Sigh. Aimed to update Tuesday, ended up posting Wednesday instead. I'm very sorry to the people I (optimistically, in retrospect) told I was gonna try and update Tuesday, but thank you all, again, for sticking with me.

This chapter is a little different, but I hope you guys like it anyway!

Chapter Four:

Renji has endured plenty of humiliation at the expense of being Rukia's so-called best friend. Comes with the territory—occupational hazard, as it were, the same way joining the 11th squad requires you to (literally) sign your own death warrant, or how anyone from Inuzuri will tell you that if you try stealing from Watanabe the butcher, odds are good you'll end up losing your left hand. There have certainly been times in the past where Renji has seriously considered freeing himself from one of the last, legal forms of slavery in the world—the promise of being "best friends forever." But, in true loyal fashion, he's ended up dragging himself back to her side; it was worth it, he'd always concluded.

This time, however, might very well be the final straw.

"I hate you," Renji informs Rukia fiercely as she finishes applying fucking guyliner around his eyes, to which she merely smiles innocently and steps back to admire her handiwork.

"You're done!" she proclaims, apparently satisfied by the overall effect. Renji fights his burning desire to leap at her with a deranged howl, tackle her to the floor, and throttle her. That would, however, also require moving, which is currently not an option: Renji's been crammed into a t-shirt so tight, he can feel his circulation being cut off, along with a ridiculous pair of skinny-jeans that are causing him some serious concern about any long-term damage to his manhood. Not to mention his face is plastered with idiotic make-up, his usually wild hair tamed by gel. The intent is to make him look…well, gay—and doing a disturbingly good job, Renji thinks furiously as Rukia beams at him.

"Don't you think you're stereotyping a bit?" he snaps. Rukia shrugs.

"No. I did research!"

"With what, yaoi manga?" he retorts. He's having a difficult time blinking too—his eyelashes keep getting stuck together because of the mascara. How women do this, he'll never know.

"Quit whining," Rangiku admonishes him from across the room, as she works on Ishida—looking equally as unhappy as Renji—and his own make-up and outfit. "You only have to dress like this for awhile. Just long enough to let Ichigo know that he can be comfortable with his sexuality!"
"How, by looking like an insane clown?" Renji growls, and receives a smack on his overly-styled head, courtesy of Rukia.

The plan (assuming that you can even call this a plan, Renji muses darkly) is to ambush Ichigo the moment he returns from Seireitei, presenting him with both Renji and Ishida as "models" of men who are perfectly comfortable with being openly gay. That way, according to Rangiku, Ichigo will then drop to his knees and weep in relief at finally feeling safe to come out of the closet, set off to find some man who'll screw him and love him, truly, madly, deeply, happily ever after and all that bullshit.

"This isn't going to work," Renji mutters to himself, as no one else seems to care much about what he thinks. "This is the dumbest plan yet. And why am I the gay one?"

"Cuz you are," Ikkaku replies with a snort, sprawled on Orihime's couch. Yumichika has made a temporary recovery from the depths of his depression, enough to join in with Rangiku and Rukia as they finish putting the final touches on a thoroughly defeated Ishida. Chad and Orihime for their parts remain huddled in chairs on the opposite side of the room. Chad seems especially on edge, as if afraid at any moment, Rangiku and her cohorts will remember that he, too, is male and subject him to the same torment as Renji and Ishida.

"I am not!" Renji protests (not…entirely lying through his teeth) and slams his fist down on the arm of his chair.

"Neither am I!" Ishida complains, somewhat muffled as Yumichika slops on lip gloss.

"Yeah, but with you at least it kind of makes sense!" Renji shoots back, sending Ishida into a fit of spluttering disbelief.

"And just what is that supposed to mean?"

"Just that you, ya know, seem like the type!" Renji argues.

"It doesn't matter!" Rukia interrupts, throwing up her hands in exasperation. "It's not even for real!" She heaves a sigh and then collapses into the chair beside Renji's, the two of them watching for a moment, as Ishida fights a losing battle against Yumichika's attempts to force several sparkly pink barrettes into his hair.

"This is stupid, Rukia," he says at length. "You know it is. I thought you didn't even like Rangiku's plans." He's wheedling—trying desperately to appeal to that sensible side of her that he knows exists, somewhere deep…deep down inside.

Rukia smiles wearily and runs her fingers through her hair.

"I don't. Know if it'll work, like her plans, both, whatever. But…" She tugs idly at the skirt of her school uniform, smoothing out the pleats. "I want to help him, Renji," she continues, in a much softer voice. "I just feel like…Ichigo's been alone for so long. I want him to be happy for once. So I'll do whatever I can." She gives Renji another once-over, and a feeble smile. "Even if that maybe means at your expense."

"Gee, how noble of you," Renji remarks wryly, even though he can already feel himself softening at Rukia's concern. Why is it so freaking impossible to stay mad at her, no matter how badly he wants to? And…though he'll deny it under pain of death, Renji does have…somewhat of a soft spot for Ichigo. He likes the guy; likes that at the end of the day, no matter how much they've bickered, or how bad the fight's gone, Ichigo will be always be there with that fierce, determined grin, his crazy hair covered in blood and an arm slung around Renji's shoulders as they trudge home.

For all the sacrifices that Ichigo makes, Renji can sure as hell try and reciprocate for once.

"Abarai-kun!" Yumichika crows, and holds up perhaps the most frightening shoes Renji has ever laid eyes on, a Bedazzled pair of platform sandals dug up from the depths of Orihime's closet. "I found the perfect shoes to complete your outfit!"

Even if it means dressing up as a demented drag queen.

"—have half a mind to report you to Captain Yamamoto! In all my years, I've never seen such despicable behavior! I should—" Ukitake's rant is momentarily interrupted by a brief coughing fit, but not entirely derailed, as he continues to jab his sword violently in turn at Kenpachi, Kyouraku, and Kurotsuchi. "—slice you into pieces, make you—"

Another coughing fit overwhelms him, and Ukitake doubles over, threat lost amidst loud, uncontrollable hacking. He'd followed Kenpachi into the material world after finally managing to subdue the chaos in the 12th Division's lab—not to mention Kurotsuchi himself, spitting mad at being defeated by Zaraki—with some minor assistance from Kyouraku. Ukitake had (rather foolishly, he'll bitterly admit), been hoping to intercept Kenpachi before he made contact with Ichigo; by the time he'd set foot in the material world, however, Ichigo was long gone and Kenpachi sprawled out in a cluster of storm clouds, irritably tending to wounds he'd received from "some fucking, blue-haired bastard" (his words.)

He coughs again, his vision temporarily blurring at the edges, and Ukitake can sense the concerned pulse of Kyouraku's reiatsu, an instant before there's a hand on his shoulder. He shrugs it off, however, glaring up at his supposed "best friend."

"You, at least, ought to know better, Shunsui," he growls, politeness be damned, and forces himself to stand up straight again. "And all three of you should be ashamed, terrorizing a young boy!"

"I'm merely trying to conduct an experiment!" Kurotsuchi retorts, unfazed by Ukitake's tirade, as he examines his long fingernails. His haori is shredded from his earlier fight with Kenpachi, whom he keeps shooting filthy, sidelong glares, and he generally seems to be in a fouler mood than usual. "Forgive me, for working in the name of science!"

"Bullshit," Kenpachi snarls under his breath from his cloud patch. Ukitake, though not typically prone to violence, finds himself fighting the strong temptation to ram his sword through Kenpachi's damn, spiked head, as Kurotsuchi's eye twitches and he turns toward Zaraki in a burst of new rage.

"I beg your pardon?" Kurotsuchi demands, through gritted teeth. Kenpachi only snorts with disgust and lurches to his feet, licking carelessly at a long, still-bleeding cut along the back of his hand.

"This is bullshit!" he says again, and swings his sword irritably, forcing Kyouraku and a seething Kurotsuchi to duck, in order to avoid being cut in half. "I keep getting close, only for someone else to get in the way! You—" he growls, nodding toward Kurotsuchi, "—or that fucking Espada, and now—" he rounds on Ukitake, who holds his ground, calmly "—you. I nearly had him!"

"You can give up on whatever interest you have in Ichigo-kun," Ukitake replies testily. "I won't allow any of you to go chasing him, fighting over his virginity. What we are going to do is find him, formally apologize, and then return to Soul Society, leaving him in peace."

Kenpachi, however, only gives an ugly, taunting smirk.

"Or what?" he demands, his voice unusually soft and wicked. Beside him, Ukitake feels Kyouraku bristle, and has to momentarily remind himself that he's supposed to be pissed off at Shunsui still. He meets Kenpachi's grin with the most polite smile in his repertoire, and tilts his head a little to one side.

"Or I shall have to inform Captain Unohana of the dishonorable way in which you three have been conducting yourselves," he says, and then watches with immense satisfaction as Kenpachi's smug expression vanishes in mere seconds. "Can you imagine," he continues cheerfully, turning to face Kurotsuchi and Kyouraku who have both gone still, their faces a rather sickly shade of gray, "what she might say—what she might do—if she ever heard how deeply you've embarrassed Captain Yamamoto and the Gotei 13?"

There's a brief, uncomfortable silence.

"Well," Kenpachi mutters gruffly (God, Ukitake can't help marveling, but it's good to see him be intimidated for once) and kicks at another patch of cloud, "we might want to find Ichigo as soon as possible, then."


"That Espada bastard I was talking about? He's after Ichigo, for the same reason I was," Kenpachi informs them, and then adds grimly, "I don't think he's alone, either."

"There's more than one Espada in the material world?" Kyouraku repeats, eyes widening a little. "Why haven't Captain Hitsugaya and his men intercepted them yet?"

Ukitake bites at his lower lip, gazing out over the sprawl of Karakura Town. "I'm not sure," he says, reaching out with his mind for any trace of reiatsu, hollow and shinigami alike. "But we'd better get to the bottom of this, and fast."

For Ichigo's sake.

"Fucking asshole," Grimmjow mutters idly to no one in particular, and spits a mouthful of blood off the side of the office building where he's perched; regrouping, re-calculating, after finally managing to break away from his battle with Zaraki Kenpachi (AKA, said "fucking asshole.")

He's not really all that pissed at the moment as he is frustrated. Partly because of his wounds—a shallow cut across the chest, a slash on the arm, a molar that Kenpachi knocked loose—but more so because his temporary distraction caused Grimmjow to lose track of his prey, and he's eager to renew the chase. Especially because this time, it isn't simply the thrill of battle that Grimmjow's looking forward to, the vicious insults that Ichigo spits at him, the clash of steel as their swords meet. It's what lies after that has Grimmjow anxious, has him licking his lips over and over, unable to get the taste of Ichigo's skin out of his mouth: sweat, and soap, and innocence.

It was fucking intoxicating, feeling Ichigo tremble against Grimmjow in fear and undeniable arousal—two things Grimmjow never thought he would see in Kurosaki Ichigo; but now that he has, he wants to see (make) it happen again and again. Wants to pin Ichigo on his back and rip his clothes off with his teeth; to put that smart-ass mouth to far better use; to make Ichigo scream in a whole new kind of way.

The very thought soothes any lingering rage left over from his previous battle, and Grimmjow lets out a slow breath, running the tips of his fingers lovingly along the edge of Pantera's blade. He never thought he'd believe it, but for the first time, he's found a better weapon than his fists, or the slash of his sword. Sex is a fascinating tool—so many more ways to leave Kurosaki in agony, to torture him, exciting and denying, terrifying him all at once. Can't believe he didn't try it sooner; not that he hasn't been thinking about it long before Ichigo's embarrassing little secret slipped out. Not that he didn't notice Kurosaki's incredible legs, or his neck—long and smooth, perfect for sinking his teeth into—or that the kid is just plain fucking hot, and doesn't seem to have the slightest clue.

All he needs is a chance to get his hands on the kid one more time, to get Ichigo all to himself, without any chance of being interrupted by fucking Zaraki, or any of his idiot friends. And then Grimmjow can really have some fun.

Reiatsu flickers at the corner of his consciousness, and Grimmjow's head jerks in the direction from which it's flowing: dense, and powerful, an ever-lurking darkness at its edges, fluctuating erratically—and headed in his direction.

Grimmjow smiles and gets to his feet, sliding Pantera back into its sheath, the blood in his ears roaring with anticipation. Yes, he thinks gleefully, and launches himself off the edge of the building, the memory of Ichigo's flushed and frightened face burned into his memory: sex is such a wonderful weapon indeed.

Unfortunately for Grimmjow, he isn't the only one to have reached such a conclusion.

Aizen is initially more than a little displeased (to say the least) at the early return of Halibel from her trip to the material world, an unconscious Stark in tow and lacking the presence of both Grimmjow and Ulquiorra.

"I will advise you," he remarks in a dangerously pleasant tone, one eyebrow raised and resisting the desire to drum his fingers on the arm of his throne as Halibel approaches with her head bowed, "to make the explanation you are about to give especially good."

Halibel, however, doesn't so much as flinch at the blatant warning; if anything, her eyes are alight with uncharacteristic glee as she takes a knee before him, Stark curled up in a drooling puddle at her side.

"Aizen-sama, I return bearing vital information. Grimmjow has gone rogue and abandoned the mission."

To his left, Tousen stiffens slightly, his hand already jumping to the hilt of his sword, as if Grimmjow is even within cutting range. Aizen gestures leisurely for him to stand down, and nods for Halibel to continue. Hardly surprising news, really, but he has the sense Halibel isn't quite finished yet.

"Ulquiorra has stayed in the material world, to determine Captain Hitsugaya's whereabouts. However, while we were there, we came across another, equally interesting piece of information. Apparently, Kurosaki Ichigo…"

She pauses, in an attempt at dramatic effect, and despite himself, Aizen leans forward, just a little, at the mention of Kurosaki's name. Much as it irks him, Aizen can't help but admit (if only to himself) that the boy, while a recklessly impulsive brat, is still …intriguing. Just when Aizen assumes that he has the boy figured out, Kurosaki still manages to turn around and surprise him. He's an enigma; a particularly amusing puzzle—and Aizen, with the superior intellect he prizes himself on, has always been weak-willed when it comes to puzzles.

"Yes?" he prompts, carefully disguising his eagerness.

"We have recently learned that Kurosaki Ichigo is, in fact, still a virgin."

There's a split second's pause, broken by Gin, who fails to stifle a loud snort of laughter. Aizen casts an amused glance in his direction, but refrains from reprimanding him. Gin is one of the few other things that Aizen happens to be weak-willed about.

"Well," he replies dryly, at length. "That certainly is…enlightening."

"I fail to see what relevancy such information has," Tousen begins, frustrated, mostly likely at the denial of a chance to remove Grimmjow's arm permanently this time.

"Oh?" Gin asks pleasantly, his usual, eerie smile widening further when Aizen exchanges a wry smirk with him. "I disagree."

"As do I," Aizen says, much to Tousen's further disgruntlement.

"If you desire, Aizen-sama," Halibel offers politely, sensing success as she rises to her feet, "I could return to the material world, alongside Ulquiorra. Together, we will both engage Captain Hitsugaya in battle, and bring Kurosaki back to Las Noches for your…" Halibel's eyes glitter. "…discretion."

"Actually, my dear Halibel," he says, settling himself back into his throne with a thin smile, "I don't believe that will be necessary. You may return to your quarters. I shall await Ulquiorra and Grimmjow's return."

The line of Halibel's shoulders stiffens ever so slightly, indicating plainly that this is not the reaction she had hoped for. She merely nods, however, and rises to her feet, shuffling out of the throne room. The minute the doors close behind her, Tousen lets out a light, yet distinctly disapproving cough.

"Aizen-sama," he begins, "I don't understand why we should be so concerned about Kurosaki Ichigo's…" He falters, gesturing awkwardly. "Well, his…sexual activity. It has no effect on the outcome of our—your," he corrects himself immediately as Aizen's eyes narrow "—plans."

"No, it doesn't," Aizen admits lightly. Tousen's brow furrows in open frustration; Gin, however, is still watching Aizen with a wide smirk. Gin always was one of the few people who could read him, Aizen thinks fondly, as he gets to his feet and excuses himself without further explanation. Outside, the desert winds stir the mountains of sand, and Aizen gazes at the desolate scenery, strolling through the white corridors of Las Noches at a leisurely pace; turning Halibel's words over and over again in his head.

Kurosaki Ichigo. A virgin. Well. Aizen can hardly say he's surprised. The boy is only fifteen years old, after all. Besides, what with constantly having to protect the world from various evil plots (mostly Aizen's, as a matter of fact), it's not like there would be much time for dating, much less any kind of sex life.

And yet…the idea of Kurosaki, so stubborn and vicious when he fights, being defeated by something as simple as sex creates an unusual sense of satisfaction in Aizen that he can't quite explain. That no matter Kurosaki's accomplishments, his victories, no matter how desperately he strives to prove his strength, he'll still come apart, quivering and flushed, beneath the simplest of touches.

It's an appealing thought, and Aizen finds himself smirking, one long finger tracing his lips, curious to explore the full range of damage he can wreak with his newest weapon. He always did prefer psychological warfare over the brutality of combat; always found it more pleasing, pushing his enemies to their breaking point, picking up the pieces afterward for careful examination.

Perhaps, Aizen muses, and his smirk widens to a full, cruel grin—the first time he's openly smiled in years—he should take a trip to the material world. And then he'll see for himself, just how far Kurosaki Ichigo can be pushed.

Hitsugaya lets out a long, contented sigh and stretches out a little more along the roof of Kurosaki's high school, arms behind his head and watching with lazy interest as the clouds shift overhead. He's always considered it ironic, how much the living children complain constantly about school, how quickly they flee as soon as the bell rings for the end of the day; and yet, in spite of his young appearance, and the fact that he's being forced to endure unending humiliation, posing as a student… Hitsugaya finds he rather enjoys high school. It reminds him of his days in the Academy, the structured schedules and orderly conduct demanded by his teachers oddly soothing—mostly because he knows he'll never achieve that kind of order and discipline within his own squad, he reflects irritably, and shifts into a more comfortable position.

Damn Matsumoto.

It doesn't hurt, either, that Karakura's high school is the only place he can now find peace of mind, ever since Orihime's apartment became Rangiku's domain—a sign from God for Hitsugaya to run for his fucking life, lest he be roped into yet another one of her insane schemes. The last time he was forced into one of her "plans", it took him a week to get the smell of watermelon out of his hair, and another three before he found and destroyed the last of the pink hair ribbons she had stashed away in order to ambush him with. And he still hasn't entirely lived down the nickname, "Pretty Pink Princess" amongst the other captains of Soul Society.

Damn Matsumoto, he thinks with a shudder of horror, and closes his eyes, willing his mind to go blank again.

He's not sure how long he dozes for, though when he opens his eyes again, the sun has moved lower in the sky, and his stomach is growling. He'll have to head back to Orihime's apartment, at least to grab a little money, he decides as he gets slowly to his feet. He's pretty sure he can't take another night eating Orihime's cooking; if he has to choke down one more donut covered in sauerkraut and natto, he's going to—

He's taken maybe three steps when a veritable shit-ton of reiatsu comes slamming down on top of him, giving Hitsugaya no chance to brace himself before he's knocked on his ass. It takes him several minutes of straining and shoving with own reiatsu before he can push back against the spiritual energy pinning him to the roof. His mind is racing as he sits bolt upright, searching to get a grip on the different pulses of reiatsu bombarding him from every possible direction. He catches traces of Kurosaki—of the Gotei 13—of freaking Espada, he realizes with a thrill of terror, wondering at how long he's been passed out for—and of course, bearing down on it all, the same reiatsu that's been an eternal source of migraines and humiliations since he first came into contact with it.

"Damn Matsumoto," he snarls and, bursting free from his gigai, launches himself off the roof and speeds towards the center of the brewing chaos.

He knows the others are already there, the instant he touches down in front of Orihime's apartment building, but by this point, Ichigo's had enough time to pull himself together after his encounters with Kenpachi and Grimmjow, gathering his resolve. He's not putting up with any more shit, he decides, as he stalks up the flight of stairs that lead to Orihime's front door. He's going to march right in there, and demand Rukia to come with him, and the hell with everybody else. They'll probably be too stunned to react (including Rukia herself)—if he's lucky.

"Inoue? Are you there?" he calls out, and raps three times on her front door; he shuffles a little as he waits for her to answer, flexing his fingers absently and wishing he hadn't hurled Zangetsu at Kenpachi, now that he's currently put himself in the way of another potential (and disturbingly likely) ambush.

The door flies open abruptly for about half a second—Ichigo stumbles backward, just barely avoiding being smacked in the face—and Orihime blinks owlishly at him, then squeaks in terrified recognition, and promptly slams it shut again.

Ichigo barely has any time to register what just happened before the door bursts open again, and Orihime appears once again, her face strained in a hideous attempt at a casual smile.

"Kurosaki-kun!" she cries shrilly, and gives a high-pitched laugh that borders on the vaguely hysterical, causing Ichigo to raise an eyebrow in bewilderment. "Oh, Kurosaki-kun, we've been expecting you!"

I'll bet they have, Ichigo thinks darkly, and steels his resolve once again, despite the uncomfortably anxious way that Orihime is now staring at him. "I'm here for Ru—"

In all honesty, he shouldn't be so surprised at the multiple pairs of hands that fly out of nowhere from the darkness of the apartment and grab at him, though it doesn't stop him from screaming like some dumbass chick in a horror movie as he's dragged inside, and the door locks behind him.

"What the hell is—?" he snaps, which is about as far as he gets before the lights flick on, whereupon his voice, and general brain function, die.

Renji and Ishida are standing at the center of the room, back to back, and striking some kind of ridiculous pose, like they're characters out of a—a freaking magical girl show or something. They look like girls, at least, dressed in clothes so tight Ichigo's not entirely sure how they're still breathing, their hair glued into ridiculous styles with gel, faces caked with makeup.

"Ta-da!" Rangiku shouts triumphantly, leaping from the shadows and posing in an equally ridiculous fashion, looking thoroughly pleased with herself. "What do you think, Kurosaki?"

Ichigo's not entirely certain whether he wants to scream, or die of laughter, or break down sobbing. He settles for a vaguely disturbed, wheezing moan. This is, apparently, not the reaction Rangiku had been counting on.

"You don't like it?" she demands, put-out.

Ichigo still hasn't quite processed what it is he's supposed to be looking at; Rangiku seems to guess as much, because she whirls around and points imperiously at Renji and Ishida, who seem to shrivel somewhat under her gaze.

"We were trying to show you that it's all right," Ishida begins tonelessly, as if reciting lines, and makes an attempt at a smile that comes off more as a helpless leer.

"We wanted to let you know," Renji continues, and proves that there is indeed a script composed for this moment, when he has to glance down at the notes on his palm about what to say next, "that there are all kinds of men."

"And that we accept you for exactly who you are, and whoever you want to be," Ishida completes wearily, gesturing at his clothing as if to indicate this is the kind of person Ichigo might become in the near future.

"Do you see?" Rangiku butts in, looking excited again.

It's a slow realization that emerges, under Rangiku's steady, eager watch, and from Chad, Rukia, Orihime, Yumichika, and Ikkaku as they scuffle into view, all beaming hopefully at him; an understanding that finally clicks into place for Ichigo with a swirl of nauseous heat in the pit of his stomach.

"You mean," he begins, voice quavering, and even he's not entirely sure whether it's out of anger or fear, "you guys…know? About me being…gay?"

Rangiku nods slowly, as his friends' smiles begin to fade rapidly, with the realization that their plan has veered in a horrendously wrong direction.

"And you just—you thought—?" Ichigo's voice catches in his throat for a moment, and he can hardly breathe, much less think straight, as a million complicated thoughts and emotions hit him all at once, bursts of rage, and of panic, and confusion. "You thought you could make me feel all better about it, with—with this shit?" he snarls. He doesn't intend for it to come out so harshly, but though he feels a slight flicker of guilt at the way Orihime flinches, it's quickly buried beneath another wave of anger.

"First I had to put up with all that virginity crap and now—now this?"

"Ichigo," Rukia begins, eyes wide and apologetic. "I'm sorry. We're sorry, we just wanted—"

"Why can't any of you just leave me alone?" he shouts. And that's it. He's had it, he's done playing along, and tolerating this—he's done. Forget his plans, forget Rukia; he's going to do what he should have done when this first started, which is lock himself in his closet—like the faggot that I am, he thinks fiercely, fighting against an unusual lump in his throat, and spins on his heel, storming toward the door.

"Ichigo," Rukia says, devastated, sounding as if she's about to follow.

Right before the roof caves in around them. Literally.

"Found you."

Grimmjow is perched at the edge of the gaping hole he created in the ceiling. His gaze is fixed on Ichigo, possessive as it trails with wicked intent over his body, and he licks at his lips with predatory glee—right before he dives, sudden and purposeful. Ichigo barely has the time to react, his fist snapping out in automatic defense, and catching Grimmjow in the jaw, sending him reeling backward through another wall. Somewhere behind Ichigo, Orihime lets out a series of alarmed squeaks at the damage to her apartment.

"Playing hard to get, huh?" Grimmjow asks, unfazed as he picks himself up off the floor. His smirk hasn't wavered in the slightest, and Ichigo's upper lip curls in a snarl of fury. He meant it with his friends, and he means it all the more with Grimmjow—he's had enough of all this bullshit, and there's no way in hell he's letting anyone try and take advantage of him again. He's not armed, which he absolutely hates—he feels weirdly vulnerable without the familiar, comforting weight of Zangetsu strapped to his back—but at this point, he doesn't care if he has to beat Grimmjow's ass with his bare hands to make him back off.

"Bring it," Ichigo spits, fists raised.

Grimmjow dives for him, little more than a blur of white and blue, and Ichigo sinks into a fighting stance, bracing himself. This proves to be unnecessary, however, as a faint, high-pitched whine comes from above, right before a bright green cero pierces the roof, shattering the ceiling, and scorching Orihime's carpet. Grimmjow skids to a stop, as does Ichigo, both of them staring up in bewilderment; Ulquiorra saunters his way into view, glowering down at the both of them in disapproving contempt.

"Grimmjow," he says, voice tight with that ever-present strain of annoyance whenever he's forced to speak with Grimmjow, "I am here to take you back to Aizen-sama, for blatantly disobeying your orders. And you…" His cool, green eyes turns on Ichigo specifically, who flinches in spite of himself at the unspoken threat in that gaze. Given the pattern that this Shittiest of Shitty Days has taken, Ichigo has a very bad feeling that he knows exactly what Ulquiorra wants from him.

"Go fuck yourself," Grimmjow retorts eloquently, and sends a cero of his own rocketing back up toward Ulquiorra, simultaneously destroying the section of Orihime's roof that was still intact after the first blast. Ulquiorra dodges it easily and swoops down, his sword drawn and meeting Grimmjow's in a clash of steel.

"Arrancar bastards!" Ikkaku cackles, pleased at the chance to fight regardless of the reason why, and bursts from his gigai, hurling himself into the fight as well, the others following closely behind with battle cries of their own.

"Leave Ichigo alone!"

"Go back to Hueco Mundo where you belong!"

"Please, get out of my house?" Orihime yelps, scurrying to rescue her brother's shrine, even as the rest of the apartment crumbles around them. Ichigo, however, does his best to duck and weave between the clanging swords, in order to flee once more, and finally manages to pull himself free from the brawl. He surges up into the air, eager to take off, but he's stopped short by a hand around his ankle.

Grimmjow leers up at him, teeth bared in a gleeful smirk.

"C'mon, Kurosaki," he mock-purrs, and yanks sharply, dragging Ichigo back down towards him. "I promise I'll go slow."

Ichigo responds to that one by lashing out with his free foot, his heel driving down into Grimmjow's face again and again, until the grip on his ankle loosens and then releases him entirely. Grimmjow tumbles back into the fight below with an agonized snarl, and Ichigo hurries upward, eager to put as much distance between himself and the warzone that Orihime's apartment has become.

"Oi, Kurosaki-kun!"

Fucking A.

Ichigo turns warily toward the voice, and then fumbles to catch Zangetsu, as it's tossed at him. He's startled to see Ukitake once more, though significantly less thrilled to see Kyouraku, Kurotsuchi, and Zaraki trailing after him, their small party headed directly for the apartment. People in the street are beginning to stare by this point, the other residents in the building cowering for safety as they watch Orihime's apartment be inexplicably torn apart.

"I'm so sorry about all this," Ukitake remarks when he's close enough, his sword in hand as he frowns down at the battle. "We sensed the Arrancars' presence, but we were a bit delayed in getting here." He straightens up a little, eyes glittering with noble purpose, one hand patting Ichigo comfortingly on the shoulder. "Allow us to take care of this disaster," he begs. "It's the least we can do, to make up for what you've been put through." He doesn't wait for Ichigo's bemused assent, but descends rapidly into the fray, reiatsu pulsing with a frustration to rival Ichigo's own. He's followed by Kyouraku, who offers nothing more than a sly wink, and then Kurotsuchi, who spares Ichigo one of his customary leers. Zaraki is the last one. He pauses long enough to lick his lips, and grin at Ichigo in a way that is probably meant to be seductive, but just twists his face in an expression far more demented than usual.

"We'll finish what we started later, eh?"

"The hell we will, asshole," Ichigo growls under his breath as he watches Zaraki plunge into the fight with his usual frenzied glee. He turns sharply on his heel, ready to bolt before someone below notices he's missing and comes after him again—and instead slams straight into something solid and warm. For a second, he's bewildered, right before a sickeningly familiar reiatsu drops on him like fifty tons, smothering him in a nauseous haze. Ichigo stumbles backwards, but there's a hand wrapped around his wrist like a steel band, holding him still—holding him trapped.

"Good afternoon, Kurosaki Ichigo," Aizen Sousuke says, mockingly pleasant, and a stab of icy fear cuts deep through the pit of Ichigo's stomach.

"What—?" he asks stupidly; his body reacts on instinct, his free hand darting to grasp at Zangetsu's hilt, but Aizen seizes that one as well, his fingers cold and biting into Ichigo's skin, into the bones of his wrist.

"I heard about your little problem," he remarks, completely casual, and Ichigo feels as though he's going to be sick, even as a small part of him goes utterly berserk, unable to believe that even fucking Aizen's after him. Unlike the others, though, Aizen doesn't show any indication of attacking him, just hovers there, his reiatsu bearing down to the point where Ichigo swears he can feel his knees creak under the pressure. They've got to feel Aizen's presence below, and soon they'll be up here to help—or at least, that's what Ichigo feebly tries to convince himself of. Deep down, though, he's acutely aware of how isolated they are, so high up. Just the two of us, he thinks, and the need to throw up grows stronger still.

"Are you afraid of me, Kurosaki?" Aizen purrs, fingers idly brushing the insides of Ichigo's wrist—though his grip tightens immediately again when Ichigo tries to pull free.

"No," Ichigo spits back, more from stubborn spite than a place of real truth. Aizen seems to realize this, because his usual, faint smirk widens a little more.

"Even though you know what I intend to do to you?"

"I'd like to see you try," Ichigo retorts fiercely, and then struggles and fails to fight back a cringe when Aizen's thumbs begin to move in slow circles, pressing against the sensitive skin on the insides of his wrists once more.

"Fascinating, I must admit," Aizen continues in a gentle croon, ignoring Ichigo's words, those dark, narrow eyes trailing down along Ichigo's body—like Grimmjow's had earlier. But there is no heat, no glimmer of anticipation in his gaze, just cold, detachment. "You pretend to be so strong, and yet…you unravel at the slightest touch."

A sudden yank on Ichigo's wrists drags them closer together, and Ichigo struggles uselessly to free himself; he can't help the way he's begun to shake, in spite of his resolve, at Aizen's proximity, the dangerous smile curling along those thin lips, the cruel, prying interest in that awful gaze.

"You're just a novelty, really," Aizen murmurs softly, in direct counterpoint to his bruising grip. "A prize. Once someone fucks—" he spits the word with surprising sharpness; Ichigo can't help but flinch, as if it's Aizen's sword cutting into him, rather than just his words, "—you, your appeal is gone. No one here actually wants you. And do you want to know why, Ichigo?"

The use of his given name sends a jolt through him, though it's nothing compared to his panic when Aizen pulls him in the rest of the way, until their bodies are flush against one another, and they're frightening close, faces only inches apart. There's nothing intimate about it, though, and Ichigo's brain short-circuits with terror. He can't get free, at Aizen's mercy between his unrelenting grip and the insistent, pounding reiatsu that bears down on him with nearly unbearable weight, and he's numb with dread at what's going to happen to him, that he's going to be hurt in ways he's afraid to imagine.

"Because, Ichigo," Aizen whispers, directly in his ear, his horrible voice inescapable, his breath hot against Ichigo's neck, "all you really are is an ugly, frightened, pathetic little boy pretending to be something you're not."

Ichigo has never been good at fighting with words, and he wishes that it was the edge of a sword, the sharp blow of a fist that hits him, instead of Aizen's icy voice, the insinuating logic that he tangles Ichigo up in. The words feel like a slap across the face, and Aizen smiles, leaning in.

"Why don't you just give in, Ichigo?" he murmurs.

It's an effort to lift his head—to move at all, under Aizen's reiatsu—but Ichigo forces himself to look up, to meet that dark, wicked gaze head-on, his own eyes narrowed in fiercely determined spite.

"Why don't you go fuck yourself?" he shoots back. Aizen's handsome face crumbles into an ugly, vicious expression; before he can react, however, Ichigo's already moving, his right knee snapping up, driving directly into Aizen's groin. There's a low grunt of shock and mostly—Ichigo's savagely happy to note—pain as Aizen crumples and releases his grip on Ichigo's wrists. His reiatsu seems to recoil along with him, and Ichigo seizes the opportunity, kicking Aizen in the head and knocking him sideways. He doesn't have the opportunity to gloat, distracted by the shout of alarm that comes from below; Kyouraku and Ukitake are hurtling up meet him, looking panicked.

Took them long enough, Ichigo thinks furiously, and takes off without bothering to wait for them, desperate to get away—though unable to stop the way his hands are still shaking, the deep, pulsing hurt left behind by Aizen's bruising grip.

Ichigo is already long gone by the time that Ukitake draws level with Aizen; there's a small part of him that's startled by the surge of unexpected anger coursing through him, but his hands are tight on the hilt of his sword nevertheless, and he's grateful for Shunsui's presence, and the equal rage he can feel radiating off of him as well.

Aizen manages to struggle to his feet and regain some measure of composure—even pushes past his obvious pain to offer one of his characteristic smirks, an eyebrow cocked in arrogant cruelty.

"And just what were you trying to pull, Aizen?" Shunsui asks coldly, and though Aizen merely laughs, wicked and smug, it's answer enough. Ukitake raises his sword, assuming a fighting stance, as Shunsui does the same. Aizen seems amused, but he does the same, his own blade drawn, the air around them suddenly fraught with tension, in anticipation of the fight—


The rush of frantic reiatsu is their only warning, before Rangiku comes flying up between the three of them, smacking Aizen aside with a well-placed backhand and eliciting another grunt of pain as he goes flying. Her hair is a tangled wreck, her breasts half-hanging out of her torn shihakusho, and her eyes glint with maniacal determination, scanning their surroundings.

"Where did he go?" she hollers, whirling about, and Ukitake blinks, dumbfounded by the unexpected turn of events. Rangiku bares her teeth at them in a deranged sort of way that's probably meant to be threatening, growling low in her throat, and Shunsui points nervously in the direction that Ichigo went running.

"Damn that stupid kid!" she snaps, letting out a howl of frustration as she turns in the direction that Shunsui indicated.

"What is the meaning of—MATSUMOTO!" Ukitake glances below, at where Hitsugaya has just appeared; he's temporarily stopped short, out of pure horror, distracted by the fight still raging amongst the remains of Orihime's apartment; Rangiku seizes the opportunity and immediately takes off, which gets Hitsugaya's attention. He tears his gaze away from the wreckage, face contorted in disbelieving rage.

"Oh, no you don't! Not this time!" he shouts, and takes off after Rangiku in hot pursuit.

"Wait for me!" Shunsui cries eagerly. Ukitake makes a rather useless grab to stop him; his fingers only grasp air, however, as Kyouraku shun-pos away, chasing after the two of them.

"No!" Ukitake yells wearily, even as Kyouraku becomes little more than a pink dot in the distance. "Shunsui, don't! I said—"

"If he's not obeying your orders about Kurosaki," Kurotsuchi cuts in, having crept up behind Ukitake in the confusion, and looking far too delighted at the turn of events, as far as Ukitake's concerned, "then neither am I!"

"Not if I do first!" Zaraki snarls, right on Kurotsuchi's tail, sword drawn, and they run off, still clawing and gesturing threateningly at one another. Grimmjow shoots up into the air a split second later, hair sticking up at odd angles and practically foaming at the mouth. Ukitake takes a nervous step back.

"You fucking asshole, he's mine!" he roars at Zaraki's retreating back, and hurtles off.

"Get back here!" And that's Ulquiorra, who appears to be clinging to the last shred of his patience, from the way his right eye is twitching with dangerous frequency, his hands bright with an incoming cero. "Grimmjow!—Hello, Aizen-sama," he says in a polite aside to Aizen, who's still crumpled in the fetal position and grasping at his shattered nose, eyes wide with bewilderment, "I am nearly done with my mission. You fool!" he cries, and hurries after Grimmjow.

"Wait! Ichigo!" Rukia pleads, and races right past Ukitake without a second glance, completely oblivious to the presence of her bemused captain. "Wait, please, I can help!"

"Help us first!" Renji snarls, on her heels and with Ishida in tow, both of them inexplicably wearing perhaps the most appalling make-up Ukitake has ever seen, along with what appears to be a twelve year old girl's t-shirt and jeans two sizes too small on Ishida, who can barely run to keep up with Renji's pace.

They're followed, lastly, by Yumichika and Ikkaku, carrying Orihime between them, who's clutching at her brother's photograph, and staring mournfully down at the smoking wreckage of her apartment.

"I hate shun-po. Always ruins my hair," Yumichika remarks despondently to nobody in particular, and heaves a melodramatic sigh, right before the three of them take off after everyone else. In the street below, Chad follows in close pursuit.

Ukitake and Aizen are left standing there in silence, staring blankly after the stampeding crowd.

"I have no idea what just happened," Ukitake says aloud, weakly.

"This isn't…exactly how I expected this to go," Aizen remarks, huddled on his knees, and looking less like an evil overlord, and the dreaded enemy of Soul Society, and more like a petulant five year old.

"I don't feel sorry for you," Ukitake retorts flatly, sparing Aizen a withering glare, before he takes off after the rest of the crowd, fighting against the first traces of a splitting headache, and wondering whether Yamamoto's going to have a stroke when he hears this latest report.

"So," Yoruichi begins in far-too-innocent a voice, curling her ponytail around one finger and watching him intently, the way a cat does when it's contemplating how best to devour a mouse. Across the table, Urahara glances up from his tea, careful to keep his expression neutral, even though he knows perfectly well there's no fooling her. He's been waiting for her to ask, truth be told, ever since this morning when she walked in on his conversation with Ichigo; since Rangiku stormed out of the Shoten a few hours ago, and things have finally calmed down long enough that she'd have the opportunity to fully interrogate him.

Urahara holds back a sigh and takes a slow sip of tea, bracing himself.

"So what?" he asks, keeping his voice as light and casual as possible.

"How long?" Yoruichi prompts, sitting up a little straighter and grinning. Urahara smiles cheerfully back.

"Forgive me, Yoruichi-san, but you'll have to be more specific. I'm afraid I'm not a mind-reader—"

"How long have you wanted to fuck Ichigo?" she demands, slamming her fist down on the table.

Typical Yoruichi, with all the tact and subtlety of a sledgehammer. Urahara smiles weakly and traces his finger around the rim of his cup, staring into the dark swirl of liquid and tea leaves.

"It's not quite like that," he admits. He won't bother playing games; he doesn't have the energy, and Yoruichi doesn't have the patience—she's never tolerated the bullshit façade he presents to everyone else.

Yoruichi hums and waggles her eyebrows mischievously, unconvinced.

"Yeah, right. How long's it been since you got laid?"

"Yoruichi-san," he begins, exasperated.

"Don't play innocent with me," she fires back, and folds her arms pointedly, as if to deflect any potential arguments he might offer. "I saw the way you were looking at him." She pauses, a devious grin crossing her face. "Not that I blame you. Kid's pretty hot. Plus, you know what they say about red-heads in bed."

"It's not like that," Urahara says again awkwardly, and though he knows perfectly well she's only teasing, her words cause some strange surge of emotion—almost oddly protective in nature—to twist inside his chest.

"Well," Yoruichi relents with a casual shrug, and leans back on her pillow. "I guess not, if he's a virgin. But that's a whole new level of appeal right there, eh, Kis—?"

"It's not like that!" he repeats for a third time, voice tighter than he intends it to be, and for a split second, the temper that he otherwise keeps so firmly in check slips from his control. He recovers instantly, with a well-placed, sheepish grin and a flick of his fan. Yoruichi, however, has fallen silent, watching him with narrowed eyes. All manner of teasing has disappeared from her expression, and she seems oddly serious—which, with Yoruichi, is perhaps even more alarming than when she's messing around.

"Kisuke," she says at length, and he inclines his head so that she can't see his eyes; can't see past the mask to look inside him where, buried beneath a teacher's affectionate pride, a scientist's curiosity, and—yes, he'll admit it—pure, helpless desire, there's…something else that Ichigo never fails to stir up within Urahara. An emotion stronger than anything he's ever felt, and yet so painfully fragile that he's afraid to give a name to it.

"Kisuke," Yoruichi says again, more firmly, and Urahara bites the inside of his mouth and looks up, his expression mild. She doesn't buy it for a second, just grins broadly and leans across the table to punch him in the arm. Hard.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"Because you're an idiot," she informs him with immense exasperation, as if speaking to a particularly stupid child. "You like him, yes?"

"…Yes," he admits quietly, his throat temporarily tightening in spite of himself.

"Then prove it!" Yoruichi demands and hits him a second time. "Right now, that kid's out being chased around by God knows how many people—all of them undeserving, all of them interested in only one thing. Fuck, Kisuke!" she hollers suddenly, and smacks him upside the head. "Man up! If you want him, then fight for him!"

Urahara blinks at her, somewhat stupefied, and Yoruichi shakes her head, and shoves at his shoulder, this time far more gentle, before pressing a quick kiss to his cheek.

"Go get him," she orders firmly, and rises to her feet, a hand braced on her hip. Urahara stares up at her—and in that moment, feels a quick shudder of reiatsu course through him: dense, dark, pouring out waves of reverberating power.

But all Urahara can think about is the boy behind it; the boy with a will like steel, and flashing brown eyes; with immeasurable compassion and a rare, but absolutely beautiful smile.

Something achingly tender blossoms within him, and he takes the hand up that Yoruichi offers, smiling in determination.

"I'm going to do it," he vows aloud, preparing to take off.

He never gets the chance to, however, as a split second later, who else but Ichigo himself comes flying—literally—through the wall of the Shoten at breakneck speed, slamming into Urahara and sending them both tumbling. For a few good seconds, Urahara knows nothing but a blur of limbs, and the world sliding sideways around him, as he rolls across the floor, before at last they crash into another wall and come to a stop. His head is pounding, and Urahara's terrified that he's temporarily gone blind, until he realizes that it's only because his eyes are still shut. He opens them, and then wonders if perhaps it might have been better to keep them shut, because Ichigo is trembling, and flushed light pink, and straddling his hips like something out of one of Urahara's many fantasies, and he's afraid if he stares much longer he's going to have a heart attack right on the spot.

"Well, that didn't take long," Yoruichi remarks wryly, peering at them through the crater Ichigo left in the wall. Tessai is staring too, eyebrows raised, and Urahara fights back a blush and squirms, until Ichigo gets the hint and scrambles to his feet, bright red.

"Kurosaki-san," Urahara begins, picking himself up and dusting off his haori, secretly trying to regain some semblance of self-control and ignore the way his heart is still pounding wildly. "What are you—?"

His question is a foolish one, answered immediately by the crushing reiatsu that descends on top of the store just then, making even him and Yoruichi stumble a bit under the sudden pressure. Ichigo's blush vanishes instantly, the blood rushing from his face; the pure terror in his expression wrenches at Urahara, and before he's entirely sure of what he's doing, he's taking hold of Ichigo's wrist—notices, oddly enough, how Ichigo flinches when he does so—and pulls him after, the two of them hurrying through the many winding hallways of the Shoten.


"Don't worry, Kurosaki-san. I have a plan!" Urahara replies, lying through his teeth, and ducks into an empty side-room. He lets go of Ichigo's wrist with one last, reassuring squeeze, then slams the door shut and proceeds to systematically stack every last piece of available furniture in front of it.


"Don't worry, it'll be all right," he promises, barely glancing at Ichigo as he searches in the vain hope that he's missed one last futon to add to his makeshift barricade. It's not really a plan at all, but given the limited time and their current circumstances, this is the best he can do, he thinks ruefully to himself. He whirls back around toward the door, facing it head-on, and draws Benihime from her hidden sheath, bracing himself.



Ichigo's voice is soft, and in his ear, and sounds nothing like him at all, which is perhaps what prompts Urahara to turn around, though he immediately stumbles backward in surprise. Ichigo is standing mere inches away, his eyes dark and wide, and strangely miserable.

Urahara doesn't get the chance to ask what's wrong, as Ichigo abruptly closes the space between them, his hands fisting in Urahara's haori and dragging him in, until their mouths are crushed together.

He doesn't know what he's doing.

In terms of kissing, and Ichigo can't help but wonder with a stab of vicious embarrassment, if it's painfully obvious—even as he presses closer, his tongue swiping clumsily over Urahara's lips. But he can't stop, doesn't back away, only clings tighter and fights against the hands on his shoulders trying weakly to push him off. Urahara manages to twist his head away and break the kiss, gasping. His hat's knocked sideways so that Ichigo can see just how deeply he's blushing, and a burst of satisfaction courses through him.

"I know you like me," he says; tries to smirk in what he hopes is a seductive way, flush against Urahara's body, so warm and strong and firm that Ichigo shudders and rubs himself against the jut of Urahara's hip, desperately trying to work himself into a state of arousal. "I've seen you looking at me. I know you wanna fuck me."

"Jesus, Ichigo—"

"You've thought about it, right?" he insists, and even to his own ears, he sounds pathetic, wheedling, but he won't stop, he can't stop—none of will ever stop, until he just fucking gives in like Aizen said. Until he hands himself over, lets himself be changed, and wrecked, and made into something and someone that no one's going to give a damn about anymore, and sex—surrender, he thinks bitterly—is the only option he has left.

"You can have me however you want," he promises, his fingers untangling from the folds of Urahara's haori and moving to the front of his shihakusho instead. He's trying to undo it—but his fucking hands are shaking too hard, and his whole body is, too. He can't breathe right, or think straight, and Ichigo feels as if he's drowning under a wave of crushing panic.

"Help me," he says softly, to nobody in particular, only faintly aware of the way Urahara is staring at him with wide, concerned eyes. Ichigo's arms drop to his sides, and he chokes out the words around the swelling lump in his throat. "I don't—I don't…"

He doesn't know what he's doing.

In terms of anything. Sex, and sexuality, none of it is clear-cut like fighting, but tangled, and complex, and it hurts, and he's scared. He hasn't really been angry today, so much as he's been terrified, because how can he deal with everyone else when he hasn't even come to terms with himself? He can hardly see through the blur of tears, and he stumbles, as his knees finally give out, and nearly falls.


Nearly, but for the hands on his shoulders again, keeping him steady.

Urahara is looking at him. Not with pity, or with lust, like the others, but really… looking at him. Like he can see everything that Ichigo was, is, will be and…accepts it. Those gray eyes are soft, and the hands that hold him are gentle too, like Ichigo is something fragile, and precious, and he's stunned and terrified by it, all at once.

"It's okay," Urahara whispers, and Ichigo trembles in his grip, face streaked with tears and still breathing hard.

"Urahara, don't, just—just—" But Ichigo doesn't know what he wants him to do, except for Urahara to stop staring at him so…lovingly.

Because Ichigo doesn't know what to do with that, or how to feel about it, being treated in such a different way than he has the entire day: like he's to be protected, rather than harassed, treasured rather than used, and the weight of that kind of love scares him almost as much as it makes him feel…safe.

"It's okay, Ichigo," Urahara says again, and the sound of his given name sends an electrifying shiver through him; and then Urahara is leaning in, and Ichigo does the same, closing the distance, their lips touching in a gentle kiss.

It's not like before: slow, and simple, and so tender that Ichigo finds himself crying all the harder for it, even as his heart races in exhilaration. It only lasts a few seconds, but it feels like time has come to a standstill, and when they separate, it's only so that Urahara can fold his arms around Ichigo entirely, pulling him against his chest in a warm embrace, one hand stroking Ichigo's hair soothingly.

"It's okay, Ichigo," Urahara says, "I've got you."

"Urahara," he begins softly.

"Kisuke," is the quiet, insistent correction. "Please."

Ichigo smiles shyly to himself and nods, pressing his face into Urahara's shoulder, holding tighter.

"Kisuke," he repeats, and it feels good to say—like it's a promise; that he doesn't have to worry about always running, always moving, always fighting. He doesn't have to be scared to get close. In that moment, in Urahara's—Kisuke's, Ichigo corrects himself with quiet elation—arms, the hurt and the humiliation of the entire day, of the last few years, melts away. And for the first time, in a very long time, Ichigo is at peace.

For awhile, Ichigo is content to simply be held, as Urahara presses lingering kisses to his forehead, his ears, his neck, the two of them savoring the warmth of the moment. Eventually, however, they're forced back into reality—with the assistance of a well-timed explosion, accompanied by a loud and persistent banging coming from just outside the room. Urahara and Ichigo stare bemusedly at one another, and then at the door, still blocked off.

"I know he's in there!" Rangiku snaps faintly from the other side, though she sounds somewhat distracted; there's the intermittent clanging of swords between her words, as if she's fighting off several people at once, even while making her demands. "Move aside!"

"I will not," Tessai replies firmly, nearly drowned out by a series of violent curses from Grimmjow, followed by multiple explosions that have the walls of the Shoten shuddering in warning.

"Whatever's going on in there is none of your business, anyway," Yoruichi adds waspishly, and receives a loud chorus of overlapping threats from the assembled crowd for her efforts.

Urahara and Ichigo look back at one another.

"Those assholes," Ichigo mutters irritably. Urahara nods in agreement, but he's smiling and then, slowly and much to Ichigo's annoyed surprise, begins to break down into incredulous laughter.

"What? What is it?"

Urahara shakes his head and kisses at Ichigo's furrowed brow until he stops frowning.

"Just…this could only happen to us," he says, and then laughs harder.

"It's not funny," Ichigo retorts stubbornly, but Urahara's laughter is infectious, and the more he thinks about it the more he realizes how, in spite of all he's been put through today, it really is, ultimately, unbelievably ridiculous. He starts to laugh as well, out of a sense of relief and disbelief, their combined hysteria growing until they're both clinging to one another, struggling to remain upright.

"Welcome to my life," Ichigo jokes, and wipes at his eyes with the sleeve of his shihakusho. Urahara gives one last chuckle, and then takes Ichigo's hand, beaming.

"What do you say we get out of here?" he suggests. Ichigo grins, nervous, but in the best way possible. He's not sure what this is going to be like—his first real relationship, that is. Probably complicated. Probably scary. He's still not entirely settled with the issue of his virginity, of his sexuality, but as he holds tight to Urahara's hand, somehow he knows that he can deal with it. He's not alone, anymore.

And hell, Ichigo thinks to himself and can't help but grin, after everything else that's happened to him, and with Urahara at his side, there's nothing he can't handle.

"Lead the way," Ichigo says.

The door to the room finally blows open in the wake of Kurotsuchi's bankai, the mountain of furniture scattering everywhere as the crazed horde of shinigami and Arrancar alike spill inside: Rangiku leading the charge and fighting off Yoruichi and Tessai, both of them attempting to tackle her; Ulquiorra and Grimmjow simultaneously strangling one another; Zaraki with his sword raised high; Ukitake still uselessly trying to hold them all at bay.

But Urahara and Ichigo are already out the window and running. Ichigo takes only a moment to turn back—to wave a sarcastic goodbye at the group, piling up on top of one another and gaping stupidly after him; to wink at Rukia, Orihime, and Chad, the three of them grinning after Ichigo with delighted surprise.

And then he looking forward, returning Urahara's smile. Knowing, as they take off hand in hand, that no matter what insanity comes their way, everything's going to be all right.

To be Continued…

ONE MORE CHAPTER TO GO! Dude, I'm so excited! This'll have been the first multi-chapter fanfic I'll have finished in awhile!

Lol, next chapter will hopefully be up much sooner—although…I'll probably have to bump the rating up to M, if you know what I mean. Heh, heh…I'm a perv.

I hope this chapter was all right. I know, it's kind of more serious than the rest of the story so far, but please, let me know if it was okay, cuz I'm feeling a bit uncertain about this one…

Thank you so much for reading, and I can't wait to hear from you!

Cheers, Rebel