Remember how I said there wouldn't be any other Bleach characters in this story? Yeah, I lied. I couldn't resist peppering in some cameos of my favorites, so expect a few familiar faces to pop up.


chapter four: eyes on fire

"You can't fight forever." ~ Aang

It was nothing short of a miracle that the two men made it to the next town without killing each other. They didn't even argue, not once, restricting their communication to a few sentences at the most.

Grimmjow didn't really think about it, his mind already preoccupied with formulating plans on how to reach Ba Sing Se as quickly as possible. However, the rare instances it crept into his thoughts he questioned why he savored the comfort of their silence yet wished the orangette following his lead through the bamboo forest break it with one of his sarcastic comments. And then Grimmjow's stomach always did flips due to his realization that he was actually fretting over his feelings similar to a naive, lovesick youth.

This cycle lasted the entire three hours it took walking along the dirt road before thatched and curved, shingled roofs appeared through the tall bamboo shoots. Squinting, Grimmjow was able to see that around twenty meters ahead the foliage ended and gave way to the town, this one bigger, more populated, and richer than that seaside village back at the docks. However, they were identical in one aspect, that being Earth Kingdom locales occupied by the Fire Nation and advertised as such by a massive cloth bearing a crimson and ebony flame emblem hanging where its green and gold counterpart once did.

Noticing he'd already unconsciously stopped walking, Grimmjow saw in the corner of his eye his orange-haired traveling companion move forward and stand beside him. He also caught a flicker of surprise cross the other's face, undoubtedly recognizing the captured state of the town as well, the sole difference being that Grimmjow had expected it.

Ichigo knew so little of the world and its ways - a novelty from the blue-haired man's perspective. Born and bred of Fire Nation nobility, his younger years spent constantly being trained and groomed in preparation for a career among the imperial military's highest ranks and a lifetime serving their dear Fire Lord, Grimmjow couldn't recall what naivete felt like - if he'd ever experienced it at all. Wrapping his mind around the fact this was Ichigo's first real time beyond the artic waters surrounding his old home proved difficult, his twenty-nine years on the earth and perception of it too different.

Then again, now no longer a highly esteemed and influential Admiral he'd fallen from the very top to rock bottom, taking not even forty-eight hours to ruin everything he'd achieved since the literal beginning of his life. A single decision changing his world to its extreme opposite, like black to white, should've been impossible and yet there he was, lacking any form of status and not a coin to his name except for the bounty on his head. Don't misunderstand though, Grimmjow found it exhilarating to finally be truly rid of the regulated, oppressive military lifestyle and his own man free to choose what he did, when he did it, and however he damn well pleased.

"While standing here not saying anything is nice and all, I think we should start walking again," Ichigo said, the older man unaware how long he'd been lost in thought. "We don't know how far away the nearest town is and I'm pretty sure it's not a good idea to be in the forest after dark."

"That's why we're staying here until tomorrow morning," Grimmjow said.

"You're seriously planning to just stroll right into a town crawling with Fire Nation soldiers," Ichigo stated flatly, clearly unamused.

"Not exactly. Besides, what you seem not to know is most villages, towns, cities, wherever people live along every mile of the Earth Kingdom's coast, are either colonies or occupied. We won't actually enter Earth Kingdom territory until farther inland." Grimmjow turned to face the waterbender whose deep frown was directed off into the distance, the news obviously unwelcome. "But I have an idea."

Ichigo's eyes slowly cornered over to look suspiciously at him, wariness causing his body stiffen, as if bracing himself. "Okay, let's hear it."

"All you need to do is slip into the shoots for a few yards and wait there until I come get you," Grimmjow said, his tone akin to a parent ordering their child to do as they said, never raising their voice or making a distinct threat because their authority was so absolute that anything explicitly intimidating wasn't necessary to ensure obedience. "Stay right there no matter how long you have to wait. If I come back and you're not there I'll move on without you."

"Why am I not surprised?" Ichigo sighed, rolling his eyes to the heavens and shifting himself parallel with the other, crossing his arms over his chest.

"And what is that supposed to mean, Your Highness?"

"It means you still don't understand that things are different now. We're not on opposite sides anymore. We're not an admiral and a prince anymore either. We're just two men on the run with nothing but the clothes on our backs. You said this morning we're working together to get to Ba Sing Se, that we were allies."

"Hn, stop pussyfooting around and get to whatever your point is. We're losing daylight here."

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Ichigo said, snapping his arms down and clenching his hands into fists. "Any way you look at it, we're equals, and you continue to speak and order me around as if we were back on your ship and I was still your prisoner. Any chance we have for both of us surviving the trip to Ba Sing Se you'll ruin if you don't stop thinking you can dictate everything and bid me to obey your will, because that's not how this is going to work. I may be younger and I admit I don't know much about the world but I've spent most of my life helping my father lead my people and I'm not too shabby at bending either. And I am not nor ever will be someone you can intimidate into obedience like you do everyone else, you can't deny that."

As Ichigo's speech progressed his aura intensified, speaking emphatically as possible without shouting and oblivious he'd advanced on his target until he had gotten right up in the blue-haired man's face. It made for a stunning vision, almost dazzling enough to divert Grimmjow's attention completely but every syllable of what Ichigo said he heard loud and clear. Figuring the appropriate response wasn't telling the orangette how sexy he looked when he was angry, Grimmjow settled for his other opinion on the matter.

This was one for the books, too. It was an occasion many believed wouldn't ever happen, not even meriting the slightest possibility, and he instantly resented a teenager's whining made it a reality. Cursing blackly using words probably foreign to Ichigo under his breath, Grimmjow harshly twisted the other way and distanced himself with a couple strides.

"Fine. You come up with a better plan, then," he half-growled, unsure what kind of reaction he'd earned and the air thickened with tension each passing second. Eventually, he peeked over his shoulder and saw Ichigo scowling at the ground and biting his bottom lip, appearing to be concentrating hard on whatever he was thinking about. "Don't hurt yourself, now," Grimmjow laughed roughly, in his mind eagerly regaining some pride he'd lost admitting the younger man was right.

"Bite me."

Reluctantly, the firebender passed up that golden opportunity. They were wasting the hours of sunlight left and dilly daddling dangerously close to a hotbed of Fire Nation activity. "Look, with all due respect you don't know jackshit about how things work here down south," Grimmjow said, ignoring the murderous glare aimed at him and grabbing Ichigo by the arm, leading them off to the side so they were less visible. "Luckily that's where I come in. There isn't a single thing about the Fire Nation's military I don't know like the back of my hand. Once I get close enough it'll be easy figuring out how to slip right past the guard. Not to mention, I'm the obvious choice to handle something of this nature."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ichigo demanded, already indignant without knowing the answer, and surely clueless the picture he made putting his hands on his hips in a fashion similar to a sassy female stereotype.

"It means you're too morally righteous to pull off what we need to do to survive," Grimmjow explained to no avail for the waterbender's confused and offended expression didn't change. "It means we don't have anything and no money to buy anything and won't last long unless we just take what we need." After he spoke, understanding slowly dawned on Ichigo's face.

"No... no, we have to figure out another way. I won't... steal anything from innocent people, Grimmjow," the boy said quietly yet unwavering, shaking his head at clearly finding the notion utterly repugnant.

"Haven't you been listening? You won't have to. I know better than to bring you along, you'd take a piece of stale bread then feel guilty and turn yourself in or something. So, the plan is as it was: I'm going in alone, you hide out here and wait for me to get back." Grimmjow barely finished speaking when he grasped Ichigo's shoulders in his hands and gave him a push, sending the teen stumbling inside the wall formed by the density of thin, cylindrical bamboo shoots. "Stay here however long 'till I come for you. No matter how much time I've been gone, don't go looking for me."

The blue-haired man began moving away but halted as there was a tug on his frayed sleeve, turning back where Ichigo leaned out from the light green mass and held tightly onto the piece of fabric in his hand. "What if something goes wrong and you can't make it back here? Should I - "

"'Ichigo, I'm coming back."

And that was that. Ichigo let go and then Grimmjow was hurrying across the road and inside the identical mass of greenery that consumed and shielded completely, protecting him against enemy eyes.

Twenty minutes later, Grimmjow had stripped half-destroyed black fabric layers off his body, leaving simply his pants and boots, and navigated his way out to open space again, a bit of good fortune on his side when he emerged and found himself immediately amongst a collection of massive sand-colored rocks and boulders which served him perfectly, allowing him to observe undetected.

This town wasn't quite affluent or populated enough to have its own outer wall built around its whole territory, instead possessing a free standing stone structure that was basically two square pillars holding up a third, Fire Nation flag hanging in the center. Guards were posted at both pillars and very faintly Grimmjow spied similar crimson figures sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the citizens at several different points. Noting each individual red dot, he visualized the zigzag pattern they created. Basic crowd control layout and, true to Fire Nation scruple, meticulously timed.

He was a bit disappointed they'd made it so easy for him.

Slinking around the rocks further down the town's curved edge, he wasted no time and raced through the open patch of grass right up to a wooden fence between two buildings and ten feet tall. Increasing his speed, Grimmjow leapt off the ground and planted a foot on the fence's flat surface, using it to push his other one higher still and step onto the top in one fluid movement. He dropped down and landed crouching at the end of a narrow alley, officially inside the occupied town with no one the wiser.

The firebender straightened up and casually walked the length of the alleyway, its opening a glimpse of the bustling street ahead, a loud cacophony of noises and many people moving in all different directions. Grimmjow paused when he came to the alley's threshold, waiting until a cart wheeled by to step out and blend into the crowd. No one so much as spared him a second glance - well, except for when he passed a group of made-up young women whose eyes followed him avidly peering over open fans. He supposed he would draw a little attention to himself strutting about bare chested but he didn't plan on staying for long.

It was now apparent this town had lived under Fire Nation rule for a good amount of time, its citizens seemed to lead perfectly normal lives, even prospered...

Lips curling out in a devious grin, Grimmjow started heading toward the bountiful crates lined up alongside the street. He cut a path straight across the throng of people who all too willingly moved out of his way and right up against the crates boasting piles of fruits, their merchant an older woman dressed traditionally in sage green and sable brown. She made eye contact that lasted approximately half a second, lowering her gaze, thrown off by the man's sudden and commanding presence. Whatever the woman murmured as a greeting was rendered inaudible by the clamorous din surrounding them so Grimmjow guessed it was something about buying fruit.

"Actually, I was wondering if you'd be so kind as to remind me where the mayor's office is."

Of all the numerous daydreams he played out in his mind the seventeen years he'd lived of what it would be like to one day visit the grand and vast Earth Kingdom, Ichigo never imagined himself sitting in a field of bamboo bored out of his mind.

He couldn't believe he'd agreed to this in the first place. Why hadn't he even suggested they pick a different rendezvous point? Seriously, this 'plan' Grimmjow formulated was beginning to seem a lot like an excuse for the man to infuriate him more than he did already - which at the moment was rapidly approaching maximum levels. The orangette didn't how many hours had passed since he'd been left here to rot by that blue-haired embodiment of vexation but it surely had to be at least four.

How much more was Grimmjow going to take his sweet time executing his plan? It shouldn't be taking this long, should it? What if Grimmjow had left and abandoned him to travel on his own? How dare he do something so selfish after Ichigo completely healed his mortal wound that same morning. Oh, he'd show that bastard no one makes a fool out of him and gets away with it!

Shooting to his feet, Ichigo was barely standing two seconds when a dark form suddenly popped out from the thicket of shoots not three feet away. His reaction was instant, a strangled yelp escaping him while jerking back from whatever it was threw him off balance. He began falling, hitting bamboo shoots on the way down until he stopped about halfway and yanked forward to his feet again.

As it turned out, who else was there but Grimmjow releasing his grip on Ichigo's shirt and donning new apparel made with very dark green and gray fabrics, not to mention had something strapped to his back - or actually more like two different objects, a few inches of their slender shapes visible above the blunette's broad shoulders that were recognizable as the handles of a pair of dual Dao broadswords popular in both the Fire and Earth nations. He also carried a rather large, bulging bag that wasn't anything ordinary like burlap or leather, its material resembling silk and ornately decorated in traditional Earth Kingdom colors and designs.

Ichigo recovered his shocked senses and didn't hesitate one bit to start tearing into the one who'd kept him waiting far too long. "Where have you been all this time! What were you doing - sewing the clothes yourself? Socializing with the locals? You must have been doing something for the past four or however many hours you spent there so what was it?"

Expecting the response to his questions either a harsh rebuke the impromptu interrogation or an irreverent dismissal and shrug of the shoulders, the younger man was taken aback when the only reaction he garnered from Grimmjow was a raised eyebrow. "Four hours? It's been thirty minutes," the blunette said a little warily, his expression close to concern.



"I left thirty minutes, as in half an hour, ago."

"Oh... well, having to sit in here it felt like hours so... the question of what you were doing during that half hour still stands," Ichigo said, adding that last part to divert the attention focusing on his (honest) mistake. He hated the fact the singular person on earth able to shatter his previously unshakable composure was the one around which he wanted to maintain it more than anyone else. For some reason, messing up even the tiniest bit in Grimmjow's presence sapped his confidence and tenacity and replaced them with self-loathing and insecurity. Ah, and to think he once thought himself lucky for never experiencing the anxieties and pressures that defined one's teenage years.

Guess he was just a late bloomer.

"I'll regale you with the tale of my thirty minute adventure while you change clothes. Here, put these on," Grimmjow said, mirth dancing in his lucid blue eyes as he poked more fun at the younger man's extreme exaggeration of time. Ichigo hardly noticed that, however, paying more attention to what he'd been told to do and the bundle of clothing being shoved at him. "Today, if it pleases you. Unless you require a humble servant to change them for you, Your Highness?"

"No, thank you. I think I'll be okay on my own," the teenager said stiffly, wresting the clothes free from Grimmjow's grasp. When the former admiral simply stood there for a moment or two, clearly with no intention of moving, Ichigo fixed him with an expectant look. "Turn around," he finally commanded far more imperiously than ever he had all his years as a prince and apparently it had the desired effect because Grimmjow did so, though not without an irritated air like the request was just so unreasonable.

The orangette stared at the other's back with narrowed eyes until it seemed that there wasn't any intentions of peeking while he was in some state of undress. As he commenced stripping off his clothes fast as he was able, Ichigo was appalled at himself for finding strands of disappointment and hurt at Grimmjow's lack of interest in seeing him revealing an indecent amount of skin. Suddenly angry at everything and nothing at the same time, he nearly ripped the blue pieces of Water Tribe clothing off his body then furiously pulling his new shirt over his head and pants onto his legs, coming close to tripping himself.

When he finished he wore an outfit identical to Grimmjow's - dark green long-sleeved tunic and pants, dull brown bracers on his forearms, a leather and also brown belt with loops meant for securing various items but mostly weapons around his waist and matching boots slimmer and more fitted than his Water Tribe ones. All he kept of home were the three necklaces he never took off and not about to start now.

Ichigo cleared his throat, signaling he was finished, and the blue-haired man facing the other way glanced over his shoulder before turning around entirely. Grimmjow's eyes stopped where those necklaces remained around the boy's throat, Ichigo hurriedly tucking them under his collar and out of sight. The older man didn't say anything, just jerked his head toward where the road was and moving in that direction, followed closely by a silent orange-haired youth. It took them little time at all back to the dirt path, Ichigo unconsciously exhaling heavily, relieved by his return to open space free of endless bamboo monotony.

"Give me your clothes," Grimmjow said, reaching a hand out. Cautiously, the waterbender handed his last few pieces connecting him to his home and culture over, never a sentimental person yet reluctant to part with the beautifully blue fabrics he'd worn his whole life. "You can't keep 'em, you know that, right?"

"Yeah, I know."

A small flame ignited in Grimmjow's palm, the azure and ivory materials he held gradually consumed by the smoldering embers until only ashes were left that the breeze carried away.

At nightfall, Ichigo was inside the Fire Nation occupied town and actually, dare he say, having somewhat of a good time - something lost to him since the day of black snow.

It wasn't the uproarious, active, lively kind either, rather the opposite. He and Grimmjow were walking down a wide street practically deserted save for them and a straggler here and there, apparently a complete difference to what it was like earlier that day according to the blunette. Dusk's violet and indigo tinted glow ensconced the town, the flickering street lamps the only other source of light. It was the most peaceful moment in Ichigo's recent past and very welcome after weeks of nonstop anguish.

They'd entered the town without much trouble, none of the guards recognizing their signature brightly-hued hair colors, which meant word of their warrants and fugitive status hadn't yet traveled this far inland, nor did they seize any of their belongings as Fire Nation soldiers tended to do to Earth Kingdom citizens under their rule. He figured together he and Grimmjow made an intimidating duo amongst the countless world-weary refugees, their straight postures and bright, sharp gazes promising a fight unlike the others who looked utterly defeated and lifeless.

Now they were nearing the center of the town, where the largest and probably most important structures, as well as the only tavern and inn, were located. Upon nearing said inn, Ichigo could see this was where the majority of the locale's population were located for their supper hour. Warm light and hearty laughter spilled out of its open doors, tables and their benches filled to their maximum with men of all ages and their womanly company visible in the portal. Into the low humming of chatter and dining he followed Grimmjow's lead, fairly certain this would be where they would finally eat something and then spend the night.

No one paid them any mind as they entered, far too busy having their singular time of merriment during the town's occupation and most far too inebriated to even notice their arrival. The orangette walked behind his traveling companion all the way to the very back of the tavern where the last empty table sat in the far left corner, sitting down on the bench across from the other. Absentmindedly, Ichigo caught a few strains of a group of men's slightly slurred conversation.

"Did you hear 'bout wha' happened to tha mayor today?"

"Tha' slimy, lily-livered traitor? No, bu' I'm sure wha'ever it was he ha' it comin'!"

"Wellllll, listen ta this: someone broke inta 'is offish an' stole all 'is gold an' some annn... antique swords offa tha wall!"

"Is tha' so? Serves 'im right fer betrayin' all 'a us - damn coward!"

All of the men all grumbled unintelligibly in agreement, clinking their mugs of foamy ale together and drinking to the mayor's misfortune. The look Ichigo then shot the blue-haired man sitting opposite of him could wither the resolve of the steeliest-willed of men yet he only earned a playfully smug grin in return, making him huff exasperatedly.

"Of course out of all the people in this place you chose to steal from the mayor," he hissed under his breath so no one else could hear him practically confessing to the crime. "Aren't we supposed to be keeping a low profile?"

"Would you rather have me taken the coins of a street merchant or baker instead?" Grimmjow said, drumming his fingertips along the wooden surface of their table. Ichigo didn't answer, his scowl deepening as he looked down at his lap. "That's what I thought. Now, what do you want to eat?"

"I don't care," the former prince murmured, not wanting to let the man in on the fact he knew nothing of Earth Kingdom cuisine, only that which he'd dined on in the north pole. Grimmjow unsurprisingly didn't pry for him to pick something, getting up from the table and walking away and toward the other end of the tavern where there was a plain counter carved from bamboo tended by a grisly elderly man with a long, white beard. Alone at the table for the time being, Ichigo rested his elbows on the surface and his chin in his hands and began to wonder what would happen once they reached Ba Sing Se. How would they support themselves? Or find a place to live? If the city fell to the Fire Nation, how long would they have before then?

Would they even stay together once inside the city's walls? Or would they go their separate ways? If they did, would he be able to make it on his own when he knew so little of life outside the Northern Water Tribe? And if he couldn't, would Grimmjow help him, or even care?

A burst of raucous cheers and boisterous cries of dismay caught his attention, leading him to look up to where the noise was coming from on the other end of the room. There he saw a crowd of men gathered around those sitting down at a table currently playing host to a rather spirited card game, a pile of copper and silver coins in the center. As a couple of the ones standing moved away from each other, they created an opening that allowed Ichigo to see the last player of the game and subsequently its winner - a young woman most likely a few years older than himself.

She had straight, shoulder-length dark hair, some of it pulled up into a top knot held by a hairpiece shaped like a skull whilst it hung like a swept curtain on the right side and over her eye. She wore kohl and plum-colored lipstick on her beautiful features and charcoal and burgundy clothing, her shirt sleeveless to show off tattoos in a swirl design on both upper arms. Altogether, she made for a sightly but imposing figure as she slammed her mug on the table and began sweeping the money in the pot into her coin purse despite the exclaims accusing her of cheating that she brushed off boredly.

Just as the last of the group of men sulked away from the table, pockets empty and pride bruised, a person wearing a black traveling cloak, the hood shielding their face from view, whom Ichigo had failed to notice leaning casually a yard or two from the card game pushed off the wall and strode over to sit down next to the dark-haired woman. Unaware that he was blatantly staring at them, the teen watched as the newcomer threw back their hood and revealed themselves to him.

It was man unlike any Ichigo had ever seen, pale as the moon with spiky, pure white hair down to the nape of his neck and his ivory pallor contrasted greatly with the form-fitting, dark gray and burgundy garments he donned that matched the woman's except his sleeves covered his arm up to the wrist and his fingerless gloves. Also noticeable was the metallic glint of a sword's hilt above a scabbard hanging at his side, far beyond the weapon of a common townsperson.

The alabaster-skinned man said something to the woman, making her roll her eyes yet smile ever so slightly over the rim of her beverage before she downed the rest of it. Ichigo didn't even realize he was still outright staring a bit rudely until the male's utterly bizarre but fascinating golden iris and ebony sclera adorned eyes slid to the left and locked with the orangette's own. Stricken, Ichigo quickly averted his gaze anywhere besides where the white-haired man was staring back at him, not daring to check if the other had stopped until a familiar form returned to the bench across from his.

"Here," Grimmjow grunted, shoving a mug full of an amber-colored liquid topped with a layer of froth at him. The younger of the two frowned confusedly down at the foreign beverage, never having tasted something like it and therefore hesitant to do so now.

"What is it?" he asked, wrinkling his nose as he inhaled the slightly stale scent emanating from the drink that the blue-haired man seemed to have no trouble chugging back like water.

"The only thing they've got to drink," Grimmjow answered, setting his mug back on the table with a thud and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand in a fashion quite unlike that of a man born to nobility and previously one of the highest-ranking officers in an imperial army. "Unless you want tea?"

Making a disgusted face at the thought of sipping whatever constituted as tea in such a place, Ichigo slowly raised his drink to his lips and tipped just a taste of the beverage into his mouth. It wasn't as bad as he'd thought but he certainly didn't fancy its flavor, bold and stale and a little... earthy, if that was something one could taste. However he was incredibly thirsty from their day of walking and drank several gulps, placing it back down before surreptitiously swiveling his eyes over to the side to see if that man was still staring at him. He was.

Again tearing his gaze away, Ichigo attempted to appear completely oblivious to the intense stare even while his face burned at the unwanted attention. "So... are we sleeping here, um... tonight or...?" he trailed off, pretending to be very interested in the space above the head of blue hair opposite him. "'Cause I'm fine sleeping anywhere, you know, and we should probably save our money for when we really need it... right?"

"You can relax now, the albino isn't looking at you anymore," Grimmjow said, sounding rather amused by the youth's unease and at the same time somewhat contemplative as he trained his narrowed gaze over at the dark-clothed duo sitting together. "And yes, we are staying the night here but don't throw a hissy fit. I only paid a copper piece for us to sleep in the stables."

"Oh, good th-... wait, did you say the stables?" Ichigo fixed his disbelieving expression at the other man, unwilling to accept he'd heard what had been said right.

"Sure did." Grimmjow's brilliant cyan orbs swept back to meet the boy's deep brandy-colored ones, grinning sharply as if something pleased him an awful lot. "I thought you said you were fine sleeping anywhere?"

"I-... of course, I am! I just wanted to make sure I heard you correctly," Ichigo said, folding his arms over his chest and sitting back from the table's edge. "You really should speak more clearly in the future."

"I'll do my best," Grimmjow said, obviously not buying into the orangette's attempt at covering up his offense at the idea of sharing the same resting place that belonged to a horde of pig chickens and ostrich horses which only fed into the stereotype of being a pampered royal. The blunette took another swig of his ale before speaking again. "Now let's get to discussing our plan of action from here on out."

"What do you mean? Like, how we're going to get to Ba Sing Se and all that?" Ichigo quirked a tangerine eyebrow above his mug's rim from where he held it to his lips.

"We'll get to that once we get our hands on a map. What I want you to tell me for the time being is how you plan on defending yourself." At the teenager's puzzled silence, Grimmjow elaborated what he meant for the other to tell him. "It isn't smooth sailing from here to Ba Sing Se, especially not for refugees considering there's thousands entering the city every day and most of 'em are starving and desperate. If we run into trouble how will you fend for yourself without waterbending."

"Wait, why can't I use my waterbending?" Ichigo racked his brain for an answer to his own question, a reason he wouldn't be able to waterbend to protect himself from anyone who meant him harm. It wasn't like he was a firebender and by bending would alert all around him that he was from the Fire Nation and therefore an enemy.

"Have you so quickly forgotten that we're wanted fugitives of the Fire Nation in occupied territory? There aren't many orange-haired waterbenders in the Earth Kingdom. Bending where someone could see and recognize you would have soldiers and bounty hunters on our tails in the blink of an eye," Grimmjow said in one of his rare completely serious moments, letting the younger male know for certain this could definitely very well be a life or death situation. "So, I ask you again: how are you going to defend yourself until we're in Ba Sing Se?"

"Uh, I..." Ichigo worried his bottom lip between his teeth, searching madly for an answer he knew wasn't there. "I don't know," he confessed, feeling rather pitiful and vulnerable right then and there to admit to the man in front of him his shortcomings, not unlike how a student felt fessing up to their instructor they didn't understand the material. "All I ever learned back home was waterbending. My father taught me battle strategies and how to lead our warriors to victory but never how to be one."

There was a painful stretch of silence in which Ichigo was unsure of what Grimmjow's response to his admission of incompetence, not daring to lay eyes upon the man in fear of finding a mask of distaste at his spot of weakness. "Hn, well I can't be saving your ass all the time so I guess I'll have to teach you how to defend yourself without your bending," the former admiral finally concluded. "You ever used any kind of weapon, even just once or twice?"

"Not really..."

"Hmm," Grimmjow almost purred, the sound coming from deep within his chest. "Fine, next time we stop I'll get you some throwing knives."

"Why throwing knives?" Ichigo glanced back up at the blue-haired man and unintentionally making eye contact that was impossible to break, those irises like the sea after a storm too magnetic.

"The art of knife throwing is the closest I can think of to waterbending, the same arching swift movements required. Not to mention it'll keep your opponents at a greater distance from you, which you'll need since you don't know much about hand to hand combat."

"So you're going to teach me how to throw knives?" A spark of anxious excitement at the prospect spiked from the bottom of Ichigo's gut up to his throat and for what he wasn't entirely certain.

"Just call me Sifu Grimmjow."

At that very second, one of the innkeeper's employees chose to arrive with two bowls of some kind of Earth Kingdom dish consisting of meat and noodles in a salty, near bitter sauce. Both men were equally ravenous, digging into their sole meal of the day vigorously disregarding flavor or proper table manners, and after their first bite there wasn't much conversation 'till their bowls were essentially licked clean.

An hour later they made their way to the inn's stables, its permanent residents clucking and oinking indignantly at their arrival and eventually quieting once they ascertained they were pretty much powerless confined in their pens and therefore unable to chase the intruders out of their home. Exhausted, Ichigo found the softest looking pile of hay and collapsed onto it, curling up on his side facing in the opposite direction of where the older man had settled for the night approximately five feet away. In spite of being unnerved in a somewhat pleasant way at their closeness, there were too few hours of night remaining in which he could rest for another day of walking and so he suppressed the tense, tingling feeling in favor of a dreamless sleep.

A sliver of bluish pink-tinted light fell directly across Grimmjow's closed eyes, waking him from his deep slumber. He squinted his eyes open, recalling his location in an Earth Kingdom's town stables rather quickly due to the telling... odor around him as well as the sensation of pieces of hay sticking his bits of skin not covered by his clothing. Due to half his life spent serving in the military, he cast away the rising haziness in his mind and instantly became alert to his situation and surroundings.

The blue-eyed fugitive sat up, scrubbing a hand over his face and then popping his shoulders free of nighttime stiffness. With no time to waste he reached for the 'X'-shaped scabbards of his newly acquired Dao broadswords and the silken bag of money and other supplies he'd used as a pillow, strapping both of them securely onto his person. The instant he'd tightened the crisscrossing, leather bands of his dual swords around his torso, a incoherent mumble caught his ear and turned his head in its source's direction.

Fast asleep on his makeshift bed, the sunfire-haired seventeen year-old waterbending Master and once Tribal Prince rolled over to face Grimmjow, hands tucked under his head and practically dead to the world in peaceful unconsciousness. Sporting sleep induced flushed cheeks and a peaceful, relaxed expression the firebender never previously witnessed on his prisoner turned ally's face that spurred something akin to fondness in him that he brushed off as appreciation of the boy's singular moment in which he kept his mouth shut and didn't give any of those irritating looks.

Rising to stand above Ichigo's sleeping form, Grimmjow shook the youth awake using the toe of his boot. He first gained a tired, annoyed whine out of the other but didn't cease shaking him 'till a bright yet unseeing dark amber eye cracked open followed closely by its counterpart.

"Good morning, sunshine," the blue-haired man sang mirthfully, retracting his foot from that lithe figure laying below him. "It's time for us to be going so hurry up and look alive."

Ichigo glared hatefully at the one who woke him up at the ungodly hour preceding sunrise, the effect somewhat dampened by the sleepiness clouding his presence and how when he rose to a sitting position his tangerine-hued tresses were messier than ever, spiking up every which way. Hastily running his hands through his brightly-colored mane, the boy pushed himself to his feet and blinked blearily up at Grimmjow, waiting for further direction.

"All right, let's go," the blunette said, striding over to the stable's closed doors and lifting the wooden beam laying across them in order to push them open. He sensed Ichigo trailing after him as he walked outside and began heading for the town's gate at its end. However, they didn't make it very far, Grimmjow coming to a sudden halt in the middle of the town's center square that boasted a freestanding, double-sided board as tall as he was.

"Wha' is it?" Ichigo questioned, slurring a little since he was slow to shake off his inadequate amount of sleep's sedative effects. He didn't receive a verbal response, the larger male grinding his teeth together very audibly and stomping up to the board littered with various Fire Nation decrees and announcements. Grimmjow immediately ripped two pages of parchment off of the thing, studying their writings intently and his rage growing exponentially with each passing second.

Most noticeably, the majority of the official papers he held in either hand were decorated in two different, very accurate portraits of a snarling, fearsome grown man whose tousled locks and terrifying gaze were both rare shades of blue and an impassive young man barely reached adulthood with a halo of fiery hair and deep brown, determined eyes. Beside each representation of the two very real men were lines of characters depicting them as the former Fire Nation Admiral traitor and the escaped prisoner said to be previously not truthfully as a Tribal Prince but enemy of the state. Warnings to proceed with extreme caution should one be in close range of these bending Masters', the posters ordered any sightings to be reported at once and advertised an extravagant bounty for either's capture and arrest, stressing that the fugitives were wanted alive upon such time.

Grimmjow swore blackly, not bothering to mind the volume of his voice during the early hour's dead silence. Finished reading both wanted posters, he crumpled them into little crinkled balls of parchment and stuffed them inside his stolen bag.

"I guess it's a good thing we decided to leave before everyone else woke up," Ichigo said behind him, obviously having read the arrest warrants over his shoulder, and gave a nervous laugh. "We should probably get out of here as fast as possible."

Grimmjow grunted his approval, unthinkingly grabbing the orangette's wrist tightly in his left hand and proceeding to drag the boy behind him as he took off sprinting down the empty street. They couldn't exit the town through either of the main gates now, the guard no doubt familiar with their faces by now. That meant they'd have to leave the same way he'd first come in. He only needed a way to see ahead past the buildings whether or not the coast was clear and therefore navigate a safe route out of the town.

Passing the mouth of a long, narrow alley, Grimmjow slid to a stop and nearly caused the teenager he was pulling through the streets to crash into him. Ichigo didn't have the chance to say a single word or ask one of his annoying questions, the blunette barrelling down the alley and tugging the other along until they reached the halfway point and he dropped the wrist in his hold. Grimmjow leapt up onto one of the walls bordering the alleyway, gripping the uneven stones in order to scale the building's full height. Once level with the outwardly curving roof, he swung his legs high for them to be able to land on the roof's ledge, rolling into a crouching position where he could stare below him at Ichigo's befuddled expression.

"C'mon, this is the only way we're getting out of here," he said, beckoning the waterbender upwards.

"By climbing on people's roofs? Are you serious?" Ichigo hissed in a stage whisper, placing closed fists on his hips. "Because I think that's just about the best way for us to get caught!"

"We'll be moving too fast for anyone to see us when it's still dark out," Grimmjow assured, holding out an open palmed hand to the hesitant orangette. "Just trust me," he said, his voice steady and strong, the auditory sign of his confidence and implied promise his plan would see them outside the town safely. Ichigo hesitated the briefest of moments, then huffed in acceptance and began climbing the stone wall higher and higher 'till he placed his hand in Grimmjow's, allowing himself to be pulled onto the rooftop.

The older man let go a second later than he intended, turning and motioning over his shoulder for the other to follow his lead. Then they were off, dashing toward their freedom high above the town and its people, the general proximity of their buildings and subsequently their roofs working in their favor. Grimmjow narrowed the best route to safe ground beyond the town's limits down to a zigzag pattern across the tops of the structures and ending in the southeastern corner. Sensing that Ichigo still traced the path he made right behind him, the firebender picked up the pace and sprinted on top of the shingled roofs, heading straight for their point of exit.

Grimmjow only slowed once in range of that particular spot, halting completely on that roof's edge and hearing the boy at his back do the same. "I'll jump first and spot you," he said continuing to gaze at the grass-covered ground an entire story under his feet and judging how long it would take him to land. Not giving Ichigo the opportunity to debate his decision, Grimmjow leapt off the roof and plummeted to the ground for what felt like too long, making contact in a bent-kneed stance that he managed to hold in spite of his momentum and instantly rounded on his heel to watch that his traveling companion landed safely as well.

Visibly inhaling deeply, Ichigo took a running start off the rooftop, his figure airborne a second or two and then hitting the grass soundly and still standing in front of the other man. Not wanting to dawdle where any of the soldiers could perhaps spy them fleeing the occupied town, Grimmjow jerked his head in the direction of the start of another dirt road, this time cutting through an actual, wooded forest. They made it maybe within ten feet of it when suddenly their way was blocked off by a huge animal's fur-covered mass that soared directly in front of them the same distance away.

"Well, well, well, whatta we 'ave 'ere?" a silvery, smooth yet eerie voice greeted in a sing-song, lilting tone. "Y'all weren' thinkin' 'a gettin' outta 'ere 'fore a visit wit' me, did'ya?"

Grimmjow's eyes rose to where the speaker was astride the massive animal, placing him immediately to the same albino who'd been staring unashamedly at Ichigo last night in the tavern. His battle-trained senses were impossibly fast to pick out the metallic glint of a sword hilt at the newcomer's side and that the creature he was saddled upon was a shirshu, a rare and exotic breed of animal known for its unparalleled ability to track anything or anybody by scent alone and the paralyzing toxin released from its tongue should it hit you. Clearly this pale stranger's intentions were far from friendly and Grimmjow stiffened, recalling he and Ichigo's conversation in which the latter confessed to being pretty much helpless without his bending - that meant it was up to the older man to ensure it didn't come to that.

"And who the hell are you?" he spat at the white-haired man, who after which slid off his saddle to his feet, giving his shirshu a hearty pat on the muzzle.

"Guess tha' givin' mah name woul' be fair considerin' I know yers," the albino drawled. "Am Shirosaki, boun'y hunter, but ya can call me Shiro fer shor'."

Grimmjow's features twisted into a disgusted sneer, he really despised bounty hunters to the core, hating the greedy, grubby little worms who'd willingly betray their own grandmothers in exchange for a gold piece. Actually spitting at the pale man's feet, he made his repulsion for their kind quite apparent, biting out "Should'a known you were one of 'em slimy sons of bitches, you practically reek of them money-hungry, cowardly wretches."

The stranger's weirdly inverted eyes slitted, making it plain to see Grimmjow's words had touched a nerve. "Ya bes' watch yer mout', Admiral. I get paid no matta wha' condition I han' ya 'er tha' lil' peach behin' ya over in," he said, still sounding playful yet his words held an undercurrent of serious threat. "Bu' I'mma make ya tha' offer I give all tha men I rope an' deliver ta tha hi'est bidder like cattle, mmkay? C'mon wit' me wit'out a fuss an' I swear on mah Pa's grave I ain't gonna hurt ya none. Bu' if ya wanna figh' me am afraid I'm gonna 'ave ta an' ya still are gonna be comin' wit me in tha end, anyway. So, whatta ya say?"

Grimmjow smirked wickedly, always thrilled at the prospect of beating an opponent's arrogance out of them, and reached both hands across each other over his shoulders to grasp the hilts of his broadswords. In one swift motion that produced a metallic, scraping noise, he withdrew both of them diagonally downwards to his sides, their finely crafted golden, slightly curved blades gleaming in the sunrise glow. Absentmindedly he heard Ichigo shift uneasily a yard or so behind him but paid the youth no mind since this fight would all too soon be over.

"I say come and get it, Snowflake," the blue-haired man taunted, flashing his pearly, sharp teeth eagerly and twirling his weapons in his hands.

The bounty hunter, Shiro, cocked his head to the side and his lips tilted upwards into a small smile. Then, nearly too fast for Grimmjow to see, he drew his own pair of silver dual broadswords and charged forwards. But the blunette wasn't once one of the four Fire Nation's admirals for nothing and Grimmjow easily blocked the attack, leading them to push against the opposing swords, gauging their enemy's sheer strength for a moment and then forcing each other back a few feet, immediately delving back in for more.

Shiro was a formidable opponent for a non-bender, certainly more of a challenge than Grimmjow expected and a more capable, skillful fighter, too. They were actually pretty evenly matched, slicing blades through the air and blocking the other man's attacks at lightning speed. Nevertheless, Grimmjow had the training of an Admiral and a firebending Master and ultimately came out the stronger of the two, knocking one of the albino's swords out of his hand.

Instead of continuing with only a single sword, Shiro tossed his weapon aside casually and taking the other male by surprise for a second, almost catching him off guard enough to land an unexpected roundhouse kick on his chin. Grimmjow dodged just in time, narrowing his eyes as the pale bounty hunter used his impressive speed to circle around him in an attempt to find an opening in his defense. Figuring his swords were rendered a hindrance in what was now a hand-to-hand fight, Grimmjow resheathed his blades and blocked a fist aimed at his solar plexus.

Never ceasing in his assault, Shiro called out musically to his pet shirshu, "Get 'im, Zanny boy!"

Anticipating for the beast to attack him, Grimmjow cornered his eyes to get a good look at the bounty hunter's shirshu yet did so to see that the animal wasn't racing in his direction but rather straight for an oblivious Ichigo, whose attention was wholly focused on the two other men's fight. The man's blue eyes widened, his call of warning caught in his throat as he witnessed the orangette look over once the shirshu was too close for him to escape the mile-long tongue shooting out of its mouth and striking the boy's shoulder.

Ichigo collapsed to the ground within an instant, limply lying on his side as motionlessly as if he were near death. For reasons not entirely known to him, Grimmjow's inner fire raged with a roar deep within himself and instinct overtook his body, urging him to straight kick Shiro in the gut and then backfist his temple which promptly sent the albino staggering backwards dazedly. Figuring the bounty hunter for the most part defeated, Grimmjow rushed over to where the fallen orangette lay.

Turning the teen onto his back and pushing the arm covering his face aside, the elder of the two was met with Ichigo's expressive, dark amber eyes radiating confusion and fear at his sudden total body paralysis.

"Hey, don't look so panicked, you're perfectly fine," Grimmjow ordered, letting go of the other male but remaining in his position squatting right next to the unmoving form lying on the grass. "A shirshu tongue carries toxins that paralyze anyone lucky enough it touches. It'll wear off in fifteen or twenty minutes." Of course Ichigo was unable to verbalize or gesture his understanding, yet the firebender could tell he did from the fright gleaming dulling in those orbs of melted chocolate.

"Actually 's closer ta a half hour," Shiro's silvery voice interrupted, returning Grimmjow to be on his guard and ready for the bounty hunter to try and return the favor of those two devastating blows.

"Had enough already?" the more colorful of the two jeered smugly.

"Fer now, yea'. Nevah would'a guessed taday would be tha day tha' I suffah mah firs' defeat atta bounty's hands. Shame tha' it hadda cos' me tha' biggest reward I ever seen 'n mah life," the thoughtful musing of Shiro the bounty hunter drifted over from where he and his shirshu had reunited. "Congrats, Admiral. I'll be gettin' back ta sister deares' now."

"Tch, you never stood a chance," Grimmjow scoffed, keeping the white-haired man in his peripherals and wondering whether the woman he'd seen last night could perhaps be 'sister dearest.'

"I wouldn' say tha'," Shiro said, mounting his beast of a pet. "Ne'ertheless, I 'cept mah defeat gracefully bu' ya ain' ridda me fer good, Admiral. I'll be seein' ya an' yer lil peach again someday, so until then..." The albino trailed off, cracking the shirshu's reins and urging the animal to scurry off back to the town's border. Sneering at the man's odd ways, Grimmjow turned his attention back to the paralyzed waterbender he supposed he was responsible for however long it took for the toxins' effects to wear off.

"Agni be damned but you're more trouble than you're worth, brat," he growled under his breath, sliding an arm underneath Ichigo's back and legs and then standing to his full height, carrying the poisoned male princess style. They definitely couldn't hang out there, exposed and empty of the forest's cover, so Grimmjow decided it best to lug the seventeen year-old a ways down the dirt road.

It was hard to believe the sun was only now rising in the east above the horizon.

If they managed to make it to Ba Sing Se alive within this century Grimmjow swore to the Great Spirits he would merrily dance completely bare in the city streets. And who knew, he thought grinning lasciviously, maybe he could convince Ichigo to join him.

A/N: Gradually traveling across the Earth Kingdom... I hope you all enjoyed, especially that little cameo of our favorite inner hollow. ;) Don't worry, he spoke the truth about this not being the last of him in the story. More beloved Bleach characters to appear in future chapters... :D

And guess what? We have more fantabulous fan art created by the wonderful ~Aka-chan57 over on deviantArt. Just remove the spaces from the link below.

aka - chan 57 . deviantart art /Heliogabalus - 307814235