Thank you so much to everyone that reviewed the last chapter! *hugs you all*

Special thanks to the wonderful Panruru for beta-reading this chapter

Ichigo sat with his back to a tree, staring up at the night sky. It had been four weeks since his perfect world and been turned on its end. Four weeks since he and Gin had been alone and could goof off and tease each other. They'd been free to do whatever they wanted and had been within sight of each other at almost all times. But now, that had all changed. Now he was a third wheel.

He sighed as he looked over at the campfire where Gin and Rangiku were sitting and chatting about their day, neither one paying attention to him. It was something he was growing accustomed to. On many recent occasions he'd woken up alone because Gin and Rangiku had ventured into the districts to get food without him. They would always come back later on claiming they hadn't wanted to wake him. It hadn't been too long ago that Gin had been jumping on him to wake him up so they could get breakfast. Now he'd found someone else to help him.

He picked up a rock and started tossing it from hand to hand, then nearly dropped it when Rangiku began laughing at something Gin had said. He looked up again and saw the two of them having a good time, not even noticing he was still there. He began to wonder: if he left, would Gin even miss him? After all they'd been through, after watching each other's backs for so long, would he come after him?

Of course not. Not when he has her, Ichigo thought to himself. In truth, Rangiku wasn't that bad. She'd become really bubbly after a few days of staying with them, which was kind of nice. She'd never given him a dirty look or made any unsavory comments towards him. If anything, she talked to him more than Gin did, making him wonder if his friend even wanted him around anymore.

"Hey, Ichi-chan," Rangiku called, and he looked up in surprise to see the girl waving to him. She had a bright smile on her face and was patting the empty spot at her side as if she wanted him to sit next to her. He looked over at Gin and noticed his friend hadn't even turned around, making him wonder if he really ought to bother them. "Don't make me go over there, Strawberry!" she finally shouted, making him scowl.

"My name isn't Strawberry!" he shouted, crossing his arms. Now there was no way he was going over there to see what they wanted. They could continue their little conversation by themselves all night, just how they liked it! He shifted around so he didn't have to watch them and stared into the woods.

"Aw, come on. We haven't talked in–" Rangiku began when Ichigo heard Gin shush her. The orange haired youth turned his head, wondering why his friend had wanted her to stop. Did he not want her talking to him or what?

"I heard someone," he said quietly. He moved back, knowing it was useless to put out the fire if they had already been spotted. The best chance they had if someone were to attack them was to run before they were caught.

"Are you sure?" Rangiku asked as she stood up along with Ichigo. The small group looked out into the trees, but none of them saw anyone there. Ichigo glanced over at Gin, who was frowning and looking around. Maybe he really had heard something, but there were always weird noises at night anyways.

"Did you hear that?" Gin asked again, and turned to look towards the tree Ichigo had been sitting under. The orange haired boy backed away. He had heard it too: the rustling of leaves and twigs snapping. Something was definitely there.

Rangiku looked at them with worry and hid behind Gin. A jolt of fear raced through her at the thought that it might be the same men who'd attacked her before. Had they realized she was still alive and come to finish her off, to leave her dead in the forest this time so no one could rescue her? She turned her eyes towards Gin and Ichigo; she didn't want anything to happen to them. She was about to open her mouth to comment on how she didn't hear anything anymore when a shadow jumped down from the tree and attacked.

Gin and Ichigo jumped back as a figure dressed in black and wearing a red mask landed a few feet away from them. Both boys held up their fists in preparation to attack, but before they could make the first move seven others appeared and surrounded them. Rangiku turned around and eyed them uneasily, wondering how they'd get out of this. The men who'd attacked her had been members of a local gang, but these guys looked like something else.

"Ya take three, I got four," Gin chuckled softly, and Ichigo frowned. It was just like Gin to smile in the face of danger, even when odds were against them as badly as they were now. He didn't know how well these men fought, but he guessed they had to be pretty good if they'd tracked them all the way out here.

Gin ran at the nearest one and tried to punch him but the masked man shunpo'd away, leaving the silver haired boy stunned. Shit, these can't be shinigami, can they? He had never seen anyone use shunpo in Rukongai; even those who had high reiatsu had no way to learn unless they went to the shinigami academy. However, he knew that while they wore black, shinigami usually wore a white obi and never wore a mask.

"Pathetic kid," one of the dark figures muttered as Gin tried to punch him, only to miss and get kicked in the stomach. He heard Rangiku shriek as she swung a large stick at one of them, but that wasn't the reason she'd yelled. He turned just in time to see one of their attackers come up behind Ichigo while he was distracted by another and grab him around the waist before shunpoing away.

"Ichi!" Gin yelled in shock. He turned when one of his opponents grabbed him and punched the man in the mask, cracking it slightly. Unfortunately, in addition to hiding the person's identity, it seemed to be a helmet of sorts. Gin brought his hand back shaking in pain.

"We're done here," one of the men muttered. Gin opened his eyes with fury and ran at one man who had his back turned to him. He jumped on him and dragged him to the ground before pushing the mask off and repeatedly shoving the person's head into the dirt. Of course, it wasn't long before he was grabbed and thrown off his victim, then repeatedly kicked in the stomach for his actions. He picked himself up just as the last of the figures disappeared using shunpo, leaving Gin and Rangiku alone and beaten.

The strawberry blond ran towards him and bent down to help him up. "Are you okay?" she asked worriedly. She started checking him over for cuts and bruises, but he pushed her away.

"We gotta find Ichi," he told her urgently. He began staggering towards the forest, determined to find his friend. Those guys had been a lot stronger than the thugs they were used to beating up. These men had been specially trained, but what really worried him was Ichigo. He shouldn't have let him out of his sights, and he especially shouldn't have let him fight by himself. Of course, he'd made that decision before he'd realized the men they were fighting were a lot stronger than he'd expected. A mistake he wasn't going to make again.

"Gin, wait!" Rangiku yelled behind him. He hadn't even realized he'd been moving so quickly until he saw her trying to catch up. "Whew, finally. It's hard for a girl to run in this dark forest," she muttered, and he gave her a small smile before grabbing her hand and pulling her along.

He ignored her continued protests about how quickly they were moving and how she kept tripping in the darkness. He needed to find Ichigo. Already, he feared that they wouldn't be able to catch up…

"Oh my god!" Rangiku yelled in shock, yanking her hand free to cover her mouth. Gin opened his eyes and his grin fell away in horror at the sight before them.

The trees parted into a grassy field that was illuminated by the moonlight above, and lying face down in a puddle of blood was the person they were trying to find. Gin was the first to move forward, rushing to his friend's side. His heart raced at the thought of Ichigo being dead. There was nothing in the world that scared him more than that horrid thought, and when he turned the boy over he thought it might have come true.

Ichigo's shirt was drenched in blood and badly torn. His eyes were closed and his face was smudged with dirt, a trail of blood dripping down his chin. He would have believed his friend was dead if it wasn't for the slow rise and fall of his chest.

"Is he...?" Rangiku asked, bending down next to him and pushing bloody orange hair out of Ichigo's face.

"He's alive. My Ichi's a fighter," Gin replied quietly, and began inspecting his friend's body for the wounds that were leaking so much blood. He checked his arms first and found a lot of dirt and a bruise on the right arm, but no open wounds. He then reached down and pulled away the orange haired boy's shirt where the majority of the blood clung. To his surprise he found no wound, not even the smallest scratch.

Ichigo suddenly began coughing, bloody saliva spraying out of his mouth and making Rangiku draw back. Gin grinned down at his friend, relieved that he was alive and seemed to be waking up. Maybe now they could get an explanation as to what had happened. And who those men were, he thought bitterly. He swore that if he ever laid eyes on them again, they would meet the most painful death he could conceive for touching his Ichigo!

"Gin?" Ichigo croaked. He opened his eyes and looked up, surprised to find Gin holding him.

"Ya alright, Ichi-chan?" Gin asked him, bringing the other boy closer to his chest protectively.

"Yeah, I think so," Ichigo whispered. He looked down at the large amount of blood covering him and almost jumped out of Gin's arms. "What happened?" he yelled, and would have backed away if Gin hadn't refused to let go.

"We were hoping you could tell us that. What happened after they took you?" Rangiku asked softly, moving closer to them. She let out a sigh of relief, happy to see that Ichigo was going to be alright. She couldn't help but smile at the two boys. She knew how protective Gin was and how much he cared for the other boy. Ichigo was all Gin talked about when his friend wasn't around. She knew that if something had happened to Ichigo, Gin would have been lost.

"I remember one of them grabbing me, and then … everything turned black for a minute. After that I remember being in pain, but I couldn't see what happened," Ichigo whispered, and looked down again at the blood on his shirt. Why had he been in pain? Had he been stabbed or what? It didn't make sense.

"I'm glad ya 're alright, Ichi-chan," Gin whispered before kissing Ichigo on the cheek, making the orange haired boy blush.

"Aw you're right, he is cute when he blushes," Rangiku chuckled, and received a scowl for the comment. Only Gin would find enjoyment in something embarrassing to him and share it with everyone!

Miles away, the seven black figures landed outside the thirtieth district of Rukongai and bowed down on their knees before a man in shinigami robes. He wore a confident smirk as he looked down at them through his glasses and ran a hand through his unkempt brown hair.

"We have completed our mission," one of the men spoke. He kept his eyes to the ground, knowing he could be punished for any sign of disrespect.

"Excellent, and the boy?" the shinigami asked with a smirk.

"We healed him afterward as you requested. He will live," the figure answered. The shinigami waved his hand and allowed them to stand up before throwing a pouch of coins down for them to take. He watched as they grabbed their payment and took off into the night, never knowing the purpose of the mission they'd just completed.

It was a small fee for what he'd needed them to do. He couldn't leave his division due to how closely he was being watched by his captain. This was one of the rare times he could attend to his business unnoticed since the blond loon was out on a mission. Now was the perfect time to strike and claim the one he'd been after for so many years. Finally, the boy had let his guard down and could be caught.

Now all Sosuke Aizen had to do was wait until the boy was discovered and entered the academy to become a shinigami. Then, the boy would be his.

Sorry this took so long, I've been trying to finish all my other stories before getting to my longer fics so I can update them more. I'll try to update this again soon (or at least before the end of the month!)

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