Chapter 1 - Heat

It didn't matter that the music was in a foreign language, the message was the same. And the voice! It didn't matter that it wasn't his voice. It sounded close enough to him that it worked at a substitute. That gravelly, demanding, arrogant voice that had thundered in defiance of all that was authority. Wild, savage, and so completely free. Who'd have thought that after it was all over he would be the source of comfort?

The form on the bed—no, bed wasn't the right word, nest was better—in the nest, flopped over carelessly, an arm flopped over the owner's eyes blocking out the harsh sunlight driving needles into his brain, tried desperately to drown himself, his thoughts, in the music. He couldn't get that voice out of his mind. Not that voices in his mind were odd for the sunset-haired, lanky, just past teen-years, substitute Shinigami. But the Old Man and the Pain in the Ass were hardly just voices.

When the trio of songs ended, the Visored growled loudly, and using his other hand smacked the play button on his mp3 player, cursing once again at the lack of "repeat all" feature thanks to it having been free from his previous part-time job. He figured it was a better parting gift than he really deserved given how often he'd had to call off and then the way he had quit after the whole Fullbring incident. The owner—Mrs. Something-or-other, he couldn't really remember anymore—told him if he ever needed another job he was welcome to it, but since regaining his abilities as the Shinigami/Visored/Whatever-he-was, he'd felt out of sorts, withdrawn, disconnected. He'd even go so far as to say he felt "bitchy".

Listening the songs through a third time, he realized he wasn't getting any sleep this morning, and threw himself off of the bed, trying desperately to not look at his reflection, a far cry from the fiery, untamed hero those of the Gotei 13 revered. Circles under his eyes large enough to look like tattoos belonging to The Voice, and a skin tone lacking its bronzed, healthy glow. He raked his hand through his hair with another growl, the stuff was getting too long, but he just couldn't bring himself to cut it. He snorted at his reflection, any longer and he was going to have to start wearing a ponytail like Renji.

He was still pulling at his hair, trying to tame the unruly mop, when his cell phone went off. A single glance told him all he needed and he flipped the screen up to answer. "'Lo?" He asked groggily.

"Ichigo! Where have you been? It's almost 1 in the afternoon, you promised you'd be here to welcome Sado-kun home from Mexico." The bubbly strawberry-blonde on the other end of his connection heard him groan.

"Yeah, I'll be right there, 'Hime." He flipped the phone closed before even listening for Orihime's next comment.

They dated for a short while, during their last year of high school, but after a few weeks the dark stranger Ichigo thought long dead wandered back into their lives, asking for a second chance, both with the Shinigami and the fair Orihime. While the jury was still out in the Gotei 13, the humans and Ichigo had learned how to tolerate the former Espada Cuatro. With the introduction of several of the Visoreds back into Seireitei as the missing taicho, the attitude towards higher Hollows like Arrancar had shifted from deadly enemy to tolerated neighbor. Ichigo didn't think there would ever be a true peace between the two worlds, but having the Visoreds among the Gotei 13 gave the Shinigami a crucial peek into society in Hueco Mundo before Aizen's science experiment.

So, Ulquiorra had shown up on their doorsteps, seemingly cured of his hunger for souls, but insatiable regarding the anthropology of the Living World. Orihime leapt at the idea of tutoring him, and Ichigo found himself not really caring about the amount of time the two spent together. This eventually led to the two orangettes ' going their separate ways.

Groaning again as the sunlight hit his abused amber orbs, Ichigo pulled a pair of extremely dark glasses out of his back jeans pocket to don them before stepping lightly off of the porch of his apartment building. It wasn't much, but it was better than living with Goat-Face. Tiredly looking from one side to the other, Ichigo gave into the voice of his Pain in the Ass, and sonido'd towards the airport across town.

It took him all of about a minute to cross the distance once he leaned on Shiro, the other gladly adding to his King's speed. So, when he entered the waiting area to join Orihime, Ishida, Ulquiorra, Tatsuki, Keigo, and Mizeru, the group knew he'd cheated to get there. He crossed to an empty chair nearby where he could watch the plane landing without a word to anyone.

As the steel bird taxied up to the terminal gate, he felt the presence of others that had come to greet their long time Giant; Rukia, Renji, Yoruichi, and Hat-n-Clogs. He could hear everyone whispering behind him, and his brows knitted together when Rukia gasped then started over to him.

He cut her off, "I haven't slept, and I was late. I wasn't going to miss out on him coming home. So, I flashed here. No one saw. Relax."

Her mouth like a fish-trap, Rukia turned to her best-friend-turned-brother-in-law furious, but the tattooed redhead only shrugged. None of them really expected anything less from the brooding, Visored. The rest of the time before Chad arrived was spent in a semi-tense silence.

Just before the giant's reiatsu touched them, Ulquiorra stepped over to Ichigo with a puzzled look on his face. "Kurosaki-san?" He began, almost losing his nerve as blood-shot eyes glanced up at him from between the glasses and the orange fringe, but he pushed forward, "Inoue-san has expressed a concern about your current attitude. I was wondering if there might be something you'd like to—"He hesitated, searching for the right phrase, "I believe 'get off your chest' is what humans say." Though not as monotone as he had been under Aizen, the former Espada was anything but dramatic.

Ichigo's soul piercing stare never changed, but he did blink a few times, once his irises glowing faintly gold before resuming their standard amber shade. His voice was gravelly from lack of sleep, "No."

"I see." The Arrancar pursed his lips and took a quick glance over his shoulder to guarantee that the others weren't listening. Taking a small breath, "I only bring this up because, while the others seem not to have noticed, you did not arrive here via Flash Step, but by using Sonido. The movement is essentially the same, but to one who spends his time observing the differences in everything, I can tell the difference between the two." He noticed that Ichigo's right hand gripped the armrest slightly tighter, as the already pale knuckles were drained a bit. "I will not reveal your secret, but I believe I may have answers to some of the questions that might be running through your mind right now. This is a particularly difficult time for young Hollows of all sorts, no matter the path they have taken to obtain their Hollow abilities. Going through it alone is highly unadvisable, but as you're likely to receive better care and understanding here, I do not suggest going to Hueco Mundo, no matter what your inner-self seems to think." He moved to place a hand on the young Visored, only to have him flinch away from the contact with something resembling a hiss. "It may sound ironic, but please, Kurosaki-san, trust me."

With that Orihime's cheering brought both parties out of their conversation, as a much darker Chad walked into their midst. He was wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt over a white wife-beater style sleeveless shirt, and relaxed jeans over what could only be called "cowboy boots". His hair was longer, pulled back into a low ponytail, but his bangs still fell to cover his eyes most of the time, and his chin sported a crisp goatee. The others crowded around him, greeting him happily and asking a million questions he had no time to answer.

Ulquiorra hung back, preferring to observe the behavior of greeting an old friend, but he was rather shocked that Ichigo hadn't moved from where his chair was either. Sure, the berry was on his feet, but he didn't seem to be making any kind of attempt to move closer to the lumbering man. The Arrancar switched his focus to Ichigo, taking in the way the young man licked his lips as if his mouth was dry, and flexed his hands, wiping sweat off of them. Blinking his eyes once, he switched the filters he saw through, and began to observe everyone's reiatsu. There was no doubting that all around him were quite a bit stronger than he had first observed, with Ichigo being the largest jump, but what he found buried under the signatures was worth studying. The hulking part-Mexican was emitting a similar reiatsu from both arms as a Hollow, and while that in and of itself was cause to concern Ulquiorra, as he also noted that Ichigo's reiatsu had begun reaching towards Chad's. Stealing a glance at the berry, he determined that the connection wasn't lust, but safety. Tilting his head minutely to the side, he stared harder at the strawberry, his confusion becoming evident across his face, and the deeper his confusion went the more enthralled with the orangette he became.

Somehow throughout Ulquiorra's scrutiny the three Hollow-based men started gravitating towards one another, drawn by some impossible to resist hidden force. All thought seeming to drain from their minds. Just as Chad and Ulquiorra were about to pull out their powers, Shinji appeared suddenly between them.

"Yare yare! You bunch are scary, y'know that?" He laughed, his face split with a piano-tooth grin but his eyes screaming just how serious he was about standing between the ex-Espada and the Fullbringer.

His presence seemed to snap Ichigo out of his trance for the most part. He looked around wildly for a moment, as though he'd forgotten how he'd gotten into the mess he was in, and felt the flush of color rising up his neck as he took in the concerned faces of his friends, as well as the level of tension among Chad, Ulquiorra, and Shinji.

He stammered something about needing to leave as the blush spread across his cheeks deeper than he thought possible, and then he bolted, disappearing in a soft whoosh that could only mean something the equivalent of a Flash Step, leaving his friends even more dumbfounded than before. Except for the three males standing in a row about to tear each other's heads off.

"What the Hell was that?" Rukia finally burst out, shaking the three from staring after the retreating berry.

The blonde shopkeeper frowned a bit behind his fan, as Shinji and Ulquiorra closed their eyes for a moment to almost literally shake off the effects of the standoff. The stoic ex-Espada was the first to come out of it, and he immediately crossed the distance between himself and Chad, bowed and said, "My apologies, welcome home, Sado-san. How was your trip?"

That seemed to break Chad's concentration as well, as the muscles along his shoulders settled a bit, and he bent to pick up his carry-on bag that had somehow in the tension of the moment been set down. He flashed a small smile, never being one for many words, and nodded to the much smaller male. The tension of before apparently forgotten except for a lingering concern that only those closest to him would notice.

Once the rivals had come out of their stupor, Kisuke and Shinji led the group back to the Urahara Shoten for the welcome party that was scheduled for Chad. The two blondes met eyes silently, but everyone pointed ignored Rukia's outburst, much to the midget's displeasure, which she was more than happy to take out on Renji.

The party was well in full swing when Yoruichi exited the Shoten for a breath of fresh air. Several of the other Taicho and Fukutaicho had come through the Senkaimon into the shop's basement, and with the free flowing sake things were getting quite stuffy down there between those that wanted to spar and those that wanted to do other extra-curricular activities. The cat-woman shook her head, chuckling, until she caught the tormented reiatsu sitting on the roof.

"Oi! Berry, why don't you come join the party? I know everyone would love to see you relax for a while." She tilted her head to look up at him for a moment before joining him on the roof.

Though he was still dressed in the same tee shirt and jeans combination he had worn that afternoon, now that the sun had set he had forgone the sunglasses. He looked down at the Shioin and the grief that weighed in those pools of amber almost leveled her. He was much too young to have seen and done all of the things he had in his short life. The elder sighed and took a seat next to the 20-year-old, who unconsciously leaned against her. Though this was highly out of character for him, Yoruichi sensed that maybe there was something going on under the surface that any amount of teasing would lock away permanently.

After a few minutes of silence, the feeling that Ichigo had something to get off of his chest growing heavier, Yoruichi spoke up softly, "Whatever it is, Ichi-berry, you know we're behind you, right?"

The strawberry nodded silently. He wanted to spill everything, the dreams, the cravings, the fevers, way at times he could barely lift Zangetsu, but he just couldn't. His pride just wouldn't let him admit out loud that he was weakening. He pulled out his mp3 player and did the only thing that seemed to be able to cut through this haze surrounding him, listening to the same rough voice again. He was just about to replay the songs, still leaning on Yoruichi, when a shrill scream that was half howl cut through the silence of the night.

Without thinking, Ichigo jumped down to his feet in front of the Shoten, and unaware that he had more watchers than Yoruichi, allowed his form to shift into Shinigami, as smoothly as going from Shikai to Bankai, no soul badge required, though the violet piercing glare could see he still carried it with him. Zangetsu was off his back and he was Flash Stepping away before anyone in his audience could say anything.

So caught up in watching the seemingly impossible events that had just occurred, the Shinigami missed the emerald-eyed shadow that followed Ichigo, having caught something the others didn't—the berry was already sweating.

The Hollow was nothing, just a normal Hollow not even a Menos, but even so, by the time their collective wits were gathered, Rukia, Orihime, Chad, Uryuu, Renji, and the only other Arrancar given freedom to travel between worlds, Nelliel, rushed into the playground not too far from Urahara's shop to find Ichigo still fighting off the thing. He was struggling, sweat and blood pouring down his back where his shihakusho was torn. The sight made them all pause in confusion. There was no reason he should be having trouble with a Hollow of this level.

Renji flipped his own sunglasses down and did a reading on the reiatsu of the beast, then shook his head at Rukia, the silent conversation confusing the small Kuchiki even further. There really was no reason for Ichigo to have trouble, but he apparently was.

Uryuu flared his bow into existence after witnessing Ichigo being thrown across the park by the Hollow that appeared eerily similar to Zabimaru's nue form, but before he could even fire off a single shot, the creature did something odd. It galloped over to Ichigo and licked up the Visored's back, eliciting a sound from the berry most gathered there flushed to hear.

Cursing under his breath at having been pinned by the Hollow for the second time, Ichigo growled and tried to head-butt the masked face attempting to lick him again. It didn't do much, other than give him the beginnings of a headache, but it was enough to make the Hollow pause, which was enough to give Ichigo a chance to pull on his Visored mask.

His transformation, though invisible from the angle of his spectators, was felt through the heavy reiatsu change. Holding their collective breaths as the area by the trees where the Hollow had Ichigo pinned began to glow bright red, they were all on edge, but being held back by some unknown paralyzing force. The most any of them could do was Orihime had her hand on her hair clips, ready to call forth Shun Shun Rikka the moment Ichigo reappeared. The thundering sound of the Cero pounded their eardrums, but none of them bowed under the weight of it. When the flash died down the Hollow was gone, and Ichigo was just lying on the ground as though this had been a major fight. He groaned and the collectively held breath was released, along with the paralyzing force that had been holding them all back.

Orihime and Nell were the first to run to him, followed closely by Rukia and Renji, though Chad and Uryuu were not far behind. All of them calling for Ichigo.

His vision blurred, his back felt like a thousand electric wires cutting through him, but worse was the aching emptiness that suddenly rushed in on him, almost bringing tears to his eyes. He became aware of the others running at him, and reacting without thinking, he screamed, "DON'T TOUCH ME!" And tried to Flash Step, only to fail, tripping over his own shoe laces as his form shifted back to what appeared to be Human. He felt himself falling, and found his movements to be horribly slow and unresponsive. At some point his body hit the ground, but he kept falling, into the black, crushing heat that had been the source of his sleep disturbances and fevers for months now.

When he opened his eyes, he was in his mindscape, the sideways skyscrapers having returned after he regained his powers, and the sea receding to be simply a lake of grief that he would never rid himself of. Zangetsu was balancing on his blade in meditation, but the Old Man spoke anyway.

"You're suffering." He said plainly.

"Yeah." Ichigo sighed, sitting next to him.

"You know what you need to do." Came the deep reply.


They sat like that for a while, in silence, letting the wind that was too hot whip around them. The clouds drifting lazily sideways across what would have been the sky in the real world. The building energy approaching them informed them both they were about to be joined before the white Pain in the Ass showed up.

"Oi! King!" He was tackled and punched before digging his knee into the white gut and throwing the bleached menace off of him. After crashing into the building above them, Shiro recovered enough to sneer at the other two. "Ja miss me?"

Ichigo simply glared at his "twin".

"I come ta tell ya that yer friends," He spit the word, "saw yer shifting trick."

Ichigo's glare deepened. "How? You were supposed to make sure our Sonido was faster than their Shunpo!" His voice quiet, deadly, and darker than it had been before the merging of the three souls. Though they were separated again to live as three entities within Ichigo's mindscape, no one there questioned who was King any longer, as the power to fuse them all into a single being, snuffing out both others, was still available to their ruler.

Shiro shrugged, and kicked at some non-existent dust on the glass of one of the windows beneath their feet.

"Don't give me that. The only way they could have caught us was if you let them, Shiro, and you know it." The orangette's eyes burned like liquid gold while the Old Man watched the inevitable confrontation between King and Horse, bored behind his sunglasses.

Clearly not willing to answer for his mistake, Shiro simply turned around, throwing a cocky, smart-assed grin over his shoulder, and began to walk off, disappearing into the building below them. Ichigo quickly fired a Cero after the retreating white shadow, but knew that he wouldn't get anything more out of the Pain in the Ass. Too frustrated to remain in his mindscape any longer, he snorted, gave a nod to Zangetsu, and disappeared back to the Living World.

As such he didn't see or hear when Shiro returned to stand next to the Old Man, who rumbled, "You know, sooner or later the two of you are going to have to resolve this issue. He'll die if it isn't."

Shiro scratched his head, more emotion in his black and gold eyes than he'd ever dare to show in front of his King. "I know. I just don' know what ta do ta tell him. You know he's never been one ta listen ta me, even when I was savin' his ass!" He kicked at the invisible dirt again and focused on the windows at their feet to watch through Ichigo's eyes.

Opening his eyes, Ichigo immediately hissed in pain and threw his arm over the abused orbs as the light brought the never ending pressure of tympani drums resounding in his skull. When will it ever end, he wailed internally. He'd never voice things like that out loud, but safe within the confines of his own mind, locked away from the other two who lived there, he allowed himself to actually feel the longing, the need, the burning lust that threatened at any moment to consume his ability to think with logic. He felt that he was lying on a futon and a quick sniff of the air told him he was at the Shoten, Yoruichi's favorite bath salts infiltrating his nose. He could also tell that although the owners of the shop were trying very hard to remain concealed behind the paper screen separating his recovery room from the next, they were intently listening to his every move. They probably thought his back was still torn to ribbons. Shifting his shoulders slightly on the futon told him that as usual Shiro's regenerative abilities had removed all but thin, silvery scars. All he had to do was wait for nightfall to make his escape from his well-wishing guards, as he had no idea where his sunglasses were, and even removing his arm from over his closed eyes sent new throbbing through his cranium.

Off to the side the entire group from the previous night; Rukia, Orihime, Renji, Uryuu, Ulquiorra, Chad, Yoruichi, Kisuke, Nell, and the added Byakuya, Toshiro, Ikkaku, Yumichika, Rangiku, and Shinji crowded around Hat-n-Clogs' tea table while Tessai and Ururu served the crowded guests tea and cookies. Jinta was nowhere to be found, but given his disdain for work, none in the Shoten were surprised.

"So, what do we know of the problem with Kurosaki-san?" The stoic noble asked softly, taking a sip of his tea. His life partner had a positive impact on his outlook on including others into his inner circle. If it hadn't been for Renji's near constant refusal to give in regarding the cherry-blossom lord, he might still have been shouldering the guilt he had bourn over his late wife, Hisana. Now, he carried her with him as a happy reminder that although all good things end, the important part is to remember they were good.

"From what I understand, Kuchiki-Taicho," The equally stoic ex-Espada also drank lightly from his cup across the table. The two were practically mirror images of each other, but for Ulquiorra's Hollow mask. "Kurosaki-san has come of age. In Hollow terms, he is an adult now."

Kisuke whistled lightly. "I didn't even know Hollows grew up. I thought that all Hollows were just Human souls with no heart." The glares sent across the table at him, had the blonde shopkeeper laughing nervously with his hand behind his head. "Not that anyone here has no heart, of course!"

"That is essentially correct, Kisuke-sama." Ulquiorra continued. "However, Arrancar are not ordinary Hollows. We are born of two Hollows and as such retain a semblance of Humanity through our evolutions." The Shinigami especially leaned in to listen to this intimate exposure of Hollow society. Looking around for the first time since he started speaking, Ulquiorra's pasty cheeks flushed slightly, a habit he picked up from Orihime, at seeing all but Ikkaku, Byakuya, Nell, and Shinji leaning into the table with rapt attention on him. He cleared his throat. "It is not often for Hollow children to survive, as our first enemies are often those that gave birth to us, but every so often an Arrancar will have children. Those that Aizen rose to be his Espada were such children, as only the most powerful of children can survive the deserts and forests of Hueco Mundo, and he specifically sought the most powerful for his army. Certain types are also more prone to breeding than others." He flushed again, growing a bit uncomfortable under the constant scrutiny. "Feline, Demonic, and Canine specifically." He sort of trailed off at that point, now nervously shifting from one pair of boring eyes to another.

"I believe, Ulquiorra-san has explained himself well." Byakuya gently chided those around him, and everyone suddenly sat back like they hadn't been at all interested, much to the emerald-eyed Arrancar's relief.

There were plenty of details he left out, of course, like the fact that not all males and females were what they appeared to be, but as the Shinigami began talking amongst themselves he felt that they had been given enough information to satisfy them for the moment. He closed his eyes, enjoying the taste of his tea. Since coming to the Human World and living in a gigai, he had noticed an affinity for well-prepared cuisine and a surprising decrease in his desire for soul consumption, leading him to spend less and less time in Hueco Mundo in favor of staying closer to the strawberry-blonde airhead who had first taught him about the concept of "heart". Even now said airhead had scooted herself over to lean on his shoulder. He wasn't sure how to truly show his affection, but just allowing her to show her affection for him seemed to satisfy her. So, this time he gave her a small, private smile behind the security of his teacup.

"So, what does this mean, Espada-san?" Toshiro turned back to the Demonic man.

"As far as Kurosaki-san goes, the attacks like last night are only going to continue, and until Kurosaki-san has chosen a mate, he will continue to get weaker and weaker. The idea being that if he is unable to fight off his attackers it is more likely he will be subdued for—" He blushed deeper than any in the room had ever seen before, and found himself unable to continue. "I believe the rest of this conversation should be held in private with Kurosaki-san himself."

At that moment the door into Ichigo's room slid open and the topic of conversation stumbled out, half dressed and glaring darkly at the crowd in the Shoten. The sun had set during the meeting and Tessai had seen to turning the lights on. Without warning the bulb above the table exploded and only Byakuya, Ulquiorra, Kisuke and Shinji had seen the almost microscopic Gestuga Tencho fired from the hand above the orangette's head where he was leaning against the doorframe.

"Oi! Ichigo! What the hell was that?" Renji swore, jumping to the correct assumption that the berry had something to do with the sudden darkness in the shop.

Similar complaints echoed from a few of the others, but Ichigo said nothing. He had heard enough, confirming some of his deepest fears. He knew some of what they were talking about from conversations with his Pain in the Ass, and suspected what Ulquiorra hadn't said thanks to his lack of interest in females since Orihime. A tense silence fell over the room as all gathered began to notice Ichigo's eyes, glowing gold in the darkness where no light was shining.

All in all the savior of the Seireitei looked quite feral, standing in the doorway, eyes glowing, only bandages and shadows keeping the world from seeing the well-defined planes of his torso and abdomen. When he spoke it was soft, and filled with something akin to sorrow, "So, how long do I have?"

A shiver ran down the spines of everyone who had witnessed his loss of power several years ago, and Shinji closed his eyes, having been particularly quiet the whole night. He already knew what Ulquiorra had and hadn't said. A hundred plus years of being a Visored had made the apparently young pack leader and Shinigami taicho wiser than he looked or acted. "You know you are a welcome member of our pack, Ichigo. You need not suffer from this. Rose and Love have already—"

"No." Ichigo cut him off, obviously having discussed this before. "Forgive me, Hirako-Taicho, but you know why I cannot agree to such a proposal."

"Well, sometimes, Ichi-berry, you can't have the best. We don't even know if he's still alive. Mashiro and Hiyori had to return before anything turned up for the same reason you cannot go look for him. Lisa and the others can't go for the same reason I cannot. We would be too tempted." The lead Visored sounded genuinely concerned for the younger man.

"Why do I get the feeling we're missing out on somethin', Yumi!" Ikkaku sniffed from his lounging position on one of Yoruichi's beanbag pillows near the shop portion of the building.

"Indeed. It seems there has been some information left out." The be-feathered man tossed his hair lightly so he could look up at Shinji and Ichigo from over his shoulder, as he was seated very near Ikkaku on his knees. "Keeping secrets is most un-beautiful, especially from your friends, Ichigo."

"Yeah!" Rangiku slammed her hands down on the table, pouting quite fully, her ample chest bouncing from her movement. "I thought you trusted us, Ichigo! We're your friends!"

"Matsumoto!" The irritated growl from the snow-haired taicho beside the busty blonde reminded her that she needed to behave. So she sat back with another pout, this time at her captain, as Toshiro opened his eyes to look up at Ichigo as well. "Is there something not being said here, Kurosaki?"

Before the orangette can respond, Nel spoke up for the first time since Ichigo's attack, "It's not something we like to talk about in public." She was in her adult form, as her mood was quite more subdued than normal. "It is up to Itsygo to inform you if he wishes, but pressing him on the matter is actually considered quite rude where we come from."

"But, Ichigo isn't a Hollow, or an Arrancar, or anything, he's a Human." Rukia insisted.

"No, but he does have a Hollow half, and he is a Visored." Kisuke pointed out, also taking in what hadn't been said by any of the Hollow-esque folks in the room. "And I can assure you that the same way he had to go through the rigors of learning Bankai like a Shinigami, it is not surprising that he has to mature in the way of the Arrancar as well."

Renji, who had crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at the table while working through the entire discussion, finally spoke up, "I think—for once—we need ta just let Ichigo handle this without getting' in his way like we always do. If he needs our help I'm sure he'll ask fer it, but if he doesn't—we might just be hurtin' him by tryin' ta help when he doesn't need it." Most around him stared at him in awe. The powerful redhead had his back to Ichigo and, along with Uryuu and Chad, had been quite silent weighing something that Byakuya had said to him once about listening between the lines of a conversation.

The Quincy was the first to stand from where they were all seated, and as such was the only one to notice Ichigo flinch when he moved towards his vibrant friend. With worry creasing his brows, he said, "I agree with Abarai-san. If you need us, Ichigo, all you need do is ask."

The orangette mumbled, "Arigato, Ishida." He looked around the room again, as now that they'd all been sitting in the dark for a while his headache was beginning to ease, in spite of constant chatter. So, he took a tentative step into the room.

Immediately, Shinji, Chad, and Ulquiorra froze and their hands flew to their noses. Byakuya sat up straighter, tense and alert, his hand unconsciously seeking Renji's under the table. Yumichika practically flew into Ikkaku's lap when the bald man grabbed his shihakusho, and Kisuke's fan was quickly brought up to wave in front of his shadowed face. Nell sighed and got up when Ichigo froze, fully aware of what he'd done to the others. She did the unthinkable and gathered the berry into her arms and held him close, her comforter needing her comfort as internally it finally hit him just how badly he was out of sorts. She pushed him back a step or two into the doorway again, firmly keeping her body between him and the others, as they all visibly relaxed. He mumbled a stream of apologies into her shoulder and she shushed him, both thankful that he'd removed the light source from the room so that no one's embarrassing moments could be seen with any great deal of clarity.

Shinji was the first to come out of the trance-like state they all suffered, and cleared his throat. "That is why I keep suggesting it, Ichi-berry. It won't be long now until one of us that is more seriously affected by your current state of being is unable to control themselves and you will wind up in a situation with someone not of your choosing. Please," He actually begged the vibrant Visored youth in both words and body, "find an Alpha. Quickly."