Safe In My Arms

Shadow of an Echo

Chapter Twelve

The Gift

Nel had been patient. Through the other demonstrations, she had clung to Lilynette, only letting go so the other Arrancar could show off with Starrk. Now she was tired of being patient. "Nel's turn?" She asked, tugging on Ulquiorra's sleeve insistently.

"Are you sure you still want to Nel?" He asked the little Beta.

"Yes! They saw yours, can't I show mine?" She demanded, her childlike voice demanding.

"Let her do it," Starrk said quietly. "We do need to know if she can, then we can pass it along to the Shinigami trying to heal her. That we know of she only managed it once, when her companions and her were in a lot of danger, if she can't do it any other time it could help them narrow down what needs to be done." It wasn't just the fact Nel obviously wanted to try badly, something useful might be discovered in allowing her to try it.

"Yay!" Nel exclaimed bouncing up and down clapping her hands.

Ulquiorra moved to put his hand on her broken mask, but was stopped by Starrk. "I'll do it," He insisted, taking the Alpha's spot in front of her.

When Ulquiorra backed off to give them room, Isshin couldn't stop the question. "What is he doing?"

"Nel was injured a long time ago, with her mask broken she can't hold onto Spirit Pressure for very long. This form is the result, she wasn't always a child, when she was in the Espada she ranked a step above me. We can help her get back her old form by giving her a bit of our power. It's the only way she might be able to show her release without putting her through a lot of strain." Ulquiorra explained, watching Starrk carefully.

"Is it safe for him to do? Why did he stop you?" More worry, and a bit of confusion, compelled the question from Isshin. As crazy as he could seem, when there was danger, or even the potential for danger, he grew serious and the shadow of the Captain he once was became obvious.

"Starrk is the strongest of the Espada, he can spare the power it takes to do this even in his condition. The reason he pushed me aside is it's easier on Nel to process energy from another Beta. The basic exchange works with an Alpha, but I think Starrk believes if he helps her this time, Nel would have a better chance of succeeding in her release." Ulquiorra didn't have to ask to know what was running through Starrk's head. He disliked battle, but he didn't mind using his power for something like this; to help instead of hurt.

The puff of smoke coming off Nel distracted them, and Starrk backed away, joining the rest of the group. "Meet Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck, former Tres Espada." Lilynette decided to introduce as the grown woman dressed in green was revealed from the smoke.

She blinked and shook her head to reorient herself, before walking over to them. "I don't have long, once I release, if I can, I'm going to pass out." She warned, the memory of fighting Nnoitra coming back in bits and pieces, before walking away once again, giving them a good look at the three inscribed on her back beneath her flowing blue-green hair.

"Is she related to Grimmjow?" Karin asked, going off the odd hair color.

"She might be, we're not completely sure. The same injury that keeps her locked as a child also affects her memory. We don't have a way of knowing positively. If she is, then she is his daughter." Ulquiorra explained.

"You don't watch after children?" Isshin asked incredulously, now even more worried about Ichigo and his grandchildren.

"We try," The Alpha informed, "But once they are grown and leave the mated pair it is easy to lose track when you have so much land to cover. Grimmjow has eight children other than Ichigo's litter, he readily admits that, but he didn't say how many he lost track of over time. That's when we were still full Hollows, as Arrancar that might change."

"Why?" The question was quick because Nelliel had stopped walking and drew her Zanpakuto.

"Arrancar have a different power signature, and there are far less of us, even when they leave they will be easier to find." Ulquiorra explained as a plume of pink energy surrounded Nelliel.

When her form was revealed, she galloped over to them to give them a better look. Her form was a bit like a centaur, human joined at the waist by a four legged animal, but instead of a horse, she looked like an antelope of some sort. The mask fragment on her head curved into horns giving her a mountain goat type appearance. "I'm not going to change back right away, I want to see how long I can hold it." She explained, seeing the appreciative looks from the two human girls. Her form was elegant, the others had been intimidating, not pretty like hers.

"When is Ichi going to get back?" Yuzu asked, the twins weren't so young they couldn't guess what was happening, but they didn't want to think about it too hard.

"Shouldn't be too much longer," Ulquiorra answered carefully. He wasn't about to say too much with their father right there, that would not end well for him if Isshin was even half as strong as Ichigo.

Isshin shot him a grateful look, easily realizing what the Espada was trying to do. "How long do you think you can hold that form?" He asked the released Arrancar, he was anxious to get back to his grandkids.

"I don't know," She shrugged, "Not very long."

"She can only hold her adult form for half an hour, this form I'm guessing about half that or less." Ulquiorra predicted. "If we start heading back now, she will need to be carried before we reach Las Noches."

"I'll carry her when we get to that point," Lilynette promised, Nel would be heavier unconscious, but she could still do it.

"All right, we can head back now, Ichigo and Grimmjow will catch up. There isn't anything out here that could hurt those two, especially together." Ulquiorra decided starting to lead them away.

"Is Ichi really that strong?" Yuzu managed to ask before the speed would prevent conversation.

"Ichigo is the strongest Visored," Ulquiorra informed, Rose had told them as much in the last week. "Starrk and Ichigo have never fought directly for us to figure out which of them is stronger."

"I don't need to fight him to know he is stronger." Starrk admitted. "He needs trained a little further before he would beat me in a fight, but there is no doubt in my mind he could given enough time."

With that statement giving them something to think about, they headed back to Las Noches without further debate. Not five minutes after returning to the meeting room, Isshin and the girls had claimed a baby and were busy cuddling, while Ulquiorra and Starrk sunk down on a cushion to rest.

Starrk stretched out and put his head in Ulquiorra's lap, eyes closing quickly. Too comfortable to care about the quiet snickers coming from Szayel on the next cushion over. "I never thought I would see the day Ulquiorra was used as a pillow." He commented, stretching out himself now that he wasn't entertaining a baby.

"He's a comfortable pillow," Starrk muttered, bordering on the edge of sleep. The journey hastened by the small hand running through his hair slowly.

Lilynette had set Nel down beside her, drawing the unconscious child's head in her lap in a parody of the position between Starrk and Ulquiorra. She looked over at her other half with his Alpha and smiled. "They do that all the time, just because you didn't see it doesn't mean it hasn't happened before."

"How did it go? Where are Ichigo and Grimmjow?" Shinji asked, settling back to talk.

"The releases were really interesting." Yuzu replied a bit shyly, but was smiling down at Amon, Karin had claimed Hikari this time.

"Ichigo was showing us his form, it distracted Grimmjow, they will be back soon." Ulquiorra answered the second question when the others seemed reluctant.

Shinji laughed, trying to be a little quieter to let Starrk sleep. "I shouldn't be surprised. Those two are so much alike, let me guess, Ichigo showed his highest form right? Grimmjow would have trouble resisting his Beta throwing off power like that."

"You know about his other form?" Karin asked this one, she had heard them talking, the Arrancar hadn't known about it besides Ulquiorra.

Shinji nodded, "When he first got back from Heuco Mundo, he explained what he'd found. He showed us briefly but thought it was too strong to chance using in the Living World. He prefers either his mask or his first Hollow form, he doesn't like drawing attention to himself."

Rose chuckled beside him, "Ichigo might not like attention, but Shiro does. He is the worst show off out of all of us when Ichigo lets him loose. They really are the reflection of each other, kind of like Starrk and Lilynette now that I have gotten to know them. Where one is serious and restrained, the other is open and rambunctious."

"Are you talking about me?" Ichigo and Grimmjow were back, but to the Kurosaki's surprise, Ichigo had traded places with Shiro his eyes turning amber on black to reflect who was in control. "King thought it would be a good idea for me to introduce myself."

Grimmjow shook his head with a wide grin on his face, "More like he was too shy to face everyone so quickly."

"That too," Shiro admitted, grinning along with the Alpha.

"What's going on?" Karin was looking sharply at Ichigo, knowing that wasn't her brother, well not exactly.

A slow grin crossed Ichigo's face, an expression her brother would never make. "I'm the Hollow sharing your brother's soul. Call me Shiro."

"You two are separate?" Isshin asked, holding Tsume protectively against his chest, not sure how to react to the new entity.

"We share a soul, but have separate minds. King is in charge most of the time, but he lets me take over every once and awhile. I am the reason you are holding your grandson right now. In more than one way, so stop trying to shield him from me, I wouldn't hurt my son." Shiro attempted to explain, not missing how Isshin had tried to hide Tsume out of his sight.

When Isshin still looked unsure, Grimmjow stepped in, "Only Beta Hollow males can get pregnant in the first place, if Shiro wasn't a part of Ichigo he wouldn't have had children. After they were exiled here, it was Shiro who kept them alive in Heuco Mundo. I didn't find them until the day our children were born, Shiro was so protective he avoided everyone including me."

Shiro rubbed his eyes, "Look the only reason I am in control right now is King is shy, and he wanted his family to meet the other side of him. We had our problems in the beginning, but they have long been worked out. So either stop being so skittish or I will force King to come out again, and you will have a blushing stammering Visored to deal with." He issued the ultimatum calmly, dropping gracelessly on a cushion near Isshin, Grimmjow settling beside him.

"Why do you call Ichi King?" Yuzu asked cautiously, still a little scared at the change, but she had been listening this was still her brother, just a different side of him.

"He was the first here, he is mine and Zangetsu's King, I'm the only one that calls him that though." Shiro admitted to her. "Zangetsu is our Zanpakuto." He explained, seeing the question on her face before it was asked, placing a hand on the giant sword as he spoke of him.

Tsume started fussing in Isshin's arms, the veteran father figuring out the problem quickly, "I think he's hungry. I'll feed him if you get a bottle ready."

"Don't need bottles, just hand him here," Shiro said, getting up to retrieve his son. Isshin was a little reluctant, but when no one else objected he carefully handed the fussing child to the Hollow.

Settling back against Grimmjow, Shiro was considerate enough to protect his King's modesty and covered the feeding baby with the loose cloth of his Shihakusho, no one could see anything but the baby's legs and a bit of Ichigo's chest.

"You can nurse?" Isshin really shouldn't have been shocked with everything that'd been thrown at him, but he still was.

"Beta Hollows can do everything a female human can with children. We can carry, birth, and feed our young. It would be disastrous if all we could do was conceive." Szayel informed him.

Isshin nodded, "Makes sense, I was just a little surprised."

A laugh brought his attention to Grimmjow, "If you think you were surprised you should have seen Ichigo when he first realized he would be nursing the babies."

"That was nothing to when I told him we were pregnant, or again when I figured out there was three." Shiro added, not shy about the process of feeding the baby. It was natural, and there was only family and close friends around him right now, even Ichigo may not have been very shy. He was only being nice to his King, for once, by covering up.

"How did you know when my brother didn't?" Karin asked curiously, getting over her shock much quicker than her father had. Children were more adaptable than adults, and both Karin and Yuzu were showing that trait now.

"It's instinctive in Beta Hollows to know when we are carrying. It can take less than a week for us to notice, and it gets easier to tell with each litter we have. When we are in Heuco Mundo it is imperative that we know as soon as possible so we can inform our Alpha or Alphas and get protection." Szayel answered for Shiro, he was the experienced Beta and understood things the new carrier didn't yet.

"Alphas? You can have more than one?" Isshin was dealing with all this slowly, but he was managing. They only taught the very basics in the academy, they knew nothing of how Hollow families worked, or what happened between mated pairs. To be honest they hadn't even known there were mated pairs that lasted longer than the initial encounter.

"Yes. We are not monogamous. We care about our mates, and protect them, but we don't stay together for life, and yes, we can have more than one mate at a time. What normally causes jealousy in humans only adds protection for the Beta and the developing young." Szayel explained.

"Starrk, Grimmjow, and I are part of a pairing like that now." Ulquiorra admitted, surprising the others at volunteering the information. If he was going to help Tia in the living world, he had to get used to talking a bit more personally than he was used to. "Grimmjow has been staying mostly with Ichigo since his litter is already here, but we both do what we can for Starrk."

"I think that is the part I am going to have the most trouble with. I couldn't bear the thought of being with someone other than Masaki when she was alive." Isshin wasn't too proud to admit.

"Even humans can love more than one person in their lives, through divorce or death, they can have more than one spouse. When we say we have more than one mate, we mean it, our mates mean the same to us whether we have one or three, it's about protection and care." Grimmjow explained, from his spot next to Shiro.

"We don't ask that you like it, only that you understand it and don't judge Ichigo if that is the way his instincts pull him." Szayel added.

"They already have pulled us towards that," Shiro admitted, with Tsume coming to the end of his meal. "Or have you forgotten?" He added with a glance at Szayel's still flat stomach.

Shiro walked over to Yuzu, offering Tsume, "Give me Amon so he can eat, you can hold Tsume for a bit, you haven't yet." It was a little awkward switching babies, but they managed, and soon Amon was settling in to eat.

Isshin didn't miss the exchange between Shiro and Szayel, but wasn't sure he wanted to ask with his daughters in the room. "It would take a lot more than that for me to give up on my kids. I trust Ichigo, I can't make his choices for him. I can only teach him and hopes he makes the ones that are right for him."

"That would be the benefit of having a parent far older than they look." Shinji noted. "Most parents would have flipped out by now."

"I can tell you don't have kids." Isshin ribbed Shinji, "A parent's job is to try and guide them and hope we don't mess up too badly. We are supposed to love them, protect them, and let them make their own mistakes. If we never let them fall, they won't know how to get back up. Ichigo will learn this the first time one of these kids tries to take a step and they fall. His heart will stop, he will rush over, and probably panic the baby more in his worry than any pain they might feel. He has to let it happen though, if they don't try they won't walk."

"Is that why you beat Ichigo up all the time?" Karin asked incredulously.

"Yes, I never pushed him further than he could handle, I was just making sure he knew his limits were a lot further than he let himself show." Isshin explained. "I may be showing my age with this approach but it kept him safe and strong, I don't regret it."

"He's just like Ichigo." Grimmjow couldn't keep it in anymore. "Do you realize that attitude is not typical of humans right? Fear and worry can make people do strong things, especially when their children are concerned."

"How would you know, you don't look any older than Ichigo?" Karin asked, not sure whether she should be defending her father or backing Grimmjow.

"I am older than I look, a lot older, I spent time in the Living Worlds observing long before Aizen pressed me into service. When I wasn't hunting small fry Hollow, I was watching people, they couldn't see me so I could get pretty close." He explained.

"Aw, did Grimmkitty want to be a house cat?" Szayel teased, not able to resist the opening.

"Watch it Pinky," Grimmjow growled. "You won't be pregnant forever, just you wait."

Szayel grinned, "Are you offering to babysit?"

"Ichigo can babysit while I beat you into the sand Octava," Grimmjow baited, he enjoyed the occasional spar with Szayel, their techniques were so different even with the power difference it was an interesting fight.

"Shouldn't you ask before you volunteer your Beta for something?" Szayel pointed out calmly, it was all hypothetical anyway, he still had several months before he would even consider fighting.

"Yeah shouldn't you ask?" Shiro groused, punching Grimmjow with his unoccupied arm. "We won't mind watching the kid every once and awhile, but it's our choice."

Rose commented drily from the sidelines, "And now you see why the Alphas bend over backwards for the Betas, not only are they stronger they band together."

He earned himself a scowl from Grimmjow and a pair of grins from Shiro and Szayel.

Isshin chuckled, "Well now I'm sure Ichigo found himself a good place."

Shinji smiled, "You didn't have to worry much about that. Your son has a way of worming into the affections of others. You should see the waves he is making in the Soul Society, and he isn't even there this time."

"You've been back to the Soul Society since the exile?" Shinji hadn't bothered to mention that part to Isshin.

"No, I haven't, but Yoruichi has. She is the one who has been monitoring the situation over there. The specifics of the meeting have been kept quiet, but with every day the rumors surrounding Ichigo's exile, and the cause of it, get louder. Yamamoto is going to have a lot to answer to, and soon." Shinji explained to the former Captain.

Their conversation was interrupted with Shiro bringing Amon over, "Since I stole Tsume, you can hold him while I get Hikari." He explained passing Isshin his youngest child before heading over to Karin to collect his daughter. Once Karin's arms were empty, Yuzu passed her twin Tsume, giving Karin a chance at holding their nephew.

"King's ready to switch back now," Shiro informed as he settled the baby against his chest, getting situated before Ichigo took back over and the familiar warm brown eyes were visible.

"Did he cause much trouble?" Ichigo asked, looking between his family, the Arrancar, and Visoreds.

"He was pretty subdued," Rose insisted, "He could have been a lot worse."

"Feeding the babies takes a lot of energy out of him, that's probably why he was calm." Ichigo realized, feeling the agreement coming from his Hollow.

"If that is calm, what is he like when he's excited?" Karin asked in a kind of morbid curiosity.

"You don't want to know, just be glad Ichigo can rein him in or Karakura Town would probably be rubble by now." Shinji was holding back his mirth while explaining. He had seen Shiro go on a rampage before, it was as funny as it was scary to anything in his path. "Shiro is an odd Hollow, very excitable, and can be a bit childlike. He can be serious, and when he is I don't think there is anything more dangerous, but most of the time he is playing some kind of game or practical joke."

"He likes to drive Zangetsu and me crazy. When he gets bored and starts messed with Zangetsu, I end up with a headache during their spar. I could learn from them if it wasn't quite so painful." Ichigo added.

"You could join us King, then your head wouldn't hurt with trying to process everything outside and inside at the same time." Shiro invited, a malicious tone in his voice.

And you're only telling me this now!" Ichigo responded grumpily, keeping one ear tuned to the conversation around him incase he was needed.

Shiro's maniacal laughter echoed in his head, "It wasn't important, and it was funnier to wait and see if you figured it out. Next time join us, we could teach you, and then you can surprise the kitty with better moves."

Ichigo ignored any further comments, and valiantly fought down the blush threatening to rise along his cheeks. To distract himself he asked, "How long can the three of you stay?"

Isshin looked troubled, "Not much longer to be honest. The bands Kisuke gave the girls to let them stay here won't be able to process much more, as we tweak them the stays could get longer, but we should leave in about an hour."

"When can you come back?"

"I have the clinic and the girls have school, it's going to be at least a week." Isshin admitted, holding Amon carefully, remembering holding Ichigo when he was that small.

"Since you don't have much time, why don't you give Amon to Yuzu and you can hold Hikari, that way you've gotten to hold all of them." The switch passed smoothly, practice helping the exchange.

When Ichigo handed his father Hikari, Isshin spoke to him. "There are some things I wanted to tell you before we left; I think you will want to head somewhere a little more private."

"We can head back to my room for a few minutes, should Karin and Yuzu come?" Ichigo offered.

"No, this is between us," Isshin insisted, following Ichigo out of the hall, trusting Shinji and Rose to keep an eye on his daughters for him.

Once they were back in his room Ichigo asked, "What's this about?"

"I want to know what happened. Start from the beginning, what happened between Grimmjow and you that lead to this?" He pressed, needing to know the information first hand, without filters due to young ears being in the room.

Ichigo took a deep breath and the story started spilling out of him, from Orihime's disappearance, through his delivery, helping Szayel, and up until his family had arrived those few hours ago. When he was done, he was almost ashamed to look his father in the eye.

Isshin hooked a finger under his son's jaw and made him look up. "I am not ashamed of you, so you shouldn't be ashamed of yourself. You did what you could to make the best of a difficult situation. You found someone that even though he fought with you, he took care of you when you needed him most. You are safe here, and happy. What you have done makes you far more like your mother than me, and I couldn't be prouder. My grandkids are healthy, and have more family around them then you and the girls did. You protected them, when it would have been easier to give them up and try to move on with your life."

That made Ichigo comment, "I would never have given them up. I may not have planned them, or known it was possible, but no one was taking my children from me."

"I agree, my biggest regret is you didn't tell me. I might have been able to protect you." Isshin explained.

"The Visoreds tried, and even a good number of the Captains helped, and they couldn't do more. I made it through and found a good place." Ichigo didn't like looking on the dark side, he had spent too much time there already.

Isshin nodded, "Yes they did, and I'm thankful they helped you through. It was my job though, I am your father, I failed Masaki and now I almost failed you and my grandchildren. If you had lost even one of them I could never face her when I reach the other side."

"You didn't fail mom, Kon told me, you killed Grand Fisher, I couldn't." Ichigo disagreed.

"Revenge is not the same as saving her in the first place. I should have been there." Isshin insisted.

"How could you have known? Your powers were sealed." The Visored pointed out.

Holding onto his granddaughter for stability he replied, "I shouldn't have let them put the seal on me. I should have just gone to Masaki as I was, that way I would have been there to protect you. I knew any of my children would have high spirit energy and be a magnet for Hollows, but I still bowed to their wishes."

"Chalk it up to one more thing Yamamoto has to answer for, so stuck in traditions he didn't allow you to keep the one thing that might have protected us. You insist I am not to blame when I was the one who drew the Hollow to us and it killed her, well I am telling you it wasn't your fault either. The fault lies with the Grand Fisher, and with the policies that refused to allow you to keep even enough power to defend yourself and family." Ichigo insisted.

"You have her stubbornness too I see," Isshin noted. "I won't blame myself, if you stop blaming yourself."

"Deal." Ichigo agreed.

With that Isshin glanced towards the bed, "I do have one more piece of advice, when they are big enough to roll you need to put them in cribs or have someone else in bed with you so they don't roll off."

"I don't think that will be a problem," Ichigo admitted.

"Grimmjow?" Isshin thought he would ask.

"For the most part it would be him, but I have shared a bed with Starrk before, and I wouldn't mind sharing with Szayel. As their time gets closer it would be better for them to stick near someone else." Ichigo explained.

"That sounds like a good idea, you keep a close eye on each other don't you?" He observed.

"Yes, and it works out very well for all of us. I feel safe here, they protect us, and I protect them. They really are family. I miss the three of you, but I will be alright here." Ichigo confessed.

"Then let's get back to the others, I have heard all I needed to know." Isshin allowed his serious side to drop away as they made it back to the meeting room and he collected his daughters. The fake tears and clinging drew laughter and smiles, even from Ichigo.

He hugged his father and sisters tightly, watching as they left with Shinji until they were gone from sight. It had been a good visit. Finally his real family had met his new one, and it looked like they got along and would be meeting more often. Heuco Mundo had become his home, and his father approved. That was the best gift Isshin could have given.

"Well Ichigo, are you happy?" Grimmjow asked his Beta, Tsume in his arms.

Ichigo looked down at Hikari, passed to him from his father, "Yes. That was exactly what I needed."

"Good." Grimmjow approved. "Looks like things are going to be crowded and lively around here."

"I know, but it will be worth it." Ichigo agreed.

"No arguments from us," Szayel informed, thinking this place could use a little livening up.

"What did your father want when he pulled you away?" Grimmjow couldn't resist asking anymore.

"He was making sure I was happy. I have his blessing to make Las Noches my home." No, Isshin hadn't said that in so many words, but that's what the conversation boiled down to.

"We were keeping you no matter what he said, but I'm glad he approved," Grimmjow shuddered a bit at remembering his power. "Your father is a little scary when he's worried about you."

"If you think he was scary you should have seen my mother!" Ichigo insisted, the talk with his dad clearing some of the pain from his memories. He could look back and not hurt so much.