A/N: After some thought, I think this is the best conclusion to the saga of First Contact and Touched.

This story is set after Aizen's war, seen in part in Karin's Date, and after the events here there is a continuation in Not About You and the epilogue, Wake Me When It's Over.

Before I get arrested and/or sued, a few things:

1. Bleach is not mine.

2. I love Aizen and Gin. Writing this hurt me a hell of a lot, but it had to be written.



Ichigo paused, his car idling along the road. He really should be going, but he needed to catch his breath, clear his thoughts.

It can't be him. It can't be him. Fuck. Coincidence can't be this – coincidental. But to have Aizen buying medication in a chocolate store he was working part-time at...

Ichigo rubbed his eyes, then turned off the engine. He knew better than to doubt eyes that had seen far too many horrors to create mundane illusions. Illusions of a man in a crisp black shirt untucked over dark gray slacks was too simple for his mind to create.

When he entered the brown-haired man was just exiting. Ichigo waited for the spark of recognition in the kind hazel eyes, but Aizen only nodded and bypassed the tall undergraduate.

"What the hell..." Ichigo stepped out of the store, ignoring the admonitions from his boss. "Hey, Aizen!"

The man stopped in the process of unlocking a black Mercedes. "I know you wish a confrontation with me, Kurosaki-kun, but there is someplace else I have to be. I have a prior engagement."

"We've been hunting you the past five years, y'think I'm letting you run away?"

Aizen paused. Then he half-turned. "Come with me then."

Ichigo slid into the passenger seat, his shinigami substitute badge easily accessible in his jeans. "This had better be good."

"I wish it could be, Kurosaki-kun, but I fear 'good' has left the situation long ago." Aizen turned the key in the ignition. "Please try to dampen your reiatsu as much as possible."


"You'll understand. Please, indulge me this once."

Aizen asking so politely made Ichigo's head spin. It wasn't making sense, but neither was hopping into the same car driven by the number one enemy of Soul Society. "... Fine."


It was white, cool and quiet. Aizen's footfalls barely sounded against the pale cream tiles, and Ichigo tried his best to muffle the squeak of his sneakers. He wondered who was so important that Aizen would drive Ichigo along with him than delay this meeting.

There was a woman waiting outside a door. Ichigo frowned; this was the VIP?

"Aizen-san. He's doing well today." She smiled briefly. "Would you like to have tea in the garden?"

"Thank you, that would be very nice. Please bring in another chair for my guest." After the woman left, Aizen said quietly to Ichigo, "I appreciate your effort to keep your reiatsu reined in. When you see him, please do not react or make any loud noises. I need your promise on this."

Ichigo chewed on his cheek. "Fine. I promise."

"Thank you."

Aizen knocked twice on the door and pushed in. Ichigo followed, resolved to hold his tongue. The second Aizen had stopped outside the hospice Ichigo knew he had to restrain his infamous temper. Someone was very sick, so sick that even Aizen couldn't help.

Not even Aizen could help. Ichigo's guts tightened. Somehow that thought was terrifying in its cruel simplicity.

A thin figure sat in a bed far too large for him, the shock of silver hair longer than Ichigo remembered.

"Aizen-sama?" the person said, the smile still present. If he had been pale before, he was now deathly white.

Ichimaru Gin.

"Gin," the former overlord of Las Noches sounded intensely gentle as he moved to the bed and sat beside his lieutenant. Lieutenant? Who are you kidding, Ichigo? They're lovers. "You look great today."

"I feel great." Ichimaru rested his head on Aizen's shoulder, his long, thin fingers linking easily with the tanned, firm ones in his lap. "I had a good dream."

"Really? Was I in it?" Aizen's voice had dropped to a low murmur. Ichigo, still at the door, almost could not catch his words.

Gin chuckled. "Could've been a cameo."

"Only a cameo?" A teasing kiss on the silver hair.

"Alright, feature role." That much banter seemed to drain the former captain. His lidded gaze flicked up to the stony Kurosaki Ichigo. "Hi there, Kurosaki-kun. It's good to see you."

A polite response seemed appropriate. "Hey."

Aizen tucked his arm under Gin's frame and carried him off the bed in a swift, fluid motion. "Let's go for our tea, hmm?"

"Yay." Ichimaru nuzzled under his lover's chin.

Ichigo studied the frail man in Aizen's arms as they made their way out to the garden. Ichimaru had been the first captain he faced in Soul Society, and he remembered losing. Back then the man had just been a fox-faced shinigami, stronger than most, stranger than all. And now the silver-haired man was so thin he was a shadow.

"How are you doing, Kurosaki-kun?" asked Ichimaru when they had settled down. He nibbled on a chocolate that Aizen had provided from a box. "You must be in college now, hmm?"

"Uh, yeah. Literature major." He saw the tender look in Aizen's face as Ichimaru finished up the small treat. "Um, call me Ichigo. S'not like we don't know each other."

"That'd be nice." Gin smiled. "You make a good visitor, Ichigo. Quiet and soothing. I'd have thought you'll be an abrasive presence."

"I didn't grow up in a clinic for nothing," retorted Ichigo gently.

Aizen sipped from his cup as the two younger men conversed. Well, mostly Ichigo spoke, about his college life, about his shinigami duties, about his friends in college...

"And do you have a lover?" rasped Gin after a while.

Ichigo sputtered into his cup. "H-how did we get from King Lear to this?" he stammered out the question. "And no, I don't. Haven't found anyone yet."

"Hmm." Gin sat back against his cushions. "Or perhaps you haven't been searching in the right places."

Aizen put down his cup. "Time to go in, love."

"Another ten minutes?"



It sounded rehearsed to Ichigo's ears. They must have had the same exchange dozens of times. Both actors acting the same scene, every time the curtain went up. But each time the emotion ran anew in their veins, made the scene real and poignant.

Somehow, finishing his own tea while the two held hands, Ichigo felt a sour pang beneath his heart. They are evil, Ichigo, never forget that, they wiped out half of Gotei Thirteen. They maimed Renji, blinded Chad and killed Kenpachi and Rukia. Don't forget what they are.

But it was evident that the love the two had was deeper and more real than anything Ichigo had ever witnessed.

"Na, Ichigo," Gin's voice interrupted his brooding. "Could you come by tomorrow, morning perhaps?"

"Can I?" Ichigo asked – not of Gin, but of Aizen. The older man inclined his head. There was nothing he would deny Gin now, Ichigo could tell. "Alright then. I'll pop in at nine, before my classes."


Aizen drove Ichigo back to the chocolatier. "It's something that the hougyoku is doing."

"I haven't even asked," protested Ichigo mildly. He knew - all of the Gotei knew - the sphere was with Aizen, but the lack of activity for this long a time had dulled the urgency of retrieving it.

"I know," said Aizen quietly. "He wanted to protect me, and took too great blow from Grimmjow. Your Espada friend."

"That was why you deserted the battle?"

"Yes. I knew he had fallen, and he needed to get into a gigai to recover. But he didn't recover – Gin had taken upon him to reseal the hougyoku, to keep it from Seireitei. And he transferred himself into Urahara's untraceable gigai."

Understanding dawned on Ichigo. "He made himself human?"

"And now the hougyoku's struggling to be free, and destroying Gin in the process." The knuckles on the steering wheel whitened dangerously. "I should never have activated it. I should have silenced it."

"But he has fought it for so many years, hasn't he?"

"He fights because he fears death."

Ichigo looked out the window, then spoke. "Perhaps he fights because of you."

"Perhaps. But I am not worthy." Was it Ichigo's imagination? "I have lost my worth the day I wanted the hougyoku."

"Gin would disagree."

"He disagrees with most things I say, but he goes along with it anyway." A faint smile. "Remember to be on time tomorrow, Kurosaki-kun."


Ichimaru was already awake and pushing a bit of scrambled egg around his plate when Ichigo entered the pristine, white room.

"Ichigo. You're on time." The smile was almost genuine. "Please, have a seat."

"Good morning," Ichigo said, dropping his book bag on the ground. The young man observed the frail shinigami for a long beat. "How are you?"

"Better than last night," Ichimaru said frankly. He nodded at the orderly, who took the breakfast away. With a sigh Ichimaru slid off the bed. "They say it's a well-balanced breakfast, but it's blander than porridge, no matter what they cook. I miss Aizen-sama's breakfasts."

When the silver-haired man wobbled Ichigo dashed up to assist him. The former captain chuckled. "Thanks, kid. Put me in the wheelchair and let's go for a walk, hmm?"

Ichimaru was practically weightless. The sun and fresh air revitalized him, somewhat. There was still the same smile on his face – unreadable, imperturbable. Ichigo didn't know what he was doing, really. He had nothing to tell Ichimaru other than surface trivialities, and he had exhausted those reserves yesterday. He was startled when he felt a cool hand on his.

Ichimaru was patting his hand gently. "It's alright, Ichigo. There isn't any need to talk. I just need you to listen."

"I'm listening."

"I know I have no right to ask anything of you, Ichigo," Ichimaru began, his voice no longer the facetious, light tone he used regularly. "In fact, I owe you far too much. I owe you Rukia's life, and I'm much obliged you haven't killed me yet."

"You're human now, and helpless," Ichigo said, the bile rising in the back of her throat. "I can't possibly murder you."

"But I am dying, so you don't need to sully your hands with my death. Like you said, I am helpless." He chuckled humorlessly. "It's really ironic, considering."

"Yeah, it is." Ichigo stopped the wheelchair under a tree, near a bench. Ichimaru slowly moved from his wheelchair to the seat, and patted the space on his left for Ichigo to sit.

The breeze stirred the leaves into a hushed dance. Ichimaru sighed. "I used to think I fear death, but I don't."


"I don't fear dying anymore. It's just another passage." He smiled tiredly. "Zaraki thought I was afraid to die. He was wrong."

Ichigo looked at his feet. There were scuff marks on his shoes, and there was a pretty pink pebble in the gravel near the edge of the grass.

"When I die, they will come and take me to Seireitei, to face judgment. I can't escape that, and I'm not going to try. I'm ready for them."

"You go back to Seireitei and they will probably put you in jail."

"Incarceration is far too optimistic, Ichigo. They will probably execute me. If I'm lucky, it will be the Soukyoku – if they have repaired it – and if I'm unlucky, I'm reincarnated."

Ichigo frowned. "I think you have the last two confused."

"No." The denial was swift and firm. "I would rather be obliterated than to be reborn."

"Why?" It didn't make sense to Ichigo. He was less bitter about Rukia and Kenpachi's death simply because he knew they were alive and well somewhere else on earth. It still hurt, yes, but he never truly lost them.

Ichimaru tilted his head. "I love Aizen-sama. I try not to, but I can't help it."

What has that got to do with anything?

"I remember everything, Ichigo. The first time we met, in a corridor. Our first kiss. His scent. The first time I saw his eyes without his glasses – beautiful eyes that took my breath away. The way he said good morning. How he would smile if I said something that amused him. That he hates rice cakes of any sort. Our evening talks. His fascination with information and psychology. That he couldn't dance until I taught him. The way he looks at me. Everything."

Ichigo was silent, caught up with the depth of affection in Ichimaru's tone. The silver-haired man closed his eyes tiredly. "I remember everything we did together, and I don't want to forget them. Ever. And if... if I was to be reincarnated, I will forget. I'll forget everything. I'll forget how his lips would brush my forehead. I'll forget the contrast of his skin against mine. I'll forget that he's a wonderful cook, that he can't sing to save his life, that he would never admit that he loves me, but I know anyway because he shows it. And I'll forget even that. And I can't, Ichigo. I can't."

The declaration seemed to bleach what color Ichimaru had gained from the fresh air and morning sun. Even though he was an enemy, Ichigo felt moved to cover the almost claw-like hands with his own. The man sounded almost... broken.

"I would rather be obliterated with all my memories intact than exist without them."

"You wouldn't know, Ichimaru," Ichigo had to speak; he was feeling too much for his foes. He was losing focus. "You wouldn't know there had been a 'you' before that."

"And yet." Ichimaru's rejoinder was sharp and to the point.

They sat in more silence. A squirrel dared to skip closer, its dark eyes watching the two lanky figures in the bench. Finally Ichigo spoke. "What is it you wanted me to do?"

"Keep Aizen-sama away from Seireitei until I have been sentenced and the sentenced carried out."


Ichimaru grinned, the fox still present despite the weakness. "He will tear everything down and kill everyone in his way to get to me, if he feels he has to. Your job is to keep him from doing so."

Ichigo turned to face him. "You can't be serious," he finally said, "You mean you're expecting me – one person – to rein Aizen Sousuke in?"

"Not just one person. You are a vizard, you faced down the Espada, you've grown in all the shinigami arts the past few years – I assume – it's not an impossible task."

Ichigo was speechless. "I... um, I dunno if I'm up to it."

"You'll have to." Ichimaru stood up and stumbled to the wheelchair. "I feel the end coming, and it will be hard on him. Keep him away from the rest of your friends, Ichigo, away from Soul Society. Get Urahara's help if you need to."

"I'll try my best," Ichigo said. "I'm doing it for my friends though, not for you, not for him."

"I know. I still appreciate it."


Aizen was waiting in Ichimaru's room when they returned. Ichigo picked up his book bag and sauntered out, giving the two some privacy. He really should inform Soul Society of their presence, but seeing Ichimaru reduced to that shell of his former self...

He shook his head. From the ajar door he watched Aizen press a chaste kiss to Ichimaru. The younger man was in his captain's lap, head resting on the broad shoulder. Their hands were linked, and Aizen was reading softly from a book to his lover. There was a tender smile on the brown-haired man's face, a light in his eyes whenever Ichimaru made a comment.

He would never admit that he loves me, but I know anyway because he shows it.

Ichigo wondered if he could do it, when the time came to hold Aizen back. And why did he feel jealous that the two most evil persons he had ever known shared a bond he could only imagine?


Urahara closed his fan. "You're saying they're here in this town and no one else knows besides you?"

"And now you. That's all the people I want to know, for now." Ichigo bit his lower lip. "When I saw Aizen I wanted to kill him immediately. But when I saw Ichimaru..."

"You couldn't," supplied Urahara when Ichigo faltered.

"I couldn't." The orange-haired youth looked up. "You couldn't if you saw them together."

The shopkeeper snorted. "I've had the great misfortune to have seen them together, many decades ago. No need to reprise the scene." He sighed. "And yes, I know I won't be able to."

Ichigo leaned on his elbows on the table. "What about his request?"

"I think..." Urahara considered his words. "I think we should try to accede to it. It is to our benefit. I'll tag you for the next few weeks, just so I know when to step in to help."

"Thanks, old man."

"I'm not old. I'm not even drawn that way."

"Fine. Old pervert."

"Much better."



When Ichigo returned to visit Ichimaru the next day he heard the former captain pleading. He decided to wait outside the room rather than embarrass Ichimaru.

"Please, I wanna go home, I want to be at home. I'm better, I swear. I've been away from home for three weeks and I can't stay here any more and I'm going crazy without you being here when I wake up at night... please, Aizen-sama let me go home I swear I will be fine. Please, please..."

"Shh... hush, sshhh... It's alright, Gin, relax, you have to relax, calm down, Gin, we'll get you home, okay? Calm down. I'll get the paperwork done tomorrow."

"No, not tomorrow, today, now! I can't stand this place anymore! Please, please..."

Ichigo bit his lip. The anguish was too raw, too close. The last time he heard anything like this was when he thought his father had died defending Yuzu and Karin – no. Not going there. His dad was fine, resuming his captain position in the Gotei in the third division. It was lonely relying on his alarm clock instead of a patented twister-kick-triple-punch combo in the morning, but he was dealing. His sisters were dealing too.

"I'll get it done now. We'll go home, and you can play with Yuki, okay? Now lie down and relax. Once the paperwork's done, we'll be going home."



The door opened and Aizen actually jerked back when he noticed Ichigo leaning against the wall. "When did you-"

Ichigo looked away down the corridor. "Early. I, uh... you need help with the paperwork?"

Aizen almost-smiled. "It's alright. It's just a few forms. Why don't you go in and keep him company, just for a while?"


Ichigo felt like the third wheel in the car, but he couldn't turn Ichimaru down after the invitation was extended.

Aizen opened the door to the house. It was a simple affair, one of the old-style dark-roofed white-walled houses. The path was shadowed with fir trees. Ichigo had to admire Aizen and Gin's taste; it was very tranquil and comforting.

"Home again," Ichimaru beamed as he entered. "Yuki-chan?"

A cat sashayed out from a hallway and wandered up to Ichimaru. The man swept the cat up in his arms, smiling as the feline nuzzled him affectionately.

Ichigo raised an eyebrow. "You named your black cat Yuki?"

"Mm-hmm." Ichimaru had set his pet free, but the cat merely sat on his foot. "Which reminds me: how is Hisagi-san?"

"He's fine, captain of the ninth now." Ichigo frowned. What did the cat have to do with Renji's lover anyway?

Aizen took the coat from Ichimaru's shoulders. "Hey. Let's get you settled, hmm? I'll get dinner ready. Kurosaki-kun, are you having dinner with us?"

With a glance at Ichimaru's smile, Ichigo shrugged. "Um. Why not? I'd like to."


The hammock swayed lightly as Aizen deposited Ichimaru in it. Ichigo pulled up a rattan chair. Yuki, the black cat, ignored Ichigo entirely and jumped on Ichimaru's stomach, demanding to be petted, and Ichimaru obliged.

"She looks like Yoruichi," said Ichigo after a while.

"It's a he, genius. Nah, Yuki has a white patch on his tummy. See?" The feline mewled a protest at the demonstration, but resumed purring when Ichimaru tickled his fuzzy belly. "Pass me the scissors and the envelop on the table, will you?"

Ichigo wondered what Ichimaru was going to do. To his surprise the former captain pulled a lock of silver hair and cut a length off, then tucked it in the envelop.

"Pass it to Hisagi when you see him, alright? Tell him Yuki wishes him all the best."

"The cat wishes him all the best?"

Ichimaru scoffed. "Yuki wishes him all the best. Six words. That's all."

"Alright." Ichigo felt rather out of place in the house. Everything was immaculately Aizen's or Ichimaru's, and Ichigo had the uncomfortable sensation of being an intruder. He stood up. "I'm gonna go... take a look at what Aizen is cooking."

"Okay." Ichimaru closed his eyes, humming a low tune. "Bring me a glass of water please."



Aizen was staring blankly at the pot simmering on the stove.

"I thought a watched pot never boils," joked Ichigo dryly.

"Does that hold true for a dying man? Because I would never let him out of my sight then." Aizen's voice was flat, unlike the rich tones that characterized his usual confidence.

Ichigo paused. "I don't think so."

"It killed me to have him placed under human medical care. I had to; I couldn't tell what was wrong with him and I needed to research. Years of nothing. No symptoms, nothing. And then he just..." Aizen looked away, as though he was feeling actual emotion.

Unnerved, Ichigo poured a glass of water for himself and another for Ichimaru. "What are you going to do then?"

"I can't take the hougyoku out, not without killing him. I've tried, believe me. It has fused with his soul." He let out a short bark of laughter. "The one thing I needed to get what I wanted is killing the only person I... the only person I have ever truly cared for. Poetic justice, perhaps."

Ichigo swallowed. "He's dying, isn't he?"

"Yes. He is." Aizen closed his eyes. Then he smiled. "That water for him?"

"Yeah. I'll bring it over now."

As he headed out of the kitchen he thought he saw Aizen cover his eyes, leaning against the counter, before the older man dragged his hand over his face and turned off the stove.



It became routine for Ichigo to drop by Aizen and Ichimaru's place after school. Yuzu and Karin boarded with Tatsuki's family, while their place at Urahara's was still under observation with the foster care unit. Urahara knew it was Ichigo's way to check on Ichimaru and didn't interfere with his visits, but he did discreetly ask about the pair when the redhead got home.

Ichimaru always seemed cheerful when Ichigo turned up. Aizen would just half-smile and leave them to chat, as if granting a small boon on the undergraduate.

But Ichigo wished that Aizen would throw him out, ban him from visiting, because day by day Ichigo could see Ichimaru fading. What used to be luster in his silver hair was gone. Cheekbones protruded and even that irrepressibly mocking smile only flashed on and off these days, as if even maintaining a facade was too hard on the man.

And Ichigo wondered if he was doing the right thing by visiting. He asked, one night after Aizen had tucked his lover into bed.

"I think it's good for him to see people other than me," he said. They were having tea on the porch. Yuki was sprawled over Aizen's lap, wide-eyed, as though listening to every word. "It also gives me a chance to unwind."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm a good actor, but even I need time away from my role." He sighed. "Gin's so careful, trying not to worry me, but he's... I've never felt so helpless in my life."

The honest admission jarred Ichigo to the core. Aizen's face was shadowed, his eyes obscured by dark locks. Ichigo swallowed, uncertain if he wanted to witness this vulnerable aspect of an enemy he had hated for years.

The cat slid off Aizen's lap and sauntered off. Ichigo looked at it, wondering if he should excuse himself and go as well. Aizen sighed. "If you want to leave, feel free. I won't-"


The anguished scream from Ichimaru's bedroom got both Ichigo and Aizen to their feet, the older man faster than the undergraduate in reaching Ichimaru.

The silver-haired man was crying, gripping Aizen's shoulders so tightly the yukata was pulled askew. Aizen rocked his lover lightly in his arms, kissing his crown, uttering soft words. Ichimaru was gulping air in, trying to regain his composure.

Ichigo stood in the bedroom, unsure if he should back out or move forward or stand where he was. He shifted from one foot to the other. The scream for help had tapped direct into his reactions – he hadn't registered the caller until he skidded to a stop.

"You weren't there, I called for you but you weren't there," Ichimaru was babbling tearfully. "I tried to stop him, tried to stop them. I tried, I swear, but you were gone."

"I'm here, I'm here, love. I'm here, right with you." Aizen caressed Ichimaru's back soothingly, brushing silver hair back. "I'm still here, I'll never leave. I will never leave."

"I couldn't find you... gods, Aizen-sama, I couldn't, I couldn't find you at all. And they all tried to stop me – all of them. Ichigo. Urahara. Izuru. Shuuhei. Byakuya. They tried to stop me reaching you, tried to- you weren't there, Aizen-sama. You weren't-"

Pulling away Aizen cupped Ichimaru's face and kissed the damp lips and silenced the babbling. Ichigo flushed and looked at the floor. Then he heard the shuffle of fabric and he backed away, eyes still downcast. Eventually, at the door, the young man glanced up and saw how Ichimaru had tangled his fingers into thick brown hair, clinging to Aizen's presence, and decided that it would be best for him to let himself out of the house now. The door slid shut with barely a click.

Only Yuki registered that Ichigo left.


Ichimaru was seated in the rattan armchair when Ichigo came by the next day. "Sorry about last night," he said by way of greeting. "Vivid nightmare."

"I've been there myself," said Ichigo. He quirked a smile. "I didn't have anyone to cry out to though."

"Sounds lonely."

"It is."

Aizen came over, a tray of drinks and snacks. "Hello Kurosaki-kun."

"Aizen. Hey." Ichigo fidgeted with the chain on his belt loop.

The three sat in silence. Then Ichimaru perked up. "Know what I'd like?"

"Hmm?" Aizen looked over.

"Ice-cream. Do we have ice-cream?"

"No we don't. I can buy some now."

The smile that met Aizen's offer was dazzling. Ichigo felt a stab of envy – if only he had someone who smiled at him like that at the smallest suggestion. He spoke up. "I could go-"

"No, you don't know what flavors I love and which is my favorite store. Aizen-sama, please?"

Aizen sighed and ruffled Ichimaru's fine hair. The younger man looked better than he had the past few days. "Alright. You stay here and rest. Kurosaki-kun, watch over him."

"I will."

As soon as Aizen's Mercedes roared down the road outside, Ichimaru smiled at Ichigo. "The bedroom, please."

Frowning, Ichigo obliged and carried him to bed. The silver-haired man lay quietly, tracing his thin fingers over a picture of his captain. Then he picked up a woven cricket and adjusted its position. "You can come in now."

"Who?" The orange-haired youth was genuinely perplexed.

"He means me," said a voice outside the window. Ichigo looked up and saw Hitsugaya Toushiro, captain of the tenth, slipping into the room. "Ichimaru Gin."

"I'm ready." Ichimaru smiled weakly. "Remember your promise, Ichigo."

"Yeah, I'll try my best." The youth had to blink back the sudden burn behind his eyes. "He won't like it though."

Ichimaru's smile faltered. "He's been through so much. He should never have had to go through this as well. If only I were stronger... I should've been stronger."

Ichigo had to turn away forcefully. He's evil, Ichigo. He slaughtered and tortured and killed... and he loves his captain beyond death. He's... I don't know what to think any more. I want him to face judgment, I also want him to live, I... I don't know. I don't know.

A single sigh, and then Ichigo felt the exit of Ichimaru's soul from his gigai. He turned around and was startled by the altered appearance of Ichimaru Gin. There was a network of black veins all over his limbs and up his neck, framing his face.

"Oh my god..." Ichigo had to hold back his fear.

"Yeah, I know. The hougyoku is here," Ichimaru parted his white kimono, and a dark orb pulsed faintly in Ichimaru's chest. "Come on, Hitsugaya-taichou. Let's go. Ichigo... tell him I love him."

The captain opened a gateway silently. He had to bring Ichimaru for judgment, not to send him for soul burial. The two left, and Ichigo swallowed. Here was the difficult part. I'd better be in my shinigami form.


Aizen returned in twenty minutes. "Sorry for the wait, there was a queue-"

He stopped in his tracks, seeing the look on the youth's face. Ichigo stood in front of the bedroom door, then moved aside for Aizen to enter.

Aizen began to walk, each tread seeming to take more effort than the last. Ichigo was behind Aizen when the older man made his way to the bed.

"No. No, not like this." Ichigo heard Aizen whisper. "Not without saying goodbye. Not like this."

Ichigo tensed, ready for action. Aizen only sat on the bed and embraced the sleeping form, the thin, frail gigai that had housed the spirit of Ichimaru for five years. "Without even a goodbye? Not like this, Gin. Not like this."

Ichigo was floored. Was Aizen grieving? Was he dealing? "He... he said to tell you... he loves you."

"You were supposed to watch him." The voice cut like a whip. Aizen hadn't turned around, hadn't looked at Ichigo, but the force of Aizen's reiatsu was a tsunami slamming into him. "You didn't."

"He had to go, Aizen," Ichigo managed to speak despite wanting to crumple to his knees.

"Where was he taken?"

"I can't tell you."

"Then I'll just find out myself. Yuki, come here." The black cat padded out, unaffected by Aizen's reiatsu.

Ichigo got to his feet, Zangetsu at the ready. Aizen picked Yuki up and placed the feline on the gigai's chest. Then he got to his feet, pulling out of his gigai. "Hado ninety-five, Captured Time."

A firm bubble formed around the thin form and the cat. Without looking at Ichigo, whose sword was poised, Aizen opened a gate to Soul Society.

Ichigo darted in front of Aizen. "No, Aizen. You can't-"

"I can and I will." Aizen's gaze was dead, as was his voice. "Get out of my way, Ichigo. You made him smile. I don't want to hurt you."

"He told me to keep you here."

"Make me."

Aizen strode forward, and Ichigo had to grit out the words. "Bankai."