A/N: Konnichiwa, minna! Here we go, the last chapter of the A&B Xmas Special. Part 2 will be following, but I think I'll be taking a short break with it. I wanna get a couple of the others wrapped up before pushing this forward more. I Remember You and Lament of the Succubus are much shorter than this one. So, clearing those from my desk will help me re-focus. I'm also going to be trying to write my own original fiction here soon. Anybody know of a good place I could dry-run it when I get some stuff done? Let me know in the reviews if you do. X3 Anyways, small reminder, text in bold like this is Shiro talking through Ichi's mouth. Enjoy!
"Is the appropriate phrase not, 'ho ho ho'?" The Sotaicho glanced around the room at the stunned silence.
Then, out of nowhere, Yachiru landed on his bag of gifts and presents. Everyone held their breath as they waited to see what the old man would do. When all that happened was a hearty laugh, Hanataro fainted behind Yuzu.
Yamamoto set the bag on the ground and Sasakibe provided a large chair, also out of nowhere that looked suspiciously like the one from the captains' meeting room. Once 'Santa' was seated, Yachiru bounced into his lap with a squeal, as once again everyone in the room held their breath.
They need not have worried however, as it turned out that Yamamoto had an extremely soft spot for children, and not-quite-children-anymore. It seemed to be that the Sotaicho was quite taken with the idea of Saint Nicholas, and whole-heartedly embraced the idea of celebrating once a year by giving gifts to all of those he cared about. This was no surprise to the students who had been with him the longest, but to the younger Shinigami, and all of the Hollows, it was a bit unnerving as he handed Yachiru a box wrapped in brightly colored paper.
As expected of the Eleventh's fukutaicho, the pink-haired menace tore into the box like a tie-dyed Tasmanian Devil, scraps of paper flying everywhere to the sound of Kenpachi's proud guffaws. The violent captain's unrestrained enjoyment of the situation did nothing to make the more nervous souls relax at all.
"A KITTEEEEEEEEE!" She shrieked at last, holding up a hair decoration much like the crossed bones she was currently wearing, but it was a cat's skeleton with a little red heart on its chest. She dashed off immediately, "Braidy-lady! Put it on!"
All attention was taken from Retsu's application of the hair clip, however when Yamamoto cleared his throat. "Hitsugaya-Taicho and Kurosaki Karin."
The crowd pushed the scowling pair to the front, and Grimmjow had to forcibly hold onto his Beta to keep the orangette from getting in the way. He murmured something in Ichigo's ear, and those who were paying attention to them saw the Lead Beta relax, but not without a grumbling scowl.
"Yes, Sotaicho?" Toshiro asked, the tension in his back and chin painting his nervousness clear as day for all who knew him, in spite of the deep glower on his face and attempt at professionalism.
Beside him, Karin wasn't much better. Arms crossed over her chest and a glare that matched her brother's knitting her eyebrows together. She knew what had happened to her father when he fell in love with her mother, and was perfectly ready to defend both herself and her boyfriend if it came down to it.
The old man held out a small insect cage. Inside, two delicate jigokuchou fanned their wings gently; one had bright yellow banding, the other a blue so light as to almost be white, "These will carry you both safely through the Dangai whenever you need them. Their names are Yuki and Taiyo. Some of us are proud of the growing relations among the three worlds, do not forget you have a place to call home."
The snowy-haired captain of the Tenth blushed furiously to a round of suggestive congratulations, as his girlfriend pounced him in a show of uncharacteristic joy, "Toshi! We don't have to stay here anymore!"
More of the crowd was beginning to relax, enjoying ribbing the receivers as they were thrust into the foreground where everyone watched them. In the background, Juushiro leaned against his lover with a wistful smile on his face.
"Remember our first celebration with the Sotaicho, Shun-kun?"
The brunette was quick to laugh, "Very well, Juu-chan. Yama-jii scared the tabi off me. It took Restu and—"
"Oh look," The captain of the Thirteenth interrupted him with a point to the center of the circle around the Sotaicho. "Young Kurosaki-san is up next."
The book the blonde eighteen-year-old received was old; very old. The cover was leather, cracking and faded to the point of being unreadable, but the vellum within was shiny and soft. Delicately drawn calligraphy in ebony ink as fresh as the day it was written displayed a veritable cornucopia of recipes.
"This was my grandmother's. I think you'll find it quite useful." The revered silence over the ancient text was broken by the man dressed as Father Christmas speaking softly, with a tender wistfulness that betrayed his emotions. "No one in the three worlds could cook like she could, and your indelible spirit, Yuzu-chan, reminds me of her."
"Arigato, Ojii-san!" The blonde reached up to give the old man a great big hug and a kiss on the cheek, clutching the precious book to her chest with a huge, infectious smile on her face. Unfortunately the tension was such that Hanataro fainted again, and she bit her lip concerned. "Oh…oh, dear."
Yamamoto chuckled, and the last of those who were standing around nervously took it as a cue to relax as well, joining in on the mirth, as Yuzu and Momo helped the small healer back to his feet. He blushed and smiled nervously between them, setting off another round of laughter.
The Shinigami moved on, beginning to bring out gifts for each other while the Sotaicho continued to hand out what he had for the others one at a time, calling their names as Sasakibe fished their presents from the bag. Observing the party from the background, Ichigo smiled, the previous fright regarding his sisters vanished like the wind, but a pit of uneasiness settled in his stomach, detaching him from the shared warmth of the holiday gathering. When it became too much to bear, he pulled away from his Alpha's embrace.
"Kitten?" The Sexta's ears perked slightly.
"I'm alright. I just need a breath of fresh air. It's stuffy down here with this many people all crammed into one place." The orangette gave another soft smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
Knowing they'd discuss whatever it was later, Grimmjow just nodded, letting his mate go, though the tip of his tail twitched back and forth in concern as the cub-heavy hybrid climbed the stairs to the Shoten proper. The blunette waited all of five minutes before slinking after his Beta silently. His absence was noted by Ulquiorra, Shinji, and Kisuke, but an exchanged glance among them shared the agreement that if the pair wanted to be alone, the best thing the other members of their pack could do was to keep their senses peeled for threats.
Outside, Ichigo breathed the frigid air in deeply, wrapping the winter jacket tighter around his not-as-slender frame to keep out the wind that promised a flurry before dawn. He let Shiro rise to the surface of his mind, though the Hollow was sluggish, and content to just purr in his King's mind under the light of the moon as it played hide and seek with the snow-heavy clouds. The albino did, however, use the control he had on the orangette's left side to stroke his hand down over the place where the coat belled out to cover his belly. The melancholy that had tugged at the hybrid's heart all day, all season really, disappeared in that instant, because although there were three layers of thick cloth between his gloved hand and his stomach, internally he felt flutters and kicks that told him all four of his cubs were growing stronger.
"I didn't think you'd risk coming out here alone, son."
The clipped tone from the shadows, brought Ichigo's mismatched gaze down from the moon to land on the weary man standing across the street in the black trench coat and matching fedora. His hands were in his pockets and he hunched his shoulders to keep off the chill, in spite of the brightly colored scarf that was just barely peeking out of the collar of his coat.
Shiro disappeared immediately, not wanting to cause more trouble. So, in spite of the continued hold the Hollow had on his King's left hand, protectively still resting on his baby bump, the orangette's voice was normal when he said, "Merry Christmas, Goat Face."
"Right." The former captain snorted, not quite glaring.
"Would you want something to eat? There's still plenty left from dinner." It was killing him to have the distance between the two of them, but he did his best to keep his voice steady.
For a moment, it seemed as though his father was going to take him up on the offer, but something hard flashed in the older Kurosaki's eyes. "I came for Yuzu. Please, go get her for me."
The hybrid bit his tongue forcibly to still the words that threatened to burst from his mouth, but mentally he did have Shiro put their left hand in their pocket. The Inner Hollow could still soothe himself by rubbing small circles on the side of their belly with their thumb through the lining without being obvious to the man across the street. To make the motion look more natural, and give the illusion that his Hollow wasn't just under the surface, Ichigo tucked his right hand in the pocket at the same time.
"I…I think she's still busy with Yama-jii downstairs. He gave her a cookbook or something." The Beta looked off to the side, a thousand questions playing across his features.
Silence stretched between them, as Isshin was in no hurry to leave, nor would he come any closer to the young man who had been the small orange-haired boy that cried at the drop of a hat before his mother was forcibly taken from them. He would never say it out loud but he was actually quite proud of how strong of character his weakling son had become. If only the boy hadn't gotten mixed up in all of that Shinigami business! He didn't realize how sensitive the Beta's hearing was as he let the barely audible growl escape his lips into the frozen air.
Shiro responded before Ichigo could stop him, "Why do you hate us?!"
The end of the sentence was choked off, but the words carried through the still night anyway, drawing a harder, more prominent glare onto Isshin's face. "An abomination like you couldn't possibly understand what it's like to watch my only son corrupted by the likes of you! You and all of your kind should be cleansed, especially now that we have proof that you can breed!"
The orangette actually took a step back, his eyes going wide at the implications of his father's hissed declaration. It made him gasp and lose the precious control he had over Shiro's tongue. "I wouldn't understand?! Do you have any idea what it's like to be hunted down for just existing!? To be forced into exile and dominated by beings who would like nothing more than to run you through?! You disgust me! You call us abominations but here you are despising your own kin. At least we care for our cubs, no matter how they turn out!"
"Shii!" Ichigo cut in, but the damage had been done.
Isshin stalked closer, and what they had previously thought of as a trench coat revealed itself to be a winter-weight kosode, adapted from his standard Shinigami uniform specifically by the weather. It happened to all shihakusho whenever a Shinigami was on a long mission in a place where the seasons changed and had no access to get the different fabrics available in the Soul Society itself. So, as the wind picked up again, blowing the billowing sleeves and wide legs of Isshin's uniform, Engetsu was exposed in full, the hilt glinting dangerously in the moonlight.
Seeming to know his son better than first glance showed, the former captain did not draw his Zanpakutou. He merely began to cross the distance between them. Ichigo backed up another couple of steps, every instinct in his body screaming that closing the gap was a bad idea, but he couldn't bring himself to summon either his mask or Zangetsu on his father. He just couldn't. His heart clenched in his chest, and the corners of his eyes burned, as he recognized the killing intent in the steely glare approaching him.
"D-Dad, wait! Don't do this! Please…" He hated how weak the last word came out, but he couldn't help it when his father's hand drifted towards that deadly blade that was so similar to his own.
He stumbled, landing on his rear in the snow and bringing his hands up, empty, to guard against the blow he could see coming. Unable to do anything else against the man who had sired him, the orangette winced, eyes closed and terror gripping him the likes of which no other foe had ever inspired. He heard the slide of metal against its sheath and tensed his body to roll so he could attempt to protect the cubs.
He went numb, mentally and physically. His father was going to kill him. He couldn't feel the snow seeping through his clothes anymore, nor the icy wind on his exposed cheeks. His eyes didn't want to open, didn't want to see the look of murder on his father's face. His tongue thickened and his throat closed around sobs that he refused to let escape. He felt like someone had placed sound-cancelling headphones over his ears. His warrior's experience helped him sense the tension in the air as Engetsu came down over his curled shoulder, but the blow never landed.
Shock brought him the return of his senses, all at once. He whipped his head around to hear the sharp clang of swords connecting at the same time that his eyes went wide at the figure standing over him. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Instead, his body saw fit to take in great gulps of air, as though he'd been running or submerged underwater.
"Go home, Isshin." Yamamoto's gravelly voice broke over the roar of reiatsu.
Warm, strong hands gripped Ichigo's bicep, and the next thing the orangette knew, he was wrapped in the safe, hard-as-steel embrace of his Alpha. The panther was snarling lowly at his father. To one side of the clashing Shinigami Shinji, Kisuke, Renji, Kenpachi, Shunsui, Kensei and Love had their Zanpakutou drawn. To the other side Ulquiorra, Halibel, and Szayel had their claws and teeth bared. All were ready to attack at the slightest provocation by the hybrid's sire.
The dark-haired former captain looked around at the gathered crowd and sneered. "I never anticipated you'd join their side of things, Old Man."
"We all make mistakes." Neither the Sotaicho, nor the exiled former captain gave an inch, though Ichigo suspected the older Shinigami was holding back a great deal so as to not harm the underpowered Arrancar and the cubs.
"I'm just following the example I was given. Is that such a problem?" Isshin snapped back.
"Don't allow old prejudices to cloud your judgement. Do not make the same mistake I made." Yamamoto frowned deeply. "I thought you knew better than that."
Ichigo's father raised his reiatsu, shouting as the wind picked up again due to the others around the open space responding with their own. "This is nothing like that! I was a full grown man! I met her on assignment! My children are just that! CHILDREN!"
"Look around ya, Isshin!" Shinji called. "This isn't what ya think it is."
"You stay out of this, Hirako!" The brunette shifted his eyes to the Pack Alpha for a moment. "This is between me and the abomination that's corrupted my son!"
Grimmjow screamed in the way of mountain lions, and were it not for the presence of Ichigo in his arms, he'd have launched himself at the offending former Shinigami. The way his muscles bunched told all who knew him that in a very short while, if more insults like that were thrown around, the Sexta wouldn't be able to hold himself back any longer.
Nnoitra cut across the animalistic noises, swinging his head from side to side, inhaling deeply, "Where is the slimy fucker exactly? I c'n smell his dead ass! Lemme at 'im! I'll show 'im how much of a 'bomination' I c'n be!"
"Leave, Kurosaki! And take your prejudice with you!" Ulquiorra growled, "I will not hold my comrades back should you continue to provoke them. Attempting to harm a pregnant Beta is tantamount to high treason to a Hollow."
If Isshin had any reply he was preempted by similar sentiments being echoed from the Visored Alphas and a good percentage of the Shinigami, both in the semi-circle and those watching from the doorway of the Shoten, where most of the party had gathered to find out what all the fuss was about. As the din grew louder, Yamamoto silenced it with a single word.
The former Shinigami captain gathered his strength, preparing for something. A strike against the Sotaicho? Kido? More angry words? None were sure what, but his pomp and bluster left him when a small voice cut through the tension.
"Otousan! Please, stop!"
Yuzu pushed her way through the crowd, until she was standing between her father and her brother next to the Sotaicho. Her wide brown eyes over-bright and pleading, as she clutched the basket she had brought with her when she arrived to her chest.
"We can go home now. I've packed up enough food to celebrate with you, and I've left the presents for Nii-chan and Karin-chan. Please, Otousan, I wanna go home." Her voice wavered with unshed tears.
All around them Shinigami and Hollow alike softened, sympathy crossing most of their faces, sword tips falling to point at the snow, and averted eyes to give the father and daughter some privacy. For a few tense moments it seemed as though Isshin was going to disregard his daughter, but then he too relaxed, sagging as if under a great weight. He pulled his reiatsu back, sheathed his Zanpakutou, prompting the Sotaicho to do the same, and turned his back on the crowd.
"Come, Yuzu." Was all he said as he began to walk off, shoulders hunched against the cold.
The blonde Kurosaki twin hesitated for a moment. Then she turned to give tight hugs to her brother and Grimmjow as a unit, knowing better than to try and separate them; her sister, who was in the doorway to the Shoten; Toshiro, who was with her, one hand on the dark-haired twin's shoulder, the other on Hyorinmaru's hilt; Kisuke, for letting her be a part of Christmas with everyone; and finally Yamamoto.
"Thank you again, Ojii-san!" She beamed, starting after her father. A few steps from the corner, where the former captain was leaning against the wall of the building, smoking a cigarette, Yuzu turned and waved with a bright smile on her face. "Happy Christmas, minna!"
They collectively waved back, but no one moved until the pair of Kurosakis were well out of sight, and reiatsu sensing told them that the former captain had re-entered his gigai. Then the crowd began to trickle back inside.
"Fuck it's cold out here. Nel! Goddamit, woman! I'm freezin' my balls off here! Fucked up season ta have a big party. Humans're stupid. Holdin' th' biggest fucking fesitival o' th' year in th' middle o' th' fuckin' coldest season o' th' year…"
Nnoitra stalked into the Shoten by feel, his voice trailing off as he disappeared further into the warm building, followed by several others with similarly muttered sentiments. Toshiro shrugged as they passed him, but he, too, made his way back down to the party, guiding his girlfriend away from her brother. The other Arrancar and the Visoreds sought their Betas. A threat like that always made the Alphas clingy for a while, as was obvious by the way Grimmjow absolutely refused to loosen his hold on Ichigo, in spite of the way the panther was shivering. The last to leave were Kisuke, Shinji and Ulquiorra, but all three understood, as the Sotaicho made no move to leave the pair alone.
He turned to the orangette, "Are you alright, Ichigo?"
"Y-yeah. I'm fine." The hybrid was hesitant to answer, "Well…as fine as I can be, I guess." He looked up at his Alpha, "This couldn't hurt the cubs right?"
The panther nuzzled his Beta's ear, "No, I'm sure they're fine. If it'll make ya feel better, we c'n have Princess-chicky hug ya so her fairies c'n scan 'em ag'in."
Ichigo turned back to the old man with more confidence, "Then yeah, I'm fine. As long as my cubs are fine, I'm fine."
"I'm glad, because we had not gotten around to your gift before you stepped out of the room." The normally imposing captain of the First looked very much like a homely grandfather at that moment, leaning on Ryuujin Jakka in the its customary staff disguise once more. He escorted the couple back into the Shoten. "It is a shame that things have turned out the way they have, but I am hoping that history does not repeat itself any further. Watching my grandchildren grow up from a distance has always been my biggest regret. One I refuse to repeat with my great-grandchildren. Now, what say we put all of this unpleasantness behind us and I show you what I've brought for the little ones."
Ichigo let Yamamoto precede them and had to marvel at the way the old man was acting. A smile crept onto his face and his curiosity was doubled as Shiro floated around near the surface, also interested in what the Sotaicho had in store.
"Is he often like this?" Grimmjow rumbled into his mate's ear, and when the Beta shook his head, the panther let out a noise that sounded like 'huh', but with more amusement than amazement. "Bug-boy's right. Humans're weird. Shinigami ain't much better. Oof!"
He growled playfully at the orangette, rubbing his solar plexus, after the smaller male elbowed it and danced away down the stairs to the basement. He almost tripped over the hybrid as he came chasing down after his mate, because the orangette has stopped on the bottom step to stare at the hand-carved circular cradle Renji and Kenpachi were setting down.
It had kittens etched into the outside of the top edge, and inlaid darker wood in the patterns of both Ichigo's and Grimmjow's markings. The inside had a plain cushion, but more than enough space for four cubs to curl up together. There was even a mobile, arching over the center of the bed, dangling little chibi-style mice, birds, and fish. And above all, it rocked in a gentle swaying sort of motion.
"Oh…wow." Ichigo's hand flew to his mouth and the tears he'd fought back when confronted with his father spilled down his cheeks as he brushed his other hand over the carvings. "It's beautiful."
The Sexta's response was more intrusive. He stalked right up to it, sniffing it, poking at the bedding, making it rock, batting lightly at the dangling bits. Then he tried to dig his claws into the side. An outcry of shock from many of the gathered Shinigami accompanied his movement, but Kisuke cut them all off.
"Is it strong enough, Grimmjow-san?"
"Mah. Ta begin wit'. Though these things," The blunette flicked one of the stuffed mice, "will be destroyed b'fore th' kittens're six months old."
"We figured as much, but by then, maybe we'll have a better idea of what ta give 'em ta keep 'em busy, ne?" Renji smiled.
Kenpachi nudged Ichigo's shoulder gently, "Been workin' on this fer weeks, Kurosaki. Them cubs o' yers better come out kickin' an' screamin'."
"Y-you guys did this?" The orangette glanced from face to face astounded.
"Yeah." Ikkaku rolled his shoulders as Yumichika flicked his hair.
Juushiro smiled broadly, "After your stunning display in front of the Central 46 your burgeoning family became the talk of Seireitei. Being one of several siblings, I proposed that we all chip in to give you something for the coming months."
"I came up with the design." Shunsui grinned, touching his hat significantly. Nanao cleared her throat, and the captain of the Eighth amended, "With the help of my lovely Nanao-chan, of course!"
Renji puffed out his chest, "I carved the kittens."
"Ken-chan sewed the pillow!" Yachiru chimed from atop her favorite perch, who rolled his eyes dismissively in reaction to the way Ichigo gasped.
"Restu came up wit' th' idea fer th' mobil." Kenpachi deliberately trying to shift the praise from himself, though he was not embarrassed.
"And Hanataro-kun was such a dear to gather the cloth. He and Isane-san dyed them those colors so that the kittens will have ocular stimulation before they can begin to chase them. It will strengthen their vision for later." The Smile graced Unohana's face, and several of the gathered Shinigami shivered in fear.
"The SWA drew the animals for the patterns!" Rangiku cheered, an arm over each Rukia and Isane's shoulders.
Soi fon refused to look at the group. She sniffed. "I merely provided reference pictures using Yoruichi-sama's most perfect cat form."
"And I, of course, posed for the pictures." The feline woman grinned, wrapping her arms around her successor, much to the stoic woman's embarrassment.
Ichigo took in the measure of the cradle again, marveling at how well-crafted it was. "I'm guessing Yama-jii darkened the parts that look stained..." The Sotaicho gave a small nod of acknowledgement before the orangette continued, "But…what I can't figure out is where you all got such beautiful wood to begin with."
"I believe I can answer that, Kurosaki." Byakuya's quiet voice came from his left, and the orange head whipped up at the captain of the Sixth in astonishment.
"You!? Is this…I mean…did you…?" The hybrid stammered and sunk onto the bottom of the stairs.
The noble inclined his head, "Yes, it is cherry wood from the Kuchiki estate's garden." His stoic expression became wistful and a fine-boned hand rested on the edge. "Hisana and I always wanted children. If we had been given the time, she wanted the cradle to have been carved from the tree she and I planted on our wedding day."
"S-so…th-this is…you had them make…for us? WHY?!" Though it burned his core, Ichigo's emotions ran away with him, and he wailed, tears pouring down his face at the touching gesture.
A light cuff across his temple, accompanied by the husky voice of the Shinigami who'd literally changed his entire world, brought his gaze up, sniffling at her. "Baka."
He looked around at all the faces of his friends, his pack-mates, his nakama, and found himself smiling like an idiot. Grimmjow slunk around behind him, wrapping his arms around the Beta's shoulders, and a deep purr rumbled from the panther's chest. All around the pair the people gathered returned the smile full force.
"Th-thank you, all…so much."
As one, the crowd of Shinigami and humans cheered, "Merry Christmas!" with varying forms of 'Ichigo', 'Nii-chan', and 'Kurosaki' tacked on the end as each person used the honorific he or she was most comfortable with.
A/N 2: I know that says "end" up there, but there is the possibility for smut to wrap this up. Since it was a Christmas special I didn't want it to be in the middle too much. So, even though I alluded to it, I didn't give you guys any details. T^T I'm sorry! If you want it, let me know and I can give you guys the stuff that happened before dinner. Also, let me know which pairings you want to see, that way I'm not posting random smut that nobody wants. So, for choices we've got Grimm/Ichi (of course, lol); Ulqui/Hime; Shinji/Kisuke/Szayel; Nnoi/Nel/Tesla; Renji/Bya; Toshi/Karin; and Starrk/Hali. There are several pairings there I haven't done ANYTHING with yet.
For those who are curious, Yachiru's hairclip is the Skullanimals kitty that says: "I still purr." I couldn't reisist. They're just too cute. Anyway, ja ne!
Ichigo – 14 weeks
Orihime – 33 weeks
Nel – 9 weeks
Tesla – 8 weeks