining revolver. Surprise soon turned into a cold feeling of dread as he remembered that there were no weapons in this car. It was the one he used to drive when he was still in the Gotei 13 and putting anything suspicious in it, no matter how well-hidden it was, would only lead to trouble. It was a habit he had not got out of yet and had no inclination to get out of until now,
"Byakuya," Sousuke kept his voice as calm as he could,

repressing his fear of the weapon pointing steadily at him as much as he could, "that's Ichigo's seat." "Not today." Byakuya's voice was low and threatening, made all the more scary by the ever-present cold tone in it, "You will not see Kurosaki again. I do hope you remembered to kiss him one last time." "I warn you, Byakuya," Sousuke allowed just a tiny hint of the immense rage he felt at the idea that Ichigo might be held captive or worse, "I will be very upset with you if you have hurt him in any way. And, it will not be only me who will be angered by your deeds, mark my words." "Don't trouble yourself with that. Kurosaki is a fool but not enough to earn my severe enmity. You, on the other hand, are another matter. You, who have escaped justice time and again, who manipulate everyone around you for your own sick pleasure-" "Byakuya, please." Sousuke's head began to ache. He knew what Byakuya was hinting at. Of course, it would be something to do with this. It always was, "how many times have we been through this before? I am innocent of anything that harmed Hisana and still grieve her loss." "Listening to you is worthless." Byakuya had lost patience and jabbed Sousuke in the hip with the revolver in a way that rendered the weapon invisible to anyone outside the car, "I only want you to do as I say. Refuse and I may change my mind about harming Kurosaki."

More anger bolted through Sousuke. He'd made a solemn oath to himself never to bring himself to hate Byakuya, as that would only cause more unjustified tension between them. He felt that breaking into pieces at the idea of this self-righteous fool holding Ichigo hostage like this. Still, he could not move. The revolver was still pointing right at him with Byakuya's finger at the trigger, "Now, drive and act as though nothing is wrong. I trust that isn't beyond you." Sousuke felt the hinted insult like a smack across the face but turned to the road before and started the engine. As he drove, he thought how he couldn't remember feeling this powerless in a long time. He was severely torn between wishing some of his Las Noches employees would come to the rescue and hoping none of them would see him in such a humiliating situation. With Byakuya directing him, he drove through the winding roads, feeling every bit of distance between him and the university like a stab through his heart. What would Ichigo think when he found no trace of Sousuke? Would he think something was wrong or dismissively think he must still be at the office? As the buildings around them became higher, he realised that he was being forced to go to the business district of town with many office blocks and (he recalled with a cold rush of remembered grief) where Hisana had her accident,

Is he intending to throw me off a building as well in some form of poetic justice he has imagined? He thought, Or, will he take me to the spot where she landed and shoot me there and then? Either way, he was very convinced that Byakuya was going to kill him. The other man's misguided anger had been simmering for too long and had got worse over time rather than better.
After taking a few deep breaths, Sousuke tried to pull his thoughts into thinking more clearly, I need to get away from Byakuya somehow. The direct approach is suicide. I cannot simply distract him and run. I know he's faster than me and would easily catch me up. And, nobody can outrun a bullet. Any clear attempt at escape will anger him and make him more likely to just shoot me. Then, when I am dead, then who will protect Ichigo from his wrath? I have no choice. All I can do for now is play along until I have an opportunity to attempt reasoning with him. He just wished he knew where Ichigo was and what was happening to him. That gap in his knowledge was even more frightening than having a gun pointed at him, "Stop here." Sousuke parked the car by the side of the road and turned off the engine, Now, what is he going to do? "Stay where you are." Byakuya got out of the car, hiding the gun in his pocket, marched around the front and opened the driver's door, "Out." Sousuke remained where he was, considering the implications of bringing the

engine back to life and driving away as fast as he could. Just as he moved his fingers back to the keys, a hand snatched some of his ungelled hair and gave it a painful tug, "Beware of disobeying me because my hand is staying at the gun." Resigned, Sousuke got out and locked the vehicle. The click of the lock rang rather loudly in his ears as a chance of escape was lost, "Now, go to the Inuzuri building. Go in via the fire exit at the back where no one will see you. Climb the stairs until we come out onto the roof. Do not think of pausing or straying from these orders or I will forget myself and you will regret it. Do you understand, Aizen Sousuke?" "I understand." Sousuke said, in a low voice, keeping one eye on the hand that held the gun, Ah, I knew it would be that one. It was the building where he first met Hisana...and where she had met with disaster. Swallowing hard, he turned around and strode as purposefully as he could towards the pedestrian crossing. The hated feeling of powerlessness returned in full swing. Here he was, in a public place, where he could alert anyone to his distress and his voice could only remain still. He kept his eyes down, not meeting anyone's eye. He could feel Byakuya behind him and the image of the gun was burned into his head. He hated this. He absolutely hated by caught unawares like this. He never thought he'd see the day when Byakuya of all people could

overpower him so easily like this. He hated being overpowered in any sense and he was completely powerless at this moment. The Inuzuri building loomed over him, looking higher than it ought to be even though it was one of the smallest buildings in the district. The image of Hisana lying prone in front of the entrance a few yards away from one of the benches scattered around the square surrounded by paramedics flashed before his eyes, making a wave of nausea wash over him. Taking a deep silent breath, he forced his legs to keep walking around the the back of the building. The fire exit seemed closer than he remembered. Or, was that because of his emotional state? The dank monochrome staircase stood before him, winding tightly in narrow squares around the wall. He had never been here, since this was only meant for cleaning staff and other lower forms of worker, but he knew those stairs must lead up to the roof. It was the middle of the day so everyone was in the many body of the building, doing their daily work. The cleaners would be there, as well, and wouldn't come here unless they needed supplies or the lift was broken,

Ah, this was planned carefully. If we take this route, no one will see us or interrupt whatever Byakuya wants to do to me. As he mounted the first step, he smiled to himself at how desperate Byakuya must have been to set up, And,

clearly, desperation is turning to madness. But, he did not try to reason with Byakuya yet. If he spoke or so much as turned around, there was no guarentee that Byakuya would hesistate to pull the trigger, No, I have to wait until I fulfilled the present orders before trying.
Up and up, they went. Sousuke did not look behind him, only steadily forward, imitating the kind of quietly accepting appearance one would see in a man being led to the gallows. Only peeling paint numbers on every other wall told him how far up they were. After passing the number five, the staircase ended and a door loomed before him. It was no different from any of the others really but, of course, what was beyond it really made his anxiety increase. He would not say it was fear that was increasing. No, he was not afraid of the gun behind him. He was simply scared for Ichigo and what might be happening to him. The door opened upon the command of his fingers and he stepped out onto the flat roof. There was no kind of barrier around the edge, which meant it was very easy for someone to fall from it. The idea made another wave of nausea hit him and he swallowed hard. He dared to turn around when he heard the door close behind him. The revolver was out again and Byakuya showed no signs of putting it away, "Byakuya-" "Did I say you could talk? Now, onto the edge."

Sousuke stood still. When the implications of this hit him, a voice very like Ichigo's burst into his head, saying, To hell with this! There's no way I'm going to let him push me off a building, gun or no gun! As though Ichigo had possessed him, a rush of restless energy went through him that would not stand for being controlled like this. He bolted to the side faster than Byakuya's arm could follow him and had the hand in a death-grip, moving around it and away from the barrel of the revolver. Congratulating himself on how agile he was, he managed to shake the gun from Byakuya's hand and pin his arm behind the thinner man's back. Byakuya struggled, of course, but Sousuke had the strength advantage over him so it was pointless. Feeling much more like his usual confident self at his victory, Sousuke gave Byakuya's arm another quick tug and copied Byakuya's menacing whisper from before, "I am a patient man but I will not tolerate this madness any further. We do the memory of Hisana wrong to quarrel like this." "The memory of Hisana?" Byakuya snarled, "Your memory is very tainted indeed if you thought you were ever worthy of Hisana's esteem." "Is that why you seek to murder me? Because you believe Hisana would rest easy?" "I know she would. I received definite proof of it." He reached his free hand into his pocket and drew out a small slip of thin writing paper with delicate writing upon

it. Sousuke was able to read it over his shoulder:

Kill him, my love. I cannot rest while Aizen Sousuke lives. I am in pain while my murderer lives. Grant me peace by ending his life.
"What is this?" A stab of rage and horror went through Sousuke at these few sentences, "I found it within the shrine dedicated to Hisana I have in my house. Do you deny that this is her hand?" "This is not her hand." Sousuke replied, sharply, "Every law of logic says that it is not. The paper is not old enough to have been used by Hisana and the writing is far too small." "It is her hand, you lying fiend!" Byakuya's voice rose and he dropped the paper in his struggle to reach the revolver, "And, it is her command to kill you!" "Compose yourself!" Sousuke raised his voice as well and gave Byakuya a hard shake, all patience leaving him at this constant refusal to see sense, I have endured this persecution for long enough! I will not bear it any longer! "Think for a moment! Hisana was the sweetest and gentlest woman either of us knew. She would never condone any kind of murder, let alone command someone she loved to do it!" "Even the gentlest of people have someone they want dead!" Byakuya insisted with that same stubborn

determination he'd possessed for years, "Byakuya, will you just listen to me?" Sousuke was shouting now, more and more rage replacing the patient composure that had restrained him until now, "Are you not the slightest bit suspicious about how the paper appeared in her shrine?" "Why else?" Byakuya was not to be swayed and writhed in Sousuke's grip like a caught fish, "It's obvious that Hisana's tormented ghost put it there!" "Are you insane, man?" It was amazing no one had come up to the roof to investigate the source of the noise by now for Sousuke's voice was raising ever louder with every second, "Are you so childish that you believe in ghosts that leave messages for the living?" "DON'T CALL ME CHILDISH!" Byakuya turned in Sousuke's arms, revealing his face. A face that did not resemble the stoic Kuchiki Byakuya at all. Hair was falling over his face, his eyes were wide with insanity and his whole countenance was twisted with mad anger, "I MAY BE GOING INSANE BUT I CARE NOT! I ONLY KNOW THAT YOUR DEATH WILL CURE ME!" Sousuke's shock at the sudden uncharacteristic rage from the smaller man made his arms loosen just for a second but that was enough to allow Byakuya to free himself and make a dive for the gun, "NO!" Sousuke's scream fell on deaf ears. Before he could reach him,

Byakuya had seized the weapon -

BANG!
Pain blossomed in his left side that threatened to blind him. Staggering back from the force of the bullet, Sousuke found the small hole at his waist. If only he had been a few inches to the side, he could have avoided it. Putting all his effort into remaining upright, he raised his head to stare at Byakuya on the ground before him. The dark-haired man looked quite surprised and bemused by his own doing and Sousuke supposed that he'd never shot a living person before. He registered this just before his vision began swimming. He could feel hot trickles of blood through his fingers where he was clutching the wound and knew that the wound was not superficial. The dim dark shape of Byakuya was rising and he could hear the sound of the safety catch being taken off again as though he was hearing it from the other end of a tunnel, Oh, God. He's really going to kill me. Panic was beginning to rise within him and he stumbled forward, not really knowing which way was the right one.

BANG! BANG!
A roar of shocked rage followed the loud gunshots, echoing through the warehouse. Shiro immediatly leapt off Ichigo, who wasted no time in getting away from his crazed cousin as fast as he could before turning his

attention to who had the gun. Upon one of the walkways just below the high windows was Starrk, a smoking pistol in each hand. Ichigo's heart soared at the sight of him, Thank God! Another grunt of pain made him look round and he saw a quite unhurt Shiro being wrestled to the ground by Ulquiorra, who was showing an amazing amount of strength for someone his size. A hand was held out to him and he was helped up by a woman he did not know but who had a nice friendly smile which immediately put him at ease. Her most striking feature was her long sea-green hair flowing out from under a thick woolly hat adorned with the big picture of a skull that covered everything above her eyebrows. Stark strode lazily down a set of metal stairs, stuffing his guns into the inside pockets of his jacket, "I didn't shoot your cousin." He said, at once, "I just fired a couple of warning shots. I don't like shooting someone who isn't armed in front of a lady. It isn't right to me." The woman gave Starrk a glowing look before watching Ulquiorra impassively lead Shiro away, who kicked and screamed all the way, "This ain't over! You're gonna be mine, Ichigo! Nothin' can stop me!" "How did that guy escape prison until now?" Starrk asked, his dark brows contracting, "He hasn't." Ichigo said, at once, "He's been in juvie

twice and prison once. For pretty minor stuff, mind. Shoplifting, brawling, y'know. We was only put away for a couple of months each time." "I see." Starrk nodded, "He's going to be in for a big shock if he thinks he's going to get that treatment again. I have a feeling Aizen-sama will not let this go lightly." "He'd better not." Ichigo nodded, fiercely, "I'll make him sleep on the sofa for a month if he doesn't!" A loud laugh came from behind him and Ichigo looked round to see Grimmjow standing behind him, grinning wickedly while holding up the limp forms of Loly and Menoly, "That'll get him moving if nothing else does. You looking like that and all." He gestured at Ichigo's naked chest. Ichigo was able to laugh at this comment because he knew Grimmjow didn't mean anything perverted by it. Unlike Shiro. Starrk helpfully threw his fur-lined coat over Ichigo's shoulders and led him to their car parked outside the warehouse. Blinking at the sunlight, Ichigo now realised that he was on an industrial estate outside town, full of rusting machinary and derilict warehouses. He'd only ever been close to this place once before when he was a child (and it was an eyesore then too). They had been passing the place in the car when his mother was alive and she had said it was like that because no one knew what to do with it. She also warned her children never to go near it on their own.

Grimmjow and the unknown woman accompied Ichigo in Starrk's car while Ulquiorra drove Loly, Menoly and Shiro to the police station in another car. Grimmjow grumbled as he took his seat in the open-top car, saying how he wished he could have kicked them around a little before they had to go. This earned a hard glare from the woman before she said, "There's no reason to harm them excessively. They were incapacitated and that is enough for anyone. Honestly, Grimmjow, you sound just like Nnoitra sometimes." "Hey!" Grimmjow yelled indignantly, "I'm not like that eyepatch freak!" "Uh, sorry," Ichigo interrupted, intending to stop Grimmjow shouting more than anything, "but, who are you?" "Oh! I'm sorry!" The woman jumped a little, her teacoloured eyes widening in a child-like kind of way, "How rude of me! I'm Neliel Tul Odelschwanck." "You try saying that when you're drunk." Grimmjow muttered to Ichigo, grinning. Neliel ignored him and added, "You can just call me Nel if you like. Everyone does. And, of course, I know who you are. Kurosaki Ichigo, Aizensama's beloved boyfriend!" She actually clapped her hands excitedly, grinning like a little child would to her best friend. Ichigo wasn't quite sure how to take this

enthusiasm so he just asked, "Ah, are you an Espada?" "Former Espada. I used to be the Tercera before I quit. I'm one of Hallibel's personal assistants now." "Why did you quit?" Ichigo's question made her fact darken, "I couldn't stand Nnoitra and being an Espada meant I had to work with him more often than ordinary employees. The final straw was when he did this." She pulled up her hat and revealed a long scar splitting her forehead in two and disappearing under her hair. Ichigo was no expert on scars but he had the feeling that a really serious blow had created it, "I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he got to me at first but enough was enough. I let Hallibel take my place and she was kind enough to give me a job just under her." "Nnoitra wasn't too happy when Hallibel got the job, though." Starrk pointed out, "He's a real woman-hater, y'know. Doesn't like women being in a higher position than him. He was more than a bit annoyed when Hallibel replaced Nel." Nel just smiled contently at this and pulled out her phone, "I'd better message everyone to tell them Ichigo's safe." "Hey, how d'you know I was kidnapped?"

"Tousen told us. He was at the police station, trying to get them to press charges against those Sixth Division guys breaking in all the time. They got the call about you being kidnapped and he overheard. So, he sent a message to Aizen-sama, Ichimaru-sama and all the Espada to find you." "Seriously?" Ichigo was stunned by this news. He had the impression from the few meetings he'd had with Tousen that the man didn't like him very much, "Yeah." Grimmjow nodded, " 'He is Aizen-sama's lover. You must find him unharmed at all costs or it'll be the worse for all of us', he said. Anyway, Szayel tracked down the bitches' car, we teamed together and headed over there." "Szayel?" The name sounded vaguely familiar from one of his conversations with Sousuke, "Octava Espada. The eighth." Nel said, at once, not looking away from her phone, "He specialises in technology and I suppose he used that to track the car. I'm not too sure how. I don't understand technology very well." "Well, we don't need to know." Starrk stated, as the warehouses disappeared from sight, "The less we know about what Szayel does, the better, that's what I say. What we do need to know is that it brought us there and Ichigo's safe and sound. No doubt, Aizen-sama will be

pleased." "Wait," Ichigo realised that there was another gap in his knowledge, "who made the call?" "Uh, some guy named Abarai, I think." Starrk scratched his head awkwardly, "Or, was it Agarai? Why?" "Well, I was kidnapped from his car." Ichigo explained, "My lecture was cancelled and Renji offered to give me a lift after he made a stop at his house. His girlfriend wasn't at uni so he was going to check if she was at home. I was snatched when I was waiting for him." "I see. Suspicious." Starrk nodded, grimly, "But, Renji isn't the kinda guy to do something like that." Ichigo insisted. Renji was too much of a blunt instrument to be part of a plan like this, "Rukia, maybe." He added, as an afterthought, "Hang on." Grimmjow interrupted all of a sudden, "Wasn't Rukia that rich girl I held upside down last week?" "Yep." "Must of been her, then." Grimmjow said, in a way that sounded like that settled the matter, "We don't know that." Nel put in, sternly, "And, why did you hold her upside down, Grimmjow?" "Either way," Starrk spoke in a tone that suggested an endevour to stop a fight, "I think maybe we should visit

this Abarai's house and demand an explanation. Don't worry," He added, as Grimmjow opened his mouth in indignation, "if they've got a Plan B, I'll be ready." He patted his jacket and his pistols clanked merrily. Everyone lapsed into silence apart from Ichigo giving directions to Renji's house. As they drove, Ichigo became more sure that Renji may have had a part in it and perhaps not known it. Perhaps Rukia had told him to bring him over without telling him why or something and then told him to call the police to take suspicion off herself. The house reappeared and, this time, police cars were parked outside along with an expensive-looking car with a very odd pair of people. One was a severe-looking woman with neat dark hair in a bun and a new-looking black suit. The other was a man that looked like a former hippy with long scruffy hair pulled back into a ponytail and what looked like a long pink ladies' kimono over a black suit similiar to the woman's. He even wore a wide-brimmed straw hat; the kind that Ichigo's dad would wear so ridiculously on beach holidays (and when he had a death wish), "Kyoraku-san." The name snapped into his head when he saw the kimono. Who else would wear that kind of thing in broad daylight? Ichigo was convinced that he'd done so many drugs during his time as a hippy that it affected his brain permanently and killed his fashion sense. He'd only met Kyoraku twice during big gatherings with massive amounts of alcohol to be supped and the man was fairly

good company (until he started being a bit too friendly with the women present). He had even claimed that he would put in a good word for Ichigo when he applied for a job at the Gotei 13. All before he met Sousuke, of course, "Who?" Grimmjow was eyeing Kyoraku in the same unimpressed look he'd worn when observing Keigo and Mizuiro, "The Eighth Division captain in the Gotei 13. That woman there's Ise Nanao, his fukutaichou." "Fuck, seriously?" Grimmjow voiced the thoughts of everyone who found out who important Kyoraku was, "The woman, I can understand, but him? Hah, he makes Starrk look like Szayel!" Starrk said nothing to this but parked the car behind Kyoraku's and called out, "Hey, Kyoraku-taichou!" Kyoraku looked round, casting his lazy eyes over the group getting out of the car and fixing on Ichigo, "Oh? Kurosaki-kun, is that you?" "Yeah." Ichigo was the first to approach him while the group of Espada lagged behind, glaring at the captain warily, "What's going on? Why are you guys here?" "Ah, well," Kyoraku scratched the back of his neck rather guiltily, "we were in the house with Kuchiki-san when you were snatched. I saw it out the window. Sorry I couldn't

do anything to help. Though," He peered over Ichigo's shoulder with interest at Grimmjow, Starrk and Nel (particularly Nel), "looks like you were okay without. Hey, c'mon over here, guys! I don't bite. These friends of yours, Kurosaki-kun? I don't think I've seen them before." Nel was the first to introduce herself, smiling more happily than ever and inclining her head, "I'm Neliel Tul Odelschwanck, the Former Tercera Espada. Nice to meet you, Kyoraku-taichou!" "Coyote Starrk. I'm the Primera." Starrk said, in a much more relaxed way, looking at Kyoraku with his head to one side, "I'm the Sexta, Grimmjow Jaeggerjaques." Grimmjow gave him a curt nod, though he was still looking disdainful, "Uh..." Kyoraku looked a lot more awkward and quickly turned to his annoyed fukutaichou like a clueless tourist appealing to an interpreter to translate something a foreign person said to him, "Nanao-chan..." With a small irritated noise, Nanao pushed her glasses up her nose and said, "The Espada are the top ten elite employees of the Las Noches Corporation. Only Tousen, Ichimaru and Aizen are higher. Here present are the first, the former third and sixth most powerful." She pointed each respective Espada as she said their number with the pen that had previously been stuck behind her

ear, "Surely, you remember Kuchiki-taichou telling you two meetings ago?" She ended her explanation with a sharp glare in her blushing captain's direction, "Hey, you know I'm not good at remembering stuff that happens in the evening. That's why I brought you along so you could remember for me-ow! That was mean, Nanaochan!" This comment had earned a hard whack from her handbag on the head. Grimmjow looked like he didn't know whether to laugh or be disgusted by this performance, "Anyway, nice to meet you guys. I'm the Eighth Division Captain, Kyoraku Shunsei. Though, I guess Ichigo told you that already." "Likewise, Kyoraku-taichou." Starrk and Kyoraku shook hands. Then, Nel bounced forward and took his hand eagerly (Ichigo had the impression that she loved meeting new people). A little reluctantly (and much less enthusiastically), Grimmjow followed suit. Ichigo was very glad Kyoraku resisted the urge to make some kind of lewd comment in Nel's direction, "Anyway," Kyoraku adjusted his hat a little and motioned for them all to follow him, "you should all come inside so all of us can get the whole story on what happened." With that, the six of them filed into the house. As soon as they opened the front door, Ichigo could hear a shrill female voice screaming from within, "...didn't help! You just sat there!"

"No, you just sat there! I did my utmost to stop them kidnapping him, didn't I, Ukitake-taichou?" "Ukitake-san's here, as well?" Ichigo said, half-to himself. He'd recognise the grating voices of his third seats anywhere. Kyoraku raised his voice over the shouting, "Okay, panic over! Kurosaki-kun's here, alive and well!" There was a scramble from the living room and a whitehaired head poked around the door, "Oh, thank goodness!" Ukitake Jushiro was long-haired like his old friend, Kyoraku, which suggested he had probably been a hippy in his youth too. The reason for his white hair was some kind of lung illness he had that meant he had to work from home most of the time. A trickle of blood coming from his mouth told Ichigo he had recently had a bad fit, "Are you alright, Kurosaki-san? Are you hurt?" "I'm fine." His stomach was still hurting a bit but a quick feel around his middle told him that no bones were broken so he supposed it would be alright after a while. Perhaps there was a bit of bruising but nothing major, "Las Noches people saved him." Kyoraku announced, a goofy smile on his face, "And, they're Espada!" "Oh!" Ukitake gave a small start at the sight of Grimmjow, Starrk and Nel, "Well, ah, how do you do? I'm Ukitake Jushiro, Captain of the Thirteenth Division in the Gotei 13. Would you like to come through? Kuchiki-

san is just making some tea." "What is this? A Gotei 13 secret headquarters?" Grimmjow muttered, "Quiet, Grimmjow." Nel gave him a hard jab in his side with her elbow, "The least we can do is accept their hospitality without complaint." "Hmm, these Gotei 13 types are more friendly than I thought they'd be." Starrk commented to Ichigo, looking a bit more awake than before, "Not all of them are." Ichigo replied at once, a picture of Byakuya appearing in his mind. The living room was spacious and well-furnished with many sofas and chairs which was very lucky because at least a dozen people crowded into it, all staring at him. Ichigo had no time to identify them all since something small ran straight into him, knocking him straight to the ground and making pain flare in his middle again, "Oof!" The only answer he got was loud sobbing coming from around his middle. Looking down, he saw the top of a black head buried in Starrk's borrowed jacket, "Wha...Rukia?" "Yuh...you're..alive...oh, Ichigo!" She was barely coherant through her incessant sobbing and Ichigo had no idea why she was acting like this. Didn't she scream at him and call him a 'fucking queer' just a week ago? Or was that some weird woman-code for something else?

"Hey...hey, Rukia. C'mon, gerroff." "I yuh-yelled at you before it happened! I thought th-the last thing I ever said to you would be that I hated you!" She let out a loud wail and beat her fists against Ichigo's chest, bawling, "Now, now, Kuchiki-san," Ukitake gallantly came to the rescue and gently levered her away from Ichigo onto her feet, "he's alright so there's no need to worry anymore. Now, why don't you go and have some nice strong tea to calm yourself down?" Sniffling, Rukia allowed herself to be led out by her kindly captain with his third seats ambling out behind him. When she was gone, Grimmjow gave a long low whistle, "God Almighty, she knows how to turn on the waterworks." "She's not normally like that." Ichigo said, still a little shaky from what just happened, "I've never seen her cry before until a week ago." "Neither have I." Renji stood up and approached, face very white so his tattoos stood out more than ever, "You should have seen her when you were first snatched. Fuckin' hell, she was screaming like a banshee for at least fifteen minutes!" "Well, Kurosaki," One of the police officers scattered around the room finally came forward, "you certainly have a knack for getting kidnapped and then coming back

completely unharmed. Do that again and we might not respond." "That's fine." Grimmjow shrugged, nonchalantly, "We didn't need you guys anyway." The officers glowered furiously at him and Grimmjow just glanced around the room with mild interest without the slightest bit of fear, "One more bit of cheek out of you, Jaeggerjaques, and you'll be sorry." Starrk cleared his throat just as Grimmjow opened his mouth, snatching away any chance that he would say something that got him into trouble, "An associate of ours has apprehended the culprits. He's probably at the police station by now, dropping them off." "I see." The same officer turned his glower on Starrk, "They wouldn't happen to be suffering from bullet wounds, would they?" "Of course not." Starrk said as though the officer had asked something as trivial as what clothes Shiro, Loly and Menoly had been wearing, "None of them were armed and two of them were women, after all." So, the police all trapsed outside, muttering amongst themselves in a grumpy way. When all of them were gone, Grimmjow growled, "Frickin' pigs. Always more interested in putting ya away than accepting any help from ya. Ya steal a toothpick and they don't wanna know that you've got the address of the country's most wanted guy

written down in yer pocket. Even when you don't want to be let off in return. They'd better not give Ulquiorra any shit or I will give them a reason to put me away." "A jailbird, huh?" A voice came from the window and Ichigo's heart stopped when he saw a hairless head shine in the sunlight. Madarame Ikkaku was lounging on the windowseat with his best friend, Ayasegawa Yumichika, by his side, "Heh, you've got yourself some interesting new friends, Ichigo." "Huh?" Grimmjow turned his eyes on Ikkaku, a feral grin appearing on his face, "What d'ya mean by 'interesting', huh, cue ball?" That did it. Ichigo knew it would happen as soon as the words left Grimmjow's mouth. Ikkaku's eye twitched and, in a second, he had charged, fists raised. Grimmjow's grin extended, tripling in ferocity at the prospect of a fight. Just like every Eleventh Division member did. Within seconds, Ikkaku was on the floor and everyone in the room was staring at the man they had once thought to be one of the strongest in the country being unceremoniously thrown down, "Urgh..." Ikkaku tugged himself up onto his elbows, glaring up at a still-grinning Grimmjow, "...fuck...I went down with one hit. Then again," The grin reappeared, "I guess I can't expect less from the guys who put Zarakitaichou in hospital."

Grimmjow gave a menacing laugh and took a step forward, "Ya want me to put you in a bed next to him?" "Stop it." Nel's calm voice put a halt to everything. Like her boss, she had the talent of speaking calmly but keeping a threatening edge to it, "There is no reason to start unnecessary fights. Battling without a good reason is the province of mindless animals, not us humans. This isn't even the right place for it. Now, stop this at once so we can tell everyone what happened in the warehouse." There was a long wait before Grimmjow relaxed and leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets, glaring at Ikkaku, "Ya're lucky she was here or I would have turned ya into a stain on the carpet." "Hmm," Yumichika said to Nel, "you dealt with that quite beautifully, Miss..." "Neliel Tul Odelschwanck, former Tercera Espada. Nel for short. That's Grimmjow Jaeggerjaques, Sexta Espada, and this is the Primera, Coyote Starrk." "Well," Kyoraku spoke from the corner, who'd clearly sat down while everyone else was occupied and had already located Renji's beer stash, "now that the newcomers are all introduced, let's hear the tale of Kurosaki-kun's capture!" Ichigo didn't like the way Kyoraku had phrased that; it sounded too much like it was a gripping story of heroism and not like reality at all. Nevertheless, he told the small

group what had happened, trying not to make it sound melodramatic. Ikkaku made an approving grunt when he heard about Ichigo knocking out Loly and Menoly and, when he said that Shiro had intended to rape him, a newly returned Rukia gave a small scream of horror, "Something I want to know," Ichigo put in after Starrk finished with a short account of how Ichigo was found, "is what you guys were doing here in the first place." "Ah, well..." Colour started to come back into Renji's face, steadily turning it the colour of his hair, "...y'see...Rukia invited all these other guys here and I didn't know!" He added, at the look on Ichigo's face, "I was just took you here because I really did want to know what Rukia was up to and I thought that would only take a couple of seconds." "Why were you so eager to give Ichigo a lift?" Grimmjow asked, bluntly, his suspicions clear to everyone in the room, "Hey!" Renji became angry at once, his furrowed eyebrows making his tattoos wrinkle in a weird kind of way, "I wasn't involved in that! I was taking him to avoid him being kidnapped!" "What?" Ichigo blinked, not knowing what to make of this information, "Yeah." Renji's face smoothed out as he turned to his friend, "I noticed that psycho hanging around the

university with those chicks. Whenever we came out of lectures, I'd see them and they were always staring right at you and you didn't even notice. Well, I didn't like the way they were looking at you a bit. I always said to myself, 'they wanna do something horrible to him'. They'd always leave pretty soon after Aizen picked you up, though, so, today, I thought they might take the opportunity to get you 'cos Aizen wasn't there." "So," Ichigo said, slowly, trying to put all the pieces together, "you gave me a lift to try and stop them kidnapping me?" "Well, yeah." Renji glanced down at the floor in an awkward kind of way, "Didn't really work, did it? Fuck, they must have followed us but I didn't even notice them! I thought it would be okay to leave you alone so I turned my back for a moment and they grab you!" "Wait a minute," Grimmjow interrupted, still scowling, "if you knew they were up to something, why didn't you tell him?" "Well, ah..." Renji bounced on the balls of his feet for a moment before saying, "...I didn't want to worry him. He's got enough on his plate already, you know. And, I didn't know they'd do something as bad as that." Grimmjow's doubts could not sway Ichigo. At that moment, he felt nothing but great gratitude to his friend for his efforts to protect him and a great sense of self-

condemnation for not noticing that kind of thing sooner. After a moment, he turned his attention to the still unanswered question, "But, why were all of you here? You weren't trying to persuade me out of going out with Sousuke again, are you?" The Gotei 13-induced headache began to return, God, when is this going to end? "Hasn't this gone on long enough?" Nel's voice was sharper, though still keeping its sweetness, "This persecution has been going on far too long and dragging Ichigo into all this is just unnecessary and childish." "Yeah." Grimmjow spat, raising his fists again, "Don't you have better things to do than pick on us all the time, huh?" "You're right." Ukitake closed his eyes and lowered his head in shame, "You're absolutely right. We have been terribly unfair to the Las Noches Corporation and you have every right to be angry. All of us here believe this and that's why we came here. We intended to have a frank conversation with Ichigo about Aizen, just to make sure he's being treated well and he'll be safe with him." Ichigo blinked dumbly again. Fair treatment was so strange to him after enduring months of unfair judgment. It took him a while before he could feel properly grateful towards Ukitake and a sense of relief that all this trouble might be drawing to a close at last, "Well, that would be nice," Grimmjow was still scowling,

not convinced at all, "but something still doesn't smell right. I know those two over there," He gestured at Ikkaku and Yumichika, "tried to break into Aizen-sama's house to tell him to break up with Ichigo and I was there when she," He jabbed a finger at Rukia, "told Ichigo that she wouldn't care if he died. Why the sudden change of heart?" "Well, I was angry then, wasn't I?" Rukia snapped, glaring up at Grimmjow (she had crane her neck even higher to look him in the face because he was so tall), "I didn't mean what I said because I was so furious. I regretted it once I'd calmed down." "When Zaraki-taichou was hospitalised, we were starting to regret what we were doing too." Ikkaku put in, "We saw you out with Aizen and your friends and you looked happy enough." "It was seeing you kick Ichimaru into the air that convinced us." Yumichika nodded, "Not to mention, it was very funny." "You kicked Ichimaru?" Renji repeated, staring at Ichigo incredulously, "He was being a creep." Ichigo shrugged, "Hasn't changed a bit, then." Ikkaku said, "Anyway, we watched you for a bit and we thought, 'He's fine. He's no different from before and he doesn't look like he's being controlled.' It was a wrench realising that, believe me,

but we decided that you were okay together after all. Besides, if you can beat Ichimaru in a fight, you wouldn't have much a problem defeating Aizen." Grimmjow gave a small laugh at this idea, "Him defeating Aizen? Huh, that'll be the day!" Rukia then edged up to Ichigo and said in a quiet voice that was covered by Grimmjow and Ikkaku's argument, "Ichigo, um...you don't believe in ghosts, right?" "No, I don't." Ichigo lowered himself to her level, realising that she wanted to keep this conversation private, "Why?" "Well, do you know any other explanation for a letter from a dead person appearing in their shrine? Renji's not being very helpful." "Huh?" Ichigo frowned, bewildered, though he had a funny idea that he knew what she was aluding to, "Well..." She put a hand in her pocket and drew out a neatly folded sheet of writing paper, "...I found this in Nee-sama's memorial this morning."

I was right. Ichigo unfolded the paper, hoping to find some clue to indicate what this might be going on. He could not help but feel that this and Hisana's moving shrine in Sousuke's house was connected. The letter was written in small, girlish writing: Don't worry about Ichigo. He will see sense soon or it will

be forced upon him. Aizen Sousuke will pay for his crimes and will not keep his hold on Ichigo for long.
Ichigo stared at it, amazed. It sounded horribly like the letter was predicting that Ichigo would be kidnapped. The look on Rukia's face told him she probably thought the same thing, There's NO SUCH THING as ghosts. Ichigo told himself, firmly. Just to convince himself more than her, he said, "I think Shiro told Loly or Menoly to fake it and put it in the shrine last night." Rukia looked incredibly reassured by this, nodding, "You're probably right. It just gave a bit of a shock, that's all. I wasn't in a good mood when I woke up today so I couldn't really think rationally. You know me. I'm always emotional when it comes to Nee-sama. So does Nii-sama. Plus, Renji was full of ghost stories so he didn't help a bit. Hmm...yes, I bet he got in through that hole in the garage. I knew it wasn't boarded up properly. If I go in there and find that he did, I'll nail Renji's head to the floor! Oh, and, Ichigo, before I forget, has Nii-sama been calling you lately?" "No." Ichigo shook his head. He didn't think Byakuya even had his number, let alone the desire to talk to him, "Well, he called me a few days ago, asking me for your number. I did ask him why he wanted it but he didn't say." Just then, a phone beeped, immediately distracting

Ichigo from this new mystery, and Nel whipped out hers with an embarrassed kind of smile, "Sorry. That's just messages from the other Las Noches people who were looking for Ichigo. Let's see, ah, Hallibel says 'good work, I hope he's okay', Szayel says 'I knew my technology would lead us to him', Tousen-sama says 'well done, I will ensure his captors are brought to justice' and Ichimarusama says 'thank god, I bet Aizen-taichou's going nuts'." "Anything from Sousuke?" Ichigo asked, suddenly desperate to hear from him when he realised how worried he must have been and completely distracted from the mystery note, "Uh, let's see..." Her face fell as she tapped many buttons and scanned the screen, "...no. That's odd." "That is." Grimmjow nodded, "If Ulquiorra had been kidnapped, I'd definitely be going nuts." "Yeah." Ichigo too felt his mood take a downturn. Then, he remembered, "Oh! Sousuke's phone's being repaired so it can't get any messages." "Oh, yeah." Grimmjow nodded, laughing as though indulging in a fond memory, "I saw Zommari break it and you should have seen him squirm when Aizen-sama found out! I love it when Aizen-sama gets angry at someone else. It's a real nice change." "Well, I'd better call Hirako-san, anyway." Ichigo mused aloud, "He's probably heard about it by now. Is my phone

still in your car, Renji?" "Yeah, I'll get it." He hastened from the room and returned with Ichigo's perfectly intact bag, where every one of his books and belongings were in the right place. It felt slightly unreal to see this normality after such a dramatic ordeal but it was a nice kind of unreal as he found his phone undamaged in his bag. There were no messages and no missed calls. Refusing to be daunted, Ichigo tapped in Hirako's number and waited. On the third ring. Hirako's voice cut over the ringing, remarkably calm and relaxed, "Hey, Ichigo. Did you finish early?"

He doesn't know. The numb realisation came over him, cutting off his voice completely. His thought screeched to a halt and it wasn't until Hirako spoke again that they ground back into action again,
"Ichigo, are you still there?" "Uh, yeah. Uh, Hirako-san, my lecture was cancelled so I finished ages ago." "Why didn't you say? I could have picked you up. It's my day off today. Wait, you haven't got into trouble, have you?" "Uh, I did. I was, ah, kidnapped, actually-" "WHAT?" Ichigo had to hold the phone away from his ear to stop himself going deaf when Hirako shouted, "DO

YOU NEED ME TO GET THE POLICE? HAVE YOU ESCAPED?"


"It's okay, Hirako-san." Ichigo said over the panicked yelling, "I've been rescued already and the police are dealing with the kidnappers. I'm okay. Just stop yelling in my ear, will you?" "Oh, thank God. Geez, don't scare me like that." "I was just telling you what happened. Anyway, I was calling because Sousuke's phone's broken and I wanted to tell him I'm okay." "Oh, right. Well, Sousuke's just gone out to pick you up at uni, you see. We didn't have a clue what was happening until now. Boy, is he going to get a shock when he gets home!" "So, what are we going to do?" "Well, I could pick you up and take my car to the uni to meet Sousuke if you want." "Yeah. Actually, I'm not too far away so I'm okay with walking." "Nah, I'll pick you up. It'll just save some time." So, Ichigo gave him Renji's address and the conversation was ended. When he put his phone away, Ukitake asked, "Were you just talking to Hirako Shinji?" When Ichigo nodded, he gave a small gasp of surprise, "My goodness, I haven't seen him in years!"

"Neither have I!" Kyoraku nodded, peering out of the window eagerly. In a few minutes, Hirako's flashy-looking car pulled up where one of the police cars had been before, making Ikkaku and Renji stare in admiration at the shining vehicle. Ukitake and Kyoraku hurried outside to greet him and, as soon as Hirako had got out, there was a lot of happy calling out between them that it had been a long time, they were glad to see each other and how long their hair had become since they had last seen each other. As this was going on (and a few people in the room were asking each other who the hell Hirako was), Ichigo's phone blared loudly, annoucing the arrival of a message. Looking down, he saw a number he didn't recognise. Thinking it was perhaps the phone company trying to sell him something, he pressed the read button without really looking at the message. His attention was caught very rapidly when he read the perfectly written message:

You will find Aizen Sousuke's body in front of the Inuzuri building within the hour.
His blood froze in his veins, his bones turning to stone with horror. His eyes widened as he read the message over and over again, trying to deny what was written there. After a few dragging seconds, Starrk noticed the look on Ichigo's face and looked over his shoulder at the

words. His eyes opened to a size previously thought impossible of him and his voice had more life in it than ever, "Uh, guys! We've got a problem!" There was a slight scuffle as everyone tried to read the dreadful message. Hirako, whose ample height allowed him to see over other people, gave a cry of, "Holy shit!" before Ukitake read the number and gasped, "That's Byakuya's number!" "Well, what are we doing, standing around here then?" Hirako screamed, "We need to get to the Inuzuri building and stop him! C'mon! C'mon!" "Okay, okay." Kyoraku cut calmly across his terrified rantings, looking unusually serious, "Me and Jushiro will go to Inuzuri with our fukutaichous and third seats. Hirako-san and Kurosaki-kun can come with us. Ikkakusan, Yumichika-san, Kuchiki-san and Abarai-san, go to the Gotei 13 headquarters and tell them what's happened. Espadas, make contact with the Las Noches people." "Okay, okay, let's go!" Hirako was already at the door, pulling out his keys with frantic energy that Ichigo shared. He followed Hirako outside and leapt into the car, almost forgetting to put on his seatbelt. Though he was grateful that Kyoraku had organised everyone, he was painfully aware of how much time had elapsed between receiving the message and getting into the car. The needle of Hirako's speedometer whizzed to the

other side of the dial as he peeled away from the pavement and shot down the road like a bat out of hell. On every corner, the breaks squealed as though in agony and the car tilted to a terrifying angle, inches away from turning on its side. Hirako honked his horn loudly to warn drivers and pedestrians around them of their haste. Cars skidded all over the place wherever they went. People screamed and ran for their lives when the vehicle got too close to the pavement. But neither of the people in the car cared. All that mattered was to get to the Inuzuri building immediately. They didn't even pay attention to the screaming police cars behind them, "That's a good thing!" Hirako said, as they whooshed into the business district of town, "We need some police to get Byakuya and it'll save us calling them! We can just lead them straight there now." Finally, they reached a big square, lined with buildings of all different shapes and sizes. Before them was a large square full of people and pigeons, milling around and probably on their coffee break. After a moment's frantic searching, they found a space by the side of the road, screeching into it and miraculously not bumping any of the cars around them. Ichigo sprang out and nearly got run over by one of the police cars that screaching to a halt around them, blocking the flow of traffic both ways. Hirako may believe it was a good thing that they were brought here

but Ichigo now saw it as a hindrance. They would not tell them where the Inuzuri building was or even believe them when Ichigo explained that Sousuke was in danger. They only wanted to ask him stupid questions about whether they knew what the speed limit was and whether they'd had been drinking before getting into the car. Ichigo was really beginning to sympathesise with Grimmjow. In frustration, Ichigo showed them the message on his phone that was still flashing on the screen just as one of the officers pulled out a breathaliser. It was only then that they started to take Ichigo seriously but too much time had been wasted already. When some of the officers dispersed to hurry towards one of the lower buildings, Ichigo spotted Kyoraku's car parked not to far away from Sousuke's. This gave him both a rush of relief and fear. Sousuke was definitely here, along with Kyoraku and Ukitake. The two captains were probably already at the Inuzuri building but it also made the horrible possibility of Byakuya murdering Sousuke all the more vivid in his mind. As he ignored the police telling Hirako that he should have called them instead of driving like a maniac across town and putting innocent civilians at risk, Ichigo kept his eyes on what he guessed was the Inuzuri building. Every bone in his body was tense, waiting for something to happen.

BANG!

A shockwave went through the whole square at the sound of the gunshot. People screamed (some even ducking and staring around wildly for the gunman), the pigeons flapped madly into the air and the police officers immediately lost interest in Hirako's reckless driving. Ichigo's legs seemed to be rooted to the spot as he stared at the Inuzuri building. There was no breaking window or falling body but that only made him more anxious than ever. What was going on in there? Had the shot missed or hit its target? Was it Byakuya or Sousuke doing the shooting? After several long minutes, in which Ichigo didn't move an inch, the police began coming out. Ichigo's legs finally remembered how to move again and he hurried across the square at breakneck speed, Hirako right behind him. Among them was the restrained figure of Byakuya, his hands held behind his back and his hair all over his face. When he saw Ichigo, he glowered angrily with the most emotion Ichigo had ever seen from him but did not say anything. Ukitake came out behind him, with his thirds seats and Nanao behind him. She was on the phone and Ichigo just managed to catch what she was saying, "...need an ambulence immediately. Come to the Inuzuri building..." Ice cascaded into Ichigo's stomach at what this implied. He immediately presumed the worst: that Byakuya had shot Sousuke and it was a critical blow. Hirako clearly

thought so too as he stood beside Ichigo on tiptoe, frantically searching for Sousuke. At last, he gave a cry that could be either joy or horror and raced forward towards the door. Ichigo followed blindly until he saw Kyoraku, walking carefully out of the door, supporting a slumped figure clutching his side, "Sousuke!" Hirako and Ichigo's mingled cries made him look up. His face was pale, making his brown hair look darker, and one hand was clutched at his side. As Hirako demanded to know what had happened, Ichigo hurried to his lover, "Sousuke, are you okay? Are you hurt?" "Well..." His voice was low but not strained or weak. He glanced down at his side and moved his hand so Ichigo could see the heart-stopping sight of blood staining his clothes, "...I can't say I've had worse but...I think I'll live." Ichigo sat the dinner table opposite Hirako, only eating because he was obliged to and not because he was remotely hungry. The food slid down his throat in a weird, uncomfortable kind of way, which made him unable to taste a thing. By the look on Hirako's face, the other man was feeling exactly the same way. The both of them were just chewing and swallowing, not really eating. All their thoughts were fixed on Sousuke, who was resting upstairs. He'd only spent a few hours in the

hospital where his condition was stabalised and the bullet was taken out. Hirako had insisted he was taken out of hospital and brought back to his house where he could recover. Apparently, Sousuke hated hospitals because (as Hirako told him later) it reminded him of the events with Hisana that he'd rather forget. Like the time she told him it was over between them. It was agreed grudgingly that, while Sousuke was still recovering, Ichigo couldn't sleep with him. There was the risk that he'd roll over in his sleep and aggravate the wound. Sex was absolutely out of the question too. So, not liking the idea of sleeping by himself in the big house, Ichigo decided to return to his old apartment and spend the nights there. A decision he soon came to regret because, when Keigo and the others found out what had happened to both Ichigo and Sousuke, it was like all hell had been let loose in the apartment building. Keigo's madness was unstoppable and even Mizuiro couldn't keep calm enough to restrain him. Orihime kept wanting to do a check-up on him every fifteen minutes (she was a medical student and seemingly knew about everything that could go wrong in the body), Ishida kept calling him an idiot, Tatsuki gave him lengthy lectures on how he should have kicked Shiro's ass before he got on top of him and Chad wordlessly insisted on walking him to and from the bus stop every day in case Shiro broke out for another go.

Ichigo was amazed no reporters hassled him on top of all this. But, he supposed that the Gotei 13 and Las Noches combined had something to do with it. He frequently met Grimmjow or Starrk around because they 'just happened to be in the neighbourhood'. Whenever they said that, Ichigo would just say, "You can say you're keeping an eye on me, y'know." Renji and Rukia also made it their mission to keep away nosy students (and, sometimes, lecturers) at the university wanting a first hand account of Ichigo's experience. Ichigo could only guess that they were trying to make up for being unintentionally involved in it. In addition, Ichigo's kidnapping had been remarkably downplayed in the media compared to Sousuke's shooting. Shiro, Loly and Menoly were both going to be on trial in a few months for kidnap, assault and (in Shiro's case) attempted rape. Ichigo was going to be testifying at that trial but that was ages away yet so he wasn't too worried about it. Byakuya's trial was going to be in a few weeks and was very highly publicised, along with the Gotei 13's persecution of Sousuke. Every day, there seemed to be another story of how the Gotei 13 tried to undermine the Las Noches corporation and made repeated attempts at harrassment towards its boss. Ichigo knew he should be glad that it was finally being noticed and he should hold the hope that it might make them stop it. But, Sousuke's injury put a damper on everything, staying in the back of Ichigo's mind and preventing him from concentrating on anything else.

Though they were told Sousuke needed plenty of rest and must not be disturbed, Ichigo wished he could go upstairs and wake him up. Just to know that he could wake up and his lover would be alright. It was a completely irrational thought because he knew the wound wasn't fatal but he just wanted that assurance that it wouldn't get worse. Even as he sat at the table, chewing and swallowing, he could not reason with himself. His legs were just itching to stand and hurry up the stairs to Sousuke's room. Finally, Hirako gave up. Leaving his half-finished meal, he stood up, saying, "I'm going to sort out today's post. Wanna come and help?" Glad of the opportunity for something to do, Ichigo abandoned the remains of his meal and followed Hirako into the drawing room. A small pile of letters lay on the coffee table, a lot of them looking suspiciously like 'get well soon' cards, "Just open the cards and check they're okay to be given to Sousuke." "What d'you mean?" The way Hirako said it made it sound like there was a risk of a bomb being concealed in one of the cards, "I mean, Sousuke wouldn't want to see some of them. Like this one. And, this one. And, this one." He picked out three plum-coloured envelopes, all with identical handwriting inscribing the address on the envelope. A small, girlish kind of handwriting. When opened, Ichigo

found that all three were from Hinamori Momo. A cold feeling settled in him at the name, something that showed on his face for Hirako said, "So, you know about her, huh? I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't another half a dozen from her in this pile. Just chuck them straight in the fire and remind me to call her psychiatrist later. Better to nip her obsession in the bud now before she starts stalking him again." So, Ichigo threw the plum envelopes in the fire and opened a new one. He found get-well-soon cards from Gin, Tousen, Ulquiorra (that one was also signed by Grimmjow), other names he didn't recognise (but he supposed they were Las Noches people) and two more from Hinamori (both thrown in the fire). Then, he came to a coffee-stained envelope with a blank card inside. The message was written in rather rushed handwriting:

You brought this on yourself, Sousuke. Nothing good will come from associating penniless urchins but you haven't learned your lesson. I will say get well soon now but, next time, you won't get any sympathy from me. Stay on the right path. Dad
Ichigo read it several times, not believing what was there. This couldn't be right. This just couldn't be what it looked like. His own father chastising him for associating with 'penniless urchins' and blaming him for what happened?

Hirako spotted Ichigo's surprise and looked over his shoulder. He gave a small groan as he read it, "Another one for the fire." Taking the card from his hands, Hirako tossed it into the flames, "Was that really from his dad?" Ichigo attempted to cling to the possibility that it was someone playing a very cruel joke. But, Hirako dashed those hopes at once, "Yep, it is. Sounds just like the kind of thing he writes. Always making contact when he thinks Sousuke is doing something wrong and makes it sound like he has control over his son. I don't suppose Sousuke's told you much about him, hmm?" "Only that he abandoned him when he was seventeen." "Told you that, eh? Well, I've been thinking and I guess you should know the whole story. God knows Sousuke's not going to tell you in a million years and, if anyone needs to know, it's you. Anyway, I think it was a good thing that his dad left when he did. His dad would never leave his office unless his boss forced him to. He was obsessed with his work. Too obsessed. He never made any time to play with his son or spend time with his wife either. No paternal instinct whatsoever! Totally obsessed with gaining money but he didn't have the faintest idea of what to do with it when he got it. He just paid the bills and kept the rest untouched in his bank account The guy was a total hypocrite too. He kept saying that he worked hard to keep his family happy but, thanks to him, the

family never ever had a happy moment!" Ichigo had the impression that Hirako was still angry and upset with Sousuke's father and he honestly couldn't blame him. Ichigo found himself hating the loveless man already and allowed Hirako to rant on as his hatred festered further inside him, "It's no wonder Sousuke's mother was constantly having affairs! And, her husband didn't take a blind bit of notice either. She brought men into the house and actually slept with them in her husband's bedroom and he never noticed! Mind you, she was just as bad a mother as he was as bad a father! She didn't want anything to do with her son either." "But, why?" Ichigo cut across him, totally baffled by the idea of a mother wanting nothing to do with her son. The idea was just unreal to him, especially since his mother had been so loving and caring towards all her children. He couldn't envision any mother being anything other than totally devoted to her offspring, "Well," Hirako relented a little, taking a more reasonable tone of voice, "I suppose it's because she got pregnant with Sousuke at a really young age and her night with Sousuke's father was just a one night's stand for both of them. She didn't really know what to do with him when he was born and I guess she was a bit scared of him. Sousuke's father married her because his parents forced him to. Didn't want a big scandal, you see, so they made it

look like they'd been lovers for ages and were getting married in preparation for their child. They even convinced her to fake her age so it looked like she was just a couple of years younger than him." "What about Sousuke?" Ichigo had the cold feeling that he didn't want to know but he asked anyway. He couldn't leave a part of the sickening picture blank since that would only make it worse, "How did he handle all that?" "From what he told me when he was a kid, he spent most of his time as a child trying to get their attention. First, he tried being really brilliant and succeeded too. He got top grades in school and everyone kept saying how gifted he was. Everyone, except his parents. They weren't paying a bit of attention as always. When he realised it wasn't getting him anywhere, he tried the opposite. He trashed the house, was rude to everyone and picked on the other kids at school. No matter how often the teachers called his parents to see them about his behaviour, they never came. Never showed a blind bit of interest. "It was about that time when he first met me. Since he knew he wasn't going to get his parents' attention, he ran away from home. He found him playing around in my greenhouse and I was gonna call his parents to tell him to pick up their brat when he told me that nothing would happen if I did. Well, I thought that was really weird coming from a child his age. He was only about ten or

eleven then. About this high." He held his hand about about five feet from the floor, "So, I sat him down and asked him about his family. I tell you, I couldn't believe what I was hearing! I guess you're the same now." "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, a jolt of sorrow going through him at the idea that Sousuke had been so neglected as a child, "Anyway, I stopped being angry with him after that and I spent the evening playing with him because I figured he needed a bit of playtime. I was kinda sad to see him go when his granddad came round and recognised him. Yeah, I was pretty good friends with his grandparents. It's why this house is mine now. I got most of the info about Sousuke's parents from them. Oh yeah, they knew that their son was being a lousy father and regretted forcing him to marry but they had a thing about interferring with things outside their house, even if it was about their family. Not to mention, they knew they were frail and old so they didn't think they could do anything. They just wrote him out of the Will and left it at that. "Sousuke spent a lot of time at my house from then on. Kept running away and coming straight to me. But, I didn't mind. I think it did him good to come to me. His grandparents thought so too so I guess that's why they asked me to be his guardian in their Will. He started bringing Gin a year after he met me. Gin was his best friend from school then. Sousuke started spending nights

at my house and, by the time he was fifteen, he stopped going back to his house. We never discussed whether he wanted to move in or anything. It just happened. The spare room of my house became his room and every new person we met thought he was my son. Ah, those were the days." He smiled fondly at the memories and Ichigo felt a small smile creep onto his face too. Among all the horrible things he was hearing, he was glad to know there had been some happiness among them, "Then," Hirako's smile faded, "when Sousuke was a few months away from his seventeenth birthday, his parents came to my house, demanding that I give their son back. Yeah, I know. I thought it was weird too. I didn't like the look of it a bit and Sousuke didn't, either. We must have argued for hours and, in the end, his dad threatened to call the police on me. I remember thinking to myself: 'this guy is a total whackjob, he shouldn't be a parent'. But, in the end, he won. They dragged Sousuke - yep, dragged him out of my house and into his car." "Why did he want Sousuke back?" Ichigo could imagine, however nasty it was, that the man would be glad to have the son he didn't care about away from him, "Well, I'm guessing he and his wife finally woke up and realised they had a sixteen-year-old son they'd never paid attention to. Maybe they finally found a bit of parental instinct in them and maybe someone told them to get him back. I don't know. What I do know is that

whatever they did in the four months after he was taken back did more harm than good. It was in that time that he dated Hinamori. I have the sneaking suspicion that his father tried to play matchmaker. The Hinamoris are a pretty wealthy lot so I guess, in his one-track mind, he thought that made her the best person for him. And, I think you know how that whole affair ended." He gestured at the fire, where the purple envelopes smouldered, "From what I heard, it all built up until Sousuke's seventeenth birthday. A lot of things went totally wrong then. First, his parents forgot, then they got his age wrong and, in the end, his grandparents took him out to spend the day with me instead because he couldn't stand it. And, let me tell you, he was acting really odd then. He went back to addressing me formally and acted like the years we'd known each other had never happened. I've no idea why but, as ya know, he's never stopped acting like that. He went back to his parents the day after but came straight back after a few hours because both his parents had walked out." "Both of them?" "Yeah. From what his grandparents told me, his parents had a massive row, both saying that they thought the other had been taking care of him all these years and accusing the other of ruining their son. 'Course, in my opinion, they were both to blame but, anyway, they yelled

at each other for hours until they finally left the house, saying they never wanted to see each other again. Then, a week later, his mother killed herself." Ichigo's eyes widened. He did remember Sousuke saying she was dead but never once implied that she had done something like that, "Actually," Hirako lowered his voice, "just so you know, Sousuke doesn't know she killed herself. I thought it was kinder to let him think she just died in an accident. Now, there's not much else to say apart from his grandparents died not long after and left me this big house. I promised them that I'd look after their grandson and make sure he found a better match than his father did. And, I have to say," A smile appeared on his face again, a smile not unlike one a proud father would wear, "it looks like I've managed to keep that promise at last. Who cares if you're a 'penniless urchin'?" Ichigo felt himself blush a little because he knew exactly what was being implied, "Hey, Hirako, is his dad sending him letters now because he knows his son's earning loads?" "Probably." Hirako nodded, "I don't know. I haven't see him since he dragged Sousuke away from my house and I hope I never see him again. I don't know what that insane man's thinking but it's best just to ignore him. Sousuke likes me to sort out his mail for him so I just throw anything from his dad in the fire. It's just not worth

giving Sousuke any unnecesary grief. Right," He scooped up the handful of 'safe' cards and stood up, "that's all of them. Let's take them up to Sousuke's room. Oh, and Ichigo," His voice became stern as they headed towards the door, "no giving Sousuke's sob story to the tabloids, okay?" As Ichigo climbed the stairs, unpleasant thoughts of Sousuke's childhood whirled around his head. A picture in his mind began to form of a small brown-haired boy tailing behind a faceless suited man, trying to show him the hundred percent on his test paper, while his father just attended to his own papers and determinedly ignored him. A sick feeling at the injustice and unnaturalness of it all welled inside him and he wished he could see a picture of Sousuke's father so he could give him the biggest beating he'd ever given in his life. He didn't need to know his name, just his face so he knew who to attack on sight. The room was very dimly lit. The curtains were drawn, filtering dim red light through them that (most unfortunately) made it look like everyone within was drenched in blood. Sousuke was dozing, the sheets covering him up to his shoulders so the bandages around his bullet wound were invisible. Hirako and Ichigo crept on tiptoe around the bed and began placing the cards on the bedside table. Ichigo's eyes flicked up to his lover every now and again, lying asleep on the white pillows. It was a comfort to see his chest rise and fall but the

familiar feeling between fear and sorrow hit him at the sight of Sousuke like this,

Don't be stupid. He told himself, He's going to be okay. He's well enough to stay out of hospital. But the mental picture of Sousuke lying in a hospital bed made him even more upset, For fuck's sake, stop thinking like a woman! He snapped at himself, hitching his old scowl on his face. To distract himself, he rearranged the cards so the one from Gin was closest to the bed. As he busied himself obsessively with the arrangement, a large hand enclosed around his quivering fingers, making him jump. Sousuke was awake, gazing at Ichigo with half-lidded eyes,
"I'm not dying, you know." He said, his voice low and sleepy, "You don't have to be so worried." "I'm not worried." Ichigo said this far too quickly so it wasn't convincing at all, "I'd be very upset if you weren't." Sousuke gently pulled Ichigo's hand away from the cards and pressed his lips to it. It sent a wave of comfort through Ichigo when he found that those lips were warm, "It's a good thing that you're a good liar or I'd be very hurt." "I'll leave you two alone so long as there's no hankypanky, okay?" When Hirako left the room, Ichigo and Sousuke sniggered, "Hanky-panky? Really, how old-fashioned!"

After he finished laughing at Hirako's choice of words, Ichigo asked, "Are you okay? It's not hurting, is it?" "No, no. Those painkillers are doing wonders. But, still," A suggestive look appeared on his face, "I can think of something else that would make me feel much better." Ichigo stared at him for a moment and, then, rolled his eyes, "Pitiful." He shook his head, grinning, "That's got to be the most cliched thing I've ever heard out of you." "I know." He gave a small half-shrug, "I'm not at my best." With that, he grabbed a handful of Ichigo's hair and pulled his head down so they could properly kiss each other. All Ichigo's worries about Sousuke vanished at once. The kiss was just as good as ever, sending him into a dreamy trance like it always did. Ichigo pressed his lips eagerly against his lover's, just to feel the warmth coming from them and convince himself once and for all that Sousuke was alright, "My, my." Sousuke commented when they finally broke apart, "I'd ask Byakuya to shoot me every day of the week if it meant getting a kiss like that for it." "Don't joke about that." Ichigo replied, sternly, his blissful trance harshly broken, "I'm sorry. That was in bad taste." His hand raised and began stroking Ichigo's cheek, "I do miss your company at night. I know it's not good for me to sleep with you in my current state but it doesn't stop me feeling a certain

chill in my bed." Ichigo said nothing at this. He just lay still, half on the bed and his head upon Sousuke's chest. After a few peaceful moments of staying still like this, Sousuke murmured, "Say, Ichigo, you know you said once that you thought my voice was my best feature?" "Yeah?" "Well, have you ever heard me sing?" Ichigo was silent for a moment, just taking in the implications of this, before he began laughing, "You have got to be kidding me! I never thought you were that sappy." "Ichigo, I'm injured and bedridden. Would you suffer me being romantic just this once?" Ichigo stared up at his lover, realising that he was in earnest. Though he would never admit it, the idea of Sousuke singing made something quiver with excitement inside him. He had a wonderfully deep baritone voice, after all, that he imagined would be good for singing. So, he laid his head back down and sighed, "Go on, then. Just once. But nothing soppy, got it?" One of Sousuke's hands left Ichigo's hair and reached for the small stereo on his bedside table. After pressing a few buttons, strains of piano music started coming from it, "It isn't soppy. It's a song from a Broadway musical. I think you'll like it." He added, just as Ichigo was about to protest before he immersed one hand in

Ichigo's hair and began to sing, "Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation. Darkness stirs and wakes imagination. Silently, the senses abandon their defences." He paused, "What do you think so far?" "Hmm, not bad." Ichigo said, knowing he was making a very big understatement. Sousuke's voice was absolutely enchanting, making his heart flutter in a way he'd be embarrassed to acknowledge aloud. Of course, Sousuke knew he was lying and didn't comment. He only continued, "Slowly, gently, night unfurls its splendour. Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender. Turn your face away from the garish light of day. Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light. And listen to the music of the night." The dim red light that had looked so grotesque before now looked more like mood-lighting in a stage performance, making everything seem so dreamlike and unreal. But, in a nice way, that Ichigo threw himself head-first into, "Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams. Purge your thoughts of the life you knew before. Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar. And you'll live as you've never lived before." Ichigo found himself closing his eyes just as instructed. He was starting to forget all about the misgivings and issues with his pride. Instead, he was getting lost in the words that were perfectly matched with the music,

making it sound like Sousuke had been rehearsing for months, "Softly, deftly, music shall caress you. Hear it, feel it, secretly possess you. Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind. In this darkness that you know you cannot fight. The darkness of the music of the night." Ichigo prayed Hirako would have the decency not to barge in and interrupt them. He didn't this to end now, "Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be. Only then, can you belong to me." Ichigo almost said that he belonged to him already but the shred of his normal thoughts that remained awake stopped him just in time. As he sang the next verse, Sousuke's long fingers began to explore his back, "Floating, falling, sweet intoxication. Touch me, trust me, savour each sensation. Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in. To the power of the music that I write. The power of the music of the night." There was a pause as the piano flourished, making Ichigo's heart flutter with it. Ichigo reached up and let his fingers get lost in Sousuke's hair, just as he felt Sousuke do the same with his. The last few lines were in a whisper but in a way that sent a pleasurable shiver down his spine, better than anything he'd felt during the

song, "You alone can make my song take flight. Help me make the music of the night." The music ended with a single, long-lasting note and Sousuke lazily turned off the stereo. For a moment, the two of them just lay there, not really wanting to say anything that might break the mood, "So," Sousuke murmured after a while, "am I good at being romantic?" "Yeah." Ichigo answered, not really paying attention to the question and letting his lover stroke his hair like he was a pampered house cat again, "Hey, d'you sing often or-?" "Only in private. You know, singing in the shower and such. It's not something I really like to show off to other people. You should feel privilaged that I decided to let you hear it." "How come?" "Oh, it's not because I'm self-conscious, if that's what you're thinking. I just don't associate it with good things. I've had some time to think while I've been stuck here and I decided it was time to change that mindset." A unwelcome cold feeling broke his happy trance, when he thought of what this might mean. He had the sneaky feeling that one of his parents had probably been a good

singer too. Though, as he thought about it, he began to feel glad that Sousuke was not letting his disastrous upbringing affect him. Looking at him, one would never suspect how neglected he had been. Ichigo felt a warm rush of thankfulness towards Hirako for making sure he wasn't completely deprived of love when he was young. "Now, then," Sousuke reached for the first card, "who has sent me their best wishes today? Did you and Hirakosan open these?" "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, "Hmm. And, how many did Hinamori-kin send?" Ichigo gave a small jolt of surprise. Sousuke simply smiled in reply, "Ah, don't be alarmed. I know she will not let an event like this pass her by. So, come on. How many did she send? Her record is eight." "Eight?" Ichigo repeated, "When was that?" "Oh, when my mother died." Ichigo gave another more violent jolt. Sousuke had said this so casually and yet it was such an awful subject. Hirako's words came into his mind, that Sousuke thought his mother had just died and didn't know that she killed herself. Though there was no way of knowing if he believed a lie or not, it sounded like he did believe this one, I hope so. He thought,

"Ah, sorry." Sousuke said at once, at the look on Ichigo's face, "Mothers are a sensitive topic with you, aren't they? How absent-minded of me. Thankfully, I lost mine when I was mature enough to deal with the grief and it certainly wasn't right before my eyes. I must admit," His face became serious as he took Ichigo's face in both hands, "I find it astonishing to think you had so much grief in your life when I look at you. You don't look scarred at all." Ichigo couldn't answer. He didn't know what he could say. For, that was exactly the same thing that Ichigo thought of Sousuke, "Anyway. The question still stands, how many?" "Uh, five." "Well, that's alright." At the questioning look from Ichigo, he elaborated, "When it gets to six a day, then I call her psychiatrist." "Why?" "Because, I don't want to seem like the kind of man who overreacts to every little thing. Besides, the girl isn't doing me any harm by sending me these cards. It's only when my inbox gets flooded when it becomes a nuisance and I have to act. Besides, I find, in these situations, it's better to just ignore the annoyance. Did you save any or did they all get burned?"

Before Ichigo could answer, there was a knock at the door, "Am I interrupting anything?" Hirako called, "No." Was the simultaneous answer, The door opened and Hirako came in. He didn't look particularly panicked so Ichigo presumed that it wasn't an urgent problem but Hirako still didn't look happy as he held out something small and black, "Look at this." Ichigo took it and found it was a small, old-fashioned tape player with a rewinded tape inside. One half was wrapped in parcel tape and covered in dust like it had been stuck on something and was left there a long time before being taken off. Sousuke was just as bewildered by it as Ichigo was, "Why are you showing this to us, Hirako-san?" "Well, it's like this. I was putting new flowers in Hisana's shrine and I found this taped to the back of her picture. And, if you think that's weird, listen to what's on the tape." Ichigo had a funny feeling that he knew what was going to be on there as Sousuke pressed the play button. For a moment, there was nothing. Then, an ominous creaking sound came through the small speakers, like a door being opened in a haunted house. Now, Ichigo knew his funny feeling was right before the words came, in a spookily soft and sweet voice, "Leave him alone! Leave this place. Leave before he hurts you. He's a liar. A rotten, rotten

liar."
The recording ended. Mixed feelings went through Ichigo in the silence that followed. At first, he was very glad that he hadn't just imagined things and it wasn't a ghost. But, this just produced more questions. Who had put it there and how did they get it there? Finally, Sousuke spoke, his face grim and serious, "What is the meaning of this?" "I dunno." Hirako admitted, "It could have been there for ages." "Uh," Ichigo put in, deciding to finally come clean since he knew doing so now wouldn't make him look stupid, "I know." And, he told the pair of them about the night when the shrine reappeared. By the time he'd finished, Hirako's eyes were wide and even Sousuke was showing surprise, "Why didn't you say before?" Hirako demanded, "Well, I, ah, didn't think you'd believe me. Sousuke said before that he didn't believe in ghosts and all. I was going to have a look around but I...kinda...forgot." "I don't believe in ghosts, true." Sousuke nodded, "But, I do believe in people who clearly do not want you and I to be in a relationship. You see," He placed the tape player on the bedside table, "I do not believe that this message is unconnected with the letters sent to both Kuchikis.

Oh, yes, that is what I honestly think. I remember what Ichigo told me what Rukia's note said. That Ichigo would soon be away from me. These two messages combined with the instructions Byakuya was given make the same message. That Ichigo and I should not be together. So, it leads me to think that all of these three things were devised by the same person." "Who?" Hirako asked, amazed by Sousuke's reasoning, "I do not know." Sousuke shook his head and reclined back on the bed, "Whoever it is, I believe he or she will not allow this failure to sway them and their next blow may be worse." "Stop being so cheerful, Sousuke." Hirako grinned in a sharklike way, "Keep going like that and Ichigo'll think this isn't a serious situation." "What I am worried about," Sousuke went on, pointedly ignoring Hirako, "is my persecutor's choice of tools. He preyed upon Byakuya's continuing grief for his lost wife and hatred for me and tried to prey upon Rukia's fears for your safety, along with possible doubts you have about my intentions towards you. I am grateful that neither you or her rose to the bait or else the situation would have been much worse." "It's pretty low, though." Ichigo pointed out, "To use a dead person's memorials to manipulate people." "It is very low indeed. And, that is a worry. It means that

our enemy will probably stoop even lower in his next attempt."

The next few weeks were spent in worried anticipation, all three in the big house worrying about their mysterious attacker. Hirako had taken the tape player to the police and explained its possible connection to the notes received by Rukia and Byakuya. The police had said they would look into it but the results of their investigation wouldn't be back for ages. All the while, Byakuya's trial drew nearer and, though Sousuke had recovered well, his lawyers were in and out of the house, going over all kinds of legal proceedings that made Ichigo's head spin. What made it the worse was the idea that this was what he would be going through all that when Shiro would be on trial, "Don't worry about it." Grimmjow said, when Ichigo voiced his worries to him while he and Ulquiorra were driving him back from university (as was very often the case nowadays), "Aizen-sama will make sure the guy gets put away, make no mistake. When he's finished dealing with the Kuchiki, he'll make that Zangetsu shit so scared that, when he gets in his cell, he'll never want to come out!" "Indeed." Ulquiorra nodded, "I have discovered that Zangetsu Senior has employed the cheapest solicitor in town to represent his son."

Grimmjow gave a harsh laugh, "He doesn't stand a chance!" "Well, Zangetsu-ossan isn't the richest person around." Ichigo felt a little pang of something like guilt as he realised how much paying a solicitor would affect him. Zangetsu Senior was in charge of a dojo which, though it was infamous for being very tough, had won many awards in national tournaments. However, that didn't mean the Zangetsu family was rich. In fact, Zangetsu Senior could only afford to send one of his sons to university. Tensa was picked, unsurprisingly, but Shiro wasn't disappointed at all. Shiro was never one for academic stuff and just wanted to get out of the education system as soon as he could, not caring about how he could 'better himself'. So, he dropped out after junior high school and went straight into work,

I bet he keeps all the money he earns. Ichigo thought, And, he doesn't give his dad a penny! He began thinking angrily that Shiro should be the one paying for his defence and he shouldn't rely on his father to cover his expenses, It would serve him right if Shiro was left with nothing afterwards!
"Anyway," Grimmjow added, as an afterthought, "even if Zangetsu did hire the best lawyer in town, Aizen-sama would still make sure you won. A bit of the old Double B, you know." "Huh?"

"Bribery and blackmail." Ulquiorra said, at once, "That is Grimmjow's euphemism for it." "Sounds cool, doesn't it?" Grimmjow grinned but that expression faded when he saw the look on Ichigo's face, "Ya ain't gonna be one of those wimps who doesn't like breaking the law to make sure a guy's put away, are ya?" "In Shiro's case? No way! I just wanted to know if Sousuke could pull off that kind of thing." "'Sure, he can, kid." Grimmjow nodded, grin back on his face, "Why else do you think I'm a free man?" Ichigo couldn't help but grin back. Before he met Sousuke, he would have backed away several feet when he heard that Grimmjow was an ex-convict but, now, he wasn't so fussed by the idea for some reason. In fact, he found it rather intriguing, "What did you do?" He asked. Grimmjow gave him an even wider grin, "I was a gang leader. Me and my boys ruled the city. Not this city, mind. One pretty far away from here but that's not the point. Long story short, it was too good to last and we ended up behind bars. Then, the day before our trial, Aizen appears and tells me that he'd get me off if I came and worked for them. Well, I didn't trust him at first but I'm no idiot. I know opportunity never knocks twice and all that shit. So, I said yes and, before ya could say 'not guilty', I was out. Don't know how he did it but I don't care. I'm not in a cell, I've got a good-paying job

and I've got a husband that doesn't cheat on me. What more can a fella ask for?" "Was Ulquiorra ever in prison too?" Ichigo asked. This made Ulquiorra give a small sniff of disapproval and Grimmjow laugh louder than ever, "Him? No way! I don't think Ulquiorra ever got caught doing something to get him sent to stand outside the classroom in school, let alone caught doing something by the police!" "Getting caught is a failure." Ulquiorra said at once, "And, I do not commit failure." "He was the Cuarta before I got into Las Noches." Grimmjow elaborated, "Apparently got there the normal way. Job interviews, ya know. Always used to walk around like he owned the place. Still does, actually. He just doesn't do it to me." "How did you two get together?" Ichigo never really worked out what Ulquiorra would see in Grimmjow and vice versa, "Ah, I'm not too sure myself. It just happened. I started enjoying our arguments and, bad-a-bing, bad-a-boom, we wind up in bed together." He then leaned towards Ichigo and whispered conspiritorially, "I was on top first." "I have been meaning to ask you, Grimmjow," Ulquiorra cut across him, sounding like he didn't want his husband

to say any more, "why you are in such a good mood. You have been for the past few days for no apparent reason. It's most unlike you." "Why wouldn't I?" Grimmjow's grin widened to an extent that would make Gin jealous, "A bigshot's getting dragged down to my level while I walk free! Not to mention, it's that asswipe Kuchiki. Ya see," He explained to Ichigo, "he was the one who got me in jail in the first place. He wanted my gang to do something. I forget what but I knew it was way out of our league so I said no and he went and gave our location to the police!" "What?" Ichigo gasped, mouth open in amazement, "Byakuya did that?" "Yep." Grimmjow sat back, smiling like he was picturing something brilliant, "And, if that comes up in the trial, I might start skipping to work in the morning!" "I'd rather not see that." Ulquiorra commented, as the big house drew into view. The rain and fog from a few weeks ago had dissipated, leaving only cloudy skies and cold air. The gravel underfoot was mixed with the fallen leaves from the small trees in the front gardens. Only a few withered leaves clung to their branches, quivering dangerously like they were about to fall any minute. The familiar car belonging to the lawyer was in the drive, which meant Sousuke was probably still busy. While Ichigo lamented the idea of not seeing his lover until

much later, the annoying rational part of him reminded him of the truckload of work he'd been putting off because of intimacy with Sousuke. Though his spirits lowered even more at the idea of working, he begrudgingly acknowledged that he would regret it later if he didn't do it. After bidding farewell to Ulquiorra and Grimmjow, he pulled out his key and let himself in. Hirako had it made for him after granting Ichigo permission to properly move in. Now that the Gotei 13 seemed to have finally stopped their campaign against Sousuke, Ichigo could have moved back into his old apartment. However, he found it rather cramped and unpleasant after spending so long in Sousuke's big house. An argument with Ishida after putting up with more of Keigo's insanity made him leave in disgust and Sousuke had welcomed him back with open arms. No one else but the people in Ichigo's apartment knew that he'd moved. Any letters for him sent to his old apartment were forwarded to Sousuke's house by Mizuiro. Not all the loose ends were tied yet but, so long as they didn't cause a problem, Ichigo honestly wasn't bothered about attending to them. It was just too much hassle and he hated hassle. Things were so much nicer when they were done quickly. Finding his university work still in the 'work room' (as he and Sousuke called it), he set down his heavy bag (now

the first term was really underway, it was getting very heavy) and pulled out a random file. Soon, he was transcribing his notes and kicking himself once more for not making more comprehensive ones. He could never remember exactly what the lecturer said and he wished he could stop resisting the urge to fool himself that he could. As he scratched out plans for future essays, the door opened behind him. He looked round, glad for a distraction, and saw Sousuke coming in, with some papers under his arm, "Hey." Ichigo gave him a quick smile, "how's the case going?" "Swimmingly." Sousuke nodded, setting the papers down on his desk before sitting down to flick through them. Ichigo frowned. He'd expected him to come in, dump whatever he was holding and make sure neither of them got a bit more work done that night. This dismissive reply along with the immediate return to work was so out of character so even Ichigo, who was no good at reading people, could tell something was wrong. Ichigo immediately abandoned his papers and stood up, "What's up?" He asked, "Is something wrong?" Sousuke looked up and, seemingly realising how uncharacteristic he was acting, hitched his usual cryptic smile on his face, "Oh, no. I've just been thinking about things I shouldn't again."

"Like what?" Just to make it clear that he wasn't going to move unless Sousuke opened up to him, he dragged his chair over to the big desk and sat down, staring at his lover with determination, "Nothing really." Sousuke persisted, "I'm neurotic by nature, even if I don't act like it. It happens all the time." "I thought you said that you'd got a bit less careful since you met me." "I still have my moments. Now, don't you have some university work to do?" "Since when did you order me around?" "Since I have gained an increased workload. And, if you don't want to work, you can go and spend some time with Hirako." "Don't tell me what to do!" Ichigo snapped. He didn't want to raise his voice at his lover but he was still angered by Sousuke's refusal to open up. They were lovers after all and there was no reason to hide anything. Ichigo thought they'd got beyond keeping secrets now but, clearly, he had been mistaken, "Ichigo, you're irritating me." Sousuke glared up from his paperwork, not even bothering to turn his head up, "We both have work to do and I'd prefer to do mine undisturbed."

"I'm finished." Ichigo lied, "And, since when did you start being obsessed with work?" He realised how hard his words would hit as soon as they came out. But, it was too late to take them back now and he could only watch as Sousuke gave a small jolt and dropped his pen. Then, he shot up, his face full of fury, and -

SMACK!
Ichigo's head jerked to the side from the force of the blow so much that it might have broken his neck if it was any stronger. He was completely thrown off balance and he toppled to the floor like a ragdoll, the rug doing nothing to cushion the blow, "SOUSUKE!" A high, scandalised voice came from the door and Hirako appeared at once at Ichigo's side. Ichigo's cheek still stung even when he was on his feet and he was looking up to see Sousuke standing. The older man didn't look apologetic in the slightest. That was all Ichigo needed to spur his next action. In one fluid motion, he raised his fist and brought it round in a wide arc, straight into the right side of Sousuke's forehead. Of course, Sousuke was too big to be thrown to the floor like Ichigo had but it gave him a vicious satisfaction to see him stagger to the side and grab the desk for support. Blood was pounding in his ears and his cheek was burning so Ichigo almost forgot that it was his lover he was punching. In fact, the knowledge was what made him so angry. How dare Sousuke treat him like that when he

hadn't done a single thing wrong! "STOP IT! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!" Hirako ran between them, hair flying over his face in his distress as he held the pair of them apart, "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?" Ichigo held his tongue. He was not one for saying 'he started it' and, even when he was fuming like this, he wasn't about to lower himself to the level of whining, Come on. He thought at Sousuke, Say what you want to about me. C'mon, tell on me to Hirako! Say I was being a whiny bitch. C'mon, I dare you! There was a dragging pause, in which neither of them said a thing but just glared mutinously over Hirako. Finally, the silence became too long and, with a snarl of annoyance, Ichigo flung himself from the room, not even stopping to pick up his bag. He charged down the corridor and almost kicked the bedroom door off its hinges. He didn't even known what to do next, his feet just took him here. Not knowing what to do, he slumped face down on the bed, not caring how teenage-girlish it looked, Why the fuck do I care if I act like a girl? His mind said, angrily, No one's watching! Glaring into the bedsheets, he curled his hands into fists and slammed them into the mattress, making the bedsprings squeak, The fuck is his problem? I try to find out what's wrong with him and he just rejects me like that! I'm his boyfriend. He's more messed up than me

and he's not accepting any help! What the fuck am I supposed to do? How am I meant to help him if he doesn't let me? That stupid bastard! I sacrifice half my friends, mess up my future, put myself in danger all for him and this is how he repays me!
A loud beeping made him jump upright and he stared around, completely disorientated. After a few confused moments, he saw a little glowing light on the windowseat and realised it was his phone that he'd left there after starting his work. Hauling himself off the bed, he reached for the small device and pressed the call button, not looking at the display, "Yeah?" "Ichigo, my poor baby! Why are the gods so cruel to let a maniac kidnap my innocent little boy-"

Click.
If possible, Ichigo's mood became even worse, Great, just what I need! He was just about to throw the damned thing out of the window when it rang again. Knowing his dad would probably come around to Sousuke's house (and Ichigo could not stand the thought of confessing to Hirako that the lunatic banging on the gates was his father), he tapped the call button again, "What?" He demanded, "And, no messing about this time!" "Whoa, sorry." His dad seemed to have enough survival instinct to realise his son was not in the best of moods,

"Got a bit carried away there. We've got the whole story from Zangetsu and me and the girls were worried about you, is all." "Okay." Ichigo managed to keep his voice level this time at the calm tone, "Sorry, me and Sousuke just got into an argument." "Ah, I see. Well, don't let it get to you. There isn't a couple in the world who hasn't had a little fight and I can't honestly say I've never squabbled with your mother over anything." "But...you and Mum never argued!" Ichigo said, at once. He couldn't remember a single time when his mother and father had been anything except a happy couple, "We had the good sense not to fight in front of our kids. Not many parents have that nowadays. Anyway, what did you two argue about?" Ichigo launched into an explanation of how the fight had started. It was strange but, even though his anger sounded perfectly justified in his head, the way he said it aloud just sounded so stupid. He had overreacted when Sousuke just wanted to be left alone. He suddenly realised why people said that talking about a problem helped. Saying it aloud really did make it seem smaller and less worrisome, "...and, then he slapped me-"

"He did WHAT?" Ichigo had to hold the phone away like it had just shot darts at him because his father had shouted so loud, "Hey, hey! It's okay! It doesn't hurt anymore and I punched him back!" "Attaboy!" His father's merriment returned once more but at a nice bearable level, "Just remember, if he does it again, don't go easy on him!" "Don't worry." Ichigo grinned, finally feeling his spirits lighten, "If he doesn't apologise by tonight, he's sleeping on the lawn with a black eye!" "That's my boy! Anyway, I'm glad to hear you're doing okay. And, if everything goes well, I'd like to meet Sousuke along with the girls. We can have a big party-"

Click.
His father didn't call back. He'd clearly said what he'd wanted to say already, He's a lunatic, Ichigo thought, as he lay back on the bed, but he's got a brain somewhere in there. He stared up at the chandelier just above the foot of the bed. No, it was beyond range of the bed if it ever fell, Whoever put that there must have been paranoid as hell. Ichigo thought, smiling to himself. The big structure hung lightless, the chains of circular crystal glinting in the afternoon light. The many bulbs were shaped like flames and set on top of long tubes, creating the image of candles. He wondered absently when the real candles

had been replaced with fake electric ones and how long the big glimmering ornament had been hanging from the ceiling,

How long has Sousuke's family been living here? His wandering thoughts lighted on this question. He was never a history expert so he had no idea what Western settlers had first come into the country or what kind of style this was. He amused himself for a while with imagining Sousuke's ancestor being shown around the place by some unsuspecting Western gentleman who didn't know the seemingly friendly local man was going to take the big house for his own.
There was a gentle rapping upon the door, breaking Ichigo's train of thought, "C'mon in." Ichigo called. The door slowly opened and Sousuke slipped in, "Sousuke, why did you just knock? This is your room, ya know." "It's your room too." Sousuke reminded him and, remarkably, his voice didn't hold any arrogance. He strode over to the bed and delicately touched Ichigo's cheek, like he was touching fine china, "It's fine." Ichigo said, at once, glad at the lack of defiance from his lover, "It stopped hurting after a bit." "That doesn't excuse my actions." He sat down and leaned over Ichigo, a rather sad expression on his face, "I hit you and I wouldn't be surprised if you wanted to leave me for that."

"I don't." Ichigo put in, very quickly, but Sousuke ignored him. He stubbornly continued talking, like he thought he would lose his nerve if he paused, "I don't know what came over me. It's not like me at all to react in that way, especially not to you." He slowly lowered his head onto Ichigo's chest, his hand still on Ichigo's cheek, "You did nothing wrong. The fault is mine. I shouldn't have been so irritable with you." "Okay, okay, I get it." Ichigo lifted a hand and combed it through Sousuke's hair. Stroking each other's hair had become an unspoken gesture of affection that had been silently agreed on by the two of them. Sousuke had started it and, soon, Ichigo found himself doing it. Now, they both had got into the habit of doing it when they were in bed together, mostly in the morning before Hirako called them down for breakfast, "You're sorry, I know. No need to get mushy on me." "I wasn't getting mushy." There was a definite emotional edge to Sousuke's that said otherwise, though, but Ichigo didn't acknowledge it. After a moment, Sousuke lifted his completely dry face and pushed back some his hair from his forehead, "If it's any consolation, I came off worse that little skirmish." "Shit!" Ichigo gasped, amazed at the sight of a very clear purple bruise on his forehead, "Yes, I know." Sousuke gave a strained kind of grimace as

he fingered the sensitive skin around it, "Still, I more than deserved it." "So," Ichigo tried to make his voice sound casual to disguise the delicate subject, "what were you so upset about before?" "Just about the trial and how this'll affect the Gotei 13's opinion of me." "But, Kyoraku-san and Ukitake-san said they'd make sure they stopped picking on you." "I know. I was just worried about their efforts failing. I may be a patient man but I am very eager to see these troubles end. I can't help but imagine what they'd do next if the promise was not kept." "Just get them into court if they start bugging you again!" "Ah, the courts can only punish people after they've committed crimes. They cannot erase the crime itself." "Oh, stop being so depressing." Ichigo sighed, not knowing what to say in response. Sousuke made it sound like the Gotei 13 would resort to doing unspeakable and irrepairable things, "Just stop worrying about everything, will you?" He raised his fist and gave Sousuke a playful bash on the bruise, making his older boyfriend wince, "Go back to being a stuck-up sneak. I don't like it when you worry."

"Very well." Sousuke seized Ichigo's top button, "But, regardless of whether I deserved your hit, don't think I'm going to forgive you for hitting me that easily. I can't allow you to remain unmarked while I'm bruised." With that, he began attacking Ichigo's neck with his lips, biting a bit more forcefully than usual in a way that was definitely going to leave lovebites. Ichigo didn't know whether he was crying out in pain at the biting or pleasure at the contact. Either way, he couldn't suppress those little sounds that he knew Sousuke loved. Crafty long fingers trailed down his chest, removing his clothes in an instant, and began playing with the younger man's nipples, pulling and pinching. Ichigo threw back his head, gasping and barely able to keep hold of his sanity. Sousuke just continued torturously pleasuring him with both fingers and tongue. Soon, Ichigo wasn't able to keep himself up on his elbows any more and collapsed back into the bed. The change in position did not sway Sousuke at all and he continued without halting for a moment. The familiar build-up of pleasure became higher and higher until the point where he knew that release was imminant. Surely, Sousuke knew it too; the way Ichigo was breathing even more erratically than normal was a dead giveaway. However, he didn't increase his motions to hasten Ichigo's release, as was the only right thing to do in Ichigo's mind, but took his hands off his body altogether and reached for something in the bedside table.

Ichigo scowled as he began searching in the drawers. Surely, fetching the lubricant could wait until after he'd cum! Just as he was about to protest, Sousuke drew out something small and shiny from it, definitely not a bottle of lubricant, "Hey, wha-" A finger was laid upon his lips while the shiny thing was taken out of Ichigo's sight, What is he doing? He was about to protest again before he felt something cold and metal slide around the base of his length then clamp tightly around it, "Hmm, a good fit. I was correct in my assumptions of your size." "What the fuck?" Ichigo pulled himself up, his dazed pleasure fading as he saw a metal kind of ring around the base of his length. He didn't have a clue what it was but he did have a vague idea lingering at the back of his head of what kind of object this was. He had an idea that it may have been bought in one of those sex shops that he had no intention of being within a mile of. Sousuke simply chuckled and leaned forward to murmur in his ear, "I've been thinking about a little change in our activities. Gin recommended these things to me and I think it's time I tried them out." Surprisingly, Ichigo wasn't so much unnerved as he was annoyed by Sousuke's change of tactics. He just wanted to cum and that damned thing was obviously there to stop him. His scowl deepened and he reached down to take the ring off, only to have his hand caught at the wrist by

Sousuke, "It would be a lot better if I didn't have to handcuff you." He said, teasingly, "You do that and I'll give you another frickin' bruise!" Ichigo snapped, becoming very annoyed at this. Sex toys were only for the really perverted people like Gin and not him, "Ah, you'll thank me for it later." Sousuke replied, ignoring his lover's annoyance. Instead, he reached for Ichigo's length and began slowly stroking it. Pleasure jolted through the younger man again, making him forget his irritation and about the ring. All that came out of his mouth were animalistic moans as he slumped back down on the bed and let his boyfriend pleasure him. After all this time, he still couldn't resist the feeling elicited from Sousuke's fingers upon him, especially there. Something that didn't suit his tough personality at all but that part of him could not be changed. No matter how much and how fast he was stroked, Ichigo still could not cum. That damned ring was stopping any kind of release and, after a while, the restraint actually started to become painful, "Sou...Sousuke..." Ichigo tried his best to give Sousuke a desperate plea but he couldn't get any coherant word out of himself. He willed those pleasuring fingers to stop just so he could clear his befuddled mind. Mercifully, Sousuke finally moved his fingers away from his aching manhood and pushed his legs up and out.

Ichigo, of course, knew what was coming and just prayed Sousuke would have the kindness to let him cum before penetrating him. None of that desired kindness presented itself but, at least, Sousuke did not immediately push his fingers straight into Ichigo. Instead, he kissed Ichigo's thighs lovingly and gazed down at his young lover with a soft smirk on his face with not a trace of mocking in it. As Ichigo regained a bit more sense, he was glad that Sousuke had refrained from making fun of him in this state. But, it couldn't last. Soon, he was pushing his lubed fingers into Ichigo's entrance and, though it had happened many times before, Ichigo couldn't help but wince at the initial pain the intrusion always brought on. He got used to it a lot quicker, though, and another finger was soon added. Then, his prostate was very deliberately pressed. Another wave of pleasure went through him, going straight to his manhood, now straining fruitlessly against the ring. Ichigo half-expected (and wished) that the ring of metal would burst under all the pressure. After the preparation was over, Sousuke leaned over him, smirking, "My, you look rather hot and bothered." Ichigo could not answer. He was too lost in a thick haze of pleasure to even make a coherant thought. Just mindless and heated passion reigned over him. His arms seemed to lift by themselves, for he could not remember deciding to do so, and wrapped around Sousuke's naked

chest (though, he didn't remember seeing his lover stripping his clothes off). The pain when he was penetrated was nothing. It was so completely smothered by the built-up pleasure that he barely felt it. Sousuke only remained still for a short while, languidly kissing Ichigo's face. Then, the frenzy began. Ichigo clawed into Sousuke's back as his older lover slammed ruthlessly into him, over and over again. Any pain he might have felt at this wild activity was stifled by the pleasure still building with every brush against his prostate. His mind completely lost, he screamed Sousuke's name over and over again because it was the only word that stuck in his mind. Everything else had gone. Only the consuming passion remained, along with the enormous pent-up pleasure that was driving him absolutely insane. After a prolonged period that would both painful and mind-blowingly wonderful, he could vaguely feel Sousuke cumming inside him. It was a warm, wet feeling that normally signalled the end of their intimacy. After a moment of panting, Sousuke's hand finally reached down and slipped off the ring, making Ichigo moan with relief. It only took two little strokes before, with a last great wave of pleasure greater than any he had felt before, he came all over their stomachs. As his senses began to slowly return, Ichigo could only lie still, his legs dropping back onto the mattress as Sousuke

pulled out of him. Weariness began to take him even quicker than usual but he stayed awake long enough to feel Sousuke's lips upon his before slipping into a doze. He didn't stay that way for long, though. Next thing he knew, there was a loud bang and Hirako shouting, "What the hell have you two been doing?" Ichigo groaned, snapping out of his blissful haze (he was thankful that Sousuke had covered him with the bedsheet before Hirako had barged in). A fully-dressed Sousuke too gave a irked kind of sigh as he turned to Hirako, "Surely, that's obvious." "Yeah, go away!" Ichigo snapped, "You two tell that to Gin! He's downstairs with Izuru and they heard the whole thing!" "What?" That made Ichigo truly regain his senses. Blood rushed straight to his face as he realised how much of an embarrassing scenaro he was in. Sousuke too groaned, "That man has an incredible sense of timing." "Urggh," Ichigo rolled over and pulled the sheets over his head, "Sousuke, could you tell him I've got a really bad headache or something?" "He'd never buy that." Sousuke shook his head, "You can stay here if you want. I'll face the embarrassment myself." "Well, it's not embarrassing for you!" Ichigo retorted,

his face becoming even hotter, "I'll just tell him I wore you out, then, shall I?" Ichigo just moaned and buried his head in the pillow, wishing he'd just disappear, Why did Sousuke decide to fuck me using that ring thing in the middle of the day? Out of all the men in the world, I have to hook up with a sneaky bastard with pervert friends! "Well, it could be worse." Sousuke said from somewhere to his left, "It could have been Abarai and Kuchiki that came to visit." Even though his embarrassment did not abate, he did have to admit his lover had a point. Renji would have probably stormed up to the room and caught them in the act, while Rukia...he dreaded to think what kind of treatment he'd get from her. He felt Sousuke's weight move off the bed and, after a while, he heard him speak again, "Speaking of which, I was wondering about inviting them on an outing, just to smooth over any remaining doubts they might have about me." "Yeah, alright." Ichigo poked his head over the sheet, nodding at the good idea. Then, Hirako had to ruin it by saying, "Just don't fuck him before you go out next time-ARGH!" This comment earned him a pillow thrown right in his

face, making him stumble out into the corridor. After his little moment of victory, Ichigo slumped down onto the pillows again, I'm SURROUNDED by perverts! A/N: I think Ichigo's last line rings true in the Bleach yaoi fanbase, don't you? Thankfully, Ichigo did not meet Gin that day and Sousuke managed to get him out of the house before Ichigo woke up. According to Hirako, he'd begged to go upstairs and see how worn out Ichigo was. Upon hearing that, Ichigo decided that Gin had reached a whole new level of perverted weirdness and reminded himself never to end up in the same room as him. He did not like the idea of Gin talking about him like he was a fresh kill. The next day (thankfully, there had been no lasting pain), Ichigo met with Renji and Rukia at university with the intent of discussing Sousuke's idea with them. He had the bad feeling that it might be a bad time for Rukia to see Sousuke when Byakuya's trial was so near but he decided to give it a shot anyway. They were outside the gate, talking to a small, dark-haired woman standing in front of a car. As he got closer, he saw that she was a small, delicatelooking woman with her hair up in a bun covered with lace and dressed in the kind of clothes he'd only seen his grandmother wear that were far from fashion. A few mean-looking girls pointed at her and whispered harshsounding things to their friends. A couple were not kind

enough to even whisper them, earning them a cold glare from Rukia and Renji. The new girl just lowered her eyes with an air of surrender and only raised them when Renji took her by the shoulder, saying something that sounded encouraging. When Ichigo finally hailed them, all three looked up. Renji and Rukia both grinned at the sight of him and the new girl gave a timid little smile of her own. As he got closer, he got the distinct impression of ill health from her. The way her overly-thick clothes seemed to hang unnervingly from her frame, how she clutched a lacy shawl rather tighly around her shoulders and how pale her thin face looked. She might have been pretty once, with her face full of colour and her body full of energy, but all Ichigo could see was frailty, "Ichigo," Renji clapped the girl's shoulder and Ichigo was worried for a split second that such a motion would knock her down but she thankfully stayed on her feet, "this is Hinamori Momo. She's an old schoolfriend of mine."

Hinamori Momo. Ichigo remembered the name at once, even though he must have only heard it less than ten times. An icy-cold feeling entered his gut. So, this was the woman who was Sousuke's first girlfriend and, since then, was constantly needing psychological help to stop her stalking him. He quickly smoothed over his face, thinking that he should not frighten her by acting like he knew her, Don't mention Sousuke! Don't mention

Sousuke! Was the immediate command from his brain, repeating over and over as he said,
"Nice to meet you." "Nice to meet you too, Ichigo." She had a sweet, slightlytremulous little voice that sounded like she was going to burst into tears at any second, "I heard you're Aizentaichou's - ah! I mean - Aizen's lover now. Oh, don't think I'm against it!" She added, rather hastily as the look on everyone's face, "I mean, it's not like me and Aizen-tai ah! - Aizen are in a relationship anymore. We stopped being together years ago and life goes on, you know. I'm sure you two are very happy together." Her words were brave but she said them in a tone that sounded like she was trying to convince herself as well as the others. Like a widow saying she was coping well with the grief over her dead husband. Very wisely, Renji moved the topic away from Sousuke and onto safer things, like what they were doing in university and anxieties about the next assignment. After ten minutes of neutral conversation, Hinamori went back into her car with an almost-cheery farewell and drove away. Once her small car was out of sight, Renji gave a sigh of relief, "You did that better than I thought you would with her, Ichigo. I guess you know about her and Aizen." "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, "Dad told me. Sousuke never mentions it."

"How come your dad knows about it?" Renji frowned, puzzled, "Kyoraku-san told him." Ichigo shrugged, "Those two go out drinking sometimes." Even when he seated himself in the lecture, close to Renji and Rukia, the cold feeling in his gut did not cease. It was very hard not to feel sorry for Hinamori now he knew what she looked like. She wasn't the crafty, twitching maniac that was hell-bent on making Sousuke hers that he'd imagined at all but a frail, damaged girl who appeared like she was still trying to get over her heartbreak. Ichigo could not help but remember with a rush of guilt the five plum-coloured-enveloped get-well-soon cards she'd sent every few days after Sousuke had been shot. All of them had been thrown in the fire unopened but, now, Ichigo couldn't help but regret doing such a heartless thing. He could have at least saved one or two just out of politeness. Surely, just keeping one wouldn't hurt, even if it was out of sight, Maybe I'll ask Hirakosan about it. Once the lecture was over, Ichigo left the building while Renji begged him for help on the next assignment. He was so busy trying to shake him off that he bumped into someone, "Oh, sorry-" "Ah, ne'er mind, Ichigo! I 'ave trouble lookin' where I'm

going sometimes, too!" Gin was standing in front of him, wearing his biggest and most condescending grin yet, Oh, fuck. Renji gave a gasp from behind him, as did Rukia. Both of them cried out in unison, "Ichimaru!" "Oh, ho! Wha' 'ave we 'ere?" Gin glanced around Ichigo, like a child peeking around its parent at something interesting he wasn't supposed to see, "Ooh, look 'oo it isn'! Abarai and Kuchiki! Long time, no see! I didn' expect ta see ya guys 'ere when I volunteered ta get Ichigo. Aizen-taichou's real busy with that trial so 'e's always askin' anyone 'oo's free in Las Noches ta pick 'im up. Ya know, the trial where 'e's agains' ya brother?" He directed this statement right at Rukia who flinched and bared her teeth menacingly. Ichigo groaned inwardly. He'd been trying to avoid the subject of Byakuya's trial for weeks and Gin just had to throw all tact to the winds! "Okay, let's go, fox-face." Ichigo grabbed Gin's upper arm, not wanting the man to blurt out what he'd heard the previous day, and dragged - actually dragged - him away from Rukia and Renji. As he was being pulled away, Gin waved merrily at them, "Bye-bye!" until the two were out of sight. Then, he turned to Ichigo with a distinctly peeved look on his face, "I was 'aving a nice conversation with them! Tha' was jus' rude!"

"Oh, and you weren't being rude?" Ichigo snarled, "Did you have to mention Byakuya's trial?" "Nah. I jus' wanted ta. I'm lookin' forward ta seein' the clean-as-a-whistle Kuchiki-taichou sent down and it ain' jus' me! The guy really ain't popular around Las Noches, ya know." "Yes, I know." Ichigo said through gritted teeth, "Now, where's the car?" "This way!" Kira was parked outside the main entrance, his eyes on the steering wheel and ignoring the people pointing admiringly at the expensive car. Gin hopped into the front seat while Ichigo slid more sedately into the back seat. Soon, Gin was gabbling away to Kira about his short meeting with Rukia and Renji as the car started and drove away from the university, "They really didn' look 'appy ta see me. I guess they still don' like Las Noches people even though they don' pick on us anymore." Even from the back, Ichigo could see Kira turn as though he wanted to say something but thought better of it. He started getting very annoyed at both of them as the drive went on. At Gin for ignoring his boyfriend and simply talking about his own things all the time. At Kira for not having the courage to make his own voice heard. In the end, he just got so fed up that he had to cut

across Gin's rambling, without caring for manners, "Is Sousuke in court today?" "Jus' sortin' stuff out with his lawyers. Don' worry. 'E'll be back in time fer tonigh'. 'E'll give ya yer lovin'." Ichigo knew where this conversation was going before he even said the words. He mentally kicked himself for being such an idiot, "I know 'e gives ya real good lovin' so I can see why yer so anxious." Kira blushed deep crimson so he resembled a blond raddish and Ichigo felt himself flushing too. Gin, on the other hand, was having the time of his life, seeing Ichigo's red face, "Aw, now ya look like a real strawberry-OW!" Ichigo had bashed him on the top of the head with one of his books, hitting him with the spine because he'd heard somewhere that a smaller weapon did more damage than a larger one, "One strawberry crack out of you and you're dead!" He snapped at Gin. He couldn't stand people making fun of his name at the best of times and he didn't want to hear it from that fox-faced freak. Gin just turned to the windscreen, saying in a markedly less playful voice than usual, "Ya really ain't cute. I wouldn' want ya as my boyfriend." "Right back at you!" Ichigo retorted, "Huh! Ya are so rude!" He turned in his seat and opened his eyes, glaring at Ichigo with ice-coloured orbs with unmistakable anger that made him look almost normal,

"Don' know why Aizen-taichou puts up wit' ya sometimes! Don' think I didn' notice tha' bruise ya gave 'im yesterday! I suppose all tha' noise ya were makin' was Aizen-taichou disciplin' ya. And, ya woulda deserved it." "Gin, please." Kira put in and Ichigo was glad to hear that he'd stopped calling him Gin-sama at the very least, "Don't cause a fight with Ichigo-san. Aizen-sama won't be happy if ya do." "And, I won' be 'appy if Ichigo don' treat Aizen-taichou right, tha's all!" With that, he faced the windscreen again and didn't say another word for the whole journey. In fact, nobody spoke for the rest of the journey and Ichigo was torn between thinking he might have offended someone and feeling gleeful that he'd managed to shut Gin up. Sousuke wasn't home so Ichigo and Hirako ate dinner by themselves. Gin didn't even try to intrude on Hirako's hospitality, which was something Hirako was quick to point out, "Hey, did something happen to him? He normally insists on staying here and makes me do twice as much cooking as I need to so the food I've already cooked gets cold." He said that very bitterly and Ichigo had the feeling Gin had done that far too often, "He was acting like a creep," Ichigo shrugged, "so I hit with a book." That was all he could really think of in retrospect that might have been offensive but it didn't seem like much compared to the other things he'd done

to Gin. It wasn't like he almost made the car crash or anything, "Ah, probably doesn't like the idea of spending the evening with you if you're going to be that violent with him." He gave him a big grin, "Keep doing that. It's really a bitch to cater for the two of them. Gin always criticising my food, always saying his 'Izu-chicky' makes him nicer stuff. Izuru always asks if he can help but I can't let a guest help me do the cooking. That's not right to me." "Really?" Ichigo raised an eyebrow, "Most of my friends do some of the cooking when they come over to our apartment and we're okay with it. Chad makes some really great Mexican food so we know it's going to be good if he volunteers." Ichigo neglected to mention that his friends only said yes to Orihime because it was impossible to say no to her puppy-eyes and everyone regretted it afterwards, "Is that so?" Hirako looked up from his plate, his eyebrows raised, "Well, I guess it's just me that doesn't like that kind of thing then. I'm from a different generation, ya know. Hmm...maybe ya're right. I probably should let Izuru do a bit. It might stop Gin complaining." "Hey, Hirako." Ichigo said, after a small pause, in the most casual tone he could manage, "I, ah, ran into Hinamori Momo outside university."

"What?" Hirako dropped his fork on his plate, making the rice scatter all over the place, "Yeah, she was with Renji." Ichigo went on, very conscious of the effect his words were making, "What did she say? Did she mention Sousuke?" "Yeah. But, she said she was okay with me being with him and all." "Hmm," Hirako frowned, looking troubled, "how long will she keep thinking that way, though?" There was the sound of the door being opened and Hirako quickly stood up to get Sousuke's meal out of the oven, "Don't mention your meeting to Sousuke!" Ichigo nodded. He hadn't been planning on doing that anyway. He had more sense than that. Sousuke was wearing his glasses that day, as he intended to do in his trial in an effort to look more like an innocent victim, but he took them off as soon as he entered the room. As soon as he sat down, he said, "I talked with Gin on the phone just before I arrived. He didn't seem very happy for some reason." "Probably me." Ichigo shrugged, carelessly, "I hit him with a book when he wouldn't stop being a creep." "Ichigo," Sousuke fixed him with a hard glare, "do I go around hitting your friends?" "My friends aren't total creeps."

"Okay, okay!" Hirako cut across them just as another argument was on the horizon, "Cut it out, you two. I don't want another fight." "Anyway," Ichigo tried to make his voice a bit more casual, "why are you so annoyed about it all of a sudden? You never minded before." "I have my limits." Sousuke answered, without looking at Ichigo, "And, so do I." Ichigo replied, tartly, "Are you telling me I should put up with him saying that kind of stuff?" "He says that kind of thing to everyone, Ichigo. He's not going to stop simply because you hit him with a book. It's best not to waste your time and energy." "He stopped when I hit with a book." Ichigo pointed out, "He got a bit shirty with me, actually." He added, suddenly realising how odd it was. Before now, he didn't think it was possible for the perpetually-grinning man to be angry, "You are not in his favour at the moment." Sousuke stated, solemnly, "Yesterday, when I went down to greet him after our intimacy, he started to make fun of our activities until he saw the bruise on my forehead. I simply told him the truth and he grew very angry indeed. He kept saying how his 'Izu-chicky' would never dream of hurting him like that. He called you a great many unpleasant things, the like of which I'll not repeat."

"Oh, come on. What did he say?" Hirako leaned in, making his long hair fall into his food, "Something along the lines of 'untamed dog'." "You did say you hit me first, didn't you?" Ichigo interrupted, anger boiling inside him at the insult, "I did!" Sousuke nodded, "And, I'll have you know that I defended you in our discussion. I said that I deserved it and you wouldn't do so otherwise." "But he didn't listen?" Hirako still hadn't noticed his sauce-stained hair as he gave Sousuke his full attention, "No, he didn't. Not in the slightest. He didn't stay very long when he realised that I couldn't be convinced. We haven't had a friendly discussion since." "Geez." Ichigo groaned, "If it's not me losing friends, it's you. Can't everyone just grow up and accept that we're together, for better or for worse?" "No, I don't think Gin is against us being together, necessarily." Sousuke pointed out, "He just became rather protective of me for some reason." He gave a small chuckle as he finally started his lukewarm meal, "As if I need protecting." "Oh, yeah?" Ichigo retorted, in a teasing way, "That bullet hole in your side says otherwise." "If it had been anyone but Byakuya, it would not be there." Sousuke pointed out, "I made a solemn oath to

myself not to harm Byakuya or allow myself to hate him for Hisana's sake." Ichigo would have liked to say that Hisana wouldn't have wanted him to be hurt but he held his tongue, realising in time that it would be a very tactless thing to say. Instead, after swallowing his pride, he put down his cutlery, wrapped his arms around Sousuke's neck and pulled him down to kiss his cheek. When they straightened, Sousuke looked rather surprised at Ichigo's sudden forwardness, "Well, for my sake," Ichigo said, not really knowing where these words were coming from, "don't let yourself to get hurt like that." There was a moment of silence, in which Ichigo realised just how corny that statement was, Geez, I've been avoiding being corny for ages and now this happens! Ugh, I am such a sell-out. Then, Sousuke smiled and wrapped an arm around Ichigo in return, pressing a kiss upon his hair, "Very well." "Aw, ain't tha' the cutest?" The both of them leapt apart. Gin was suddenly at the open window, peering in with gleeful interest, "I guess Ichigo can be cute af'er all!" After a moment of staring at him (and wondering when and how on earth he'd got there), Sousuke muttered in Ichigo's ear, "Let me make a slight adjustment to that.

If Gin purposefully invades my privacy, you can hit him."

The day Byakuya's trial began just happened to fall on a weekend, which meant Ichigo didn't have university to get him out of the house. So, instead, he arranged a day out with Keigo, Mizuiro and the gang. Rukia wouldn't be coming with them because she would be watching the trial and Renji would be going with them so they had a total of six people. In the end, it was decided that they'd go and see a film after lunch. It wasn't a film Ichigo was really interested in seeing but the reviews were good so he decided to put up with it. It was one of those fantasy adventure ones that Orihime and Keigo liked. It was alright for Orihime to like that kind of thing but Keigo publicly expressing an interest was just painful to watch. Still, Keigo was Keigo and Ichigo, as usual, would have to give him a good punch around the head whenever he got too excited. He had to admit to himself that he missed cheap outings like this after being taken to expensive restaurants and getting prime seats in lavishly decorated theatres to see once in a lifetime shows for months. He'd got so used to it that it felt strange to eat fast food with his fingers (the food didn't seem as appealing to him as it used to but he ate it anyway so it didn't look like he'd gone posh in front of his friends).

The cinema was a dingy but fairly reputable establishment that had been standing since Ichigo's dad was a teenager (if the soppy stories he told about him taking Ichigo's mother to see ancient films when they were dating were anything to go by). It stood a little way off from the shopping district, half hidden by the higher buildings on either side. Its paint peeled at the edges but nothing was hanging loose or broken. It had an pleasantly old-fashioned charm to it that attracted its customers by its stubborn refusal to become modern and tacky. All through the film, Ichigo just focused on eating his popcorn as quietly as he could while only occasionally looking up at the film. He could tell that the actors were trying their hardest not to make the romance parts soppy but Ichigo knew their efforts weren't enough. There were still elements of the mushy, old-fashioned romantic cliches that he and Sousuke avoided like the plague. When the hero serenaded the heroine while she was on a balcony (blatantly taking material from Shakespeare), Ichigo could have begun laughing into his popcorn at the difference between the film and real life. The extraordinary, shameless, sentimental theme of the song that was clearly made to move the more sensitive in the audience to tears (like Orihime, who was sniffing into her sleeve). Ichigo, on the other hand, was just confused as to whether he should shake his head in disbelief or laugh at the pure ridiculous nature of it, I guess women are better at taking soppy stuff without cringing. Ichigo

thought, dismissively, as he popped another piece of popcorn in his mouth, Then again, Tatsuki isn't soppy at all. He realised this as he saw Tatsuki snorting with laughter into her hand and looking away from the screen. The worst part in his mind, though, was when the hero whine about how he was too dangerous to be with the heroine and how she would only get hurt if he stayed with her, Oh, geez. Ichigo groaned inwardly, In the time he spent whining, he could have got her down on the bed and- He caught himself before he could think of something really dirty. He supposed that his own love life wasn't really a good thing to compare to other relationships. He and Sousuke had never done the whole taking-it-slow thing. They'd tried but it felt more like they were delaying their relationship than strengthening it,

I guess we just...clicked. Ichigo came to that conclusion when he felt embarrassed for watching a particularly sickly scene and looked back down at his popcorn, I guess I'm kinda lucky. We didn't need the whole getting-toknow-each-other thing. Good thing I didn't. I suck at that and I always will. If he had been a more sentimental individual, he would have said it had been love at first sight but, of course, those kind of words never even entered into his mind.
When the film was over, Ichigo ignored all the talking among Keigo and Orihime about the most swoon-worthy

moments (or vomit-worthy, in Ichigo's case) and briefly joined in the contest between Mizuiro, Tatsuki and Chad over who could throw their popcorn holders into the bin from the furthest distance. Mizuiro won because everyone else threw theirs too hard, which meant he was exempt from picking up the ones that missed. It was only when they got out when Keigo attacked him with questions about whether he saw aspects of his relationship with Sousuke represented in the film. To which he answered, "No way. Sousuke's actually got a backbone and I'm not a swooning idiot." Not to mention, we get a lot more sex than that couple in the film. Ichigo added in his head. After that, Keigo kept on whinging that the hero did have a backbone, despite all the believable evidence presented before him that suggested the contrary. After giving the argument up as a lost cause, Ichigo walked ahead, leaving Keigo to whinge at Mizuiro behind him. The group split up at the shopping district and Ichigo decided to walk home rather than phone Hirako. After being chaffeured around so much, he had been worrying about becoming unfit, A walk might sort that out. So, he set off at a brisk pace at the now rather familiar road towards Sousuke's house. The air was cold, a sign of the year drawing to a close. The rain had stopped but a chill had set in, making the frosted leaves crunch in a muted kind of way under his feet. Ichigo found his face

getting cold after a few minutes and wished there was some kind of head-warmer he could wear without looking like a criminal. He cupped his gloved hands to his face and blew hard into them. The warm air heated his nose and mouth for only a short minute but it just wasn't enough,

I wonder how Sousuke's doing in the trial. They've probably got the heating on there. Though he had every confidence that his lover would come out victorious, he could not rid of himself of images reminiscent of the court dramas Rukia liked to watch. Pictures of Byakuya leaping from the dock with a knife produced from nowhere and running at Sousuke while the guards tried desperately to reach him in time, Cut it out! Ichigo snapped at his rebellious imagination, Nothing like that happens in real life. The writers of those shows just do it because it's dramatic and drama gets high ratings. He passed a white-washed house and his thoughts turned to Shiro. His trial would be coming up in less than a month and Ichigo hadn't even contacted a solicitor. He'd been so distracted by Byakuya's trial that he hadn't given it much thought.
Now that he did, he realised that it would be his first time in court and he had very little idea of what went on, Maybe, I can ask Sousuke for advice. Just as he was thinking this, Sousuke's house came into view at the end of the road with Yammy patrolling at the gate. The giant of a man was a bit bone-headed but, at least, he knew

who was an intruder and who wasn't. Although he was perfectly friendly to Ichigo, he was still very glad he had not met Yammy when he'd gatecrashed. When he was halfway down the street, a loud shout rent the air, "GOOD AFTERNOON, ICHIGO!" At the shout, Ichigo immediately took a step back to avoid the screaming blur whizzing in his direction. That same blur missed by inches and hurtled straight into the road, Urgh, where's a fifteen ton truck going at top speed when you need it? He thought, as the blur turned into his father, lying in the road and recuperating from his failed attack, "Good work, son! You've improved since we last met. Now, for Daddy's Love-Crazy-" He never got further than that because Ichigo had planted his foot into his face before he could get out another word, "For God's sake, Dad Can't you at least act normal in public?" "Don't think we haven't tried to make him." A voice came from where his father had leaped from. Looking round, he saw two teenaged girls, each the same height but different in every other respect. One had sandy-blonde hair worn in girlish bunches, wearing a fluttery dress and a kind face that would last all her life. The other had dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, wore men's clothes and was scowling like her brother. The blonde Yuzu ran forward, her arms outstretched, "Onii-chan!" She flung herself at Ichigo, who allowed

himself just this once to show affection. She was his little sister, after all. He'd be totally heartless if he pushed her away, "I've missed you so much!" "Sorry, Yuzu. I guess I haven't had much time to visit." "Yeah, yeah, we get it." Karin nodded, knowingly, "Spending too much time with your boyfriend." Ichigo spluttered but, after a moment, realised that they had probably heard it from their father. Before he can answer, said father had finally got to his feet with renewed gusto, "He's in the springtime of his life, girls! The mating season! He cannot be expected to attend other duties when his loins are bellowing their mighty call!" "Okay, we get it!" Karin beat Ichigo to it and punched their father right in the gut. As he doubled up, Ichigo was still in appalled amazement at his father's choice of words. They made him sound like such a pervert! "Anyway, I hear your boyfriend's in court. Man, who had've thought Kuchiki would have gone nuts and shot him?" "Is he alright?" Yuzu asked, her big eyes shiny and concerned, "He's fine." Ichigo nodded, "Anyway, what are you guys doing here?" "We wanted to surprise you with a visit but," Yuzu gave her sweet smile of apology, "we didn't know exactly

where you lived." "You're not far off. That one's Sousuke's house." He pointed at the big house. Karin gave a low whistle of admiration, "My God, you are having it easy, aren't you?" "Wow!" Yuzu gushed, as the family began making their way down the road, "It's so big! Do you have the whole house to yourself and Sousuke? Does he have servants?" Ichigo only had the time to answer a few of his little sister's questions before they reached the gate. Yammy didn't ask who the newcomers were; he only opened the gate dutifully and let them in when he saw that they were with Ichigo. Ichigo himself was very glad of this because he liked to admit Isshin was his father just as little as he liked to admit Shiro was his cousin, Fuck, why is my family so full of crazy people? As they marched down the drive, a flash of blond hair dropped into his line of vision before zipping out of sight again. Confused, Ichigo stared up and his eyes widened at the sight of Hirako hanging out of an upstairs window upside down by his knees, his hands behind his head and doing some kind of bizarre vertical sit-up excercises, And, speaking of crazy people... "Oh, hi, Ichigo!" He finally noticed the family below after his third sit-up, "Hey, who're these guys?"

"My family, now what the hell are you doing?" "I came home early so I thought I'd do some exercises. It's not often that I get an opportunity nowadays, ya know. What with you and Sousuke messing up the bedsheets every other night!" "Shut up!" Ichigo's face heated very rapidly, something he ought to have welcomed in the cold weather but he was too conscious of his younger sisters behind him to care, "Fine, whatever. I'll be down in a minute." With that, he hauled himself and miraculously managed to get back inside without falling out of the window. Turning to his father, Ichigo muttered, "Please, don't tell me you've ever done that." "No," His father was still staring at the window, in apparent awe. Then after a moment, he fell to his knees, howling like a wounded dog, "HOW COULD I HAVE NOT THOUGHT OF THAT? OH, MASAKI, I TRULY AM A BRAINLESS FOOL! WHY DID YOU MARRY A MAN WHO COULDN'T EVEN THINK OF DOING SOMETHING LIKE THAT?" There was a loud crunch as the insane man's face came crashing into the gravel with both Ichigo and Karin's feet holding it down. Before either of them could tell him off from being such a moron, the front door opened and Shinji was there, wearing a flatcap and his face glowing

with sweat in a way that looked so odd on a cold day, "Hey, everyone! I'm Hirako Shinji, Sousuke's guardian. C'mon in! The fire's lit." Yuzu and Karin were just as impressed with the inside as they were with the inside. While Ichigo ordered his father not to touch anything, the two girls stared around the massive entrance hall in awe, "Wow," Yuzu turned round and round as she gazed avidly at the painted ceiling, "it's so pretty!" "Must take ages to clean this place." Karin commented, carelessly, "Hey, Hirako-san, doncha have any maids around here?" "No, we don't." Hirako replied, good-naturedly, "We used to but Sousuke kicked them all out a long time ago." "How come?" "Because, they all kept flirting with him. Well," He added, seeing the amazed look on Ichigo's face, "so, he tells me. I dunno if it's true." "But, still," Karin imitated her sister by staring up at the ceiling as Hirako went into the kitchen, "this Sousuke must be a real spoiled brat if he lives in a place like this." Ichigo didn't know how to answer that. Of course, Sousuke wasn't a spoiled brat but contradicting Karin's statement meant having to tell them all about Sousuke's parents. On top of breaking his promise to Hirako, he did

not want to describe that kind of thing to his sisters. So, he just kept quiet. Hirako led them all into the drawing room, pushing a tea set on a trolley along with a large plate of cakes in with them. Soon, the family were chatting merrily to Hirako about when the place was built and how long the Aizen family had been in charge of it. Ichigo didn't really join in the conversation since he knew all of this already and occasionally chipped in with comments no longer than, "Yeah." After half an hour of this (by which time, the cakes had been totally demolished by the girls and their father), the doorbell rang, "I'll get it." Ichigo made his way out of the room, hoping his father didn't go crazy as soon as his back was turned. When he got to the hall, he found Sousuke letting himself in, completely free of knifewounds and with a small smile on his face, "I heard from Yammy that we had visitors so I thought I might use the doorbell to announce myself. It's just an old habit of mine." "Right. So, how'd it go?" "It went well." Sousuke nodded, pulling off his coat and hanging it on the hat-stand, "Byakuya was surprisingly calm and the lawyers didn't give me too much trouble. Oh, and I met Kyoraku and Ukitake at court too. They'll be testifying against Byakuya next week."

"Against?" "Yes, I found it rather surprising too. Still, they seem to be surprisingly sympathetic towards me. Anyway, who are those people Hirako-san is entertaining?" "My family." "Ah, I see. Has your madcap father broken anything yet?" He sounded rather hopeful, "No. But, he just might if I leave him alone long enough." "Well, there's no hurry." Sousuke made quite a performance about taking off his shoes and pretended to have lost his indoor shoes when Ichigo could clearly see them behind a pair of dark galoshes. After becoming very impatient, Ichigo thrust them in his face and told him to hurry up. There had been no sound of breaking china or scandalised shrieking coming from the drawing room but he felt that his father could lose his self-control at any given moment. To his great surprise, he saw his father looking serious as he finally entered with Sousuke, seeming to be having a serious conversation with an equally serious Hirako, What the- Normality quickly returned when they entered the room and Ichigo didn't even hear what they were talking about, "WHY, IT'S THE HANDSOME SUITOR THAT CHARMED MY DARLING SON-"

WHAM! Ichigo's fist flattened him to the ground so hard

that he swore he could hear the wood splinter. The lack of movement told him that the hit had knocked him out, Good! "Well," Sousuke sounded both amused and impressed, "I can see why you're so quick to swing blows at Gin now. You're probably used to responding that way towards anyone who irritates you." Ichigo shrugged, "If my old man didn't act like an idiot all the time, I wouldn't be like that." Yuzu and Karin were on their feet. Stepping over their father, they moved forward to introduce themselves; Yuzu was smiling and Karin was suspicious, "Ah, you two must be Ichigo's younger sisters. Yuzu and Karin, correct?" The conversation went well from then on. Sousuke was as charming as he ever was with visitors and Yuzu seemed to love him. Karin was still not convinced after five minutes so, guessing she would want to threaten him when her brother was out of earshot, Ichigo volunteered to refill the teapot. While the kettle boiled, Ichigo gazed aimlessly out into the garden. The grass was frosted over along with all the evergreens dotted around the place, making everything once green and pleasant take on a sickly kind of colour. The flowerbeds were covered to protect them from the frost, making the place look dead and bare.

As his eyes cast over the place, he suddenly spotted something odd. A set of footprints crushing the frosted grass underneath the windowsill. They were far too small to belong to Hirako, Sousuke or even Gin and Ichigo certainly could not remember walking around there. As he tried to think about who could have made those, the terrible idea of an intruder came into his head. He was prevented from investigating further by the kettle whistling urgently, demanding attention. As he loaded the trolley, the image of the prints stayed in his mind and, by the time he'd reached the drawing room, he'd already decided to have a look around from anything else out of the ordinary and not to tell anyone in case it made them worry. Claiming that he'd forgotten to put his wallet in his room, he hurried out and slipped on his shoes, not even bothering to do up his laces. The cold air hit him hard after being in the warm house but he ignored it and began scanning the ground for the footprints. He saw his own, his family's and Sousuke's coming from the gate but they were all too closely packed together which meant he could not tell if there was another set among them. But, then again, common sense dictated that a burglar was not likely to come in through the front gate. So, he walked carefully around the building and to the kitchen window. There they were, right under the window. A pair were pointing right at it like the person had been

peering inside. Perhaps, to see if anybody was at home. He was heartened by how small the feet were. It was probably a girl or a small man. Small enough for Ichigo to take out without a weapon. Careful not to step on any of them, he walked alongside the footprints, keeping one eye on the ground and the other at where the prints were taking him. They led him closer and closer to the wall, where the trees and shrubs grew close together. A perfect place to hide until no one was looking. Ichigo knew this because Sousuke had shown him another secret way out of the house before the Byakuya incident. It was a small wooden door that once had a padlock that was now replaced by a code-operated locking system covered by curtains of ivy on either side purposefully grown to hide it, If the burglar found that door... Ichigo moved more slowly now and scanned the low bushes for any sign of movement, like a big cat listening for its prey. The footprint trail was running out, going between two especially leafy bushes. He stopped for a moment to listen hard in case the intruder was still there and, sure enough, he heard quick, frightened breathing. He could even see little puffs of steam between the bushes appearing in time with the breaths.

In one swift movement, he leapt forward and shoved the bushes aside. There was a small, high-pitched shriek and

a flurry of movement. When all was still and silent, Ichigo could see a small figure crouched with its hands over its head. Those hands did not conceal a lacy cloth upon its head, "Hinamori?" Ichigo gasped, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" The girl was immediately on her knees and bowing wildly before him, "I couldn't get my worries off my mind! I just had to come here to make sure Aizen-taichou was alright with you! I just wanted to do a little check! I wasn't taking photos or anything! I know I shouldn't have but I just - I just -" "Okay, okay, I get it." Ichigo interrupted, worriedly looking round to see if anyone had heard her too-loud voice. Any inclination he had to bring harm to the intruder vanished as soon as he saw Hinamori. There was no way he could be so ruthless as to expose her and most likely get her arrested. Instead, he made a quick decision in his head; a very inadvisable decision but his conscience wouldn't allow him to do anything else, "C'mon." Taking her thin wrist (it felt more like a twig than anything human), he tugged her towards the ivy-covered door. By the lack of appropriate surprise on her face, Ichigo supposed that she had used that door to come in. After another quick look around for anyone who might have seen them, he closed the door behind them and began pulling Hinamori up the slope towards the trees.

The ground, that was precarious on a normal day, was made very slippery by the frost and Ichigo was forced to tie his shoes at last because they would have surely slipped off otherwise. Hinamori had no such trouble; Ichigo supposed it was because she was so tiny and thin. Like a doe, she leapt up the slope while Ichigo could only scramble up with hands and feet in a very inelegant fashion. All the leaves had fallen from the trees now, all lying strewn around the place so you could not avoid stepping on one no matter how careful you were. Nevertheless, Ichigo was careful not to step on the larger piles that, despite being covered with frost, still crackled too noisily for him. His mind was completely set upon getting Hinamori away from the place and any loud noise would surely attract Yammy's attention. When they reached the edge of the wooded area, Yammy came into view, patrolling up and down the front walls in an effort to keep himself warm. Now he was still, Ichigo too began to notice the cold and couldn't stop himself shivering. A small sniff came from beside him and he saw Hinamori shivering too, despite her inch-thick sweater and shawl. He began to wish he'd brought something to put over her but he was only in his shirt and jeans. Not to mention, he himself was far too cold to spare any clothes at that moment, "You're-you're not going to turn me in?" Hinamori asked,

in little more than a tremulous squeak, "No." Ichigo said, resolutely, "I don't like being mean to girls and you weren't doing anything really bad." Images of Loly and Menoly appeared in his head and the gap between them and Hinamori was staggering. There was another sniff and Ichigo saw with a jolt of surprise that Hinamori was crying, "H-hey! Don't start crying on me!" "Don't try to stop me, Kurosaki-san." She wiped her face gently with her shawl, "I'm just happy. I guess I shouldn't have worried after all. You are a nice person and I'm sure Aizen-taichou's very happy with you." Yammy turned his back on their direction and Ichigo led the way down the gentle slope towards the road. Neither of them looked back to the giant guard until they were safely around the corner and out of sight. Both of them relaxed into an easier pace now that the immediate danger was out of the way. The pavement was frosty so they stuck to walking on the grass verges, which was safer, "You know," Hinamori said, out of the blue, "when Aizentaichou's father first took me to meet him, my first thought was 'he looks really unhappy'. He and his parents were having a really big argument and he didn't have many friends. He was starting to mix with the wrong crowd like Ichimaru and Hirako so I guess his father introduced me to him because he thought I was the right kind of person to be mixing with. So, I took it upon

myself to make him happy but, looking back now, I know that I tried way too hard and annoyed him. But, I got in too deep. When he finally told me it was over, I just couldn't let go. I-I have a problem, Kurosaki-san. I keep being selfish and think that I'm the only-" "Okay, I get it!" Ichigo cut across her, impatiently, "Stop beating yourself up about it." There was a rather unpleasant silence, before Hinamori nervously asked, "Ah, Kurosaki-san...does Aizentaichou...ever talk about me? Oh! I'm sorry!" She drew back as soon as the words had come out of her mouth, "I shouldn't be asking that. I shouldn't even be calling him Aizen-taichou. It's just Aizen, now." Ichigo had the distinct impression that Hinamori was in a kind of mental tug-of-war with her obsession. And, that she was losing. Pity for her welled up inside him; he wasn't the narrow-minded and cruel kind of man to scorn people with mental illnesses. At this point, she probably couldn't help herself, no matter how hard she tried to live her life normally. Not knowing what else to say to her, Ichigo looked around. He hadn't really been paying attention to where they were going, only thinking about getting Hinamori out of Sousuke's house. Now, he saw that he was only a street away from the road where Renji's house stood, If they're old schoolfriends, Renji wouldn't turn her out. If I can get her to Renji's place, he'll be able to get her

home. With this in mind, he strode purposefully to the corner.


As they turned into Renji's street, Hinamori said something that made Ichigo's heart stand still, "Is Aizen still not getting along with his parents? I never see them at his house anymore. I only see Hirako and Ichimaru there. Could you, uhm, try and get Aizen to reconcile with them?" Ichigo was rendered totally speechless. He also slipped on the frost with shock and had to grasp a lamppost to stop himself toppling over. How the hell could she not know about Sousuke's parents and why Hirako was there? Surely, when she stalked him in the past, she had found out every little tiny detail about him. How could she miss such a huge chunk of information? Oh, fuck... As the pause grew, a shout saved the day, "Momo? Momo! What are you doing here?" Renji was hurrying up the road towards them, in the process of pulling on a coat and going at a rather perilous pace over the frosty concrete, If he's not careful, he's gonna, "WHOARGH!" fall on his ass. "Oh, Renji!" Momo sounded like she was about to laugh but she went to her friend to dutifully help him up, "Ugh...damn it. Hey, what are you doing here, Ichigo? And, ain't you cold like that?" "Shut up." That was all Ichigo could say while trying to

ignore the goosebumps on his arms, "I didn't think I'd be out this long. I'm going." Without so much of a farewell, he retraced his steps and began heading back to Sousuke's house. As he walked, he began to feel very ill at ease and not sure that he'd done the right thing. Hinamori could have been lying. She could have been hiding a camera under that baggy sweatshirt. Or, even some murder weapon she'd planned using on him. That sickly, frail-spirited appearance could be just an act to put potential impediments off their guard so she could continue her quest to stalk Sousuke, No girl's that helpless and weak anymore. She could be just putting it on. But, even if she was telling the truth, surely it would have been better for everyone if he'd just handed her over to Hirako and let him call the police. It would have been for Hinamori's own good. She wouldn't be happy but everyone else would, Maybe I should tell Hirako when I get back and he can decide if the psychiatrist should be called or not. As he left this dilemma, he turned to the other one. Which was how Hinamori did not know how unhappy Sousuke's childhood had been. At least, when she first met him, she'd had the powers of observation to know he was unhappy but her estimation had been incredibly understated. Perhaps, her innocent mind did not permit her to think anything more horrible or Sousuke's father had charmed her into believing a lie. It made him sick to

imagine that the man could have pretended that his family was only going through a temperory trouble and covering up his own failure as a father. Something Sousuke had said to him when they first met drifted into his mind, 'They were more in love with the concept of my person and not really myself as a person, if that makes any sense to you.'

Maybe, that's what he meant. Hinamori had her own perfect image of an lonely, unhappy man that she could help and didn't think to look closer than that. Ichigo himself found it impossible to think that kind of thing. It was a childish kind of idea to think that everyone was just one-dimensional and so easy to understand. Sousuke was anything but one-dimensional and he realised how blindly in love Hinamori must have been not to realise it, Geez, I thought that kind of love only happened in badly written romance novels.
He was so immersed in his thoughts that he ran into someone and almost fell over like Renji. He just managed to grab another lamppost in time to steady himself, "Sorry." "Kurosaki Ichigo." The person he knocked into turned out to be a boy half a foot foot shorter than he was with shockingly-white hair and glaring blue-green eyes. That wasn't the only thing odd about him; he also wore a neat black suit, the kind Sousuke would wear to work, and a similarly formal (though rather thin) white coat. He held

a thin cane more than half as tall as he, that was topped with a silver dragon's head. Its mouth was open as though it was snarling at Ichigo, "I saw you taking care of Momo. I am quite humbled and grateful that someone with such loyalties would do such a thing." "Huh?" Ichigo blinked, stupidly, "What d'you mean, such loyalties? Who the hell are you?" The boy's already displeased face darkened in a way that inexplicably reminded him of Byakuya, "I am Hitsugaya Toushiro, Captain of the Tenth Squad, and, though you are not of the Gotei 13, I expect the proper respect that is due to me." "Captain?" Ichigo repeated, dumbstruck, "But, you're just a kid!" Hitsugaya's face tightened once more and his gloveless hand clenched even more around the cane, "My age is of no consequence. I gained the Captain's position through honest hard work. Do not think I somehow cheated my way in." "No, no, I wasn't saying that!" Ichigo spluttered, stunned by the sudden hostility, "I was just...ah..." "Oh, never mind!" Hitsugaya snapped, "Just remember this. So long as Hinamori suffers, I will bear my grudge against Aizen. I am not so foolish as to hate you simply because of that but know that you walk a fine line so long as you sleep with my enemy." With that, he straightened

up, military fashion, and walked past him. Ichigo was left, standing in the increasing cold, staring in astonishment after the boy,

He sure as hell doesn't talk like a kid. Just how old is he anyway? Still a bit bewildered, he started walking again, He may be part of the Gotei 13 but he made it sound like he's got a more personal problem with Sousuke. Maybe he's a friend of Hinamori's and doesn't like to see her suffer. In any case, he began to feel relieved that he'd decided not to turn in Hinamori. God knows what Hitsugaya would do to him if he had.
Hitsugaya reminded Ichigo horribly of Byakuya and the image of him somehow whipping a shotgun or a rifle out of that cane haunted him as he strode back to Sousuke's house. He'd heard of posh people who hid a weapon in their canes and Hitsugaya certainly seemed like the type to do that kind of thing. As Sousuke's house came into sight, another problem arose when he saw Sousuke talking to Yammy outside the gate. Looking down at his watch, he realised he must have been gone for over fifteen minutes, I can't tell him Hinamori was here now that I helped her get away. Why didn't I think so something better than putting my wallet upstairs? Fuck, what am I supposed to say, 'Oh, I decided that spending fifteen minutes outside in the freezing cold was quicker than walking up one set of stairs and along one corridor'.

All too soon, before he'd started to figure out a good excuse, Sousuke looked round and spotted him, "There you are, Ichigo!" "Wha...?" Yammy stared at Ichigo like he was some ghostly apparition, "I did not see him go out, I swear!" "Well, that's no matter. Good God, Ichigo, you're freezing!" At once, Sousuke threw his coat over Ichigo's shoulders and began pulling him through the gate, "You know, next time you decide to go on a spontaneous walk around the block, you need to dress more appropriately and at least inform us. Your family's going spare." When he opened the front door, he called into the empty entrance hall, "Stop worrying, everyone! The wanderer has returned!" In the blink of an eye, Ichigo's family and Hirako were crowded around them. Yuzu was begging him to tell them where he'd been, Karin gave him a good kick in the shins for making them all worry, his father had another short and sharp meeting with the floor when he launched himself at his son with overblown relief. Over all this, Hirako solemnly appointed him to washing-up duty for the day as punishment. Grumbling, Ichigo slouched off to the kitchen, where he was alone barring a mound of tea-stained cups and crumbstrewn plates. Turning on the taps, he waited patiently for the warm water to come. As he began to fill the sink, Hirako entered. Silently, he gave Ichigo a gentle shove

away from the sink and took over readying the water. As he put the first plate in, he said in a low voice, "You found Hinamori in the garden, didn't you?" When Ichigo glanced around in surprise, he went on, "I saw you and her through the window. You got out through that old door in the wall." "Yeah." Ichigo nodded, "She's at Renji's house now." "Right." Hirako nodded, belatedly pulling his hair back and wrapping a cloth around his head so he looked (rather comically) like an old-fashioned housewife, "I'll need to phone her psychiatrist later on. I swear her relapses are getting quicker nowadays." "Um, Hirako?" "Yeah?" "Do you think I, ah, did the right thing? I mean, not dragging her into the house and calling the police." "Oh, yeah. There's no point letting Sousuke know about this. It's gone beyond that now. Besides, he's got his hands full with Byakuya's trial. He doesn't need to deal with stalkers who don't know when to quit on top of that. And, don't go beating yourself up about not being harsh enough on her. Believe me, it's impossible for anyone with a heart to be mean to her. And, if you ask me, that's what makes her so...well, I don't want to say dangerous but you get the idea."

In the coming weeks, the sky turned blue, though the sun's rays did nothing to warm the persistantly cold air. It was slightly surreal to see people wearing big coats and woollen clothes on an apparently lovely day. The season of colds and flu rolled around. Keigo dragged himself into university every day, clutching a box of tissues and sneezing every five minutes. He was also very lethargic and Ichigo (along with probably everyone around him) was very glad of this temporary loss of insanity from him. Even if it came at the price of having to wipe copious amounts of snot from his folders at the end of every lecture. Some people were worse off than Keigo. Rukia missed a week's worth of lectures and Renji had to stay at home with her because she had no one else to look after her. This meant that Renji was constantly (and fruitlessly) begging Ichigo for lecture notes. Ichigo was remarkably resiliant to seasonal colds so he could only marvel at how a simple cold could incapacitate someone. The sufferer that most affected Ichigo was Hirako, who got it so bad that he was confined to his room and descended into whooping coughs whenever he tried to speak. This meant that, when Housework Day (what Hirako called Sunday) rolled round, all the chores were left up to Sousuke and Ichigo, who felt his stomach plunge when this prospect was first presented to him. He

hadn't done any kind of housework since he had lived in his old apartment and, even then, he had always done a half-arsed job of it. Sousuke had similiar feelings; he pretended to be too busy so he couldn't do any of the work and Ichigo supposed he would have fallen for it if he hadn't known his lover for so long. Even if Sousuke was swamped with work, Ichigo was determined not to do this all on his own. So, he managed to coax Sousuke out of his room with the promise of a long make-out session when they were done but, even with their combined efforts, the task seemed absolutely endless. Ichigo found himself cleaning rooms that he didn't even know existed until now. It was like the big house was magically creating rooms that needed cleaning just to give him more work to do. Just to try and distract himself from how late it was getting, he found himself wondering if Sousuke's parents'd had servants since they were too busy to do it themselves. Even though it was pretty probable that they had, Ichigo liked to think that they hadn't. Because, if they had, that would mean those servants had ignored their master and mistress's negligence of their son. And, that would make them just as bad as Sousuke's parents. He briefly wondered if, because they didn't have servants, the house had been left filthy and uncared-for. That certainly sounded more fitting. But, just as he was imaging Sousuke having to wash cobwebs out of his hair

every day, the clock struck the hour and he realised that he'd been sitting around on his hands and knees for far too long. He still had at least ten more floors to wash, How the hell does one house get so dusty and dirty in a week? Finally, at about ten o'clock at night, they both slumped on the spotless floor, their job finally done but that day completely gone. Sousuke recovered himself and helped pull Ichigo to his feet. The both of them only had enough strength to haul themselves up the stairs and fall into their bed. Neither of them had the energy or inclination to have the promised make-out session. They just nuzzled close to each other and fell asleep, fully clothed. Both got up very late the next morning and Ichigo found that he was already late for his lecture. On Sousuke's advice, he decided to stay in bed, now that the damage was done and there was no way he could turn back time to erase it. Still feeling tired, he dozed for a while along with his boyfriend, not wanting to think about the trouble that awaited the pair of them when they shifted from their comfortable bed. Finally, Ichigo's phone rang loudly and, groaning, he answered, too sleepy to check who it was, "H-h-hello." He yawned into the receiver, "WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?" The scream made Ichigo jolt and drop the phone onto the bed like it was a poisonous snake. The sound of coughing came from it

made him realise who it was, "Hirako?" "FINALLY REMEMBERED ME, DID YOU?" Bouts of coughing that Ichigo could vaguely hear along the corridor as well as through the phone struck at intervals in his shouting, "I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR MY BREAKFAST FOR HOURS! YOU KNOW I'M ILL AND HERE YOU ARE, CANOODLING AWAY WHILE I STARVE TO DEATH!" Sousuke gave a moan of annoyance and picked up the phone, "If you're well enough to shout at us, you're well enough to make yourself breakfast. And, for your information, we have not been 'canoodling away'. We're both simply exhausted from all the housework we had to do yesterday while you stayed in bed. Now, drag yourself out of bed and stop bothering us, Hirako-san." "HAH! NOW, YOU KNOW HOW IT FEELS! YOU KNOW I HAVE TO DO ALL THAT HOUSEWORK ON MY OWN EVERY SINGLE WEEK WITHOUT EITHER OF YOU LIFTING A FINGER TO HELP! IS IT ANY WONDER I'M ILL? WELL, IF I FAINT, FALL DOWN THE STAIRS AND BREAK MY NECK, IT'LL BE ALL YOUR FAULT! YOU'LL REGRET NEVER CALLING ME DAD, SOUSUKE!"

Click. Sousuke pressed the 'end call' button and put the phone back on the bedside table,

"Hey," Ichigo said, phrasing his question carefully, "why don't you call Hirako 'Dad'?" "Because, he's not my father. I thought you would have realised that by now." "Yeah, but can't you just call him 'Dad' once? Just to make him happy? I mean, he's done nothing bad to you and he does work hard to make you happy." "Ichigo, Hirako-san is not like my father in the slightest. I don't want to call Hirako-san 'Dad' because that would make it seem like he is similiar to him." Ichigo was left stunned for a while as Sousuke rolled over and went back to sleep. Then, the meaning hit him. Sousuke didn't want to call Hirako 'Dad' because that would imply that Hirako was like his uncaring, hated father. He saw the word 'Dad' as an insult and so, in his mind, refusing to call Hirako 'Dad' was actually a show of affection. Feeling new warm emotions for his boyfriend, he shifted closer, wrapped an arm around him and pressed a kiss to his neck before getting out of bed. Hirako was wrapped in his bedsheets and holding onto the banister for support, coughing rather pathetically. When he saw Ichigo, he tried to grin, "I knew you wouldn't abandon me. Sorry, I shouted at ya." When he descended into more coughing, Ichigo helped him back to his bedroom and descended to the pristine kitchen. Every surface shone brightly in the morning light and Ichigo's

spirits could not help but lift at the sight of a job well done. He had been worrying in the back of his mind that he might notice some imperfection or neglected chore when he prepared breakfast.

That evening, Ichigo was the one who had to collect some last minute groceries for the morning since Sousuke had immersed himself in work and Hirako would just get worse if he was allowed outside. Luckily, the shops were within walking distance and it was an hour before closing time. It didn't stop him getting annoyed at having to walk back with a lot of heavy shopping, Ugh, if I have to do any more chores today, I might as well be Sousuke's housewife. Though one segment of that word sounded almost appealing, he hated the entirety of it. It put very disgustingly unmanly things that he never wanted to be associated with into his mind. As he was walking, the air became warmer and he found he could take off his scarf and gloves without feeling the cold, Probably not going to last long. He said to himself, as he walked back, laden down with shopping bags, It'll be gone by the time it's dark. As the big house came into view with a few windows glowing warmly, he began to realise that, in a few days, darkness would fall before dinner and he ought to make the most of daylight in the late hours. So, after depositing the bags in the kitchen, he called up

the stairs, "I'm going for a walk. I'll be back soon!" "Alright." Sousuke called back, "Thanks for telling me this time." Scowling, Ichigo marched back out of the house and into the street. The sun was setting and the sky had taken on a pleasant purple colour that he knew would only last about fifteen minutes. He'd only gone a few steps when the idea occurred to him. He could go over to Renji's house and ask if he could copy his notes from the lecture he'd missed. He knew it was very hypocritical to do so since he'd been rejecting Renji's requests to copy his notes for the last few days, He'll probably say no but it's worth a try anyway. So, he began walking at a brisk pace down the various streets, past the many large and nicely-decorated houses. Most had lights on in the downstairs windows but there were those who couldn't let go of summer even now and fooled themselves into thinking there was still light enough outside to render the indoor lamps useless. Ichigo should know: his father had been one of those people who would not turn the lights on until it was completely dark outside, saying that his children should 'soak up as much sun-ly goodness as they could'.

Is that even a word? As he pondered his father's insanity, he kept his eyes on the sky and relied on his innate knowledge of where Renji's house was to guide him. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the

knowledge was not as innate as he thought it was. When the purple had vanished and the sky became a blur of gold and royal blue, he looked down and found himself in a completely unknown street. Though the houses were mostly the same kind of structure, the cars in the drives and the state of the lawns were totally unknown. Looking back, he saw a fork in the road and realised that he'd had no idea which one he had come from. Since the road had been totally deserted, he'd had no worries about crossing a road before but which road had he crossed? This one? Or one out of sight?

Oh, damn it. He was less worried about being lost than he was embarrassed at the idea that he'd got lost because he'd been admiring the sunset of all things, That makes me sound like some soppy Western poet! Knowing that standing still and worrying would do him no good, he walked on down the road, glancing around for a bus stop or road sign that might tell him where he was.
The first two streets only gave him names of the roads that rang no bells in his mind. Then, as he turned a third corner, he came to a high wall covered in ivy and other vine-like plants. It was too high to see over so Ichigo crossed the road to get a good look at what was beyond, thinking it might be some landmark he recognised. What he saw made his eyes widen in amazement. A mansion of a house, almost as big as Sousuke's, towered

above him. Like Sousuke's home, it looked very Western but had several distinct differences like window-boxes filled to bursting with frosted flowers, a line of gravel path running all the way around the and no spikes around the wall. He supposed that, in the daytime, it would look rather welcoming with the lack of security around,

I wonder who lives there. He thought but, then, caught himself staring for too long, I can't hang around here. I still don't know where I am. Just as he turned away, a sudden movement made him jump. His eyes roved about the empty and previously-silent street for what might have caused the noise. After a while, he thought it might have been just a squirrel or something. He'd probably jumped because it was so silent and every noise seemed amplified in silence.
He was about to move on when it happened again. Looking around again, he actually saw something this time. A section of gravel on the side of the house was shifting up slowly but perceptably, like something underneath was pushing it up. Ducking behind a thick tree on the grass verge, he stared transfixed at what was unfolding before him. The section of gravel turned out to be a slab of pavement with gravel stuck onto it so nobody could tell the difference. The slab was pushed away to reveal a dark opening...and someone pulling themselves out. As soon as they were out of the hole, the person replaced the slab, straightened

up and looked round. Ichigo was very glad the tree was between lampposts and, so, in comparative shadow. He still retreated a little more behind it just to make sure the stranger hadn't spotted him. He felt as though he was about to witness some terrible crime or be privy to some great secret and he must stay hidden, else he might be targeted. The stranger's eyes slid over the spot where Ichigo stood, stock still, and past it. Then, he moved into the light. It was a man, with brown hair and eyes, wearing a faded suit and clutching a roll of parcel tape in one hand. He looked remarkably undistinct and ordinary with no real distinguishing features. Though he was skinny, he was not lanky. Though his hair was flat, it wasn't greasy or lifeless. Though his clothes were old, they didn't look dramatically faded. Even his face was very ordinary. Plain and smooth, neither flushed or pale, with no distinct features, except perhaps a pair of thick but not bushy eyebrows. His face was visible for only a few moments in the light from the lamppost before he strode down the street and got into a car parked near the corner. That car, too, was not very remarkable. A well-kept but rather boringlooking vehicle that was out of sight in a second. In those few seconds, there was no drama. No screaming about murder or theft, no hurry from the stranger in particular. The slab of gravel had vanished into the rest

of the path as completely as it had appeared and Ichigo could see no difference in the path to tell him where it had gone. He was just left an observer to the strange event with no idea what to do, the thought of finding out where he was completely driven out of his mind. Every second he stood bewildered took the perpetrator further away and he wasn't sure whether he should call the police or not. He couldn't tell if the man had actually committed a crime, so to speak, and the police were already annoyed at him for causing so many false alarms. He didn't want to add another one to his record,

Wait a minute. The idea occurred to him as his eyes flicked up at the house, This does look kinda like Sousuke's house. Maybe, they've got secret passages too. So, did that mean it was someone who lived at the big house? If so, then why did they want to go out in secret when it was getting dark? Was it just an innocently secretive venture like Sousuke would do? Or, was it something more suspect.
Ichigo came out from behind the tree and crossed the deserted road, Doesn't anybody drive around here? Everybody seemed to own a car here but they seemed to be rarely used since the roads were so deserted that it rendered looking both ways before crossing needless. It was a complete contrast to the area around his old apartment, where a car passed by the building (normally at high speeds and occasionally with drunk drivers) every

five minutes twenty-four hours a day. This meant that there were always bent railings and toppled signposts outside, along with the unspoken law that no one should hang around near the road on a Friday or Saturday night for their own safety. Ichigo could hardly believe the difference between the two areas, though he welcomed it. If he had been lost in that area, it would be a lot more worrying. He reached the other side of the road without trouble and found a brass name plate beside the gate. The name was inscribed in rather loopy writing, "Hinamori?" He'd heard of the phrase 'speak of the devil and he will appear' and this was one of those moments when that piece of wisdom rang true. For, at that precise moment, there was a loud sob and the gates creaked open. Jumping, Ichigo whipped round and saw Hinamori emerge, her boots untied and her shawl hanging off one shoulder, so upset that she didn't notice him until she almost ran into him. Ichigo caught her just in time and stared in amazement at her distress, "Whoa! Hinamori, what's up?" "Momo!" Hitsugaya appeared at the gate, looking like he'd run as hard as he could after her. As soon as he saw Ichigo, his face darkened, "What are you doing here, Kurosaki?" "Uhm...I'm a bit lost." Ichigo said, lamely, as Hinamori

began sobbing into his chest. All he could do was pat her on the back rather awkwardly, "I've taken a wrong turn somewhere while taking a walk. Uh..." Alarm bells rang in his head not to mention Sousuke. That would probably make Hinamori even worse, "Go down there and keep going straight ahead until you come to a fork. Turn left and, at the first right, you'll be there. Now, just go." Hitsugaya took Hinamori by the shoulders and pulled her firmly away, leaving Ichigo to meekly turn around and follow the directions with his cheeks burning. The weather was getting colder and the day of Shiro's trial finally came. Ichigo had been trained by Sousuke for this day for weeks but he could still tell that his younger lover was nervous as they ascended the steps to the courtroom. Sousuke himself felt nothing special since he had been in court so often that any nerves he'd had were long gone. Besides, whenever he went into court, he knew he would always come out victorious so whatever jitters he got were completely irrational. It was not the same in Ichigo's mind. He'd never been to court and such a place was probably rather daunting to him. He was rather out of his comfort zone in a place where his brash temper had to kept in check and he could not turn to violence when irritated. He could tell that his lover was nervous by his prolonged silence and firmly shut mouth but he had nothing to fear.

In the time since Zangetsu Taikei had been arrested, Sousuke had been careful to send someone in the Las Noches Corporation to keep an eye on the proceedings (whether it was by sitting in the public galleries or not) as soon as he was well enough to speak through a phone. Everything was going smoothly and there was no need for any foul play. The judge viewed Taikei with disdain, the jury even more so and the defence lawyer was failing miserably to change their minds. When they reached the top of the stairs, Sousuke leaned down and kissed Ichigo's cheek, "You'll do fine." He murmured, "See you after the trial." Ichigo nodded mutely and followed the lawyer that awaited him beside the door. With one final look back at his lover, he descended the steps again and entered the public gallery. The court itself was a modern affair with pale walls and cheap furniture, quite unlike the grand old-fashioned rooms that were presented so many times in the media. Sousuke knew there was at least one courtroom like that in the town but he was thankful that this place had been chosen for the trial. Anything extravagant would probably make Ichigo more nervous and Sousuke disliked times when his lover was uneasy as much as the next man. The public galleries were already very full and Sousuke was very thankful that he'd sent Gin to save him a seat at the front earlier. He could see Ichigo's family a little way from them; Isshin was trying desperately to get his

son's attention (who ignored him completely) and his sisters were gazing around in a fascinated kind of way. Some of Ichigo's friends were there too: Inuoe, Sado and Arisawa were beside Ichigo's family, all talking in quiet voices. He also spotted a few Las Noches employees that were supposed to be in work at this time. Grimmjow, Starrk and Neliel were in the row behind him, all freezing when he turned his eyes on them. He surveyed them all for a moment, just to put the fear into them, and then gave a small nod, saying, "Just this once." before turning his eyes away. He could hear Grimmjow's very audible sigh of relief as he surveyed the two people he did not know by sight but knew by description from Ichigo. Zangetsu Tensa and Zangetsu Senior were in a seat right at the back, almost obscured by Chad in the row in front. Tensa, cloaked in black, was wearing his hood up so his face was obscured apart from his smooth, pale chin. According to Ichigo, he did this when he felt embarrassed and didn't want to be recognised. Sousuke thought this action was rather pointless since he had seen no other boy his age who would wear completely black and a hood that covered his eyes so he was recognisable even with the hood up. At this moment, he was reading a book, looking totally disinterested in the whole thing. Zangetsu Senior was sitting next to him, his face turned

to the dock. He knew from Ichigo that he was Isshin's brother but had taken his wife's surname when she died. Like Kyoraku, looked like he might have been a hippy in his earlier years with his stubbly chin and long wavy hair but he had none of Kyoraku's dishevelled warmth. The wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes, though sparse, were deep and clearly defined from what seemed like a lifetime of permanently frowning. Like his son, he had a problem with his eyes caused by a genetic illness. Rather than take the medication that turned his eyes black and gold like Shiro, he wore special semi-transparent brown-tinted glasses that protected them from bright sunlight that often rendered his eyes invisible. His clothes consisted of a long black coat covering everything but his black boots (he'd been told by Ichigo that he intended to wear it all his life in mourning for his deceased wife) that was artfully ragged at the hem and collar. He struck Sousuke as someone who was probably avoided because people thought him a freak and someone who preferred being alone anyway. When he looked back, he saw Gin gazing with interest at Ichigo, "Don't 'e look smart?" He said, rather indulgingly, "Didja get 'im tha' suit, Aizen-taichou?" "Of course. I got it for him yesterday." The day before, there had been a lot of indecision on

Sousuke's part over what colour the suit should be. Ichigo wasn't terribly bothered and didn't think it mattered but Sousuke knew that, despite what the politically-correct officials tried again and again to drill into the heads of the disbelieving public, appearances did have a big impact in court. The jury consisted of normal people, after all, and it was rare that people with enough sophistication of mind to look past appearances would be present, "Pretty tight-fittin', I see." Gin went on, "Ya perverted man. Ya chose that suit 'cos it was th' most flatterin', didncha? Thinkin' about what 'ow it'll look on 'im when 'e's all hot and flustered an' when th' suit's all mussed up, huh?" "Gin, this kind of talk is not appropriate in a courtroom." Sousuke replied, with the utmost dignity that rivalled that of Byakuya. His voice didn't make the rest of his body, though, Thank goodness, I decided not to wear overly tight trousers today. After another few tense minutes, a door opened behind the dock and a flash of white appeared. Shiro was led in by two policemen, handcuffed and sullen. Though he was not wearing a suit, his clothes certainly didn't look like they'd been worn day after day for years and his hair was somewhat flatter than usual, Well, this is a surprise. There was me, thinking he'd be strapped in a straitjacket and foaming at the mouth like a mad dog. I

wonder if they gave him some kind of drug to make him calm for the trial.
Finally, the call, "All rise!" rang through the room and, with a universal shuffling, everyone hastened to their feet as the judge entered. Once everyone was seated, silence fell over the court, allowing the clerk to tell everyone that Shiro had been formally arraigned of orchestrating kidnap and attempting rape and had pleaded guilty (Sousuke didn't know whether to be surprised or not by this). At last, after a lot of formal drivel, Ichigo was called to take the witness stand. The boy was still nervous, it was obvious, but he was relaxing little by little. His voice did not shake as he gave his account of how he was forced into the car, beaten and thrown to the ground by Taikei before being rescued. Even though he'd heard this many times before and had to be completely placid to not put Ichigo off, Sousuke could not prevent a feeling of rage boil within him, all directed at the albino in the dock. A natural feeling, of course, Who wouldn't be furious at the person who kidnapped and attempted to force themselves upon their lover? Still, it was one thing to acknowledge it as a natural emotion and quite another to cope with it properly. As the questions continued, he found himself getting more and more enraged, though he kept a calm and smooth countenance. Like the calm before a great earthquake.

Glancing to the side, he saw Yuzu looking like she might cry. Her dad did too but in a totally comical way that was far from touching. Inuoe was just managing to keep it together while Arisawa was glaring at Taikei, flexing her fists menacingly. Taikei was just sitting there, his eyes on Ichigo. There was no expression visible on his face to suggest what he was thinking, Has he surrendered himself to his fate? Or, is he plotting revenge? Or, another attempt upon Ichigo? The cross-examination began and Sousuke's feeling of rage towards Taikei turned into those of amusement. The solicitor asked all the most predictable questions that Sousuke had trained Ichigo to correctly respond to and was becoming increasingly frustrated by his lack of success. By the time that he finally gave up and called 'no further questions', Ichigo's testimony was completely intact with no damage done whatsoever. The court adjorned soon afterwards and Sousuke left the public galleries with a triumphant smile on his face. Though the day had been a total anticlimax, Taikei was still going to be found guilty and sentenced for sure. As he was looking around for a good place where Ichigo would spot him easily after talking with his solicitor, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Zangetsu Senior with Tensa close behind him. Without introducing himself, he immediately began speaking, "You are Ichigo's lover, Aizen Sousuke, are you not?"

"Yes, I am." Sousuke nodded, in a very professional tone, "And, who might you two be?" "I am Zangetsu, the father of Taikei." "I see. And, what is it you want to talk to me about?" "I want you to pass on a message to him for me since I am in quite a hurry and cannot wait for him." "Very well. What is it?" Probably an apology for his son's behaviour. Sousuke guessed. However, Zangetsu simply said, "That I am disappointed in him." This, he had not been expecting, but he quickly smoothed over his astonishment and replied, trying to keep his voice on a neutral level, "I'm sure Ichigo would like to know why. And, so do I." "Ichigo will know why I am disappointed but I will explain for your sake. Most people do not understand my reasoning without explanation. I am disappointed because he needed help to get away from his attacker. He ought to have been able to fight my son off." Sousuke narrowed his eyes, dropping all pretence of politeness, "Be careful how you phrase that, Zangetsu. You may imply that you had some part of this." "I had no part in orchestrating the incident." Zangetsu replied, evenly, "I simply expect the next generation to be able to defend themselves in anything, instead of

relying on outside help, especially my own family. That's my message. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work. I'll see you tonight, Tensa." With that, he turned and left, his black coat trailing behind him slightly. Tensa remained where he was, book under his arm and still looking Sousuke over from under his hood as though sizing him up, "My father was always a little...different in his way of thinking." He stated, locking his pale blue eyes upon Sousuke's face. They were almost like Gin's except they were slightly darker and a lot more focused, "To him, life is one big training ground and we are all trainees. Whatever misfortunes come our way are the tests of our strength that make us stronger. If we need help, that's a failure. If we get through them alone, then we succeed." He said this in a dull, rehearsed kind of way, like it had been drilled into his head by someone and Sousuke was very grateful to revert to a more normal tone of voice as he went on, "As for me, I think he's just taking his work far too seriously." "Taking work seriously is no way to spend your life." Sousuke nodded, wisely. He had long held this opinion in mind, which was why he liked to work from home and do as little as possible. His neurotic nature would not permit him to be downright lazy but he was content in the knowledge that his time spent working did not exceed his time doing more important things. Like making passionate love to Ichigo in their bed, "I suppose," He voiced the

idea that had just occurred to him, "that is why your brother is such a delinquent since his father doesn't pay much attention to him." This earned him a rather furious glare from Tensa, clearly telling him that what he'd just said was very offensive, "Don't think my father is so bad as that. He pays attention to our training and will always reward us for our successes or be disappointed in our failures. I'll have you know that he always puts his sons first but Taikei-nii always resists him. He thinks it's cool," The word sounded so alien in his voice. Like an old person saying it, "to sever all ties with his family as quickly as he can and pay no attention to what's right and wrong." With a woosh of his coat, he turned around and marched away. Much like Hirako did when Sousuke refused to call him father but with complete grace that could never be considered childish. Sousuke was left feeling rather mortified at himself, Ichigo is definitely rubbing off on me. I'm not thinking about what I say as much as I used to. Oh, dear. What must Tensa think of me? Tensa didn't get out of sight, however, before Ichigo came out of the court. Tensa hailed him, who seemed to be on completely good terms with his cousin. After a brief discussion, Ichigo caught sight of Sousuke and the two parted, "Hey, Sousuke! Man, am I glad to be outta there...hey, are you okay?" "Yes. I'm afraid I didn't make a very good first

impression on young Tensa." "Ah, don't worry." Ichigo shrugged, "He never likes anyone other than his family straightaway." "Still," Sousuke didn't feel like he was really getting his point across, Oh, God, I really am losing my touch, "I pride myself in being able to make a good impression with anybody." "Well, there had to be one time you couldn't do it. C'mon. Hirako's waiting for us."

Ichigo found it increasingly difficult not to laugh as the day went on. It was clear that Sousuke was still disturbed by whatever he'd done to offend Tensa and Ichigo just found it funny, He's probably never failed to make someone like him in the first meeting before. He finally voiced this when they were sitting in the drawing room (or, rather, Ichigo was sitting while Sousuke was reclining upon the sofa with his head on his lover's lap), "When are you going to get over it, Sousuke?" "Get over what?" "Tensa not liking you." "Well, it was the first time in a long while since I've been unable to make someone think I'm a good person when I mean to."

"Oh, get over it, Sousuke!" Ichigo shook his head, trying not to laugh, "Tensa doesn't like you. So what?" "Hmm...you're probably right." They lapsed into a silence, Ichigo idly playing with the bit of hair that was normally the lovelock when Sousuke's hair was slicked back. He glanced away from his boyfriend to gaze out of the window. The frost was getting thicker and thicker outside and there were hardly any fallen leaves to be seen around the place. The predictions of snow were circulating about town even more and there were articles in the newspapers about preparations being made 'just in case'. Nobody wanted a repeat of last year when the snow fell thick and fast, halting all travel. Ichigo remembered all too well coming out of university and waiting for nearly half an hour at the bus stop before he realised that the bus services had been cancelled because of the horrendous weather. He'd felt like such an idiot when he returned to the warmth of one of the university buildings to phone for a taxi. Keigo's whining about the snow getting worse and the possibilities of being trapped in the building or on the roads all night did not help matters, "Say, Ichigo?" "Yeah?" "I have something to confess to you."

"What, is Gin coming round for dinner again?" "No, no, nothing like that. Ichigo, do you remember when we first met? We sat upon this very sofa as we talked." "Yeah, I know." Ichigo nodded, remembering how terrified he'd been of Sousuke discovering he was a gatecrasher, "Why?" "Because, I must tell you that it was not the first time I ever saw you." "Huh?" Ichigo blinked twice, perplexed, "Last year, I was finishing a university course at your university campus. I was already Captain of the Fifth Squad and Head of the Las Noches Corporation by then. I only enrolled to bolster my own credentials. And, to get away from the monotony of work. You must have been doing your first year at the time. In any case, I first saw you hitting Asano-san because he was irritating you. I found the scene rather funny. I found myself catching sight of you nearly every week and you never failed to do something that both amused and fascinated me. I found myself waiting in the places you frequented just to see you." "I never saw you." "Well, you wouldn't. I was using my friendly persona when I was on campus and I tend to blend in with the crowd when I do."

Ichigo had to agree with this but, instead, he said, "Are you trying to say that you fell for me then?" "Yes. After a while, I found myself very distracted from both my work and studies by you. I voiced this to Gin and, of course, he knew what it was right away." "I bet he didn't stop teasing you for weeks." "Months, actually. He didn't stop until I threatened to reveal that he was part of the Las Noches Corporation." "And, lemme guess, you didn't believe it at first." "As cliched as it sounds, yes. I grappled with my feelings for a while, unable to believe at first that I was homosexual. How could I have loved Hisana if I was, I asked myself. Still, after a while, I had no choice but to accept it." "How come you didn't try to talk to me, though?" Ichigo asked, marvelling at the fact that he'd had a secret admirer for over a year, "Well, you know I have an incredibly neurotic nature. Everytime I tried to make plans to introduce myself to you, my mind instantly came up with all the things that could go wrong. So, I delayed and delayed and, before I knew it, I had graduated. Not to mention, when Hisana died, I was in no mood to entertain a new romance. And, you know, I was just thinking that I really shouldn't dwell on the past at the party when you happened to appear. I

thought it was quite a marvellous stroke of luck. You might have noticed how desperate I was to get you inside to talk to me. So much so that I didn't notice your lie about being Grimmjow's cousin. I was just so glad to be talking to you at last." Ichigo nodded, remembering how Sousuke had all but dragged Ichigo inside before he had a chance to get away and paid little attention to his unconvincing lie. Hirako came in at that moment. He was white in the face and Ichigo knew from an great amount of experience that something was very wrong, "Sousuke! The police are on their way and they've got a warrent!" "What?" Sousuke almost whacked Ichigo in the chin as he straightened up, "What are the charges against me?" "No, not against you! Against Ichigo!" As Ichigo stared at Hirako with his mouth open, there was the unmistakable sound of cars coming towards them, clearly audible in the quiet room. Ice cascaded into Ichigo's stomach and seemed to spread all round his body, freezing him in place. The prospect of being arrested was absolutely terrifying, despite his dislike of authority. He'd never been in trouble with the law or done something to get him in serious trouble with the police before. Seeing his lover so distressed, Sousuke pressed a kiss against Ichigo's cheek that he barely felt in his panic,

"Relax. I'll smooth this over one way or another. Stay here." With that, he left, leaving Ichigo in a total daze of panic and confusion. What had he done? Why did the police want to arrest him? Who had reported him? Was it someone from the Gotei 13 who thought that, if they couldn't get Sousuke, they would get him? Would Sousuke be able to fend off the police this time? Many minutes passed and nothing happened but Ichigo could not calm down. He was fully expecting sirens and heavily-armed special forces teams to come smashing through the windows like in the action films he'd seen Okay. A voice like Sousuke sounded in his head, Calm down. That kind of thing only happens in films. You know that so stop letting your imagination run away with you. You aren't the kind of guy to do that. With shaking hands, he picked up the teapot and poured himself a cup of tea. A habit ingrained into him by the extended amount of time he'd spent living with Sousuke. He still put a few sugar cubes into it because he couldn't taste anything otherwise. The teaspoon rattled sporadically on the sides of his teacup as he stirred the sugar into the opaque brown liquid. Even though he had no way of telling if they were dissolved, Ichigo stopped stirring when it stopped distracting him from the danger he was in and raised the cup with the saucer to his lips. It was strange to be sitting here, drinking tea, while

Sousuke and Hirako was trying to prevent God knew how many police from forcing their way in and arresting him. Ichigo thought that he should at least hide himself somewhere in case Sousuke and Hirako's efforts came to nothing but his legs wouldn't move. All he could do was periodically scald his tongue every few seconds with each sip of tea. The big old grandfather clock in the corner began to strike the hour. On the sixth strike, he distantly heard the front door opening with a loud bang that neither Hirako nor Sousuke made it do. This noise sent a jolt through his whole body. The now-cool tea splashed all over him, the teacup rolling off his lap to smash on the floor along with the wrecked saucer. The door of the drawing room was flung open and Hitsugaya Toshiro entered, his face full of thunder. It was only when he grabbed a wooden chair and forced it against the door handle that Ichigo fully realised that he did not want to be in this room, "Out with it, Kurosaki!" He bellowed, branishing his cane like a sword at Ichigo, who was still frozen in place with added confusion and incredible fear, "What did you do to Momo?" "I-I didn't do anything!" It took Ichigo a few moments for his frantic, slowed brain to fully take in what was being shouted at him. Outside, he could hear Hirako pounding on the door, shouting something incoherantly

angry and desperate, "You're a liar!" He jabbed Ichigo hard in the side with the cane, making the sharp points on the silver dragon dig into his skin. Ichigo leapt up, trying to get away from him, his mind a total panicked blank, "You were outside Momo's house that night! Don't think I'm fool enough to believe your excuse of being lost!" "I was! I was!" In any other situation of someone accusing him of something he didn't do, Ichigo would have ploughed his foot in the accuser's face and told him to get lost until they grew a brain. Now, however, he'd got himself so wound up when the policemen arrived that he had no will to react with violence at all, "Liar! Just like your lover!"

CRASH!
The door splintered inwards, making Ichigo jump again and Hitsugaya whip round. Hirako appeared, ashen-faced, followed by two policemen and Sousuke. The policemen were upon Hitsugaya in a second, on forcing his arms behind his back and the other clapping handcuffs on him, saying that he was under arrest for unlawful trespassing with the intent to cause harm or something. They also revealed that the cane did indeed contain a weapon; a long thin sword that filled Ichigo with cold fear again, Thank fuck he didn't take that out on me. Hirako was fussing over him as soon as he was able,

pulling out his handkerchief and attempting to wipe off the tea on his face. Sousuke batted him away and led him upstairs to get changed. Ichigo followed blindly, just starting to calm down after that shock. Just as they reached the bathroom, Sousuke managed to finally shake Ichigo from his trance by running his tongue across his younger lover's cheek where Hirako had missed a few drops of tea, "H-hey!" "I thought that would bring you back to your senses." Sousuke's smug smirk certainly brought him back to reality, shaking away any remnants of helplessness. Just to prove this to himself, he shoved Sousuke's face away grumpily and pulled off his shirt. As he stripped (he no longer cared that Sousuke could see everything anymore), he began thinking how wimpy he'd acted downstairs, I can't believe I just sat there and took it like an idiot. Ugh, Sousuke'd better not tell anyone. He took a step towards the shower but he was stopped by a hand on his elbow, "Ah, ah, ah, Ichigo. Not the shower today." The tone of voice clearly informed Ichigo that the older man had a very perverted idea that probably involved taking Ichigo in a very inventive and undignified way, "If you're thinking about fucking me-" "And, what's so bad about thinking that? It's very

enjoyable. But, anyway, I would like to show you something. Will you come along?" Before Ichigo could answer, Sousuke was leading him towards...an unremarkable section of wall. As Sousuke ran his hands over the tiles, Ichigo began to get impatient. He forced his arm out of his lover's grip and wrapped a towel around himself. He might not care that his boyfriend could see all of his uncovered body but he still had some dignity. When he turned back, he saw Sousuke carefully pulling away one of the tiles, revealing a coded lock. After typing in four or five numbers, a whole part of the wall grinded away to the right to reveal a dark room beyond, "Uh, Sousuke?" Sousuke simply reached within and found a lightswitch. Bright lights flooded the room from above, revealing a room that may have been one of the spare bedrooms that had now been refurbished into a bathroom. The walls were panelled with blank wood panels that he'd never seen in the house before and there wasn't a single ornamental object to be seen. The whole look of the place was one of minimalism that was more and more common nowadays, "Hirako-san made this from one of the spare rooms." Sousuke stated, confirming Ichigo's suspicions, "He took the door off and moved one of the bookcases in front of it so the only way into this place in through this door. He

wanted to keep this secret from me so he did it all while I was away for a year on business. He intended to make this his little hideaway since I could easily get into his room." He smirked and gave a small chuckle, "As if he'd be able to hide anything from me. Though, I must admit," He added, pulling off his jacket, "it seems rather odd to make his hideaway a bathroom. Especially when it's right next to one. If it were me, I'd turn it into a study. Or, a small cinema." The bath tub was in the middle of the room, big enough to accomodate at least three people with steps leading up and possibly down into it. A big white thing with rather dingy metal taps and made from incredibly artificial materials, unlike the marble tub with gold-coloured taps in the other bathroom. Sousuke didn't look at all fussed by the lack of fancy stuff, though. In fact, Ichigo could have sworn he had a little bounce in his step as he crossed to the tub and turned the taps. He was even humming to himself as the steam began to rise from the flowing water, "What's got you all cheerful?" "Oh, nothing much." With that, he walked back to Ichigo in two big strides and gave him a devouring kiss that reduced his legs to jelly and mind to mush. When he was finally released, he could have slumped to his knees on the floor if Sousuke hadn't been holding him up and he didn't care that his towel had dropped to the floor along

with Sousuke's lower garments, "It just makes me very happy to think that I am about to make love to you in this room." Ichigo didn't get a chance to ask why. Next thing he knew, they were both in the bath and Sousuke was kissing him again. Thanks to the combined steamy heat in the room and Sousuke's expert touches, he quickly lost all rational thought.

"Hey, you two! Your dinner's ready!" It took about five minutes for the two of them to appear, by which time Shinji had got rather annoyed, God Almighty, I spend ages making the food and they don't even bother to turn up! He hastily corrected that thought as he saw Sousuke was practically carrying Ichigo downstairs and Shinji knew exactly why, "Sousuke, what did I say about canoodling before bedtime?" "Something that wasn't worth paying attention to." Sousuke replied, in that smarmy way of his, "Urgh." Shinji shook his head, disbelievingly, "I wasn't this randy when I was your age." "You probably don't remember when you were my age. It's easy to forget things that happened so long ago."

Why, that little-! Shinji waited until they had come into the hall before marching up the stairs. He'd already

eaten at work and he needed to finish all those reports that had built up while he was ill anyway, It's all very well for Sousuke. He never seems to do ANY even before he hooked up with Ichigo. The house was a lot colder upstairs than he was used to, I really need to get some better central heating in. This one takes a week to heat up the whole house. I knew I shouldn't have switched it off on that one warm day yesterday. He shivered slightly as he walked down the corridor and opened the study door,

Well, that settles it. He thought, as he felt the icy cold air hit him in the face, I'm not getting another cold. I'm taking a bath. It still gave him a giddy little thrill to enter the bathroom and find the right tile that concealed the coded lock, Sousuke may have lived here all his life but he doesn't know everything about the place! The wall peeled back like something out of an adventure movie and...let out a gush of steam and a strange, musky kind of smell, Huh? That's weird. He stepped into the room and saw, to his dismay, that water was all over the steps leading into the bath and splattered on the floor, like a boistrous child had just been forced to his bathtime. That, combined with that smell, made what had happened too obvious, And, there was me, thinking I'd finally succeeded in hiding something from Sousuke. Grabbing the air

freshener can from one of the cupboards, he began squirting around to cover up the indecent smell, And, just to add insult to injury, he brings Ichigo here and does him in the bath! Wait...adding insult to injury...He put down the can and left the room at once, only stopping to pick up a warm coat from his room because the place was still so cold. Sousuke and Ichigo had already finished their dinner, their clean plates waiting beside the sink to be washed. Shinji eventually found them in the viewing room, watching something that had probably been picked at random. Or, Sousuke was. Ichigo was crashed out on the sofa with his head resting on his lover's lap, his orange hair all splayed out like a big ginger cat. Sousuke didn't even acknowledge Shinji's entrance but kept on watching, stroking Ichigo's hair in a lazy fashion. So, Shinji just sat down in his chair, the top of his head resting on the floor and his feet on the headrest. Even from his altered viewpoint, he could still see Sousuke rolling his eyes, "Must you sit in that fashion, Hirakosan?" "It helps me think." Shinji said, for the thousandth time in his life, "All the blood rushing to my head, helping my brain work." "Yes, I suppose it needs all the blood it can get to work properly, Hirako-san."

"Tch." Shinji scowled but, deciding not to lose his temper and wake Ichigo, said in a low voice, "When did you find out I'd turned your dad's room into a private bathroom?" "A few months after I returned from my business trip." Sousuke replied, evenly, as he turned down the volume when he saw an explosion on the screen was imminant, "My suspicions were aroused when I noticed you'd moved that bookcase over the door. At first, I thought you simply wanted to pretend it wasn't there and I was content to adopt that mindset too. It was Gin that noticed the bookcase had been moved and got it into my head that you might be hiding something behind there." "You know." Shinji folded his arms, "I've known you for over ten years. I know when you're lying to me. But, fucking hell," He shook his head, not really wanting to believe reality, "you must have been in one hell of a masochistic mood." "Well, I'm glad I discovered it anyway. Me and Ichigo had quite a good time in there." "I can tell." Was the last thing Shinji said before the conversation ended. The muted explosions continued and Shinji almost smiled at his mental picture of the look on the bastard's face if he ever found out what his son had done in his room, The ultimate two-fingers-up...even more so than turning his room into something that you can't do work in...

A/N: So, I hope this chapter answered a few unanswered questions. And, I'm not an expert on court proceedings but I think that's how it works. When Shinji woke (upside down in bed again), the sun wasn't even up, Nights are getting longer. He thought, as he stretched his long limbs and glanced at the glowing bedside clock, Funny how that sneaks up on you. He remembered when Sousuke would make jokes about bashing his hands on the ceiling whenever he stretched, Not a chance of that happening here. The ceilings were way too high up so one would need a ten foot ladder to reach them. He knew that because he once had to change all the bulbs in the chandelier above him, And, Sousuke just sat there without lifting a finger! Little brat... Just then, he could hear a distant trilling noise and his legs spurred into action, Damn it! Why do I keep putting off installing a phone upstairs? Now that he thought about it, he realised that, for all its splendour, the house did have a lot wrong with it. Lousy heating, too few landline phones and too much damned useless space. To save time, he leapt over the banister and landed squarely in the hall. The first time he'd done this was an accident when he tripped and fell off the upper floor, breaking his leg. Gin thought it had been hilarious and had laughed himself silly as Sousuke called an ambulance, Stupid foxface never let me forget it... He reached the phone on the very last ring, "Hello?"

"Is this Hirako Shinji?" "Speaking." He glanced at the display on the machine, "Is this the police?" "Yep, that's right. We're calling to tell you about the incident yesterday since the details were a bit sketchy last time." "Well, that's kind of you." Hirako pulled up a chair and only then realised that he was wearing only his boxers in a rather chilly house, having not had time to grab his dressing gown. Hiding his shivers, he went on, "So, what's the story?" "You see, we recently found a suspect who may be behind the tapes and notes placed in Kuchiki Hisana's shrines." "Oh, great. Who is it?" "We didn't find any fingerprints, only a few fibres from what may be a glove. However, we did find that the handwriting and voice both belong to Hinamori Momo." "I knew it!" Shinji said, at once. He really should have realised it long ago. She always had a hand in causing Sousuke misery one way or another, "So, she's arrested, then?" "Well, it's not as simple as that." The officer on the other end had a rather careful tone of voice, like he was saying something he really shouldn't, "You see, although the writing and voice match, we got it from Hinamori-san

that she wrote and said the words at random and someone else rearranged them without her knowledge." "Who did?" This was all sounding very far-fetched and a very Hinamori-like lie, "We don't know. She won't tell us. She keeps saying that she's very confused and she doesn't know why he would do that." "But, she won't say who 'he' is?" "That's right. Anyway, we've placed her under house arrest until we get to the bottom of this. We didn't think taking her to prison was needed since she seemed to sincerely not know the damage her actions had caused." "Right, okay." Shinji nodded, not at all convinced of the girl's innocence, "So, I suppose Hitsugaya got angry with this and tried to pin it on Ichigo." "Well, he said that he'd seen Ichigo outside their house for no apparent reason so we had to at least check it out. Look," He dropped the professional tone and said in a lower, more human voice, "I know it sounds stupid now but it was the only lead we had."

Damn right, it sounds stupid!


"I know Hinamori's testamony isn't, ah, reliable either, given her current mental state. It's not up to me to say what's up with her 'cos I'm not a psychiatrist but I know her history and she isn't in the best shape to give solid

testamony." "I see." Shinji nodded, secretly cursing the one who decided that mental illness was something that could delay a conviction, "Alright, Hirako-san, I'll report back to you any updates and sorry if I woke you up." "No, not at all. It's fine. Thanks, officer." With that, he put down the phone and weighed up what he'd just heard. It was easy to think that Hinamori was lying and she'd orchestrated the whole thing but why would she order Byakuya to kill Sousuke? That didn't seem like her at all. If anything, she wanted to hide Sousuke away from the rest of the world so he'd never so much as get a bruise and he'd be all hers. Or, at least, that's what Shinji thought,

Well, at least we've got a clue. But, we're no closer to the answer. Hinamori has never sneaked into this house as far as I know. She's always stayed outside, looking through the windows, but I wouldn't put it past her. Not to mention, he did say she wasn't in the best mental state. I've heard of mental people who do things they'd never normally do and not remember it. And, Hinamori would be pretty far gone by now...
He was suddenly distracted by movement upstairs, Ah, sounds like the lover-boys are up. Picking up a coat from one of the hooks by the door, he went into the kitchen

and began his cooking routine.

"What?" Ichigo dropped his fork in amazement at the story Hirako had just told them, "But, why would Hinamori want to kill Sousuke and let me live? That's totally wrong." "I know." Hirako nodded, "But, like the officer said, it's their only lead." "Then, our aggressor knows how to cover his tracks well." Sousuke put in, as Hirako ducked out the room to get the post, "Most people would agree that Hinamori did have a hand in this and are less likely to pay heed to any contradicting evidence. And, I'm sure you know this, Ichigo, but the prime suspect isn't always the real one. It's the one thing television dramas get right about crime." Hirako returned, flicking through the little clump of envelopes. As he moved a bigger one to the table, the clump was dislodged a little and allowed a plum-purple envelope to fall to the floor. Ichigo picked it up before Hirako had time to bend his overlong legs and saw their home address in small handwriting (the handwriting he now recognised from the note Rukia showed him), "Something for the fire." Hirako said, plucking it from Ichigo's grip,

"Wait!" Ichigo cried at once, "That's for me!" "What?" With a perplexed expression, Hirako gave the letter a more thorough glance than he had before, "Wow, you're right. Still, it should still go up the chimney. It could have anthrax or something really nasty in it." "I'll risk it." Ichigo snatched the letter back, nearly ripping the fragile envelope. In Ichigo's fingers, he only felt like a letter with nothing else in the envelope but an annoying and paranoid part of his brain told him there was no real way of telling if there was something else there. He didn't have X-Ray fingers, after all, "Sousuke!" Hirako hissed, as Ichigo moved to open the letter, "Back me up!" "I think not, Hirako-san." Sousuke simply sat there, serenely sipping his tea and viewing the situation with mild interest, "If she took the trouble to write a letter to Ichigo and resist the temptation to put my name on the envelope, I think it's only good manners to see what she has to say, even if it's a death threat." Hirako gave a keening noise of defeat as Ichigo tore open the envelope. No white powder or worse burst forth; only a plum-coloured piece of writing paper, folded very neatly, was within. Still with a bit of that foreboding feeling, he carefully pulled out the writing paper and let it fall open in his hand:

Dear Kurosaki,

I'm sorry my friend, Toshiro-kun, caused trouble for you and I hope he didn't hurt you. I know you're not involved in this but I just couldn't change his mind, no matter what I did. But, I don't want to apologise to you just by letter. I'm in all day and you know where my house is so, perhaps, if you're not too busy, you might visit me. It would put my mind at rest and yours too. Hinamori Momo
It took a moment for Ichigo to really process the request made and think of how he should respond to it. Hirako took a lot less time to figure it out, even though he was only reading over his shoulder, "Don't go! This is a trap, I know it!" "Yes. For once, Hirako-san is right." Sousuke nodded, seeming to know instinctively what was there, "Hinamori has never hurt anyone with her stalking habits before but that's not saying she won't. You definitely should not go alone." "Go where?" Gin appeared at the window, making Hirako and Ichigo jolt in shock, "Hey! How did you get in?" "Oh, ya know Yammy'll always let me in, Hirako-san. 'Specially when Izu-chicky's with me!" Sousuke stood up, superbly unsurprised by his friend's sudden appearance (Ichigo got the impression that Gin

did this a lot so Sousuke had go used to these surprises), and went out of the room to let him in. A moment later, Gin followed Sousuke in, still wearing his coat and mockshivering, "Ooh, i's cold in 'ere. Doncha 'ave any good heatin'?" "Well, we could," Sousuke answered, rather heartlessly, "but Hirako-san can't be bothered to get an up-to-date system." "Hey! You could get one yourself, you know! You're not a kid anymore." "You see, can't be bothered." "It's not too cold, Hirako-san." Kira appeared at that moment, having come in so quietly that no one noticed him there, "We're fine. Gin's just temperature-sensitive." "Is that what he told you?" Hirako grumbled, looking sulky. Gin paid him no heed and spotted the letter, "Ooh, tha's a letter from Psycho-Momo, ain't it?" Kira gave a small flinch at this and made a motion that looked like he was about to say something then thought better of it. The sort of thing he did when he wanted to defend one of his friends, "Hinamori has extended Ichigo an invitation to visit her." Sousuke informed him, evenly, finishing his tea at last, "Oh, I get it." The grin on Gin's face widened in a very

nasty kind of way, "She's finally got the torture devices ready. Ya listen ta yer man, Ichigo. Ya go inta PsychoMomo's house and ya won' come out! An' ya really don' wanna make yer man sad, do ya?" "She's not psycho!" The words burst out of Kira's mouth like they'd been waiting to come out for years. His face was flushed, made even more visible by his pale hair, and twisted with rage. The surprise on Gin's face only lasted a minute before the God-awful smile was back and he was patting Kira's hair like he would to an upset child, "Aw, sorry, Izu-chicky. Ya know I always forget she was ya friend. Hang on," An odd expression came over his face, like he was thinking hard. Then, he snapped his fingers, "I know! Why don' Izu-chicky go with Ichigo? She wouldn' do anythin' nasty while Izu-chicky's around and there's no way she'll turn 'im away." "That might actually be a good idea." Sousuke nodded, ignoring the look of horror on Hirako's face, "Hey, hey, hey! Weren't you the one who said Ichigo shouldn't go?" "I said, Ichigo shouldn't go alone. Like I said, if Hinamori is so determined to see Ichigo that she resisted the temptation to put my name on the envelope, it's only common courtesy to see what she wants to say. And, I'm not worried about Hinamori doing anything to hurt Ichigo. She may be a determined kind of woman but she will not

do anything with the police nearby. Besides," He suddenly became serious as he tapped the letter in a significant way, "from what I can gather from reading this, Hinamori may want to tell you something important that she doesn't want to tell the police, if you get my drift."

So, after breakfast, Ichigo and Kira left Sousuke's house with the promise not to stay away for more than half an hour (lest they wanted Hirako to drive his car through Hinamori's gates). It was a sunny cloudless day, though it was absolutely freezing cold and a shallow layer of snow sat everywhere. The roads were just as empty as ever so the main problem was icy patches underfoot. Kira had slipped twice before they had got close to Hinamori's house. They reached the road that Ichigo vaguely recognised as the one he'd found himself lost in. Though it looked very different in daylight, it was still as quiet as ever. The cars remained in their drivers, topped with white, and no footprint but theirs could be seen on the pavement, "Is it always this quiet?" Ichigo asked Kira, who was used to seeing the snow ruined by tyre tracks and cars crawling along the roads for fear of skidding on the inevitable black ice and occasional childish person throwing snowballs at their windows for no good reason, "Yes. But, that's alright. That means that we don't get

any road accidents around here." "Yeah, I guess. Still, it's kinda weird. Where I used to live, you'd hear about dumbasses getting themselves in car crashes every month, no matter what the weather." "Are, um...are students...that careless then?" "No more than ordinary people. You get your sensible ones and you get your idiots. The idiots are the only ones who get hurt." Though, Ichigo knew this wasn't always the case. How could Keigo have gone so long without getting into an accident, after all? They began to cross a deserted road at that point and, just as they'd taken two steps into the road, there was a loud revving of an engine along with the sound of snow being crushed. Glancing round, he saw a car tearing down the road, right towards them, at a speed that must have been at least double the limit. Acting on his instinct, he grabbed Kira by the elbow and dashed for the other side as fast as his legs would take him. The car missed them so narrowly that the snow that sprayed from the blurry wheels slapped Ichigo on the legs. By the time they'd reached the safety of the pavement, the car was out of sight. For a moment, Ichigo was in a state of shock, trying to get his breath back and not daring to believe what had just happened. The moment quickly, to be replaced by the anger that he had every right to feel,

"YOU FRICKIN' MANIAC!" He yelled at the dark speck that had been the speeding car, "SLOW DOWN A BIT, WILL YA? THIS AIN'T A FUCKING RACE-TRACK!" But, the driver was too far away to hear him and, all around the street, people were sleepily poking their heads out of their upstairs windows to find out what all the noise was about, "C-c'mon, Ichigo-san." Kira tugged on Ichigo's sleeve with all the force of a small child, as Ichigo hastily explained what had happened to an irate old woman with her hair in curlers, "L-let's go. He's g-gone now." The blond man's face was as pale as the snow and his fingers were shaking very perceptively. If Gin had been with them, he would have probably fawned over his 'poor, frightened little Izu-chicky' or something stupid like that. Once they'd turned the corner, everyone in the street had retreated back into their bedrooms, some muttering about 'foul-mouthed kids', and Kira had managed to find the courage to talk normally, "Oh, my. That didn't half take my breath away." "It could've taken a lot more from us, he was going that fast." Ichigo grumbled, "Maybe, he just skidded on some ice." Kira suggested, timidly, "Or, he was late for something." "Whatever the reason, he's still an ass." Ichigo replied,

firmly, "Well, yes." Kira nodded, in a way that suggested that he was agreeing with Ichigo just to stop an argument, "It was kind of rude not to stop and say sorry." Hinamori's house looked like something from a Western Victorian painting. The roof was covered with snow, the ornamental vines were pleasantly frosted and a warm orange glow came from the biggest downstairs window. There was no sign of a police officer anywhere. The gates were simply shut tight. This struck Ichigo as rather careless of the police, especially considering that these old houses had so many secret exits. He began to fear that Hinamori might have got out already and they'd get roped into finding her. However, when Kira rang the doorbell, her shaky voice came through the speaker, "Who is it?" "It's me, Izuru. I've brought Ichigo-san along." "Oh, did you? Come on in. I'll open the gate." The gate moved slowly open, thankfully not creaking (Ichigo could not quite get over how creepy the creaking gate on Sousuke's house was). The path before them was regimentally straight, broken only by a dead, frozen fountain. The front garden might have looked rather nice in the summer but, in the winter, everything was frosted and dead-looking. The statues of Grecian figures and little cherubs looked rather creepy for some reason.

Maybe it was that fact that they were so lifelike and not in the slightest bit weathered by time. As they walked around the lifeless fountain, something caught Ichigo's eye through the ice. At first, he thought it was a fish trapped in the frozen water but, as he stopped to look, he realised it was a torn up photograph. It lay in four pieces but had fallen in such a way that what it depicted was obvious. It was a photograph of Hinamori and Sousuke, standing together in front of a beach. Hinamori was laughing, looking like she was having the time of her life: her face was fuller, her hair shinier, and she looked as sweet as a china doll. The younger Sousuke, who looked no different that he did now, was wearing his nice-guy glasses and was smiling too. His best fake smile that had never been used on Ichigo. The smile that was getting rarer nowadays. As he thought this, Ichigo couldn't help but feel a little selfish surge of pride at the thought that he had been the one to make Sousuke smile a genuine smile and not Hinamori, No, don't think that. It's cruel. Instead, he turned his thoughts to what it was doing torn up and thrown in the fountain. His first thought was that Hinamori, in a fit of distress over her mental state, had torn her photographs of Sousuke to pieces in an attempt to convince herself it was over between them. Then, having lost her nerve when she was about to burn them or throw them away, she'd just cast them into the fountain outside her house.

Hinamori appeared as they neared the door, wrapped in big woolly clothes that looked like her grandmother had made them for her (the sort that Ichigo got for Christmas and ended up forever banished to the bottom of his wardrobe until the next clear-out), and gave her strained smile when she saw Kira approaching. Kira himself returned an identical strained smile, like he was trying to be tactful, "Hi, Hinamori-kun. How are you?" "Fine, thanks. Hello, Kurosaki-san!" "Hey." Ichigo returned a non-committal wave, the photo in the fountain still sticking in his mind. The picture of the younger, happier Hinamori before her mind snapped floated before his eyes. He couldn't help but feel a bit angry at Sousuke for being so cruel to her at this. He could have let her go in a less painful way and perhaps stopped her mind breaking like this. Ichigo followed Kira and Hinamori into the big house, his mind still full of troubles, not even sparing a glance around the hall. The only thing that registered in his mind was that it must be about the same size of Sousuke's hall and filled with similar ancient ornaments. He only came back to the present when he entered the drawing room. Unlike Sousuke's drawing room, this one had lacy covers on all the furniture, the fireplace was boarded up with an electric mock-fire flickering faintly and rather girlish colours frequented the room. Another thing he noticed was that everything was markedly clean. Although Hirako

(and Ichigo, who had started to help out after Hirako had been ill simply out of guilt) did a good job of keeping out cobwebs and making sure no visible stains remained, Sousuke's house always had the odd bit of dust and object of place somewhere. Something that made it appear lived in and not some preserved house from history. This place, on the other hand, was completely pristine with not a thing out of place, clinging to a faint smell of some cleaning product Ichigo had developed a loathing for. The old fear of breaking something expensive came into Ichigo and he moved a bit more slowly about the place. The cleanliness began to unnerve him a bit, it wasn't natural for a place that housed someone, even if it was only one person. It looked almost...obsessive. Yes, that was the word. He could envision Hinamori obsessively cleaning the place that didn't need such attention to try and take her mind off certain things. The only thing that made it look homely was the presence of many photographs on the wall and the mantelpiece. Most of them (he realised with a pang) contained Sousuke. Hinamori began to serve tea in big, modern, clumsy mugs that clashed spectacularly with the rest of the house. Ichigo had expected the fragile, ornatelydecorated kind from someone like Hinamori, Then again, A little voice in his head reasoned, she seems the type to drop those kind of cups and break them so maybe that's it.

She certainly seemed likely to drop her cup right now. Her little white hands were shaking and her smile became even more strained, Here it comes. Ichigo was sure the big secret that she'd kept from the police was finally going to come out. After over a month of suspense, his nerves began to go heywire at the prospect of an answer at last, "It's nice of you to come, Kira-san, but I know why you're here. Ichimaru sent you to make sure I didn't attack Kurosaki-san, didn't he?" "No, no!" Kira shook his head violently, making the flap of hair over his face fly wildly about in an almost comical fashion, "I just met Ichigo-san and found out he was going to meet you too so we decided to go together. Gin's got nothing to do with it." "Don't try to lie to me, Kira-san." Ichigo tried his best not to groan, Oh, crap. This won't end well, "You never do anything without Ichimaru's consent nowadays. I-I don't like you being around him, Kira-san. He's a...a bad man. The wrong crowd. I don't want you with him. He's not good. Not good at all." "He's, ah, he's alright...once you get to know him..." Kira was clearly trying to phrase his words carefully and failing miserably. Ichigo was never an expert at women's emotions but he could tell that this was not the right answer. He felt like diving behind the sofa because he knew an emotional explosion of some kind was imminant,

Change the subject, quick! We're sitting on a powder keg here!


"Anyway, Hinamori-san, you wanted to talk to me about Hitsugaya-san attacking me?" Kira slumped with relief as the insanity began to leave Hinamori's face and the strained smile reappeared. Ichigo too felt a surge of similar relief, Whew, disaster averted, "Yes. I'm really sorry but there's just no reasoning with Toshiro-kun when he gets angry. I just couldn't think of anything to say without...without..." Red lights began flashing in Ichigo's head again as Hinamori's eyes turned down to the floor but he ignored them. Now was the moment of truth. He was sure of it, "...without telling him the truth. Kurosaki-kun," She turned up her face, showing her dark eyes watering at an alarming rate, "please, forgive me. I didn't know I was going to cause you all this trouble and hurt Aizen-taichou. I'd never have done it if I knew." "Who told you to do it?" Ichigo met her gaze with determination, ignoring his guilt for forcing her into a confession. He didn't want any more suspense, he just wanted to know now so he could get this whole thing over with, "It was...it was..." She began hugging herself and bringing her knees up to her chest, "...Aizen-taichou."

There was a little pause. Then, Kira broke it, "What?" "I-I'm insane." Her voice was breaking. Her cup fell to the floor, throwing tea everywhere. The sturdy mug only cracked and rolled away to the side, trailing a tea stain across the carpet, "I hear his voice whenever I'm here. I shouldn't, shouldn't, shouldn't come in here but I always do. It's where all my photos of him are. They talk to me. Oh, God...I don't want to go back to the mental hospital!" She wailed, suddenly, now fully in the fetal position and rocking backwards and forwards in her chair, "I didn't tell Doctor Unohana because I thought she'd send me back there again! I swore to my grandmother I'd never go back there again. I can't, can't, can't go back! Oh, what would she say if she ever found out what I've done!" Kira leapt up from his chair, his mug cracking on the floor and creating even more tea stains. Ichigo was left, sitting on the sofa, with the only intact mug in his hand and not knowing what to do. He wanted to go and comfort Hinamori but he had no idea how to go about it and feared to try in case he made it worse. Hirako was right, he shouldn't have gone. Even if there was no trap or torture devices, his presence here didn't make the situation any better. Thinking that it was best to leave Kira to comfort Hinamori as best he could (and perhaps contact this Doctor Unohana), he stood up, abandoning his cup on the coffee table and began to walk towards the door. As he

did so, one of the photos caught his eye. It was another beach photograph with another false smile from Sousuke and joyous expression on Hinamori's face. There was another man between them, however, embracing the pair of them with an arm around each of their necks in a rather tight-looking grip. A very plain-looking man wearing an equally plain workshirt, with only a few buttons undone at the top to show relaxation. His hair and eye colour were identical to Sousuke's. A burning fury raged within him. This had to be Sousuke's father, putting on a facade of happiness for his son and his luckily-rich girlfriend, That fuckin' bastard. How could he have stood there, one arm around the son he'd never loved and another around the woman who had the vast fortune he longed to own, and smile at the camera like he was a normal and loving father? Probably only a few weeks before this was taken, he'd dragged Sousuke away from the only man who'd been a real father to him and forced him to date a woman who'd be mentally scarred for life afterwards. He glowered at the photograph, doing all he could to memorise the unremarkable face. That man had to be in the city somewhere, just waiting for Ichigo to pummel him into the ground. Ichigo was getting himself so angry that he actually felt tears prickle in his eyes at the injustice of it all and at how it was all kept so secret. The man should be in prison and shunned by all society for neglecting his son and wrecking his family all for the sake

of worthless money and work, not walking free like negligence was good parenting. His hand lashed out and snatched up the picture, wanting to throw the thing against the wall then tear that photo into little pieces and throw them in the fountain like the other one. Still, he managed to restrain himself enough to limit his action to just slamming down the photo frame hard enough to make the glass shatter and turn away in disgust, never wanting to look on the thing again. Kira looked up at the noise and spotted the overturned photograph. For some strange reason, he gave a gasp of surprise and hurried to it, plucking something black from the frame. It took Ichigo a moment to realise what it was. It was a small tape player, identical to the one found in Hisana's memorial right down to the parcel tape wrapped clumsily around one side. This strange thing made Ichigo's disgust fall away at once, to be replaced with bewilderment shared by Kira, "This was the same kind of tape you found on in Kuchiki Hisana's memorial, wasn't it?" "Yeah. Play it." So, Kira rewinded the tape and, when the whizzing sound stopped, he hit 'play'. There was nothing at first, just a little shuffling like the person recording was readying himself too late. Finally, a deep male voice came through the little speakers, "Kill him, Hinamori-kun. I can't do anything while I'm with him. He'll suspect something. You

have to do it. Kill Kurosaki, Hinamori-kun!"


Ichigo could barely believe his ears, nor figure out what this all meant even if he did. His disbelief was broken when Hinamori let out a little wail of despair, "I didn't want to." She said, in a wobbly but more stable voice, "I didn't want to kill Kurosaki-san. He's so nice and Aizen-taichou wants him dead." "It's not Sousuke's voice." Ichigo said firmly. He wasn't saying that just to comfort her; he was quite sure that it wasn't Sousuke's voice saying that. Just to make sure, he played the tape again and, sure enough, it definitely wasn't, "Sousuke's got a quieter voice than that. And, that voice was a bit too high." "You're sure?" With a firm nod, Kira sprang into action, "Well, we need to call the police at once about this. Where's your phowhat the?" The room gave a start as Kira was cut off by the sound of roaring motors and crashing metal from outside. Ichigo hastened at once to the window and saw a familiar car. Checking his watch, his fright gave way to a unthreatening kind of dread, "Ah, damn it."

With that, Ichigo threw open the window, ignoring the rush of icy wind that was brought by this action, and

called, "Hirako! What the fuck did you do that for?" Hirako emerged from the car, kicking a section of buckled gate aside, and called back, "I told you I'd drive the car through the gates if you didn't come back in half an hour!" "Sorry, Ichigo." Sousuke appeared from the backseat, followed by Gin (whom, Ichigo could tell even from his distant viewpoint, was thoroughly enjoying the whole incident), "I didn't think he'd actually do it!" "Ooh, dear, tha's gonna cost ya a bit, Hirako-san!" Gin sang, staring at the mangled remains of the gate Hirako's car had just plowed through, "I'm only guilty by associa'on so don' expect me ta 'elp ya cover that!" "Shut up, Ichimaru. I didn't ask for your money." "Jus' sayin'." "You see, Kurosaki-san?" Hinamori's voice came from his elbow. She must have walked up to the window unnoticed when Ichigo was talking, "Hirako and Ichimaru are really bad people." "Fox-face is." Ichigo nodded and, because he respected Hirako so much, added, "But, Hirako isn't. He used to teach me martial arts when I was a kid." "Oh." Hinamori was rather flummoxed by this, blinking up at Ichigo with a kind of surprise that probably hid something, "I was told that he tried to get Aizen-taichou

to run away from home and join a violence gang." "And, who told you that?" Some of his former anger began to bubble up to the surface again. He had a very good idea who it might be, "Aizen Senior. Aizen-taichou's father." "He did, did he?" Ichigo was only just managing to keep his anger in check but Hinamori seemed totally oblivious to it. She was staring forlornly out of the window at the large gap where her gate had once been, "That gate's been there since my grandmother's time. Now, it's ruined. They ruined it." "Well, nothing lasts forever." Kira said, lamely, clearly having no idea what else to say. Ichigo thought, at once, but said nothing. Instead, he left the window and hurried through to the front door. Now that he was less distracted, he could see that the hall was indeed very similiar to Sousuke's house with the same old intricate carvings on the walls, ancient portraits (though, depicting different people) and fragile china ornaments. Like the drawing room, however, there were a lot more feminine colours and an abundence of lace was scattered everywhere. As soon as Ichigo opened the door, Gin almost ran into him as he bounced into the house, "Ooh, so this is wha' Psycho-Momo's house looks like. Hmm, I guess the torture devices are in another room, huh?"

"Shut up!" This comment earned the fox-face a good hard smack around the head. The rebuke was effective; he immediately stopped commenting on Hinamori's house and turned his attention to Kira. Sousuke immediately turned on the charm (and the fake smile) when Hinamori crept shyly over to her new guests, "I'm sorry about your gate, Hinamori. Hirako-san is a terrible driver." "No, I am not! I've been driving for twenty years, you know, and I've never had an accident!" "It's true." Sousuke nodded and, after just the right amount of pause, added, "Lady Luck does favour some people more than others." Gin and Hinamori sniggered as Hirako turned pink and retorted hotly, "Look who's talking, Mr Crashed-My-CarJust-After-Getting-My-Licence." "I'll put on some more tea, shall I?" Hinamori cut across Hirako's speech quickly. "It's alright, Hinamori. We shan't be long. Now, my driving skills have nothing to do with the fact that Hinamori's gate is currently lying on the bonnet of your car. But," Sousuke turned away from a fuming Hirako straight to Kira, "I can see that's irrelavent. What is that in your hand, Kira-san?" "I found it on the back of a photo in the drawing room."

He handed the tape over to Sousuke, whose face became serious at once. Kira lowered his voice before continuing, "Hinamori-kun thought she was hearing voices in her head and didn't tell anyone because she thought she might be taken back to the mental hospital if she said anything." "I see. What do you think, Hirako-san? Definitely the same as the one you found in Hisana's shrine?" "Definitely." Hirako nodded, frowning. He rewinded it and hit play again. When he heard the message, he had gone chalk white, "Shit..." He breathed, his eyes the size of saucers. Gin too had rather wide eyes, allowing their full icy colour to be revealed, "Kinda low, isn' it?" No humour was in his voice, only cold amazement, "Takin' advantage of Hinamori's insanity like tha', ain't it? I mean, I like teasin' 'er when I get an opportunity bu' tha's just plain wrong. It ain't even funny. If it was makin' 'er do somethin' like singin' fifties songs outside Aizen-taichou's gate while dressed as a chicken, tha' would be funny but not this." "That's not even funny either, fox-face!" Ichigo snapped, scowling at the man's constant refusal to be appropriately serious. Hinamori, however, didn't even seem to have noticed this. She was just concentrating purely on Sousuke in a rather unsettling way and seemed to be determinedly ignoring Hirako and Gin. Sousuke simply kept his fake smile going strong and said,

"I'm sorry about your gate, Hinamori. Hirako-san merely got very worried about Ichigo being away from home too long." "Away from home?" Hinamori looked up, his eyebrows raised, "Oh, Ichigo lives with me now. He has for a few months."

Uh oh. Ichigo could sense that they were getting onto a very bad topic just by looking at Hinamori's rather blanklooking face. Trying to get away from the minefield Sousuke had just entered, Ichigo said, "You know, Hinamori, we found the same kind of tape in Sousuke's house a month back..." So, the talk turned to more serious but more safe ground. Hinamori's face got whiter and whiter as she heard the whole story and kept saying how sorry she was for being a part of the scheme,
"So, what are we gonna do?" Hirako asked, once Ichigo's account of events had come to a close, "Call the police first, I guess-" "No, no, no!" Gin piped up, shaking his head in a very condescending way, "Tha's way too borin'. We've been doin' that all this time and nothin's ever turned out interestin'. Wha' d'ya say we do this one ourselves, huh?" "This isn't an action film, Ichimaru!" Hirako cried, scandalised, "We need to leave this to the police!"

"No way." Gin's grin extended to impossible lengths again, "I say we come back 'ere tonight and do a stake-out! The way I see it, this guy's gotta break into this room to rewind the tape or put a new one in so, we 'ide 'ere, wait for him to come and pounce on 'im! Hirako-san or Aizentaichou can do tha'. They're good at fightin' stuff so they'd 'ave no problem." "Not if he pulled a knife or a gun on me!" Hirako spluttered, "Besides, how can we hide if he don't know where he comes in? Unless there's a hole in the ceiling we can look through, I can't see how." "I may have an inkling if how he's getting in." As soon as Sousuke spoke, Hinamori's head whipped round, her face the picture of total concentration in an almost cartoonish way, "These old houses tend to have many little secrets left by our ancestors. Like secret ways in and out, for example." He caught Ichigo's eye at that point, making something in his brain click into place, "There's one here!" He said, "I saw a guy use it when I got lost! He came out just outside Hinamori-san's walls." "Whoa, seriously?" Hirako gasped, "Why didn't you tell us before?" "I forgot. I thought it was someone who lived with Hinamori-san. I don't even remember what he looks like." Hinamori had gone white again, clearly scared by the revelation that someone had been breaking into her house

so easily. Ichigo had a little gut feeling that she had no idea that a passage had existed until now. Gin, however, leaped up to his feet and cheerfully sang, "Well, we'd betta find the entrance, then!" So, at permission from Hinamori, they began searching the room. Chairs were up-ended, rugs were pulled back, paintings were removed, walls were examined but it was only when Gin began investigating the fireplace that they found anything. Not caring for Hinamori's scream to be careful, he shoved the electric fire out of the way and began picking at the boards. To their amazement, they came free with complete ease, making it apparent that they were all stuck together rather than individually nailed when Gin took them all off as one. This left an empty fireplace, dusty and grimy from being in the dark for so long. A stark contrast from the immaculate marble mantelpiece around it. Then, as Gin set the boards aside, Kira gave a cry of amazement as two things became apparent to them all. One, the boards could not be fully taken off. They were in fact on rusted hinges like a small door, like it was meant to be opened. Two, the fireplace was nothing but a big dark hole that had to be the entrance to the secret passage. A stunned silence followed. Then, without announcing his purpose or even asking if anyone else wanted to, Gin crounched down and stepped into it. For a moment, only the top of his silvery head was visible.

The passage had completely swallowed him up, "What's it like down there?" Sousuke asked, with a hint of concern in his voice, "Ooh, very cold. And dark. It's got a real funny smell too. It's too dark ta see where I'm goin'. Anyone got a light'r or some matches? A torch would be even bett'r." Hinamori retrieved a small electric torch from the kitchen and, with her face full of dread (whether it was from the discovery of the passage or being too close to Gin, Ichigo didn't know), handed it over, "Okay, I'm goin' in!" "Be careful." Kira said, "Yes." Sousuke nodded, "If the passage hasn't been attended to for so long, the structure is probably very weak. There's a high possibility that it could cave in if you're not careful so go as slow as you can and try to avoid knocking anything out of place." "Okey-dokey!" Gin's careless acceptance of the advice was a total contrast to Kira, who blanched at the thought. The silver head vanished into the darkness and, soon, the sound of his footsteps faded away, along with the light from the torch. Another pause followed, one more worried than the last. They waited and waited, listening hard for the sound of a voice, a footstep or (Ichigo dreaded to think) a crash. Ichigo gazed hard down into the darkness beyond. It was

safe to assume that this passage had not been discovered and rennovated by any of Hinamori's immediate family. He wondered why on earth the secret had been lost to the ages, They could have at least blocked it off if they weren't going to use it. Ichigo thought, They shouldn't have left the passage like that. Sure, the entrances are hidden but clearly not well enough. To him, it seemed nothing short of carelessness to leave the passage where anyone could use it. At least, Sousuke's family had rennovated it so there was no risk of it collapsing on any future users. At last, after about five or ten minutes, light emerged once more and a grimy face appeared. Gin could only be recognised by his grin, so covered in dust and dirt as he was, "Yep, it leads outside jus' like Ichigo said. Our guy's defini'ily gettin' in this way! So," He leapt out, making Hinamori wince at the muck he was getting on the hearthrug, "whaddya say we come back tanight and catch the crook red-handed!" "Uh-uh! No way." Hirako shook his head violently, whacking Kira in the face periodically with his hair, "We gotta leave this to the police." "Oh, come now, Hirako-san." Sousuke was wearing one of his I-know-so-much-better-than-you smirks as he said, "We've left so much to the police already and, if the newspapers are to be believed, they can't afford to put their limited budgets under any more strain on our

account. It's only fair that we should give them a break every once in a while. I'm sure they'd be thankful if we didn't come whining to them for help all the time. Not to mention, they may not come even if we do call for them. I believe they said to Ichigo that they may not respond to any more calls from him because of all of the false alarms." "Yeah, but-" "What say you that we vote on it?" Sousuke neatly cut across Hirako's objection and, without giving anyone else a chance to say anything, continued, "I vote for dealing with this ourselves. Along with other things, I would like to face this man myself and demand an explanation." "Same here!" Gin piped up, as though on cue, "I'm so bored of runnin' to the police like some tattle-tale kid. I don' want people ta think I'm a goody lil' two-shoes." "Uh..." Kira bounced on the balls of his feet for a while before lowering his eyes and saying, "...I think we should let the police handle it. They haven't let us down yet." "Oh, Izu-chicky, ya're so borin'!" "I'd rather be boring that put me and my boy in danger. I vote for going to the police too." Hirako clapped a hand on Sousuke's shoulder, which was immediately shaken off, "Your boy isn't in any danger, Hirako-san. It's us you

really need to worry about. So," Ignoring Hirako's fury, Sousuke turned to Hinamori (who was remarkably oblivious to what Hirako was implying) and Ichigo, who had been standing outside the little group and wishing their turn would never come, "what do you two say?" Ichigo glanced down and met Hinamori's eyes. He knew that he was probably going to be the tie-breaker and didn't want to displease Sousuke or Hirako. He quickly weighed up the options in his head as seconds dragged by and the stares from everyone else became more intense. He knew, of course, that the right thing was to go to the police but he had a feeling that they wouldn't do a stakeout like Gin wanted to do and just do a search for him in town. And, of course, Ichigo could remember very little of the man; for he'd been so ordinary that nothing about him was committed to memory. If only he'd told Sousuke and Hirako about seeing the man emerge from the passage as soon as he'd got back. He should have really gone straight back as soon as he'd seen the man rather than stick around and let the memory of it be driven away by meeting Hinamori, "Well?" "Don't rush us!" Ichigo snapped, irritably, Can't they see I'm trying to think here? "C'mon, c'mon. Before it gets dark!"

"Shut the fuck up, fox-face!" "Uh," Hinamori's little voice stopped Ichigo shouting at once, "well...I know it's not the right thing to do but...I would like to face this man too. It was my house he broke into, after all." "Tha's the spirit!" Hinamori took a step back in disgust at the grin Gin gave her, "Alrigh', Ichigo. I's just you who hasn' said anythin' yet. If ya don' say somethin' soon, we'll do this withou' yer opinion!" "Fine!" Ichigo snapped, his mind made up in his aggravation, "Let's take this guy ourselves. I wanna kick his ass!" "It's settled then." Sousuke clapped his hands together with an air of finality and turned to the group as a whole, "Alright, everyone. Shall we say we all meet back here at sundown? Don't give me that look, Hirako-san. Now, if you'll excuse us, Hinamori, we'll take our leave. And, after all this, I'll talk to you about paying for a new gate." "Oh, no need for that, Aizen-tai, ah, Aizen-san. I've got more than enough to pay for a new one myself, thanks." At those words, Sousuke simply nodded and left, leaving Ichigo with the impression that his lover had been expecting Hinamori to say that and had never intended to pay for a new gate in the first place. He had been simply saying it out of politeness. As he thought about how to

talk Sousuke into being a gentleman, he felt a little tug on his sleeve. Hinamori was holding him back, her eyes bright and hopeful, "Any luck with Aizen-taichou and his father?" "No." Ichigo said at once, knowing that he'd stepped into another minefield. One more treacherous than the last. At the look on Hinamori's face, he quickly added, "He doesn't like talking about it. One word and he leaves the room." Ichigo didn't quite know why he felt compelled to lie to Hinamori. Maybe it was just her childlike face that reminded him of Yuzu. The kind that made him wish that no tears would ever come into it. Thankfully, Hinamori bought the lie easily and went on, "It's really getting out of hand. His father's really not doing very well either."

Well, good! He deserves it! "How come?"


"His business isn't doing too well, he hasn't been promoted in over ten years and he's been living in a tiny apartment in a very bad area for years. He says Aizentaichou kicked him out of his house and won't let him come back. And, his parents, Aizen-taichou's grandparents, wrote him out of their Will for some reason so he really has to work hard to scrape a living. I keep asking him if he wants to stay here until things get better but he always says no."

Pity. I could just gone upstairs and beat him to a pulp

right now. Would save me some time,


"I do worry about him a lot. He works so hard and wears himself out yet he still finds time to worry about his son."

Worry about his son's wallet and how he'll get his hands on it, more like,
"I really think you two should meet. He doesn't really like it when we talk about you but I think that's just natural parent suspicion. He thinks I'm the best person for him but, well, we all know that's not true. I'm sure he'd take a real shine to you once he meets you."

Yeah, I'll give him a good shining bruise and lots more besides when I meet him!
"I have to warn you, though, he's a bit odd. I blame the amount of time he's spent away from his wife and son because I heard that he and his wife split up after he had that argument with Aizen-taichou. He never talks about it, though. Probably because it's too painful, poor thing. Still, I do think it unhinged him a little bit. And, yes, I know I'm not one to talk." She gave a nervous little giggle that made a shiver go down Ichigo's spine, "But, still, he's a good man."

Oh, is that what he'd have you believe?


"Like I said, he comes round to my house a lot when can spare the time from work. He likes watching old horror

films on my big TV but I can't stand them so I always have to leave the room at some point," Another nervous giggle, "When you live in a big house on your own for so long, your nerves do get rattled very easily. Still, just to warn you if you do meet him, he's a bit old-fashioned. He's only just started to accept that his son's gay but I'm sure that, when he meets you, he'll be even more accepting." "Yeah, sure." Ichigo could only shrug before he ambled out of the room after Sousuke's call to hurry up, How the hell did I manage to keep a lid on all that? Wow, me and Sousuke really are rubbing off on each other. As he got into the car with his lover (Gin and Kira had decided to walk by themselves while the other three took the miraculously unharmed car), he glanced at his lover. He was looking out of the window, fingering a lock of hair in a way that would have looked careless and bored to someone who didn't know him well, "What's up, Sousuke?" "Oh, nothing important." "Don't give me that." "Very well. I just have a lot of bad memories connected to Hinamori's house and it looks like I might have to add even more soon. Even though I do wish to meet my aggressor face-to-face, Hirako-san is right. There is a risk that he could be armed." In a seemingly-unconscious

way, he moved a hand to his side, "Don't tell Hirako-san I said that." "Too late." Though he couldn't see it, Ichigo knew the shark-like grin was on Hirako's face again, "I heard the whole thing." "Drat." "You know," Ichigo finally decided now was a good time to voice what he'd been feeling for a long time, "you've got nothing to lose if you do say that to Hirako. There's no point in pretending you don't care about him." "Yeah, Sousuke! No use acting like an ingrate!" Sousuke turned and fixed Ichigo with a hard glare, "You're in no place to govern how I act around Hirakosan." "I don't care. It bugs me that you can be so uncaring." "Yeah, it bugs me too!" Hirako almost forgot to move when a traffic light turned green, he was so attentive on Sousuke's answer, "Well, perhaps you can both ignore me whenever I act that way around Hirako-san and everyone would be happy." "We wouldn't!" Ichigo retorted, "I can't ignore that kind of thing." "Neither can I!"

"Look, this conversation is getting absolutely nowhere and we're almost home so let's stop, please." "No way, Sousuke. I ain't dropping this until I get an answer out of you." Hirako's face was deadly serious as he pulled the car easily into the drive, "I've been nice enough to you all these years and, ever since I came to live here, you've been nothing but rude towards me! Now, I may not be your dad but I'm a damn sight better than the real one, aren't I? Well, aren't I?" He jerked forward violently, making Ichigo jump, but Sousuke remained physically unmoved, "I wasn't suggesting that." Nothing else. No witty remark, no implied insult, Yes! Progress! "I merely don't want to give you a false title, Hirako-san." "You know," The idea came into Ichigo's head at the same time he voiced it, "it's more of an insult to your father to call Hirako-san Dad." Sousuke's eyes widened slightly and an icy feeling came into Ichigo as he realised what he'd just done. He inwardly braced himself as Sousuke's eyes narrowed and glared at Hirako, "That's not a good topic of conversation with Ichigo, Hirako-san." "He needed to know." Hirako replied, determinedly, "He found have found out from someone else sooner or later. And, what if he got a false account of events?" "He did not need any account of events." Emotion was

starting to creep into Sousuke's voice, "And, it's something he didn't need to know. You're wrong." "Well, where else was he going to hear the right story? From you?" Sousuke flinched back a microscopically small distance, "I have already told Ichigo all he needed to know before you did." "You just said your mum died and your dad walked out on you." Ichigo retorted, "You even tried to sugarcoat it. You didn't even mention Hirako." "Oh, didn't you?" Hirako's glare intensified and Sousuke retreated further into his seat. It was clear that he didn't know what to say and was being backed into a corner. It was most unlike Sousuke but it only showed how little he liked talking about it, "So, the past seventeen years don't mean anything to you, do they? You're saying that I might as well have just called your parents when I found you in my garden and left it at that, are you?" "No, I'm not!" Sousuke's voice raised, his normally-placid face colouring. Though Ichigo was on Hirako's side in the argument, he didn't like to see his boyfriend upset. He laid a hand gently on his elbow and leaned on his shoulder, "Sousuke, you're not proving anything by being mean to Hirako-san. You said to me that you didn't call Hirako Dad because it made it seem like he was like your dad."

Hirako gave an incredulous noise at this but let Ichigo go on, "But, if you use that logic, that means you have to be nice and loving to your real dad. And, he sure as hell doesn't deserve it. Wouldn't it be more of an insult to your dad if you called Hirako Dad and addressed your real dad like a stranger?" Sousuke sat still for a moment then closed his eyes and sighed in a resigned kind of way, "This is what comes of trying to be original." "Okay," Hirako began relenting a little, "you're saying that you kept being mean to me because you thought it was a cliche not to? Geez, Sousuke, what're ya like?" "Incredibly intelligent and handsome, I think." The arrogant air was back in full force, making Hirako throw back his head and laugh, "Okay, call me Dad and all is forgiven." "Go on, Sousuke." Ichigo couldn't help but grin at the resigned expression on Sousuke's face and his mutter of, "I'll never forgive either of you for this." He took a deep breath, like he was about to jump off a cliff, and said, in a low voice, "Very well...Dad." "Yes!" Hirako punched the air...unfortunately, the car's roof was very low and he ended up bashing his fist, "Ow!" It was Sousuke's turn to throw his head back and laugh. Ichigo did too. He just couldn't help himself. After all

the revelations of the day along with the following talk that could have easily turned into a big, family-splitting argument, it felt good to laugh. It just eased all the tension in the air that had followed him all day, "Oh, shut up, the pair of you! C'mon. We need to get some dinner in us before we go back to Hinamori's. If we're gonna catch this guy ourselves, which I totally wash my hands of, by the way, we can't do it on an empty stoamch" They finally left the car and, at once, the cold air smacked Ichigo in the face. He'd almost forgotten how cold it was outside after being in the stuffy car for so long. Sousuke was silent as he and Ichigo sat in the drawing room, waiting for Hirako to make dinner. After waiting for about two minutes, Ichigo became impatient and gave him a light flick on the nose. It wasn't that he wanted attention or anything. He just didn't want to sit still and do nothing when the prospect of catching their tormentor was just a few hours away, "What're you thinking about? Your dad?" "Yes." Sousuke leaned back and closed his eyes, suddenly looking very weary, "When I was courting Hinamori, I often visited that place with my father. I used to like going there because...now, I don't want this to turn into a sob story so don't take this the wrong way. Well, it was the only time he showed me affection and acted like a father." Ichigo wanted to ask about Sousuke's mum but held his

tongue, realising that mentioning her might be too painful. Sousuke might love his mother, after all. What boy didn't? It was alright for boys to hate their fathers but they should never hate their mothers, in Ichigo's mind, "May I go on? I'm not boring you, am I?" "You're not boring me." Ichigo nodded, knowing that his lover would probably never mention it again if he didn't talk about it now and what he'd just asked was an effort to get out of telling the story, "At first, I rather liked it and thought it a reward for finding a girlfriend. Then, Hinamori began getting obsessive and my father was just as bad. He kept asking me if I'd proposed to her several times a day and it was incredibly wearing on me. Then, of course, I began realising my father's affection was all an act to divert Hinamori's suspicion and he wanted me to marry her for her money." He gave a humourless chuckle at this, "And, there was me, thinking fathers only married off their daughters for money." "She still doesn't have a clue, you know." "What?" "Hinamori doesn't know that about your dad walking out on you. She thinks you two just had an fall-out. Well, that's what your dad told her." The last bit hadn't meant to come out but Sousuke took it surprisingly well,

"So, he visits her often?" "Apparently. From what I heard, he acts like he's this tragic unappreciated father trying to make a living on his own. Makes me sick." "Indeed. Though I will admit to enjoying the benefits I gain from deception, I cannot help but remember who I picked up those habits from." "You don't deceive people anymore, though." "I have been more honest recently, yes. Especially to you. Lord knows why." By the time dinner was over, it was nearly dark and, since nobody felt like sitting around the house for another hour, they got back out into the freezing cold, walking very slowly along the drive to avoid the ice that coated the path in a shiny and treacherous sheet. Hirako was careful to go slow on the roads but Ichigo eagerly wished he'd just step on the accelerator and get there quickly. He certainly did not want to be standing around on the watch for hours before finally getting around to beating the crap out of the guy. He began hoping they'd come across him on the way and save everyone a lot of waiting but fate was not favouring him and the short trip passed without event. They parked around the corner from Hinamori's house, in a shadowy place where the streetlamp wasn't working and the car was almost invisible. As they walked in (there was

no point in ringing the doorbell since Hinamori was expecting them and, of course, there was no gate to keep them out), Hinamori opened the door a crack and, as soon as she'd recognised them, she opened it with a whispered, "Izuru-san and Ichimaru-san are already here." Tense feelings in Ichigo began to rise already as he stepped inside. Now, the idea that he was actually going to be part of catching an insidious criminal that had orchestrated crimes against him and Sousuke was starting to sink in. Along with the many imagined ways their plan could go wrong. In their haste to get away, none of them had even discussed taking a weapon of any kind. Though the idea of wielding a gun was daunting (and reminded him too much of the scar on Sousuke's side), Ichigo wished that they had at least taken something to defend themselves. A baseball bat or a taser, just something that would help them in the event of a fight. From his vague memory, their enemy was not a bulky or a strong-looking man but that was no guarentee that he couldn't defend himself. Karin was living proof of that. The hall was dimly lit with only a couple of table lamps lit on each side, throwing the shadows of the carved walls into sharp relief and hitting the paintings in just the wrong way so everything looked creepy and shadowy, Shit, how the hell can Sousuke and Hinamori live in places

like this? They must have been seriously scared of this when they were kids. He remembered rather fondly of times when he himself was scared by less than this at night and he'd run to his mother, asking if he could sleep in his parents' bed. And, when his sisters would snuggle in with him on long and dark winter nights.
This moment of nostalgia quickly turned into cold imaginings of what Sousuke must have done when he was scared by the shadows as a child. Unlike him, he probably would not have anyone to comfort him. The image of Sousuke as a child, hiding under his sheets or perhaps tapping fruitlessly at his parents' locked door distracted him from his worry with new sadness for Sousuke and more hatred for his father. Gin peeped around the drawing room door at that moment and said, in an exaggeratedly conspiritorial whisper, "We're ready when ya are. Wha's the plan, Aizentaichou?" Sousuke took hold of the situation in an instant and, as though he'd been going it over in his head for hours, said, "I think that Gin, Hirako-san and myself should remain on the lower floor to apprehend our man." "Mmm-hmm." Gin nodded, "I like tha'. We're bigger tha' everyone else and we'd stand a good chance o' catchin' 'im. Plus, I don' wan' any harm to come ta my Izu-chicky. Guess you're the same with Ichigo, hmm?"

"Hey!" Ichigo scowled at what this was implying, "What do I do, then?" "I intended you to remain upstairs and warn us when you see him coming. But, I can clearly see you have an objection." "Damn right, I do! I'm not about to 'stand watch' while you guys kick his ass. I only agreed to this because I thought I could tear into him, you know!" "Of course. How silly of me. Very well, you can take Hirako-san's place, then. It seems only right since Hirako-san was the one who objected strongest to this." "Only if I'm right next to the phone so I can call the police quickly." Hirako replied, stubbornly, "Very well. I'm sure your worries are unfounded but it's always good to have a back-up, I suppose. Now then, shall we say that Hirako-san, Kira and Hinamori go upstairs and keep a lookout for our man? When you see someone who looks like it could be him, Hirako can call me on my mobile phone. Don't expect an answer. It is just an alert to me, after all. Then, when our man comes through the passage, Ichigo, Gin and I will pounce upon him." "And, if it sounds like you're in trouble, then I can phone the police?" Hirako interjected, huffily. This was just casually waved away by Sousuke, "Yes, yes, alright. Now, come along. Everyone in position."

Hinamori was the first up the stairs, racing up them like she'd been told someone had been murdered in her room. Kira followed, jogging to keep up with his friend, and Hirako brought up the rear, mouthing unheeded warnings to Sousuke as he went. Once again, the three of them entered the drawing room. This room, on the other hand, was not at all lit and looked even more creepy with just some far-reaching streetlamp-light illuminating the room, "Sorry, Ichigo-kun." Gin sounded not the least bit sorry, as usual, "But, it 'as to look like Momo ain't 'ere or 'e might not come, see?" Ichigo did see but it did not change the fact that he could barely see a thing, But, he mentally reasoned, that means the guy won't be able to see me easily either. He could feel someone moving closer and felt Sousuke's hand on his. Ichigo could tell it was his at once: big, supplefingered and not at all calloused. It gave him a bit of irrational comfort to know that his boyfriend was close and they were about to face their enemy together. Minutes dragged by in attentive silence and the sky outside was getting darker and darker. The curtains were left open and Ichigo found himself more interested in the garden than the immobile fireplace. The snow outside glimmered a dull golden colour in the amber light of the badly-flickering streetlamp in a semi-solid sheet broken only by a few patches of black grass. The statues were nothing more than motionless

silhuoettes but, as the light rapidly switched on and off, Ichigo's imagination began running away with him again. Sometimes, it looked like the angel holding a wide bowl was slowly turning towards him and, at others, it seemed that the little girls, hand in hand, were swinging their hands and their pigtails just a few inches. Ichigo's wild fantasies were broken by Gin's whisper of, "Is it jus' me or are those statues kinda creepy at night?" With that, he turned stubbornly back to the fireplace and pushed all stupid thoughts out of his mind. As if statues could really move. He was just scaring himself again, like he had with the ancient design of Sousuke's house. A few moments later, after the cuckoo clock in the corner had cried the hour, there was a buzzing and Sousuke took out his illuminated phone. Ichigo's heart skipped a beat and Sousuke was immediately animated to action, "He's coming. Ichigo, you take that side of the mantelpiece, I'll take this one. Gin, get to the lightswitch and turn the light on as soon as we manage to pin him down." So, Ichigo positioned himself on the right side of the marble mantelpiece (dimly illuminated in the flickering light) and Sousuke's shape took the left. Both remained very still, with their backs to the wall like police officers in a crime drama about to break down a door. His breath

seemed to catch in his throat and his ears strained to hear the footsteps of the intruder. At last, he could hear regular, muted steps coming from somewhere both behind and below him, getting more and more audible. Ichigo counted twenty-one seconds before they stopped. Glancing down, he saw the boards covering the fireplace move outwards little by little, the electric fire scraping against the tile. A dark shape, like a large and tangible shadow, slid through the gap; shapeless at first, then growing a head, arms and eventually legs. Looking up, he met Sousuke's glimmering eyes and, raising his hands, he lunged forward. He met solid flesh almost at once, vaguely feeling an elbow dig into his chest as he pinned it to the ground. There was a low, indistinct cry and the shadow began to wriggle. It was bigger than Ichigo but he still found that he could keep it down to the floor with help from who he supposed was Sousuke at his side, "Stay still!" Ichigo growled, as he found a skinny wrist and slammed it onto the carpet. Light flared and, as soon as Ichigo's eyes had got used to it, the struggling stopped, the intruder seemingly knowing a lost cause. There was a thunder of footsteps and, in a few seconds, Hirako, Kira and Hinamori had burst through the door. The brown-haired head of the intruder raised and, though Ichigo couldn't see it, this sent a very perceptable shockwave through the room. Kira and Gin just stared (with fright and interest respectively) but

Hinamori gave a horrified gasp and Hirako's face went white with rage, "YOU!" Blond hair flew as he swooped down upon the intruder like a big, gangly bird of prey, "I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, YOU STUPID, TWISTED, SELFISH BA-!" "Quiet, Hirako!" A deep voice, just a little higher than Sousuke's, came from the intruder's mouth. The voice that Ichigo knew was from the tapes. In fury, he got hold of the man's head and slammed it as hard as he could into the floor, "You, be quiet!" Gin hastened to Hirako's side and the pair of them hauled the dingy man off the floor and threw him into a chair so hard that it nearly overbalanced. Now, everyone in the room could get a good look at his face. Now he was closer, Ichigo could clearly see the wrinkles around his eyes and forehead. The kind that resulted from stress and frowning too much. His thick eyebrows were now contracted with anger at being caught and his eyes were hard as flint. Ichigo, of course, recognised him as the man who'd emerged from the passage the other day. He also recognised it from a photo that was, at this moment, sitting with a cracked glass frame on a table near the door. His blood boiled, his cheeks burned and his

fingernails dug so deep into his palms that they hurt. Just as he started forth, Sousuke held him back, "Leave it. He isn't worth your fists." "Quite right." said Sousuke's father, in an unbearably self-important way, "I don't want that urchin to touch me with his filthy hands." "Aizen-san," Sousuke spoke through gritted teeth, "if you call him an urchin again, I may change my mind." Aizen Senior's eyes flashed at the way his son addressed him but, before he could say a thing, Hinamori's timid voice broke the furious atmosphere, "Aizen-san...it's can't be...I don't understand..." Suddenly, everything seemed...there was no better word for it...embarrassing. It was like Hinamori was a child that had just walked in on her family having a blazing row and asked what was going on. Even Aizen Senior looked very uncomfortable, squirming in his seat. Or, was that because Ichigo was cracking his knuckles in a menacing kind of way? Before he could say anything, Hirako drew himself up and said, in a very solemn voice, "If you knew this guy like I do, you wouldn't be asking that. Let me tell you," He clapped a hand over Aizen Senior's mouth to stop any objections, "he's a filthy liar and the worst father you'll ever meet." "It's true." Ichigo knew from Hinamori's face that she would not believe Hirako's words, "Sousuke told me." He

knew it was a very small lie but it was the only way to get through to her, "This asshole only cared about his work and never spent a minute's time with his wife or son. He only wanted Sousuke to marry you for your money. Sorry, but that's the truth. And, Hirako isn't just Sousuke's friend. He's been his guardian since he walked out." Hinamori's eyes were just two wide, shiny orbs of black, her face as white as flour. Her mouth was slightly open and seemingly set like a statue. That was it; the biggest mine in the field had just been stomped on. She slowly turned to Aizen Senior, then to Hirako, then Ichigo and finally Sousuke, looking like she was waiting for someone to leap up and say, "April fool!" And, then, perhaps Byakuya and Shiro would come in and say, "We were in on it too." When nothing like that happened, she fixed her eyes on Aizen Senior, who had managed to shake off Hirako and say, "You must understand, Momo-san, that I fully regret not being there for Sousuke. I was confident that his mother would raise him well, you see, and, when I found out that she hadn't been doing her motherly duty, I got into a little argument with her and stormed out in the heat of the moment. My parents-" "Bullshit." Ichigo didn't want to hear any more pathetic excuses. He wanted Sousuke to just let him go so he could pummel him into the carpet, "We know what you did so don't try that on us."

"Nobody asked for your opinion, you dirty little whelp." "Aizen-san." Sousuke fixed his father with an icy-cold glare, clearly warning him against saying another word against Ichigo, "But..." Hinamori finally found her voice, "...why did you tell Kuchiki-sama to kill Aizen-taichou?" "Yeah, I was just wondering that myself." Hirako gave Aizen Senior's hair a good tug to pull his face around to meet his gaze, "It seems kinda weird that you'd wanna kill your son and have Ichigo kidnapped. I would have thought it would be the other way round." "A mix-up." Aizen Senior snapped, dismissively, "I was busy. I wasn't paying much attention." "Bull." Hirako snarled, "It's true! I only realised when I heard the news that Sousuke had been shot. I was sorry!" "The hell, you were! And, I suppose that card saying that Sousuke had brought it on himself was a mix-up too!" "Quiet, you! If I could work my will, you would have been crushed under my tires this morning!" "That was you? Why, you little-" Ichigo was cut off when Hinamori gave a small cry that might have been a sob or a scream. Gin sighed, rolling his eyes and seemingly perfectly oblivious of the serious

situation, "'Ere it comes. The whole 'I trusted ya' speech." "I wasn't going to say that!" It was the first time Hinamori had actually looked angry. It was like a tiny viper lashing out of the grass and taking the victim completely unawares by such a small creature's power. Indeed, Gin actually leapt back a bit, "I was going to say that he's the worst man I've ever met." "Oh, okay." Gin nodded, looking rather cowed, "Go ahead." Ichigo mentally braced himself, looking anywhere but at Hinamori and feeling distinctly uncomfortable even though he had nothing to be worried about. It felt oddly like the times when the teacher would tell the whole class off for something only a small handful of people did that didn't include him but the tone of voice still made Ichigo feel guilty anyway. Hinamori took a deep breath and began talking in a breaking but still venemous voice, "I don't want to believe you're that kind of man but you've admitted to them. You don't even feel guilty about using the Kuchikis!" "Kuchikis? Tch!" Aizen Senior scoffed, distastefully, "A fallen family, if you ask me. Just like Sousuke wants to do with ours. I still can't believe someone like Byakuya would make the same mistake as my boy. Marrying that crippled little cockroach, indeed! And, there was me, thinking that her injuries would put her off the market forever."

Another mine stepped on. That thought went straight through Ichigo as soon as he felt Sousuke's fingernails dig into his arm, Is this guy asking for an ass-kicking? Though a lot of time had passed since Aizen Senior had been caught, Ichigo's anger had not dulled for a moment. There had been too little action, too little opportunity to vent that anger. He wanted something to happen. Something big, loud and destructive.
Aizen Senior taking out a weapon would be a good thing and it would give Ichigo an opportunity to attack him but he was just sitting there in a seemingly cooperative way, with a sneering scowl on his face. The kind of expression that he longed to punch so hard that his face could never show any visible expression again. After one or two long moments, Sousuke's grip relaxed. Looking up, Ichigo could see his face had gone oddly blank. Something that Ichigo had not seen before. Normally, Sousuke at least had a slight smile or frown but, now, his mouth was a straight line and his eyebrows remarkably relaxed. It definitely wasn't because he was calm, Ichigo knew that much. The explosion was coming. Any moment now... "So, it was you." His voice was low and as oddly blank as his face, "You pushed her off that building." Aizen Senior did not make any condescending reply nor did he contradict the accusation. A simple raised eyebrow and that was it. All at once, Sousuke exploded.

Relinquishing Ichigo at once, he rushed at his father, fists raised. There was no scream of righteous anger or anguished cry. He just ran straight at his father and fixed his hands around his throat. The chair overturned with the force of Sousuke's added weight, sending the pair of them flying to the floor. As soon as Ichigo realised he was free, he remembered all his hatred in full and joined the fray, That fucking asswipe...Just caring about money...Injuring an innocent woman for life...Just because she wasn't rich...! The thoughts ran half-formed through his head, fuelling the fire and adding extra energy to his fists. Though it was utter confusion that reigned, Ichigo still had Aizen Senior's face before him. He knew that it was him he was punched and he wasn't hitting Sousuke by accident. The plain face was turning steadily red from lack of air and a steady stream of grunts came from his thin lips, in time with Ichigo's punches. After about ten hits, Ichigo could feel hands around his middle, pulling him away. Though he struggled with all his might, the grip succeeded and he was peeled off Aizen Senior, kicking and screaming. Grunts of exertion from the side told him that Sousuke had been pulled off too. No one came to Aizen Senior's aid. He just lay there, choking, bruised and twitching, "This is why I called the police." Hirako's voice came from somewhere around his ear, as sirens wailed in the

distance.

The lawn was dotted with little bright lanterns, lighting up the temporary dancefloor that had been placed carefully over the snow. People were dancing, probably just to keep warm, and little gas heaters were keeping the food hot (and the guests who didn't want to dance). Ichigo was one of them, wishing he'd thought to put a coat over his suit like Starrk had and that Hirako had not persuaded Sousuke into throwing a Christmas party. With Aizen Senior in prison with too many crimes on his head to permit him to get out in his lifetime and the whole affair over and done with, all Ichigo wanted to do was relax and certainly not worry about parties. Ichigo's worries were somewhat unfounded, though. Everyone present was wearing immaculate tuxedoes and cocktail dresses and, yet, there was a remarkably relaxed atmosphere. People were drinking heavily, swearing and making idiots of themselves on occasion yet the formal appearance remained untarnished. Ichigo supposed it was because some of the Las Noches people were too used to making idiots of themselves at parties (if Sousuke's stories were credible) that no one bothered making a big deal out of it anymore, "Kurosaki-kun!" Turning around, he saw Keigo, Mizuiro, Orihime, Tatsuki, Chad and Ishida hurrying towards him, all wearing new-looking suits and cocktail dresses (all had

a rather Ishida-like look about them in a way that Ichigo couldn't put his finger on), "Wow! This place is so big!" As Orihime stared with wide eyes up at the house, Sousuke appeared out of nowhere, "Hello. Glad you could make it." "Glad we were invited this time." Mizuiro's joke made everyone chuckle a little bit, even Ichigo. Then, Sousuke took hold of Ichigo's arm and began pulling him insistently towards the dancefloor as a new piece of music started, "Hey! Sousuke, you said you wouldn't!" "Come along. Just this one. It's one we both love." Familiar strains of music came from the outdoor piano and Sousuke carefully arranged Ichigo in his arms before starting a slowdance, "You're not going to sing again, are you?" Ichigo muttered, "Of course, not. I'll at least spare you that embarrassment." Ichigo's cheeks were burning anyway and he felt like burying his face in Sousuke's shoulder for the entirity of the dance. He only restrained himself with what people might think of him if he did. To try and distract himself, he glanced around and spotted Ulquiorra and Grimmjow about ten feet away, both in identical tuxedos. Grimmjow

was swaying a bit while Ulquiorra did his best to keep the bigger man balanced. Another look round gave him a little surprise. The tall, scarecrow-like man that Ichigo knew to be Nnoitra was dancing with, of all people, Neliel. Her head was covered by a large green hat that Ichigo had seen pictures of Western Victorian ladies wear and she was wearing a strangely large smile for her situation. She caught Ichigo's eye and, grinning, delivered a huge, high-heeled stomp on Nnoitra's foot. Though Nnoitra gave a scream of pain, he muted his swearword upon spotting Sousuke looking at him. As the song ended, Sousuke let him go and murmured, "Just a moment, Ichigo. I need to talk to someone and it can't wait. I'll be back in a moment." So, Ichigo hastened back to the heaters as Sousuke moved off into the crowd. The heater he was standing next to was close to a round table where he could see Starrk snoring with his head on his arms and Hallibel twirling a cocktail olive around her drink. Seeing the many empty seats and proximity to heat, Ichigo slid into one of the chairs. Before he could even say hello, Grimmjow and Ulquiorra joined them, "Asleep already, huh?" Grimmjow had an enormous grin on his face and was clutching an empty champagne glass, "That dumbass, he'd sleep through frickin' World War Three. Don't know how he does it. Anyway," He turned to

Ichigo, still grinning, "so, it was Aizen-sama's dad all along, huh? Tch. Dads, who needs 'em? Ya think so, Ichigo?" Ichigo shook his head, "My dad's okay. He's just nuts." "Merry Christmas, Ichigo!" And, speak of the devil. A split second before Ichigo got up, a blur shot past him, overturning the table with an almighty crash. Ichigo groaned, covering his face with his hand, Of all places... "Dad!" Karin was the first to reach him, kicking him hard in the stomach, "This is a fancy party! You can't do that!" "I can too! I want everyone here to know how much I love my son by giving him the biggest Christmas Daddy Hug I've ever giv-ARGH!" Before he could get another work in, he was sent flying into a half-awake Starrk, making them both toppel to the floor, "Shit." Grimmjow began laughing, "You have a seriously fuckin' charmed life and ya even don't know it. You have an awesome family and you end up with the richest man in town-oof!" "Forgive my partner." Ulquiorra intoned, solemnly, as Grimmjow crashed to the floor, "He's a little drunk." "And, what's up with that?" Grimmjow crowed, "I'm at a party and Nnoitra owes me." "He had a bet with Nnoitra." Ulquoirra clarified, "Nnoitra said that Neliel would say no if he asked her to dance

with him and Grimmjow said he would so they drew a wager on it." "And, I fuckin' won! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!" As Grimmjow descended into manic laughter, Hallibel shook her head in distaste, Starrk just stared around blearily, trying to discern why there was a strange man on top of him, and Ulquiorra muttered, "Only because Neliel overheard." Ichigo began looking around again, trying to find a good way to get away from his father. Sousuke was taking a lot longer than he thought he would, Has he escaped already? He scowled in annoyance. If he was going to escape, he could have taken Ichigo with him. So, slipping out of his chair, he left a still giggling Grimmjow and began pushing his way through the crowd. Sousuke slid silently into the deserted hall and just as quietly into the dark kitchen without turning on the light, which was now littered with the remnants of the party preparations and the usual tacky Christmas decor that Hirako loved so much, Ah, it's so good to be away from all those people. Now, then...Sure enough, he heard quiet tapping from the corner. Pulling back the rug, he pulled up the trapdoor, "Good evening, Byakuya. I see you managed to find your way here perfectly well." Byakuya raised an eyebrow. Despite being in prison for

over a month, he was looking as preened and perfect as ever. At least, he was in the extremely limited light. As he pulled himself out of the passage, he said, "I never thought I'd encounter something like that in the real world. Though, if I may make one suggestion, I think you should put a coded lock on the inside of the doors." "Ah, good idea. I was thinking about that myself." "Indeed. Now, away with this banter." Byakuya stood up straight and formal. Then, he extended a hand, "Aizen Sousuke, I owe you an apology. I was a fool to make myself a part of that madman's plans." "Apology accepted, Byakuya." Sousuke took the offered hand graciously, "I do hope prison didn't treat you too badly." "I cannot say I had a good time," Byakuya replied, with the utmost dignity, "but I was grateful when you permitted my release." He glanced outside at the party, "Do your people know about this?" "Oh, no. I don't want to spoil Grimmjow's good mood." He noticed Byakuya's face twitch a little at the name, "He'll be so disappointed when he hears." "I can imagine." Just then, there was the sound of a door opening and Ichigo's voice floated through, "Sousuke? Are you in here?"

"Ah, that reminds me. Byakuya, since you're a man who has been married, I'd like to ask your opinion on how best to propose." Byakuya raised a barely visible eyebrow. With a bit of hesitation, he answered, "I would not waste time and effort on being elaborate on Kurosaki. He's not the type to appreciate it. The simple approach is best for him." "Ah, I thought so. Thank you." "Consider it payment for my release. Now, if you excuse me, I need to visit Rukia. I have the sneaking suspicion that she is throwing a surprise dinner to celebrate my freedom." "Very well. Have a good time." With that, Byakuya's shape sank back into the passage and his metallic footsteps faded. Once the passage was closed and covered, Sousuke took a deep breath and left the kitchen. He never liked to admit when he was nervous and he was a master at concealing it so he never needed to. Still, that annoying tightstring-like feeling groped at him again and made his fingers shake in a way he didn't like at all as he approached the open drawing room door where Ichigo's voice was coming from, one hand reaching into his pocket.

A/N: Hmm...I'm not too sure with this chapter, it has to be said. I think it might be a bit too much of an anticlimax. Anyway, I'll leave that up to you to decide.

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