Equilibrium

He didn't know how long he sat there, slumped sullenly on the stone bench next to the backyard pond and staring at the thin crescent of silvered moon on the water. The frigid air, which had initially calmed him down, now felt as if it had invaded his gut and built an ice fort there.

Even after going over the report, a part of him wanted to go back into the kitchen to retrieve the folder with the images Szayel Apporo Grantz had taken of the child. He wanted to see if he hadn't been hallucinating.

His child.

Hitsugaya Toshiro didn't know if he ought to be ecstatic, enraged, overjoyed, upset, disappointed or bewildered about the fact he was going to be a father and that he'd been the last person to be told about it as well as omitted from some very important decisions regarding his future son or daughter. Harribel hadn't seen fit to take him aside last night to tell him privately and had left him out of the trip to Szayel's Division… it was as if he'd ceased to be important once he'd given her what she wanted.

Perhaps he ought to add 'afraid' to that list, for a multitude of reasons.

Having an actual role in his child's future was looking a little iffy at present, with the loss of his temper and the confrontation he'd had with his 'Mistress'. When the initial red haze had cleared, he had looked down at the shocked woman he had mashed against the wall. The most distracting parts of her anatomy were only a few layers of cloth away from his and Toshiro knew he had to get away before he did something wildly inappropriate or incredibly stupid or both. He wasn't that kind of man and excusing himself was the only responsible thing to do in his present state of mind.

She hadn't forced him to stay, so maybe she understood why he needed some space to clear his head and to wrestle his out-of-control temper back into submission. It had been straining at its leash all day, riled up by the continuing issues that only having a psychopath with a god-complex in the First Division and on the Throne could produce as well as skipping lunch. He'd thought, when he'd come back to a fraccion-less house and a semi-hot meal waiting for him, that he could relax a little, that the worst of the day was over. How wrong he'd been on that one, he grumbled inwardly.

Letting his anger get the better of him had never really worked for him in the past and this time was no exception. After years of observing Tia Harribel, he knew that she didn't do things on impulse, or without good reason. That she hadn't consulted him at all pissed him off to no end, but he had to set that aside for the moment to unravel her reasoning for involving Starrk and Lilinette in this manner.

There had been real fear in her voice when she'd mentioned Aizen and the prospect that the bastard might not let her keep her cub, if carrying it interfered with defending against the Swarm. She believed there was enough of a possibility of it happening to warrant promising their cub to a higher-ranking Espada. Furthermore, she'd done so before going to Szayel's, which meant that she'd done it before she had any of the information in the folder Szayel had given her. If she hadn't planned it before she'd done it, it meant that something had frightened her enough the day she'd taken Hana to the 4th Division to get her to throw caution to the wind.

A few deep breaths helped and he ran his fingers through his hair, tugging on the ends. Toshiro swore he would take a knife to it himself if he didn't get an hour of free time to deal with it. Maybe he'd just hand his 3rd Seat a pair of scissors and pray that the woman didn't accidentally cut off one of his ears while shearing him of his excess locks.

When she'd mentioned that she wanted to align her pack with the First Espada's, he'd pictured something different than handing over their firstborn to be another's fraccion. Staring up at the night sky, Toshiro winced as he recalled her saying that she would do whatever it took, even submitting to Starrk and Lilinette, if it meant additional layers of protection from, as she'd put it, 'the whims of Kami.' He couldn't help the way his lip curled when he gave some thought to the Espada that outranked her. Given the choices she'd had, he couldn't fault her as far as picking Starrk. She hated Barragan and Yammy qualified as a walking nightmare. Starrk and Lilinette, on the other hand, had a thriving pack of well-treated subordinates that genuinely seemed to like both halves of the split-souled Espada.

However, only a fool wouldn't see the arrangement for what it really was. No one could mess with another's fraccion, one of the rules Aizen had imposed on his Arrancar minions to keep the infighting between them to a minimum. The Arrancar's collective worldview seemed to preclude anyone breaking the few rules that those Hollows lived by. Toshiro thought her smarter than to believe Aizen would follow any rules unless doing so suited him, especially with her confessions to him over the years about how little she truly trusted their ruler. This particular strategy depended entirely on whether or not Aizen wanted to avoid angering Starrk, and whether Starrk would get off his cushion to intervene on behalf of a fraccion that hadn't been born yet.

Toshiro ground the heel of his hand into the furrowed skin between his eyebrows.

There was something he'd missed in all of this, some key piece of information and he'd just walked out on the one person that might have given it to him. That thought led him to the hurt that he'd shoved onto his mind's back burner. What had Hyorinmaru spat at him in the bath? Oh, yes… that he'd 'remained chained to this predator out of choice.' Toshiro let out a pained sigh at that. The fact he felt troubled that she hadn't told him until now, the deep, lacerating pain the exclusion had created, could mean only one thing: that the emotional ties ran deeper than he suspected. Toshiro supposed that he had a definitive answer to Hana's too-personal question as to his feelings for the woman at whom he'd just snarled.

Maybe he'd been foolish to think, after that one, interrupted evening in the bath, that she might consider him as something more than a 'pet' after all of these years. Maybe the damned ice dragon had been right about her casting him off once she'd managed to become pregnant. It wasn't as if she kept to him exclusively either, if the occasional sounds he heard from the master bedroom were any indication of her continued indulgences with her girls. Knowing that the four of them had been together far longer than he'd ever been involved with Harribel watered down any jealousy he felt. Occasionally, he considered his inclusion in her pack as an experiment on her part, to see if she enjoyed being with a male that wasn't intent on subjugating her in some way.

Toshiro glumly wondered if feeling possessive of her counted as 'subjugation.' It wasn't as if she wasn't aware of everything he did or felt thanks to her Claim on him, but so far, she'd given him no indication that she minded his growing proprietary outlook towards her, especially in the weeks since she'd told him she was ready to try for that child she'd wanted for so long. Harribel rarely let on what she was thinking and there was the rub. Aside from those few minutes in the bath, when she'd seemed so ready and open to him, before Hana's sudden tearful appearance shut down any possibility of a second, very-much-wanted-on-his-part round of semi-aquatic sex, she'd held him almost at arm's length.

There had been two exceptions to that. She had come to him, literally and figuratively, twice in the last two weeks or so, on the nights he hadn't dragged his carcass home after a battle or worked late. On both occasions, he'd eagerly pulled her from his bedroom doorway and onto his futon, letting her do what she wanted with him. Her enthusiasm matched his in that regard at least, though for reasons he didn't understand at the time, she'd kept that jacket of hers on while she rode him into near-mindlessness. Otherwise, she'd been her usual, closely guarded self.

If the report was correct, her reluctance to show him a potential weakness regarding her mask made sense now. Unfortunately, it also meant she didn't entirely trust him, despite having an active Claim on him. His eyes settled on the small ripples that a faint night breeze made over the pond, the moon's sickle-shape reflection wavering there. At the same time, he heard the back door slowly open, then shut, and measured footsteps in the grass behind him. Harribel's reiatsu came to a halt a few yards away, leaning against one of the ornamental plum trees that shaded the sitting area where the household would take its meals in the warmer months. Toshiro couldn't help the twinge of apprehension that made his spine stiffen.

"This is not how I wanted this conversation to go," he heard her say in that low-pitched, sultry voice of hers, the one that, of late, had a deleterious effect on his ability to concentrate. His response involved reaching up and massaging his forehead as he did an amazingly poor job of keeping the sarcasm to a minimum.

"What did you want, Tia? I'm not sure how it works with the Arrancar, but among Shinigami, the father at least gets to be a little higher on the 'People to inform about a pregnancy' pile. He's usually somewhere beneath his mother-in-law but well above the local grocer."

Silence followed that and he detected a slight shift in her reiatsu, indicating that she'd shifted her weight to lean a little more heavily against the tree. While Harribel didn't sound pleased, she also didn't sound as if she was going to beat him to death with the teakettle.

It was a start. The least he could do, he decided while he kicked his temper into a mental corner, was try to remain civil while they discussed this.

"Circumstance dictated otherwise. I learned of our success by accident, when I asked Kami's wife if she could help me with the changes in my mask over the last two weeks. She ran some tests yesterday and examined me with Kido. Unohana-Taichou told me that she would wait to report my pregnancy to Kami until today, giving me time to ask Starrk and Lilinette for help. It was fortuitous that both of them accompanied Ise-Taichou to see Hana yesterday. Otherwise, I might not have been able to make the arrangements I did. From the moment that she discovered I was pregnant, she reeked of fear. It surrounded her, like a cloud of flies. I'm not certain if she was afraid for me, or for the child or both."

The news that Unohana was worried gave Toshiro pause, before he squared his shoulders and turned around on the bench to face her. It might be one thing for Harribel to imagine danger where there might not be any, but if Unohana was concerned enough about Harribel's situation that she'd let her normally calm demeanour slip, then there might be more to all of this than what was in Szayel's dryly-written report.

He expected her to be staring back at him, but instead, she'd turned her eyes on the new growth of some flower bulbs one of her girls, Sung Sun maybe, had planted near the base of the tree last fall.

"I'd intended to tell you after I returned from patrol but…"

…the search for any sign of where the Swarm might have taken Ajuga and Diaemus had gone on longer than he'd expected. Even with Apache's enhanced senses, they'd found nothing substantial and he'd been half-asleep on his feet when they'd made it home. He'd had little enough to put in the report the search generated, which pained him greatly. Toshiro hadn't known Ajuga very well, but he had seen what the loss of the two hybrids had done to Hana and Harribel's fraccion. Toshiro had to admit that he probably hadn't been in the best of shape to process anything significant at that time of night, let alone such an announcement.

"Fine," he conceded and leaned forward. "Why did you not include me in your mandatory visit to Szayel's Division? My 11th Seat is Claimed and she asked my Fukutaichou for an hour today to make the trip with the one who Claimed her. Why did you choose to do this alone?"

This earned him a chuckle that held very little in the way of humour. Her sea-green eyes finally met his and for the first time he could see the reproach in them, as well as a number of murky shadows that he couldn't attribute to the semi-darkness or the faint moonlight. The fear was still there as well. If anything, there seemed to be more of it when he brought up Szayel.

"You spend the day feeding me frustration, anxiety, stress of all sorts and anger at the loss of Hana's aid and wonder why I declined to add to your list of worries? I'm used to dealing with difficulties on my own. I'm not used to having to find solutions to problems while the one I've Claimed expresses endless negativity. You usually handle things in a more measured fashion. Today was different," she replied with a hint of scorn. Before he could open his mouth, she added, "Fate forced my hand as far as informing my girls. They were ready to tear apart the 4th Division officer who came to conduct pregnancy tests on every Arrancar female, including my fraccion. I made it back from Szayel's den just in time. They did not realize that the discovery of my pregnancy was the cause of it and I felt it prudent to inform them before things could get out of hand. Mila Rose will offer a formal apology to Unohana-Taichou tomorrow for roughing up her underling."

Toshiro's response involved a dropped jaw, which he quickly snapped shut. He was aware of the tests conducted on all Claimed Shinigami females. One of Unohana's people had come by yesterday and informed him of the order, but he'd had no idea Unohana had mandated pregnancy tests for all female Arrancar, even those without 'pets,' in addition to the Shinigami. Embarrassment came hard on the heels of surprise. For all anyone else knew, he was the captive boy toy of every Arrancar female under this roof, not just the Third Espada. He could see why Unohana had ordered her fraccion tested as well.

"You were the one late for dinner. I sent my girls on various errands tonight, so that I would have a chance to speak with you alone."

He had the good grace to acknowledge the last part, adding it to the growing pile of things about which he ought to feel like a complete heel. There were times that he forgot, usually while in the middle of Division business, that she could 'tune in' to any adverse emotions he might experience. It was the downside of their link, Toshiro supposed, at least for her. He also had to accept that the events of the last two days hadn't exactly worked in their favour as far as chiselling out time for the two of them to talk.

"I still would have made the time…" he tried to say and she held up one hand.

"You have your duties as a Taichou, Toshiro, and Kami hates it when there is chaos in his Empire. I didn't want you punished for failing him in some way that would not allow me to intervene on your behalf."

She was probably referring to the accounting report Hana had left unfinished. In that she was correct; Aizen wouldn't have let him off the hook for a late or inaccurate report and because Harribel left his Division to him, there would be no way she could speak up for him if Aizen decided to make an example of him. While Aizen might not want to tick off Starrk, Toshiro doubted that he would have any qualms about incurring Harribel's anger by punishing her pet for failing him.

Worse, he might force Harribel to punish him, as he'd witnessed with Karin and Szayel.

Shit, he thought, finally understanding where she was coming from as far as her reluctance to pull him away from his work, even for an hour.

"Besides, it was better that you weren't there today," she said softly, an edge to her voice that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He got the feeling that the visit with Szayel hadn't gone well for some reason.

"Why not?"

Her hesitation in answering only added to his unease.

"Szayel… agreed, after some discussion, to play up the 'uniqueness' of my pregnancy. The loss of a 'specimen,' as he refers to all of the cubs he's monitored over the years, would distress him to no end."

"His choice of words stinks," Toshiro growled, despite himself. The idea of his child as one of Szayel's 'test subjects' kindled a surprising amount of rage in him, as well as a few murderous thoughts involving the Seventh Espada. The vague way she'd answered also didn't sit right with him.

"What aren't you telling me? Dammit, Tia… this is exactly why I'm angry!"

"I can't tell you because it isn't my place to do so. It's between Szayel and me and no other."

"That's my point!" he snapped and got to his feet, spreading his hands wide.

The shadow his standing form created in the faint moonlight stretched before him, merging with that of the tree and the woman beneath it. The same faint light limed the white of her clothing and the memory of a summer evening five years gone came back to him. She'd filled him in on her plans for him on that night and he considered that the beginning of whatever it was that existed between them. He had no idea what to call it: enhanced friendship, a mutual admiration, a working-and-occasionally-sexual association didn't really do it justice, but with a cub on the way, this whole 'friends with benefits' thing would have to change, at least as far as he was concerned. He slowly walked towards her, his arms spread and his palms up. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of the scene in the kitchen.

"You're used to being the one in charge. I understand that. You want to protect your pack. I get that as well. However, this is our cub we're talking about here! You told me you wanted a strong mate, Tia, strong enough to protect you if it came down to it. Well, here I am, oh Third Espada!" He emphasized her title a little more caustically than he meant to sound, but it was hard not to be furious. "I will personally tear apart anyone who decides to hurt either you or our child, or Hana or even those three immature, ill-mannered geese you've taken under your wing and that's the end of it!"

By now, there were only a few feet between them. He folded his arms across his chest, waiting for some response from her.

"Does your 11th Seat have long black hair? Is her Master a blond male, half a foot taller than she?"

The question threw him off-balance and he had to grope about for the proper reply.

"Yes. Her Claimer often shows up to walk her home. Long blond hair and an entirely too-salacious look about him for my tastes. Can't seem to keep his hands off of her either. Not that she seems to mind much…" he grumbled. She listened and then closed her eyes and cocked her head to the side.

"Franque Lloydgth, created to replace one of the fraccion Barragan sacrificed during the War. I saw the two of them today, leaving Szayel's den. From their expressions, and from what you told me this evening, it appears they're both very happy about their future child. Did she come back to work after her appointment with Szayel?"

Toshiro was at a loss as to what to say to that. He'd been too busy with other things today, after his initial meeting with Michiko and her upset stomach, to find out if she'd returned to her duties. He couldn't recall her checking back in with him. Maybe his Fukutaichou had seen her, since the two were friends.

"I've no idea, to tell you the truth," he admitted after a few minutes. He could see her nod at that.

"I doubt she did. I'm sure her Master… no, her 'mate,' if I read their body language correctly, had other plans for her that afternoon."

"Not an image I needed of my 11th Seat" he sighed. "I'll have a chat with her tomorrow. Why would you bring them up?"

"Because Lloydght seemed ecstatic. I'd hoped…"

She trailed off, leaving the rest of it unsaid. Toshiro didn't need to be able to read minds to know what the rest of that sentence might have contained.

"It was a foolish notion. You're not the demonstrative sort, Toshiro."

He caught his frustration with her by the tail and beat it to death before it could lead him to make a very big mistake. Instead, he took a deep breath, and then another. Reaching out, he tentatively put his hand on one of the wrists he'd gripped earlier. She didn't move it away, but the pulse he could feel beneath her skin was hardly what he would call 'calm', despite her cool exterior.

"I suppose," he said carefully "I should ask what am I to you, Tia? Do you still consider me a 'pet'?"

She didn't reply right away, but eventually, Toshiro saw her shake her head, her messy blonde hair moving back and forth in the shadows.

"Then what…?"

"There's more to my agreement with Starrk and Lilinette. I've told no one but Szayel about it, because he knows the situation. I've already sent the girls to Starrk's den with my answer, though I wanted to speak with you first. I had little choice in this. You were late getting home and by now Aizen will have a copy of Szayel's report. There might not be time tomorrow to speak with him. He might even summon me tonight, once he reads it."

Gingerly, Toshiro took her wrist and drew her back towards the bench. Once out of the plum tree's shadows, her distress became apparent. There was a great deal of regret in her expression too and he decided to grit his teeth, swallow his pride and get her to explain things. Once he'd settled them both on the bench, within sight and sound of the pond, Harribel seemed to relax a little.

"Starrk's help won't be free," she cautioned. The Espada started in on her story and by the time she was done, Toshiro's fingers clenched hers, mostly to keep both sets of their hands from shaking with rage.

Hitsugaya Toshiro wanted the Second Espada dead, beheaded, his putrid corpse buried in seki-seki stone and the earth above the fucker's tomb salted so that nothing would grow there for a thousand years. That he would do such a thing to a pregnant woman and to his own fraccion sickened him. Unfortunately, indulging in murderous thoughts wasn't going to help the situation. When she got to the meat of the deal with the First Espada, Toshiro could only listen at the details and close his eyes in relief that not only was the First concerned about Soi Fon, but that Harribel still had a free Claim slot. The fact she'd wanted to talk to him of this before making a decision, even if she'd had to give in and make it without him, was also very telling, even if she wasn't aware of it.

"Tia, go ahead and Claim her! Save her life! You don't need my permission for that!"

She drew back, giving him a look that was both critical and puzzled.

"Your reactions confuse me. You're angry because I didn't inform you of my pregnancy first, as I might have a mate, but when I tell you that I plan to Claim another, you don't care how it will affect you as long as doing so spares one of your former Taichou's lives. There is little logic to your train of thought."

"I suppose not," he admitted and her eyes settled on their joined hands. Toshiro, realizing just how tightly he clasped them, eased off on the pressure.

"Would you say the same if the Seventh decided he no longer wanted his red-haired pet, the one with the tattoos?"

That made him frown and for the first time, real jealousy blossomed in him. Toshiro wasn't quite quick enough in snuffing it out, however. She made a 'humph' sound when she detected it and he understood the hypocrisy of his response. The idea of her with another female didn't bother him nearly as much as another male, especially one that was taller than he and broader in the shoulders. The old insecurity about his perpetually youthful appearance and formerly short stature, as well as what he could only describe as childish territoriality, made him grimace.

"It would depend on why you were doing it," he replied and she moved her hands from beneath his, covering his pale fingers with her darker ones.

"I would not replace you, Toshiro. I admire much about you, when you manage to keep your temper in check," she admonished and he couldn't deny that he had interpreted things badly earlier in the evening. "You are exhausted and in a foul mood to boot, but I didn't dare wait another day, lest you find out about this from another source. I truly wished you could have been with me today, but I cannot give Aizen any reason to punish you. You've read the report. If this cub is to survive…"

"Tia, you can't tell me that this is just about the cub. What do you want of me… or rather, how do you see me? Tell me the truth."

"If I were a Shinigami, would you have involved yourself with me, Hitsugaya Toshiro?"

As with the question regarding his 11th Seat, Toshiro had to scramble with the conversation's change of direction. He'd also had it with her avoidance of definitive answers.

"If you were one of us, I would have to claw my way through the pack of admirers I'm sure you would attract, as Matsumoto-Fukutaichou had at her beck and call. If I'd managed that and you deigned to speak to me, I might have summoned up the nerve to ask you to tea. I would have assumed nothing beyond that. The choice to take me up on any such proposal would have been yours alone to make."

His turquoise eyes, in turn, narrowed and bored into hers.

"If I were an Arrancar or a Vasto Lorde as you were, would you have involved yourself with me?"

He figured that the turnabout inquiry was fair, given all of her evasiveness. Her shoulders slumped a little and she broke eye contact, staring down at their fingers.

"You would not be 'you' if you were one of 'us', as you put it. We would have fought and either I would have defeated and killed you, or you would have defeated me and Claimed me. If the latter, I would have tried to make it a mutual Mating Claim during the time you kept me beneath you, given your power. If I managed it, we would be able to feel everything one another felt. There… would be no niceties like tea and choice about it."

It was Toshiro's turn to blush partly at the thought of what that kind of 'fight' might look like. He decided that he liked the animalistic images a little too much for his own good and told his inner Neanderthal to take a walk into the nearest icy river.

"Why is the word 'mates' so damned hard for you to say?"

"Because you can't be one. You can't cast a Claim around me as I can around you."

"I'm calling bullshit on that. There's a sizeable piece of my reiryoku and a cub in your belly that says otherwise."

She looked up sharply just as he grasped her hands and got to his feet, pulling her with him. One hand reached around her waist and brought her body hard against his. The other squirmed between their respective chests and seized the zipper tab on her jacket. He could feel her fingers digging into his biceps, but again, she didn't seem inclined to use her Claim to stop him from opening the garment so that he could see what he'd only so far read in the pages of the Seventh Espada's report.

When he finally laid eyes on her bare face, the straight nose and full lips he'd only seen in her secondary form, Toshiro had to swallow a few times to get his throat to work properly. Otherwise, all he'd be able to would involve croaking. Letting his eyes wander a little farther down made his cheeks burn as he took in a pair of truly magnificent breasts, with nipples the color of burnished bronze rapidly hardening in reaction to the cold air. The breath she sucked in at their sudden exposure only served to enhance the effect.

"Amazing, Tia…" he heard himself whisper and trailed his fingers from the portion of her mask that still surrounded her throat to the dusky skin covering her sternum. They moved over skin that felt warmer with every passing second, until they skimmed below her right breast and cupped it. His thumb moved to brush across the tip of a nipple while the hand he had at her back did its best to crush her against him.

Her eyes drifted closed and the slight tilt of her head upward was all he needed as far as permission to kiss her, tentatively at first and then more forcefully as what his fingers were doing made her part her lips for air. A few tugs on the collar and the white fabric across her back as well as the cuffs of her long sleeves and the upper portion of her uniform soon lay discarded on the grass. Having access to her mouth and a pair of heretofore-inaccessible erogenous zones was going to his head.

"Toshiro…" she moaned, one hand reaching up to rake though his hair. He let his left hand drop down to the curve of her ass and slowly pressed her lower body forward, letting her feel the evidence of just how much he liked her mask's new boundaries.

"Inside," he hoarsely ordered when she responded with shallow, circling hip movements that did nothing for his mental state and everything for the burgeoning erection straining against his tightly wound undergarments. When her tongue slid against his he growled and broke off the kiss, deciding that if he were going to do this, to prove that she could trust him as a partner and equal, he would have to show her that he deserved the promotion.

It wasn't, he thought with the part of his brain that was still capable of reason, as if he hadn't had to prove her was up to such challenges in the past. He'd had to be three times as good at the duties of a Taichou in order for his superiors and elders to acknowledge him as being half their equal, thanks to his age. Of course, if she wanted a mate that would be a bit of a beast at times, he would show her he was perfectly capable of suspending any 'niceties' as well.

He reached down and in the next second, he had her body slung over his shoulder, one hand clutching the backs of her legs and the other helping balance her hips where they met his collarbone. He moved at breakneck speed, only stopping to reach for the handle on the back door before they were though it, past the kitchen and Shunpo eating up the short distance to his room. By the time the Espada in his grasp realized what he was doing and where he was going, they were in his spartanly furnished bedchamber and he'd dropped her in the middle of his futon. His bed wasn't the overly large, plush thing she shared with her girls, but it would do for now.

She barely had a chance to push her torso up with her arms and try to scramble back to look at him before he'd stripped to his waist, leaving his discarded kosode and under-kosode on the floor in a pile of black and white fabric. His obi followed it and once it was gone, his hakama slithered from his hips while he crawled forward onto the large bed.

"You're wearing far too many things, Tia. I think that needs to change."

He started with her boots, pulling them from her feet and throwing them carelessly over his shoulders to the floor. The footwear made two satisfactory 'thuds' as they made contact with the wood. Once those were gone, he ran his hands up her white-clad thighs, working his way between them to rest his fingertips on the black sash that kept what passed for a hakama on her body. The damn thing always looked as if it was going to slide off, as a number of his easily distracted subordinates had commented when they thought he was out of earshot. Toshiro knew how tightly she usually secured that sash, having watched her dress on those mornings when she'd spent the night in his bed.

If he had his way, she'd be spending much more of her time in it. As such, he tapped the knot to the side and held her hazy green gaze with his turquoise one.

"Untie this. Now."

"You presume to give me orders?" she finally asked, her tone carrying a frosty warning. He smirked down at her, folding his arms across his bare chest, letting her take in the scope of the changes he'd undergone in the last five years.

"If it isn't off in the next ten seconds, you'll have to send your fraccion out for another clothing run, because I swear, I will cut this off with the closest sharp object. I have plans for what's underneath it."

If it was possible, Toshiro thought he saw her eyes get just a little bit bigger, before she slowly reached down and teased the knot loose. Once he saw the tightly tied fabric give a little, he reached up and pulled it roughly from around her hips and away from her moving fingers. It went somewhere off to the right and all that was left was the mass of ruined white pleats and folds that had been her hakama.

His eyes didn't leave hers as he moved forward, his palms pushing her long legs apart to make room for his taller frame. At any moment, he expected his body to freeze, for her to grab control of him and halt his advance, but the unspoken order never came. Instead, she allowed him to put one hand on either side of her shoulders and his knees against her inner thighs, preventing her from closing them.

"Tia, I don't want to be treated like a 'pet' or worse, a child. You need me to protect our cub and as such, you will no longer cut me out of any decisions you make about him or her, ever again. I don't give a damn about my status in front of 'Kami' but I will have an equal say in what happens with our child. We both know I could break your Claim with enough effort, so this issue you have about returning a Claim doesn't fly with me."

It was as close to an ultimatum as he wanted to get right now and her eyes narrowed a little more at his tone. Toshiro didn't want to test her as far as her pride went. Instead, his features softened and he gave her a concession.

"What I told you in the bath is still true."

"What was that, exactly?"

"That I do not want to lose this. I do not want to lose what we have between us and I'm not just talking about the baby. I do not want to lose you, Tia Harribel."

He reached over and traced her open mouth, the pads of his fingers gliding over her newly-exposed chin, her throat and down to her navel. Then they moved a little lower, making circular movements over the lower belly. When she shivered, he leaned in, until his lips brushed hers and he could detect the faint, floral scent of the tea she'd drunk earlier on her breath.

With that, his fingertips ghosted below the white fabric around her hips, seeking out the heat he knew was there. She made a small noise in the back of her throat when he found it and Toshiro swallowed it, running the tip of his tongue briefly over her upper lip before her mouth opened much wider, granting him access. The tea-flavored kiss deepened and something similar happened as his fingers teased her folds apart, dipping between her nether lips and easing past the tight muscles of her opening. It didn't take long for one finger to give way to two as she slickened. Soon his tongue and his fingers were working in tandem, rubbing along the roof of her mouth and seeking out that one rough spot on her inner walls that usually made her gasp when stroked.

When her thighs began to shiver, he broke off the kiss and his lips journeyed south, lingering on both of her breasts. Her nipples, protected by their bone coverings for so long, were almost too sensitive, too responsive. The lightest of touches made her back arch. A nip made her hips buck against his hand and he had to press the heel of his palm against her pelvic bone to keep her from writhing. Eventually, he let his tongue wander lower, until his head hovered above her navel. In impulse, he dropped a kiss just below it and looked up to see her eyes tightly shut, one fist gripping a pillow and the other gasping a handful of her hair.

"I might be yours, but you're also mine, Tia. You need me and I need you and he or she" and here he dropped another lingering kiss on her belly, "needs the both of us."

He removed his fingers from her and pulled the material from around her waist, shifting just enough to get her legs untangled from her hakama. Toshiro didn't particularly care what happened to the last piece of her uniform, but he still had enough presence of mind to keep from tearing it from her like a brute. He'd already had a few brushes with his baser instincts this evening and he wouldn't allow another chance for them to run loose.

Still, the temptation to overwhelm her was there. If he knew it, no doubt she did as well. When the Claim between them remained unused and when her eyes slowly opened to regard him, he couldn't help swallowing nervously at what he was about to initiate.

(POV)

His reluctance made little sense to her, especially when she'd put up no resistance.

Perhaps he was still troubled about what had happened in the kitchen. It had only served to underscore to her just how powerful a motivating force pride was to the males of any species, be they Arrancar, human or Shinigami. She could feel the lingering remorse for his initial reaction and the trace of relief that they'd managed to come to an understanding about the delay in telling him about their cub.

All of those emotions were smothered by a great deal of lust, enough to make her head spin as he started to break down any objections she might have had with regard to make-up sex. Before the Winter War, she would have gutted any male foolish enough to think he had a chance of possessing her, let alone ordering her to undress. Barragan's dogged pursuit of her and her girls had steeled her resolve to remain her own mistress. Gazing up at him from beneath her lashes, she couldn't picture the young man whose hands were creeping up her legs abusing the authority a change in his status, from 'pet' to 'mate' would grant him.

Instead, he seemed to want to demonstrate in as detailed a way as possible, the benefits of doing so.

The corner of her recently uncovered mouth quirked up.

"Then show me why I should let you take me in this manner, why I should remain beneath you."

She didn't mean to say it as teasingly as she did. Harribel didn't usually play the coquette, but once it was out of her mouth, she received a jolt of surprise from him, followed by a wave of determination as well as no small amount of desire. The next thing she felt was his heated breath on her sex and his tongue stroking along her labia.

After that, it was all she could do to keep her nails from gouging through his scalp or causing deep rents in his shoulders as his lips and tongue drove her to near madness. His hands kept her bent legs parted and her core exposed, his fingers tracing circular patterns on the sensitive flesh of her thighs. She wanted to push up, to force as much of his mouth on her and in her as she could. Toshiro's tongue alternated between circling and flicking the rapidly swelling, sensitive bud at the apex of her slit and plunging into her channel. Just when the sensations building within her could bubble over, he switched tactics and sensitive spots, backing her down from the brink only to drag her close once more. It was both glorious and maddening, to be kept on the edge for so long without relief.

In the meantime, she could tell that he was using every ounce of self-control he had not to rush this. Her awareness of just how constricting his undergarments had become grew with each passing second, but his position made it impossible for her to do anything about it. The lapping, wet sounds his mouth made as he sucked, nibbled and otherwise primed her filled her ears. Her breaths came in shallow gasps while the tip of his tongue tormented her clit, sending electric shocks up the backs of her legs and straight to her spine. A second sensation joined it and she felt at least two of his fingers slip into her core again, twisting, stroking, rubbing…

His lips enclosed the little jewel of flesh and the resulting suction as well as the advance and retreat of his fingers undid her completely. For a moment she thought she hovered, looking down at a dark-skinned woman, her toes splayed, a head of pale hair bobbing at the joining of her shamelessly spread, shaking thighs. The woman's sharp fingernails sank into the meat of her lover's left shoulder and his right bicep the moment she came. She could hear a piercing shriek that ended in a drawn-out, needy moan and knew that she had made it as wave after wave of pleasure surged through her. The fingers inside her continued their work despite the tightening of the muscles around them and while he eased off the suction, the tip of his tongue delicately stroked her over-sensitized clit.

"AHHH! Toshiro!" she screamed again as the pad of his middle finger rubbed the rough spot on the wall of her channel, creating another round of wicked convulsions that began in the flesh surrounding his digits and expanded to wrack her entire body.

He gave her the small bud at the top of her folds one last, long brush with his tongue and withdrew his fingers, leaving her breathless and her limbs drained of energy. Her nails were wet and she felt him reach up and take the one hand gripping his bicep with slippery fingertips. Through half-lidded eyes, she saw thin rivulets of blood trickle from each of the four small wounds her claws had put in his pale epidermis, before he brought the ends of her fingers up to his mouth. Oxygen finally reached her brain as he drew both sets of fingers, his and hers, past his lips, and lavished them with his tongue.

"You taste like the sea, Tia," he said in a husky, hunger-filled voice and the intensity of it turned her muscles to water. Then he was moving forward, pinning her in place in much the same way he'd done in the kitchen, save that what hit her now was an overwhelming desire to finish what he'd started. He released her hand, reaching down to remove the long winding strips of his fundoshi. Pushing her torso from the pillows, Harribel watched as he pulled the last bits of clothing from his body without taking his eyes off her.

She'd never felt as naked as she was now, nor as exposed. She'd taken him plenty of times, to renew her Claim or, in the last five years, to bring them both a kind of equitable pleasure on the nights she didn't spend with her girls. As if reading her thoughts, he began to crawl over her prone body, his knees moving her thighs even farther apart. He wiped his mouth and chin with the back of one hand and cupped her face with the other, all the while daring her to move a muscle with his eyes. The iron-rich aroma of his blood, a heady smell that mixed with the scent of their mutual arousal, filled the air and Harribel found her mouth watered as he drew nearer.

It was a ridiculously primitive thing for her to do, a throwback to her time as an Adjuchas. When he leaned down to press his lips against the side of her neck, she took hold of his arm and lapped at the drying trail of red leading back up to the spot where her nails had broken through his skin. Toshiro hissed as her tongue eventually made it up to the thin, crescent-shaped marks. As distracted as she was with the metallic taste, it wasn't until she felt the head of his cock slipping up and down at her entrance that she pulled back to see him staring down at her.

They remained like that, eyes locked and the question he'd asked of her came back to haunt her. This night had been fifteen years in the planning and she had to admit, they suited one another in so many other ways. It was only one more thing that would bind her little dragon to her, to their cub, such a small concession in the grand scheme of things. He might tighten his coils around her as she sank her teeth into him to get a better grip, but nothing short of death that would separate them after this.

All it took was a faint nod from her for him to ease his hips forward, sliding the head of his shaft past her flushed inner folds. Inch by inch, his thick length pushed into her slick silky heat.

'Not such a 'little' dragon anymore,' Harribel dazedly admitted when he'd finally seated himself in her, marvelling at how much she could feel he enjoyed that slow dive into her via the Claim.

"Tell me… don't want to hurt you or the cub… if I do something wrong…" he panted and she chose the best and only way she knew to get him to stop worrying. Wrapping her arms around his shoulders and trying to avoid the spots where she'd inadvertently wounded him, she caught up his mouth in a fervent kiss while clamping down deliberately on his cock with her inner muscles.

She drank in the cry he made and for a moment, she wondered if that one little thing had been enough to force him over the edge. Harribel repeated her below-the-waist bit of coercion and he got the hint, thrusting slowly into her and letting her insides caress him. Toshiro's paler hands found her breasts and if she'd been unnerved by the sensitivity of her nipples to the cold air outside, that was nothing compared to the incredible sensation of his fingers lightly tracing and pinching them in conjunction with the friction from his thrusts.

"This change in your mask… Kami, please tell me it's permanent," he whimpered against the corner of her mouth. It took her passion-fogged brain a moment to figure out what he'd said and when the words registered, she pulled back just enough to meet his eyes once more. They were pleasure-glazed and on a whim, she bore down on his cock a third time, making him shudder and curse under his breath.

"Fuck, Tia, do that again and I…"

He all but sobbed the warning and Harribel brushed some of the white hair that had fallen across his face out of his eyes. The need in their aquamarine depths told her he was having a difficult time restraining himself, that he simply wanted to let go and take her as hard and as fast as he thought was safe. She knew she probably wasn't doing much better, as small, needy sounds kept making their way past her kiss-swollen lips every time the base of his cock and the coarse white curls ground into her. Add that to the pleasure that she got from his hands on her breasts and she was well on her way to flying apart at the seams, starting with the warm wet flesh stretched around him.

"I hope it will remain this way. I've… often wondered what this," she murmured out her reply and briefly traced the fingers that busied themselves with her nipples while contracting her inner muscles, a little more gently this time, "would feel like."

"You feel so damned good… gods, I can't…"

His hips were moving them both steadily towards a conclusion that might very well shake her to pieces if she let it. The idea of him stopping for any reason appalled her and her hands smoothed their way down his back, this time settling on his ass. She shifted her legs until her feet found the mattress and she started lifting her hips up to meet his. The results were spectacular. Harribel watched as his hazy eyes widened and he sped up, hitting her core and her clit with each downward plunge.

"Please… please, Toshiro… please don't stop… need you… deeper…" she chanted and he obliged.

There was no need to refresh his Claim now, having done recently, but it thrilled her to know that the next time she did so, it would be just like this, while she wrapped her very being and reiatsu around him. In turn, she would make sure they had enough time for him to allow him to thoroughly take her, as many times as he needed and as many times as she wanted, from this position. Her hands splayed across his backside as she imagined Claiming him this way, urging him to go faster and deeper as her third climax thundered towards her.

"TIA!" He wailed her name as if beseeching some deity for mercy. Scorching heat bloomed inside her as he went rigid in her arms. His last few strokes were erratic, powerful, and the final one broke the wall keeping her from unraveling around him. Toshiro's mouth nipped at her lips and his tongue slipped and slid against her own, drinking in each sound that she made. His shaking hands had left her breasts to grip her hips as he flooded her channel with cum, his cock pulsing in time with her orgasm-fueled clenching, the tremors prolonging things for both of them.

"Perfect…" Harribel thought she heard him say shakily against her lips through the bliss fogging her brain. She so wanted this to last, so wanted his body to remain where it was, pressing her down into the bed. Eventually though, his softening length slipped from her followed by a rush of wetness, staining the sheets beneath them. Toshiro brushed sweaty blond hair from her forehead, falling to her side and pulling her close so that she was half-draped across him. She filled her panting lungs with air that tasted of the shattering round of sex they'd just shared and while it was tempting to open a window, Harribel preferred to stay warm. He apparently had the same idea.

"I wasn't aware I'd given you permission to use me as blanket," she said quietly. His arms tightened around her and she was certain one of his hands moved down to her lower back.

"Then you shouldn't have skin this soft."

"Are all Shinigami males this impudent with their mates?" she growled and he cracked open one eye to look up at her.

"I'm not sure. I thought it was a compliment, Tia. But thanks for the affirmation…"

Harribel snorted, but decided to let it go and curled up next to him. It was hard to keep her eyes open when the Claim between them held such ridiculous levels of exhaustion. The day hadn't been an easy one for either of them, but the ending was more than satisfactory and Toshiro was half-asleep already.

If only she could forget that this moment of contentment was fleeting, that there was a storm coming and that she would have to decide what her next move would be as far as Szayel's revolution went.

"Do you want a son or a daughter?" he inquired suddenly, casting a stone into the flock of dark thoughts that had surrounded her. They scattered and Harribel spared a moment for the question before she reached down and dragged the covering sheet and blankets up and around them.

"I will settle for 'healthy'. Anything more than that would be asking too much of providence," she answered reluctantly, not wanting to jinx things. He stretched out beneath her, the sound of a few of his vertebrae popping greeting her ears before his fingers found her chin. Toshiro tilted her head up for a quick kiss that turned out to be a little more involved than either truly intended. When the young man currently serving as a body pillow broke it off, she sighed and tucked her head into the crook of his neck.

"I seem destined to be surrounded by complicated women. I'm willing to bet it's a girl."

He said this with a small laugh at the end of it and she frowned.

"Complicated?"

He nodded, shifting until he got comfortable with the arrangement of their limbs.

"Hmm. You'll be Claiming Soi Fon. Kami only knows what Barragan's done to her. I don't foresee this being an easy fix. There's also the cub she's carrying to consider. That might bring you into conflict with the Fifth, if what the First told you about Lindocruz and his wife adopting Vega's cub is true."

"The Second is foulness personified…" she snarled, and then caught herself before she could add that, if she had her way, his days as a breathing entity were numbered.

"Agreed. It will be interesting to watch his reaction when he sees her standing with your household."

Harribel couldn't help the smile that spread across her face when she envisioned what he described. The Aspect of Death by Old Age might just have a coronary, which would suit her just fine. The demented Espada had unknowingly handed her a beautifully crafted weapon with a built-in grudge to use against him and if anyone thought that she wouldn't take advantage of that, he or she was the worst sort of fool.

"What is she like, this Soi Fon?"

Toshiro yawned hugely and his answer came out at the end of it.

"Before the War? You didn't want to anger her. She was the Taichou of the 2nd Division and the commander of the Onmitsukidō and she took both roles very seriously. Also a bit of a stickler for the rules, seeing as how she ran the internal investigation forces. Not an enemy I'd want to face."

Harribel laughed softly at the image his words conjured. The black-robed imbecile had all but sharpened the blade she would employ to slit his throat. Unfortunately, she also knew she was getting ahead of herself.

"I can't Claim her until she's borne her cub and I'll have to be careful that doing so will not harm ours," she said after mulling over his assessment of the woman's power. She'd seen the hateful glares Soi Fon had directed towards her so-called 'Master' and it wouldn't take much beyond the promise of revenge to secure the loyalty of the newest member of her household. Barragan was unlikely to find many willing allies among the lower-ranked Arrancar. Most of the Numeros knew by now that indenturing oneself to the Second was a one-way trip down a dark hole. In addition, Barragan had already used up both of his Claim slots and she doubted that his two 'followers' would lift a finger to help him unless he used their Claims to force them to do so.

"What if Vega's Claim fades before that? Can Starrk protect her until she gives birth?"

That was something she hadn't actually considered. Starrk's pack was only a temporary haven and it would cease to be that once Ggio's Claim had worn off.

"I'm not sure if he can. Aizen's laws are absolute. Szayel might be able to find a solution though," she replied, mentally adding 'and if he can find one for me, finding one for her should be simple. Butterfly my ass… Szayel's base animal ought to be a weasel.'

"Let's hope so. I think it would be wise…" he began when another yawn interrupted what he was going to say. He picked up where he'd left off, sounding as if he was fighting to stay awake long enough to finish the discussion "if we keep your intention to Claim Soi Fon a secret for now, unless there's no way around it. Barragan might have kicked her out, but…"

She nodded grimly, understanding where he was going with this. If the Second found out that Harribel intended to add the woman to her ranks, he might decide to end Soi Fon's life before Harribel could Claim her. While Aizen had forbidden them from fighting over Claiming rights, there were plenty of ways for Barragan to engineer his former 'pet's' death, especially if she was forced onto the battlefield.

"Agreed. I'll be dropping by the Ukitake Estate tomorrow and I'll speak with Starrk then about keeping it under wraps."

"Good idea…" he muttered and favoured her with a sleepy smile, "and you should probably have a talk with your girls about discretion too. All of them," he added wryly. Her confusion must have been readily apparent, because he let out a long, heavy sigh and sank a little deeper into the futon.

"Hana came out 'n…asked me, point blank… if I loved you… Poor girl turned red… 's a radish..."

She watched him drift off while alternately murmuring and yawning the words into her shoulder. Toshiro's breathing evened out and deepened as he surrendered to post-coital weariness. Shaking her head with rueful amusement, Tia Harribel pressed a kiss to the corner of her mate's mouth and laid her head against his chest, listening as his heartbeat calmed and any tension not dispelled when he'd soundly fucked her into the bedding drained away.

The blond wished sleep would come as easily to her. There were too many things on her mind, too many problems and precious little time to sort all of it out before circumstances threw her pack into the thick of things. Carefully untangling herself from him for a moment, she made sure the lamp was out and burrowed in next to him. Reaching up, she allowed her fingers to stroke back a long section of pale hair from his face.

'Forgive me for keeping this last batch of secrets from you,' she thought tiredly as she contemplated how peaceful he looked, 'at least until I know if this plot of Szayel's will work. Until then, you're better off if I leave you in the dark.'

His hair was at that shaggy, unruly stage right now, but a few more months' growth would allow him to tie it back, a style that she suspected might flatter him. His face had lost some of its soft boyishness over the years, his cheekbones and jawline becoming more distinct as he'd not only grown into his power, but the good looks his younger visage promised. Letting it go, her fingertips traveled from his collarbone, past pectoral and stomach muscles honed by fighting in concert with her to land on the spot just above his hipbone.

He hadn't been lying when he said he would rip apart anything that tried to hurt her, or those she considered 'hers'. Ah well, the difficult issues she faced would be waiting for her the morning. There was little sense in losing sleep over things that weren't going to solve themselves in the span of a few hours. The countdown to Aizen's, and by association, Barragan's destruction would start at sun-up and getting some rest sounded like a fine idea. As she nodded off, the ghost of a smile played about her lips as she reflected on the last thing out of his mouth that evening.

'I wonder how he answered Hana's question. I'm sure hers weren't the only red cheeks in the room.'


Next week is going to be a very busy one for me, and I may not have the time to update, so if you don't see a chapter next week don't panic. That said….

Next Chapter: Frozen Flight, where we see what Ajuga and Diaemus are up to.

This Week's Question: If it is one, very tiring cliché you have seen in fan fiction, what is it and why?

For me, I am beyond sick of seeing a weak, submissive Ichigo in pretty much everything, regardless of who he is paired with. I mean, I understand why the Grimm/Ichi pairing is so popular amongst young woman, but dear god to you have to make Ichigo, who is a strong willed and powerful character, turn into whimpering, needy bitch so OOC you might as well have just written in Orihime instead. At least THEN the personality would match the character you are using.