Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.


General Warnings: AU, canon divergence, language, violence, Ichigo-centric, gen, liberties with mixing my own ideas with canon explanations


Author's Notes: This will be the last chapter posted for a while. Like I said in the first chapter, I only have these five written so enjoy these chapters (and my other fics) in the meantime.


Chapter 5


XLV.

"Aa, don't worry, they serve good food here. ...Mm-hm, it's a real... learning experience, you could say. ...Yeah, you too. Don't let Goat-Face do anything too crazy, and remember to do your homework. ...Uh-huh, tell Karin not to stay up too late. ...Love you too; 'night."

Ichigo released his breath in a whoosh as he hung up, a lingering smile on his lips after talking to Yuzu. Karin was over at a friend's house doing a project and would be staying the night so Ichgo would have to talk to her tomorrow.

He'd been at the Visored's warehouse for four days now, and the second and third days had been spent working with Hachi, whose spirit had been more difficult to get through to than Mashiro's but still – as it had turned out – easier than everyone else's.

After Hachi's spirit – who was fairly mellow and preferred staying in the background; it reminded Ichigo of Tessai's spirit – had been unlocked and successfully merged with its Hollow side, Ichigo had moved on to Rose's, and that had been where the problems had started.

The first time Ichigo had coaxed Kinshara out (a figure decked in golden armour, all sharp edges and gleaming metal with an intricate faintly flower-patterned facemask that covered everything but a pair of contrasting silver eyes, topped with a head of long sunshine hair that – upon closer observation – were actually strands of exceedingly thin and deceptively delicate whips, and the disjointed rhythm of a random melody filled the air around it), the spirit had had a wild, feral look in its eyes, and before Ichigo could dodge or call for Rose to take off his Hollow mask, Kinshara's hair had extended and shot towards him with deadly intent.

Ichigo had managed to block most of the strands with his Zanpakutou in an ear-splitting screech of metal but three of the whips had slipped past his guard and scored a gouge in his shoulder, tearing through Ichigo's Shihakushou and shocking everyone else in the room.

Rose had all but ripped his mask from his face, a flash of horror flitting across his features as he and the others had – for the first time – truly understood just how dangerous having Ichigo play negotiator for them and their spirits actually was. Spirits couldn't touch other living beings, or each other if one didn't want another to do so, but they could touch Ichigo, and it wasn't as if he could make himself intangible. Mashiro and Hachi's respective spirits were the kindest of the lot, not the type to lash out or stew in anger and hatred until their resentment had decayed into malevolence.

Rose had been disinclined to try again but Ichigo had insisted, slapping a bandage on the wound and letting Hakuran's faster healing abilities do the rest.

"I already knew the consequences," Ichigo had explained with a careless shrug. "Sakanade would've ripped my head off that first time if she had been corporeal."

This had set off another round of appalled why-didn't-you-tell-me-you-idiot diatribe from Hirako but Ichigo had eventually managed to get them all back on track.

The second through twenty-sixth times had seen no improvement whatsoever but at least Ichigo had been ready, and Hakuran had expertly deflected all of the attacks, only stopping short of slashing at Kinshara itself.

By the time evening had rolled around, Rose had been too tired to keep summoning his mask, especially since after the fifteenth time, the Visored's inner Hollow had started attacking Rose in his inner world, so they had left it at that for the day. Rose had seemed disheartened but Inoue – thank god for her – had reminded him earnestly that they had only tried for one day and that it was far too early to give up.

"Your sister?"

Ichigo turned, unsurprised to see Hirako strolling towards him. He'd sensed the Visored come outside at the tail-end of his conversation with his sister. "Yeah, Yuzu. She's worried I'm not getting enough to eat."

Hirako smirked a little, coming to a stop beside him and tipping his head back to scan the star-studded sky. "Yeah? She thinks we're servin' ya thin gruel made of rat intestines or somethin'?"

Ichigo rolled his eyes as he tucked his cell phone away. "You're full of shit, Hirako. Your jokes aren't funny."

"I beg ta differ," Hirako disagreed with a mocking indignant air. "I am very funny. It just takes a more sophisticated wit than yours ta understand my sense of humour."

Ichigo snorted. "Then I'll stick with my simple wit, thanks. I don't want to understand your humour."

He paused, glancing up. He knew Hirako had been practicing by himself on the side even while waiting for Ichigo to get around to him, but Ichigo didn't think the blond would need much more help in the end. Like now for instance, when Hirako was relaxed, Sakanade...

:Get this overgrown furball off me!: Hakuran yowled as Sakanade pounced on the Hollow, a devious smirk that reminded Ichigo of her wielder tilting her lips.

...came out to play.

Ichigo quirked a smile of his own but he did have some obligation to defend his own spirits so he elbowed Hirako in the ribs and jerked his head at the two scuffling spirits. "Tell Sakanade to knock it off. She's using Hakuran as a yarn ball."

Hirako barked out a laugh but he stilled and his gaze turned inward. Several seconds later, Sakanade huffed in annoyance and disappeared, and Hirako flinched minutely, a focused frown forming on his face as his eyes teetered between brown and his Hollow form's grey-on-black.

Ichigo kept half an eye on him but Hirako was as stubborn as they came, and Sakanade didn't seem quite as pissed anymore.

:Hey King,: Hakuran floated over, still looking disgruntled. :Ya've been spendin' all this time tryin' ta fix their problems; how 'bout leavin' some time for us? We haven't trained properly in four days! Even your girlfriend's been makin' progress now that her spirit's been fixed.:

"She's not my girlfriend," Ichigo kicked half-heartedly at his Hollow who easily evaded it. "But yeah, I guess we should get back to training again. I'll wake up earlier tomorrow. ...I've been thinking though – you know how Hollows can open Gargantas? Can you do that?"

Hakuran blinked, cocking his head in consideration. :Never thought ta try. I'll give it a go tomorrow.: He grinned slyly. :We could go straight ta Hueco Mundo ta kick Aizen's ass!:

"We're not ready," Ichigo countered, thinking back to Tousen who hadn't even deigned to look at Ichigo after blasting a hole through his side. And he thought of Grimmjow whose sword had thrummed with exhilaration against Zangetsu, eager for a fight but not...

Ichigo frowned up at the sky. To be honest, if he thought about it, that battle had been a bit strange. He hadn't gotten the feeling of any particular hatred or anger from Grimmjow, nothing personal directed at Ichigo at all. The Espada had just been looking for a fight, kind of like Kenpachi, his pride demanding nothing less than to finish the battle with Ichigo right up until the very end even after Ichigo had managed to inflict that near-critical injury to his back.

So what would a person like that be doing working under Aizen of all people? From what Ichigo had gathered, Grimmjow liked power but he wasn't the sort to gain it through someone else instead of working for it himself so it wasn't as if Aizen could promise him that in exchange for bowing down to the madman.

Ichigo sighed. Well, it didn't matter in the end. When – or if – they met again, and Grimmjow tried to kill him (again), then Ichigo would just have to defeat the Espada (again... well, almost).

He glanced back at Hirako who, while no longer partially meditating, still looked a bit out of it and was wincing from a headache, so Ichigo prodded the Visored none too gently into moving, urging him towards the warehouse again. "Come on; it's time for old folk like you to get to bed."

Apparently, Hirako wasn't so out of it to not retaliate for that smart-aleck remark, and a second later, Ichigo had been flipped onto his back with a heavy thud.

"Don't call me old, brat," The older Visored retorted with a smirk before sauntering away, whistling a merry tune.

As Hakuran cackled at his expense, Ichigo scowled after Hirako's retreating back.

Bastard.

XLVI.

"I think he should take it off now!" Love hollered from somewhere on Ichigo's far left.

"He's been taking it on and off for half the day and it hasn't improved anything!" Ichigo shouted back as he sprinted sideways across the vertical surface of one of the larger mini cliff faces. "I can handle it!"

What he was currently handling – barely – was the consecutive attacks pursuing him, the golden whips (that only he could see) tearing into the rock face and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake (that everyone could see). Ichigo Shunpoed onwards, not daring to stop and risk getting sliced in half.

At first, like yesterday, they had started with Rose summoning his mask, Ichigo trying to talk to Kinshara, and then Rose taking off his mask a few seconds later when the spirit began attacking immediately. They had done that for the past eight hours, and it had really started to annoy.

So Ichigo had suggested trying something different; they weren't getting anywhere if Ichigo only had three seconds to get a few words in edgewise so perhaps having Rose keep his mask on for longer despite the danger would see some positive results.

There had been a few arguments over that method but they had nothing on Ichigo when it came to tenacity, and in the end, they'd capitulated.

Which brought them to the present, in which Ichigo was running for his life while Hachi held an out-of-control Rose in a Kidou barrier, and the others hovered on the side, concerned and unable to give assistance.

If nothing else, Ichigo thought with ironic humour. At least I'm developing my skill in Shunpo and the art of dodging enemies.

"His inner Hollow's going nuts!" Lisa yelled from the top of another boulder several dozen feet away where she was watching Rose crash against the prison keeping him confined. "If you're gonna do anything, Kurosaki, now's the time!"

Ichigo gritted his teeth, twisting between four whips before flipping upright again and scooting off once more. He hated how much the Visored seemed to think that Ichigo knew exactly what he was doing, that this was all part of a Plan that he had devised before coming to them. He wasn't Urahara, enough said. His strategizing skills were better, courtesy of Benihime, but mostly only when in battle. He wasn't the sort to think a hundred steps ahead and have backup plans for backup plans. His skills lay in improvisation, going with his gut, thinking on his feet, and toughing things out until the very end.

But he supposed he had brought this on himself, walking in here with his ability for seeing and talking to spirits. He was unique in that he had gotten his own inner Hollow to accept him and vice versa without the additional continual grapple for control, and the Visored had taken that as a sign that Ichigo was some sort of natural expert on dealing with them.

They couldn't be further from the truth.

Still, he had to do something; running away wasn't going to solve anything, and he'd just end up doing the same thing again tomorrow. Stamina training was all well and good but he had better things to do with his time.

He yelped when a golden whip sheared off a few strands of his hair, narrowly missing his ear as the distant staccato hum of music screeched an octave higher out of spite, and the frustration that had been rising inside him since yesterday spiked to a breaking point.

That was it.

Ichigo flashed past another crop of rocks before coming to an abrupt stop on the ground and whirling around, feet planted firmly in place even as he faced the whips that were hurtling in his direction at a fearsome speed head-on.

:KING!: Hakuran bellowed, lurching forward, sword in hand.

Ichigo threw one arm out to stall his Hollow. Simultaneously, recklessly, he slammed the tip of his blade into the rocky floor, leaving him wide open.

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Ichigo roared, mustering every last drop of brash courage bolstered solely by heart-racing adrenaline as he stood his ground. He glared straight back at the oncoming whips glinting lethally under the lights. "What you're feeling right now – is that what you want to feel for the rest of your life?! Because that's exactly what's gonna happen if you DON'T STOP NOW."

Silence.

Only the sound of Ichigo's breaths rushing harshly in and out of his lungs broke the sudden ringing hush. The Visored were quiet, Rose had frozen in place, even the music had died down, and the whistle of the golden whips that had been headed his way could no longer be heard.

Because the whips themselves had stopped.

A mere two inches, if that, from his neck.

A muscle in Ichigo's jaw jumped from the strain of ignoring the instinctive urge to back away but he only swallowed hard and stared past the whips to where Kinshara was hovering, silver eyes wide and unreadable.

"That's better," Ichigo managed as steadily as he could. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Rose slumping to the ground. "Now come on, if you can chase me around the training grounds, you can talk. So use your words and stop pitching a tantrum like a child."

His breath hitched briefly in his throat when the whips snaked forward and curled around his neck in a deceptively gentle grasp like a hangman's noose. Oh fuck, there was no way he could pull a Houdini and escape from this if Kinshara decided to go in for the kill.

But.

Trust – give some, get some back. Ichigo would have to hang on to that and hope that Kinshara subscribed to that same concept.

Beside him, Hakuran shifted, and Ichigo knew he'd be getting an earful from both his spirits if – when – he got out of this.

A breathy sigh of a disjunct harmony stirred into existence once more like a breeze picking up, and an unfamiliar raspy tenor finally blended in, fitting nicely against the musical backdrop despite its hoarse quality.

:You are a mere child; why should I listen to you?:

Ichigo automatically bristled. That condescending tone was even worse than Benihime's. "Hey, at this point, I'm your only hope for getting in touch with your wielder again so don't call me a child, bastard-"

He cut himself off with a cough as the band around his throat tightened minutely, biting into his skin in evident warning.

:Mind your tongue; you shall not speak to me like that, little boy.:

Well fuck that. Ichigo had never taken threats lying down.

"Go screw yourself!" Ichigo fired back, unmindful of the liquid trickling down the side of his neck and seeping into his clothing. "You don't get to make demands with the way you've been acting these past two days!"

He hissed as the whip constricted even further and more blood ran. Behind him, he heard a rustle of clothing and the sound of footsteps drawing a few steps closer before stopping again.

"Ichigo," Hirako's voice sounded terse, the question clear even though it went unsaid.

"I'm fine," Ichigo called back shortly.

:You are certainly not fine, boy,: Kinshara interjected with cold amusement. :I could kill you quite easily right now and it would be no loss.:

"Hm," Ichigo grunted, mouth twisting as he considered the amount of blood running down his neck. "Are you sure? Because I really don't think you can. You're still too weak. With how hard you're squeezing right now? I shouldn't even be able to talk anymore."

The background music ratcheted up in volume before dying down again, the fury near-palpable now. :Do not presume your superiority in this situation, boy!:

"Oh shut up!" Ichigo snapped, patience at an end. "I'm not presuming anything! I'm just here to help, and if you'll let me, we can get with the program and start doing something about your situation! Got me?!"

Kinshara hissed, rage glowing in his eyes. :And who says I wish to fix anything? My wielder was the one who started this; he was the one who cut me off! It is his fault-:

"Hey!" Ichigo's voice rode over the spirit's with uncompromising intensity. "Don't go laying all the blame at his feet!" He glanced at the other Visored as best he could without actually turning his neck. "And the rest of you spirits might as well pay attention too! I know you can hear me if you try so listen the hell up! From what I understand, your wielders have had a heap of shit to deal with ever since Aizen screwed them over a century ago! They handled their Hollowfication the best they fucking could, the only way they thought they could, so cut them some fucking slack! It's not like they wanted to shut you out, you know! I'm not excusing the way they went about it but they didn't purposefully do it the way they did just for shits and giggles! I can't say I completely understand what being locked away for a century is like but I know it must've sucked! Your wielders are trying to fix that now, I'm trying to help them fix that now, and the least you can do is lend a hand and pull your own damn weight!"

Ichigo didn't stop there. Blood pounding in his ears, he rounded back on Kinshara, baring his teeth in a furious scowl. "You're angry at Rose? Fine, be angry! Hell, I'd be too! You got the short end of the stick when the Hollow part of you was shunted to the back and locked up, but newsflash, you arrogant dick: life's not fair! All you can do is make the best of any shitty situation because you know what? No matter how fucked up things seem, it can always get worse. That's how the universe works! And you know how this situation can get worse? By you continuing to pitch your epic fit of doom, which will only end with Rose refusing to properly merge with the inner Hollow part of you, and then you'll both be unhappy for the rest of your lives! Is that what you want?!"

Ichigo wheezed for breath by the end of his tirade, mostly because he was honestly running out of air since Kinshara had been wringing his neck harder and harder for the past minute. The spirit's only saving grace was the fact that Ichigo was fairly certain that it had no idea that its grip had been spasming erratically. From what he could see of the spirit's eyes, Kinshara seemed to have been made speechless with shock and a touch of incredulity, most likely at Ichigo's audacity to shout at the spirit with a noose around his neck. Even the music in the background had quieted to a faint unsteady buzz.

Still, Ichigo met the spirit's gaze defiantly. He'd never been one to back down, and he wasn't about to start now. He'd said his piece and he wasn't going to retract a single word. Kinshara could take it or leave it.

Silver eyes flashed, and for a second, Ichigo was certain that the spirit was going to pick him up by the throat and fling him across the room, probably breaking his neck in the process or at least doling out some serious damage to his person, but to Ichigo's semi-surprise, the music in the air rose to a soft tired hymn that trailed off into a whisper, and without further ado, the whip around his neck loosened before slowly gliding away.

Ichigo sucked in a much-needed gulp of oxygen, keeping his eyes on Kinshara as the spirit cocked his head and spoke once more, each word measured. :...Roujuurou is in no shape to try again today; summon me again tomorrow. I will... cooperate and do my best to keep my Hollow side in the right frame of mind. However, after this issue is resolved, I reserve the right to confront my wielder as I see fit. Do we have an accord, Speaker?:

Ichigo nodded, stifling a sigh of relief. "Yeah, that sounds fine. Whatever problems you and Rose need to hash out, that's none of my business."

Kinshara studied him for a minute longer with an eerie, unblinking gaze before nodding curtly and finally shimmering out of existence.

Ichigo turned in time to see Rose's Hollow mask shred away, the man himself already unconscious. With a quiet groan, he rocked back on his heels before dropping onto his ass, more than ready to collapse in bed and sleep the rest of the day away.

:You. Fucking. Idiot.: Hakuran only had time to say before Hirako was suddenly by his side, all but shaking Ichigo by the shoulders.

"Are ya crazy?!" The Visored leader barked, roughly tilting Ichigo's head back to check his neck wound. "It was chokin' ya, and ya decided that it would be a good time ta give it a dressin'-down? What the hell am I supposed ta tell your father and Kisuke if ya die on my watch?! And from invisible strangulation no less!"

"I was fine!" Ichigo dismissed (even though he sort of hadn't been). "It turned out alright. Kinshara's agreed to cooperate tomorrow."

"Fine my ass," Hirako muttered heatedly as one of his hands glowed green and began knitting Ichigo's injury together. "You're a reckless kid with all the self-preservation instincts of a stoned lemming. I don't know why I'm surprised anymore; ya invaded Soul Society with nothin' but a sword, a cat, and a bunch of other kids taggin' along, and out of all the spirits out there, ya decided ta make nice with Benihime. If anythin', I shoulda predicted your pissin' contest with Kinshara."

"Kinshara gave in in the end," Ichigo sulked, poking inquisitively at his neck when the green light faded and Hirako withdrew, only to have his hand swatted away by the visibly frazzled blond. "And there's nothing wrong with Benihime. She's a bit bossy, and she wipes the floor with my ass during training, but otherwise, she can be playful, and she's fun to be around."

Hirako shook his head and sighed. "That's my whole point right there. There is somethin' wrong with ya. Nobody thinks it's fun ta be around Benihime. More suitable adjectives would be 'terrifyin'' at worst and 'stressful' at best. She can be vicious. Silently ruthless."

Ichigo huffed. "How would you know? You've never even met her!"

"But I've met Kisuke," Hirako countered, giving Ichigo a hand up. "And I knew 'im back when he hadn't made captain yet and was still part of the Onmitsukidou. Hell, I knew him back when he was just a titchy fresh graduate from the Academy, and that was the time when he was most like his Zanpakutou spirit because he wasn't puttin' on a show for the world. He wasn't always like he is now, ya know."

Ichigo blinked at this. An Urahara who didn't smile and puppet-master his way through pretty much everything was something he could barely imagine.

"Kurosaki, you alright?" Lisa leapt down to join them, frowning per usual as she scowled at him from behind her glasses. But there was a – new – glimmer of grudging respect in her eyes that hadn't been there before, and Ichigo wondered what had put it there.

"I'm fine," Ichigo repeated with a nod, stretching his arms above his head and taking care not to disturb the injury at his neck that was just scabbing over. He flicked a glance up to where Hakuran was glaring murder at him. Behind him, Zangetsu had appeared and didn't look all that pleased either. "But if you'll excuse me, I think I'm gonna go spend a few hours in my room. Hakuran and Zangetsu look like they want to kill me."

Twin snorts came from both Hirako and Lisa, and the blond Visored waved him off. "Serves ya right; oi, Zangetsu, Hakuran, give 'im hell."

Ichigo squawked in protest but Hakuran grinned, wide and wicked. :I take it back, King; I like this guy after all.:

XLVII.

Another week and a half passed, and while Rose, Love, and Lisa's spirits were apparently still quarrelling with their wielders in their respective inner worlds, Ichigo could proudly tick them off his list.

Tengumaru (a large man crossed with some sort of goblin-like demon) hadn't posed much of a problem after Kinshara. The spirit had destroyed a few dozen boulders but either he had taken Ichigo's previous speech to heart or he was just naturally more easygoing because his Hollow side had been less problematic to talk around than Kinshara's.

Then there had been Haguro Tonbo, a female spirit sporting expansive dragonfly wings and a flowing aquamarine dress coupled with a white scarf around her neck and short-cropped black hair, and whose personality had been just as bullheaded as her wielder's, so that had taken a couple of days as well. She never spoke either, though by the end, Ichigo suspected that that was simply because Haguro Tonbo wasn't a very talkative spirit to begin with.

In between though, Ichigo would train, sparring against any Visored who was free at the time (and while they had confessed to practically being bored out of their minds before Ichigo had come along, they now had meditation and talk-some-shit-out sessions – as Love had dubbed them – with their spirits to work on, which took almost every spare hour they had).

He fought against Inoue too, which worked out better than he had thought it would. He had figured that he'd feel a bit guilty for attacking the healer, and Inoue would probably try to hold back, but after the first few fumbling exchanges, they had – somehow – come to a silent agreement that they needed to take each other seriously, and with only a long look between them, Ichigo had just known that it would be alright. So long as he kept Shunpo out of it, they had managed to get in quite a few decent blows against one another, and by the end of their first training session together, neither of them had been holding back.

Most of the time though, Inoue would train with Hachi, her spirits against his Kidou, and Ichigo would get his butt kicked by Hirako.

And on the side, he and Hakuran would work on working with their Hollow powers and opening a Garganta. Ichigo hadn't told anyone about the attempts yet, wanting to be able to actually do it before he showed the other Visored something they might all be able to do one day. So far, Ichigo had figured out that he and Hakuran had to merge to get anything close to a Garganta, and they'd only succeeded in warping the air in front of them, nothing more.

"Oi, Kurosaki!" Came Kensei's voice from above. "Phone call!"

"Coming!" Ichigo hollered back before pulling off his Hollow mask. He could hold it for a full two minutes now.

Easily hauled himself back up onto ground level, he swiftly swiped the phone that Kensei chucked at him from across the room out of the air, putting it to his ear as he kicked the trapdoor shut behind him. "Yeah?"

"Ah, Kurosaki-san; it's Urahara."

"Hey, what's up?" Ichigo greeted, not having heard from the shopkeeper since he had arrived at the Visored's place. "How's Hime doing?"

Urahara released a mournful sigh, and Ichigo gleaned that there was nothing severely wrong if the man could still act like an idiot. "You skip right over me and ask about Benihime instead? How positively cruel!"

Ichigo rolled his eyes as he wandered into the kitchen to get a snack and some water. "She's less troublesome to deal with than you are."

"Is she?" Urahara mused in an almost mystified tone. "Well, she's doing fine, if a bit... moody, you could say. She seems to want to visit you but she denies it every time I ask her."

"Oh, we talked about it," Ichigo explained, retrieving a yogurt from the fridge and meandering back out into the sitting area where all the Visored and Inoue were assembled. "And we figured it would be best if she stayed in Karakura to keep an eye on things just in case the shit hits the fan. Again. I mean that town is like a magnet for trouble. Every time I turn around these days, something's happened."

A chuckle echoed down the line. "I'm afraid the magnet would actually be you, Kurosaki-san, not the town itself."

Ichigo scowled, taking a seat in one of the empty armchairs. "Hey, I'm getting better at suppressing my reiatsu. Even Hirako says so, and he's like some demon from hell when he's training me."

Several feet away, Hirako glanced up briefly from the book he was reading with an unrepentantly gleeful smirk on his face. Ichigo glowered back at him.

"Now I'm guessing you didn't call just to chat," Ichigo continued on a more serious note. "Did something happen?"

"Nothing in particular," The 'yet' went unvoiced but not unheard. "However, Hitsugaya-taichou and a few others have come by to enquire after your whereabouts. I believe Kuchiki-san and Abarai-san have been vague about your training trip with the Visored, only specifying that you have gone elsewhere for extra training, but it is simply a matter of time before other Shinigami attempt to track you down themselves if you do not return soon. Are you nearly finished getting through to the other Visored's inner Hollows?"

Ichigo scanned the others, most of them doing a good job at pretending not to be eavesdropping. He inwardly rolled his eyes. If he hadn't wanted them to overhear, he would have stepped outside.

His gaze lingered on Hiyori. Out of all of them, he suspected that her Hollow would be the toughest to deal with, not to mention the blonde had taken to avoiding him most of the time, sullen and glaring at him whenever they were in the same vicinity. Like now. Ichigo guessed that she probably hadn't taken to his reaction at their initial meeting very well.

He'd have to confront that issue sooner or later, preferably later, which was why... well, best for last and all that.

"Hirako," He said instead. "How close are you to getting through to Sakanade?"

The older Visored lowered his book again, looking reflective. "...Close. There's still some conflict when I let my Hollow surface but it's gettin' better. Sakanade keeps her mind for the most part when the Hollowfication takes over. I'd prefer if ya take a look ta make sure nothin's goin' wrong though. Ya seem ta have a knack for makin' Hollows listen ta ya."

This was followed by a smatter of good-natured laughter and ribbing as everyone glanced at Rose, who humoured them all with an exasperated smile in return. Ichigo twitched. Just because it had been Kinshara he had yelled at; he was lucky Rose hadn't held a grudge against Ichigo for running his mouth off (especially since Ichigo didn't regret a single word).

"Hm," Ichigo grunted, turning his attention back to the phone again. "Hirako's almost there, and I still have Kensei and Hiyori to work with. How much longer can I stay here?"

Urahara hummed pensively, and Ichigo heard something like papers being shuffled on the other end. "I would give it another two weeks, three at most. After that, I'm afraid the Shinigami might be sent out en masse to look for their wayward Substitute."

A spark of irritation settled in his chest like smouldering coal, most likely accentuated by Hakuran as well, and the words were spat out before he could stop them.

"I'm not theirs," Ichigo snapped almost venomously as his mind cast back to the Shinigami badge. He didn't even know why he was so hung up on that issue. Maybe because Ichigo had personally offered his father's expertise to help Ukitake, and the man hadn't even had the decency to at least tell Ichigo he was being monitored and controlled?

He hated being controlled. Everything from delinquents to yakuza had tried to make him submit for being too brazen, too outspoken, standing out too much with his orange hair and strength and his status as an honours student at school despite being able to single-handedly beat up a gang of thugs, but in the end, not a single one of them had succeeded in making him bow.

He paused at the startled silence on Urahara's side. "...Sorry. I'll be back in two weeks, even if I'm not finished here. I can always come back over the weekend or something. Say hi to Chad for me. And Ishida, if he's finally removed that stick from his ass."

A huff of amusement reached his ears, followed by a surprised sound. "Wait, are-"

:Get off the line; you take too long,: Benihime's dulcet tones ordered. :Good afternoon, Ichigo.:

Ichigo snorted, a fond smile involuntarily quirking his lips. "Hime, it's been a while. Is the phone floating in the air?"

:Only in Kisuke's point of view,: Benihime retorted loftily. :That ridiculous man is taking notes now. How troublesome.:

Ichigo snickered, shifting so that he could prop his legs on the coffee table. A second later, Lisa's katana thunked down on his toes in warning, and with a grimace, he put his feet back on the ground again. "So how have you been? Zangetsu's missed talking with you."

Benihime sniffed, sounding pleased when she spoke. :Naturally; who else would he be able to have a proper conversation with? Certainly not that savage Hollow of yours."

Ichigo was fairly certain he should be insulted on Hakuran's behalf but his Hollow was currently being forced into a game of tag with Hageshii Yousei and hadn't heard Benihime. Ichigo definitely wasn't going to enlighten him.

"Yeah, yeah," He sighed instead, following the two spirits' progress up and down the length of the sitting area. "Your opinion of my Hollow has been duly note- Hakuran! Hageshii Yousei! Don't throw the books!"

He ducked just in time as the game of tag turned into a game of war, and Hakuran hurled a dictionary at Mashiro's spirit, only for the sprite to dance out of the way, giggling madly all the while when the thick tome almost took Ichigo's head off as it sailed past the spirit.

"Hime, I have to go," Ichigo said hurriedly as Kensei cursed up a storm when the dictionary smashed into his face instead. "Talk to you when I get back, okay? And if there's trouble-"

:-I will inform you in case my idiot wielder gets caught up in another game of manipulation,: Benihime finished briskly. :I undertand. Do take care on your end as well; I would hate to see how much your skill has deteriorated when you come back. You better not be slacking just because I'm not there to oversee your training.:

Ichigo scoffed, jumping up to snag the book that had been heading for the back of Inoue's head. "As if I could; Zangetsu and Hakuran would never stand for it. I'll see you later. Geta-boushi, see you in a week!"

He raised his voice for that last bit just in case the shopkeeper hadn't put the conversation on speaker (which he probably had), and then hung up, watching with no little amusement as the Visored ran around either laughing their heads off or swearing every time another inanimate object went careening through the air.

"This is all your fault, Kurosaki!" Kensei accused, looking downright homicidal when Hageshii Yousei somehow got her hands on some sparkly glitter and the man suddenly found himself coated in the stuff from head to toe. "They were nowhere near this unruly even before the Hollowfication! I didn't even know they could be this disruptive!"

"Spirits keep to themselves for the most part," Ichigo clarified, thinking back on his own observations. "Normally, from what I've seen, they don't let their wielders know they can wander around out here. But they all seem to... act up around me."

"Which is why it's your fault," Kensei growled, stalking off for a change of clothes and abandoning them to the mercy of Hakuran and Hageshii Yousei's warpath of terror.

Needless to say, Ichigo spent the rest of his day simultaneously reining the spirits in and cleaning house with the rest of the warehouse's occupants.

XLVIII.

"Here," Kensei grunted, gruffly shoving another icepack at Ichigo. Ichigo tried very hard not to look condemning. Judging by the deepening scowl on the older Visored's face, it probably wasn't working.

Ichigo huffed and muttered darkly under his breath as he gingerly pressed the cold compress to his jaw. Stupid Kensei. Stupid Tachikaze. Damn, that spirit had a killer left hook, and coupled with the purple armour that had covered even Tachikaze's hands, the punch had been augmented even further and had broken Ichigo's jaw. Not even Kinshara had broken any of his bones.

Luckily for him, Inoue had been on hand, but his jaw still ached, which was why Kensei – privately embarrassed or privately guilty; Ichigo couldn't tell which – was waiting on him hand and foot.

Then again, the 'waiting on him hand and foot' bit might have more to do with Mashiro scolding his ear off and Inoue pulling her reproachful disappointed face than any sort of embarrassment (or guilt).

However, on the bright side, the bond between Kensei and his spirit was on the mend for the most part, though Ichigo was pretty sure that Tachikaze wanted to punch his wielder in the face as well. More than once.

"Don't be such a baby," Kensei commanded grouchily. "It was just a punch."

"Tachikaze broke my jaw!" Ichigo criticized caustically.

"Do you know how many times I've broken my jaw?" Kensei demanded, crossing his arms. "At least a dozen times!"

"So when you break it again, I expect you not to whine about it," Ichigo sniped back. "I on the other hand have never broken my jaw in my life, so I have every right to complain!"

"If you can complain this much," Kensei grumbled unsympathetically. "Then you're perfectly fine."

"Tachikaze broke my jaw!" Ichigo repeated mulishly, knowing he was probably acting like a child but more than willing to milk as much out of this as possible.

Kensei threw his hands in the air and stormed off towards the kitchen. "Alright, fuck, fine! I will cook you your favourite damn food as a goddamn apology, you brat! What the hell do you want?!"

Ichigo smirked triumphantly after the Visored and began listing several of the dishes he liked to eat but hadn't had in a while. Kensei wasn't quite as good as Rose in the kitchen (and neither were as good as Yuzu, in Ichigo's humble opinion) but the grey-haired Visored was still fairly decent. "I want oyakodon, miso cod, karasumi and daikon pasta, shiso pesto pasta-"

Kensei stuck his head back around the door. "Now I know you're screwing with me; those things don't even go together in one meal, idiot!"

Ichigo trumpeted loudly, "Tachikaze broke-"

"SHUT UP, KUROSAKI!"

In the air, Hakuran cackled with laughter at the red-faced Kensei who practically had steam coming out of his ears.

Ichigo cracked up as well. In spite of everything, life was kind of good right now.

XLIX.

"Hiyori, get your butt down here, dammit! You're the last one left!"

"And that should tell ya somethin'! That dickhead left me for last! He doesn't wanna deal with my Hollow!"

"Stop bein' a damn child! It doesn't take a genius ta figure out that your situation's the worst! If he wants ta leave ya for last, who the hell cares! It's not like he's refusin' ta help ya! Now get down here! We've already wasted two days cuz ya've been runnin' away!"

"Leave me alone, dumbass! I'm fine with my Hollow like this!"

"Ya stubborn idiot-!"

Ichigo sighed as he let the warehouse door swing shut behind him, muffling the range of voices inside.

He wandered up the street, eyeing the cloudy skies above him. Autumn had settled in, and it looked like it was going to rain and rain buckets. Even the wind carried a chilly bite on its wings, and the entire world seemed to be holding its breath in anticipation of the perilous threat lurking on the horizon.

Ichigo scrubbed a tired hand over his face. Sometimes, it felt like he was doing a little too much, pulled too many different ways, with all these spirit-talks. Just because the Hollows had all merged successfully didn't mean that they didn't still bicker and shout at their wielders or lash out at Ichigo just for the heck of it. There were times in the middle of the night when Ichigo had been jolted awake by Hakuran snarling and deflecting an attack from one of the more volatile spirits in the warehouse. He was fairly certain that even a stab wound from one of them wouldn't necessarily kill him unless it was a direct hit to his heart or something but it would most definitely hurt.

And honestly, he had headaches from all the lack of sleep and the need to play arbitrator for everyone.

Still, the Visored – even Hiyori though she was certainly upset right now – were all visibly happier, lighter, and Ichigo couldn't complain. He'd agreed to this deal after all, and his spars with them were going quite well. He could defeat all the lieutenants and even match a few of the captains, though obviously, no one actually went all out when it was just a friendly spar between allies.

He sighed again. Things would be better when he could return to Karakura. It wasn't that he didn't like the Visored – on the contrary, they could be pretty entertaining – but dealing with them in close proximity twenty-four/seven was wearing on his nerves. He'd always been a bit of a loner at heart, and minus the few hours each day that he spent training with only Zangetsu and Hakuran (and even then, one spirit or another tended to crash the party sooner or later), Ichigo hadn't been able to get any peace and quiet.

A sudden, dull buzz in his ears made him stiffen, dragging him out of his thoughts, and it only took a split second for him identify what it was.

Spinning around and drawing his blade in one smooth motion, Ichigo backed away even as he watched the air in front of him shake and warp, the lips of a Garganta bending the fabrics of space before bursting open like a ripped line of stitching.

"Hirako!" Ichigo hollered, flaring his reiatsu in warning to call the Visored to him. He had no idea what the hell was about to appear, and he knew better than to try and take on an Espada alone.

Half a second after his shout, the sound of a door slamming open echoed behind Ichigo, and a moment later, Hirako was bounding up to stand beside him, Sakanade already unsheathed and levelled at the threat. Within the next few seconds, footsteps rushed up to join them, the tsing of metal slicing through air reaching Ichigo's ears as all the other Visored drew their blades as well. Even Inoue, firmly placed at the back of the group by Hachi, had Tsubaki out and ready to attack.

"Ya can't even go outside without attractin' trouble, can ya?" Hirako remarked dryly as they all peered into the swirl of darkness inside the Garganta.

Ichigo had a free hand so he dutifully flipped Hirako the bird in response.

And then there was no more time for banter as a familiar figure came stumbling out of the Garganta, bloodied and hideously mangled but there was no mistaking that shock of electric blue hair.

Ichigo reacted on instinct, his sword dipping as he reached out with his other hand to catch the critically wounded Espada by the left shoulder.

What was left of it anyway. Half the clavicle and everything below that had been severed clean away, and Grimmjow's other arm had been cut off as well from the elbow down. His clothes were torn up and there were deep gashes all over his body. His Zanpakutou was still tucked through the sash at his waist but it was splashed with dark crimson.

All in all, the Espada was a mess.

"What the hell happened?!" Ichigo muttered, feeling more than a little sick, and he didn't even think about it as he returned his sword to his back and moved so that he was holding up Grimmjow from the Arrancar's right side instead.

Unfocused cobalt eyes stared up at him, the glaze of fever already setting in as the Garganta snapped shut behind them. Grimmjow didn't seem to have heard Ichigo as his breaths came in ragged wheezes but the Espada made no move to pull away, going so far as to lean into Ichigo for support, though whether or not that was a voluntary action was anyone's guess.

"Inoue," Ichigo mumbled, still staring between Grimmjow's injuries and the Arrancar's Zanpakutou as pain brushed against his psyche. It was coming from the Espada, and Ichigo could feel it. He hadn't felt anything during their last battle, even when Ichigo had struck him from behind. With a grimace, he called out louder, "Inoue! Can you heal him?"

Inoue was already hurrying forward, a horrified frown creasing her brow even as her attack spirit was replaced with her three healing ones, but she faltered a few steps away when Kensei's hand landed on her shoulder.

"Wait, you're not gonna heal him, are you?" Kensei demanded, disbelief colouring his face. "He's an Arrancar! And one of Aizen's to boot!"

"He's been tortured," Ichigo retorted flatly because even if he had never actually seen torture victims before, the wounds on Grimmjow's body couldn't be mistaken for anything else.

"Probably cuz he disobeyed orders or something," Kensei dismissed. "People like Aizen wouldn't treat their subordinates well, especially when they don't do as they're told."

"Well I can't just leave him!" Ichigo protested, shifting as he felt the ghost of missing limbs on his own body. He almost glanced down at himself to make sure his arms were still there. Oh god, he just might throw up.

"Of course you can!" Lisa interjected this time, a harsh scowl on her face. "He's Aizen's Espada! That's the guy you were fighting back in your town, isn't it? Unless there are other Arrancar with blue hair running around, in which case he'd still be Aizen's. We can't go around helping our enemies!"

"Well what do you suggest then?" Ichigo challenged. "Should I just run him through now while he's down?"

"Yes!" Kensei, Lisa, and even Hiyori all chorused with vehement conviction at the same time. Love and Rose looked to be in agreement while Mashiro and Hachi watched their exchange with silent neutrality. Hirako too looked unreadable.

Ichigo stared, hand convulsing unconsciously at where he had clasped it around the barely conscious Grimmjow's waist to hold the Espada up. A muscle jumped in his jaw as half his senses were assaulted by the agony and... something else – ...Betrayal? Ichigo at least got the feeling that the Espada wasn't here on Aizen's orders. – emanating from Grimmjow while his other half tried to sort through the anger quickly topping his emotions.

"I'm not gonna kill him in cold blood!" Ichigo hissed with more vitriol than was probably necessary. "And it's not like I'm asking you to help! Inoue! Yes or no?"

Inoue started a little, and Ichigo felt momentarily guilty for snapping at her like he had, but he was starting to feel lightheaded. Jeez, how in the world had Grimmjow even managed to open a Garganta in his state, much less drag himself all the way to the Human World? Ichigo most likely would've fainted halfway.

For her part, Inoue blinked owlishly at him before squaring her shoulders, and something close to reprimand flitted across her features. "Of course I'll help, Kurosaki-kun."

Ichigo winced and offered an apologetic look. Inoue had one of the most compassionate hearts out there; questioning her willingness to offer aid was plain offensive.

"Wait," Kensei repeated gruffly, hand still braced against Inoue's shoulder to stop her from moving forward. "This isn't a smart move, girl."

All at once, Inoue straightened even further, and she gently but firmly removed herself from Kensei's grasp before looking him straight in the eye. "Maybe not, Muguruma-san, but I trust Kurosaki-kun's judgment, and if he says we should help Grimmjow-san, then, that's what I'll do. And besides, I also refuse to simply leave him to die. That's wrong, and I won't have any part in doing so."

Her earnestness surprised all of them, Kensei not even making another grab for her, and Ichigo was abruptly filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude as Inoue blushed at her own forwardness and hastily picked her way over to his side.

"Kurosaki-kun, could you put him down in a sitting position?" Inoue requested, and Ichigo quickly nodded, deferring to Inoue's expertise. Carefully, he lowered the Espada to the ground, cautiously leaning Grimmjow against the trunk of a nearby tree as he watched half-lidded blue eyes slide fully shut. As soon as he could let go, Ichigo withdrew his hands, unable to stop himself from rubbing his arms and flexing his joints to remind himself that they were still there.

"I'll go get some water and cloth to wash the blood off," Ichigo stated briskly as the orange glow of Inoue's Souten Kisshun surrounded Grimmjow. He didn't know the first thing about healing when it came to Kidou or Inoue's own brand of techniques but he did know a thing or two about how to take care of a person. After all, his own sisters had had their bouts of colds and fevers over the years after their mother had died, and while their dad had been a doctor and had prescribed his fair share of hugs and medicine, Ichigo had been the one to stay home from school and look after them when Isshin had had to go in for work. "And some blankets and a change of clothes. It's chilly out here and he can't keep wearing rags forever."

Inoue nodded in acknowledgement, and Ichigo made to Shunpo away, only to stop when Hirako's hand slapped against his chest to halt his forward movement. Ichigo almost pitched headfirst to the ground. "Hirako, what-!"

Hirako didn't say anything for a long tense minute, staring at him with unblinking eyes, weighing, assessing, and Ichigo struggled to not squirm under the older Visored's heavy gaze. Somehow, he got the feeling that looking away was probably not a good idea so he stared back with all the defiance he could muster. If Hirako thought he could stop Ichigo from doing what he thought was right in this situation, then the blond could think again.

"Hachi, Mashiro," Hirako eventually said without looking away from Ichigo. "Bring the water and a few clean cloths, leave the blankets and clothes. After Orihime-chan has the Espada stabilized and we've cleaned him off so that he doesn't look like he's been sliced up six ways ta Sunday and right back ta Monday, we'll bring him inside. Rose, Lisa, prepare a room for our new guest."

There was an instant uproar even as Hachi bowed and Mashiro chirruped an okay before both of them headed back to the warehouse.

"You've gotta be kidding me, Shinji!" Kensei barked, looking mildly stunned. "That's one of Aizen's Arrancar we're talking about here!"

"Yeah, dumbass!" Hiyori added in belligerently, balled fists on her hips. "He could be sent here ta spy on us!"

"And leavin' him out here would be any better?" Hirako countered sharply, finally turning away from Ichigo. "At least inside the warehouse, the barriers Hachi set up will make sure no one will be able ta track our resident Arrancar. If he stays out here, then Ichigo's stayin' out here, and the kid's still iffy with suppressin' his reiatsu."

"Then kill the Espada, problem solved," Lisa argued back bluntly, eyeing Hirako oddly. "What the hell's wrong with you today? That's what we usually do with Hollows, you know, and last time I checked, Arrancar are still Hollows."

Ichigo stiffened at this, battle-ready. Hirako side-eyed him sardonically.

"Somehow," The blond drawled with a note of resignation in his voice. "I doubt Ichigo's gonna step aside and let us. Go, Lisa, Rose. We'll hold on ta the Espada's Zanpakutou, and I'll have Hachi set up a few countermeasures. Agreed?"

The last bit was mostly directed at Ichigo, accompanied with a raised eyebrow that said 'this is the best deal you're gonna get; take it or leave it', and Ichigo nodded readily in agreement. That was fair.

There was some more grumbling, most of the Visored clearly uneasy about this decision but Urahara hadn't been kidding when he had mentioned to Ichigo that Hirako was the de facto leader of this misfit group, and even the other ex-captains yielded to the blond's verdict in the end.

"Great," Ichigo muttered, dropping back down to crouch beside Grimmjow, making sure not to touch the Arrancar. He watched, fascinated, as Inoue's powers began rejecting the damage and reconstructing Grimmjow's arms. It was amazing. He was fairly certain not even Unohana could do something like this.

"Ichigo."

Ichigo craned his head around and glanced up at Hirako. The blond tipped his head at the unconscious Arrancar. "You're in charge of him. If he tries ta kill any of us when he wakes up..."

Ichigo nodded curtly. "I'll put him down myself; don't worry."

And he would, if it came to that.

L.

"-different these days, Shinji."

"What's that supposed ta mean? Stop standin' around and pass me the pepper, will ya?"

"It's beside your elbow; don't try to change the subject. What I mean is, you've been a bit... out-of-character since you met Kurosaki."

Ichigo paused just out of sight when he heard his name. His reiatsu was usually dimmed these days in a constant sort of way so that everyone could feel it but no one could actually pinpoint how far or close he was to them. It was a neat trick for someone like him who couldn't subconsciously reel in all his reiatsu every minute of the day.

"You're talkin' about the decision I made earlier. With the Arrancar." It wasn't a question.

"Damn straight I am. What the hell happened? He's the enemy. Even worse, he's one of Aizen's pets. Even just weeks ago, you would've killed him without a second thought, especially after he literally opened a Garganta in our front yard."

"Ichigo was in the way."

"Eight of us against one of him, two if you count the girl. I can't quite picture us having much trouble pinning them down long enough to dispatch the Arrancar, can you?"

"Kensei, I ain't walkin' over the kid just ta kill one guy who isn't even a threat right now."

"...Is this because of everything he's done for us? You being more lenient with him? 'Cause I gotta tell you, that's weird too. I know you, Shinji; you prefer acting laidback and easygoing most of the time but you're more suspicious of other people than the rest of us combined, and you never let anyone influence your judgment. You're not the type to make a decision just to appease someone, even out of gratitude."

"Then that should clue ya in ta the fact that I'm not appeasin' anyone for any reason."

"Then why? Like it or not, you've changed, just enough for it to be noticeable to us. I'm not saying sparing that Arrancar's life was a completely bad idea, though it would've been a better idea to just kill him. But it's not like you."

"..."

"Look, I like the kid, Shinji, as you obviously do too. He's helped us, Mashiro thinks he's a riot, and he's got the sort of tenacity I can't resist admiring. He just keeps getting back on his feet no matter how many times you pummel him into the ground in a spar. But even so, he's still just a kid. Can he kill that Espada if the guy tries to gut us all in our sleep once he's on his feet again? Kurosaki insisted on saving him; was that kindness or naivety talking?"

"He's already killed before, Kensei, back when that Espada attacked Karakura, before Tousen showed up. An Arrancar – Di Roy or somethin' – dead by Ichigo's hand. Ya don't have ta worry about the kid bein' too soft. He's not. And... didn't ya see him when he was holdin' the Espada up?"

"What? I didn't notice anything in particular. Too busy arguing with him."

"Hm. ...Well, never mind then."

"Hey, you can't just leave it at that! Did you notice something?"

"I might've; doesn't matter. Just drop the issue. I trust Ichigo ta know what he's doin' and the consequences of takin' a potentially harmful enemy inta our home. Trust me on this, Kensei."

"...Alright, whatever. But if Aizen shows up on our front step, don't think I'm above saying 'I told you so'."

"Duly noted, now go set the table."

Ichigo ducked away on silent footsteps. So Hirako had seen his... discomfort when he'd been touching Grimmjow. Not surprising, he supposed; Hirako was unexpectedly observant when he wanted to be. Had the blond guessed how much of the Espada's circumstances Ichigo had managed to glean just through physical contact?

And more importantly, was Ichigo's... ability getting stronger? Or just manifesting itself in a different way? After all, Grimmjow was a Hollow with Shinigami powers, possessing a Zanpakutou but not a spirit. A sealed state and an unsealed one instead of a separate Shikai and Bankai. Grimmjow himself might as well be a Zanpakutou spirit in that aspect, so was that why Ichigo could sense a little of what the Espada had been feeling?

Ichigo scrubbed a frustrated hand over his face. Either way, the sooner he finished up here, the better. Once Grimmjow was on his merry way, and Hiyori's spirit had been talked around, Ichigo's life could go back to the relatively straightforward train-this-fight-that-no-unnecessary-crazy-nonsense style that it had been before Hirako had first stepped foot in Karakura.

No offense to Hirako of course, since apparently, the blond Visored was pretty much his only supporter around here.

He sighed. How annoying. He missed the days when the most he had to worry about was Sougyo no Kotowari popping up unannounced.

Then again, they had done exactly that three times already while he had been in the Visored's home, clamouring for him to play their favourite game. At least now he could give almost as good as he got with his growing arsenal of Kidou spells.

LI.

"Ichigo. Ichigo, wake up."

Ichigo jerked a little out of his slumber, grimacing when his neck complained as he straightened from his slumped position. Blinking blearily, he peered up at the Visored standing over him, frowning in confusion when he found Hirako smirking with amusement.

"Wh-" Ichigo nearly bit his tongue off when he finally registered the weight on his chest and the head of orange hair resting there. "Inoue!"

"Shh!" Hirako hushed with an even wider smirk. "Now don't go wakin' her up; it's not nice."

Ichigo gave him the stink-eye even as he fought down the heat in his face. Shit, he remembered falling asleep in the chair he was currently sitting in (and neatly placed beside Grimmjow's bedside because the Arrancar always started shifting restlessly whenever Ichigo left the room, and that wasn't good for the whole healing process), and he recalled Inoue keeping him company, chatting quietly about schoolwork before they had moved on – somehow – to Inoue's brother and Ichigo's mother, tentatively trading stories about the family they had each lost, and Ichigo had been surprised at how easily the words came when he had told Inoue about Masaki.

And then they'd sat in comfortable silence, and that must've been when Ichigo had nodded off, and Inoue had probably done the same before unknowingly sliding over onto him.

He huffed but he was careful not to jostle the girl sleeping on him. This was going to be embarrassing when Inoue woke up.

"I hate you," Ichigo evenly informed the other conscious occupant in the room. "Just so you know."

Hirako snorted, crossing his arms as he leaned a hip against the nearby desk. "Uh-huh, whatever ya say. Ya hungry? Ya missed breakfast."

Ichigo rolled the crick out of his neck the best he could without moving too much before shaking his head. "No, not right now."

"Good," Hirako hopped up onto the desk, sitting cross-legged on it as he pulled out a notebook and a pen. "We have ta talk."

Ichigo eyed the older Visored warily. "Talk about what?"

Hirako twirled the pen between deft fingers before jabbing the end of it at the still unconscious Grimmjow. "Him. And what happened when ya touched him. Amongst other things."

Ichigo stiffened. "There's nothing to talk about."

Hirako deigned this answer with a roll of his eyes. "Don't bullshit me; it won't work. Look, Ichigo, for better or worse, ya've got this fancy little ability ta see spirits and feel what they're feelin'. The next step is knowin' what ya can do with it. Ya've got a useful skill; it'd be a waste, and frankly dangerous, if ya don't even know the extent of it."

Ichigo scowled. "It's not dangerous-"

"Dangerous," Hirako repeated adamantly. "Don't think I didn't see ya rubbin' your arms after ya let go of Little Boy Blue over there. What if ya keel right over next time ya touch a comatose person? I'm not sayin' that that's what'll happen but ya gotta admit it's a real possibility."

Ichigo's scowl deepened but he couldn't refute this logic. "Alright, fine, what do I do then?"

Hirako waved the notebook. "I've made a list of what ya can do – talk ta spirits, interact with them to the point of gettin' injured by them if they attack ya, feel what they're feelin' either through touching them or through crossing blades with their wielders. On the other hand, they can jump from their wielders to ya anytime and anywhere, tell ya whatever they've heard from wherever they've been, and so on and so forth. Then we've got the Arrancar and what ya can do with them. When ya fought Grimmjow the first time, did ya pick up anythin' from him?"

"Uh, no," Ichigo answered somewhat dazedly. Hirako had certainly given all this some thought. "Not the first time, not even when I cut him from behind just before Tousen showed up."

Hirako grunted absently as he scribbled something down. "Okay, so it looks like your ability is gettin' stronger. Colour me surprised; nothin's ever simple with ya, is it? D'ya think ya can shut out what ya feel from whoever ya touch?"

Ichigo shrugged, still mindful of Inoue. "I've never tried. I-"

He blinked when Hirako flipped out his Zanpakutou, extending the tip of the sheath towards him. "Try now."

Ichigo heaved a sigh but gingerly closed a hand around the red sheath.

Nothing. Not so much as a whisper.

He let go and shook his head. "I can't feel anything like this. I don't think it works this way, or at least not yet. When I feel things from spirits or Zanpakutou or even Arrancar, it's when their emotions are going haywire. Besides, when Shinigami cross blades, I think most of them can feel at least a little of what their opponent is feeling; I just pick up a bit- okay, a lot more than that, but otherwise, I can't feel any extra emotions or thoughts when nothing's going on. Like, when Hiyori came at me with her Zanpakutou that first day, she was pissed, not to mention her connection with Kubikiri Orochi was – and frankly still is – downright awful so I could feel exactly what her Zanpakutou spirit was feeling. Right now though, you and Sakanade are getting along pretty well, and you're not particularly emotional at the moment, so I can't feel anything coming from either of you."

Hirako hummed noncommittally, writing something else down. Ichigo rolled his eyes before flicking his gaze up to where Sakanade had just appeared, stretching languidly before padding down to the desk and curling up at Hirako's side. It was still a bit jarring for Ichigo to see such cat-like behaviour from something that clearly had a woman's face but Sakanade was a sphinx in the end so the strange human-lion hybrid still fit.

Sakanade glanced over at him, a flicker of amusement ghosting over her features as if she knew exactly what he was thinking, and then she promptly yawned, showing off gleaming fangs before pressing further into Hirako's side and cushioning her head on her front paws.

It was somewhat sad, Ichigo mused as he watched the spirit. That Hirako couldn't see or even feel Sakanade's presence beside him. Sure, the older Visored could meet his Zanpakutou spirit anytime (now) through meditation but Sakanade was always there, always at Hirako's side, and Ichigo wondered if maybe it didn't get a little lonely for the spirit at times. For any spirit, really.

It honestly was a pity. If only-

"What the hell?!" Hirako yelped, dropping both pen and notebook, and jerking sideways as his gaze snapped down to where Sakanade was now glowering at him irritably for moving. Hirako blinked rapidly for a few moments, bewilderment evident on his face as his eyes roamed from a spot over Sakanade's head to her left paw, not able to see but clearly having felt something.

Ichigo froze. Hirako turned to look at him. Shock didn't even begin to describe what they were both feeling.

"Ichigo," Hirako said faintly. "Sometimes, ya seriously scare me."

Ichigo felt for him. Sometimes, he scared himself.

LII.

Ichigo couldn't make Hirako feel Sakanade again, especially when all the noise they were making eventually jolted Inoue awake, and she was stammering apologies and blushing and fleeing the room before Ichigo could get a word in edgewise.

In the end, Hirako tossed him the notebook and told him to experiment with the extent of his ability. As the blond had told him, Hirako was no expert on whatever it was Ichigo could do, and while he could brainstorm with him, there wasn't much else that the older Visored – or anyone else – could contribute.

Worse news, Hiyori was still stubbornly refusing to work with Ichigo so Shinji was – once again – off to cajole/blackmail/threaten her into submission. Or try to anyway, which was probably going to take a while before the man got any success out of it. Ichigo wished him good luck.

But fortunately, or maybe not so fortunately, this left plenty of time for Ichigo to deal with Grimmjow.

Who had woken up at last (nearly giving Ichigo a heart attack when he had returned to the bedroom and found impassive blue eyes staring straight at him) but hadn't moved an inch from the bed except to sit up against his pillows and flex his newly restored limbs.

"...So," Ichigo started after the silence went beyond the point of suffocating. When in doubt, full steam ahead. "How do you feel, bastard?"

An instant sneer appeared on the Arrancar's face, which was frankly better than no expression at all. "What do you think, Shinigami?"

"I'm not a Shinigami," Ichigo automatically corrected. His gaze momentarily flitted to the side, biting back a wry smile at the sight of Hakuran lounging in the air with his feet pseudo-resting on top of Grimmjow's head. Ichigo shook his head minutely; Hakuran stuck out his tongue and didn't move.

With an inward sigh, Ichigo gave up and turned back to the bedridden Espada. Grimmjow's sneer had faded; he was now staring at Ichigo again, gaze sharp and surprisingly shrewd for someone who seemed little more than a brawler at first glance.

"Okay, well, skipping past your health then," Ichigo scowled, crossing his arms. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Grimmjow gave him a look that clearly questioned his higher mental faculties. "You brought me in here; how the fuck would I know why you'd do something as stupid as let an enemy waltz into your territory?"

Ichigo sighed. Patience. Patience was key. Zangetsu was always preaching patience because – surprise, surprise – Ichigo had a temper problem.

"I just didn't want you bleeding out all over the front lawn," Ichigo shot back. "It's bad for the decor. You're the one who came to us. I don't know how you managed it or why but there's no way it was just a coincidence that your Garganta opened practically on our doorstep. Why you'd want to confront anyone besides a doctor in the state you were in is beyond me but how did you even know we were here? Are you after me? Or the others?"

At this, Grimmjow scowled darkly, jaw working for a moment as if he wanted to say something but wasn't sure what to say.

"...Not them," The Arrancar muttered at last.

Ichigo frowned in confusion. "What?"

Grimmjow made a noise of irritation before spitting out like every word was costing him, "Not the others; you! I don't even know who 'the others' are! And I sure as hell don't know what this place is! It's you! You did something to me! I was in Hueco Mundo for fuck's sake and I could still sense you!"

Ichigo froze. "Wait, what? You could sense where-? Wait, then, do the other Espada know? Does Aizen know?!"

Grimmjow rolled his eyes. "How should I know? I didn't tell any of 'em if that's what you're asking." He paused, grimacing. "Not like I had the time; fucking Aizen did a hell of a number on me and all I was thinking about was gettin' outta there. That's when I sensed you, I guess. I didn't know where you were; I just knew how to get to you. So," An accusing glare. "What the fuck did you do to me?"

Ichigo immediately bristled. "I didn't do anything to you! You should just be grateful you found me in the first place! You looked like shit when you came stumbling out of that Garganta! Why the hell would you serve a guy who basically tortured you just for disobeying orders anyway?"

Grimmjow just sneered and didn't answer, neither denying nor agreeing with Ichigo's assessment.

Ichigo heaved a sigh. "Okay, well, what do you plan on doing once you're back on your feet then?"

The – former? – Espada gave him a strange look. "What, you're not gonna throw me in a cell?"

Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Do I look like a Shinigami officer to you? I don't have the authority to arrest you even if I wanted to. No, you can walk out as soon as you're back on your feet. Although," His expression tightened with grim resolve. "If you try to hurt my friends or come after me again, then we're gonna have problems. So I guess the question now is – will you be going back to Aizen?"

For a long minute, Grimmjow only stared at him, and just as Ichigo was beginning to think he had inadvertently given the bastard brain damage or something, the Arrancar abruptly started laughing. It wasn't a nice sound, more mocking than anything else.

Ichigo arched an eyebrow as he tried to keep a rein on his temper and wait the Arrancar out. Finally, he snapped irritably, "Dude, if you're gonna die laughing, do it sooner rather than later. I've got better things to do than sit here and watch you bust a gut."

"Yeah?" Grimmjow snorted around an obnoxious snigger. "Like what? Got other Espada lined up for you to play nursemaid to?"

Ichigo ran a frustrated hand through his hair. God, was he not communicating properly or what? "I asked you a simple question," He bit out. "All it requires is a simple answer. Though if it's a yes, then the next time we fight, you can be sure I'll kill you."

Grimmjow sneered but didn't snipe back something about Ichigo not being able to win or whatever. "And if my answer's no?" He scoffed instead.

Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Then I guess you'll be sticking around. Look," He pinned the Arrancar with a hard stare. "Aizen's going down, one way or another, and you can either be caught in the crossfire, or you can stay the hell out of it. I'm not gonna ask you to fight for the side of good or what-the-fuck-ever, I'm not stupid enough to think in all black-and-white anyway, so I'd be perfectly happy if you just... sat on the sidelines while it's all going down. You could go back to Hueco Mundo, disappear and hope Aizen doesn't find you 'cause after the mess he left you in, I doubt he's gonna be all that friendly. Or you could... stick around, like I said. You'd have to lay low but I could vouch for you to Urahara-san – he's a- friend of mine – and he could make you a Gigai so that you could stay in the Human World without attracting too much attention. Of course, if you wanna do that, you'd probably have to stay hidden anyway instead of wandering around too much; Karakura is crawling with Shinigami right now."

By the time he finished, Grimmjow was watching him with an expression that reinvented disbelief. "And you're just gonna let me go if I say I'll stay out of it?"

Ichigo shrugged. "Yeah, pretty much. Look, I'm not an officer of the Gotei 13; I don't have time to guard you twenty-four/seven so I'm just gonna have to take your word for it. If you wanna run back to the guy who put you through the butcher house, feel free. I can't really stop you. But like I told you, if we meet on opposite sides of the battlefield again, I'll kill you."

Grimmjow looked positively contemptuous. "You couldn't if you tried."

"I don't have to try, I will," Ichigo promised bluntly. "Your boss – ex-boss if you're smart – is a mountain above your level, and with the way things are going, I'm probably gonna have to face him sooner or later. If I can't even beat you, then there's not a snowball's chance in hell that I'll beat Aizen. And I have to beat him; otherwise, he'll keep coming after me and my friends, and that's not how I want to live the rest of my life."

He fell silent, studying Grimmjow for a long moment before heaving a short sigh and shaking his head. "Well, it's your choice, in the end." He glanced at Hakuran – still hovering above Grimmjow's head – and Zangetsu – leaning against the far wall.

:Ya tried,: Hakuran shrugged. :He wants ta go back ta Aizen, it's his funeral. Honestly, why the hell should we even care?:

:Every person is responsible only for their own decisions,: Zangetsu added in a quiet murmur. :Nothing more, nothing less.:

Ichigo suppressed a tired smile. If only it was that easy.

He looked back at Grimmjow. The Arrancar was frowning again, more perplexed than patronizing now.

A knock interrupted them before either of them could say anything else. Ichigo craned his head around to find Hirako leaning against the doorframe.

"Phone call for ya," Hirako tossed him the mobile. "Kisuke's on-"

:Ukitake suspects your father.:

"-the phone." Hirako finished just as Ichigo exclaimed, "What?"

"...What?" Hirako squinted at him.

Ichigo wasn't even looking back anymore, gaze focused several feet to the right instead where an impatient Benihime was floating.

"'Suspects'?" Ichigo began running through all the terrible scenarios that could've happened. "What did that idiot do now? Has he been arrested? Am I gonna have to stage another invasion? I don't have time for another jailbreak!"

:Calm down, boy,: Benihime sighed. :Nobody's been arrested. Ukitake came for another checkup, this time at the Shouten, and the Kuchiki girl happened to be accompanying him. The new Gigai Kisuke made for your father alters perception, changing the wearer's appearance in the eyes of others. However, your Kuchiki friend-"

-already knew what my dad looks like," Ichigo finished, rubbing a tired hand over his face. "So she gave the game- wha- Hirako-?"

"Phone," Shinji growled, shoving the handheld next to Ichigo's ear even as his eyes flicked a brief warning over Ichigo's shoulder to where Grimmjow was still laid up in bed.

Oh, right. Damn, he was losing so much sleep that he was also losing his mind.

"Urahara-san, on a scale of let's-slip-Ukitake-san-a-hallucinogen to I-need-to-smuggle-them-out-of-the-country-stat, where is my family at?" Ichigo asked briskly as he ducked out of the room for some privacy, Benihime and his own spirits trailing after him while Shinji took over guard duty.

"Good afternoon to you too, Kurosaki-san," Urahara greeted in a rather dry tone of voice. "I'd say we're somewhere at the Urahara-sama-can-still-lie-his-way-out-of-this-for-his-favourite-student stage."

"Oh good," Ichigo shot back. "Now I won't have to head back to Karakura early to kick your ass."

"So uncute," Urahara lamented. Ichigo kind of wished he could invent a way to punch the guy in the face over the phone right about now. "I only called to inform you of the situation, although I suppose I should've just sent Benihime to begin with. I have everything under control – Kuchiki-san has been briefed about the deception, though she thinks it's because you just want to keep your family out of Shinigami business as much as possible, and Ukitake-taichou is... not someone you have to concern yourself about. So just concentrate on finishing up on your end, preferably post haste. The Shinigami are getting antsy. Antsier."

Ichigo snorted, feeling some of the anxiety in his gut dissipate. "I'll be back soon. Soon-ish. Hiyori's being troublesome, and... we have a- er, guest."

"Yes, a rogue Arrancar, or so I've heard," Urahara sounded amused.

Ichigo just sighed. "You won't tell the Shinigami about him, right?"

A huff of laughter drifted over the line. "I can assure you, Kurosaki-san, I am not in the habit of telling the Shinigami anything of importance."

"You're not in the habit of telling anybody anything of importance unless it suits your plans," Ichigo pointed out dryly.

"Now that's not true; I wouldn't have bothered calling you if that were the case."

"Well you did say I'm your favourite student. Exceptions have to be made."

"Perhaps, though would now be a bad time to point out that you're also my only student?"

"Okay, then how about 'exceptions have to be made for only students if the teacher doesn't want to get another elbow to the face for keeping secrets when he shouldn't'?"

"That's a step up; I'm so proud of you, Kurosaki-san!"

:Are you two quite finished?: Benihime cut in just as Ichigo opened his mouth to snark something back because Urahara could be a real sarcastic bastard. He blinked up at the Zanpakutou in confusion instead. "Um?"

Benihime's eyes rolled behind her mask. :Oh for heaven's sakes, Kisuke has been bored without you around but I didn't think he was this bored.: She eyed him critically for a moment. :You on the other hand look like you could use a week's worth of sleep. What do your babysitters think they're doing slacking on the job?:

"Last time I checked, I don't need babysitters," Ichigo grouched out.

:And last time I checked,: Benihime retorted with faux pleasantry. :You find your way into more trouble than an army of five-year-olds high on sugar. Offering sanctuary to Arrancar now? What's next? Befriending a Shinigami traitor?:

"Yeah, no, I don't think you have to worry about me and Aizen getting chummy anytime soon," Ichigo scoffed.

:With you, one never knows,: Benihime muttered rather darkly. :And there are two others besides Aizen.:

It was Ichigo's turn to roll his eyes. "I am overwhelmed by your faith in me."

:I should hope so. Anyone else would've given up on you already.:

"Kurosaki-san?" Urahara interrupted mildly. "Should I hang up now that my Zanpakutou seems to have stolen your attention from me?"

"Huh?" Ichigo hastily tuned back in on the conversation he had been having over the phone. "Oh, sorry, was there anything else?"

A doleful sigh rustled down the line. "It's a sad day indeed when someone prefers Benihime's company over mine."

Benihime smirked at the decidedly petulant tone of her wielder. Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose. Not for the first time, he suddenly felt like the only adult in the immediate vicinity.

"If that's all, I'm hanging up," Ichigo announced. "I appreciate the heads-up though, Urahara-san."

"Yes, yes, I thought you might." A few seconds' silence. "...Do come home soon. Even your friends have been coming by my shop more often asking after you. It's getting rather exasperating."

:Don't believe a word coming out of that liar's mouth,: Benihime advised as Ichigo hung up. :Your friends haven't stopped by anymore than usual. He's just jealous Hirako's gotten his paws on your spiritual talents all to himself for so long.:

"I feel so loved," Ichigo deadpanned. God, he felt like two children's favourite toy. Although, to be fair, Hirako wasn't all that fussed about Ichigo's ability to talk to spirits beyond how it affected Ichigo, unlike Urahara who still summoned up puppy-dog eyes while hinting at a few experiments whenever Ichigo was in the room. It was times like this that their respective ages showed; Hirako was definitely the more responsible of the two.

"So why are you here?" Ichigo peered up inquisitively at Benihime. "Thought we had a deal – you stay in Karakura-"

:I do recall, yes,: Benihime cut him off with a wave of her hand. :But I wanted to see how your training was coming along since you've been stuck here longer than expected.: She gave him a dangerous smile. :That isn't a problem, is it?:

Ichigo sighed. "Of course not. Just..." He scrubbed a weary hand through his hair, missing the way Benihime's gaze narrowed.

:The rabid mutts you've been living with have been slipping their leashes, haven't they?: Benihime enquired, and the silkily lethal quality of her voice made him glance up again in alarm. His eyes widened when he found her katana already unsheathed.

"Hey hey! No! Bad! I mean-" He swiftly amended at the affronted look she directed at him. "-I'm fine, Hime. There's no need to go chopping up other spirits for no reason."

:'No reason'?: Benihime echoed. :Ichigo, I was not joking when I said you look like you could use more than a catnap or two.:

"It's just been busy around here!" Ichigo protested. "I can sleep when I'm dead."

:You are dead,: Benihime pointed out sardonically. She levelled her blade at him. Ichigo went a bit cross-eyed for a moment staring at it. :Go get some rest.:

"Look, I can't!" Ichigo finally snapped. "The spirits around here are... kinda volatile even though they're better now. Their tempers aren't the best, and since I'm the only thing alive that they can mess with in the outside world, they tend to pick fights with me even in the middle of the night. Hakuran and Zangetsu fend them off well enough but I wake up whenever they react so..."

He trailed off. What little he could see of Benihime's expression had frozen over. In contrast, her green eyes simmered with restrained fury.

But instead of blowing up as she often did whenever Hakuran drove her up the wall, she only motioned at him with her katana again. :Very well; I understand.: Her voice was comparable to a glacier.:Then you can get some rest while I stand guard.:

Ichigo blinked. "What?"

Benihime rolled her eyes, cuffed him around the head, and then shoved him to get him moving. :Go. Sleep. Now. And you!: She whirled to pin a glare on Hakuran. :I realize that violence is practically hardwired into your walnut brain, but you will refrain from fighting while Ichigo is asleep. Otherwise...: Her katana glinted ominously under the hallway lights.

Hakuran snorted, not looking the least bit impressed, but uncharacteristically enough, he didn't throw back an insult either.

"Wait, Hime-"

:I can't train you if you're half-asleep,: Benihime said sharply. :A proper amount of rest balances out a rigorous training menu, and it's obvious to anyone with eyes that you've been getting more of the latter than the former. Now if I have to repeat myself one more time, you won't like the consequences. March!:

Ichigo marched. There was no arguing with Benihime when she got like this.

"Kurosaki!" Kensei accosted him a few seconds later, Tachikaze stalking behind him. "Finished with your Arrancar? We can spar- ow!" The Visored grimaced, one hand coming up to rub at his forehead. "Damn headaches; is Tachikaze acting up again?"

Ichigo didn't answer right away, too busy watching Tachikaze saunter up, a challenge in his eyes, only for Benihime to step forward in a swirl of red and gold, and without so much as a by-your-leave, she lashed out with a lightning-fast flick of her wrist that sent Tachikaze staggering backwards. Her katana came away bloody, leaving a line of crimson slicing diagonally down Tachikaze's torso.

:That was a warning,: Benihime declared, voice cold and hard and uncompromising. It was a tone Ichigo had never heard before, not from her. :You may spread it to the rest of the uncivilized pigs lurking in this place – if you or any of the others dare to harm this boy again, I will take payment out of your hides without mercy. Am I understood?:

Tachikaze glowered, always eager for a confrontation and – in fact – looking ready to throw down right then and there, but then Hakuran was darting forward, teeth bared in a mockery of a grin and fingers curled into claws, and Zangetsu was sweeping up to stand beside Benihime in a looming mass of daunting shadows, gaze stern and dark and endless as a black hole, and with all three lined up like that, it was enough to make anyone falter.

Tachikaze fell back.

:I told ya, King,: Hakuran threw over his shoulder. :We shoulda threatened 'em sooner! None o' that pansy let's-talk-it-out bullshit ya've been yammerin' on about!:

Ichigo just sighed again and gave in to the inevitable. Yeah, he had told Zangetsu and Hakuran to only defend, thinking that the Visored's spirits would settle down sooner or later, but it seemed they would have to resort to the assertive approach after all. He could coax his own spirits into holding back but now that Benihime was here to urge them on by example, there would be no stopping them from joining her.

"Kurosaki?"

"Yeah, uh, meditate," Ichigo suggested, breezing past Kensei with a pat on his shoulder. "I'm gonna go get some sleep; I'm tired. See ya later."

And with that said, Ichigo headed for his room, feeling some of the tension leak out of his frame at last now that he had his three favourite spirits flanking him in a protective orbit.

LIII.

Over the next few days, most things returned to the norm. Hiyori still evaded getting cornered (Ichigo was pretty sure he was going to have to do something drastic soon if she kept that up), and he and Hakuran could... sort of summon the mouth of a Garganta now, although it was only a sliver of darkness at the moment, too small for anyone to step through. He sparred with Hirako, played tag with Sougyo no Kotowari, and trained with Zangetsu as well as Benihime who now refused to leave. All in all, things continued the way they had for several weeks now.

Except for one thing. The third day after their resident Arrancar woke up, Ichigo gained a shadow.

Grimmjow didn't speak at first, only tailing Ichigo down to the training grounds but always taking his meals in the room set aside for him. He didn't interact at all with the other Visored, and the Visored were perfectly fine with that. So long as the Arrancar didn't cause trouble, they were content to pretend he didn't exist, although they still kept a sharp eye on him to make sure he wasn't up to anything.

Grimmjow hanging around also meant that he – sooner rather than later – realized that Ichigo was either legitimately insane or he constantly mingled with a whole slew of invisible people. Ichigo didn't go out of his way to explain it to the Arrancar, and he tried to avoid conversing with spirits whenever Grimmjow was in his immediate vicinity, but there was no hiding when he was sparring against Benihime or Zangetsu in the basement. It was evident that his Zanpakutou was striking and parrying something, and yeah, it could be troublesome if Grimmjow left and brought that tidbit of information to Aizen, but at the same time, it was Ichigo's way of extending a little trust in the Arrancar's direction, and he could only hope that it would pay off.

A week after Grimmjow started following him around, it did.

"What the actual fuck are you doing?" Grimmjow asked him one afternoon when Ichigo and Hakuran by extension were – once again – attempting to force the space in front of him to split open.

Ichigo glanced at him through his Hollow mask, sweaty and increasingly frustrated. "Opening a Garganta?"

Grimmjow rolled his eyes. "I hate to break this to you, Shinigami, but you're really fucking not." The Arrancar got to his feet, staring hard at Ichigo for a long minute. And then he prowled forward to stand next to him.

"This is how you do it," He extended a hand, and with a flick of his wrist, the air twisted before ripping apart, darkness gaping like an open wound. Grimmjow turned a smug smirk on him. "Stop trying to force one open, Shinigami. There should already be doors in the fabric of every plane of existence. You just have to find them and open them."

Ichigo gaped for a few seconds. That sounded almost... scientific. And helpful.

As if sensing his thoughts, Grimmjow sneered at him. "Well? What're you waiting for? I'm only giving you a few tips because your attempts are pathetic to the point of painful. If you're gonna do this, at least do it right." He glanced away. "You can't tell me you're gonna beat Aizen if you can't even do something as simple as opening a Garganta."

Ichigo's gaze lingered on the Arrancar for a moment longer before he turned away and started searching for a 'door'.

It wasn't anywhere near a declaration of allegiance, and Ichigo had no idea what Grimmjow was thinking or why he had decided on this course of action, but at the very least, this was a start.


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