Author's note: Would you like this to be Ichigo/Renji or Ichigo/Byakuya? Right now it could go either way. XD Haha.

A pale, tired face looked back at him as he stood in front of the medicine cabinet. With a small, defeated sigh, he picked up the pencil on the sink and carefully marked another day off the calendar. It was Sunday the fourteenth. Pulling out his pill tray, he popped open the section for that day. The pills gleamed brightly at him, like macabre confetti. Filling up a glass of water, he began to swallow them. There were far too many to take all at once.

Putting the glass down, Ichigo closed the medicine cabinet and looked at himself in the mirror again. He didn't look a single bit better. Shaking his head, he left the bathroom, wondering why he was taking the pills in the first place. They were only delaying the inevitable. Sprawling on his bed, he ignored his textbooks and rested an arm over his eyes. What was the point in studying?

The operation will fix it, Ichigo. You'll be better soon. He sighed at the memory of Isshin's voice, shooing it away like an irritating fly. His father hadn't meant to lie to him, just keep his spirits up before the operation. He couldn't have known it would go so badly. But it had, and the only option now was a heart transplant. And that wasn't going to happen. Ichigo had a rare blood type and he just didn't have enough time. The pills weren't really doing much, it wouldn't be long before something gave out. His father was still trying to reassure him, but Ichigo could see the despair behind the false cheer. His sisters were still denying reality.

Stop it Ichigo! You're going to be fine! Just stop it! His mind supplied Yuzu's hysterical words after he'd tried to tell her he loved her, and give her some instructions on how to care for his pet lizard. Karin had yelled at him to stop being stupid, he was going to be just fine.

Ichigo knew they were wrong. He could feel how wrong his heart was, feel the slight delay in the beats and the way it sometimes stuttered in his chest. They'd considered giving him a pacemaker, but decided the operation would likely kill him. Ichigo didn't think it would matter in the end, and knew his father thought the same, however much he might deny it.

What he really missed was being able to play ball and practice with the wooden swords. He just didn't have the strength anymore, and he couldn't afford to get his heart rate up. It started stuttering like mad when he did, even a run to the bus stop would do it. Ichigo hated being treated like an invalid, and hated even more that he was one.

Deciding he'd marinated in misery enough for the day, he sat up and picked up a textbook. It might be pointless, but he would study for his father. He loved Isshin and was even missing his early morning sneak attacks –

The hammer that hit his chest was as painful as it was unexpected. The book dropped to the floor as he clutched the side of his chest, dropping to his knees. The door opened but he couldn't look up, trapped in the crushing pain.

"Ichigo, aren't you coming to dinner… Ichigo? PAPA! PAPA!" Yuzu's shriek was the last thing he heard.

Renji stumbled through the darkness, a hand on his stomach, trying to staunch the flow of blood and hold everything in place.

Byakuya is going to kill me when I get back. Lost my whole fucking squad, how could I? Not my fault the intelligence was completely wrong, but still my responsibility for leading them into a trap! They had been told they'd need to fix a small rip between Soul Society and Hueco Mundo. Those kinds of tears happened out here in the hinterlands. They hadn't expected to find a really fucking big rip and a damned mated pair of Adjuchas setting up a den! Not to mention dozens of weaker Hollows that had spilled through, trying to find fertile hunting grounds.

It had been a mess. A single Adjuchas could match a Captain in battle, and Renji had enough strength to match one. He didn't have enough for two and they'd had to retreat, leaving the dead behind. That had scorched his soul, but worse had come when the lesser Hollows had ambushed them. He could still hear their gleeful cries. Maybe some of the others had survived, he really had no way of knowing. Renji had gotten separated from the squad in the flight and now he had no damned idea where he was going. Then he froze as he heard a hiss and felt the malevolent spiritual pressure. It was new, but he recognized the type.

Another Adjuchas. What in hell is attracting them? He thought with a preternatural calm as he turned to meet the onslaught. Something had to be attracting the Hollows to this area. Hueco Mundo was a paradise of reishi, they didn't need to come to Soul Society. The only thing he was thankful for was the lack of Gillians, although that was likely due to the Adjuchas. Gillians were huge and this little valley wouldn't support them, so the stronger Hollows had likely wiped them out. Not that it would matter. He'd used up his strength earlier, there was no way he was going to survive…

"Ay, fuck you!" Renji and the Adjuchas turned in a bizarre harmony at the sound of the voice. "Yeah, you, weasel breath! Fuck you and your buddies!" A rock bounced off the Hollow's mask and Renji drew in a hissing breath as he saw the kid standing straight and defiant on a rock. "You want a real fight, not a man who's holding his guts in? Fuck you!"

"Are you crazy? Get out of here!" He shouted at the kid. He looked to be a teenager, maybe a young adult, with bright orange hair and brown eyes. He looked hostile as hell and had an immense spiritual pressure, but he wasn't even carrying a sword!

"And you shut the hell up!" The boy yelled back at him. "You and your buddies had to stir everything up! Well, I'll clean up after you!" The Adjuchas started forward, hissing with amusement. The amusement turned into a yowl of pain as the next rock seemed to catch fire and cracked his mask. The Hollow staggered back before launching himself at the boy, but the teen wasn't there anymore. A fist hit the Hollow in the chest, followed by a booted foot to the crotch. Any question about Adjuchas genitalia was answered as the creature doubled over. But then it shrieked like a mad thing and landed a blow on the boy, tearing his shirt and raising a line of blood on his shoulder. "You want it like that fuck face? Yeah? I'll fuck you up!"

"Damn it!" Renji groaned as a wave of weakness went through him and he ended up on one knee. He didn't have the strength to keep standing, let alone stop the stupid kid from getting killed. But there was one thing he could do. "Kid, use this!" And he threw his sword as far as he could. It didn't go far enough, but the kid was there and caught it. Renji blinked, wondering if his eyes had been playing tricks on him. Was that a flash step? But the sound was wrong.

One thing was for sure, the kid knew how to use a sword. Renji watched in amazement as the battle continued, only slightly less one sided than he'd expected it to be, but the other way. The two of them met in midair and for a moment he wasn't sure who had won. But then the Adjuchas' head parted ways with the body, and the boy turned back to look at the two thumps.

"Told you weasel breath." He flicked the sword to remove the blood before looking at it as if he was puzzled by its presence. "Where did I… oh yeah. Are you still alive over there?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Renji grunted as he struggled to stand. He needed to – but a hand came down on his shoulder.

"Fine? Look, I'm medically trained, so take it from me, a gut wound is never fine. Shit, I need to get you to the cave." The kid helped him stand and Renji thought about protesting, then gave up. After two battles and a gut wound, the kid was right. He'd be easy meat for the next Hollow he met, and at this rate it would be another damned Adjuchas! "Can you help me out here? I'm not sure I can carry you without attracting attention."

"Y-yeah." Renji muttered, focusing all his attention and energy into putting one foot in front of the other. He wasn't sure about this but he had to assume this kid really did have a safe place to hide. How else could he have been surviving surrounded by Hollows? Then he caught a glimpse of the boy's eyes and tried to jerk away. "What the fuck?!" They were… wrong. The eyes were gold and the sclera were black.

"What? Oh, my eyes. It's nighttime, don't worry about it, I'll explain later if you live." The kid ordered and Renji hesitated a moment before giving in. Those eyes were disturbingly Hollow-like, but the kid clearly wasn't a Hollow. Of course, the question of what he actually was, was up in the air.

The kid led him to the canyon wall of the valley. It was badly broken and Renji hissed as the boy dragged him up over the rocks, keeping one hand on his stomach. He could feel his guts trying to get out and knew if he wasn't a strong shinigami, he would never have gotten this far. The kid seemed to understand and shoved a shoulder under his, trying to lift him a bit.

"Sorry. But we're up a bit high." He muttered. "Lean on me, you can make it." Renji nodded and let the man take his weight a bit more. It took a while, but they finally reached a cleft in the rock. "In here."

"Right." It was a small crack, really. Renji had to turn sideways and squeeze through, gasping as he brushed against the stone. But the sudden warmth in the cave and the way hands grabbed him and voices rose as he came in was welcome. Faces swam in front of him, but he could tell he was safe here. He felt the kid easing him to the ground and saying something, but let it all pass by.

He was safe here, and he could rest.

Renji came to his senses in blinding pain.

"Don't move!" A voice above him ordered and he froze, opening his eyes just a slit. It was the kid. "I'm still stitching you up. Sorry, we don't exactly have anesthetic around here." That explained the pain. "I'm just glad you were out when I checked your guts for lacerations." Renji was glad of that too. Having someone's hands in his insides was not his idea of a good time. It seemed to take forever but finally the stitching was done, and Renji looked down to see neat little black stitches on his belly. It was hard to believe, but it seemed like the kid really did have some medical training. "You need some water?" The boy asked and Renji blinked as he realized he was parched.

"Yeah, sure." The kid offered him a metal flask and Renji spared a bit of amusement for the appearance. If he hadn't known better, he'd have thought someone had beaten it out of gold. The water inside was cool and crisp, and he felt strength immediately flooding back. "Who are you, anyway? Can't keep calling you kid."

"Not unless you want me to fuck you up when you're better." The kid agreed and Renji snorted. "I'm Ichigo Kurosaki. And you are?"

"Renji Abarai." Renji tried to sit up but stopped as a hand thumped down on his chest.

"Woah there! I'll help you up if you want, but you take it easy. You aren't too badly off but you're not in good shape. You had two punctures on your intestines." Renji shrugged. He'd had worse. The boy didn't seem the least bit amused though. "If you get infected, which you probably will, this is going to get ugly. Don't push it."

"I'm a shinigami, we're tougher than that." Renji had no doubt at all that he wouldn't get infected. Shinigami very rarely came down with wounds related infection or sickness. The boy lifted his eyebrows and shook his head.

"I don't know what a shinigami is, and I don't really care. Just take it easy. Tanny, do we have any cushions?" He called to someone and Renji lifted his head, seeing a young man with tawny hair. He'd been staring dreamily into a candle but came to himself with a start at Ichigo's call.

"Sure do boss, I'll go get them." He ran off, and came back a few minutes later with an armload of leather cushions. They were filled with down feathers and Renji let Ichigo prop him up with them. He had a feeling the guy was going to be a nuisance, since he clearly didn't know how fast shinigami could recover, but for now the help was welcome. Sitting up, he looked over the cave for the first time.

It was a small cave. Renji wasn't sure how the little pocket had formed in the first place, but there were no side caves, no privacy at all, just this open space. There was no fire or other heat, but just body heat could probably warm it, with two dozen people sleeping in furs, talking, or otherwise carrying on. A good ten of that number were children and Renji noticed that the adults were mostly dressed in clothing from the living world, carefully maintained and mended, but the children were wearing buckskin and furs. He guessed at least half of them had been born here. The rest were probably plus souls, but they would grow like normal children now that they had reached Soul Society.

"There's one thing I need to tell you." Ichigo said quietly and Renji turned his head to meet brown eyes. They looked completely normal now and he wondered if he'd imagined the black and gold earlier. "Look over there." Renji followed his pointing finger and blinked at the sleeping woman on the floor. Then a trickle of ice went down his spine. She was too still, her hands neatly folded over her chest, a candle above her head and below her feet. "Her name was Verity Bassar. You owe her your life." His gaze snapped back to Ichigo and the younger man smiled sadly. "I'm awful at sensing power, probably because my own tends to drown others out, and I was asleep anyway. Verity woke me and told me about your battle, and that I needed to go to you. Her last words."

"What did she die of?" Renji asked softly, looking at the body again. She was beautiful, her skin pale as milk and her hair the color of flax. She looked heartbreakingly young to die, although that could be deceptive. Plus souls with great spiritual power often stopped aging when they crossed over.

"Childbirth, and my ineptitude." Ichigo answered with scorching self-condemnation. "She was in hard labor for almost two days. I should have done the c-section sooner, but I knew it would probably kill her. I had to do it anyway, and the baby was already dead. And then she got infected, I try to keep everything sterile but…" Ichigo stopped and Renji stared at the anguish on his face. "There was nothing I could do."

"Do I smell the rank stench of blame again?" They both looked up. It was a slender man with short black hair, beginning to silver at the temples. He was wearing glasses and what had started out as a very nice dress shirt and slacks. They had been well cared for, but still showed signs of abuse, and whatever shoes he'd come with had been replaced with buckskin moccasins. He adjusted his glasses before regarding Ichigo, who wouldn't meet his eyes. "I told you, Ichigo, I'm a science teacher and I enjoy history. I read a study once that analyzed the parish records for medieval England and found that seven out of ten first time mothers would die in childbirth or of complications. The fact that Verity's age was frozen at fifteen only made the danger worse, and she was aware of it. We all made our choices, so stop being guilty that you couldn't manufacture a miracle."

"I know, Richard. I know!" Ichigo sighed, looking down. "Sorry. It just… bothers me. I can't help but feel I should have done more."

"Do you know how to do a healing infusion?" Renji asked. Ichigo looked at him, surprised, and shook his head. "I'll show you later then. If you've got any talent, that will help." He wasn't sure Ichigo would have much talent for healing though. His power sparkled like a spring of water, ever renewing, but Renji had a feeling his talents might not lie in that direction. Or maybe they would. He was trained as a medic, after all. "Where did you learn this stuff?" If Ichigo's age had frozen when he'd entered Soul Society, he'd been just a teenager when he'd died. Ichigo smiled then.

"I worked at the clinic for my dad, helping him out with things. I never did an operation of course, but I saw plenty of them and passed him tools. I'm still just learning though." He added darkly and sighed. "It hurts to lose patients."

"I bet that's how your dad felt when he lost you." Renji commented then realized he was a jackass as he saw the stricken look on Ichigo's face. "Sorry, sorry." He quickly apologized as the redhead shook his head.

"It's not… how did you know? That I was his patient?" He demanded and Renji shrugged, careful not to disturb his stitches.

"I didn't. You're just look awfully young, and I'm guessing your age froze when you came here, and if your dad was a doctor, well…" He couldn't really explain why, but his mind had just jumped to the conclusion that Ichigo had likely been treated by his father. It seemed he'd been right, too. "How old are you really?" He asked curiously and Ichigo glowered at him.

"Eighteen." He grumbled and Renji blinked. "I haven't been here long, I'm just the strongest."

"I see." Renji yawned, grimacing as it pulled at the stitches in his stomach. "Ugh. I should get some sleep."

"So should I." Ichigo said tiredly, but before he left he made sure Renji was settled in again. "If you need to cough or laugh or anything like that, press a pillow to your stomach. It will help ease the pressure on your abdominal muscles."

"Yes doc." He said playfully before closing his eyes, and was pleased to hear Ichigo snort.

"Please, I'm no doctor. Call me medic or Ichigo, but not that." Ichigo said but his only answer was a snore. "Ah, typical." Shaking his head, the redheaded young man went to his own bed and curled up to get some sleep.

It had been a long night and he was going to need it.

Ichigo sat on the edge of a tower, gazing out over his city.

It was a place of dreams and hope, despair and pain. If he wanted to, he could walk through the most beautiful memories and dreams he could create. Or he could walk through the darkness of his heart, revelling in the dark feelings. When he slept this way, all feelings filled him to overflowing, threatening to break his heart.

But today his heart knew what it wanted, and warm arms slid around him from behind. A warm tongue tickled his throat and Ichigo moaned, arching lightly into the touch. But he was also the toucher, and his own hands slipped through rough cloth even as his body felt those hands yanking his shirt away from warm skin.

What are we doing today? Both mouths moved and the sound came from two throats, a strange synchrony. But by now, he was used to it. It was just how things were. A tanned hand caught a white one and fingers tangled together in an intimate dance. Will we be taking that man? If he permits it. The answer came on the heels of the question, the words akin to thoughts. Or let him take us, ah, we would like that. The mutual terms were important with these dreams. If he failed to use them his other body would vanish, submerged in the one. And the more Ichigo learned to love these dreams, the less he wanted that to happen.

Then he turned, meeting his other half. He was the kissed and the kisser, the burned and the burning. A dark fire ignited them both, fueled on pain and fanned by hope. It was everything and it was nothing, and when he sank into himself he felt he might die from the pleasure of it. Words of encouragement were whispered as the sun turned red and a wind began to blow, sending sand through the streets of the city. Screams of pleasure rent the air as his soul soared on wings of light and bone, accepting the very heart of what he'd felt when his mortal heart had begun to fail.

It was beautiful, it was terrible and Ichigo could not have turned away from it any more than a moth could turn from a flame. But the pleasure and the revelation could not last forever and he came down, hands tangled in the hair of his other self, brown eyes meeting black and gold. A last kiss teased his bruised lips, the dual pleasure finally melting away. And as his second body vanished, Ichigo whimpered and reached for it. But the dream was done and could not remain. The city melted away, giving way to a more normal sleep.

But he would remember. He always remembered.

The next morning, Ichigo was rather embarrassed.

The first problem was that he'd soiled his blankets. Calling those dreams a wet dream was like calling the ocean a bit damp. The second problem was how… loud he could be during those dreams. The sock someone had so thoughtfully stuffed in his mouth was a sign he'd been at it again, and he spat it out before jerking himself up.

"Okay, who's the wiseguy?" He demanded and got laughed at. Everyone was awake and just beginning the morning routine.

"Sorry Ichigo, it was that or strangle you." Richard said with a chuckle, adjusting his glasses. "If we were still in the real world, I would suggest you go see a psychiatrist for that. But since we're not, I suppose we have to endure."

"It was one heck of a show." Ichigo glanced over at Renji and met appreciative cinnamon eyes. The man was grinning, leaning against the wall. "I asked if I could molest you, but they said no."

"Not with those stitches in your stomach." Ichigo said automatically, but his heart skipped a beat at the suggestion. Since he'd died he'd figured out he was mostly gay. He could do it with a woman, but it just didn't do much for him. Unfortunately, he was the only guy like that in the group so he'd resigned himself to celibacy… well, outside of the dream fucks, at least. If Renji was serious… "But when you're better, I'll take you up on that." Ichigo met startled brown eyes with calm aggressiveness. He was dead serious and wanted Renji to know it.

"Maybe if you don't look at me with your eyes like that. It's pretty creepy, you know." Renji said and Ichigo blinked and grimaced, realizing that his dreams had brought his dark powers closer to the surface. Closing his eyes and raising his hand to cover his face, he concentrated on calming the roiling power inside. He lowered his hand and Renji looked slightly relieved. No one else cared, though. They'd seen his eyes both ways a thousand times before.

"Sorry." He said and meant it. Levering himself to his feet, he went over to the shinigami and eyed his wound critically. "Some sunlight and fresh air might do you good, if you don't strain that. Would you like to see a bit of our home?"

"What, it's safe out there?" Renji looked shocked and Ichigo grinned.

"Safe as a brick house. None of the Hollows move around in daylight, when I take you outside you'll see why." The thought amused him. When Renji sampled the power of the valley, he'd get a real treat. And maybe it would speed up his healing. Now that he wasn't quite as drained, Ichigo could tell he was powerful, more powerful than Verity and possibly as powerful as himself. That was hard to say though. Ichigo couldn't really sense his own power, so it was difficult to measure himself against someone else.

"I'd love to." Renji said then suddenly went quiet. Ichigo sent him a questioning look. "Sorry, just thinking. If we'd attacked in daylight things would have gone better."

"Uh… well, maybe." Ichigo said diplomatically. He actually didn't think so for a moment. "But the Hollows can move around in daylight, they just don't choose to. I don't think it makes much of a difference to their power." That seemed to make Renji feel better. "I… hope you didn't lose too many people." He said awkwardly and then regretted it as pain flared in Renji's eyes.

"Too many. We'll make them pay!" He growled and Ichigo bit his lip, before shaking his head and helping the redhead up. "Ow fuck!"

"Don't be a pansy." He advised and grinned as Renji tried to punch him in the shoulder. "Weak as a kitten, my friend, weak as a kitten."

"Ah shut up – holy shit!" Ichigo grinned as Renji finally saw the valley in all its glory.

It was worth a second look. The valley was actually a caldera. Magnificent mountains rose up on all sides, and from the height of their perch they could see everything. The caldera was huge, and a great pine forest filled it, with trickling streams running from the mountains and feeding the lake. The lake was the most beautiful shade of aquamarine. The greenish tint came from the minerals and silt filtering down from the mountains. Or so Richard had said, and as a science teacher he would know.

"I didn't realize this place was so big." Renji seemed to be in mild shock as he looked down at the lake. "What is THAT?" Ichigo followed his gaze and saw there were a few plumes of stuff rising off the lake. Nothing unusual, unless you hadn't seen it before.

"Maybe you can tell us. We just call it spirit energy. The lake spits it off all the time." Ichigo said as Renji looked stunned.

"It's called reishi, but if there's enough for it to do that, the lake must be full of it!" He said. Ichigo watched as more bright blue plumes blossomed from the surface of the lake. Then Renji noticed something. "How the hell did I make it up here?" The trail leading up to the cave was steep and looked difficult even in daylight. Ichigo laughed.

"With a lot of help! Do you want to try going down, or just have a seat here?" Ichigo asked. Renji hesitated a moment before nodding.

"Oh hell yeah. This, I must see." He said and Ichigo smiled as he helped the redhead down. He'd actually hoped Renji would agree. It was too dangerous to do up here, but he had a way to get him to the lake much faster than just walking.

"Okay." Ichigo said when they reached the ground. "Now, hm." He looked at Renji assessingly. He and the shinigami were almost exactly the same size. That was going to make it difficult, but he was sure he could do it. Putting a hand on Renji's shoulder, he smiled as the other man looked at him questioningly. "It might be easiest if I carry you piggy back."

"What?" Renji said, pulling away. "There's no way you could carry me that far! I can walk." Ichigo raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The redhead was good at hiding his pain, but that was just not going to happen. His father would never have let a patient in his state walk that far, and Ichigo wouldn't either.

"No way. I'll get us there in a snap, you just have to trust me." Ichigo kneeled down and put a hand over his face, bringing the darkness to the surface. Then he glanced at Renji, knowing he would see the black and gold eyes, and gave him a wicked smile. "Unless you're scared?" That was the perfect thing to say and uneasiness gave way to anger.

"Scared of you? Don't make me laugh!" Renji growled as he wrapped strong arms around Ichigo's shoulders. Ichigo shivered for a moment at the feel of those arms, then gathered himself. He had no name for what he did then, but the trees passed by in a blur. In less than a minute he was able to set Renji down by the lake. The redheaded shinigami staggered before catching himself and looking at him wide-eyed.

"What was that? It felt like flash step, but it sounded different." He asked and Ichigo shrugged before glancing over the water.

"No idea. It just came to me one day." He said, which was nothing but the truth. From the look on Renji's face he didn't believe it. "Look, isn't it beautiful?" Ichigo said, changing the subject. Fortunately it was a good place to redirect attention and Renji gazed out over the lake. "Hey, sit down, I'll get you some water."

"You drink it?" He asked as he took a seat on one of the rocks. The lake had a rocky bottom in most spots, and the rocks continued up onto the shore. Many of them were large and flat, which made for easy spots to sit.

"Of course." Ichigo said absently as he carefully made his way to the shore. The rocks were slippery and it took a bit of concentration to avoid ending up on his ass. "We can live on nothing but this." He said as he handed Renji the full flask.

"You're kidding right? …Oh." Ichigo grinned as Renji sipped the water. From the look on his face he might actually be having an orgasm. "This… this is like pure reishi! No wonder you're so powerful!"

"I was powerful when I got here, but I do admit it put the cherry on top." Ichigo agreed, looking back. Everyone else was starting to make their way down to the lake. "I'm the strongest, but I'm not the only one who's good. And the kids are going to be brilliant someday, if they live." The constant exposure to the reishi strengthened anyone, but it worked better on children. None of them were anywhere close to his power though. "You see how the Hollows can live on it too."

"Yeah." Renji finished the flask then lay back, just basking in the flow of energy. Ichigo took the vial back and filled it up again before drinking himself. The power hit his system with a cool jolt, mimicking the feeling of the icy water sliding down his throat. It also made him feel sleepy, as his body began digesting and assimilating the raw reishi. The energy was all positive in nature and his darker side receded, soothed under the torrent of energy. He settled down beside Renji, who was already beginning to doze off.

Warm and happy and content, he soon fell fast asleep.

Ichigo walked through empty streets, past the empty shells of broken dreams.

But it was not sad. They were simply dreams that had outlived their usefulness, longings for things he could not have. Dreams of college, raising a family, living a normal life. He didn't mind that they were gone and didn't even really miss them. They shuddered at his touch and vanished, washed away by water and replaced with flowers.

The positive energy flowed through him and the city was being overrun with plants. Brilliantly living and full of bright colors, they twined around the cold steel and made it their own. This was not an unusual dream, but something was different. Someone was watching him. That made Ichigo very uneasy. His dark side was so much a part of him that it had no real independent existence, so it couldn't be that. Turning in a circle, the feeling that he was being watched became stronger. But there was nothing for him to see that –

"Ichigo!" The voice did not come from the dream and Ichigo blinked as buildings shattered like glass.

"Ichigo!" Ichigo groaned as a tiny piece of trouble landed on his chest.

"For gods sake Danica, watch it!" He tried to shove the little girl off, but she dodged him and planted her knees directly onto his ribs. "Ow, that hurts!" The towheaded little brat just giggled.

"The council wants to see you!" She said and that woke Ichigo up completely. It was probably a bit grandiose, calling their little circle of elders a council, but everyone had taken to calling them that. Glancing over at Renji he was relieved to see the other man was asleep. To Ichigo's senses he was radiating contentment and good health, which was remarkable with his injuries. He just hoped it wasn't an illusion.

"I'll be right there." He told Danica, who jumped up and ran to the other children. They had devised some kind of game that involved stones and sticks and a lot of jumping. The rules seemed to be impossible for adults to comprehend.

Ichigo pulled himself to his feet and stretched before heading into the woods. Their usual meeting place wasn't far from the lake, a small clearing with four makeshift benches. Only two were occupied and his heart was heavy as he took his own seat. Normally, the fourth would have gone to Verity, but right now only Richard and an old woman named Matty were there.

"What's up?" He asked, although he could guess. Richard confirmed his guess a moment later.

"It's quite likely we'll be making contact with the rest of the world soon." His expression was somber. "We need to consider what that means." Ichigo nodded as Matty looked pensive.

Until Renji's arrival, they had known almost nothing about what went on outside of their valley. Getting out was almost impossible. There was only one exit from the valley, a narrow path of stone between the mountains. The Adjuchas were laired up close to its opening, and other Hollows lived in the crags above him. The rip to Hueco Mundo was also somewhere along that path, which made it extra perilous. Only Ichigo could make it out, and he had, but after a few days of scouting on the other side he'd given up and come home. There was no one and nothing in any range for him to meet. Everyone else, though, was effectively trapped. Renji's goal had been to seal the rip, though, and if that could be done things would change. The caldera would still be isolated but no longer impassable.

"That would be a good thing, wouldn't it? We could finally get some medicines, some antibiotics!" Ichigo said. If only he'd had antibiotics he might have been able to save Verity.

"It could also be very bad." Richard said dispassionately. "There's gold in the lake, Ichigo." Ichigo nodded. They had all fished gold nuggets out of the lake. Without anyone to buy them, though, they were pretty and largely useless. They had learned how to make flasks, cups and plates out of them. "And the lake itself might be a resource. We could be facing the same problem of any small group sitting on top of a very valuable resource."

"He's saying we could be forced out at best, killed at worst." Matty added as Ichigo wanted to argue. But he held his tongue, because he knew they were right. He'd taken enough history in school to know what could happen. "We don't know anything about these people."

"So we should just continue in our splendid isolation? And what about Renji?" Ichigo scowled at them both. "He's going to want to leave as soon as he's better, and if we let him go alone he'll be dogfood." He knew Renji would vehemently disagree, but Ichigo thought he was either delusional or trying to protect the civilians. There was an uncomfortable silence that Richard broke with a sigh.

"Yes, that's the other problem. Can we in a good conscience let him go alone?" The question hung in the air for a moment before Richard shrugged. "I would say no. You're right, he would almost certainly die. Ichigo, you'll have to go with him and try to protect our interests." That made Ichigo hesitate.

"But then you won't have a medic." He objected. He was the only one in the group with any kind of medical training. Matty shrugged.

"We all know some basic first aid. We'll live without you." She said and Ichigo had to admit to himself that she was probably right. "And you're the only one that can go." That was certainly true. There was a decent chance he could get Renji past the nesting pair without alerting them, and if he couldn't, Ichigo might be able to intimidate them into letting him pass. They were very much aware of the teenager and didn't want to have a thing to do with him. "But make sure you keep our interests in mind!" She warned and Ichigo nodded, making a mental note.

He would not let his people be victimized by Renji's, under any circumstances.