I don't own Bleach or its characters. Hello, my lovelies! My, it's been a while, and I do apologize! The semester is winding down, exams soon, and I'm taking 2 7 week online courses. Hopefully they will be easy so I have more time to update. I can't remember if I said this the last time, but we are having a boy! This is boy #2, my son is very excited to have a little brother! So far the baby is healthy and I'm growing enormous...=/ but it's worth it! 13 weeks until he is born, depending on his mood, lol. They always say it can go 2 weeks either way, but I hope not, b/c he's due on my bday! Do enjoy the story! I'm glad to be back!

Chapter Seven: Sink or Swim

Stark supplied droppers and formula for the babies, and after they fed the babies at Stark's reassurance they'd be fine here, Ichigo took off. He didn't want to be there when they brought the murdered mountain lion back for processing. It was too sad.

Ichigo found Nel in the kitchen preparing dinner and told her what happened. She squealed in delight upon hearing about the babies and hauled Ichigo behind her by the wrist out to the barn to see them. She cooed over them, petting their little heads delicately, and Ichigo was glad to have another ally besides Stark in this matter. Stark pointed them out as a boy and a girl, and Nel declared they needed names.

Since the boy was more aggressive than the girl, Ichigo decided to name him Yang and the girl, Yin. They balanced each other out. Stark smiled and said that was perfect, and arranged them in what appeared to be a cushioned dog bed fit for a border collie lined with towels.

"Best I can do for now, as far as a "nest" goes," Stark explained. "It'd be great if we could go back out and get some of the mom's fluffs of fur from the original. That would help them be more comfortable."

"Maybe Weiss and I can go back out there tomorrow," Ichigo said, watching Yang lay beside Yin to keep her warm.

"That's a wonderful idea, Ichigo," said Nel as she stood up. "Come on, I have to get back to the kitchen. Let's leave the babies to rest. Stark knows best how to care for them."

Ichigo followed Nel back to the main house and helped out in the kitchen. The sun began sinking and the food was nearly finished, signaling dinner time, and Ichigo asked Nel if he could just take a tray to his room. Nel fished him out a tray and helped him load it up, giving him a kiss on the cheek before he headed upstairs.

"It's their way of life, Ichigo, try to understand. Grimm will come around, and Stark will think of something. Try not to be too upset. Weiss and I will miss you at dinner."

Ichigo nodded and headed for his room. Leave it to Nel to make him feel like a heel. He sat on his bed, suddenly not so hungry for anything on his tray. Maybe she was right? He wasn't sure. But he was sure he really did not want to be in Grimmjow's presence at all. He flopped back into his pillows and started nibbling on a roll.

The chatter was heavy around the table as the hunting party relived the tale for everyone who wasn't there. Weiss was beaming proudly over his first kill, joining in the lively replay of the hunt. Grimmjow listened to all this, picking at his plate and frowning at the one vacant chair at his table, he was too accustomed now to Ichigo being there.

"Let him be," Nel said softly, following Grimmjow's gaze.

"The whole thing is ridiculous," scoffed Grimmjow, shoveling mashed potatoes in his mouth and saying no more on the subject, but knowing he'd be brooding over it all night.

Ichigo slept horribly. All night the bed felt too soft, the pillows too lumpy, and the air too hot. He shoved out of bed at three thirty and showered, sneaking into the kitchen for breakfast before everyone else. Nel didn't say anything as he made a plate and ate in the kitchen, taking off for the barn to start morning chores as everyone else filled the dining room.

Nel observed Grimmjow's tired looking face and surmised he slept about as well as Ichigo appeared to. She shook her head and passed him the thermos holding coffee, watching as he poured a large cup of the steaming brew and sipped it black. That confirmed it. Grimmjow only had his coffee black when he was dead tired. She wondered how much work would get done today with him being a grumpy pain in the ass. She felt sorry for the crew.

Weiss crept up to Ichigo who was brushing down Ulquiorra's horse, biting his lip.

"Are you mad at me?" he asked.

"Of course not," Ichigo replied, turning to him. "I'm glad you got your first kill. It must have been very exciting for you."

"It was, but I didn't know, none of us did. I feel bad that the babies have no mother now. I went and saw them before I came here. It's hard to think something so small and cute grows up to be a fierce predator."

"It's alright; you did what you had to do. Stark and I will figure out what to do now."

"Really? No hard feelings, then?"

"No hard feelings," replied Ichigo with a smile.

"Good, because lately you're the only friend I've really got," Weiss admitted with a blush.

Ichigo tossed him a brush.

"You take me back to the nest later and we'll forget the whole thing. Stark thinks it will help the babies adjust better to have a piece of their mom. He wants some of the fluffs of hair."

"Deal, I remember how to get there," Weiss answered, and they set to work.

It was one of those summer days that were completely miserable. It was nearly noon and the sun beat down fiercely with no mercy. Grimmjow repeatedly kept removing his hat, using his cotton t-shirt as a sweat mop for his face. He tried to focus on the task at hand, digging new post holes for new fencing. What a shitty day for this, he thought angrily as he dug, watching the others dig or start setting up fence where holes were already dug. They were sweating too, and Grimmjow was starting to think it was about break time.

"Hey boss!" called Nnoitra from a few feet down. Grimmjow looked up to see Weiss and Ichigo on horses, galloping into the forest line a few hundred yards away. What the fuck? Grimmjow swore and speared the earth with the spade.

"They don't come out in an hour I'm going to have to go in after them," he said. "Let's take a water break." He walked over to Pantera, who was tied to a post beneath a shade tree and grabbed his canteen, taking long swallows of the cold water and watching the tree line where his brother and Ichigo disappeared with narrowed eyes.

Ichigo purposely didn't look over to the area where the mountain lion was killed; not wanting to see the ground saturated with the blood he knew was spilled there. He guided Titan over to the nest area, swinging down from the horse and feet landing on the ground with a soft thud. He scooped up a few handfuls of the fluffs of shed fur that was all Yin and Yang had left of their momma and put it in a sack. He remounted Titan and tied the sack to his saddle.

"Well, that's done," he said with a smile to Weiss, who was wiping his sweating face with the back of his arm.

"It's sweltering!" the boy complained, plopping his hat back on his head. "You want to go over to Badwater? I'm dying."

"What's Badwater?" asked Ichigo, not liking the sound of it much.

"It's a lake two miles from here. I'm going for a swim before my flesh completely melts from my bones."

"How are we supposed to swim? In our underwear?" asked Ichigo incredulously.

"Pretty much, yeah," said Weiss with a grin that reminded Ichigo too much of his older brother. He sighed, having no choice but to follow after the boy who galloped away.

Grimmjow looked up at the sky ahead, noting the position of the sun. The heat had risen even more as the day reached its peak, the humidity entwining itself around their bodies like a second skin. He frowned; it'd been more than an hour since he saw Weiss and Ichigo disappear into the trees. He'd had Ulquiorra call Nel to ask what they were up to, which was getting fur for those wretched little creatures Ichigo saved. They should have been back by now.

Grimmjow removed his shirt that was plastered to his body like a second skin and used it to mop his face. He walked over to Ulquiorra.

"I'm going to go find Weiss and Ichigo. You guys finish up what we've started and secure the fence, we'll continue tomorrow. Just take turns driving these horses into the run-in sheds and turn on the misting fans. Plenty of water and fresh hay, you know the drill."

"Yes boss," replied Ulquiorra. "Do you want anyone to come with you?"

"No, I'll go alone. If there's trouble I'll radio you for help, but I'd rather give my brother a chewing out for his irresponsibility in private."

"Alright," Ulquiorra replied, tipping his hat and turning back to his work.

Grimmjow fetched Pantera from the shade shed after making sure the horse drank a fair amount of water. He mounted and patted Pantera's neck in apology.

"We're going fast on a hot day, I'm sorry, but it could be a matter of life and death."

Pantera whinnied out his understanding, and Grimmjow squeezed his thighs together, shifting his weight forward in the saddle. Pantera took the signal and trotted off, speeding up to a gallop at Grimmjow's tongue click when they hit the tree line. It wasn't long before they were at the spot where the mountain lion had met its fate, and Grimmjow kept Pantera riding past it when his sharp eyes detected no sign of Ichigo or Weiss. There was only one other place Weiss would go out here. Grimmjow pushed Pantera toward Badwater.

When they reached the lake, Weiss and Ichigo let the horses get their fill of the cool lake water to drink and then tied the horses off beneath a large shade tree. Ichigo joined Weiss in taking off his hat and boots and leaving them behind with the horses. He followed Weiss over to a long wooden dock that looked to be about twelve feet long. Weiss pulled off his navy t-shirt, dropping it on the dock, exposing his pale skin to the harsh rays of the sun. Ichigo looked out across the lake as Weiss started working out of his jeans. When he was in nothing but his boxer briefs, he turned to Ichigo expectantly.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Are you seriously going to jump in the water in all your clothes?"

"I don't think I'll jump in at all. Go ahead, I'll just sit up here and watch you swim."

"Awwww, come on man! It's no fun to swim by yourself." Weiss scrutinized him for a moment and grinned.

"Ah, I see. You are just shy! Come on Ichigo, I won't laugh at you or anything, I swear! I'm sure you don't have anything I don't…unless you have some weird birthmark or a totally inappropriate tattoo, or maybe an eyeball where your bellybutton is supposed to be?"

Ichigo laughed.

"None of the above," he said, pulling his shirt over his head. He felt Weiss' gaze rake over him as the blond looked for anything that was indeed strange.

"Jeans too," reminded Weiss.

"Yeah, yeah," Ichigo said, waving Weiss away with a blush. Weiss smirked at being right about the shyness before strolling down to the edge of the dock. Ichigo joined him seconds later, staring down at the water apprehensively.

"How deep is this water here?" he asked.

"About twelve feet, so it's perfect for diving. The lake's max depth is only about 22 feet deep. There's rainbow and brown trout in there, but don't worry, they'll be scared of us when we jump in so don't worry about them eating off your toes or anything."

Ichigo rolled his eyes, about to comment that he wasn't as stupid as he looked when the sounds of a horse galloping furiously toward them made them both turn to look.

Grimmjow was prepared to start screaming at his brother's pale, skinny ass the second he spotted him on the dock. However, he lost all coherent thought and the words died on his tongue as he spotted Ichigo next to his brother. He eased Pantera into a slow trot, fixated on the miles of tanned skin, the long, lean muscle that glistened with perspiration from the heat of the day. Ichigo's hair shone, the sunlight bringing out every natural highlight. He was beautiful. And clad in nothing but black boxer briefs. Grimmjow swallowed hard, trying to find his bearings before he dismounted Pantera.

Pantera sauntered over to get a drink from the lake, while Grimmjow knowing the obedient horse wouldn't stray, sauntered up the dock.

"Shit," said Weiss. "Take the plunge before he pummels me!"

"Wha-" was all Ichigo could manage before Weiss planted a hand on his chest and shoved. Ichigo immediately lost balance and toppled backward off the dock, plunging down into the watery depths. Weiss jumped right after Ichigo fell in, making a big splash that sprayed his advancing brother.

Grimmjow just shook his head, tossing his hat to the dock and using his now wet shirt to mop at his sweating face. Weiss resurfaced, sticking his tongue out at Grimmjow, who responded by flipping his brother the bird. Weiss grinned and swam out a little farther, thinking he was safe in the water. Grimmjow grinned. Was he safe? Ichigo hadn't resurfaced yet, and was probably making an underwater beeline toward him for revenge. At least, that's what Grimmjow would have done if he'd been pushed in a lake, hot or not.

About a minute passed by, and Ichigo still hadn't appeared. Grimmjow frowned at the area where Ichigo had fallen, the water starting to smooth out as the ripples eased.


End Chapter. And that is that! Reviews always appreciated and welcomed! XD