I have not had the chance to proof read this at all, and I am still searching for someone who is willing to put up with my amazing powers of procrastination and proof read for me! Apologies are due for the many, many errors that I am sure there are. Hopefuly it will not ruin the reading.
How is everyone in the festive run up? Stressed?
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Morning dawned to find Ichigo and Grimmjow still outside of camp. They had propped themselves up against a grassy knoll, wrapping themselves around one another, finding warmth in the press of each other's limbs.
Ichigo woke, but did not move. The morning light still had that strange, grey quality, and the cold earth below them had sunk into his bones, leaving him stiff and aching. He had not noticed the chill that had settled down around them throughout the night, but now he had to fight to stop himself from shivering. Grimmjow was still draped over and around him, and the parts of their skin which were touching were almost hot, contrasting strangely with the bitter air.
He felt displaced for a moment, as if the earth were about to swallow them both down into its dark, silent depths, but then Grimmjow stirred against him, and the moment passed.
"Hey, wake up."
He blew strands of Grimmjow's face away from his hair, and wondered if anyone had missed them yet.
The crevasses from the earthquakes looked like great dark scars rending the valley. The last few visible stars burnt above them, slowly vanishing into the pink-grey of dawn.
He could feel Grimmjow's hands flexing against his side, where at some point in the night they had found their way beneath his robes. He inhaled deeply, burying his nose in Grimmjow's hair, taking in the musty mixture of sweat and dried blood. Underneath that was the heat of skin, and the unmistakable smell of Grimmjow.
What would this day bring?
He shoved him a little harder.
"Oi, come on."
Grimmjow shifted a little underneath him.
He wondered if he could close his eyes and fall asleep again, but he knew that the cold that had worked its way deep into him would not let him. He was sure that many of the shinigami would be awake already, anyway, and he would much rather they make their way back to camp then have shinigami find him in this position. He nudged Grimmjow gently, hoping he would wake, but Grimmjow just gripped him harder, nuzzling into his neck.
"Grimmjow, wake up."
The former Espada dug his nails into Ichigo's back, growling softly.
"We've gotta get back and see what's happening."
He nudged him again, harder this time, and Grimmjow looked back up at him, bleary eyed.
Grimmjow rolled off him, swearing.
"How's your chest?"
The former Espada sat up, and stretched. There was a dull ache around his pectorals, and now it was day he could see the meshwork of fine, pink scars that laced his chest. Most of them looked as if they would fade in a few months, though there were a few that still looked angry, and might be permanent. All in all, it did not feel too bad: the shinigami were useful for some things after all, it seemed, although it kind of annoyed him to admit that.
The knots in his spine clicked audibly, and he winced. Ichigo washed a black cloud flash across his face.
Grimmjow gritted his teeth as he remembered Halibel: it could have been much, much worse.
Ichigo stood, stretching out his own stiff limbs, and offered a hand to help Grimmjow up, which was ignored, just as he expected. If fact, he would have been slightly surprised if his hand had been taken. He was given a quick kiss when Grimmjow was on his feet though, which more than made up for it.
They approached the camp slowly, warily, side by side.
The sun rose steadily in the sky, but the day did not seem to lighten. Rather, the morning hung on the air as if it were a low cloud, keeping everything dank and a little miserable feeling. Ichigo tried not to let it dampen his mood as well. Despite the ache from the cold nights sleep, waking up wrapped up around Grimmjow for the first time in what felt like forever had put him in the best of moods.
As they reached the camp they could see that most of the shinigami were still asleep, most fires from the night before burnt low to the ground, thin streams of smoke spiralling into the sky. At some point in the night the perimeter guard had been changed, and now it was the Third Division keeping watch. Kira Izuru nodded at them both as they passed him, but did not comment or question where they had been, for which Ichigo was very grateful.
It would be a little embarrassing to admit that they had snuck out and slept on the cold ground, just for a sense of privacy.
They paused, unsure where to go now that they had reached the camp. They had been assigned tents, but neither of them had any idea where they might be, or even where to start looking for them. Luckily, before they had to make any decisions, Shinji caught sight of them, and waved them over.
"I've been looking for you two."
Ichigo shrugged, and Grimmjow rolled his eyes.
"Couldn't have been looking very hard."
Shinji bared his teeth in the vague approximation of a smile.
"Very funny. Hurry up."
"Where are we going?"
Ichigo meant to ask why they were being included in a Captain's meeting, but before he could they had arrived, and he realised that they were not the only additions to the assembly. All the Captains and Lieutenants were there (except for the Lieutenant of the Third, who was on guard), as well as the entire collected Vizard, looking fresh and bright in the morning sunshine. He was glad to see that Hachi was back on his feet, not looking worse for wear, though his hands were still bandaged.
Tessai was stood near to the Vizard, just behind Kisuke and Yoruichi, who were both slouching so indolently that it could only have been intentional.
And then, standing in front of him, was his father, who smiled at him in that way that Ichigo knew so well. For a moment they could have been back at home, and Ichigo felt his body tense waiting for his father's usual enthusiastic greeting, only to be almost surprised when none came.
His father was much more serious on this side of death, and for the first time Ichigo realised that he preferred his own dad, his normal dad, who managed to combine attacks and glomping, who embarrassed him and pissed him off. Because despite all that, the annoying man was his.
He kind of couldn't wait to go home, for things to get as close to normal as they ever could with him.
The Captain Commander cleared his throat, and beside him Grimmjow folded his arms, his face already turning into a mask of indifference and irritation.
"Now we are all here, and the battles we have faced have been won, we must come to face our next challenge."
He stared out across the strange assembly of people, his eyes serious.
"We must still face the fact that we have committed treason against our central judiciary body, and that something must be done to rectify this situation. I will now open the floor to discussion of how best to proceed."
Jyuushiro Ukitake was the first to step forward, his hands together at his chest, hidden by the long sweep of his sleeves.
"Perhaps we should begin by sending a messenger to them, to discuss what they would like us to do."
"It would be best to show them that we want nothing more than peace as quickly as possible."
There were murmurs of agreement from around the group, but a sharp voice caused them all to turn their heads suddenly. Ichigo realised with a sense of impending doom that that voice belonged to him.
Thirty-odd faces turned to look at him incredulously.
He really hadn't meant to say that out loud.
Toushiro raised an eyebrow at him, and he cleared his throat.
"I mean… why do you need to make peace with them? Why do you need them at all?"
Jyuushiro glanced at Shunsui, his expression unreadable.
"I don't really get what they do that you guys don't, anyway." He cleared his throat again, trailing off, and after a long and uncomfortable silence, Soifon nodded.
"He's got a point. It is Gotei divisions that run the secure facilities, that perform the executions, that capture criminals. Their justice is only dispensed when we have not chosen to kill the criminal on the battlefield anyway."
Byakuya closed his eyes, steepling his fingers.
"As long as the Gotei has existed, there has been a secondary judicial system to govern us."
Soifon's scowl was dark by this point.
"So? Doesn't normally work, does it? It says something about how good a body they are when they can all be killed off by Aizen and none of us even noticed."
"Chick's got a point."
Byakuya glared at him, but it was lacking venom. Behind him, Renji shuffled uncomfortably.
"But is it right to make the protection of all the worlds entirely our task?" Shunsui asked, shadow hiding his eyes. "Perhaps we are giving ourselves too much responsibility."
"The Captain Commander served in their place before the new Central 46 was gathered together," chipped in Komamura. "His wisdom in all things is enough to ensure him my vote in continuing to do so."
Ichigo wasn't sure, but he thought that he saw Mayuri roll his startling eyes.
Kisuke snickered behind his fan.
"Seriously, every other decision in this place is made just by the Gotei. We should just cut out the middle man: half the time the criminals don't even make it to Central, they die in battle anyway."
The Captain Commander nodded, slowly.
Across the Soul Society, ensconced in their great, dark building, Central 46 glared at each other across the dark chasm of their meeting place. Very little had been resolved: much had been argued about, but their pride and their arrogance was still firmly intact. None of them had even begun to entertain the idea that the Gotei Divisions would not return to them.
"We shall hear from them soon."
"No doubt they will soon send their apologies."
"They have fought numerous battles, they will wish to return to their barracks and their medical supplies. Their little camping trip will be beginning to wear on them."
"Indeed. We will be lenient when they return."
Nods from around the room, though a few unhappy faces as well. There were some that would have been glad to see the upstarts in the Gotei punished severely for their arrogance. The idea of them on their knees, begging for forgiveness… well, it would just have to wait. As pleasing as that idea might have been, the Central 46 were somewhat lacking military backing compared to the Gotei. In a face to face fight, their self-made fort would crumble.
Luckily, the Captain Commander's propensity for structure and tradition would ensure that their forces would return to them.
They sat back, hands folded across their stomachs or behind their heads.
"Still, some sort of punishment will be necessary."
More enthusiastic nods this time, a few cheerful 'here, here's!' echoing around the room.
"They have to understand that their actions have consequences."
A scuffle from outside the room, muttering that they could only just hear through the great mahogany doors. Their conversation paused, and forty six heads turned in sync to stare at the entrance way before a timid knock broke the silence.
A head poked through the door: the man looked pale, and deeply uncomfortable.
"Ah, many apologies on interrupting you when you are in session-"
"Yes, yes, get on with it won't you?"
He blushed, and fidgeted.
"Well, ah, the Gotei 13 have arrived."
"Excellent! Send the Captain Commander through at once, and make it clear that no one else is to come."
More uncomfortable shuffling.
"Um, you see, that won't actually be possible."
"And why not?"
The door swung open, revealing the unfortunate young man, who was now rather pale. It also revealed the several dozen zanpakuto pointing at his back, and the rather happy grins of Captains Kyouraku and Kenpachi.
Several of the braver men and woman surged to their feet in outrage, which only really made Kenpachi grin wider.
Shunsui bowed low, tipping his hat.
"Ah, many apologies, ladies and gentlemen."
"What is the meaning of this?!"
Shunsui turned to Kenpachi, and shook his head regretfully.
"Ah, they do not know."
Kenpachi grunted, and Shunsui turned back to Central 46.
"Well, we're here to fire you."
Ichigo watched with a rather self-satisfied expression as the shinigami brought out the members of Central 46, most of whom were arguing loudly with their captors at the top of their voices, protesting the new turn of events.
He couldn't blame them for being surprised: to be honest, he really hadn't expected them to actually overturn Central 46. He hadn't even meant to say it out loud, and he had thought that the Captain Commander was far too stuck in his ways to actually go ahead with this. But, we are all proved wrong, and Ichigo wasn't upset to have been wrong this time.
He tried to catch Grimmjow's eye from across the courtyard, but he had been high-jacked by Yachiru, who was rather enamoured by his blue hair. He hadn't strayed too far from Ichigo all day, though the later had decided not to comment on it. Whether it was for fear that someone would arrest either one of them again, or because he had just missed them, Ichigo didn't know, but he quite liked it.
Shinji took it upon himself to save Grimmjow, though got a headful of the Eleventh Division's Lieutenant instead. The former-Espada took the moment of freedom to slip away, hesitating for a moment when he couldn't spot Ichigo in the busy courtyard, too many shinigami swarming back and forth.
A heavy hand clapped him around the shoulder, and he tensed up at the unknown touch.
"How are you doing?"
He recognised the voice, so felt no need to look over his shoulder. He shrugged the hand off his shoulder, scowling. Behind his back, Isshin grinned. Despite himself, he had become quite fond of the bad tempered arrancar that had become a part of his family (whether Grimmjow wanted to or not). Underneath his arrogance and irritable nature, there was something fundamentally likeable about him.
"Wanting to get home, huh?"
He stepped up, so they were standing side by side. Grimmjow watched him warily out of the corner of his eye.
"Not thought that far ahead yet."
Isshin raised an eyebrow.
"And why is that?"
Grimmjow grunted. Truth was, he still had not seen any evidence that they would actually let him go without a fight, and he was not taking anything for granted right now.
Over the sea of people, he caught sight of Ichigo's hair, and it was only the months of Ichigo's influence that he gave a curt nod to Isshin before he slipped away through the crowds. He shoved his shoulder against Ichigo's as they drew level, and Ichigo nudged gently back, their now usual method of greeting.
"Can we go home soon?"
Grimmjow grinned, quickly turning it into a scowl as the Captain Commander passed them by.
Soon enough Central 46 were packed off and put under home arrest until a decision could be made on quite what was to be done with. Several shinigami, including Renji, tried to draw Ichigo into a conversation on what should be done with them, but he didn't want anything to be done with it, and just shrugged every time someone asked. It was done with, as far as he was concerned, and now nothing more was to be said on the matter.
The sun was starting to set by the time everything was finally settled, and the Divisions began to return to their barracks. Yoruichi told them that she had sorted out a place for them all to say, but Ichigo nearly broke out in laughter when he realised what that place was.
"Welcome," said Byakuya Kuchiki through gritted teeth, "To my home."
Behind him Renji was trying- and failing- to hide his grin at how unhappy his Captain sounded at the prospect of house guests. And not just a few- Yoruichi had someone managed to wrangle beds for all of the visitors from the Karakura.
Shinji ruffled his hair as they shoved past.
"Ah, thanks, Bya-kun."
Rukia wanted to show sisterly solidarity for her brother, she really did, but the sight of Byakuya's red face was too much even for her, and she had to bury her face in Renji's robes to stop herself laughing.
The next day dawned bright and clear, the grey of the day before all but forgotten. They were summoned not long after dawn by butterfly to another meeting. They were a little bleary eyed, having more than taken advantage of Kuchiki hospitality the night before, and Grimmjow was starting to get sick of company. He wanted nothing more than a few days just with Ichigo, without having to listen to other people.
He was even more annoyed when they arrived at the meeting, only to be informed that they had to wait outside, along with the Lieutenants. Renji kicked the stone step irritably.
"You would've thought that they'd let us in after all this shit."
"Seems a bit unfair, three Divisions aren't represented leaving us out here. We still deserve a say in what's going on, even if we don't have Captains."
Kira nodded, and flipped his long fringe out of his eyes. Renji glanced at it irritably.
"Just get it cut, Kira."
He got rolled eyes in response.
Yachiru was chewing ominously on a stick of toffee, unhappy that she had been forced to wait outside. Everyone else was studiously not mentioning the fact that Grimmjow had taken Ichigo's hand, and was currently glaring at everyone who happened to look in their direction. Matsumoto thought it was adorable, but didn't quite have the nerve to say so.
Soon enough though, they let them all in, and Ichigo and Grimmjow slipped off to the side, where their fellow Karakura residents were standing. The rest of the Lieutenants went to stand in their correct positions, and the Captain Commander cleared his throat.
"Welcome, all. I would like to announce the instatement of new individuals to the Gotei ranks. As Captain of the Third Division, Rojuro Otoribashi."
Kira made no obvious expression as the Vizard stepped forward and took up his position just in front of him, but that was fairly normal. Whatever he was thinking was usually well hidden.
"As Captain of the Fifth Division, Shinji Hirako." Momo visibly recoiled, and then tried her hardest to smile as Shinji also took his place.
"Finally, as Captain of the Ninth Division, Kensei Muguruma." Hisagi and Kensei stared hard at each other as Kensei approached, and when they finally looked away Ichigo was not the only one who noticed the slight red flush on Hisagi's cheeks.
The congratulations and other news droned on, and Grimmjow soon stopped listening. None of this was of any interest to him. All he wanted to do was go home, knock Ichigo down onto his bed, and then sleep for a week, but apparently that was too much to ask for right now. Apparently he had to stand here, and listen to all of this crap.
"And, finally, we come to the matter of the arrancar, and former-Espada, Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez."
That one got his attention.
"The Captains unanimously agreed yesterday that the Vizard and other former shinigami present are cleared of all crimes, and as their loyalty to the Gotei 13 has been proved, are free to continue their lives as they see fit, with no interference from us."
Ichigo raised his eyebrows and moved forward imperceptibly, so that he was ever just so slightly in front of Grimmjow.
"I'm not really sure what more we can do to prove to you that we're on your side."
The Captain Commander nodded.
"Indeed. And in normal circumstances that would not matter, and he would still be put to trial and probably imprisoned for his former loyalties regardless. But these are not normal times, and the Captains unanimously voted for a second option."
Ichigo was glaring, and barely felt his father's hand on his shoulder.
Grimmjow folded his hands.
"There is no chance in hell that you are taking my powers from me."
It was, to both of their surprise, Urahara that stepped forward.
"It would not be a permanent sealing."
Ichigo rounded on him. "This was your fucking idea?"
The shop-keeper put his hands up, signalling for peace.
"It is my technique. The bulk- but not all- of Grimmjow's spiritual power would be restricted. It can be released, and will return to its full potential, when it is deemed necessary. A specific individual will be in charge of that choice."
Ichigo was about to protest further, but Grimmjow cut him off.
They all stared at him, a little surprised at the lack of argument from him.
"Ichigo gets to decide."
The Captain Commander shook his head.
"Ichigo Kurosaki, though an ally of ours, is not a full shinigami, and he is not… impartial on the subject."
Ichigo glanced across at Grimmjow, wondering if they were going to have to fight their way out of this one.
"Which is why I will do it."
They turned, almost in sync, to Isshin. He wasn't looking at either of them, but staring at the Captain Commander, though the decision had been made earlier. He would not let anyone else be in charge of the safety of the man his son loved.
"If it is found that his seal has been released without good cause, you will be charged and imprisoned."
The Captain Commander sighed. He'd had just about all he could handle with the bloody Kurosaki family.
"Very well. Meeting closed."
The seals were performed only hours later, the shinigami unwilling to let Grimmjow leave for the human world without guarantee that it had been done. Ichigo was less than happy about this: it seemed that no matter what they did, there were still some prejudices that the shinigami were unwilling to let go of. It was performed by both Mayuri and Urahara, though Renji had insisted on escorting them in and out of the labs, apparently concerned that Mayuri might "pull some crazy shit" to keep them both their for experimentation purposes. Though he did stare a little hungrily at them, he managed to keep his hands to himself.
It left Grimmjow with a mark on his collarbone in a strange, intricate pattern, but it did not unduly bother him. His body was enough of a canvas of scars and markings as it was to let one more concern him.
Then, after what felt like hours of tedious goodbyes, most of which he kept out of the way of, it was time to leave.
Just before they stepped though the portal, Renji sidled up to him, and stuck out his hand.
Grimmjow stared at it, then back at him.
Renji stared right back.
After a few moments of uninterrupted staring, Grimmjow smirked, and shook his extended hand.
Grimmjow nodded, and stepped though the portal.
The air on the other side tasted sweeter than he had ever imagined.
Finally, they were home.
Beside him, always willing to break a good moment, Urahara elbowed him in the side, grinning like a child.
"The hell do you want?"
Urahara pouted as the portal closed up behind them, the rent in the sky healing itself leaving nothing but a momentary wavering in the air.
"That's the thanks I get?"
Ichigo was wary.
"The thanks for what?"
He flipped his fan in front of his eyes.
"Oh, you don't think I've taught the Gotei all my tricks, do you? You really think that I invent anything without a way to get out of it? What if I were caught in it one of these days?"
Isshin rolled his eyes.
"You can undo the binding?"
"Can the sun spin the sky?"
There was just one more place that Grimmjow had to go before his day was finished.
White sand below him, black sky above him, no one surrounding him for an infinite distance.
All was dead here now, he thought.
There was no explanation for why he knew that, no rhyme or reason. But there was also no one that he had to explain it to, and he could feel it deep in his bones: there was nothing living here anymore, nothing even close.
Everything was dead.
The walls were little more than rubble now, and he had to wonder at how quickly such a huge structure had fallen, how soon the center of so many plans had collapsed in on itself. It had been a ship after the loss of its captain, abused by the shores and the tides, falling apart moment by moment as it watched the world change around it, its crew alter and shift, waiting for leaders to return to it.
Even now there was something about this rubble.
It put the hairs on the back of his neck on end.
It felt as if it were waiting, and that it would continue to wait, for years or millennia, for a captain to return to it. It thrummed with unspoken desires, with a promise that even Grimmjow could feel, as if it vibrated through his blood.
Time would not ruin these walls: there was no wind to wear down the white rock. Things here were changeless, permanent.
And he knew, with the same certainty that he felt the tension in the stones, that though all things living or dead would stay away from these places for centuries, that in the end someone would come along, someone who didn't feel the blood in the sand and the death in the air, and start up again. They would use this place again.
The hollows had never needed a king. Every one that had tried was a fool.
And if there was no king, there should be no palace.
All rock can be returned to sand with enough effort.
Grimmjow held Pantera in his hand, and she purred in his mind.
And when all was just white sand again, Grimmjow sat down, cradling his zanpakuto in his hands, and smiled.
Ichigo stood up as he caught sight of Grimmjow coming back through the portal in Urahara's underground rooms. He had wanted to go with him, but had held back: there was something about Grimmjow's eyes that made him realise that this was something the Arrancar had to do for himself. He looked tired, but strangely lighter, as if he were holding his shoulders in a slightly different way.
The portal closed, and he walked towards the exit, past where Ichigo had been sitting and waiting for him. He bumped Ichigo's shoulder with his as he passed him, and with a smile Ichigo turned, and followed him.
They walked home through the sky, not the streets, not saying a word to each other.
It was a cool night, but not cold.
The moon was almost full, and bright in the sky.
Below them Karakura carried on with its night, unaware of all that had transpired at her doors. Children fell asleep as adults made love; crimes were committed and beautiful moments created; feelings were hurt and mended again. Candles were lit and blown out, cats cried their mournful songs to the sky above them.
The stars watched it all, and said nothing.
Grimmjow felt a strange sense of deja-vu as they slid Ichigo's window open, quietly so as not to wake anyone, and closed his eyes as he stood in the familiar room. It was almost as if nothing had changed: like they were still sneaking around, before anyone had found out about them, or him. He had not realised until now what a quiet, magic time that was, when only Ichigo had known that he was alive, and there had been no one else but the two of them.
He felt feather light kisses on his closed eyelids: he didn't open them until he felt warmth against his chest, arms wrapping around him, pinning him to the moment.
He could have told Ichigo: he didn't want to escape.
They kissed slowly, all emergency gone from their movements as they reached to touch every piece of skin with fingertips, nails, lips, slipping off the stained and dusty robes they had been wearing, little caring about the state they were in underneath. Ichigo kissed his way along every new scar on Grimmjow's abdomen, as the arrancar felt every knot and whorl in his spine, as if counting them. They followed the line of every bone and muscle, mapping their bodies to their memoires once more, leaving damp lines from eager mouths and not caring. The night felt suddenly endless even as the moon sank lower in the sky.
And they were on the bed, moving together, gripping nails into skin deep enough to bruise and perhaps to bleed, though they would not notice until the morning. Every ache and pain was forgot in those moments, every worry and fear chased away with warmth, sensation, movement.
Their pace quickened as they drew closer, losing their breath as their movements became less fluid, more ragged, kisses becoming uncoordinated, teeth leaving reddening marks.
They collapsed against each other, still reaching for the press of the other's body, refusing to let the intimacy go. Their embrace almost crushed them, but neither of them thought to care: Grimmjow buried his face in Ichigo's neck, and wrapped his legs around Grimmjow's hips, pulling every part of them close together. A draught from the window caused a chill to run up his back, but he didn't even consider moving to find a cover. The warmth from each other was all they needed.
He felt the other shift slightly, only to nuzzle deeper into his neck.
He ran his nose through the shock of blue hair, his lips just skimming the whorl of an ear.