CHAPTER TWO

Adjusting his new clothes uncomfortably, Ichigo was glad he wasn't made to wear the stuffy suits and waistcoats and livery of the typical servant- a privilege he was granted due to his primary work being with horses. No point in dressing him pretty if he would only ruin it, as Grimmjow put it. The Baron, he had found, was delightfully conservative with his money instead of needlessly spending like many nobles, but not a tight-fisted miser either. He spent what he wanted, but within set limits. And Ichigo actually had spending money. How many years had it been since he'd had that? Ten? Of course, he kept sending about half of his weekly pay to his sisters to help them, and had dropped by to visit one day after going to the horse market and finding none of real value, and was glad to see their eyes regaining the sparkle that had left when he had moved out. They'd finally been able to afford new dresses and to get the kitchen wall fixed, and Yuzu had even had enough left to buy a few new pots and other cooking utensils. The half he kept for himself he saved scrupulously, hidden in various spots around his room. He didn't really need the pay he had, seeing as Grimmjow provided both room and board, even clothes, and he needed little else, so he didn't know what else to do with it. He was actually considering buying a horse for himself, but it would be rude to ask Grimmjow to keep it in his stables and it would be much too expensive to keep it in a professional stable. He had no idea what else he could get though, outside of maybe an occasional small treat. Maybe he could start buying small pastries at the bakery on the way to the horse market in the mornings? That would be an effective way to get rid of his savings…at least, some of it.

The work though, it was hard- he was earning every single bit of what Grimmjow was providing. With his horses coming and going so often (he owned only three racers he would never sell, and six others, four of which were for carriages and the other two were for distance travel and belonged exclusively to Grimmjow and Shawlong) Grimmjow saw no point in hiring grooms that would come and go just as quickly, so caring for the horses fell to three people: the stable boy D-Roy, Ichigo, and Grimmjow himself. Grimmjow mostly did the early morning exercises while Ichigo and the stable boy mucked out the stalls, as he had business to tend to for the rest of the day. Ichigo would then put them through paces while the stable boy finished the mucking and filled feed troughs and cleaned and filled the water troughs with fresh water. Grimmjow was a little picky on the water for his horses, and with good reason. The racers especially consumed large amounts of water, and if that water wasn't clean and fresh it could easily make them sick; further, Grimmjow was extremely strict on treating the horses right. He'd proven, time and again, that with patience, thorough training, and kindness, he could produce a horse that was willing to go farther, run faster, try harder, and tolerate more stupid moves from its' rider than a horse treated with anything less than respect and a gentle hand.

Grimmjow was so serious about his horses, in fact, that if a horse came through the stables that was being abused, the owner was promptly hauled in and beaten within an inch of his life to see how he liked it and the horse confiscated, rehabilitated, and usually sold to a noble family that would use the horse for light rides in the country or other minor exercises such as teaching the children how to ride. Suspected abused horses were thoroughly watched and rigorously tested to be sure- some horses were merely skittish around specific things and some had other problems, like poor eyesight or a disease that made it appear they'd been beaten. This entire practice was highly illegal, of course, considering that under the law there was nothing that prevented owners from harming their animals, or even beating them to death, but Grimmjow's background in the lower circles did him some good here. Nobles were terrified to cross him, because it was clear he cared little for his place in society and if things got too tough, he could slit a few throats and be on his merry way to begin anew somewhere else. Their social and political influence was useless against him, even those who could manipulate the law were powerless, because he had been an accomplished thief and could disappear without a trace before the arrest warrant had even reached the constable. The fact that he was gaining his own power and influence via his horses did not escape them either, and his enormous presence and intimidating size did him no harm in that arena as well. Most nobility avoided him.

Except one particular red-headed moron that kept trying to sneak into their stables. Grimmjow caught him and beat him black and blue every time, and yet, every time he healed up after a couple weeks the idiot returned to try again. He was a stupid amateur and Grimmjow's expert skill in the same field busted him every time and there was no indication that would be changing anything soon, if ever. It mystified Ichigo as to why the man kept trying. He knew who the man was, of course- Marquis Renji Abarai, the man Lady Rukia had passed Grimmjow over for (and he considered her to be just as stupid as her new fiancé, considering that between the two men Grimmjow had a head for money and Abarai didn't; this made the Baron a far better choice of husband as far as Ichigo was concerned. The Lady had no head for money either, so putting two spenders together and setting them adrift was just asking for them to go bankrupt). It didn't much matter to him anyway, seeing as he wasn't in contact with the man. Hell, these days, except for glimpses as he washed off before heading back to the house, he didn't even see Grimmjow.

Today he'd taken Pantera out for a good, hard ride. She may have retired from the races, but she needed to be ridden hard at least every other day or she got terribly skittish and high-strung. Walking the panting, lathered horse back to the stables with affectionate assurances of cool water and a thorough rubdown, he was right outside the stables when he heard something clatter inside and froze. D-Roy was fetching lunch for them both about this time, and he had been working the stables so long he never knocked things over anymore. There was an intruder in the stables. Pantera, intelligent even at the best of times, quietly advanced behind him as he carefully opened the doors and made his way inside. It was that idiot Marquis again! He must have figured out that Grimmjow usually wasn't in attendance to the stables in the afternoons and was trying to get around him. He had three of the carriage horses by the reins and was trying to guide them out the side doors- Ichigo nearly hissed. The carriage horses were pampered to put on the best show, all four perfectly matched dappled gray-blues (Ichigo didn't know the actual term for the color) that, outside of pulling coaches and carriages, and performing for dress competitions, did little work. They were the finest currently in the stables, the best trained and in the best health- Ichigo would let this unworthy wretch make off with three out of four over his dead body!

"To stalls!" Each carriage horse immediately ripped their reins from the strangers' hand at the familiar command from Gentle Sun Man, returning to their stalls to go back to resting and eating. They didn't like the way the new one smelled, and were glad to know there was no work that needed doing and they didn't have to follow him.

Ichigo, with the horses safely out of the way, was on the man like an alley cat on a mouse- and while the noble was bigger and more muscled, he was by no means as fast as the smaller man and Ichigo was much more flexible, allowing him to avoid the heavy hits. It didn't hurt that the scribe fought like an alley cat either; he bit, scratched, and went for the vulnerable places without hesitation or any thought to 'fair play'. Living on the street for five years had taught him that fighting 'fair' was the quickest way to get your throat cut and your belongings looted, especially when your opponent was bigger and stronger than you. The Marquis, for all that he had no head for money, did know how to fight, and Ichigo got caught with several blows and swats that would blossom into blue and purple bruises later before he understood that the moron wasn't quite as slow to catch on as he seemed. They wrestled in the fresh straw on the stable floor, punching and kicking, and Ichigo found an opening to knee the bigger man in the gut and steal his breath. The move unfortunately left his guard open just enough that Renji could land a hard strike to the side of his face, right by his temple, and he rolled away from the other as his head swam and the redhead wheezed.

Ichigo was struggling to climb to his feet and was wobbling on his knees when he realized he heard familiar soft approaching footsteps. D-Roy, returning with lunch. Shit. The younger man was short and thin- he'd get seriously hurt before he knew what hit him. His protective instinct, the one that had driven him away from home so his sisters wouldn't have to keep cutting down on food so they could pay rent, the one that kept him from ever going to any friend who would be slandered for sheltering him because of his heritage, the drive to protect those weaker that had made him the one children came to when they needed help, rose up with a vengeance. Getting his own head kicked in, that was one thing, but someone as small as D-Roy, even one punch could break bones, even snap his neck, could kill him. Roaring, he threw himself on the back of the Marquis who was trying to rise to his feet, facing the door, and hooked an arm around his throat to yank him backwards brutally as he shouted, "D-Roy, run! Grimmjow, get Grimmjow, GO!" He was relieved to hear the sound of the younger man running away before Renji used his strength to throw him off, into one of the walls. He cried out as he hit, his spine screaming in pain from head to tailbone as he fell onto his stomach and got to his knees, trying to stand.

Renji, who had recovered faster and was incensed at this little chink bastard trying to choke him to death, hit the unnaturally-haired man before he could get up, slamming the toe of his boot into his ribs and feeling them break as the little fucker choked and his arms gave out. He thought he'd won when the smaller man started coughing blood and was figuring if he could still steal at least one mare for breeding before whoever the fuck that had been outside got the Baron when an iron grip around his ankle informed him the chink was tougher than he'd thought. When he looked down, however, he felt fear seize him in a way he had never before in his young life. The orange-haired man was glaring up at him with eyes that blazed with almost literal flames, a disturbing gold glint stealing through the vicious brown as he started hauling himself up using Renji's leg, the grip of his hands too crushingly strong for him to even consider shaking him off as he rose hand-over-hand, blood streaming down his neck and chin from his mouth. The Marquis was, in truth, actually a little relieved when he felt a huge hand grab him by the back of his neck and toss him away, the hands ripping free of his leg as he hit the hard ground of the stables back-first and lay in a bit of a daze. What in the name of the loving God had he just seen in that man's eyes? He dared not move, lest he draw that gaze again.

PAIN. Once that boot had connected with his ribs and he'd felt them shift and scrape inside, all he knew was pain pain pain pain pain. But his instinct, the only thing driving him forward, had told him he couldn't let this man get away, couldn't let him hurt…someone. He couldn't remember who. Someone weaker who could die if this sadistic prick got away from him. He had started climbing up his leg with every intention of ignoring any kicks or punches until he reached that thick neck and strangled the life out of him when footsteps and a snarl from a blur of blue had warned him to let go or be dragged along when the big man was bodily thrown like a bale of hay. Blue was good, blue meant the weak one was safe and Ichigo could rest now. The last of his strength left him, and he vaguely heard a deep voice that was soothing despite the note of alarm and fear in it calling his name before his world went black.

THIS IS MY VERSION OF A LINE *I honestly did not mean for the fight to get that serious. Let's look at the aftermath, shall we?* THIS IS MY VERSION OF A LINE

Grimmjow paced nervously out in the hall. Normally it would be a rather ridiculous sight, but normally he wasn't barred from his own suite, and that was because normally he didn't have a man on the verge of death being cut open in his rooms by his crazy family doctor. Of course, being crazy actually was helpful rather than harmful, seeing as Szayel had come up with some pretty good treatments through trial and error, and some homeless cadavers Grimmjow had procured for him that wouldn't have gotten a proper funeral anyway and were given nice burials on his property when the pink-haired man was done with them. Grimmjow didn't know much about the human body, but he did know that blood coming out of the mouth in large amounts came from bleeding on the inside and bleeding on the inside always directly preceded death. So when he'd seen how much blood Ichigo was coughing and vomiting up, he'd been terrified and called the only person he knew could possibly have a chance of fixing it- Szayel. Szayel Aporro knew what people's insides looked like, and if anyone could cut him open and fix what was inside, it was him. Busted ribs caused the bleeding inside, Szayel had said, and he could fix them and sew shut whatever the sharp bone had torn, but it would be a delicate process, especially if the stomach had been spilling out it's acids into Ichigo's insides. Four hours later, the Baron was still waiting on the results and praying Ichi would live.

After another ten minutes of restless pacing, Szayel and his nurse emerged, both covered in blood and with solemn faces. Grimmjow's gut clenched. "I did my best," the doctor began, and Grimmjow's throat tightened up, "but he was very gravely injured. The rest is up to him, I'm afraid. His will to live will have to be very, very strong to survive and recover. He's awake if you wish to see him, my Lord." The blunet breathed a sigh of relief. He was alive! But he was in seriously bad condition if Szayel wasn't dancing about how his new experimental method had worked and actually used his title. Worried, Grimmjow opened the door and found Ichigo pale and his mouth tight with pain, but sitting up and awake. Grimmjow went to him without waiting a single moment more.

Ichigo had been confused when he woke up in pain, and feeling something cold and unpleasant poking at his insides, but he'd been under a doctor's knife before and ignored it to grab the nearest available person and demand to know if D-Roy was alright. Once assured the boy didn't have a scratch on him, he'd relaxed again and been well-behaved and silent as the doctor finished putting things right inside him and instructed to rest and recover. Familiar with that edict, he settled in and looked around. While not dripping in opulence like these sorts of rooms generally did, he could tell this room belonged to the Baron. The bed, while not too massive, had a down-filled mattress, the draperies in here were fine cloth that wouldn't become faded and brittle in under ten years, and he could see through an open door on the other side of the room was a tiled room with a great, sunken bath in it- only nobles could construct bathing rooms. Hell, Grimmjow was pretty smart and up-to-date on things, he might even have one of those in-house 'water closet' things that used rainwater and gravity to flush waste so he didn't have to pinch his nose in the privy out back or deal with the stench of a chamber pot. It was certainly easier to clean.

Then the door had opened and Grimmjow was there, and his face was so stricken with worry it made Ichigo want to reach out for him. Luckily, the man came to him immediately, sitting on the side of the bed well within reach. Just as he would when comforting his sisters after a bad fight, he reached to take Grimmjow's hand and pulled him in so his head rested on his chest. His voice was rusty, and he hurt too much to be bothered to speak properly, but it would work fine for his purpose. "Ah'll b'fin', jus' fin', dun ya worr'a. Ya ain' 'urt? D-Roy's doin' fin'?" It seemed Grimmjow's own background made him perfectly able to understand, because he answered without a pause to translate. "Not a goddamn scratch, you really took the fight outta him. The moron refuses to set foot in our stables again for fear 'the orange demon' will come after him again and is scared to even be on our property. You scared him off for good." Ichigo grinned weakly. "Dun tha' afore a time'r two. Gud t'see Ah ain' los' m'touch." Grimmjow, who apparently didn't want to move and jar the smaller man's injuries, stroked Ichigo's uninjured side as well as he could without moving his arm much. "Yeah. Go to sleep, Scribe. You got a long an' hard recovery ahead o' you." Ichigo laughed and obeyed.

Ichigo was to be confined to bed rest for most of his recovery while his body mended, and was still too unstable to be moved, so after a small discussion the two men came to a simple agreement- Grimmjow would sleep on one side of the bed and Ichigo on the other. Grimmjow also had a chaise just Ichigo's size moved into the bedroom for when he was well enough to be moved, as Ichigo had already expressed incredible displeasure over taking over so much of Grimmjow's space. Grimmjow settled most arguments with a simple 'that's that' gesture, especially when Ichigo started getting louder and straining his hurt lung and broken rib; he would get up and walk away. Both of them counted it as a loss when he did that, and if the conversation was ever returned to both parties were careful to keep calm and speak rationally until they came to a conclusion. After maybe four days of sitting on his laurels and staring at the walls between heavy doses of laudanum and having nutritive broths poured down him, Ichigo finally demanded two things: much less laudanum and something to occupy his mind. Szayel and Grimmjow compromised. They'd ease him down to much lower doses because cutting it off all at once could kill him, and in the meantime Ichigo could come up with something that wasn't strenuous he could do when they got him onto those low doses. Ichigo came up with teaching Grimmjow to read and write.

Grimmjow just barely managed to keep Szayel from betraying him and had to endure several days of teasing from most of his staff once the lie he'd told the scribe got around in retaliation.

Grimmjow tried not to laugh as he demonstrated his alphabet to the Scribe. He'd been given several chalk tablets on which to practice, with the letters written in Ichigo's beautifully neat hand for him to copy, and though his hand was legible it had never been anything close to neat. He'd actually tried his best, really he had, and Ichigo had nearly fainted. He had, in fact, shrieked at the top of his lungs and sent Grimmjow tumbling straight off the bed. Whatever he'd said, Grimmjow realized after several moments of followed mumbling, was in an entirely different language. He guessed it was something about how his writing resembled a small child's. It had always done so, and he readily admitted it, but he'd never had that kind of reaction before. As soon as he'd gotten to his feet he was dragged back onto the bed and into Ichigo's lap, who proceeded to grab his writing hand and poke and prod at it for several minutes, his fingers often digging in painfully. When he was done though, his hand and wrist where Ichigo had been doing whatever he'd done felt very loose and light, almost like it wasn't on his body at all. He opened and closed his first a few times to be sure it was still attached and obeying him. Ichigo then turned him around so he was literally sitting in his lap like a toddler and put his skilled, slender hand over Grimmjow's. Maybe acting like he couldn't write wouldn't be that hard.

Ichigo guided him through each letter and the way his letters flowed was disturbingly pleasant and smooth. Amazing, really, his hand almost looked the same as someone who had been raised noble with tutors and such, even if it was only his alphabet. They went through it several more times, until there was no more room on the boards and they had to be wiped clean with a damp rag, and then Ichigo redid the letters and gave the chalk back to Grimmjow. The letters flowed just as smoothly in his own hand as it had under Ichigo's control, and the baron couldn't help the smile that lit up his face. His alphabet looked, dare he say it- pretty. It looked like Ichigo's. Ichigo then took a tablet and wiped it entirely clean and wrote several short words. Grimmjow remembered those, the simple words so he could get used to reading them put together- cat, dog, bun, rag, and ones like those. But in that hand, they looked so beautiful and oddly foreign. So many loops and curves…while he could read, it was a pretty rudimentary knowledge. He could read signs and ledgers and he could write legible notes, but anything beyond that was over his head. Reading a card or invitation written in noble handwriting, the kind Ichigo was using now, gave him a terrible headache with how the letters had to be changed around so they could all connect together. This…this was going to be a lot harder than he thought. Ichigo wouldn't stop at block letters and basics, oh no, he knew this instinctively as he looked at that board, the Scribe wouldn't stop until Grimmjow was on the level he was. The chink (damn, he kept forgetting to learn the proper term) would not be satisfied until the Baron could read and write with the same ease as any raised noble. Maybe he wouldn't stop until Grimmjow was even better than your average noble- because Ichigo was certainly more skilled than they.

Six days, five hours, two naps, and a break later, Ichigo handed him a new board that had dots and lines with strange curves and checks on them with the letters written beside them and Grimmjow looked up at him in confusion. It looked like they were going through the alphabet again, but they'd gotten that down perfect so what was this? "Copy it," was Ichigo's only explanation, and after straining his eyes to make sense of them Grimmjow stopped questioning it and simply copied them. He was copying the very odd version of a 'q' when he realized these lines and dots looked familiar- Ichigo had made notes in this hand when Grimmjow had been rattling off his order for a letter! Ichigo was teaching him another language, at least in written form. Well, that would certainly give him an advantage over other nobles who would steal his ledgers or notes. He didn't bother arguing. Ichigo was obviously trying to extend his learning time, as Grimmjow had soaked up knowledge like a sponge, devouring everything Ichigo had presented to him, and Grimmjow couldn't blame him. He still had over a month and a half of bed rest until he was allowed to get up and move about, thanks to the delicate nature of his dissolving internal stitches and the shape his organs had been in, not to mention the mending broken ribs.

The next months whirled by. Ichigo was getting stronger every day, and learning an entirely new language from the younger man kept Grimmjow busy- especially when he found out there were three different writing systems and alphabets for Japanese and Ichigo insisted he learn them all. It was slightly slower going as he'd never seen any of the marks Ichigo used before, but he still consumed knowledge at a rate few could match. Of course, Grimmjow had other duties to tend to and a stable to take care of, but D-Roy gladly picked up the slack. He'd been quite touched to learn Ichigo had been more concerned about him than about himself even while hacking up all the blood in his lungs onto the stable floor. It also seemed that whenever he spent time away from Ichigo tending to other things, the Asian (he'd finally picked up the proper term from Ichigo when he, blushing, had flat-out asked) seemed to spend all that time thinking of what to teach Grimmjow next and how to do so. He'd also started teaching the Baron to speak Japanese, but that had been on accident; when running through the alphabets, he'd often pronounce the written letter or word, which he called a 'character', before remembering Grimmjow was English and switching languages. Grimmjow had shown his enthusiasm for learning yet again when he started asking "How d'ya say this?" every time Ichigo didn't pronounce it first, and after two days Ichigo caught on and started teaching him the spoken language as well.

They had become close, as teacher and pupil are wont to do, but not just in a platonic way. They'd become physically more comfortable, Ichigo not hesitating to pinch or yank on Grimmjow when he was being stubborn or when he kept repeating the wrong movement, and Grimmjow had learned that putting an arm around the smaller male's shoulders, petting his hair, and cuddling close at night were very comforting and that Ichigo never protested- he rarely even noticed. In fact, on one occasion he'd actually sought out Grimmjow's warm touch, babbling about these demonic gray rabbits with glowing red eyes and huge fangs that bred idea upon idea of insane things that scared Ichigo because they looked like they'd come from some sort of Opium trip. It had been a most confusing night, and Ichigo had been even closer to him afterward, muttering thickly about 'plot rabbits' every few minutes until he fell asleep. This brought Grimmjow to wonder if he had family he'd interacted with those ways, or if he was used to them because of a lover. Even considering the scribe with a lover dyed the edges of his vision red and sparked a blade of vengeance in his heart, but he controlled himself. He had no idea if the boy even liked men as Grimmjow appeared to have begun to, much less had a male lover, and if he had a female one Grimmjow had no right to stick his nose in his business anyway.

However, as his employer, it was his right to know about family- in case anything should happen to him. After how badly he'd been hurt two months ago, it was only natural he would be concerned to know of Ichigo's family, so he asked. Ichigo had two little sisters he loved to death and a captain father he hadn't seen in eleven years, who he loved in the distant way you love an aunt you only saw once every few years, and his sisters were mightily affectionate. Any sort of physical touch was allowed by the orangette thanks to them, as long as nobody went outright groping his crotch or ass, and he enjoyed cuddling because when the stipend had started to stretch less and less far they'd sold two beds and slept in Ichigo's at night, and he now found it hard to sleep without the warmth of another person nearby. Grimmjow could have kissed him for trusting him with this much sensitive information.

However, this would not last. Shawlong was extraordinarily perceptive, especially when it came to his Lord, and about a week after Ichigo was allowed to stand and move and return to light work, he pulled Grimmjow aside. Ichigo and Grimmjow were still sharing a bed, Grimmjow citing that if Ichigo wasn't getting full and proper sleep Szayel would skin him for letting his patient become unrested, and their teaching sessions had ended because Grimmjow knew all Ichigo had to teach him and spoke and wrote all forms of Japanese and English fluently. Grimmjow felt his stomach drop as Shawlong called him into the office- the manservant hadn't done that, hadn't ambushed him like that…since he'd told him he was now Lord Baron and would have to learn everything that came with that title, and that Shawlong would drag him kicking and screaming if he had to. His manservant had delivered on that promise. Heart in his throat and stomach somewhere on the floor, Grimmjow stepped into the room and closed the door, too anxious to notice when it didn't latch. "Wha's this abou', Shawlong?"

Shawlong's eyes were hard. "It is about that boy in your bedroom. This is about Ichigo and where, exactly, that stable boy belongs."


A/N: Yes, those were the infamous plot bunnies Ichi had a nightmare about, he's a writer just like the rest of us. You can thank U-Wish-U-Knew for the suggestion. This story needed a little humor to offset the angst that'll take up the first half of the next chapter…or maybe even all of the next chapter. We'll have to see, I'm not certain as of yet.