Wooooo! I just realized that it has been two long months since this story began, and it's finally winding down to a close. So many of you have followed this baby since the very beginning, and I absolutely cannot thank you enough. If I haven't told you already, I'm telling you again…thank you for reading!
Anyways…let's move on to the story!
Grimmjow was off the floor in a heartbeat, his open fly forgotten. Ichigo followed a second later, scrambling to his feet, only vaguely aware that he was clenching his fists at his sides.
"Don't freak out," Tessai warned even though worry showed in his eyes as well.
They made their way over to the door and waited expectantly for Tessai to unblock their path and take them to the hospital. But the man stood where he was, his brows drawn together in a look of conflict.
"What are you waiting for?" Grimmjow asked impatiently.
Ichigo looked from Grimmjow to Tessai, then as Tessai breathed out a low sigh, Ichigo understood.
"We're supposed to wait here?" he asked, feeling indignant on behalf of Grimmjow.
Grimmjow's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Yes," Tessai said reluctantly. "I'm afraid that's the order…but…"
"But you know I won't have it," Grimmjow finished, his features softening as he realized that his mentor had not meant to make him stay at home.
Tessai's eyebrows twitched. It was clear that the man didn't go against his master's wishes often, but Ichigo could tell that this was an exception that Tessai was willing to make.
Just then, Starrk's voice floated down the hallway leading to the library. "Good, looks like you found them."
Several sets of footsteps followed, and three figures appeared behind Tessai. Starrk gave Grimmjow and Ichigo a quick once-over, then, to Ichigo's embarrassment, the man winked at him knowingly.
"I'm not staying here," Grimmjow said fiercely, his eyes narrowed once more.
His frustration was understandable. Starrk was every bit as loyal to his father as Tessai was, and there was no question that Ulquiorra would simply follow his father's orders blindly.
Starrk raised his eyebrows and threw a sideways glance at Ulquiorra. All heads turned to look at the raven-haired male, who seemed oblivious to the fact that he was now the center of attention.
Ichigo tensed involuntarily as Grimmjow and Ulquiorra stared at each other; the blue-haired teenager's nostrils flaring in preparation for a fight while his older sibling remained expressionless. Then, after a few seconds, Ulquiorra finally turned to Tessai and Starrk with new determination in his eyes.
"I agree," he said simply.
How anyone could look so calm under distress was beyond Ichigo; he didn't know whether he should be impressed, or whether he should have a talk with Ulquiorra later — about how this quality of his had the unfortunate side effect of making him look like a cold-hearted asshole.
"Good, we've all decided, then," Starrk said.
As everyone nodded, the man gestured for them to follow him.
Their footsteps echoed loudly as the little group marched down the hospital hallway to the surgical family waiting room. It was the closest they were allowed to be while Grimmjow's mother underwent surgery.
When they arrived, the lone occupant in the room lifted his head. The tired, swollen eyes widened a fraction as the man recognized all the faces at the doorway, then they narrowed in anger.
Ichigo noted the half-dried tear streaks on the older Jaegerjaques's cheeks and the red-rimmed eyes. There had been a sliver of vulnerability in there just before a mask was put in place as soon as the man realized that he was no longer alone in the room.
Was this why Grimmjow's father did not want them here? Was it just a matter of stubborn pride, that the man could not bear to let others see his emotions and heartbreak, to the point that he would rather let his pride mold him into the selfish man that he seemed to be?
Ichigo sighed inwardly. Grimmjow had the same problem, although not nearly as bad. Perhaps this was simply how they were brought up; somehow, at some point in their lives, it must have been instilled in them that baring their emotions was a sign of weakness.
"What are you doing here? Didn't I tell you to remain at the estate?" Grimmjow's father demanded hoarsely.
Grimmjow took a step forward, doing his damned best to reel in the fury that was simmering in his chest. "For once, father," he gritted out. "For once, I'm not doing this just to piss you off. I'm doing this…we are doing this for mother, and you have no fucking right to stop us."
Grimmjow could hear the sharp intake of breath from practically every person in the room; his father included. He forced himself to maintain eye contact even as the intensity of his father's gaze grew. There was a lot of anger in there, but Grimmjow wasn't blind to his father's damp cheeks. He had never seen his father look like this. It made him feel uneasy, but it also made the man just a tad less like a cold slab of marble.
For a tense moment, it looked as though the trademark Jaegerjaques temper was going to be unleashed in the small room, then all of a sudden it died down. The fire in his father's eyes faded, and in its wake was a sense of deep, biting fatigue that looked even more foreign on his father than sadness. Grimmjow may not love his father like a son would typically, but he knew enough about his father to recognize what was normal and what was not.
His father stood up and gave all of them a tired glance, then he grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair and stalked out of the waiting room. On an impulse, Grimmjow moved to follow, but Tessai held him back firmly.
"He has already taken a step back," Tessai said gently. "Let him be."
Grimmjow gave a snort of disgust. "He's a selfish coward," he muttered darkly before taking a seat between Tessai and Ichigo.
Tessai shook his head. "Man has done worse things over pride, Grimmjow," he said wisely.
Grimmjow gave his mentor an incredulous look. Bodyguard, martial arts instructor, sort-of-butler-slash-chauffeur, and now...philosopher; Tessai never ceased to amaze him. Grimmjow leaned back further into the chair and let out a frustrated sigh. It wasn't just his father that irked him. The worst thing was knowing that he couldn't do anything but wait here. He felt a little better being at least physically closer to his mother, but it wouldn't make a difference whether she made it or not.
Or would it?
Grimmjow clutched the photo album just a little tighter in his hands. He didn't believe in any religion in particular, and he wasn't going to start now. But if his mother could just...feel that he cared, maybe that would count for something. He cussed out loud at the thought. If only he'd had the chance to talk to his mother before she went into the operating room, even if it was simply to tell her that he would be waiting for her to get well.
Fuck his father and his fucking pride.
Just as Grimmjow's anger was about to rise another notch, Ichigo placed his palm over Grimmjow's hand and gave it a brief squeeze.
"It's going to be alright," Ichigo murmured, his voice so low that Grimmjow had to lean closer to catch the words.
Words that would otherwise sound hollow and fake if they were not uttered by Ichigo. There was just something about the orange-haired boy that made the gesture completely sincere, and Grimmjow unconsciously drew strength from it.
"Yeah," he muttered.
The silence that permeated the cozy little waiting room was thick, punctuated only by the steady ticking of the large wall clock hanging above the counter. The counter sat next to one of the walls, and held what most people would find comforting at moments like this — a coffee machine, sachets of hot chocolate mix, paper cups, and sugar. Next to the counter was a water dispenser that served both hot water and cold water.
Ichigo gave Grimmjow's hand another quick squeeze, then he rose to his feet and walked across the room to the cups. Grimmjow watched Ichigo as the boy lined up six cups on the counter top and opened up sachets of chocolate mix. Ichigo's hands worked deftly, his movements graceful even while doing something as mundane as making hot chocolate.
Soon, he was going around the room handing out cups of the steaming hot beverage. Placing the photo album on his lap, Grimmjow brought the cup up to his lips and blew on it tentatively. He had held on to the photo album ever since he got his hands on it in the library, not having the heart to leave it behind when he left for the hospital. He still had a good half of the album unexplored, and he had plenty of time now if not anything else.
As though he could read Grimmjow's mind, Ichigo held out his hand for Grimmjow's cup. Grimmjow gave him a fleeting smile and allowed the boy to pry the cup away from his grasp. He took a deep breath, then opened the album.
He started from the very beginning again even though he had already seen them. It was still surreal, looking at his young self. He was…cute, if he may say so himself. It was funny to see himself with slightly curly hair as a toddler, something he was glad he had grown out of.
As he flipped the pages, the hair at the back of his neck prickled. Grimmjow looked up instinctively and caught a pair of emerald green eyes staring at him from several seats away. He frowned and stared back defiantly until Ulquiorra turned away.
Letting out an annoyed grunt, Grimmjow resumed his examination of the photo album. A few pages later, Tessai stood up and walked out of the room, presumably to the restroom, and Grimmjow relaxed his body, letting it unfurl a little from the uncomfortable angled position he had been holding. He didn't mean to be rude, but he didn't really feel like sharing this finding with his mentor just yet.
Not two minutes later, he felt the telltale pinprick feeling of being watched again. He whipped his head in his brother's direction; sure enough, Ulquiorra was looking at him, his expression, for once, one of curiosity and…oddly, yearning. Like he had something to say really badly but was afraid to say it. Whatever it was, Grimmjow narrowed his eyes and stared hard at his older sibling, sending him a silent challenge.
Come at me, if you dare.
After a long, suspended moment, Ulquiorra finally broke eye contact. The man touched his quiet companion's hand briefly, then, to Grimmjow's surprise, left his seat and walked towards him.
Ichigo lifted his head when he, too, noticed Ulquiorra's presence when the raven-haired man came to a stop in front of them.
"What do you want?" Grimmjow asked warily.
Ulquiorra seemed to be at a loss of words, then Ichigo spoke up.
"Sit down," the boy said, pointing to Tessai's chair.
"What the…" Grimmjow protested at once, but was silenced when Ichigo dug his fingers painfully into his thigh.
Ulquiorra glanced down at the still-open photo album in Grimmjow's lap. It took Grimmjow a handful of seconds to realize that his brother did not look surprised at all.
"Did…did you know about…this?" Grimmjow asked, feeling strangely jealous.
Ulquiorra nodded. "I was the one who took the more…recent photos," he admitted.
Grimmjow sat up straighter in his seat. "What?"
"You're hardly ever at home," Ulquiorra said. "How else could she get your photos?" After a pause, he asked curiously, finally getting to the point that made him walk over here in the first place, "Where did you find this?"
"In the library," Grimmjow replied.
"Under one of the chairs," Ichigo offered.
Ulquiorra's eyes widened slightly, and then he nodded, like their answers explained it all. Grimmjow glared at his brother.
"The library was where she collapsed the other day," Ulquiorra said, his face falling at the recollection. "She must've been looking at it at the time."
Grimmjow let out a frustrated breath. He had so many questions about this book, but asking his condescending older brother was not an appealing idea.
Ulquiorra gestured with his head for Grimmjow to continue looking through the album. After shooting his brother a few more bone-chilling — at least, that was his intention — glares, Grimmjow grudgingly did so.
On the pages, little Grimmjow grew from a newborn to a seemingly hyperactive toddler. Earlier, when he flipped through the pages in the library, he had been shocked and had gone through them hastily. Now, he was able to look at each photo closely. A good number of the photos were blurry, catching him mid-run or something similar. But what shook him the most was two pages that he had missed completely during his first pass.
Ichigo let out an involuntary "awww" as they stared down at a photo of Ulquiorra holding Grimmjow. The older boy had a look of utter terror on his face as if he was afraid of the wiggling bundle in his arms. Grimmjow's mouth was wide open, his eyes clenched tight and cheeks bright red, probably screaming his lungs out. Next to that photo, Grimmjow's mother wrote "My precious babies".
Grimmjow blinked rapidly, willing the burn in his eyes to go away. This photo album was doing ridiculous things to his head, making him feel things that he had never felt before. It killed him to imagine his mother sitting in one of the chairs in the library, flipping through these very same pages and reminiscing the past, thinking about her precious babies as they were when they were still close to her.
The photo on the next page looked like a badly taken self portrait, like the ones that Asian girls loved so much. Grimmjow's mother, obviously the photographer, had her arms extended, holding the camera facing the three of them. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor with Ulquiorra standing next to her holding a partially-eaten slice of chocolate cake. The boy's pale face was marred by splotches of chocolate around his mouth as though he had used the cake as a napkin rather than actually eating it. Grimmjow was sitting on his mother's lap, with one chocolate-covered hand waving in the air, his mouth and nose also smeared with chocolate.
"You were a messy eater," Ulquiorra pointed out with a straight face.
Grimmjow gaped at his brother in disbelief. Ichigo let out a snicker.
"By the way, do you know why your mom calls Grimmjow 'kitten'?" Ichigo asked, still chuckling.
Ulquiorra cocked his head to the side and eyed his younger brother critically. "Because when he was born, he looked like a wrinkly newborn kitten. I thought he looked more like a rat, really, but she said 'kitten' sounded better," he intoned.
To Grimmjow's chagrin, he felt his mouth twitch and his stomach clench in the way that meant that he was about to laugh. Ichigo, on the other hand, was already doubled over in his chair, sputtering and coughing as he laughed.
It was absolutely surreal. This was quite literally the first time in Grimmjow's memory that he and Ulquiorra actually sat this close to each other without having a fight. Of course, this didn't mean that he felt a gush of love for his brother all of a sudden, but it felt strange, like they both knew that this was some kind of turning point in their lives.
The urge to laugh died as a sense of dread and confusion crept into his chest. Grimmjow pinched the bridge of his nose and frowned. He didn't know what to think. Should he like it? Was this a good thing?
Sensing the awkwardness in the air, Ichigo fell silent. Ulquiorra kept quiet as well, and Grimmjow felt his brother's expectant gaze on him even without looking up. It was like Ulquiorra was waiting for him to do something. But what could he possibly do? Shake hands and give Ulquiorra a hug? Apologize for being a pain in the ass for the past eighteen years? Grimmjow felt a surge of indignation. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't like he knew what was going on inside his mother's head. He didn't even know that she kept a separate photo album of him, or why she did so, or why she kept it a secret from him.
Grimmjow bent forward in his seat and clamped his hands over his ears. So many questions. He had so many questions that he thought his head was going to explode. To make it worse, he might never find out, because she was fighting for her life in the operating room right this instant, and nobody knew if she was going to make it. He didn't want to ask Ulquiorra, even if the man had all the answers. He wanted to hear it from her.
Why did everything have to be so fucking complicated?
Grimmjow felt a sudden urge to get away. He was suffocating, his chest fucking hurt, his head pounded and wouldn't stop running the same questions over and over again in his mind. He snapped the album shut and stood up so abruptly that Ichigo flinched in surprise. Then, without a word, he stalked out of the room, leaving the photo album on the chair. Air. He needed air.
But of course Ichigo wouldn't let him go off alone. Not two seconds later, Ichigo was by his side, walking at the same brisk pace as his. Grimmjow gave his boyfriend a brief glance. The boy had both hands shoved deep inside his jacket pockets, his eyes glued to his own shoes. Grimmjow could tell that Ichigo was worried; about his mother, of course, but also about him. He could almost see the boy's neck twitching from his effort to not look at him.
What did he ever do to deserve Ichigo?
Grimmjow felt overwhelmed. Just within one week, he went from an angry kid whom nobody loved — except from Tessai, he supposed — to someone who apparently had unconditional love from not one but two people.
He didn't know where he was heading, he just walked, his body following the twist and turns of the hospital hallways. The white walls all looked the same, the floor all the same muted light green linoleum. Everything was clean and neat and sterile on here. There weren't many people around, mostly just nurses. When he rounded another corner, Ichigo finally stopped him. The boy's grip was surprisingly powerful, reminding Grimmjow that, while Ichigo was caring and gentle most of the time, he was every bit as hot-blooded and strong as Grimmjow. Perhaps even more so.
Ichigo pushed Grimmjow against the wall. "Don't run away," he murmured, leaning close so that their noses touched.
Grimmjow closed his eyes. "What if she doesn't make it?" he asked, hating the fact that he sounded so desperate.
Instead of an empty promise of "she will", Ichigo cupped Grimmjow's face and pressed their lips together.
All the tension in Grimmjow's body instantly melted, and he responded, parting his lips to welcome Ichigo's probing tongue. Ichigo's soothing warmth enveloped him completely, wrapping around him like an invisible security blanket. This wasn't one of their usual passionate, pre-sex kisses, but one that was intended to comfort a heart in turmoil. Still, Grimmjow moaned softly into Ichigo's mouth, feeling his own breath quicken and an almost liquid-like heat spread in his chest.
After one last flick of his tongue on Grimmjow's lower lip, Ichigo pulled away and rested his forehead on Grimmjow's.
"Thank you," Grimmjow said, leaning forward to give Ichigo's lip a quick nip.
"You're welcome," Ichigo replied with a snicker. "That would be one hundred dollars please."
Grimmjow laughed despite himself. God, he was turning soft. But he wouldn't have it any other way. Ichigo was his rock, and he would do anything to keep him, even if it meant venturing into unfamiliar territory and behaving just like the people he used to ridicule.
"We should head back," Ichigo said.
With a sigh, Grimmjow nodded. They walked slowly back to the waiting room and found everyone back in their original place. Ulquiorra had gone back to sit next to Byakuya, and Tessai was in his seat next to Grimmjow. His mother's photo album was in his chair where he had left it.
The next two hours went by slowly. One by one, whether consciously or unconsciously, they took turns taking a break from the room. The tension and worry was only climbing with each passing minute, and the weight of it all was threatening to overwhelm even the strongest of them all. Even Tessai, who was normally steady and calm like a rock, began to fidget and jiggle his leg nervously. Starrk seemed to be the least affected; the man simply sat in a corner and snoozed off and on, head tilted to the side, arms crossed loosely over his chest. But anyone could see that Starrk was anything but relaxed simply by observing how his half-lidded eyes darted to the door every time he jolted awake.
Grimmjow's father never made a reappearance, and Grimmjow couldn't help but wonder where he was. Learning that there was more to his mother than he ever knew didn't change the fact that there was no love lost between him and his father. In fact, if anything, Grimmjow felt his resentment for the man deepen. He didn't know the whole story, but he had a feeling that his father was a factor — if not the sole reason — for his mother's odd behavior.
Then, just after Ichigo returned from a trip to the vending machine, footsteps approached the waiting room door.
"The surgery went well," the blond-haired doctor announced. The genuine, triumphant grin on the young lead surgeon's face lit up his features despite the five-o-clock shadow that he was sporting. "We will be monitoring her closely in the intensive care unit for the next few days. It will be slow, mind you, given the history of her health, but I feel confident that she will have a smooth recovery."
For a moment, they simply gaped at each other with wide eyes, then Tessai pulled Grimmjow into a crushing hug and didn't stop squeezing until the boy started to cough. As soon as Tessai let go, Ichigo tackled him next, knocking into him with enough force to make him stumble a few steps backwards.
"Thank you, Dr. Urahara," Starrk said, seemingly the only one who had enough sense to respond to the doctor.
The doctor beamed at him and scratched the back of his head, ruffling his already-messy blond mane. He gave Starrk a firm handshake, then turned and left them to their celebration.
Through it all, Grimmjow didn't make a sound. His throat had seized up even as a rush of relief coursed through his body, so he did the only thing he could think of — he grabbed the sides of Ichigo's face and kissed him.
The only thing that stole the attention from them was Tessai sweeping Ulquiorra into a bear hug. The normally stoic man seemed to have lost his mind after hearing the good news. Poor Ulquiorra was taken by surprise and was immediately squashed in Tessai's vice-like embrace. His eyes widened almost comically, suddenly reminding Grimmjow of the photo of Ulquiorra holding him as a baby. As Tessai held him, Ulquiorra grimaced and awkwardly tried to return the gesture by patting the man's back.
This time, Grimmjow couldn't hold back his laughter. It burst forth, past the lump in his throat and tumbled from his lips as howls of laughter. The sound was infectious, and within seconds, everyone was smiling and chuckling. Yes, even Byakuya, although his version of a smile was merely a tiny quirk of his lips.
Then Starrk clapped loudly to get their attention, and they fell silent as everyone turned to look at the man.
"Does anybody know what today is?" Starrk asked, his grey eyes shining with amusement.
Everyone blinked, including Grimmjow. He wasn't even sure what day it was in the week.
Starrk rolled his eyes and was about to say something when Ichigo piped up excitedly.
"It's New Year's Day!"
Grimmjow's mouth fell open in surprise. He counted the days quickly, starting from Christmas day when he had gotten that phone call from Ulquiorra, and realized that Starrk was right. It was New Year's Day.
As people started wishing each other Happy New Year, Grimmjow allowed himself a relaxed smile. The road ahead was long and would be, no doubt, full of surprises. But this was a good sign; the new year seemed to have gotten off with a good start. He had so many questions, and it looked like he would be able to hear the answers from his mother after all.
To be continued…
This is where I had originally wanted to end the story…buuuuut…there will be one short epilogue to come. :)
Hope you enjoyed the chapter. :)