Well, this is it. The last chapter of The Stranger. After all those terrible cliffhangers, this is finally drawing to a close. I hope you've all enjoyed the ride so far!

Shinji squirmed in his seat, his lower lip tucked between his teeth as he waited to be summoned. He felt like he was going to get a heart attack any time now, and his palms were so clammy that he was leaving wet handprints on his pants as he clutched at the fabric.

"Christ, you need to chill the fuck out," Renji grumbled next to him, becoming irritated with Shinji's nervousness.

"I can't!" Shinji hissed back with a frown. "You don't understand I-"

Renji snorted. "Yeah, yeah, he's your idol, blah blah blah," the redhead drawled. "You say this every fucking time. Get over it, man!"

Right on cue, the door in front of them swung open, revealing a thin, stern-looking woman sporting a tight bun at the nape of her neck.

"Chief Hirako," she said flatly, instantly sending Shinji's heart rate up another few notches. "Chief Urahara will see you now."

Shinji gulped audibly and turned to Renji, who merely rolled his eyes. Then, sucking in a deep breath, Shinji puffed out his chest, mustering as much confidence as he could without turning green in the face, and walked into the office. As always, the sight that greeted him immediately made him feel like a rookie all over again, despite his own much-revered reputation at the agency.

Urahara Kisuke, the self-exiled founder of the organization that Shinji had been calling home for the past decade, was seated at a large mahogany desk. Stacks of paper and miscellaneous stationery covered the desk haphazardly, leaving just enough space for a mug of coffee next to Urahara's hand. His signature walking cane rested against the edge of the desk, a constant reminder of what happened four years ago. Urahara had not come out unscathed from the Aizen incident. His recovery from the gunshot wound had been a long and painful one, but with the support of his devoted partner and good friend, he'd bounced back eventually. The first thing he did when he was well enough to leave the house was to call up his old friend and colleague, Kyoraku Shunsui. Shinji had been there when his superior received the unexpected phone call.

Before Shinji knew it, the legendary scientist was back. Apparently, the close encounter with Aizen had reawakened the man's latent passion for his life's work, enough for him to come out of retirement. And that's how Shinji found himself working side-by-side with his idol; with Shinji continuing his role as the Chief of Operations while Urahara once again led the Research team.

"Hello! Please, have a seat!" Urahara gestured to the chairs in front of his desk, his dirty blond hair badly mussed, as if he'd been pulling on them all day.

Shinji's lips twitched as he slid into one of the chairs, trying hard not to laugh at his colleague's appearance. He whipped out his weekly report and placed it carefully on top of one of the many sheets of barely legible handwritten notes, and thus began another top-secret meeting between the two Chiefs of an organization that didn't exist.

Meanwhile, in Karakura Town...

"Take care, Ichi-nii!"

"Try not to die!"

Ichigo waved at his sisters, grinning as they bid him goodbye. His backpack felt heavy on his shoulder, but his heart couldn't be lighter.

An entire summer break in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but wilderness around him; Ichigo had been looking forward to this for months. He'd be surrounded by thick, lush greenery and a lake so calm it could be mistaken for a mirror. It was the perfect setting for his muse, and he was confident that, when break was over, he'd be coming home with a spectacular senior project. Even now, he'd already received requests from two art galleries, one of which owned by the prestigious Kuchiki siblings, who were notorious in the industry for their harshly critical taste in art.

Even his father was slowly turning around, having finally accepted that his only son had more talent and interest in art than in the medical field. Lately, his old man had even started to attend the school's student art shows, and had failed to conceal the glint of pride in his eyes when he stood in front of Ichigo's booth. To Ichigo, that had been one of the happiest moment in his life. Nothing could beat having his family's support for something he was so passionate about.

Giving his sisters one final wave, Ichigo hopped into his car, and then he was off; his thoughts already on the destination that was waiting for him.

Ichigo killed the engine and stretched his tired limbs. The solo drive had been long, but just like all the other times, it was worth it. He took a long, deep breath, taking in the soothing scent of earth and trees, then he stepped out and surveyed his surroundings. The sun was just beginning to set, its dying rays casting a golden glow upon his already-vibrant hair. It was quiet here, something that he'd always appreciated.

Grabbing his bag from the trunk, Ichigo locked the car and slowly walked up to the cabin. At the front door, he bent down and lifted the well-worn door mat, revealing a single key, which he used to let himself in. He smiled at the familiar room. It hadn't changed much since his last visit; his oversized art easel still sat in front of the window, while cans of paint lined the wall next to it. That was his private little corner, a place that was sacred in his eyes.

Only one other person was allowed to step in front of that easel.

"You know, one day I'm going to accidentally kill you with my shotgun thinking you're an intruder."

Ichigo spun around at the deep voice, his eyes immediately lighting up at the sight of the tall, muscular figure leaning casually against the doorway that led into the kitchen. Without saying a word, Ichigo sauntered over to the man, his smile slowly widening as he met a pair of mischievous blue eyes.

"Well, hello to you too," Ichigo said, hands reaching out to circle the man's waist.

A low chuckle rumbled in the larger male's chest, and in an instant, Ichigo was yanked flush against him, their bodies melding together perfectly with familiar ease. Their lips met, tenderly and almost chastely at first. Then, as eyes slid closed and hands began to roam with less innocent intent, Ichigo deepened the kiss, immediately drawing a muffled growl from the older man.

"Mmm..." Ichigo pulled away slightly to nuzzle his lover's jawline. "I've missed you, Grimmjow."

Four years ago...

"So, I guess this is farewell."

Ichigo thought he'd prepared himself for it. As long as Grimmjow would live, he was willing to accept anything. Yet, the pain that lanced through his heart when he heard those words nearly brought him to his knees. He tried hard to ignore the look of sympathy from the other men in the room, but it was impossible. Renji, the agent with the spiky red hair and ridiculous tattoos, even gasped out loud.

The silence that followed was deafening, so thick with tension that everyone in the room seemed to have ceased breathing altogether. Everyone except Shinji, that is, whose smile remained as wide as ever throughout the exchange; and it was he who finally shattered the awkward moment.

"It has been an honor serving with you, Jaegerjaques," the blonde said lightly.

Grimmjow grinned in response, tipping his head at his superior.

Former superior.

It took Ichigo a whole minute to wrap his head around what this meant. And even when he did, all he managed was blink at Grimmjow and Shinji in surprise.

Could it be? Could it be that Grimmjow would give this up this life and stay?

"But...why?" Ichigo stuttered, his heart hammering away in his chest. He daren't get his hopes too high just yet; he'd be crushed if he'd simply misunderstood.

The look Grimmjow gave him sent all his blood rushing to his face. The dead weight in his stomach lifted, and his feet moving on their own accord, bringing him slowly over to Grimmjow's hospital cot.

"Do you really have to ask?" Grimmjow growled with a scowl. He reached out and grasped Ichigo's hand in his bandaged ones.

And then, ignoring the cat calls and shouts of "Get a room!", Grimmjow gave Ichigo the deepest, sweetest kiss he had ever gotten in his life.

The tub in the cabin's bathroom was small, but that never stopped them. If anything, the cramped space made it better, magnifying the sensation of their bare skin rubbing against each, their bodies slick with sweat, water, and soap suds.

Grimmjow groaned and tightened his grip on his lover's hips, his eyes feasting greedily on Ichigo's flushed cheeks and moist, kiss-swollen lips. The younger man dropped his head back and let out another moan, his lean frame trembling as he rose and sank in Grimmjow's lap almost frantically. They had wanted to take their time to savor the long-awaited moment, but the need that they'd both been bottling up inside overcame them.

"Beautiful," Grimmjow murmured, leaning forward to press his lips on Ichigo's neck and thrusting up roughly at the same time. "L-love you."

That was all it took for Ichigo to unravel completely. Grimmjow gritted his teeth as tight muscles clamped down on him, wrenching a loud groan from the back of his throat. He continued to move, even after he found his own release mere seconds later; his hands leaving the younger man's hips to wrap around him in an embrace, until Ichigo toppled forward to rest his forehead on top of his.

They continued to soak in the water for a few long minutes, both struggling to regain their breaths, before Grimmjow finally pushed Ichigo off of his chest.

"Okay, time to get clean for real," he chuckled, flicking a few specks of soapy water onto Ichigo's face. He grabbed the fist that came flying towards him, his laughter growing louder as Ichigo glowered at him. Then, he sat back and enjoyed the view as the younger man stood up and climbed over the side of the tub, dripping water everywhere as he wobbled over to the shower stall to wash properly.

Grimmjow sighed, truly feeling content for the first time in his life. Guilt and sadness still gnawed at him whenever he thought of Ilforte, but he had no regrets about the choice he made this time. Retirement suited him, though now and then he'd still take a job from Urahara's contacts, but they were nothing risky. Just a little snooping here and a little digging there, not entirely legal but hardly dangerous compared to what he'd done in the past.

He still remembered the wide, disbelieving eyes that stared at him when Shinji voiced his unspoken decision. Grimmjow wasn't surprised that the crazy bastard would see through him right away; Shinji wasn't top brass for nothing. He owed that man his life, and even though he felt just a tad bad for leaving the team so abruptly, Ichigo was worth it. Nnoitra had called him a sap, and Renji gave him a painful kick in the shin when he was finally well enough to leave the hospital, but in the end they'd all understood.

"Yo, old man!" Ichigo stuck his head out from the shower stall, a big grin plastered on his face. "Are you going to join me or sit there in my jizz the whole night?"

"Ugh, that's fucking gross you little shit!"

The End.

I hope I got at least a couple of you snickering about the brief reference to Byakuya and Rukia's artistic talents. ;) As always, thank you all very, very much for following this story! Looking forward to writing a new story for you guys soon. :)