"I'm not wearing this."
Halibel stuck her head out of the bathroom to see what her roommate was bitching about now and found him standing in front of the bedroom mirror growling at a black strip of fabric in his hand. She watched the redhead discard the tie over his shoulder and reach a hand up towards his short but neatly-combed hair, raking his fingers through and re-organizing it into the wild and spiky mess that he generally preferred. He reached up to begin removing his white button-up shirt next but stopped when he noticed Tia giving him an icy death glare that would have given even the stoic Ulquiorra pause had he been present.
"It's not open for debate," Tia growled. "Leave the shirt alone and put that tie on."
Three months had come and gone since Halloween, bringing the end of fall and placing them in winter's icy grasp once more. Outside their apartment, a cold February wind blew through the streets and brought a frown to Tyn's face, a frown that was almost accompanied by a complaint but that died on his lips under another glare from Tia. The quinto sighed in defeat and picked the black tie back up and resumed his attempts to tie it without choking himself as Halibel retreated back to the bathroom to finish up.
"Goddamn stupid human rituals…" she heard Tyn hiss from the other room.
Three months had come and gone, marking the end of the Espada's second year of living in Karakura Town and the beginning of the third. Three months had brought with it Tia's second Christmas in the human world, an event which had mercifully been infinitely better and more meaningful than the first. Three months had brought a second encounter with the human holiday of Valentine's Day to them as well and while the concept was still an irritation they could have done without, the tips earned at the bar had made it all worthwhile and this coming summer would finally give them their long-awaited vacation in Hawaii.
If she didn't strangle him before then, of course.
"Tell me again why we have to go through with this?" asked Tyn as he appeared in the bathroom doorway, his tie a mangled mess.
"Because it's expected of us," said Tia, annoyed to be explaining it again. "Weddings are a human tradition and if we want to appear to be normal—"
"I hate that word," scowled Tyn, settling in beside her at the sink and reaching for his comb.
"And you think I don't?" asked Halibel. "Leave your hair… I'll give you that much, at least. We need to hurry up, though; I don't want to be late."
"Can't you just do this without me?" asked Tyn and Tia's answer was to smack his skull with her own comb.
The raptor fell mercifully silent and went back to fighting with his tie again as Halibel finished combing her hair and exited the bathroom in favor of the bedroom and its full-length body mirror, checking her off-white dress to make sure everything was perfect. She was satisfied with her own appearance, but the mirror's reflection showed her that the jacket to Tyn's suit was lying in a messy heap in the middle of the bed instead of hanging neatly and there was no time to try and press it out once more.
Tyn may have improved a lot in the past year but he was still an idiot.
"Hurry up!" urged Tia impatiently. At her call, Tyn came stomping back into the bedroom with the tie clenched between his teeth savagely as if he were trying to bite the offending object in half. He spit the mangled-looking black tie out on the bed and growled, folding his arms over his chest defiantly.
"That's it, I'm not fighting with that god-forsaken noose anymore," he said. "No one's gonna notice or care if I don't wear a tie."
"I'll notice and I care," countered Tia, picking the ravaged tie up and trying her best to straighten it out. "I won't have you embarrassing me in front of everyone."
"We don't have to do this, you know," Tyn said as Tia placed the black tie around his neck and began to fix it for him.
"We've been over this a hundred times already; yes, we do."
"No, we don't," Tyn countered. "You have to because it's your stupid friend, not mine."
"Kishi's invitation was for both of us, moron," said Tia as she finished tying the black strip of fabric neatly, resisting the urge to choke Tyn with it for arguing with her again.
"The world won't end if we skip this stupid wedding," Tyn reasoned as Halibel handed him the slightly-wrinkled jacket to put on. "And she'll probably forgive you for missing it, just like Nel did."
"We only missed Nel's wedding because it was in the Soul Society and virtually all of the shinigami there sans her husband and Ichigo would have tried to kill us on sight," Tia reminded him as Tyn slid the jacket on. "Besides, it's just for a few short hours; you'll survive."
"The things I do for you, woman…"
The great thing about Saturdays was supposed to be a person's god-given right to sleep in late, provided that they didn't have to go to work. It was supposed to be a day of fun and relaxation to do whatever a person felt like, with no particular schedule to adhere to. It was illegal for alarm clocks to be active on Saturdays, or at least it should have been illegal.
A pair of blue eyes snapped open at the incessant buzzing emanating from the clock on the nightstand, a vein visibly throbbing in his forehead as Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez reached over and fumbled for the off switch. With a flick of his thumb the switch went to the off position and the noise came to an end and the sexta gave a sleepy smile as he turned over and attempted to go back to sleep. His irritation had begun to subside and his breathing was becoming slow and even as his eyelids grew heavier…and then the clock began buzzing again.
He roared loudly as he flipped back over and sat up, snatching the clock up angrily and hurling it at the far wall with all the strength his gigai could muster. The cheap plastic device exploded against the wall, tiny shards of black plastic, circuitry, and batteries flying about as Grimmjow laid back down and stared at the ceiling, seething.
But the clock was gone now and there was nothing to keep him from sleeping in as he closed his eyes and…
His eyes snapped back open to find the white-furred form of Lord Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez the Second, Esquire, sitting beside his head and peering down at him.
"Not you too, Junior…" groaned the arrancar, pulling his pillow out from under his head and holding it over his face.
"Go away," came Grimmjow's muffled voice.
"Meow!" was the reply he received, only the tone didn't match 'Junior' and came from the direction of the nightstand. Grimmjow lifted the pillow off his face and turned his head, only to see that damnedable black cat sitting on the nightstand, peering at him curiously.
"You again?" he roared as he sat up. "How the fuck did you get in here this time, you little furball?"
The cat's answer was to stick its tongue out at him and the infuriated Espada lost the last of his patience as he flung himself out of the bed, reaching towards the creature with every intent of catching it and chucking it out the window as hard as he could. He didn't mind feeding the neighborhood strays but his patience was limited, especially considering that the black cat had somehow managed to infiltrate the apartment numerous times in the past three months.
The cat, of course, deftly managed to dodge the attack as Grimmjow went crashing to the floor, knocking over the nightstand and the lamp as he went. He picked himself up quickly and whirled around, looking for the offending cat and saw only Junior still sitting on the bed looking thoroughly confused. The windows were locked tight and the bedroom door was shut so the black cat had to be in the room somewhere but his search turned up nothing, leaving a tired and frustrated Grimmjow to collapse face-down on his bed and wonder if he was finally going crazy.
Sure, the others had accused him of being insane for years and that had never bothered him, but the concept of going crazy in the delusional sense was another matter and to make things worse, this wasn't the first time he'd been awakened by a black cat that seemed to appear and disappear at will.
"I'm not going to get back to sleep now…" he growled as he picked himself back up and wandered over to the closet, reaching in and pulling out a clean change of clothes and slung them over his shoulder. Still grumbling curses under his breath, Grimmjow made his way over to the bedroom door and yanked it open violently as he made his way to the bathroom for a shower.
He turned on the small heater and turned on the shower to near-scalding as he stripped down and stepped inside the tub, pulling the curtains closed behind him and hoping the hot water would help him relax before the urge to kill something became too great to ignore.
And then he thought he heard the bathroom door opening…
But that should be impossible; there was no one in the apartment save for him and Junior and the small housecat certainly couldn't open doors—
"You're not going to use all the hot water, are you?" asked a voice and Grimmjow groaned as he began to smack his forehead against the tiled wall repeatedly.
Yoruichi Shihōin had broken into his home. Again.
"Why won't you leave me alone, woman?" asked Grimmjow over the sound of the water. "Do you want me to kill you?"
"Why are you always so hostile?" asked the ex-captain on the other side of the curtain. "And here I thought we were friends…"
"You keep breaking into my apartment!" exclaimed Grimmjow. "That doesn't make us friends! That makes you an insane nudist!"
"And how do you know I'm nude today? You haven't even peeked out here to check."
Against his better judgment, Grimmjow pulled the shower curtain back just enough to poke his head out and take a peek. To his surprise, the bizarre woman wasn't nude for once…though she had apparently decided to borrow his hockey jersey and sweat pants again without asking.
"What are you doing wearing my clothes?" seethed the sexta, fumbling around behind the curtain for something, anything to throw at the woman.
"You didn't really think I'd be wandering around in the buff in this cold, did you?"
"Then wear your own damn clothes!" hissed Grimmjow as his hand finally found a half-empty bottle of shampoo that he flung at the former shinigami. To his chagrin, Yoruichi easily plucked it out of the air long before it impacted with her head and she held the transparent bottle up appraisingly, checking the brand and ingredients of the greenish goop inside.
"Not my usual brand, but it will do…" she said casually. "And I'm wearing your clothes because I like them…especially this shirt with the cute little cat on it."
"How many times do I have to tell you, it's a jersey, woman!" roared Grimmjow as he snatched the curtain back and put a leg up on the edge of the tub, shaking an angry fist at her as he tensed up and prepared to launch himself at the unwelcome intruder. "And that 'little cat' is a mighty panther, just like me!"
"Mighty panthers don't do so well in the cold, I see…" mused Yoruichi with a mischievous grin as she looked at Grimmjow, unfazed by his outburst. Realizing what she was staring at, the embarrassed Espada stepped back into the tub and yanked the curtain shut once more, growling angrily.
"Why won't you leave me alone?" asked a defeated Grimmjow from behind the curtain. "What the fuck have I done to deserve this?"
"It would take a week to list everything and I thought you wanted me to leave…" the dark-skinned woman shot back.
"I hate you," hissed the Panther Lord as he heard the curtain rattle from behind.
"Don't be like that," admonished the now-nude Yoruichi as she stepped into the shower with him, shampoo bottle still in hand. "You're never going to make any friends with that attitude and—"
"What the hell are you doing, woman!" screeched Grimmjow, backing up against the tiled wall in shock, eyes wide as he took in the sight of her curves. "At least wait your own goddamned turn!"
"You're taking too long and using up all the hot water," shrugged Yoruichi, pushing him out of the way as she stepped under the showerhead. "And keep your hands to yourself unless you want to sing soprano for the rest of your very short life."
"And you Soul Reapers think I'm evil…" muttered Grimmjow as he pulled the curtain back and stepped out of the tub, snatching his towel off the rack and beginning to dry himself off.
"It's not that bad, Grimmjow…" Yoruichi said soothingly. "As a reward for being almost-nice, I'll let you take me out to lunch today!"
The sound of Grimmjow's forehead banging against the bathroom door repeatedly was his only response.
Ask a hundred people to describe what they consider to be fun and one was likely to get a hundred different answers. Fun was subjective, unique to each individual on the planet and with a fresh blanket of snow enveloping the earth outside, Orihime Inoue had a hundred different ideas of her own that she would have considered fun.
This was not one of them.
She smiled regardless as she cast a sideways glance at the silent Espada who stood beside her, diligently reading the information on the little plaque before him. Ulquiorra Cifer, it seemed, would define fun as the pursuit of more knowledge rather than building a snowman like Orihime would have preferred.
The teen couldn't complain, she supposed; for the entire time that Ulquiorra had been living with her, not once had the cuarto declared that there was something he wanted to do, something that interested him. He'd always dutifully followed Orihime's lead when it came to choosing activities, regardless of his personal thoughts on the matter.
It had taken two years of living in Karakura for Ulquiorra to finally announce that there was something he wanted to do and Orihime wouldn't deny him that for anything.
Still, the Karakura Museum of History wouldn't have been her first choice.
The recently-expanded and renovated museum had reopened to the public just a week earlier and Ulquiorra had surprised the teen by stating simply that he wanted to see the new exhibits.
Ulquiorra actually wanting to do something… Orihime considered that to be a miracle of sorts, even if she wasn't particularly enthused with his choice.
The two were currently browsing through the exhibits on the two world wars, idling making their way past relics and photographs from the first world war up to the second. Of all the exhibits in the museum, it was the war-related ones that troubled Orihime the most; hadn't there been enough fighting in the world? Not only that, but the memories of the Winter War and the struggle against Aizen were still fresh in her mind and anything pertaining to war served only to keep them vibrant and alive.
"You are uncomfortable here," commented the Espada gently.
"I'm fine, really," Orihime lied, offering him the brightest smile she could manage.
"You need not lie; you may go on ahead to the Natural History wing if you wish and I shall be there shortly."
"I'm not leaving," huffed Orihime, slightly upset that he would even suggest that she abandon his side. "I'm fine."
"I apologize if I offended you," offered Ulquiorra as he paused in front of a wall of black and white photographs from the war, taking them in carefully.
"It's okay…" Orihime sighed. "I just want to be here with you. I mean, this is the first time you've wanted to do something and I want to be supportive."
"But…" prompted Ulquiorra, never taking his eyes off the photographs.
"But war upsets me…" admitted Orihime reluctantly. "And these awful pictures don't help. Look at some of these! How could any one person do this to another?"
"Different reasons for different people: some truly believed in their cause, some were swept up by the violence around them, some lost their mind, and some were genuinely evil. I was simply following orders, though that is hardly an excuse," said Ulquiorra softly.
"I'm talking about the second world war, Ulquiorra, not the war with Aizen," said Orihime, not wanting her companion to reflect on his own sins from the Winter War. Ulquiorra didn't acknowledge her as he continued to scan the photographs however, prompting Orihime to sigh. She looked back at the pictures on the wall herself, noting the faces more than anything: people celebrating victories, people mourning the fallen, people in pain and suffering, people who looked…familiar.
Orihime frowned, focusing on one picture in particular. A group of dirt-covered, malnourished, and barely-clothed prisoners stood in shackles inside a concentration camp, their eyes empty and dead from the horrors they had already witnessed and the knowledge that their own deaths were coming soon. One of the obviously-mistreated prisoners was a fairly tall young woman in her early twenties, with long flowing hair and an eerily-familiar face.
The lack of color in the picture threw her off momentarily but it only took a few seconds for the image to click together with a much more recent memory of the exact same woman.
"Oh my God…" breathed Orihime as she reached out and touched the picture. "Ulqui, look…"
"What have you found?" asked the pale arrancar, taking a step closer to her and peering at the photograph.
"It's…Nel," said Orihime, her eyes welling up with tears of sympathy for the woman. "Look at it…it's her, I know it is! Ulqui, that's a death camp!"
Orihime saw his eyes widen by a tiny fraction, a change in his expression so miniscule that only the people who truly knew Ulquiorra would have ever recognized it. Orihime had hoped that her companion would be able to point out that she was mistaken, that somehow it wasn't really Nel…but the face and hair were unmistakable and Ulquiorra didn't dare correct her.
The mere thought of kind and gentle Nel spending her last mortal days in such a nightmarish hell…it was heartbreaking to Orihime and she grasped Ulquiorra's hand tightly for support. How could anyone be so beastly as to put another human being through that? It didn't make sense! It wasn't fair!
"Such places would have bred many hollows…" observed Ulquiorra quietly, squeezing her hand gently. "No doubt that when Neliel perished there, she failed to cross over to the Soul Society and her sorrow and despair at being trapped in the camp would have destroyed her human heart."
"Ulqui, maybe we should tell her… She has a right to know what happened…to know how she died."
"She has suffered enough," said Ulquiorra firmly. "Urahara was correct when he told us that Neliel was better off not knowing her past and I do not wish to disrupt that. We saw nothing."
"You're not as emotionless as you let on; you really do care about your friends, don't you?" asked Orihime, wiping a tear away as she hugged him tightly. The Espada didn't answer as he instead led Orihime away from the wall of photographs and ventured deeper into the museum, but she knew the answer anyway.
Ulquiorra finally understood what it meant to have a heart.
Halibel stood in a small cluster of women at the wedding reception, scowling as she considered that Tyn may have had a point about the two of them skipping the wedding.
The notion of nuptials was a foolish one to begin with, but mixing the ceremonies and traditions of two different cultures had turned an already-stupid idea into a mind-numbing Hell that the tercera swore she would never willingly endure again. The logic of trying to appease both Kishi's family and her would-be husband's American family was lost on the Espada, leaving her to wonder why any of it was necessary at all.
The excruciatingly-long walk down the aisle had been overstuffed with pageantry and the vows the two lovers had made had been so sickeningly-sweet that Tia had begun to feel physically ill. Tyn, of course, had fallen asleep in his seat, head lolled to the side as he dozed. Halibel hadn't bothered to wake him until the end of the ceremony as everyone began to move to the hall for the reception, a reception that began with the traditional sake ceremony between the bride and groom.
She'd been embarrassed beyond words when Tyn had called out that he preferred beer mid-ceremony.
A few of the guests had chuckled at the outburst, as had the bride and groom themselves, but the bulk of the guests had given the two arrancar dirty looks that should have silenced anyone.
Anyone except Tyn, who had seen fit to defend his position and finish his rant by asking where they were hiding the "good stuff." While she readily agreed with his preferences, this was hardly the time or place to voice them and Tia had been forced to spend the rest of the ceremony with her hand cupped over his mouth to keep him under control, her face flushing red with embarrassment the entire time.
And now, Tia found herself stuck in the middle of a group of single women who were anxiously awaiting the bride's bouquet toss.
Another pointless tradition, this one done more for the appeasement of the husband's family than anything else; Halibel wanted nothing to do with it for herself, but her conscience would hardly allow her to refuse the bride's urging of "go on, it'll be fun!"
Superstition seemed to dictate that whichever woman caught the bouquet would be the next to wed and that alone was enough to make Tia decide that she would simply stand there and let the other women scramble to catch the brightly-colored flying flowers.
Or at least that had been the plan…but as she watched the other women mindlessly scramble over each other in an effort to catch it, Tia had begun to scowl and move on her own accord, never realizing her mistake until it was too late. The other women were so desperate to catch the bouquet that they perceived everything as happening quickly but to Tia's well-honed senses, time had slowed to an agonizing crawl; as the bouquet sailed through the air, gracefully tumbling end over end in a slow arc, she couldn't understand why the others couldn't see how easy it would be to simply reach up and casually pluck it from the air…
The other women all cheered Halibel's catch, each oblivious to the look of horror that crossed the Espada's face as she realized what she had unconsciously done.
Tia dropped the bouquet as if the offending object had burned her, desperately hoping that it would somehow void the catch and spare her any unwanted attention, but it was too late as Kishiko rushed forward to hug her friend, excitedly babbling about how she couldn't wait to attend Halibel's wedding.
The Espada forced a smile, wishing all the while that she had listened to Tyn and simply stayed home.
Off to the side of the room, Tyn snorted at his roommate's mistake, chuckling to himself as he wandered over to the snack table and began to fix himself a plate of food, making sure to avoid the numerous disgusting sweets that seemed to be everywhere. The single males all began to gather around for the ceremonial garter toss and Tyn refused to be a part of it; he would not repeat Tia's mistake for anything. One of the others had come over and tried to pull him into the group but a deep, threatening growl from the quinto had driven the human away.
"Stupid humans…" grumbled Tyn as he turned his back to it all and began poking at what he hoped was ham. God, even the meats smelled as if they were saturated in sugar!
He heard the 'snap' of the garter's elastic as it was launched into the air but he didn't care enough to turn around and see who caught it; all he wanted was for this entire mess to be over with so he could go home and enjoy the rest of his weekend away from stupid human rituals and traditions.
And then the frilly little garter came down and landed in the middle of his plate.
The only thing louder than the cheers of the other guests was the explosion of profanity coming from the lucky winner himself.
Winter in the Soul Society were generally much warmer and more pleasant than winter in the world of the living and this year, the only hint that it even was winter was the cool breeze now blowing through the winding streets and alleyways of the Seireitei. It felt more like early fall to the shinigami who lived there, save for the many trees that were now completely barren and awaiting the return of spring.
Neliel stood on the roof of one of the many small supply sheds that sat on the perimeter of the Division 13 training grounds, savoring the feel of the cool breeze as it rustled through her long hair and sent the ends of the green sash tied at her waist fluttering about. The fresh air made her task today infinitely more tolerable as down below, some three dozen shinigami were diligently practicing their kidō as she observed, a clipboard in her slender hands as she carefully monitored the young Soul Reaper leading the exercises.
Normally the task of leading the squad through kidō practice fell to Fifth-Seat Rukia Kuchiki, but the past week had seen a revolving cast of young would-be officers filling that role, as well as similar roles in sword arts, hand-to-hand, and physical conditioning. It was all outside the norm of how the squad usually functioned, but there was a good reason for the current state of affairs.
Two junior officer positions had recently become available in the squad and the list of candidates who met the requirements to even be an officer spots had been reduced to five individuals, one of whom was now leading the kidō exercises. All week long, both Neliel and her captain had been giving the five potential officers more and more responsibilities, gauging how well they handled their assigned tasks by quieting standing off to the side and observing their methodologies and attitudes.
Down below, one of the new recruits bungled a spell by reciting the incantation wrong, a simple mistake that made the ball of energy in his palm flicker and fizzle out like the dying flame of an old candle. A typical rookie mistake was all it was, one that Nel had already observed countless times since accepting the position of Lieutenant, but the acting-instructor leading the exercises began shouting at the younger soul reaper, berating the kid and asking if he was mentally incompetent.
Nel scowled and prepared to come down to intervene just as the belligerent instructor remembered that he was under observation. He cast a quick glance up at the lieutenant and gave a nervous, guilty grin as he softened his tone and apologized to the recruit before gently reminding him of the proper incantation.
But the damage had already been done and Neliel scribbled down the incident on her clipboard and marked the shinigami's name off the list of officer hopefuls; that kind of bullying might be tolerated in some of the other divisions, but Neliel swore that so long as she was a lieutenant it would never be acceptable in her squad.
When she looked up from her clipboard she noticed that the group had all paused in their training to look up at her expectantly; despite the best efforts of her and her captain to keep the evaluations a secret, word had gotten out about the open officer positions and the squad had already managed to figure out the short list of candidates among themselves.
Neliel shook her head at the Soul Reapers down below, wordlessly conveying her disappointment in the instructor and essentially confirming that he was no longer in in the running for a seated position. She saw a handful of the newer recruits exhale a sigh of relief, including the young recruit that had just been humiliated in front of his peers.
With a wave of her hand, the lieutenant dismissed the group to go take their lunch break as she turned and hopped down from the roof to go confer with Captain Ushii about the new development; she knew that Anrak wouldn't question her decision but he would want to know the details behind it as soon as possible.
She wasn't surprised to find the former-candidate waiting for her when she landed.
"Lieutenant, let me explain!" he pleaded as he fell into step behind her, but Nel only shook her head again as she continued walking towards the office, leaving the large dirt ring that composed the outdoor training area for the covered wooden walkways leading deeper into the heart of Division 13.
"There's nothing to explain; you humiliated and insulted one of your fellow squad mates for making a mistake. I won't tolerate that in my squad, especially from a seated officer," said Neliel firmly.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant! I know I screwed up but I can do better!" he continued to beg. "If you'll just give me another chance—"
"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to…" Nel pointed out gently, pausing under an uncovered section of the walkway as she turned to face him. "Look, there's always next time. Work on your patience with your juniors and wait for that day; when you learn to be a role model instead of a bully, you'll make officer."
"Yes, Ma'am," sighed the younger shinigami in defeat, slumping his shoulders. "I'll apologize to him at lunch and work on my self-control."
Nel favored him with a gentle smile and a nod as he excused himself and she returned to her clipboard, mulling over which of the four remaining candidates she wanted to have take over the kidō group after lunch.
"Your squad?" asked a voice from above, startling the ex-Espada and making her jump backwards with a surprised yelp as she dropped her clipboard. She looked up and found Anrak perched on the roof in a low crouch, idly resting his forearms on his knees as he looked down at her. "And here I thought it was our squad…well, mine actually, if you really want to be technical about it."
"You know what I mean," said the lieutenant, giving a wry smile at the playful tone of her captain.
"Hai, love, I do; I'm just teasing. I'm glad to see you finally becoming more authoritative with the squad."
"Well, I don't like bullies…" explained Neliel as she stooped down to retrieve the clipboard she'd dropped. "I don't want that kind of behavior in my…our unit."
"No arguments here; I'd like to spare these kids from the same kind of experiences I had to deal with. I think you handled the situation nicely."
"Speaking of the situation, have you been spying on me this whole time?" asked Neliel suspiciously.
"Not intentionally…" said Anrak as he hopped down to join her, the sleeveless white haori fluttering out behind him. "I was just on my way back from Squad 8… I wanted to talk to Shunsui about the joint-squad exercises in a couple of weeks, but apparently he has the day off and no one seems to know where he's hiding. I thought I'd drop by and see how your group was doing on the way back to the office."
"Captain Kyōraku not working? Why, I'm positively shocked," said Nel, putting a hand to her chest in mock surprise.
"Your flair for sarcasm is improving, I see…" observed Anrak with a smirk.
"I blame you," said Neliel with a smile, leaning against him heavily.
"I blame Rangiku and my crazy sister," said the captain, kissing her lightly as he slipped an arm around her slender waist.
"Hey, they've taught me a lot since I've been here!"
"That's what scares me," shuddered Anrak.
"Ha ha," Nel said, sticking out her tongue as she handed the clipboard to the captain for his approval. "I've got a sheet for each of our candidates there but I'm going to go put his back into the file and remove his name from the list."
"Good call… Very detailed notes for everyone," nodded Anrak approvingly as he flipped through the pages before pausing on the last sheet. "I see you're keeping the other list with you, too."
"Well…" Neliel began, blushing as she put a hand over her slender belly. "I know it hasn't happened yet, but it's never too early for us to start planning ahead, is it?"
"No, I guess not. But…"
"We really need to come up with some better names."
This wasn't how he'd wanted to spend his Saturday.
Coyote Starrk paced back and forth in the living room of his apartment, alternating between running his fingers through his long hair, scratching the back of his head, talking to himself, and then rubbing his face in frustration. He was not accustomed to dealing with stress and making big decisions and the weight of it all was crushing the mighty primera, slowly driving him mad.
He stole a glance over at the phone, debating on if he should call one of the others for advice. He knew that Ulquiorra would offer the most wisdom but he was concerned that the other man would only speak from a purely logical point of view. Tyn would try and help, but that raptor didn't always stop to consider the consequences of his actions, so asking him would be a mistake. Halibel might be able to offer some sound advice assuming she was in a decent mood…
"Or I could always call Grimmjow and ask his opinion…" muttered Starrk to himself before giving a short laugh at the absurdity of the notion.
He'd already tried to talk to Lilynette about the situation, but his younger-half had simply shrugged and said "it's your call" before excusing herself from the apartment to go hang out with Karin.
Starrk sighed and flopped down on the couch, giving the phone another hard look as he considered calling Keiko again. They'd originally planned to have dinner tonight, but a conversation the two had went through earlier in the week had come back to haunt Starrk, prompting him to call and cancel their date, stating that he didn't feel well. He hated to lie to the woman but he needed time to think, time to reach a decision.
"Should I tell her everything or not?" mumbled Starrk, leaning back on the couch and staring at the white ceiling.
Things had been going very well with Keiko over the past several months, better than Starrk could have ever anticipated. Hell, he'd even go as far as to say that he loved her…and therein lay the problem.
The apartment was big enough for Keiko to move in and her own lease would be up soon if she didn't renew the contract and while Starrk knew she had been joking about moving in together during their conversation, it actually sounded like an appealing idea to him.
The problem, though, was that Keiko didn't know the truth. She didn't know who he really was. She didn't know what he really was.
If he invited her to move in, he'd have to tell her for the sake of being honest. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of her trust and would make things increasingly difficult and uncomfortable if she should ever find out on her own somehow.
Lilynette should have been here to discuss this with him since it concerned her as well, but the younger arrancar had grown fond of Keiko and didn't mind the concept of her moving in and neither did she care about being honest about their "condition" or not.
"I hope she cooks better than you do! Your food sucks, Starrk!" had been the most input the elder Espada had managed to get from the girl.
Starrk rubbed his face again repeating the question once more, "Should I tell her or not?"
His answer came in the form of someone knocking at the door.
He lifted his hands from his face and turned to face the sound, cocking his head slightly at the timing of the knock as the sound repeated itself. He sighed again, positive that it was Keiko coming to check on him. Starrk didn't want to have to explain to her that he wasn't really sick or that he'd cancelled their date in order to have some time to think, lest that arouse her suspicions.
Of course, he couldn't just ignore the knocking at the door, either.
Starrk pushed himself up from the couch and made his way over to the door, undoing the lock and swinging it open, but the visitor on the other side was most certainly not Keiko.
"You…" breathed Starrk, instinctively taking a step backwards and desperately wishing he hadn't left his soul candy on his nightstand.
"What, did you forget my name already? That hurts, Starrk," said the other man with a lazy drawl.
"Shunsui Kyōraku, captain of Squad 8…" said Starrk numbly. "Why are you… How did you…"
"Ah, so you do remember me! I feel better now," said the shinigami, inviting himself in as Starrk continued to back up. Shunsui closed the door behind him and sat the sack he was carrying down on the floor before ambling around the apartment, inspecting it thoughtfully. "Nice place you've got for yourself… Not bad for a guy that's supposed to be dead."
Starrk kept his eyes locked on the soul reaper as he inched his way towards the bedroom and his soul candy, but the captain was nobody's fool and moved to intercept, standing between Starrk and the bedroom door.
"You could at least say 'hello,' you know," said Shunsui, giving one of his disarming smiles. Starrk stared at him hard and it took a moment for the Espada to realize that the other man was in a gigai and thusly unarmed. Shunsui's loose-fitting blue jeans, dark green long-sleeved shirt and black winter coat were a definite contrast to the black shihakushō, white captain's haori, and pink haori he'd been wearing last time they'd seen each other. The only thing about Shunsui's clothing that remained the same was a ridiculous-looking straw hat that looked nearly identical to the one he wore as a soul reaper.
"Why are you here?" asked Starrk, relaxing slightly from the knowledge that the shinigami was currently in no position to do him any harm. "And how did you know?"
"What, can't a man drop in and say hi to an old friend?" asked Shunsui, sounding almost offended by the first question.
"You tried to kill me," Starrk reminded him curtly.
"It was war; I had to protect Karakura and the Soul Society," Shunsui said dismissively. "Besides, 'tried to kill' implies that I failed, and seeing that you are indeed alive and well…well, as alive as a spirit being can be anyway, I don't see what the problem is. Not like I ever had anything against you personally, but I think you're smart enough to know that."
"Explain how you found out about me, then?" Starrk countered. "How did you know I survived?"
"Because I'm not as clueless as people like to think…" said the captain, swiftly making his way back over to the door the retrieve the sack he'd sat down. "See, a few months after the war and your 'death,' I noticed Ichigo acting kind of strange, the kind of 'I know a secret'-strange. I didn't think too much about it at the time…until around last Christmas, when I observed the exact same sort of behavior surface in Lieutenant Odelschvank-"
"Nel, you mean."
-Lieutenant Nel, yes, and Captain Ushii. Around the same time, those two also threw a small Christmas party in the Squad 13 mess hall. While there, I saw that even Urahara was acting stranger than usual, such as excusing himself to take a phone call mid-party when pretty much everyone he knew was already there… All very odd behavior, you see?"
"So you went investigating…" Starrk concluded and Shunsui grinned as he shook his head.
"Not exactly…too much trouble to do it that way," he said, pulling a large jug of sake out from the sack. "Alcohol, on the other hand, is great for getting people to talk."
"And I'm willing to bet Nel can't handle her liquor."
"I started with Anrak first, but the problem there was that by the time he was drunk enough to start talking, I was too drunk to remember to ask him anything. Urahara was next, but he was a little too suspicious of me to share a few drinks," Shunsui explained conversationally, "I was going to try sweet Neliel next, but then I thought it might look a little inappropriate if I were to invite another man's wife out for a few drinks… I really didn't want to cause a misunderstanding and stir up any drama with my friends, so I chose another target."
"Kurosaki, you mean," Starrk concluded as Shunsui nodded, chuckling.
"Despite all of his strength, the kid's a lightweight," confirmed the captain. "It only took a few drinks before I was able to coax him into telling me everything, including a few things about his relationship with Rukia that I really didn't want to know about…kinda sad that after all he's accomplished, she's the one who wears the proverbial pants."
"So it's all over for us then…" sighed Starrk, ignoring the commentary on Kurosaki's love life. "Two years is our limit. What's the plan; you guys coming in force to capture us or are we to be killed on sight? Are you here to appeal to me to give up peacefully?"
"I didn't say that I told anyone else…" Shunsui said easily as he went into the kitchen and began perusing Starrk's cupboards for a couple of glasses to pour the sake into. "When I say that Ichigo told me everything, I mean everything, like how you and the others regretted working for Aizen and that you just wanted to live in peace now…hell, the fact you all made it all this long without causing any trouble says a lot. Old Man Yama and the others wouldn't share my viewpoint, so I'm going to keep it a secret…unless you and the others do anything to endanger the innocent here in the human world, of course."
"Of course…" said Starrk, watching as the other man filled the two glasses with sake.
"Lot to take in all at once, isn't it?" asked Kyōraku, handing the arrancar one of the glasses.
"Considering everything else going on, yes, yes it is," said Starrk, chugging the liquor down unceremoniously.
"Woman troubles, am I right?" asked Shunsui, downing his own glass. "I know that look."
"It's complicated," Starrk said. "I don't think you'd understand."
"You clearly don't know who you're talking to; I am the most desired man in the Seireitei! I know all about women, my friend, and I can help you be every bit as suave as I am."
"I must be drunk already; it sounded like you were claiming to be a ladies' man," snorted Starrk.
"Are you sure you're not evil anymore? That was very hurtful."
"It's not that I can't land a woman, Captain, it's—"
"Shunsui. Call me Shunsui," corrected the other man. "Come on, we're friends now, right?"
"Right… Look, I already have a girlfriend and I'm thinking about inviting her to move in with me and Lilynette."
"It's that blonde girl, isn't it?" said Shunsui with a grin. "She's a beauty, that one."
"It's not Halibel; my girlfriend is human," said Starrk.
"I see…" mused Shunsui, suddenly sounding more a bit more serious as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "And I'm guessing the problem is that she doesn't know you're really a heartless, soul-eating undead monster from a land of eternal darkness that once tried to destroy this town and everyone in it, right?"
"That's about the long and the short of it, yeah…" sighed Starrk, sitting down at the kitchen table and pouring himself another glass of sake.
"Well, don't worry; I'll help you figure this out," smiled Shunsui, patting Starrk on the back.
"Thanks," said Starrk honestly, finally managing a smile. "This dilemma is driving me nuts."
"Hey, what are friends for?" asked the shinigami. "Just one thing first…the blonde, is she—"
Halibel wasn't sure how much more she could take.
The wedding ceremony itself had been bad enough and the ridiculous traditions of the bouquet and garter toss had served only to make a bad day worse and now, now the other women were all gathered around in a little circle to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over each other's jewelry, particularly the new bride's wedding band and engagement ring.
Did the stupidity never end?
Tuning out the mindless prattle of the other women for a moment, Tia turned to see how Tyn was doing, hoping that he was managing to socialize with the other males without resorting to violence or death threats. All appeared to be well and try as she might, her sensitive ears couldn't hear anything stupid spewing forth from his mouth at this distance.
That was the good news.
The bad news was that he had made himself more comfortable, thus making the raptor stand out like an undignified cretin. He'd removed his suit jacket and tied it around his waist, having apparently also seen fit to untuck his white shirt, letting the tail hang loosely below the tied jacket instead of hiding it from sight. He'd rolled up his sleeves to the elbows and unbuttoned the top few buttons of the shirt, rolling the collar down to be more comfortable, something that had the added effect of showing off his gigai's new tattoo. The tie, of course, was nowhere to be seen.
God damn it.
Suppressing the urge to stalk across the room and smack the hell out of him, Tia turned back to the conversation about jewelry just as one of the other guests finished showing off her expensive-looking diamond necklace.
"We all wore our finest jewelry to look our best for Kishiko's wedding and you show up wearing a cheap trinket from the beach…" said the other woman, clucking her tongue in disapproval as she reached up to take hold of the white shark's tooth dangling from Tia's neck. "You could have at least wore some real jewelry instead of garbage."
"It's the most valuable piece of jewelry I own," Tia snarled, slapping the other woman's hand away defensively.
"Come on, girls, no fighting!" Kishi pleaded, stepping between them. "Leave Tia alone; that tooth has sentimental value for her! It was the first gift her boyfriend ever gave her!"
"Sentimental value? Ha!" scoffed the other woman. "It was a poor decision to wear something so tacky! All it does is show how little he cares for you and you wear it like it's important! My diamonds show how much my husband loves me!"
"So how much a man loves you is directly proportional to how much money he wastes on shiny trinkets? Disgusting."
"It shows that my husband would do anything for me!"
"Would he now?" asked Tia coldly. "Let me guess; you think he'd kill for you, don't you? Most women seem to be under the impression that their mate would shed blood for her."
"Of course he'd kill for me! If my life was in jeopardy—"
"Tyn would turn this chapel into a slaughterhouse for no other reason than to put a smile on my face," Halibel said darkly. "Now tell me, whose mate is more devoted: yours or mine?"
"Ladies, calm down!" pleaded Kishi. "Don't do this on my wedding day, please!"
"You're right…" said Halibel, exhaling slowly and trying to release her irritation. "I'm sorry, Kishi."
"I have my husband wrapped around my finger!" sneered the snobbish woman, ignoring the bride's pleas for peace. "Watch!"
She held up a hand and waved for her man to come over, but he dumbly smiled at her and waved back before going back to talking with the other guys.
"Very impressive…" said Tia dryly. "You sure have him tamed, don't you?"
"Likes yours would be any better!"
"Let's test that theory," said the Espada, holding up her hand and pushing her thumbnail into the flesh of her index finger. "Keep your eye on Tyn."
"Tia, what are you doing? Oh my god, you're bleeding!" said Kishi as the thumbnail pierced the gigai's flesh, allowing a couple of tiny drops of blood to appear.
"Watch," said Tia simply.
Across the room, Tyn's head shot up, nose held up in the air as he sniffed once before whirling to face the group of women.
"He can't seriously smell that, can he?" asked Kishiko in amazement as the redhead began to make a beeline for their little circle, roughly shoving people out of his way as he quickly cleared the distance.
"It's some kind of trick—" began the other woman, only to be silenced as Tyn forced his way into the circle of women and seized Tia's hand, inspecting it carefully.
"What happened?" asked Tyn softly before looking up from her hand at the circle of women, his eyes darkening as he fixed his gaze on the woman Tia had been arguing with moments earlier. A low growl began to rumble from his throat, forcing the other women to step back from the possibly insane man.
"I'm fine, Tyn," Tia assured him. "I did it, not them."
The growling stopped and his eyes softened again as his entire posture relaxed.
"Can we leave now?" he asked as he turned back to face the Shark Queen. "If I have to go back over there and listen to those brainless monkeys keep boasting about how macho they think they are, I swear I'll be forced to hurt someone."
"Savage…" Sachi muttered under her breath from her spot beside the argumentative woman.
"Actually, I was just thinking the exact same thing…" Halibel told the quinto before shooting an icy glare over at her co-worker and the argumentative hag from earlier. She then turned to face the bride one last time, a tinge of regret reflecting in her sea-green eyes. "I'm sorry for getting baited into an argument at your wedding, Kishi. I wasn't trying to ruin your day or upset you; I'm happy for you, you know."
"I know," smiled the other woman, hugging Tia tightly. "Thanks for coming, Tia; I know you think weddings are a waste of time and it really means a lot to me that you showed up."
"I think I'm going to be sick…" commented Tyn as Kishi released Halibel and turned towards him.
"And thank you for coming too, Tyn!"
"Please don't hug-" he began, but it was too late as the smaller woman wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. He stood there awkwardly, trapped in the bride's embrace and looking to Tia for guidance, only to have the blonde give him a smug smile as she drank in his obvious discomfort.
When Kishi finally released him, Tyn hurried for the door with Tia ambling behind him, smirking at his enthusiasm to get away from everyone. He retrieved their coats from the coat rack by the door, helping Halibel slide hers on and zipping it up for her before they exited the small church and headed for the car.
"Tyn…where's your tie?" asked Tia as she fished out her car keys.
"Tie? What tie?" he asked innocently.
"Don't play dumb; what did you do with it?" she pressed, but her companion remained silent and looked away nervously, a sure sign that he was guilty of something. "What did you do?"
"First let me say that it wasn't my fault…" he began.
"Oh, God…" groaned Tia as they reached the car.
"See, one of the other guys was talking about all the things he wanted to do to 'that smoking hot blonde' and I—"
"What did you do?" demanded the tercera.
"Relax; he'll be fine…mostly…when he wakes up…and someone finds him…and unties him."
"You're an animal," sighed Tia, shaking her head.
"But you love it," the raptor countered, grinning wickedly. And as much as she wanted to argue with him and tell Tyn that he was wrong…she couldn't. He was right and they both knew it, and all Tia could do was smile despite her best efforts not to.
"They grow up so fast, don't they?"
Kisuke looked off to his right at the other man standing there, watching his companion make a grand show of dabbing at his watery eyes in pride. The shopkeeper shook his head and turned back to watch the action out in the large training room before speaking.
"I still can't believe that you're okay with this," said the ex-captain. "You've always been so protective over the girls."
"Might as well let her; she wanted to do it and if she was told no…well, you know my kids, Kisuke."
"She is a lot more like her brother than she'd care to admit…" mused Urahara, adjusting the green-and-white striped hat he wore.
"Which is the other reason I said yes…" continued the other man, idly resting his left hand on the hilt of his zanpaktou. "You've noticed it, haven't you?"
"Her spiritual pressure has been getting stronger…yes, I noticed."
"Exactly. Hollows will be attracted by that and her brother can't always be here to protect her. I can't always be around, either, much as I might want to. It's better if she can take care of herself."
"I don't suppose I can question that logic…I just never thought I'd see this day come. Ichigo…I always knew he'd end up taking this path, even from the first moment you brought him over here as a baby, but I never thought Karin would as well," said Kisuke.
"Kids do the damnedest things…" mused Isshin Kurosaki with a smile as he watched his daughter spar with the young arrancar in the massive training area. "Besides, this helps both of them get stronger."
"…and yet, you still haven't told her about your past as a shinigami," said Kisuke accusingly, glancing back at the shinigami standing in the shadows, letting the darkness conceal his presence from his daughter.
"She'll figure it out eventually…or Ichigo will tell her…when he finds out what she's been up to these past couple of months."
"You do enjoy drama in your house, don't you?"
"Absolutely! Keeps life entertaining!" chuckled Isshin. "I knew you'd call me when she approached you about helping her become a shinigami and I knew you wouldn't tell her about me…but honestly, I thought she'd contact you a little earlier once she found out who Lilynette really was."
"And of course you've known all along that your daughter's best friend was an arrancar…"
"Hey, I'm not half as stupid as I let the kids think," said Isshin as the two children in question continued their sparring. "I don't really care what she is; she's a good kid and that's all that matters to me. Karin needs a friend like her and she needs Karin…especially if she's serious about being a shinigami some day."
Kisuke nodded, remembering how Lilynette had stated her desire to be a shinigami at the same time Karin had approached him for help in becoming a soul reaper like her older brother. Both girls had caught him off-guard and it was hard to decide which one had left him more stunned. He supposed he should have seen Lilynette's declaration coming, given how much the girl admired Neliel and the way the elder woman had been showing up every few weeks just to spar with her.
Karin's request, though… All the shopkeeper could assume there was that Lilynette had expressed her desire to become a shinigami to the other girl and Karin had wanted to have the power to help her friend get stronger. It was possible that she wanted to be a shinigami simply because she wanted to be like her brother or because she didn't want him to feel the need to protect her anymore, but the timing of the request hadn't felt right for that.
Most surprising had been how easily Isshin had given his consent for Karin to undergo the extreme methodology used to bring forth her latent shinigami powers, but having heard Kurosaki's reasoning now, he could understand it better. At least the girl could learn in a much more relaxed environment than Ichigo had, he supposed; Karin and Lilynette were the same size, comparative age, and fairly evenly matched as opposed to Ichigo's method of throwing himself headlong into life-and-death battles with far more experienced foes.
Of the two girls currently sparring, Karin was the faster, that much was glaringly obvious as the match continued, perhaps a side effect of playing soccer for so many years. Lilynette was stronger though, and her powerful swings were keeping Karin off-balance, but Kisuke wasn't terribly concerned with their differences as he watched them; the more time they spent competing with each other, the better and more balanced they would become. In time, Karin would grow used to the sheer power of Lilynette's attacks and Lilynette would likewise adjust to better match Karin's speed.
Urahara wondered for a moment if Starrk would be as proud of Lilynette as Isshin was of Karin before dismissing the foolish thought; he knew the primera well enough to know that yes, he would be proud of his younger half regardless of what she did. The only real question was if the young arrancar had even told Starrk what she was up to.
Knowing Lilynette, probably not.
"It should be a hoot when Ichigo finds out about Karin…" grinned Isshin mischievously, breaking the momentary silence. "The boy is always wound so tight about protecting everyone around him that this will blow his mind."
"I just wonder if he'll be angrier at me for helping her become a shinigami or you for allowing it…" said Kisuke. "Though I suppose either way, we'll both get an earful when he finds out."
"It's worth it, though…" said Isshin. "Karin is learning how to take care of herself now and that's important."
"I think it's just as important that she has a friend at her level to learn with," said Kisuke. "That's an important bond, one that will last a lifetime no matter how much they each change."
"Kind of like me and Ryūken, you mean…" grinned Isshin, referring to his own tenuous friendship with the Quincy-turned-doctor. "He can be such a bastard sometimes, but even after all these years he's still my friend…probably my best friend, even if he does claim to hate shinigami. I should drop by the hospital and see if he's working tonight, pay him a visit…"
"I'll keep watch over the kids…about time for a break anyway. I think Nel's coming by next week to work with Lilynette…she'll be surprised to see Karin here."
"Make sure she knows not to tell Ichigo and ruin the surprise," instructed the elder Kurosaki. "I want to see how long it takes him to figure out something's up."
"You're terrible, Isshin."
"Hey, it's called 'tough love!'"
"I'll try and remember that as I watch your son stomp you into the ground."
"You're terrible, Kisuke."
"You're both terrible!" declared the girls simultaneously, Karin delivering a jump kick to her father's chin as Lilynette mirrored the attack on Kisuke. Both men went stumbling backwards before falling on their rear ends, looking up at the two young teens in disbelief.
"How the hell are we supposed to concentrate if you two won't shut up?" demanded Lilynette.
"We weren't that loud…how did you know I was—" began Isshin, but Karin slammed a fist down on his head.
"What, you think I'm as dumb as Ichigo? Come on, dad!"
"I'm so proud of my baby girl! Do you know how long it took your brother to—"
"Can it!" said Karin, smacking him again. "You're not gonna sweet talk your way out of this!"
"Hey Karin, I think I just came up with an idea for these two bozos…" cackled Lilynette.
"Yeah?" asked Karin, her expression suggesting she knew full well what her friend was thinking.
"I think we just found some new sparring partners!" Lilynette grinned darkly as both girls drew their zanpaktou.
"Wait just a minute—" began Kisuke.
"LET'S GET 'EM!"
There was no justice in the world.
A thousand possible ways to spend the day, a thousand possible ways to enjoy himself, a thousand possible ways to spend his hard-earned money… All of that, and yet he ended up following Yoruichi around like an obedient puppy.
Grimmjow's right eye twitched as he trudged through the snow behind the ex-captain, dutifully carrying her bags for her, bags filled with goods purchased with his money.
It wasn't enough that she kept breaking into his apartment and pestering him on a routine basis anymore, or enough that he had allowed the woman to talk him into taking her out for lunch today, no, she just had to spend his money as well.
At least she had her own jersey now, leaving the Espada with some hope that she'd stop "borrowing" his.
"This is nice," Yoruichi commented, glancing back over her shoulder to make sure he was still following her. "Admit it, this is better than staying cooped up in your apartment alone all day like some sort of hermit."
"I hate you," Grimmjow replied bitterly.
"Maybe you do…" agreed Yoruichi with a long sigh as she returned her eyes to the snow-laden sidewalks. "But at least you're here spending time with me."
"What's that supposed to mean?" growled Grimmjow, kicking small mound of snow hatefully, watching the powdery flakes go swirling about in the air.
"Kisuke doesn't spend enough time going out with me like this…" she admitted as the two neared Grimmjow's apartment building. "I can't remember the last time I managed to get him to take me out to eat… I remember trying last year when a new restaurant opened up in town; I carefully pointed out how nice it was and that it was supposed to be a nice, romantic place…and instead of taking the hint, he commented that I should tell my brother so he could take Nel there."
Grimmjow narrowed his blue eyes at the thought of Neliel having a romantic evening with a filthy shinigami but said nothing as Yoruichi continued.
"So I finally just told him that I wanted to go…and he asked if I would bring him back an order to go." she sighed, pausing just outside the run-down building's door.
"I thought he was supposed to be some kind of genius," snorted the sexta as he marched up the steps.
"He is with anything other than women," clarified Yoruichi as she opened the door for him. "It's why we've only managed to have an 'on and off' relationship over the past century. It's frustrating."
"I wouldn't know," said Grimmjow sourly as he entered, leading her past the elevator that was out of order and to the stairwell. "The woman I cared about married another guy."
"They're good for each other…" said Yoruichi defensively. "Even you have to admit that Nel would never be happy with you because of your attitude. You're just too different for each other."
"I admit nothing!" spat Grimmjow defiantly as he stomped up the stairs to his floor.
"Of course you don't…" said Yoruichi with a teasing grin before her face took on a serious, almost-sad expression once more. "A few years ago, Kisuke invited me to go to Tokyo with him for the weekend… You know, I actually allowed myself to believe that he was finally ready to be serious and give me the attention I wanted."
"Is there a point to all this? Why tell me this shit?" asked Grimmjow, kicking open the door to his floor.
"We got there, got to the hotel where he'd booked our reservations, went to our rooms, our separate rooms, and then he tells me we're there for a consumer electronics show instead of the romantic getaway I had envisioned."
"He doesn't understand how much you give a shit about him," said Grimmjow flippantly. "Maybe you should give up on the idiot and while you're at it, find someone who isn't me to bitch about it all to."
"I'm no more ready to give up on him than you are on Nel," pointed out an irritated Yoruichi as they finally reached Grimmjow's apartment. "But I think you understand what it's like for me, don't you? Wanting attention from a specific person and never getting as much as you want."
"We're nothing alike, woman," snarled Grimmjow, shoving the bags into her arms as he unlocked the door. "Nothing!"
"We're both surrounded by people who care about us but we're both still alone," said Yoruichi.
"Fuck 'em all," said Grimmjow as he opened the door. "I don't give two shits about anyone that ain't me."
"I don't believe that," countered Yoruichi. "You forget that I've been watching you; I know better."
"So what do you want, then?" asked Grimmjow bitterly. "I ain't interested in shacking up with a soul reaper!"
"I thought that maybe we could keep each other company for a while to alleviate that alone feeling," Yoruichi said coldly. "Don't misunderstand my actions for anything more than that."
"Not interested, lady," sneered Grimmjow with a cruel grin as he stepped inside the apartment and shut the door in her face.
His grin evaporated almost instantly as he looked around his apartment, realizing that only his cat was there to keep him company. Guilt began to tug at him, prompting Grimmjow to growl angrily at the confusing and unwelcome emotion.
We're both surrounded by people who care about us but we're both still alone…
His eye twitched again as he considered her earlier words more carefully; he knew the other Espada did care for him on some level, though he wasn't sure why. He knew they'd be there for him if he were to ask for help, but that didn't make him feel any better. It didn't make the crazed nudist's words any less true.
I thought that maybe we could keep each other company for a while to alleviate that alone feeling.
"I must be going soft…" mumbled Grimmjow to himself, shaking his head as he turned back around and opened the door, sticking his head out in the hall.
Yoruichi was already down at the other end, heading for the stairwell and before he realized what he was doing, Grimmjow had called out to her.
The woman paused, turning back to look at him with anger reflecting in her eyes as she waited to hear what he had to tell her. "Look, if you want to hang here for a little while…I guess that's okay," he said, averting his eyes to keep from making contact with hers.
"What are you saying, Grimmjow?"
"Come on in and make yourself comfortable," he sighed reluctantly. "I'll get you a beer or somethin.'"
"Are you feeling okay?" asked the shinigami carefully, slowly making her way back down the hall to his apartment.
"Shut up before I change my mind, woman!" he roared. "And don't touch my stuff!"
"All right…" said Yoruichi with a smirk as she slid past him into the apartment. "Thanks, I think."
"Yeah, whatever…" was the Espada's gruff reply as he shut the door behind her and headed for the kitchen as Yoruichi went and sat her bags down near the couch. "Just…make yourself at home."
"Without touching your stuff."
"Exactly," said Grimmjow as he opened the fridge and reached in for a couple of cold beers in the back. He wondered if the others would see this behavior as "growth" for him or if they would agree with his personal assessment that he was simply going soft.
"Or maybe I really am going crazy…" he mumbled as he pulled the two ice-cold bottles from the refrigerator and closed the door. He turned back around to offer one to Yoruichi and it was only then that he realized the mistake of telling the woman to 'make herself at home.'
"PUT YOUR DAMN CLOTHES BACK ON!"
Perhaps the sweetest-sounding word in any language in the world, 'home' was more than a place to rest and recharge; home was a sanctuary away from the never-ending stupidity of the outside world, a safe place where the stupid could never intrude without your permission.
"Home sweet home…" Tia sighed as Tyn shut the apartment door behind them and tossed his winter coat in the general direction of the coat rack, missing entirely as he immediately began to untie his suit jacket from around his waist.
"I am never wearing this garbage again."
"Says you," Halibel retorted as she neatly hung her own coat up and reached down to pick up Tyn's, placing it on the hook beside her own. "We'll probably have to attend more weddings in the future…funerals, too."
"Hooray," said Tyn sourly, draping his suit jacket over the back of the couch as he began unfastening the buttons on his shirt. "Let's hope not for another decade at least."
"At least we can both agree that we'll never put other people through that hell," said Tia, watching Tyn's back as he finished removing his shirt. She smiled softly at the tribal shark design tattooed on the back of his gigai's neck, once again appreciating the detail that had gone into it, including the small 'three' etched on its side.
"Weddings are a ridiculous custom," Tyn complained. "If two individuals decide to mate for life, that's their business; there's no need for all the stupid pageantry, the overly-long vows, and definitely no need for an audience. It shouldn't be a goddamn spectator-sport."
"And don't forget the rings…" Tia added as she went to the bedroom to change into something more comfortable. "An everlasting symbol of a couple's love, but they can be easily purchased and sold at will."
"Or lost, or stolen," Tyn added as he followed her into the bedroom, dragging the white shirt along with him and tossing it onto the bed as he made his way to the closet.
"And if they're lost or stolen, all they need to do is go buy a replacement. The rings aren't nearly as special as people make them out to be," said Tia as she carefully began to pull the dress off.
"They should go with something more permanent if they really want it to mean something…" Tyn said, watching her strip. His eyes moved to the new tattoo on the small of her back, just above her succulent ass; a jagged-looking five that was bracketed by a pair of large, sickle-shaped claws, each with a string of three crimson feathers trailing out behind them.
"Something that can't be lost or stolen," Tia agreed readily as she gently laid the dress out on the bed and slid her oversized jersey on over her head. "Something that brands each with the other's unique mark in a way that will truly last forever."
Tyn smiled to himself softly as he turned back to the closet and pulled out a black t-shirt, putting it on. He kicked his black dress shoes off and began to remove his suit pants when he finally remembered the garter he'd caught and fished it out of his pocket, examining it carefully.
"You know," he began thoughtfully, "I still don't see why you wouldn't let me put this on your leg. Everyone said it was part of the tradition."
"Right, like I'm publicly going to allow you to get up under my dress and slip that on my leg with your self-control issues…" said Tia dryly. "Tell me, do the words 'lewd conduct' mean anything at all to you?"
Tyn's answer was a devilish grin as he drew back the garter's elastic band and launched it at Halibel, who deftly snatched it out of the air and smirked back at him.
Only a few months ago and Tyn would have most likely replied with a lecherous "sounds like fun" and while his smile had essentially said the same thing, the fact that he didn't actually verbalize it made a world of difference to Halibel.
It was another sign that Tyn, the old Tyn, the one she still remembered so fondly from their days in Los Noches, was finally returning.
Halibel took the garter and placed it on her dresser before pulling out her most comfortable pair of pajama bottoms and sliding them on. She slid some fuzzy socks on to keep her feet warm before going back to the dress, picking it up and putting it on a clothes hanger, slipping a protective plastic wrap over it as she took it over to the closet.
"I still can't believe you felt the need to punch someone out and leave them hogtied in a closet over me…" said Tia, shaking her head as she stepped past her mate to hang the dress up. "Sometimes I think you're a little too possessive."
"Oh?" asked Tyn, raising an eyebrow as he removed his suit pants. "What about what happened in that new nightclub last weekend? You remember, the woman who kept flirting with me?"
"And pretending that I wasn't there? What about her?"
"You want to tell me what happened when she left to go to the bathroom and you followed her?"
"I had to use the restroom, nothing more," said Tia smoothly.
"You wanted to leave as soon as you came back…" Tyn pointed out as he put on a pair of clean sweat pants.
"I didn't like the place; I wanted to go to the bar down the street."
"And to the bar we went," Tyn agreed. "And then we both saw the ambulance going to the nightclub ten minutes later."
"Sheer coincidence," said Halibel dismissively as she headed back to the living room. "But if she did happen to fall and hit her face on the sink three or four times, I certainly wouldn't shed a tear."
"And you say I'm bad…" snorted Tyn as he began to gather up the pieces of his suit to hang them up in the closet.
Tia went into the living room and flopped down on the couch, picking up the remote and turning the television on. She glanced over towards the sliding glass door that led to the balcony, sighing as she noted that it was snowing again.
"I hate when it's too cold to go out and do anything," she said as she began surfing through the channels. Tyn emerged from the bedroom and looked out at the falling snow before grunting his own disapproval and joining his mate on the couch.
"Anything on?" he asked as he reached over and pulled her closer, holding her tightly.
"Trash, garbage, and crap; take your pick," said the blonde, leaning her head against his chest.
Tyn thought for a moment before taking the remote from her and shutting the television off. He stood up and turned on the radio and grabbed one end of the couch, dragging it across the polished wood floor.
"What the hell are you doing?" asked Tia, confused as he began to turn the couch around to face the glass door. He hopped over the back of the sofa, neatly landing back in his seat and pulling Tia close to him once more as he laid back against the arm of the couch. Wordlessly, Tyn pointed out to the horizon and the slowly setting sun that was painting the gray sky, coloring it various hues as day transitioned into night. The snow was still falling gently as the radio filled the darkened apartment with soft music and Tia smiled warmly as she settled back into her mate's embrace.
"I thought you might like this," he said, kissing the top of her head affectionately. Halibel pulled the blanket that was lazily draped over the back of the sofa down, tossing it over their bodies instead to stay warm. She grasped his hands tightly, interlacing her fingers with his as she breathed out a long, relaxed sigh.
Home, it was said, was where the heart was.
It was good to finally be home.
Author's Notes: Sorry about the late addition of two new chapters after the story was supposedly finished, but I hope it didn't detract from the flow of the overall story and that it instead helped bridge the gaps between this ending and chapter 35.
I hope it was an enjoyable run for everyone and that the changes felt (mostly) natural for the characters. I hope that Tyn felt like he actually belonged there rather than your stereotypical Mary Sue/Gary Stu character, that he felt like a natural member of the cast. Most importantly, I hope this ending brings some measure of closure and growth for each of the Espada (not to mention closure for the reader).
I never imagined this story would last this long; I expected to be finished around chapter 20 or so and that it would have a much smaller following than Winter War had, but I kept getting new ideas.
It was never meant to be an action-epic, no major enemies to face; from the start, the idea was about how would hardened killers with no hearts adapt to such a radically new life? Think about the things we take for granted as being natural, events like weddings and birthdays, Christmas and working a regular job, and then ponder how a group of "monsters" would react to them for the first time. They would be confused and conflicted and they would of course make mistakes and blunders along the way, which I thought could make for a very sitcom-esque feel.
There are other things and situations I didn't touch on that could have been fun to see how the Espada try and deal with, and then there's the unusual situations that would throw even an ordinary human like you or me for a loop, events that take you out of your comfort zone and test your character…but perhaps those are best left for another time.
It was a questionable concept that I didn't expect to go over well, but the community here managed to both surprise and humble me. Thank you all for sticking with me to the end!
This is my last chance to shamelessly ask for feedback on this piece so I implore you to leave me something, preferably something substantial; I cannot hope to improve without feedback on what worked well and what didn't. If there was something you really liked or something you really hated, please tell me so I know what to do/not do in the future!
And if you haven't read The Winter War: Anrak's Tale yet, please do; it may not be as well-written but it was my first and it sets up some of the characters and events we see here in Masquerade. And keep an eye out for my next offering!