Soft wasn't a word that he would assosciate with Ichigo Kurosaki. It wasn't an acceptable word for anything about him. His eyes were hard and his glare was fierce, and his hair was bristled and untamed. Even his fingers, where they cupped his jaw fiercely - possessively - were calloused from a year of constant sword-fighting, battling for first one cause and then another, until there wasn't any escape from it. It was their life. Soft just wasn't a word that seemed to fit. Even -- no, especially after the loss of Inoue Orihime to the King's Realm where Aizen had taken her -- had only seemed to harden him further, polishing off those sharp edges to render them unbreakable.

So this...the way that he held him now, with his arms linked around his back. It didn't seem to fit. It was soft, like being embraced by a cloud. A warm cloud, with a heartbeat and roaring fresh-from-the-fight breath that burned his ear in a frighteningly real, frighteningly needed way. So soft, the way those muscled fighting arms held him, as though afraid that they would break him.

And he wanted to speak, to tell Kurosaki not to hold him so gently, like a child, but Szayel had taken out his larynx months ago.

Kurosaki spoke, though. He said "Ishida" in a way that Uryuu had never heard it said before. He said it in a way that he had longed for it to be said; and nothing else mattered, because that single word, that single name, conveyed all the meaning it had to. "I'm here," it said, warmly and protectively, sheltering him from the horror that had been his last few months of torture, "And I will never let anything bad happen to you again."

"Ishida," Kurosaki had said, and all of his fear melted away, taking what was left of his bravery and pride with it.

He broke down.

Even now, even as he cried into Kurosaki's shoulder, he could feel the other man only pulling him closer, those arms tightening earnestly around his back as though somehow having Uryuu crying against him had made it necessary to hold him that way; as though somehow he could make it better if he just pressed him a little more tightly to his chest. It was hard to breathe, but it didn't matter, because it was what he needed -- everything he needed right now. To be held, comforted. Defended. To chase away that little part of him that screamed "Why weren't you there when I needed you?!" and hide it away where it could never hurt him again.

Kurosaki was here now. It might be three months too late, but those three months didn't matter, because Kurosaki was here now.

Rough hands stroked feather soft patterns through his too-long hair, brushing it away from his face, drawing his attention up toward Kurosaki's mustard brown eyes. They were shining with unshed tears, brows twisted until they were almost together, and Uryuu wished he could laugh -- he'd never seen him look so sour. He wanted to laugh, just to let it all out -- could imagine himself doing it; the sort of cackling burble that got you locked away in a psychiatric ward at your father's hospital.

At his father's hospital, where his father would sneer at him and poke him with sharp shiny things, and the image would twist until it wasn't him any more...

And then suddenly Uryuu was laid out on the floor, and Kurosaki was leaning over him looking frightened, holding his body down with one knee, digging his hands into his shoulders unyieldingly, and he could feel his heart thundering in his chest but he wasn't sure how it got so loud.

"Look at me, Ishida. Please..."

That desperate note, and his eyes swam back into focus, forcing himself to look at Kurosaki. There were tears on his cheeks now -- when did they get there? -- and he looked so scared. Uryuu had never seen him like that; never seen him undone so thoroughly. Frightened. Even when dying, he had been valiant to the bitter end. This wasn't...it almost broke his heart to see Kurosaki looking that way. Perhaps more so because he knew that it was his predicament that had caused it.

And hadn't Szayel said "It'd be better if your friends never knew -- how could they possibly look at you the same way again?"

He couldn't be right, but even now he knew that it was true. He'd only been held by Kurosaki for a few moments, and he was already sure that things couldn't be the same. He was a broken toy. Shattered before he could be truly loved.

"Ishida...Uryuu. Stop looking away, damn it! Look at me!"

Had he been looking away? He turned his head again, fixing his swimming vision once more on Kurosaki, pursing his lips together into a silent look of disapproval. Uryuu? He wished he could speak, just to shout some sense into him; those brown eyes had gone hard again, the tears brushed sidewards across Kurosaki's cheeks with the heel of his palm. They were almost more obvious like that. He didn't want Kurosaki to cry. It didn't help, and it didn't make him feel any better. But he didn't want to lie down on the cold Hueco Mundo sand any more. He wanted to go home. He wanted to scream and yell and beat Kurosaki on the shoulders and make him take him home, and then he wanted to curl up in his apartment, in the bed he didn't even remember any more, and make it all go away.

Surely if he slept long enough it would go away?

"Look at me." Kurosaki said again, and this time he leant down and pressed his lips hard to Uryuu's, and when he pulled back, leaving the taste of blood and sherbert on his tongue, he found that he didn't look away again. All those sweeping thoughts, his twisted perception of how things had changed, his desire to shout at Kurosaki for nothing in particular, faded into nothing. Now he was only curious; only wanted to know why Kurosaki had kissed him, his eyes on those surprisingly soft lips, as though they could somehow let him know on their own, and nothing else seemed to matter. The past three months evaporated in the heat of the now, and Kurosaki smiled, satisfied.

"That's more like it."

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Disclaimer: Bleach does not belong to me, I don't make any money out of this story. Tite Kubo is the manga god that does.