Three months and no sign of any Arrancar traipsing around Karakura. It was a definite improvement since the past few years the town had been infiltrated with the pests. Ichigo was back in his Human Realm, and completely at home with his daily life routines. Still, life in Karakura was now mundane and boring compared to how life used to be in Aizen's lair. Ichigo kind of missed his other self.
Okay, he missed Hichigo a whole lot more than he cared to admit, but that wasn't the point.
The point was, he was feeling this strong urge to somehow rip open a space in the sky and race into Hueco Mundo – something which very likely to occur now that he'd been booted out and sent back home to his original 'habitat', as Aizen put it.
That sneaky bastard.
Grinding his teeth, Ichigo ran a hand through his orange hair in annoyance. If it hadn't been for Aizen pressuring him during the time he'd been newly separated from his Hollow self in the meeting room, Ichigo might have had the chance to spend more time with Hichigo and Grimmjow. He could still remember the day he'd left; like it had only just happened yesterday.
When it was time for him to leave Hueco Mundo and head on home, the Espada had seen him off. His entire 'family' had accompanied him out of Hueco Mundo to the edge of his town, not caring that they were causing a huge imbalance on the spiritual structure. They didn't even bat an eyelid when Shinigami forces started appearing left, right and centre.
"Here's home, then." Ichigo said as he turned around to face his white haired counterpart. "Thanks for coming along. Really."
He meant it, too. There was a niggling feeling that made him want to say "Forget all this, let's go back to Las Noches. We can play in the sand and have jellybeans for tea." But the familiar smell of his hometown – the savoury scent of that Takoyaki stand down the block, and the whiff of Downy coming from that young lady's washing line – sent deep tingles down his spine.
He was free! And this was home.
This was where he belonged.
The welcoming doors of his father's clinic beckoned him with open arms. Ichigo inhaled a deep breath of happiness.
"Ichigo!" Cried one of the Shinigami – probably Rukia – from a spot several feet away. "What are you doing?"
Renji was there, too, his usually proud, grinning face creased with worried frowns and a downturned mouth. Byakuya stood right behind him, one hand on the hilt of Senbonzakura. Scattered around the Espada in a semi-circle, blocking all means of escape, were other Shinigami from the Gotei Thirteen, all flanked by their squad members and Captains alike. Ichigo spotted white hair that belonged to Ukitake and Toshiro, and a long white beard that signified Yamamoto-Taichou himself.
Truly, everyone was present.
And it was all for him.
Ichigo felt a heavy pull at his heart.
"Come here, Ichigo." Grimmjow said, spreading both arms out.
In an instant, most of the Shinigami had drawn their zanpakutou with a sharp flick of their blades. Ichigo spared them only a glance before diving for Grimmjow's arms. He buried his face in the Sexta's chest, clutching at his white jacket with one tightly clenched fist.
There was an audible gasp, and one could almost hear the jaws of the Shinigami dropping.
"I guess this is goodbye." Ichigo tasted the cheesiness of his words, but the smile he received from Grimmjow took all his doubts away.
It didn't wash away his sadness though.
"I guess it is." Grimmjow nodded and pushed his hair back to drop a kiss on his forehead. "Stay well, Ichigo."
Nnoitra sauntered forward with a wicked glint in his eye. "Sure you wanna head home with these straight-laced pussies? They don't look like much fun to me."
"Straight laced or not, they're my friends." Ichigo tried to smile, but found himself tearing up. He swallowed the salty lump in his throat struggled to keep his tears in check. "You guys are, too."
"Don't cry." White haired Ichigo said softly. "I still love you, even if you're going to live really far away."
Behind him, Yammy laid a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. Ichigo managed a bright smile through his tears.
"The question is, will you miss me?" Hichigo asked with a shy smile.
Ichigo smacked him upside the head – gently, but hard enough to garner a slapping sound. "Of course I will, you dork."
They broke out into smiles and laughter, and somehow Ichigo knew everything was going to be alright.
And now he was back with his family and friends, the Shinigami, and his school life. He wasn't sure if everything was alright. It seemed like things had taken a turn downhill somehow, instead of turning out roses like expected. Sighing, Ichigo closed the History book he'd been reading and tossed it back into his backpack. So much for catching up on homework assignments when his mind was clearly distracted with past memories he never wanted to forget. He felt cheated of his life somehow. It was like Aizen had gotten something he'd always had but never appreciated, but this was exactly what he had chosen when he'd been residing inside the other Ichigo's mind. Dropping down onto his soft mattress and rolling over to smell the faint scent of his shampoo on his pillow, Ichigo heaved a tired sigh and stretched out. He was counting on getting a good nap before heading out to find Keigo and play football with him.
Something was calling for him. He knew that voice, but he wasn't really free to respond right now. Sitting in his seat next to Grimmjow and Nnoitra like a good boy, without fidgeting; he was looking forward to his reward of strawberry cake later. Listening to Aizen talk and Ulquiorra give his daily reports were routine to him, but somehow he felt like he was being constantly called by someone else.
"Hey." Nnoitra said in a low voice, his knee grazing Ichigo's. "You alright?"
Realizing he was sending out nervous tendrils of his spiritual energy toward the Quinto, Ichigo nodded and pulled back, hoping he wasn't going to be asked any more questions.
That was weird. It sounded like his name, but that wasn't right, because his name was Ichigo. He turned to face his father, who was watching him worriedly. Shooting Grimmjow a smile that spoke volumes about his condition, Ichigo winced as he felt parts of his face hurt. It felt as if something was about to grow through his skin and protrude out onto his face like some kind of plant.
"Ichigo." Grimmjow rubbed his son's hand with his own. "If you're feeling a headache coming up again you can tell me. I won't get mad."
These past few weeks, Ichigo had been getting mind-numbing headaches – the kind where a family of hyperactive rabbits are jumping on the thinnest, weakest, most sensitive part of your brain; or when you fall down and have a bruise and a dozen crows are hacking away at your bruise until there's nothing but bloodied skin and white bone left – that occurred seemingly out of nowhere and disappeared abruptly whenever it felt like it. These headaches had moods. But they all had one thing in common – killing the insides of Ichigo's tender head slowly but surely.
However, this new pain wasn't a headache; it wasn't anywhere in his head, but it was tingling the pain receptors around his face. Ichigo wasn't sure what he was supposed to tell his dad – parts of his face hurt, but he wasn't sure where.
Instead, the teen settled for a wry smile and a wince as whatever it was inside his face gave him a good, hard, right hook somewhere around his jaw.
"– town is fine for the time being if we need to leech out more spiritual energy from it. The Shinigami will have a harder time detecting us now due to an unlimited shield Szayel has been working on –"
Ichigo watched Aizen nod and listen intently to Ulquiorra, seated directly opposite from him as he nattered on in his droning voice.
Another punch was making the right side of his forehead tingle. He felt slightly dizzy. Something in his face was definitely trying to show itself. Either that or it got off on being sadistic. Ichigo snickered a little at the thought as he rolled out of his chair onto the floor into a dead faint.
They were kissing, snuggling, feeling each other's warmth through their skin. Ichigo had never felt this comfortable – so full, so intact, so complete. He let his counterpart nuzzle his lips with his own, breathing warm puffs of breath out as he exhaled. They stopped and listened to each other's heartbeats, counting each thump and thud in tandem as they watched each other with different pairs of eyes. Ichigo felt like he was seeing through his own eyes and the other Ichigo's eyes, as well as seeing both of them through another pair of eyes, like a third person type of view. He was fairly certain the other Ichigo could sense the same thing, too. They were connected by a thick, translucent bond that shimmered and glistened with each beat of their hearts, like it was being weaved out with every breath they took.
Ichigo didn't want to have to speak, but he felt compelled to. Something was niggling at the back of his mind, as if he was being called off somewhere he didn't want to go.
[– don't look back, and our fantasies will set on the right track –]
Ichigo frowned; wasn't that his phone's ringtone?
[Ichigo, please wake up. Look at him, he's not alright! Stand back, let him have some air. Doesn't look like air is what he needs. Just – again – not something that – right now – don't leave him with – please!]
Snatches of voices, all from different people at once, though they all distorted and sort of flowed into each other at the end. White haired Ichigo sighed. He knew those voices. Orange haired Ichigo knew that ringtone. Similar disturbances in a similar setting, though they were miles apart despite being so close right now.
Ichigo reached for a kiss, feeling the want inside him push his lips out to meet Ichigo's lips, caressing them with his tongue as they intertwined their limbs together in a stubborn tangle. They each wanted more of this – contentment, comfort, closeness – and just this wasn't quite enough. There was a strong urge for more and more and more somehow; the sensation wasn't heavy, but it was insistent. Ichigo brushed his hand across Ichigo's forehead and pushed away the stray hairs he found there. Their eyelashes flickered against each other's as they blinked simultaneously, inching closer for more warmth.
They kissed again and again, not caring how loud and persistent the sounds desperately calling them back to their present times became. They were happy.
This was enough, yet they still hungered for more.
Fingers gripped soft hair, knees knocked together and breaths mingled as they continued tasting, feeling, sensing each other through their hot, open mouthed kisses. They were making the most of their time together – time they both knew they didn't have, but still they continued to hold on to the thin membrane of space enveloping their souls, like a soft, transparent cocoon.
"The cocoon of love." Ichigo said and laughed as the look of incredulity on the other Ichigo's face as they both realized they were sharing the same threads of thought. "I know."
"Do you?" Ichigo smiled back, the corners of his eyes crinkling up as he held Ichigo's gaze. "Is it really love?"
"If it isn't, I don't know what it is." Ichigo replied, returning Ichigo's soft, gentle kisses with his own. "Don't you think so too?"
Ichigo nodded back in agreement. "Yes."
They could both feel the tugging pull of the worlds their bodies were currently residing in tearing away bits and pieces of their weak cocoon.
[– all this sensitivity, believing in the best possibility –]
[– think he'll wake up soon, he has to or I'll – come on, wait just a few more minutes – not something we should worry about – carry on –]
"I'll find a way to get back to you." Ichigo swirled his tongue over white haired Ichigo's, guiding him as he taught him the basics of French kissing. "I promise."
"Promise." Ichigo agreed. "I'll hold you to it, then."
They kissed again, more lips than tongue, just because they could.
And then they let go.
"Dude, you're seriously zoning out these days." Keigo muttered, pausing to knock the side of Ichigo's skull with his knuckles. "Seriously. As in seriously serious. I'm super serious here."
Ichigo nodded blankly. "I know."
"No, you don't."
He didn't; it was true. But that didn't mean he couldn't deny it.
"Well, I just have a lot on my plate." Ichigo shrugged nonchalantly.
Keigo narrowed his eyes. "Like what?"
"Yeah. I got that. What stuff?"
"Just . . . stuff."
"Bitchin'." Keigo shook his head and sighed.
Ichigo rewarded him with another empty look.
"Who're you fucking these days?" Keigo jerked his thumb to the hickeys barely hidden under the white collar of Ichigo's uniform shirt. "College girl, or chick from another school?"
"Neither." Ichigo replied, which was the truth.
"Okay, so you don't like pussy, I get that." Keigo flapped a hand dismissively. "I don't have nothing against it, just to set things straight. I don't know, man. How do I . . ."
Ichigo watched his classmate shove his hands into his pockets. Keigo rocked on his heels, then sighed as he ran a hand through his messy brown hair.
"You can tell me anything, man." Keigo stared pointedly at a crack in the cement floor. "I'm open to anything you want to say. Just so you know that. I'm here."
Breaking out into a slow smile, Ichigo nudged Keigo with his elbow. "Thanks, man. I got you."
There wasn't anything he could tell Keigo. How could he? What could he say? 'I'm in love with myself. But it's not really me, it's a part of me. I see myself in my dreams, and I really miss him when I'm awake. What do you think I should do about it?' Everything he had on his plate was either too much to chew, or entirely on a different menu. But having the comfort of his friend beside him was enough. Ichigo could let himself relax, just this once.
"Dad." Ichigo said hoarsely, his throat dry from lack of water. "Dad, I'm sorry."
Grimmjow pressed a glass of water to his son's deathly pale lips. "Don't be. There's nothing to be sorry about."
"I'm a monster." Ichigo whispered as soon as the glass had been emptied. "I hate myself."
"No you're not." Grimmjow pulled his boy into a tight grasp, fingers gripping his son's limp body through a swathe of white cloth. "I don't ever want you to think that. Ever."
Ichigo offered him a soft smile before falling into another deep sleep.
"You look exhausted." Ichigo frowned, reaching up to touch the pale white skin of the other Ichigo. "Have you been sleeping well?"
"Have we ever been, since . . .?" White haired Ichigo trailed off, looking too tired to speak.
He didn't need to continue. Ichigo understood. They both hadn't felt quite the same since their separation. It sometimes got unbearable, but the strong urge to keep sleeping in hopes of dreaming each other up again was always present.
Running a hand through his white hair, Ichigo slid out of his white Espada robes, baring himself before his twin. "I'm a monster. Do you love me?"
"I love you." Orange haired Ichigo said in earnest, fingers trailing a gentle pattern on beautiful, pale skin. "You're everything to me."
"But I'm still a monster." White haired Ichigo pulled away, and for an instant, in their dreamlike world, Ichigo thought he saw him fade away into the wisps of fog.
"You're not!" Ichigo rushed forward, reaching out to grasp pale white wrists, swinging his counterpart around to face him and the brunt of his intensity. "You're beautiful."
Tears were sliding down white haired Ichigo's cheeks, and somehow his black sclera looked darker than usual. Still, his amber irises shone in the dim light of their dream, further illuminating his inimitable beauty.
"You're you. I can accept that." Ichigo whispered, fingers dancing patterns down white haired Ichigo's cheeks as he leaned in, closing the small gap between their bodies – one bare and the other fully clothed. "Accept that I accept you. If that makes sense."
"It does." White haired Ichigo said, and gave a small laugh.
To Ichigo, it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. They pulled each other into a kiss, slow and steady at the beginning, wet and hungry in the middle, and changed into fully heated, open-mouthed passion at the brink. They pulled apart as both boys gasped for a little more air.
"You're Shiro." Ichigo whispered. "Shirosaki. You belong to me, and I to you. There's nothing more I could ask for."
At that very moment, Shiro felt it. Maybe this was the thing they called love.
And then something broke free from his face. It hurt like a total bitch. Shiro was sure he screamed. Or perhaps it was Ichigo who did, probably out of fear or horror or disgust. He didn't know. All he registered was a thousand hot needles skewering the insides of his face, and soon his vision flickered between red and black and white.
" – you alright?" Keigo's voice and a hand on his shoulder was shaking him awake. "Fell asleep for a while there, mate. Want me to get you some coffee or anything? The vending machine's been fixed."
Ichigo panted, his breathing ragged. This was a living nightmare. "I'm fine."
His voice came out forced, harsh. Keigo backed away a little. Ichigo instantly regretted it. But this wasn't the time for anything besides saving Shirosaki. Leaping to his feet, the orange haired youth headed straight for the door of the rooftop.
"Dude!" Keigo called after him.
"I got someplace to be!" Ichigo yelled, throwing his friend an apologetic smile. "I'll explain later, I promise!"
He'd made a promise to Shiro, and he wasn't about to break it. Ichigo thundered down the stairs of Block E, racing straight for the back of the school, where he scaled the fence surrounding the track field in a matter of two minutes. Feet crunching on the gravel of the road that led toward the shop houses, Ichigo reached into his pocket for the Shinigami representative badge he always carried on him.
The Shinigami might not understand his plight, but he knew someone who would.
Ichigo raced for the small row of shops and ran straight into Urahara's.
Work is tiring. I find myself having less free time to do what I want, and that includes weekends. Makes me feel all blah and so on, but I'm clinging onto the thin shred of hope that I'll have more time to myself. That aside, hugs to all my readers! I'm glad you've kept up with me so far. Thanks for all the support messages. You guys are really sweet.