I'd like to thank everyone who answered my question on the last chapter: this one was late in posting as I wanted to hear what everyone had to say before rushing into a decision. The general feeling is that people want to read more, and that I have left too many things loose in the air that people are curious about: and that's fair enough, it was an intentional thing, and leaving it now would be messy.
However. I also feel like 'Markings' has run its course. It has already gone far further than I thought it would: the original concept for it was only a three-shot. And I am actually quite happy with how it has gone, and I don't want to ruin that by pushing it further. It's sort of time for a new edge. And so, to those who said that it would be better to end it, here it is: the final instalment.
Hey yeah, welcome to the real world;
Nobody told you it was gonna be hard
You said, hey yeah, I can't believe it:
I've barely started now I'm falling apart
But it's hard, standing at the crossroads,
And having all the answers,
Never helped me out, no
- Rob Thomas
Urahara sat around a low table in one of the many rooms annexed to his bedroom in the labyrinthine sprawl of buildings surrounding his shop. The rooms were dark and musty, blinds pulled shut and furniture battered and dark. Rays of slatted evening light made golden bars across the people around the table. He had a hand of cards in front of him, in the hand that normally contained the fan that irritated most of the people who knew him. He was pretty sure that he had the winning hand out of the group: but then, they had some of the best poker faces that he had ever played against, so he couldn't be sure.
Shinji sat cross-legged next to him, peaked cap pulled down low over his eyes to try and hide the gleam that always gave him away when he played.
"Say, Shinji? How is Ichigo's training coming along?"
The blonde man shrugged, eyes not leaving the cards.
"Don't ask me. I only got back today. Not seen him in weeks."
That seemed to catch Kensei's attention. He glanced over with his customary frown, hair messed up from training.
"So you mean you don't know about Kurosaki's little visitor?"
There was a general unimpressed muttering and eye-rolling from the assembled people, which finally brought Shinji's attention back from his abysmal cards. He glanced around them, and wondered what this news was that was causing such problems and worried expressions from people that were normally so inanely cheerful or else unconcerned about other people's lives. The only person who looked even faintly amused was Lisa, who kept throwing smirks to the pile of magazines by her side. The magazines that had pictures of men making out on the covers. The ones she rarely went anywhere without.
Shinji sighed as Tessai laid down his cards. He'd definitely lost his money tonight.
"Go on then, I can tell you're all dying to tell me what Ichigo's got up to."
More looks were exchanged around the table, and a deep rumbling laugh came from the cat curled up next to Urahara, head resting on his knee and yellow eyes bright with amusement. They still considered it a little bit unfair when Yoruichi sat in, as they were all sure she somehow cheated, although they had never been able to figure out how. Those suspicions were only further deepened when he threw his own cards down, revealing a good hand that just about beat Tessai's.
"Ichigo's caught himself a beau."
Shinji goggled, half-grinning in bemusement. After a moment, though, he realised that no one else looked particularly amused.
Kensei made a grunting sound of annoyance, and stared awkwardly away, obviously not comfortable with this conversation. The others, too, seemed unwilling to share this latest peice of news, and Shinji was still waiting for a response a moment later. It seemed that any revaltaion would be a long coming. He thought, and it took him a little time, but soon enough it clicked. Highly trained former-shinigami. Ichigo. Worried expressions.
"Wait… not the Vasto Lorde we were all so concerned about?"
"It isn't a Vasto Lorde."
The table turned to a person who hadn't spoken yet, the one person who perhaps had the most right to talk on the subject of Ichigo Kurosaki's life outside of battle.
"It's an Espada, or at least it used to be. You know him, Hirako- you fought him once. The one with the blue hair and the bad attitude. Sexta."
Shinji's frowned widened as he remembered that Ichigo had been there: and if he remembered the reports as well as he thought he did, he was pretty sure that Ichigo had fought him other times, as well as apparently only nearly killing him when he was in Hueco Mundo. Some babe that he had never spoken to through-out the war might have been a little more understandable, but Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez?
"Why the hell has no-one done anything?"
Urahara tipped his hat over his eyes, hiding his expression from everyone but Yoruichi. From her vantage point, she could see that, for once, not even Kisuke was entirely sure what the best thing to do in this situation was. It was incredibly rare for him to be divided on any subject, and the fact that he was said a lot about the confusion of Ichigo's life. She sighed to herself, wondering when someone was going to take control of the situation and actually say something to the damn kid. As it was going at the moment, she was pretty sure that it wouldn't be long before the ever-watchful Soul Society took an interest.
Damn it all, but she could feel the changing flux of reiatsu from here.
"Ichigo's got it under control."
"Are you freaking kidding me? We're trusting him to sort this out, when he's so clearly lost sight of what is important?"
Kensei's voice was not particularly raised any more than normal: it was tinged with disbelief, but before he could say anymore on the subject he was cut off by the person who had described Grimmjow to Shinji. His own hand he placed face-down on the table: he never had been very good at cards. Lisa smirked, besides him, as the deep voice of the speaker washed over them.
"Yes, we are."
There was a complete calm in Isshin's voice: there was no thread of the uncertainty that Yoruichi could still see in the set of Kisuke's jaw. He was a man that had put his utmost trust in his son, and was not about to see that belittled.
"I have faith in him."
Yoruichi nodded, slowly: Kisuke's hand fell to her back, stroking her fur briefly. They both knew, perhaps a little better than his father, just how quickly Ichigo could throw himself into situations that needed a little more consideration and careful thought. Around the table, people seemed to be reaching a similar conclusion, and though it was Shinji who eventually voiced it, it was obvious that everyone was thinking along the same lines.
"It's never going to last, you know that?"
Tessai nodded, breaking his customary silence with his low and melodic tone and gnomic wisdom.
"People are going to find out."
Shinji rubbed at his eyes, wishing that he had slept before coming here. Tiredness was catching up on him, and this conversation was not helping, even slightly.
"They're clearly not being sensible."
It was Lisa who jumped to his defence rather than Isshin, but even she did not sound completely sure on the matter. Her own hand, she knew, was good enough to beat Kisuke's, but she was trying to delay in the hope that the other's would go first.
"They need to try harder!"
Shinji threw down his own hand almost a little petulantly, face-down and with enough force for them to slide halfway across the table. Lisa, feeling victory was near, placed her own down with a neat smugness, the sort that would normally have pissed Kensei off enough to yell at her. Not today, though: he was too engrossed in the conversation at hand, watching Shinji with interest as he whirled on Isshin, the only person left on the table who had not shown his cards yet.
"Have you talked to him about the implications of this?"
The elder Kurosaki shook his head.
"He hasn't told me about it yet."
"Then how do you know?"
"He's spending most of his time in my house: do you honestly believe that I wouldn't notice?"
Shinji shook his head, and tried to regain something of his composure.
"Isshin, are you not concerned that he hasn't told you about it?"
Isshin threw down his cards, smirking as the rest of the table groaned in annoyance at his perfect hand, most of them almost forgetting the seriousness of the conversation when they realised that they hadn't won. He scooped up the poker chips that had amassed in the middle of the table, and caught Urahara's eye. There was faint concern underneath that brimmed hat, concern that was not exactly unfounded.
"He'll tell me when he's good and ready to. And for now, I trust my son's judgement."
For the briefest of moments, despite Isshin's firmness, Urahara could hear the faint traces of uncertainty.
Things had returned to something as close to normal as it ever was going to get for Ichigo. From the day the first shinigami had appeared into his life, it was fated that he could never just be the normal human boy that he had always thought that he was. It was not for him, the life of simple concerns like homework and exams and future professions. No, his concern had to lie with the balance of peace between three worlds, not to mention the secret companion that a fair few of his friends were supposed to kill on sight, if they ever came across him.
As well as homework. Life was a bitch.
Ichigo rested his head on his algebra book, and sighed to himself, wishing that the teacher would just be quiet and leave maths alone.
Coming back to Karakura had been as much of a wake-up call as he had suspected that it would, and even though he had known that it would be hard he still found himself thrown by the sheer amount of effort involved in keeping a relationship (even if it was as vague and unspoken as theirs) working. Not only did he have to make sure that Grimmjow wouldn't draw any attention to himself- and though the former-Espada knew the consequences of being discovered that still did not manage to overcome his natural temperament and inclination to destruction- he also had to avoid Ishida's pointed looks and the chirpy-but-worried inquiries of Inoue, who was vaguely aware that something was going on but wasn't quite able to put her finger on what it was just yet.
His family, too, were being a little difficult to manage. They had all noticed Ichigo's foul temperament before he had gone after Grimmjow (although, hopefully, they didn't know for sure just where he had gone or who after) and had also picked up on the fact that he seemed to be a lot happier now. The only problem was, each of them took a different and highly diverse route to examining this happiness. Yuzu kept baking confectionaries and trying to invite Ichigo into her confidence, something that Ichigo was just not comfortable with: having talks about your new, gay lover with your baby sister was just not what you need in life.
Karin, if anything, was being even more difficult: determined to find the source of this incredible change in mood, she had taken to asking him incredibly invasive questions that left him blushing, all delivered in her normal, monotone voice. In fairness though, his father had not changed- it was just that he was always a chore.
Only Chad, it seemed, was immune to the contentious issue of just-what-Ichigo-did-in-Hueco-Mundo-with-that-person-who-should-not-be-named. Things went on just as normal with his friend: they ate lunch together in companionable silences and hung out when they could. Ichigo was sure that his friend must have been a little curious, but since he had no inclination to share and it appeared Chad had no inclination to ask, then it looked as if it would remain and unspoken thing between them, as many matters of importance did.
The class ended, but he stayed seated at people began to stand up and pack away.
He sighed, and ducked out of the way of Keigo's flaying arms.
"Ichigo! Why won't you talk to me anymore? You sit there with such a sad expression: you should open up to your dearest friends and-"
Keigo continued to blather on, unaware that he was being totally ignored. However, after a moment or two something that his classmate said got through to him, and he looked up from his discarded work.
"Ichigo, what the hell has been wrong with you these last few months?"
"What do you mean?"
"You go from being normal to being happier to being a bastard and now you're better again: Ichigo, tell me your problems, then we can fight them together and become men who discuss and rationalise rather than sulk and be so very happy!"
All this was delivered with Keigo's usual glaze of delusion, and Ichigo sighed, running a hand through his hair.
"Also, what the hell is that on your back?"
That caught his attention once more: it also caused the rest of his friends to look over. Tatsuki, who sat behind him, leant forward, and poked him in the contested spot.
"Yeah, you can see something through your shirt. What is it, a tattoo?"
"Have you joined a street gang, Ichigo? A satanic cult? A-"
"It's nothing like that, idiot. Someone just drew something there, that's all."
Ichigo cursed Grimmjow in his head for this awkward situation. The pen that Grimmjow had used to draw that six on seemed to be impossible to remove: he scrubbed at it each day as best he could in the shower but it showed no change: in fact, if anything, it seemed to be brighter and more lustrous each time he woke up. What he didn't know was that, since he slept on his front, he gave Grimmjow the perfect chance to draw over it again and again each night he was there, to make sure that it didn't fade away.
He looked ut and Mizuiro, and shrugged. But he couldn't get away with his standard evasiveness as well as normal with this particular friend: he narrowed his eyes at Ichigo and shot him an expression of sheer scepticism. Ichigo rolled his eyes, and stood up.
"I'm going to get some lunch. Anyone interested?"
He left the classroom and headed for the roof. Soon it would get too cold to sit there at all, and it was already a chilly seat, but he liked it up there. The only person that would bother to follow him up there was Chad, and he was not exactly taxing company.
Ichigo knew that at some point he was going to have to stop evading the question of Grimmjow to his friends, or at least work out a way to become much more subtle at doing it. But he just couldn't shake the conviction that there was no way that any of them could understand: maybe he was being unfair, but he was sure that they could never see that the fine line between where he stood and where Grimmjow was placed was a lot easier to cross than anyone had thought. And after all, they hadn't judged him for befriending the Vizard, who had been just as much of an enemy to the state at the time as Grimmjow was now.
Yeah, he knew it wasn't quite the same, but it was the best he could do in terms of justification that didn't involve discussing his immediate feelings for Grimmjow.
His head hit the roof as he lay back and basked in the cool, early September sunlight.
For now, he was just going to have to keep on going on a wing and a prayer.
Grimmjow stared at himself in the mirror, and wondered what the hell had happened in his life that meant that he deserved this sort of punishment.
You know, aside from the whole fighting-and-gloating thing he had going on.
And maybe the killing, too.
But seriously, he didn't deserve to be in this situation. No-one deserved to be in this situation- and he still wasn't quite sure how he had ended up here. Not too long ago he had been a member of Aizen's elite Espada- perhaps not in the highest position but damn well good enough to kick the ass of pretty much everyone that he came across. He'd been, if not happy, then alright with where he was, and besides, it was the best that he had ever known. His world had been unshakable and his confidence undeniable, but now here he was- stuck in the human world, and listening to some really, really annoying woman laugh loudly at the fact that Ichigo was naked and flustered and blushing.
She didn't even seem slightly concerned by the fact that Grimmjow was also naked, only looking a sight more dignified as he reclined on the bed, watching Ichigo clutch cushions and blankets to himself in an effort to disguise himself.
And even if the woman was hot- and my God, she was- that really didn't make up for the fact that she interrupted something that should never be interrupted.
Especially not when he was as sexually frustrated as he was now- because regardless of the fact that he should have been a little bit more worried that the woman had seen him, one of the last in the list of Soul Society Public Enemies list, he couldn't help but still be too damn turned on by the sight of naked-Ichigo.
Grimmjow wondered if killing her would be an appropriate measure, and whether or not Ichigo would still be willing to screw if there was blood on the carpet.
He decided no, in the end, that Ichigo probably would get a bit pissy about it.
His fists tightened on the sheets as the woman grabbed hold of Ichigo, hugging him and cooing at how cute he was when he was all embarrassed. It was an obvious act to make him feel uncomfortable, but it was clearly working: Ichigo's face was going even redder, although Grimmjow wasn't unconvinced that it wasn't just proximity to breasts that was making Ichigo stutter like that.
Eventually the woman seemed to get bored with this line of awkwardness, and turned to face Grimmjow, sticking a hand out for him to shake.
He took it gingerly, more than a little suspicious of her motives.
"You can call me Yoruichi, Grimmjow."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Like the cat?"
"How the hell do you know about the cat?"
Ichigo was staring at him as well now, wide-eyed and looking a little bit pissed off now that her attentions had been turned elsewhere. In fairness, maybe he should have told Ichigo that he had met more that a few people on his recent late-night intervals, when he was apart from Ichigo. He wasn't quite sure how they were doing it, but people who didn't particularly like him but had no reason to kill him just seemed to have an uncanny ability at turning up where they were not supposed to be.
Well, when he said people, he meant that freak with the hat, but he was strange enough for four.
Grimmjow just shrugged in response, smirking as he watched Ichigo struggle on with jeans that were half-way inside-out that had been discarded on the floor earlier.
Yoruichi was still shaking his hand, but all of a sudden Grimmjow could see that there was a lot more to this woman than a smokin' body and the ability to turn a situation from hot to awkward in thirty seconds. There was a sharpness in those eyes, something that spoke of a lot of power and a lot of experience. He wondered who she was, and where she had learnt to disguise what she was with such ease and ability- and he wasn't just talking about the cat-thing. There was a power in her, now that he focused in and tried to read it, something thrumming underneath her skin but that had been utterly undetectable to him before.
He resisted the urge to shake his head. And here he was, thinking that he had gotten good at hiding his power. It looked like he still had a hell of a lot to learn compared to this woman.
"Who are you?"
She smiled again, and it was brighter.
"That doesn't really matter, does it? What does matter is you two keeping a better eye out, ne? You're not very good at keeping things inconspicuous, it seems."
"The hell does that mean?"
She turned to Ichigo, and there was a note of incredulity in her voice as she spoke.
"Don't be an idiot, Ichigo. Don't think that you have gotten away with this just yet. You need to be more careful."
With that final line she was gone, faster than either of them could see, out of the window.
Grimmjow lay, awake, and watched the way that Ichigo's face moved when his mouth slept, forehead pulled into a scowl and fingers tapping on his own chest in irritation at himself. No matter how hard he tried to ignore it, he couldn't help but feel irrationally annoyed that in the time he got to spend with Ichigo, he was generally half-asleep and falling deeper, if not completely comatose in the bed. Grimmjow understood that the day was an impossibility: between the damn school thing and Ichigo's overbearing family and friends he barely had any free time at all- and besides, Grimmjow didn't want to spend all hours of the day together, no matter how comfortable they were beginning to grow in each others' company.
And considering that Ichigo needed a hell of a lot more sleep than he himself did, Grimmjow knew that it made sense that Ichigo would have to rest at some point of the night.
Still, it was annoying.
His zanpakuto was prowling in his mind: he could tell that she had something to say, but was trying his hardest to avoid the conversation. From experience, it was generally worse off for him when he tried to avoid inevitable conversations, but that still didn't stop him from trying to do so. Pantera had the annoying habit of always being right, and he had been forced to accept a while ago that she was the more sensible out of the two of them, but that still didn't mean that he wanted to hear it.
"Grimmjow, you're going to have to tell him at some point, you know?"
He shook his head, as if that would deter the voice of his zanpakuto, slightly chiding and more than a little concerned. Rolling onto his front, shoulder to shoulder with Ichigo, he buried his face into a pillow and gritted his teeth.
"You cannot go on evading it forever. Besides, he is going to find out sooner or later, isn't he?"
There was no response for the longest of moments. Eventually Grimmjow raised himself up again on his elbows, hanging his head as he communed with the spirit. He knew that what she said was right, but that didn't mean the thought of telling Ichigo what he had left behind him in Hueco Mundo was any easier. Grimmjow sighed, an uncharacteristically soft noise as he rubbed the flat of his palm across his eyes.
"You can't even be sure that what the runt said is true: bastards have said more interesting things on the wrong end of a sword before. Just because those Arrancar idiots said that they were out there doesn't mean that they are."
"Yes, but I can tell- there is a part of you that wonders. And a part of you suspects that they are."
"Even if they are, they'll be nothing compared to the Espada, or even the Arrancar that the bastard created. They're nothing, a weak substitute. You know that."
"I do. And so do you. But that still doesn't explain why you can't stop thinking about it."
Grimmjow didn't reply, and in his head Pantera licked her paw, an unusually smug gesture that she only reserved for when she broke through to Grimmjow at his most stubborn.
"Do you think it is just because you are a little… bored, Grimmjow?"
His voice came out loud, though he hadn't meant it to escape the confines of his mind. It was only a whisper, his eyes screwed tightly shut, but had Ichigo heard it he would have hesitated at that pause, at that strange tone of voice.
He felt tired, all of a sudden: as if reassuring himself, he spoke again, in a firmer tone.
"It'll be nothing."
"Very well, Grimmjow. If you are sure."
He wasn't sure. He could never be sure.
They were threatened from all sides, he could see that. He had been weighing it up since they had come back, and there wasn't an angle from which there wasn't danger. Ichigo's family, the Soul Society, the Vizard, his friends in Karakura who knew about this shit. And then, on the other side, Hueco Mundo, and the hollows that would no doubt flock to Karakura if they realised that he was here.
There was no safety net.
As if sensing that Grimmjow was ill at ease Ichigo shifted in his sleep, half-turning so that his face was visible, pale with sleep and the small amount of light afforded by the moon that shone through a cloudless night.
Grimmjow touched the place of Ichigo's cheek that was permanently red now, still not that much more than a small graze that bled on occasion where his mask rubbed too hard. He was still hoping that it would scar over, but he never gave it long enough to heal to be sure: too soon, he found that he had pressing once more. Just another mark between two bodies with enough scar tissue for two.
Ichigo's eyes flickered, a light enough sleeper to wake even from that small touch. He stared sleepily up at Grimmjow, and then squeezed his eyes tightly together again, trying to wake up.
"Wha' time is it?"
Grimmjow shrugged, not bothering to turn over to check the clock for him.
"Early. Late. Whichever way you wanna look at it."
Ichigo pressed his body against Grimmjow's, stretching out as their skin met.
"Did you sleep?"
Grimmjow rolled his eyes at him.
Ichigo didn't reply, just buried his face into Grimmjow's chest, still half-asleep and as out-of-character sweet as he ever could be in these never-discussed moments. Hesitant, still a little unsure of himself in this department (and did he ever hate that when it was just the two of them, sometimes he reverted back to some uncertain thing, ignorant in this new language he was expected to know) Grimmjow reached out and placed a hand against the small of Ichigo's back, making sure that he wouldn't move away.
There was a moment of peace.
Then, the spell was broken.
There was a roar of a hollow from the distance, breaking the cocoon of warmth and silence that surrounded them, ruining the spell of the moment and dragging Ichigo back to reality and wakefulness as effectively as cold water would have done. He dragged himself from bed and searched out the dispenser full of the small, sweet tasting pills that would remove his soul from his body but even as he stood there, knowing that he had to leave, there was an aching part of him that wanted to stay.
But he had already stepped out of their moment in their own, private world, and there was no way to get back into it as long as duty reared its ugly head from across his hometown, howling out its threatening eulogy to chaos.
Alone in the bed now, Grimmjow didn't look over at him. When he spoke it was a little deeper than normal, almost a little gruff.
"There is something out there, y'know."
Ichigo sighed, and nodded.
"I know. I've got to go- I'm on watch tonight. You gonna wait here?"
Grimmjow didn't answer, just stretched out a little further on the bed and closed his eyes, even though it was patently obvious that he was not sleeping. There was just the faintest of touches on the small of his back, and then a cold breeze as the window was pushed open, and Ichigo stepped through.
Ichigo heard the noise of the damned hollow in the air once more, crackling around him like electric tension, and sighed.
The real world had caught them up again tonight.
He supposed it always would do.
Nah, I kid. This isn't the real end- the prologue of the sequel is getting posted right after this on my profile. 'Playing with Fire' is just waiting for you to come and find…
I'd love to see some of the regulars reviewing the first chapters, all the lovely people who I have not given enough credit to who tell me every update just what they want. Thank you so much to all of you who have dedicated time to this, and thank you as well to everyone who reviewed, alerted or made this a favourite. It's meant the world to me. There are too many people that I need to thank- just know that I am incredibly grateful to you all.