A/N: Season 2, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back to Sunnydale! Thanks to the reviewers who, uh, reviewed – if the gift was crappy, feel free to capslock me for the review of this chapter.


Recap of Season One:
- Ichigo and Urahara moved to Sunnydale the same time Buffy did. They become part of the Scoobies, but do not tell them overmuch about their days in Japan. As it turned out, both Urahara and Ichigo broke away from a demon-hunting outfit called the Shinigami, whose patron god Tsukiyomi had selected Ichigo to be his avatar for that generation. Urahara did not reveal the real reason of their defection, possibly because the outfits were hideous and hid Ichigo's sexy body from the blond's rampant ogling.

- As Ichigo and Urahara were getting used to the town, Aizen and Gin bring in their own little clan of bloodsuckers. Aizen and Gin, having been vamps for around eight centuries, have finally gotten sick of Japan and all the stupid game shows that humiliate people without torturing them. They moved in and paid visits to the Master, because he was the Big Kahuna of Sunnyhell, but the Kahuna eventually got dusted by Buffy, leaving the way clear for a manipulative sexy bastard to take his place.

- In the meantime Ichigo's powers as avatar of Tsukiyomi the Pure were reinstated along with his true memories of events in Kyoto, which showed that sometimes ignorance really is bliss. The reinstatement of his memories and power meant that his inner demon Shirosaki was cast out of his body. Ichigo became really pissed off at Urahara for some reason – teenage angsty snit.

- After Ichigo vaporized about ten vamps, and Buffy's dying, reviving and staking the Master (with some assistance). the Scoobies saved the day and stopped the first apocalypse of their lives.

That night (or the next morning), Ichigo communed with his inner demon. A while later, Urahara got up to banish said demon, only to find both Ichigo and demon gone.

End of Season One Recap. (Geez! Finally!)


XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

While You Were Out

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Alarm. The alarm must die.

Urahara groped for the annoyingly buzzing device on the side table, accidentally-on-purpose smashing it to the ground. For all the good it did: the buzzing became shriller. Resigned to his fate, Urahara grabbed his alarm clock, dug the batteries out and tossed it onto his bed. Then he sat up.

It was the first day of term.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Urahara was on his way to the classroom when Buffy, Xander and Willow accosted him.

"Mr Urahara, hi!" chirped Willow brightly. "How was your summer?"

"Slow," answered Urahara. "And what's with the mister?"

Willow grinned shyly. "Well, this is the school corridor, and I thought you wouldn't want other kids to call you by just your surname like we do Giles'."

"That's nice." The blond teacher hefted his books in his arms. They began to walk. "How were your summers? Xander?"

"Boringest summer ever. I had a total of nothing to do." The boy stretched out and let his arms flop back down.

Urahara peered at the Slayer. "Buffy?"

"I spent it in LA with my dad," answered Buffy Summers. "It was okay."

At the foot of the stairs they saw Giles and Jenny chatting. Urahara could swear he saw little glittery sparkles around Giles, but that would be too undignified for the proper Englishman.

"... there were drum rituals, naked mud dances, raves, mobile sculptures... You would have just – hated it with a fiery passion," concluded the brunette computer teacher with a small smile.

"Yes," agreed Giles, "I can't imagine finding any redeeming... naked?"

"You probably spent all summer with your nose in a book," Jenny was smirking and Urahara held the kids back for a beat.

"I suppose you'd consider that terribly dull." Giles pushed his glasses up. Xander snickered under his breath and he muttered something to Willow.

Jenny leaned forward to comment and Urahara led the way down the stairs, deeming it the right moment to rescue Giles from his momentary discomfiture.

"Giles!" chirruped Willow.

"G-man, what's up!" exclaimed Xander.

Giles glared and smiled. "Nice to see you and don't ever call me that. Good morning, Urahara."

"Morning," said Urahara. "How are you, Ms Calendar?"

"You know better than that." Jenny gave him a raised brow. Then she chuckled. "You just love doing that, hmm?"

Watcher and Slayer greeted each other, a tad coolly on Buffy's side. Jenny coughed slightly. "So... Is Ichigo back?"

"Not yet," said Urahara. He wished he could answer truthfully, but he didn't want to distress the kids any more than he had to. "He'll come back soon. It is the start of term after all."

"Buffy killed a vampire last night!" Willow announced to the world at large. Urahara, Jenny and Xander all widened their eyes at her proclamation and the girl blushed.

Buffy scoffed. "You can get a little more volume if you speak from the diaphragm."

Apologetic, Willow gave a sheepish grin.

"We still have vampires? I thought the Hellmouth was closed!"

"Closed, not gone," said Giles. "The mystical energy it emits is still concentrated in this area."

"Which means we're still the undead's favorite party town," concluded Xander smartly.

Urahara coughed. "Uh, I have to get to class and get ready. If you'll excuse me..."

"I'm going in that direction too. See you later kids, Rupert," said Jenny, trailing after Urahara. They proceeded for a few minutes without conversation, but outside the computer science classroom, Jenny placed a hand on on Urahara's arm. "Has he contacted you? At all?"

Urahara sighed. She and Giles were the only two who knew Ichigo had run away from home. "No. I do know he's in Japan, my old friends are there looking after him. But he refuses to call me or even write me. He won't even tell them if he's coming back, and last week he disappeared entirely from their radar. Even their locator spells aren't working."

Jenny bit her lip. "But he's safe?"

"Probably. He's a good fighter, and sensible enough not to take on uneven odds." Urahara let out a sigh. "I just want to know for sure, you know?"

Jenny nodded sympathetically. The first bell blared and she smiled at Urahara. "Maybe we can meet for coffee tomorrow and you can unwind a bit. Vent it all out."

The blond physics teacher grinned wryly. "That would be nice."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Fishing around the drawer, Aizen eventually located the last tube of gelatinous substance he had ordered.

"Taishou..." Gin wheedled from the bed.

"Found it!" called out Aizen and strolled over to the silver-haired vampire. Gin was on his stomach, arms folded under his head. He kicked the thin blankets away and earned a swat on his rump. Aizen pushed the weaving feet down to the bed. "Stay still or it'll hurt."

"It hurts whether I'm motionless or not, taishou."

"Still," ordered Aizen. He squeezed out a dollop and began smearing the gel over the burnt skin on Gin's legs and back. Gin hissed but didn't struggle; the itch/sting was tolerable now. When he had just staggered into sight of their cars, he had been badly singed all down his back and it had been nearly impossible to apply healing salve. Ilforte almost drained his powers dry when they got back, healing each of the damaged vampires.

Aizen told Stark to send over the best healers and medicines for his children, and they took almost all summer to regenerate missing flesh. At least it was only the skin that needed healing now.

"Taishou, my shoulders," murmured Gin.

Aizen obediently spread the salve over thin but defined shoulders, muttering, "You're getting spoiled."

"I like to think of this as being rightly pampered," purred Gin, peering out from his fringe. "You make me happy when you touch me this gently."

"I'll be happy when I can touch you properly," countered Aizen. After coating his lover's back, Aizen nudged Gin's elbows. The slender vampire moved, a little painfully, and nuzzled into Aizen's thigh while they waited for the gel to be fully absorbed into healing skin.

The two lay quietly together, listening to the minutes pass silently by. Gin's right hand trailed up Aizen's calf. "How are the rest doing?"

"Yuzu's still out of it. Ulquiorra and Ilforte are with her. Momo's managed to bolster Ilforte's healing spells with her own, though she's trying to heal Nanao before herself first. Karin is better, she can walk about now. Shuuhei shielded Kira from most of the blast, so he's all bandaged up. Kira's getting the checkup now – if the healer says okay, Kira will come by and visit you."

"Hmm. And Grimm?"

"Grimmjow's hunting for everyone."

"He must be enjoying himself," commented Gin. Then he shifted. "More gel, please? My lower back this time."

Aizen sighed. "I had better be repaid for all this 'pampering', Kitsune."

"Mm. We'll work a repayment scheme out."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

There were things Urahara could not figure out. One of the things was time.

Time was fluid. Sometimes there seemed too much of it, sometimes there was too little. Right now, there was far, far, far too much of time, a veritable ocean of time, that he was drowning in. All the students were copying the diagram, having learned from last year's examinations that the diagrams in the textbooks were not as detailed and accurate as Urahara's own.

The breeze outside the classroom stirred the trees into dancing.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

He would take that clock apart at first opportunity.

The only person who appeared as out of it as himself was Buffy. The Slayer was staring at her pencil, the tip circling a spot on her notepaper. Her blond hair was cut differently, more layered, which should have softened her features, but the hard-edged glint in her eyes added an aura of danger about her.

She was not herself, Urahara thought distractedly, but it was time to change over to pontificating the importance of forces, inertia and friction.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Buffy rolled a pencil across the top of the desk. Then she rolled it back again. The other two students studied her carefully, as if observing a caged tiger wandering about the library freely.

"Buffy!" said Giles, more sternly.

"Hmm? You said something?" The Slayer looked up.

The librarian pushed up his spectacles. "Change into your workout clothes. Urahara will be sparring with you today; I have tennis elbow."

The physics teacher had kendo gear on, except for the mask. Willow was trying to figure out how the bits all fitted together, while Xander prodded Urahara on how much the entire outfit cost. Buffy shrugged. "Sure. Could use a good workout."

The Slayer and Urahara went at it for almost an hour, each swing of the bamboo sword parried by the Slayer. The monotonous rhythm meant Urahara could focus on moving, and not thinking.

Which was good, because his thoughts would invariably swing back to the young man who usually took on the same role after school as Buffy's sparring partner.

Not thinking of him.

By the end of it the physics teacher was exhausted. Buffy's Slayer strength had been held back, but even with half her power he could feel the aches gathering in his joints. He was out of practice; when he was captain in Kyoto, he would have been able to take on three to four vampires without breaking a sweat. It was much easier when life on a Hellmouth came with a Slayer and -

Not thinking of him.

"Thanks, Buffy," he said. "I'll go off now. Enjoy your evening."

"Yeah. Bye." Buffy tossed her own sword into the book cage. The two blonds did not bother with more words.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

'You have no messages.'

Some insipid television program was blaring right now. Urahara watched it dully, since he had nothing better to do. He missed the insanity of Japanese game shows, and the soulful and concise drama serials. He missed the almighty vending machines that dispensed anything and everything. He missed the jam-packed morning trains in Tokyo.

He missed hearing Ichigo talk about the day.

Two shots for thinking his name, he told himself and poured out a glass of single malt scotch. Downing it quickly, he poured another so it wouldn't be lonely in there. The light from the TV hurt his eyes, but he wasn't in the mood to get up. He let his head loll back and willed himself to fall into a dreamless sleep. Or, if there had to be a dream, let it not be filled with soft, orange hair and smooth, damp skin, let it be free of warm amber eyes and furrowed brow, let there be no determined, cocky grin.

As if life would be that accommodating.

He wished Shirosaki was still around to kick some sense into his head. The succubus demon had always been able to help Urahara out of the doldrums, though admittedly the methods were questionable, if pleasurable. But to have Shirosaki about now meant that the other one, the one he really wanted, would be about as well, so Shirosaki would be unnecessary.

Almost subconsciously Urahara turned off the television and flopped onto the sofa. It would be good enough a bed for one night. And before he slept, perhaps he should finish up that fraction of scotch in the bottle...

Ichigo. Where are you now? Are you safe?

Are you still you?

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Buffy kicked one of the cans down the street so hard, it smashed into a car and dented the door. An alarm began to blare and Buffy quickly jogged down, flipping over a fence before anyone could see her.

"That bitch," cursed Buffy. "How dare she?"

Cordelia's mocking rejoinder about asking Angel to dance still burned. Not that Buffy had any feelings for Angel, of course. Not at all. Ichigo was better material than the vampire.

The redhead was smart, strong, and not intimidated by the Slayer. He hunted vampires. He was human, or more than human, actually. Giles had blathered on about some moon god choosing Ichigo as an... aviator? Not aviator. Avatar.

Chosen. Like Buffy was.

She did wish Ichigo was around today – dancing with him might annoy Angel even more.

Aaaand we're back to regularly scheduled Angel-brooding. Way to go, Summers.

She strode on, her thoughts circling madly until she realized she was in the midst of some thick trees. This was not a good place to be, even for a Slayer. She backtracked and then stopped just before a gaping hole in the ground.

The Master was gone.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Aizen sat in the back, bored out of his mind. At least he was courteous about it, unlike a certain Grimmjow who was openly yawning. Ulquiorra, as impassive as ever, almost made an expression of distaste.

Aizen wished he could have his children with him, but the healing was almost complete and it would take the rest of the night and the next day for their skin to be fully regrown. Then he could exact some payment from the spoiled collection of young vampires, and a lot of payment from his lover. Each of them had demanded his attention whenever they itched or hurt or felt too warm or too cold, keeping him circulating among the rooms.

Still, it was good to have his brood together again. Five years ago he had kicked Kira and Shuuhei out, while Momo and Nanao were sent overseas. Aizen had had reason to bemoan their absence, but the Kyoto Hellmouth was weakening and he wasn't about to risk his children being caught in a maelstrom should it collapse. Gin would not be separated from him after their break in the 1900s, and Aizen knew he wouldn't let Gin depart from his side either. As for his court of demons and vampire allies, they were mere fodder for the Shinigami. It truly didn't matter to Aizen how many of his associates were slain: he could always meet more and make more.

Wold conquest was not what he was after anyway. Aizen Sousuke valued quality over quantity, and he regarded patience and stamina as virtues to be pursued.

The weird, shiny-faced black vampire was uttering some nonsense about getting the Master to rise again. Aizen smiled inwardly; though he had been invited here as a guest, he was also certain the Anointed One knew of his complicity in the Master's defeat. Aizen was not worried about an ambush, however: there would be no point in killing Aizen and they were unlikely to do so. After the Master was raised, now, that would be a different matter entirely.

Grimmjow heaved a sigh. "Don't they ever get tired of hearing themselves talk?" he groused aloud. A few of the vamps glared at the Panthera demon, who merely lifted an eyebrow in challenge.

Aizen let him grumble, watching the Anointed One sprinkle some sort of oil and dust over the Master's bones. Aizen'd like to have it mounted on the mantle at home: such an awesome conversation piece. Gin would love it.

Ulquiorra shifted his weightto his left. Even the stoic half-demon was bored with the preacher vamp proclaiming the wonder of the Master when he was arisen. Aizen nodded at Ulquiorra and the slim demon stepped up to the Anointed One respectfully.

"We have to return to the mansion for the Family," said Ulquiorra.

The boy didn't even look over. "Come tomorrow for his awakening."

"Of course," answered Ulquiorra before retreating. Aizen led the way out of the factory into the waiting limousine.

Grimmjow, as expected, was the first to speak. "Are we really coming here tomorrow, Aizen-san?"

"No, we're not," said the vampire. "Let's kill some time; I'm rather restless from all their boasting. Oh, and we have to bring dinner home too."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Urahara managed to stumble through his lessons that day, not sure when exactly was the beginning of his headache and the end of his hangover. At least he could teach physics on autopilot mode.

"My goodness, Urahara, you look like something the Hellmouth threw up!" exclaimed Ms Calendar. Jenny ran her fingers through her dark curls. "Are you alright?"

"No, I look like this for fun," snapped Urahara. Then he sighed. "I'm sorry. It's just... it's just a lot of things weighing on my mind."

"Maybe we should go for the coffee immediately after class," mused Jenny. "Rupert might be able to join us-"

"-something's come up," said Giles, opening the door to the computer science class. Then he actually jerked back when he saw Urahara slouching in a chair. "Why are you here?"

"We were talking," replied Jenny.

Giles frowned. "Anyway, Buffy found something suspicious and we might need to cast a locater spell. Does either of you have the ingredients for such a thing?"

Urahara mulled over the contents of his spell bag. "I'm out."

"I don't have motherwort. Tell you what. Urahara and I will go down to the magic shop and we'll cast the spell."

Was there a hint of reluctance when Giles conceded to the arrangements? Urahara couldn't tell and, frankly, didn't care. Jenny led the way to her Beetle and Urahara slumped in the passenger seat, hat pulled low over his eyes.

They stopped at the shop for magical supplies first, but instead of traveling back to the library Jenny dragged the blond man to the Coffee Spot.

"Shouldn't these be brought back to Giles?" inquired Urahara.

"We're just getting coffee. It won't be that long. And while we're waiting for them to prepare our drinks, tell me what is bothering you." Her dark eyes filled with concern. "I haven't seen you much over summer, but I do know there is something seriously wrong."

Urahara said nothing.

Jenny sighed and then whispered, "Is it Ichigo?"

"Him? He's not around any more." Urahara looked at the napkin he was crumpling up. "I'm not even sure if he's coming back."

Jenny Calendar was confused. "Why not? He's your ward, isn't he? Don't you know where he is?"

"Last I heard, he was in Tokyo with some of our old associates. He didn't talk to me, just told someone to tell me that he was safe and I could stop worrying." Urahara shredded the napkin into confetti. "Didn't work."

The computer science teacher nibbled her lower lip. She touched his forearm. "Maybe we can try the locater spell on him?"

Urahara grinned mirthlessly. "I did. He's shielded – that's why I'm out of supplies. I've been testing the spell on him every night just in case the shield dropped."

The coffee arrived and the two teachers took their drinks. Calendar passed hers to Urahara while she dug for her car keys, and both wandered to her Volkswagen Beetle talking about de-cloaking someone whom they could not locate.

"... too risky, since I don't even know which continent he's on," replied the blond man to a suggestion. "I just wish I could apologize for the things I did, and maybe earn his forgiveness."

"He'll be back, I'm sure," said Jenny. "You're his only family now, aren't you? He'll be back."

"I hope so," said Urahara. They climbed into the seats and pulled on safety belts. As they bent to clip it on two tasers pressed into their exposed necks. Urahara and Jenny folded over. The two vampires in the back chuckled. Now to wait for sundown before driving the car away.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

When he saw Cordelia down in the basement, equally unconscious, Urahara had to think. It was difficult since the electric jolt had exacerbated the headache that had been plaguing him the entire morning, but no self-respecting minion of evil would pass up a tasty morsel like Cordelia Chase, unless she was of great importance.

The Master's bones. Jenny Calendar. Cordelia Chase. Urahara Kisuke. Night of... new moon? Full moon?

Revivification. The Anointed One wishes to raise the Master.

Urahara struggled against the metal chains and cuffs he was secured to. Jenny had been similarly locked down, and Cordelia would not be able to undo them in time before they were discovered. The blond cursed fluidly under his breath; if he could get hold of a pin or something, maybe he could jiggle the lock open.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Gin clenched and relaxed his long, slender fingers. Then he rolled his shoulders. His joints crackled.

"You know, I feel so much better now," he said. "Considering that I was almost incinerated, I'm actually way more limber than before and the new skin? Fan-fucking-tastic."

Aizen didn't look up from the Di An Hun scroll. There was a thick book on lexigrams and a laptop thrumming beside the older vampire. "That's nice," he replied absently, pulling down his glasses to study an icon more closely.

Gin sauntered over to the window. "And the kids are lying out in the grass."

Aizen noted another symbol and transcribed it onto the open document on his computer. "Naked?"

"No, in white shirts. Only white shirts."

"That's nice."

"I'm going to track that boy down," said Gin.

"That's nice."

"And make him one of us... after I drive him insane."

"That's very nice," remarked Aizen, now pulling another volume on lexicology from the bookshelf behind him. "Make sure I get to watch, hmm?"

The silver-haired vampire looked at his lover over his shoulder. "I feel empty."

Aizen peered over the rim of his glasses and smirked. "We'll hunt later, love."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Angel sprinted after the Slayer as she ran back to the high school. He could practically taste the fear and concern from her, and ruthlessly shut away the desire for the chase that spiked in his veins. She was terrified, but not for herself, and her new diamond-hard exterior had chipped apart to show the vulnerability beneath.

She shoved her way into the library and Angel was stunned by the extent of the damage. He half-hoped the vampire they left secured to the mezzanine walkway of the Bronze had found a way out of there, because Buffy was in the mood to kill. Angel sniffed.

"Someone's still here," he said. "Under the furniture."

Buffy made no acknowledgment of his comment other than to rush forward and heave the table off her friend Xander. The dark-haired boy was alive, but bleeding from his brow, and from the looks of his face when she tried to help him up, Xander had broken his left arm too.

"What happened?" she asked.

Xander glared murderously at the blonde girl. "We were attacked, that's what happened. It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't shut us all away."

"Did they say where they were going?" Buffy pressed, though her shame flared in her eyes.

Xander was having none of it, though. "If anything happens to Willow, I'll kill you."

Angel stepped forward. "Why didn't they take you? Why the others?"

"Giles said something about... being the closest... physically." He shook his head. "Giles said they needed the people who were physically nearest the Master when he died."

Buffy's cheeks darkened. Angel knew she wasn't ready to speak with Xander yet, so the vampire asked, "Did they say where they were going?"

"No."

Buffy strode to the door. "Let's find out."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Urahara's head swam. He saw Willow and Giles taken into the place, but after his efforts to escape had been caught and repaid with a vicious kicking to the head, Urahara was in no shape to lead an escape attempt.

When they hitched all of their feet to a giant pulley chain structure, Urahara groggily praised the setup for being an excellent model of a series of simple machines and then calculated the chances of the five of them surviving the night.

Let x= chances of surviving with all limbs intact. f(x) would have to take into account the number of vamps, our current incapacitation, duration of ritual and number of weapons at our disposal... f(x) = 0.8 percent. Chances are bettered if Slayer gets here in time... f(x) = 19 percent...

He blacked out.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Nanao ran her shortened hair through her fingers. Her pomegranate-red nails shone whenever her hands flashed before her face.

"Septieme," crooned Shuuhei, pressing a kiss on her forehead. "You look beautiful."

"You're just saying that to cheer me up," groused Nanao. She sighed. "It took me so long to grow my hair a decent length and poof! Some idiot comes along and forces a new hairstyle on me. Stupid."

"You're still gorgeous." Shuuhei rolled over, his face nuzzling into Nanao's neck. They were lying head to head, with their feet pointing outwards in opposite directions.

Kira was indulging in plucking out jasmine blossoms from the bushes and the twins were helping him, while Momo had stretched out on her stomach and was dozing on her forearms. The two older brunets whispered a short conversation and exchanged tender kisses while they waited for their patriarchs to emerge from the house to join them.

"Numbers?"

"Yes?"

"Tell me again how beautiful I am?"

"Your skin is milk and silky soft, your limbs are graceful and strong. You are Aphrodite and Artemis blended." Shuuhei smirked and nibbled her earlobe. "You are simply ravishing."

"Ravish me then," cooed Nanao softly. "Tsukiyomi shall see how unafraid we are of him."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

Buffy led the charge into the fray, easily staking a handful of minion vamps. The shiny preacher vampire snarled imprecations at the Slayer, who was completely unimpressed. "So, are you gonna kill me or are we just making small talk?" she quipped.

Angel and Xander winched the five dangling sacrifices in, the vampire doing most of the work. He was impressed by Xander valiantly trying his best to assist, since the broken arm must really be painful. The boy's shirt over his tee was soaked through.

As Xander tried to wake each of the intended sacrifices, Angel put his vampiric strength to good use and snapped the joins of the chains. Buffy had almost killed all the vampires downstairs, so they had only the preacher vampire left.

"Look out!" shouted Xander. Angel ducked in time to avoid being staked from behind, rolling to the side. The henchvamp didn't pause to do the comical double-take – such an amateur – but instead kicked Angel to the level below. The souled vampire landed on his hands and feet, then got up to punch another henchvamp's nose in because she was trying to set fire to his clothes.

"That's Hugo," he informed her, and jammed the torch into her heart. "And that's for introducing fire hazards to the workplace."

Meanwhile, Xander shielded Willow as best as he could, at the same time tugging Ms Calendar behind him. "Now, we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way," he told the vampire.

"I see an easy meal right in front of me," said the vampire with a toothy grin. "The hard way? You watch your friends die before I suck your marrow out of your bones – Aurgh!"

"No, the hard way was for him to keep you occupied until I could slay you," Urahara informed the puff of dust drifting through the slats. He swayed on his feet and grabbed the railing. "Seeing as how I was barely able to stand."

A roar from below caught their attention. Preacher vamp was ablaze and shrieked into nothing, letting a huge mallet clatter to the ground. Willow joined the two men and Xander gave her a one-armed hug.

"It's over?" she asked timidly.

Urahara shook his head. Xander's jaw tightened. "Not yet."

With a sob that grew to a roar, Buffy grabbed the mallet and began pounding on the Master's skeleton, her voice breaking near the end as the bones were ground to dust. Angel walked up behind and caught her before she could fall.

Urahara, Xander and Willow helped wake Jenny and Giles. The watcher had a rather large contusion on his forehead and Jenny was weakened with the taser shot earlier.

"We need to get you to the hospital," said Urahara to Xander. "That arm needs fixing."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

"The ritual was a no-go," announced Ilforte, switching from his blonde bombshell look back to his preferred form as a blond, slender man. "Called off on account of Slayer and the grinding up of the Master's bones."

"Thank you, Ilforte, your services are, as always, greatly appreciated," said Aizen to the healer/shapeshifter.

Gin looked over from his armchair. "And the little whiny Anointed One?"

"He escaped."

"Dang."

Aizen laughed and ruffled Gin's hair. "You hate the boy after one meeting?"

"He's all pompous and boring," said Gin, leaning into the touch. "Ilforte, honey, do you still have that aloe vera gel? I have a cut under my navel."

Ilforte grinned. "Should I ask how you got the cut?"

"You really shouldn't," said Aizen with an answering smile.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

The silence was oppressing.

Urahara thanked Angel who drove him home with Jenny's car. The brooding vampire was comically squashed into the tiny car, but Urahara was not in the mood for jest. As he trudged wearily up the stairs, he wondered if he should turn up in school the next morning – all his muscles and nerves were in agony. His heart was in agony.

He reached his apartment and unlocked the door, turning on the lights and nudged the door shut with his foot without turning around. Tried to nudge the door shut.

"Um, I forgot to bring my keys with me."

Urahara halted. All brain processes stopped. Time slowed and the blond heard his heartbeat pounding deep bass notes in his ears as he turned, very hesitantly, around.

It was Ichigo with a large traveling case behind him, but he was glaring at the floor.

Urahara covered his mouth and held his breath. The young man tugged his suitcase in and walked right past Urahara and headed for his room. The blond shut and locked the door before trailing behind the redhead, still uncertain of the reality he was existing in.

"Ichigo?" he whispered hoarsely. "You came back."

"This is my home now," said Ichigo, not looking at Urahara. "And I have friends here waiting for me."

The older man had to restrain himself from going over and hugging Ichigo breathless. It was good enough that Ichigo was there, in his bedroom, safe and sound. Urahara smiled rather damply. "Welcome home, Ichigo."

Ichigo looked at Urahara for the first time since he returned. The blond man drew in a startled breath and took one step back. The redheaded boy looked away, half-ashamed, half-angry.

"What happened, Ichigo?" asked Urahara, reaching for Ichigo's face.

The young man flinched from the tentative touch and swallowed. "It's a long story."

Urahara shrugged. "Not like we have anything better to do, Ichigo."

"... I made a deal with Shirosaki," said Ichigo softly. He sat on his bed and folded a pillow into his arms. "That night, after the dance. He taught me how to erect a portal and we... we portal-jumped to Nepal, to find Byakuya."

"Byakuya?" Urahara sat on the floor, all thought of pain and exhaustion gone. "Why him?"

"Shirosaki was a demon, I was... am... was Tsukiyomi's avatar." Ichigo kept his gaze fixed on his toes. "There was no way he could possess me without someone suppressing the other side of me."

The blond frowned. "You wanted Shirosaki to possess you?"

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't think. After – after you unlocked the memories, the real ones and overrode the false, implanted memories, I thought I was going insane with guilt. I could barely breathe." The youth cleared his throat, and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. "How can I live like that?"

Having thought that himself, Urahara had to keep silent. When Yoruichi had found out what Urahara did in that room of blood and corpses, she had bawled him out and severed all ties with him, but Urahara believed he had done the right thing. The elaborate construct of lies Shirosaki and he built as walls upon walls around the terror of that night, strengthened with a post-hypnotic injunction to resist all mention of Kyoto, was implanted without discussing with anyone.

If Ichigo knew what Urahara was doing to his mind, would he have accepted?

Ichigo didn't notice Urahara's distracted ruminations and continued, "That Kuchiki warlock princeling wanted to expel Shirosaki at first, but I let him read my thoughts." He sort-of smiled. "He understood my point."

"When did you return?" asked Urahara, trying not to seem too eager to hear the details of Ichigo's deal. He still remembered his own contract with Shirosaki when he first summoned the succubus demon, and the abuse Urahara heaped on the demon for years afterwards. Guilt at the way he had allowed himself to treat Shirosaki was partly why Urahara didn't exorcise the demon as he was supposed to have done, and also because Shirosaki was still an incredibly powerful tool when used in the right way.

Ichigo counted on his fingers. "I got back about three hours ago, but you weren't home and I didn't wanna go searching with my luggage unguarded."

The awkward silence chilled both of them. Ichigo then cleared his throat. "Shirosaki said... he said you made a bargain with him over my life then, in the Kyoto palace."

"You still remember?" asked Urahara.

"Byakuya locked away the specific details – I know what happened, but it feels like... like events in a book. And I know some of the things I know are wrong, but I don't wanna find out which. And I have a written copy of the actual events in a locked box somewhere. Shiro re-implanted the fake memories you two constructed. I know they're fake, but I don't really care." The young man glared at his clenched fists, as if they had done something wrong without permission. "At least this way, I get to have a normal life."

"You're Tsukiyomi's avatar for this generation," said Urahara.

"Can you even imagine how it felt?" snapped Ichigo, eyes locking with the blond's. "I could feel every single demon in this town – and there are many at a Hellmouth. I could locate them, all of the evil ones... I thought it was only momentary, but it was the case all the way until Byakuya suppressed these powers and Shirosaki took up residence to assist. I can't live being that aware of all the demons in the world, Urahara; I'd go insane in a week. More than the memories, this was the reason I had to leave."

The blond ventured to touch Ichigo on the knee. The young man moved his leg away fractionally. Hurt by the rejection but holding back the emotion nonetheless, Urahara said, "You used to love having that power, back in Japan."

"Back in Japan I could turn it on and off at will. After Kyoto I couldn't; it was always 'Lohash demon to the left', 'Krui-human hybrid twelve feet behind', 'Xulinkan daemon above', 'vampires, three, behind the dumpster'." Ichigo bowed his head. "I don't even know whether I was thinking anymore."

Urahara wished he could hug Ichigo and soothe the furrowed brow, but he knew better than to press his luck.

Ichigo stood up abruptly. "I should take a shower, I feel sweaty and sticky."

"Ichigo..." began Urahara, but he didn't know how to continue. He clambered to his feet as well, and rubbed his damp palms on his pants. "Could you – ever – forgive me for tampering with your mind?"

The redhead halted at the door, his back to the older man. The tableau held for a few minutes. Ichigo seemed to be searching for the right words to say.

"I understand why you did what you did," he managed at last. "I can understand your not coming clean on that also. Those things, I can forgive." Then he swiveled around to face Urahara. "What I cannot forgive is you maneuvering me into... into sleeping with you just so you can... I dunno what you wanted from that one night. I really don't, and I don't think I want to know."

"Ichigo, it was-"

"-it was disgusting, what you did," Ichigo cut him off coldly. "You knew I loved you. You knew, and you made use of that. It – was – disgusting and degrading." The young man faltered, but braved on, "And... and it was... Urahara, that was the first time, for me. And you just... you just took, selfishly, not because you love me, not because we both wanted it, but for some unfathomable reason that, I repeat, I do not want to know." He swallowed and bit his lips. "I'm staying here only because I can't rent a place on my own, I don't have the income to do so. But touch me once, just once, and I'll ask Giles or Xander to take me in."

"I understand," said the older man. He looked down at his feet. "We'll uh, we'll live the way we were supposed to."

Ichigo swallowed again and went to his shower. Urahara pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and tried to ignore the heavy lump in his chest.

At least he's home and safe.