OKAY, AN UPDATE \o/ Thanks to everyone for sticking with this fic! I always appreciate your feedback, criticism, and reviews. Also, thanks to Q for reading and critiquing :')
Ichigo didn't move from where he sat, and simply watched Grimmjow's approach. Ichigo knew he had to face this situation eventually, and putting it off would only make it worse in the long run. But he didn't really feel ready to deal with this right now, not when his pulse was quickening just by seeing the Espada. The stupid fucker had such easy power over Ichigo just from simple attraction; it wasn't fair. Ichigo knew he couldn't stop it, but at least he could control it.
"Oi, what the fuck?" Grimmjow snapped, eyes narrowed and his movements stiff and angry.
Good, Ichigo thought. He'd take the familiar over Grimmjow's earlier affectionate behavior. Ichigo knew it was most likely only the result of losing half his bodyweight in blood, but he didn't like how attractive that side of Grimmjow was to him. If he was ever honest with himself, that was what Ichigo wanted—a companion, or a friend. Maybe he'd chosen Grimmjow because he knew it'd never be that way between them. Ichigo would never be conflicted over where his duty lay when it came down to it, except that now he was.
"Back on your own two feet, I see."
"Ha-hah." Grimmjow scoffed. "Very funny."
"Aizen fixed that fast."
"And your bedside manner sucks, shithead! I come back all banged up, and the first thing I gotta do is chase you down? What's your problem?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Ichigo muttered.
"Oh yeah? Well, I'm asking now, so start talking before I kick your ass."
Nel sighed beside them, "It amazes me, Grimmjow, why Ichigo wouldn't want to have anything to do with you, based on this conversation alone."
"You stay outta this," Grimmjow said, stabbing a vindictive finger at Nel. "And you-" he turned his glare at Ichigo. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "C'mere."
Ichigo snorted. "Where? I'm not going anywhere with you."
"You really wanna talk about this in front of Nosy Nel? Your choice."
Nel fixed the other Espada with a simpering smile, but Ichigo knew what he meant-this wasn't the type of conversation to be aired in public. He followed Grimmjow back to the entrance and into the hallway, far enough from Nel that she couldn't overhear. More and more of Aizen's forces were beginning to assemble, and Ichigo knew the two of them talking would be horribly conspicuous.
Grimmjow glared at him, settling his weight on his uninjured leg. "You gotta fucking problem, huh?"
"Only the same one as always."
"That's funny, cause you sure didn't seem to have much of a problem not too long ago." Grimmjow took a step forward, into Ichigo's space. "In fact, I remember you being pretty fucking happy to see me, or am I wrong about that?"
"You're not wrong, I just realized my mistake."
"Oh yeah, and which mistake was that?"
Ichigo crossed his arms over his chest, "The one where I started thinking of you as a normal person, and not someone who spent time gloating over killing people I care about."
"Aw, what?" Grimmjow sniggered. "What were you really expecting, huh? You think I was gonna change, just for you?"
"I'm not that stupid!" Ichigo snapped, his temper flaring. He didn't like being made fun of, even when he was wrong. He hadn't expected Grimmjow to change, but Ichigo would be damned if he put up with it being rubbed in his face.
"Seems pretty stupid to me. Seems like you had plenty of fucking time to figure this out, and now you don't like what you got." He took another pace towards Ichigo, and Ichigo could almost feel his hackles raise. Grimmjow was backing him into a corner, same as always, but if the arrancar expected him to hold back for whatever reason, he was dead wrong. Grimmjow continued, "You don't get to kick up a hornet's nest and then say you're sorry; you don't get to change your fucking mind about it-"
"Yes, I can. And you'd better listen to me or I'll kick you ass."
"'Cause you've done such a great job at that all this time."
"Maybe I just needed the proper motivation," Ichigo snarled, glaring hotly. He felt tense, ready for a fight if that was what Grimmjow pushed him into. It was probably exactly what Ichigo needed, to clear the air between them and set things back onto their proper course. He needed to remind himself of who Grimmjow was. Ichigo wanted anything that he could hold onto that would bury the attraction still burning through him.
Grimmjow's entire body seemed rigid, and Ichigo could almost feel the arrancar's reiatsu crackling. "You really wanna go back to having everything like it was before, nothing in between to mess each other up?"
Ichigo unclenched his teeth, only for an instant. "Yes."
Ichigo was almost amazed by how quickly the arrancar acquiesced, until Grimmjow grabbed a fistful of Ichigo's vest-top and yanked him forward before slamming him bodily into the wall. Ichigo felt it crack, and was twisting out of the other man's grip like a snake just as Grimmjow's fist whipped into the spot his head had been a moment before, blowing a hole in the corridor. He should've expected this to happened, honestly-Grimmjow was too much of a thick-headed, immature prick to take no for an answer, but Ichigo had plenty of pent-up rage of his own to dish out. He'd much prefer convenient target than for it to fester inside of him.
He spun around to Grimmjow's back and punched him solidly in a kidney. The arrancar grunted, but twisted on the ball of his foot to catch the loose, high-collar of Ichigo's vest, yanking it hard and Ichigo found his feet leaving the floor as Grimmjow tossed him out the newly-made hole in the wall. He spun for a dizzying second; they were pretty high up, at least several stories, and Ichigo leapt from different pieces of shattered masonry as they fell along with him.
He'd barely gotten to his feet in time to see Grimmjow following him to the ground; the arrancar landed awkwardly, and rolled heavily in the sand. Ichigo could tell that Grimmjow's still-healing leg was hindering him as he stood unsteadily, clearly favoring one side.
"You sure you want to pick a fight with me right now, Grimmjow?"
"Che, don't lie, you're aching for this as bad as I am. I can smell it coming off of you," Grimmjow spat.
"This is hardly fair-"
"Bullshit! It's finally fair," Grimmjow challenged. "I'll beat you with only one leg, and then you'll go crying foul about it anyway, saying you couldn't do any better because your powers're jacked up. You don't get to chicken-shit your way outta this, not this time."
"Then have it your way!" Ichigo didn't waste another second and charged, ducking under his fists. He really did want a fight, he'd wanted to smack Grimmjow's grinning face ever since it'd proven to be such an able reminder of what the arrancar really was-the enemy, one that Ichigo had been more addicted to that his own freedom or escape. Ichigo managed to get in a couple of good hits, but not without Grimmjow's reach finding him and splitting his lip.
They stumbled apart and Ichigo wiped at his bloody mouth. "This is how it should be, anyway."
"S'not what you spent the last few weeks trying to prove," Grimmjow responded, testing his bearings. Ichigo hadn't purposefully aimed for the arrancar's wound, but he'd be damned if he treated Grimmjow gently. "Or is that all you really do, huh? Play games. You can't back anything up, so you just fuck around with people's heads."
"That's not it, dumbass!" Ichigo shook his head in frustration. "I wasn't messing with you, at least not on purpose."
"You think I fucking believe that, after everything?" Grimmjow jumped at him, faster than Ichigo had anticipated and they traded blows. "And you couldn't mess me up."
"You're acting pretty messed up, if you ask me," Ichigo snorted.
"Don't congratulate yourself just yet!" Grimmjow managed to clip him in the ribs hard enough that Ichigo lost his breath, staggering, and Grimmjow caught him by his hair. "I knew this was what you were after, all this time. Just trying to find any way you could to win. It's such a fucking shame, shinigami, but there ain't any part of me you could hurt!"
"You sure you're trying to convince me of that, or yourself?" Ichigo fired back, skittering out of Grimmjow's grasp and using his momentum to slam bodily into the other man, snaring them both. Grimmjow collapsed, off-balance from his bad leg, and they rolled haphazardly.
The arrancar clawed at him and Ichigo responded with hard punches against anything he could reach, landing on top of the other man, his head spinning and covered with sand. He righted himself, shaking off the dizziness not a moment before Grimmjow caught a handful of his collar and jerked Ichigo's face down. His mouth was wet and open against Ichigo's, and their teeth met with a solid crack, but the first touch of Grimmjow's tongue had all of Ichigo shivering forward like he was coming apart. His body seemed to have a mind of its own, and instead of beating the fuck out of Grimmjow like he sorely wanted to, Ichigo's fingers were sliding into blue hair while their mouths worked busily against one another.
"Stupid bastard," Ichigo whined, in between swipes of his tongue. Fuck, his dick was already getting hard, and there wasn't any hiding it-not with Grimmjow pinned under him by Ichigo's spread legs. How could this happen this easily? His body was still screaming with adrenaline, turning hot but not with anger. It didn't seem to matter as much, which was exactly what worried Ichigo; how was it even possible to get this twisted around just by the way Grimmjow was moving against him, one hand snaking under Ichigo's clothing and up the skin of his stomach.
"This's better," Grimmjow murmured, and rolled the both of them, shaking Ichigo out of whatever trance he'd gotten swept into-just in time for Grimmjow to suck kisses down his throat and leave him reaching to pull the other man closer. "Knew you wanted this, you just like making it hard on me, don'tcha?"
Ichigo had to try twice before he could find his voice, "We can't be doing-this-"
"Shut up, yes we can," Grimmjow hissed, choosing just that moment to work his thigh up against Ichigo's hard cock. "Your skin, fuck, I have to taste it again." He was shoving the hem of Ichigo's shirt up and following after it with his mouth, tongue wet against Ichigo's quivering muscles. His body arched treacherously, aching for more contact, and Ichigo knotted a hand in Grimmjow's hair to pull him up and mash their lips together.
Ichigo felt slightly drunk, either from the excitement of their fight or what it'd turned into. His anger had leached away, and it was annoying that he couldn't seem to find it in himself to care. Fuck, maybe he'd never bothered being attracted to anyone else before because on some subconscious level, Ichigo'd known that he would've been a complete basketcase about it, unable to resist. Then Grimmjow's fingers dug into a tender spot on Ichigo's ribs as they traveled over them. The pain was enough to straighten Ichigo's mind, flipped upside-down as it was, and he bit the other man, squirming away.
"This has to stop," Ichigo said, gasping and catching a fistfull of Grimmjow's hair to hold the other man away.
"Why, huh? Why's it gotta stop?"
Ichigo almost scoffed, "Because you hurt my friends! You'll probably kill them next time!" He twisted their bodies, wrenching Grimmjow's head to the side at the same time and the arrancar fell on his back with a heavy gust of breath. "And whatever there is between us ends when you hurt people I care about, and then gloat about it to my face!"
To his surpise, Grimmjow laughed; Ichigo could feel it reverberating throughout his body as he lay over Grimmjow. "Some friends," he sneered, and grabbed Ichigo's throat. "They leave you here all alone, and don't even come after you? You don't need enemies with friends like that."
"Staying here was my decision!"
"Che, and would you listen to anyone else who made the same one, huh? You make bad excuses for yourself all the time, shinigami. The ones you make for others are even worse!"
Ichigo didn't listen to another thing coming out of that sneering face, and slammed his fist into Grimmjow's mouth, hard; he could feel the skin on his knuckles split. "You don't know me at all!" he snapped, and worried for a second about who he was trying to convince.
Of course his friends were coming. He would do the same for them. He volunteered to be left behind; Soul Society was clearly reforming their forces and could be blamed for taking so long to find him. Anything Grimmjow said was a lie. Ichigo repeated every truth in his mind as he cracked his fist repeatedly into Grimmjow's face.
"Fucking-" Grimmjow snarled, and snatched Ichigo's hand as it whipped back, clasping his fingers and Ichigo felt two of them break with a sickening, gristly pop. He yelped and jerked away; Grimmjow used the motion to flip them until Ichigo was prone beneath him. He slammed Ichigo flat and reeled back, mouth dripping red. "Fuck, stop hitting me!"
"No!" Ichigo snapped his head upwards and it cracked against the bridge of Grimmjow's nose.
"Goddammit, you little fucker-"
Ichigo tried to throw him off, but Grimmjow's teeth snapped at his face, snarling like a mad dog. Ichigo could feel panic leap in his stomach—but then Grimmjow was flying off of him and skidding in the sand several yards away. Ichigo scrambled to his feet.
"That's quite enough of that," Aizen said, very calmly. One hand was pointed towards Grimmjow, and Ichigo realized that the other shinigami had thrown the man using kidoh. "Grimmjow. I did not repair your leg only to have you damage it again so recklessly."
Grimmjow got to his feet as well, glaring angrily, but he didn't respond. Aizen tilted his head to the side in patient expectation. "Ulquiorra is ready to give his report. You did not respond to my summons."
"Sorry," Grimmjow said shortly. He glanced away; his mouth and nose werei bleeding freely and Ichigo's hand ached fiercely from causing it. He was annoyed at Aizen from stopping their fight, with nothing resolved except fresh wounds and old ones resurfaced.
"Well?" Ichigo could see Aizen's eyes narrow. "Leave. I will bring Kurosaki along in a moment."
Grimmjow nodded with a jerk of his head, spitting a stream of blood and spit into the sand before disappearing in a burst of static. Ichigo realized that left him alone with Aizen; he wasn't sure which of the two he'd rather be stuck with. Aizen turned to him with his enigmatic smile. His calmness seemed strangely out of place for what had been happening only minutes before. Ichigo was still breathing heavily, and his hand felt painful and swollen, fingers sticking out a perverse angles.
Aizen approached him. "Please, let me see," he said, holding out a single hand. Ichigo didn't want to, but it would be stupid to refuse, and he placed his own in the other man's, trying not to wince.
"Sharp, aren't they?" Aizen said. Ichigo knew he was talking about the mask; it had scraped his knuckles raw and broken at least one, which bulged grotesquely. "Especially Grimmjow's. I'm quite surprised this is the first time he's injured you."
"It's not the first," Ichigo said, though there was some truth to Aizen's words—through all their fighting since he'd come here, Ichigo hadn't gotten banged up too badly, except when they'd fought other hollows. Even then, it hadn't entirely been Grimmjow's fault.
"But he is strangely careful. More so than I would've expected." Aizen's other hand closed over Ichigo's, and he could feel a warmth form. More kidoh, Ichigo imagined, and felt the pain ease even as he thought it. "Such restraint is…it is quite uncharacteristic of him."
"What're you trying to suggest? Because I really doubt it was intentional."
Aizen smiled slightly, raising one eyebrow. "How cynical, Kurosaki."
"I know better than to think anything else."
"Your fingers are broken," Aizen said, matter-of-factly. "I will have to straighten them."
Ichigo scowled, but nodded; even though his wound felt improved already, he didn't like accepting help from the other shinigami. He winced as Aizen pulled his fingers back into place, but the pain only lasted a moment. Ichigo grumbled to distract himself, "You're the one who stuck us in this fight in the first place."
"And you are performing admirably," Aizen said, and began to walk, still holding Ichigo's hand. Ichigo followed, feeling slightly foolish. "Another welcome surprise. I didn't anticipate that Grimmjow would behave himself so well for this long."
"He's destroyed half of the complex chasing after me, how is that well-behaved?"
Aizen gave a quite, murmuring laugh. "But that is all he's done. And for Grimmjow, that is quite good. I rather expected he would've killed you within the first week."
"Excuse me?" Ichigo stopped in his tracks, narrowing his eyes at the other man's amused expression.
"Truly, Kurosaki? I only hoped that you would serve as a well-deserved lesson for him. Grimmjow is a very useful soldier because he's so effective, but he has no self-control." Aizen shrugged dismissively. "Accidentally killing you would've been a very valuable experience, purely because you are so dear to him."
"But you said at the start, that I could take his rank if I won—"
"Well, I certainly doubt you would've put up a decent fight if you'd been told the situation in honest terms, would you?" Aizen said it as though the truth was completely obvious, and Ichigo felt incredibly stupid—and incredibly pissed off.
Ichigo scowled, focusing on the traitor's words more than their implications. "And I'm not dear to him anymore than he is to me. By which I mean, not at all."
"On the contrary," Aizen said, and resumed walking towards one of the main structures of Las Noches. Back to the audience chamber, with its fresh damage. "Grimmjow has very few things he cares for. He really has no need or use for friends, but will gladly take an enemy. I know for a fact that he would be quite distraught to lose an opponent as cunning as yourself."
"Thanks," Ichigo said, rolling his eyes.
"You're very welcome."
Ichigo could feel his shoulders hunching up on themselves; never had he truly appreciated how annoying the other man's saccharine condescension could be. "Why are you telling me this?"
Aizen glanced at him, eyes smiling. "Rough edges have developed. It is in my best interests to smooth them over, lest I lose even more of my domain in another rampage."
"You could just kill me, or let him kill me, and it'd be just as good."
"But then Grimmjow would be bored. And, as I'm sure you've noticed, that is never a good thing to have."
"Why do you keep him, if he's such a pain in the ass?"
Aizen laughed shortly, and Ichigo regretted putting things in such blunt terms. But he wasn't about to start bullshitting diplomacy with a traitor; Ichigo knew not to trust anything that came out of the other man's mouth.
"Grimmjow is a very efficient weapon to have in one's arsenal. I would be foolish to dispose of him." He released Ichigo's hand, and turned towards him. They'd stopped inside a building, it was cool and dark, but Aizen's eyes shone in the dim light. "Consider it in this way: in a battle, do you hate the sword that cuts you? Of course not—you hate the man holding that sword."
Ichigo didn't say anything, and merely stared in return, waiting.
"If you hate anyone, you should hate me," Aizen said. "Grimmjow is only a tool, put to use."
"It's dangerous to ask for my hate," Ichigo responded.
The other shinigami only shrugged, "I wouldn't ask for it if I felt threatened by it."
Ichigo could feel his teeth grit together in annoyance; he didn't like being treated like a child, and found to be just as threatening. If Aizen wanted him to hate him, he already had that—Ichigo realized one other thing he'd started to lose track of, and that was his proper enemy, something larger than his petty rivalry with Grimmjow. Though the arrancar was the immediate focus of Ichigo's attention, he wasn't the one he should be worried about defeating.
Ichigo had to get out of this place, he realized—it was making him crazy, in more ways than he'd ever thought possible.
"Please join us for witnessing the report," Aizen said, gesturing through a doorway. He released Ichigo's hand, "I'm sure you'll be quite interested in seeing how the situation in Karakura has developed."
Ichigo knew when he was being dismissed. He flexed his newly-fixed fingers and choked down any words of gratitude he would've had. Aizen didn't deserve them. Instead, he marched back towards Aizen's audience room; other arrancar had begun to assemble, waiting for their lord and master. Ichigo saw Grimmjow on the other side of the chamber—he'd cleaned up his face, at least, and his eyes matched Ichigo's figure as soon as he walked through the doorway. A weapon held by Aizen; it would be easier to consider the other man in those terms. Easier for Ichigo to rationalize his many issues, and he wondered why Aizen had become involved in the first place—he doubted it had anything to do with keeping Las Noches intact.
Ichigo wasn't sure what he wanted most, as he crossed the room to sit beside Nel—like hell was he going to go to Grimmjow, not after the fight they'd just had. Ichigo knew he could have what he wanted: Grimmjow, without all of the tangled problems that came with him, if he just believed what Aizen said. But the terms the other shinigami had put things in seemed too neat, and made too much sense. Ichigo didn't believe them for a minute, but it was either that, or fight Grimmjow until they both broke. Ichigo didn't like how eager he was to accept Aizen's rationalizations; it was next to impossible for Ichigo to ever get both of the things he wanted. That he was so close to having one of them was frightening enough.