In the overwhelming silence that surrounded him, Byakuya Kuchiki could feel the pulse of his heart beating, the rhythm irregular as he experienced a seldom-felt discomfort beneath the gaze of another.
"You cannot be serious."
"Do you truly think me to be joking?"
"You? No, no I suppose not. We can always hope, though."
"My my, that kid really changed something in you, Byakuya."
"I would agree, I must confess that I am proud of you, Byakuya Kuchiki."
Slowly leaning back in his chair, Byakuya looked across his desk at the three captains who had been such influential mentors to him.
Retsu Unohana, Jushiro Ukitake, and Shunsui Kyoraku had been the first people he had contacted once arriving in Soul Society. Time was against him, and he had no doubts as to the fact that he needed support.
"While your pride is appreciated, you know what it is that I seek. Ichigo Kurosaki is still the same brat that he always was, and because of that fact, I have aligned the Kuchiki clan behind him."
"Well, that is still one hell of a claim to hear, ne?" Shunsui whistled, slipping further into his own chair as he gently tapped the table.
"Especially from you," Ukitake chimed in, his fingers thoughtfully tapping his chin.
Resting her elbows onto the table, Restu steepled her fingertips. Her gaze never failed to pierce beyond his pretenses, beyond his masks. Her face impassive, an arched eyebrow was the only warning of any emotion.
"Tell me why."
Byakuya looked back, his face conveying his confusion. Had she heard nothing? Were they not taking him seriously?
"I have already said, he is the same—"
"No," she interrupted with an annoyed wave of her hand.
"I know what you have said, and I know that—at least on some level—you actually believe it. However, I do not for an instant believe that you are telling us the whole story. Byakuya Kuchiki, I have known you your entire life and it has become quite obvious to me when you have truly felt something. So I'll ask you once more…Why?"
Byakuya frowned as he registered what it was she was asking. She wanted the reasoning behind it all. Ichigo's actions, his decisions, and much more than that—his own responses to the boy's predicament were simply indicators and responses to a simple, uncomplicated truth.
Frozen under the weight of her stare, he inwardly cursed her perceptive nature.
She saw. Damn it all, she saw. She could see the pain in him, the struggle he had coped with for so long and how this random, hard-headed boy changed so much within him.
Still, wasn't that the goal? For all of them to see?
To hell with it.
"Because he is the same. He is the same fiery, arrogant bastard that fought me on Sokyoku Hill. The same loudmouthed brat who fought all of Soul Society to save my sister. It was in his eyes. He was prepared to fight me to the death to protect those arrancar, to keep Kyoka Suigetsu and the Hogyoku. He would fight for all of them, but the Espada…the way he fought for them, changed himself…for her…"
"What about it?" Unohana urged, her haori rustling softly as she moved. Her expression still empty, it was her body that gave away her true interest.
Byakuya looked away, his jaw tight. This was the question he had been hoping to avoid. It was a question, a topic that he couldn't stand facing—himself.
It all boiled down to the fact that he had seen something in Ichigo, something that he had not thought about in years, decades even.
"He reminded me of myself, who I used to be…a long time ago," Byakuya whispered, unable to meet the eyes that he knew would hold no judgment. The eyes that would understand.
It was too much.
The room fell silent, the group seemingly lost within the opulence of the Kuchiki study. Tension remained high, and all eyes locked upon the one man who was known for his steadfastness. The one man who was always unmovable, ever stoic.
The one who, for the moment, could not meet their gazes.
Looking up, his eyes tight with emotion, Byakuya met the eyes of the men and woman who had mentored him so many times throughout his life.
"I will support you, Byakuya. I think I can safely say that we all will. There are quite a few of us ready to rally behind your cause, to be frank. However, as you must know by now, the question is how. The Soutaichou has never been one to sway easily, not to mention the monster that is Central 46. Newly instated, they will be looking for something to make their mark with."
Recalling his fight, and subsequent conversation with the Kurosaki boy, the Kuchiki clan leader felt a begrudging smirk tug at the corner of his lip.
"As it happens, young Ichigo did give me a message to pass along to the Soutaichou…"
A loud, satisfied sigh caught Tier's attention.
Feeling the ground on which she sat shift on one side, she turned to watch as Ichigo slumped backwards onto the coarse, warm sands within the grounds of her palace in Las Noches.
"You appear to be in good spirits."
Giving a relaxed smirk, Ichigo replied.
"I guess I am. It's nice, not having people hunting you down or trying to kill your friends. Las Noches is alright when blood's not involved."
A small chuckle escaped her as she though back to how the week had started, particularly of their encounter with the shinigami.
It had been several days since the arrival of the shinigami captains and Ichigo's friends, even a few since the Shinigami captains, excluding their lieutenants, had departed.
Several days of…nothing. No fighting, no worrying, nothing more than a few days worth of entertaining a group of guests who seemed to be quite adept at entertaining themselves.
It had been a novel experience, having so little to do.
"You raise a fair point."
"It's just a relief, having the only one now pushing me to the limits of my sanity be my jackass of a father."
Raising an amused brow, Tier met his eye and said, "Like you, your father has a charm all his own. Though, I agree that it can be somewhat overwhelming at times. Yet, it was not he who pushed you beyond those limits."
Ichigo sighed, rubbing his face, "She's still pretty sore about that."
Smirking to herself, Tier thought back to Ichigo and Kyoka's last…encounter.
Yes, I imagine that she would be.
A large plume of sand flew into the air as a loud crash echoed across the desert. Metal clangs were piercing time and again as a pair of figures weaved furiously around each other.
From a distance, Tier watched in mild fascination as Ichigo and his manifested zanpakuto spirit battled. It was far more intense than she had expected to see, but she supposed that she shouldn't be too surprised.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Ichigo suddenly spun, his foot reaching out to catch Kyoka Suigetsu in the stomach, sending her flying through the air. Her rough, end-over-end landing made Tier wince slightly.
"Don't feel bad for that cocky bitch. She deserves it!"
Ah, and Tiburon clearly had her own take on what was happening. Seeing that Ichigo had his hands on his hips as he caught his breath, and that Kyoka was slow in rising, she couldn't deny a small twinge of pity for the rose haired woman.
It had been somewhat unexpected, Ichigo's confrontation with his zanpakuto spirit. Though clearly still agitated about the embarrassment of being spanked in front of everyone important to him—and a few others—Ichigo had seemed more upset than she would have imagined.
They had been walking from the throne room's balcony to a side door, an area of at least some modicum of privacy. With their confessions fresh in mind, the last thing she wanted at the moment was to be subjected to the questions and whims of others.
Yet, the moment their feet had hit the warm, sunlit sand, Ichigo had turned and quietly spoke, his tone agitated.
"Kyoka and I need to have a word."
With that, he had left, walking far enough into the distance that Tier could not clearly see him, only a vague outline of his profile. However within moments, she felt a sharp pulse of reiatsu, followed by loud shouting.
"Get out here, now!"
"Are you kidding me, Kyoka? Are you fucking kidding me?! Spanking me? Really? Not only that, but spanking me in front of Byakuya and Yoruichi? In front of my father?! What in the hell's gotten into you?"
"What did you expect? You called me a coward in front of our opponent!"
"So you humiliate me in front of all of the important people in my life?! Really? Is that how you want this relationship to work? You want everyone to think of me as your slave, yours and Hogyoku's puppet rather than your partner? Bullshit! What makes you think that that was—"
"What?! No! Of course I don't want that. You know that's not what we meant!"
"She is right, Ichigo. There was no malice in our actions, merely a bit of mischief. We meant nothing cruel by it."
"Are you serious? Am I actually having to talk about perception to you?!"
"Don't be ridiculous! Yes, I got carried away, and I may have lost myself…a little. I just meant to do it once or twice, but it felt good…then I wanted to make sure that they all knew that you were mine! But…but…maybe you shouldn't have said what you did! You made me look weak in front of an opponent!"
"You and Hogyoku made me look like I wasn't in control! Did you ever think about that? They came here looking for a reason to tear us apart, to doubt our bond, and you gave it to them on a silver platter! You gave them room to doubt us! I made you look weak? You made us look weak."
A sharp gasp was the only sound that could be heard until the twin sounds of metal sliding echoed across the sands.
For minutes on end, the pair fought. Sword strikes, kicks, jabs, punches, everything was thrown. Curses, sharp exhales, and pained grunts erupted often.
Ichigo's words had clearly gotten to his inner spirit. Guttural growls and shouts came as she attacked in a fury, and even from the distance that she stood, Tier could hear the unbridled shame and fear that racked the spirit.
Then, the stunning kick that had inspired sympathy within Tier sent Kyoka tumbling awkwardly through the sand. Struggling to get up, when she finally did her words were a breathy wheeze.
"So I took it too far, what are you going to do about it?! Are you going to just beat me down, cut me off, and lock me away in your soul until I'm nothing more than a bad memory? Are you going to throw me away, too?!"
Coming to a halt, the two opponents had faced off, tension mounting as they held their swords aloft. They were clearly drained, their bodies heaving, sweat glistening in the bright sun.
Pointing his blade at her, Ichigo snapped, "Don't even try to pull that shit, Kyoka Suigetsu! You promised, no more cutting each other off, no more running away. You crossed a line, and now we're going to deal with it, got it?"
Clearly and quickly deflating, Kyoka asked, "I'm sorry, Ichigo, I truly am. I did what I could afterward to make it right, but it clearly wasn't enough. What is it that you propose I do to settle th—"
Having moved closer, Tier watched in barely contained amusement as Kyoka Suigetsu stopped mid-sentence, her face expressing the shock she clearly felt.
The loud, sharp clap of flesh striking flesh was quickly overcome by the sound of shattering glass as the Ichigo before Kyoka crumbled into countless shards, each fading as it struck the ground.
The distraught, rose-haired spirit whipped around, finding herself far closer to her wielder's pink-tinged face than she had expected to be. Reaching behind her, she gently rubbed her obviously sore posterior as she stuttered in confusion, "Y-You…spanked me?"
Tier would later applaud his bravado, once she was sure that she would not burst into laughter at the look that crossed his face. The stern, unyielding gaze that he cast at his zanpakuto spirit was undermined by the flush staining his cheeks.
"Well, you needed it."
"I…What does this…Does this mean that you forgive me?"
Eyes rolled. "Of course I forgive you, Kyoka. Yeah, I'm pissed at what you did, and embarrassed as hell by who you did it in front of, but can you see what really pushed me too far? I'm not losing you. Or Hogyoku. I know what you meant by it, you're pretty transparent in your possessiveness, as is Hogyoku. But not everyone knows you like I do, so neither of you are ever allowed to do anything that would give someone reason to doubt us, or to question our bond again, got it? As for your…worries… You're mine, Kyoka Suigetsu. Deal with it."
Stepping closer to him, she gently traced her fingertips over his cheek. With a cleansing sigh and smirk, she spoke once more.
"Oh, my Ichigo, I think I can agree to that. I'm sorry for panicking yet again. It's still so fresh to me, these intensity of these feelings and emotions. Sometimes the hollow instinct that I absorbed pushes me forward before I fully consider what I am doing. I'm working on controlling it, and I will make it up to you for what I did today, I promise."
Rolling her shoulders, she took a deep breath and exhaled in a huff. "So, you spanked me back, huh? —and?"
"What do you mean, 'And?'"
A look of haughty irritation crossed her face.
"Ichigo Kurosaki, no matter your intentions, you just grabbed two handfuls of my quite exquisite rear. When I did the same to you, I was clear with my impressions of yours. What is your verdict?"
"You've got to be kidding me."
Looking incredulously at the expectant face, a flash of realization burst through his mind as a slow, devious grin creeped across his lips. Shaking his head at the errant-albeit hilarious-thought, Ichigo knew there was at least one way to punish his zanpakuto spirit, to make sure she got his point.
Not to mention a way to antagonize her in the present.
"Well, this looks promi—wait, what?!"
The spirit was left in shock as, without a word, he turned and walked away.
—Later That Night
"You must be out of your mind, Ichigo Kurosaki, if you think that I will agree to this."
"I don't seem to recall the rules you made including having to ask your input on how you make things up to me, dear Kyoka."
"But…But, weren't you just shouting your lungs out at me for the same thing?! This is just giving them the perception that we aren't bonded as we should be!" she rebutted, a note of desperation within her voice.
"Not at all. If you play your part right, they'll see that we are really partners. Besides, weren't you the one who was looking for a way to make it up to me for what you did?"
"That's…Ichigo, that's not fair!" she whined, stamping her foot cutely.
All she received in return was a smug grin.
As everyone had gathered in the long conference room within the main palace, Ichigo had taken it upon himself to position himself at the head of the room, near an open doorway.
"Come on out, Kyoka."
With nothing else said, Kyoka walked into the room. Amidst the curious looks, Ichigo turned to her, clearing his throat pointedly.
"Asshole," she muttered petulantly, closing her eyes and shifting the air around her. When the atmosphere settled, chuckles began to spread through the group.
Standing in the middle of the room, Kyoka had shifted her appearance to that of an extravagant circus clown, complete with a large red nose, facial paint, a polka-dotted suit and comically large shoes.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Ichigo whispered, doing his best to contain his mirth.
Glaring at her wielder as her face heated, she could feel his emotions. It was clear that he had no desire for her to lose her playful nature, but it seemed that he had picked up some of her habits, including a nearly insatiable desire for getting the last word.
"I'll play along for now, since you've earned it, but don't dare to think you've had the last word…" she whispered to herself.
Turning to the group, Kyoka rolled her eyes and begrudgingly recited, "I apologize for making Ichigo look out of control earlier today. Both Hogyoku and I chose him as our wielder—our bearer—fully aware of who he is. We had no intention of making him look weak, or us out of harmony. Ours is a new relationship, but a strong one. There is much for us to learn of one another. Yet, above all else, we are partners, and we trust in him."
"Happy?" she groused quietly when finished, crossing her arms as her embarrassment grew with the rising laughter. Looking out, her eyes narrowed at the obvious humor in the face of Yoruichi.
"Thank you, Kyoka," Ichigo called out loud enough for all to hear.
Stepping closer, he whispered, "I think that makes us even, right?"
Kyoka's eyes widened, her brow shooting towards her hairline as he turned back to his friends, family, and comrades. Did he know nothing about her? Did he remember nothing of what had happened already this day?
Time for a reminder, then…
"Master Ichigo is quite good to us," she cooed, attention coming back to her, now changed from her clown costume into the uniform of a grade school girl.
A grade school girl who was dressed far beyond any definition of 'inappropriate'.
"Oh come on," she heard Ichigo mutter, though his father and the majority of his male friends were vocalizing more positive opinions. Flashing him a beaming, innocent smile, she continued.
"Even when he spanked me back for being such a bad girl, I knew it was because he cared."
Hearing renewed laughter, as well as seeing her wielder's hand clap to his face, she strode up to him, her fingers caressing his cheek as she began to fade.
"I always keep my word, Ichigo, you know that. I will admit that you are getting better at this banter of ours, but you have quite a way to go before you can keep up with me."
As she faded away, those looking noticed a small, reluctant smile on his face.
"I still maintain that it was quite the inspired punishment, not giving her an answer," Tier said, bringing them back to the present.
A dry chuckle met her words. Gently tapping his temple, Ichigo replied, "Inspired? Maybe. Even though she got me back, I've been paying for that one for a while."
"I cannot say that I am surprised. She certainly seems to be a colorful personality," she said, not unkindly.
Ichigo nodded in agreement, before rolling his eyes and snorting in laughter.
"Did something amuse you?"
Nodding, he was still chuckling softly when he said, "She just wants to know what color."
A small smile crossed her lips, unseen to Ichigo beneath her collar and mask. Moments like this were becoming more frequent within her life with each passing day. Moments of simple humor, of easy smiles and warm connection.
These moments were enjoyable, so different beyond what she was used to. Rather than efforts of survival, she found instances of what she could only call contentedness, of what she could only label as…life.
Enjoyable. Warm. Intoxicating.
The sheer simplicity of it was nearly laughable. Spending time with Ichigo had been effortless, the awkward tensions of their beginnings distant memories. Resting back onto her hands, she looked to the expectant Ichigo with a raised brow.
"I would have to say something vibrant, possibly the color of her hair."
It seemed that she had said the right thing, as she was rewarded with a small smile.
"She liked it. Well, her exact words were, 'You could learn a thing or two about how to properly respond to a woman from her, Ichigo'."
Tier grinned. Kyoka was indeed a colorful character. Enjoying the thrill that she still received from such a small act, Tier reached out, gently grasping Ichigo's hand. Feeling a slight squeeze in return, she hummed lightly.
"I, for one, would say that your responses are getting better."
Her smile warmed, however, upon seeing a light flush in his cheeks.
His responses may be better, but it will likely take time for his innocence to fade.
Looking back to the fake sun, she sighed, content.
Though it wasn't a necessity for her, taking time was something she could do.
Feeling his hand shift in hers, her smile lifted as Ichigo's fingers slid between her own, keeping her hand.
"I think I could get used to this," he sighed, a contented smile crossing his lips.
Her own smile softened, her eyes falling to their joined hands where his thumb was gently rubbing hers.
"I cannot help but agree."
"What did you just say?!" Genryusai Yamamoto barked, his eyes opened as he gazed at the captain who had the gall to speak to him in such a manner.
Though a veteran of many battles, of vicious fights and countless encounters, it took all his willpower for Byakuya Kuchiki to hold his regal poise and repeat himself.
He did ask for me to repeat Kurosaki's words in their precise entirety…
"I merely conveyed the message that was meant for you, exactly in the manner in which it was spoken. The boy claimed that anyone sent after the arrancar, the Hogyoku, or Kyoka Suigetsu would be treated as an enemy, not as someone to prove a point against. Ichigo Kurosaki was also very clear and direct in his desire for you to—ahem—shove all of your threats up your ass, as he would tear any world apart before he let someone hurt the ones he cared about."
Byakuya Kuchiki was conflicted, even as the words left his lips, and his immediate environment merely exacerbated that conflict.
On one hand, he had just indirectly told his superior officer—his commander, no less— to shove his threats up his ass. The disrespect was bitter on his tongue, opposed to everything he'd ever been taught. Whether or not the words were his own, the head of one of the foremost clans in Soul Society, a dedicated captain, had just crossed and uncrossable line.
On the other hand, had he not simply spoken the words he himself had been unable to say? Though crass, uncouth beyond measure, the boy could not have made his point any clearer.
His ingrained manners screamed at him to apologize, to offer sincere regret and reestablish noble decorum. This was no way for a man of his standing to speak, no manner in which he could behave!
The rebellious teenager within him, however, wanted nothing more than to laugh at the audacity of his actions, of what he was turning into.
The austere atmosphere of a meeting of the the Captains that served the Court Guard Squads had been battered by his words, the solemnity of the occasion threatened by the barely stifled laughter of Shunsui Kyoraku.
He had well and truly made a mess of things.
Still, how he was at war within himself!
The blatant disregard for authority was shameful, childish, inappropriate…exhilarating…
"Soutaichou," he continued, trying to avoid thinking on what he had just said. "Ichigo Kurosaki is still the same uncouth young man who invaded the Seireitei to save a friend. He is the same person who traveled to Hueco Mundo to save yet another friend. His possession of both the Hogyoku and Kyoka Suigetsu—while suggestive of fraud or betrayal—is not sinister in nature."
Leveling an piercing glare onto the captain of squad six, Yamamoto growled, "You had better explain yourself, boy."
Slowly walking through one of the many winding hallways within Las Noches, Ichigo peeked into another room.
It was fascinating, getting a glimpse into what was effectively the Hollow capital. Ornate palaces, elegant ballrooms, and incredible architecture made him feel as if he were in one of the palaces of a living world monarch.
Hueco Mundo was far more interesting a place than he had been allowed to believe. Fighting in underground forests and battling for his friends' lives had prevented much in the way of sightseeing in his first venture here.
"Kinda nosey, huh?" a voice griped behind him.
Jumping slightly, Ichigo quickly closed the door and turned to where the voice came from.
Standing with crossed arms, the horned arrancar rolled her eyes. "Who'd you expect, jackass?"
"Well, stalker, I wasn't really expecting anyone."
"Shut the hell up, idiot," she scoffed, no real heat to her words.
"So…what's up? I can't say I remember ever seeing you without the others. It's kind of weird."
Rolling her eyes once more, Apacci grumbled, "What in the hell does she see in your rude ass?"
"Shut up. I came to find you. Mistress Harribel is entertaining the shinigami and your friends, but you just disappeared. You should be there keeping them occupied, rather than her."
Sighing, Ichigo shrugged. "I just went to look around, what's your problem?"
Giving him a searching look, Apacci remained silent. Waving him after her, she turned and walked away.
Letting a few moments of awkward silence pass, Ichigo asked, "Is everything ok, Apacci?"
She continued walking, a twitch of her head the only acknowledgement that she had heard his words.
Ichigo's concern began to grow. Apacci and he had grown close over the few weeks they had known each other, each providing the somewhat hard-nosed sibling that the other needed. It had even progressed to the point where Apacci felt comfortable enough to kick Ichigo in the rear…hard.
To see her this tense made him worry, but there seemed to be no imminent danger.
As the reached the end of their current hallway, she turned right, opening a door.
Confused at both her attitude and what she was doing, Ichigo followed her through the door. His confusion grew as he realized that the room they had entered was a lavish bedroom, the large bed in the middle being occupied by both Mila Rose and Sung-Sun.
Seeing Mila Rose smile slyly and crook her finger at him, Ichigo took a hesitant step back
"Uh…what are you…" he began, only to be cut off by giggling.
"Oh, that is too good," Sung-Sun laughed, hiding her face behind her sleeve.
"Now now, Ichigo, don't be shy, I don't bite…hard," Mila Rose added with a wink.
All three fraccion laughed aloud at the flush on his face and the not-so-subtle shift towards the door.
Crossing her arms, yet remaining on her feet, Apacci said, "She's just teasing you, Ichigo. I brought you here because we need to talk to you."
Frowning at being 'gotten' yet again by the fraccion with whom he was becoming more and more comfortable with by the day, Ichigo noticed that their stares had all become hard, their eyes searching.
Before he could speak, Sung-Sun began, "Ichigo, I think by now you know that we have grown fond of you. You came into our life quite abruptly, but you have proven yourself to be a good man, the man our mistress believed you to be. Given what's happened, and given what you've said, I can speak for all of us when I say that we are glad to have you with us."
Nods came from the others in the room before Mila Rose took over.
"Ichigo, even a guy as dense as you has to notice that Lady Harribel has changed. Regardless of your not knowing her before, within only a few weeks she has begun to speak more, to be content, even smile. I can't begin to tell you how happy it's made us to see her this way. She's…she's so different than we have ever seen her."
Ichigo nodded. He could remember the changes within Tier, even over so short a time. It had taken some time, but he could easily see where the women were coming from.
So why were they telling him? Was this an awkward thank you? Surely not, he hadn't done anything!
"I am glad that you guys are happy, really, but there's no need to thank—"
"We're not thanking you," Apacci snapped. Uncrossing her arms, she placed her hands on her hips with a huff.
"We want to know just what it is that you're planning. We like you Ichigo, hell, even I'll admit that. Mistress Harribel does too. A lot. We need to know what you have in mind, because I'll be damned if she gets hurt. She's done too much, given up too much, for us to allow her to be used or toyed with."
Looking around the room, it all began to click for Ichigo. They weren't thanking him, they were testing him. This was an interview, an interrogation.
It made sense.
How often had he been worried? How many times had doubt and worry kept him from saying anything, from even talking to Tier?
Seeing their collective concern, he sighed. What was he to say?
"I don't know what it is that you want me to say," he began, rubbing the back of his head.
"Look, I can appreciate the change in her, and believe me, I really like her too. We seem to connect on a lot of levels. I don't know what you're expecting, but I'm not going to make some declaration of love or confess my undying feelings right now. I am sincere though, in wanting to know her more, to discover just what it is that I feel for her. I can tell you that I'd never intentionally do anything to hurt her."
The ensuing silence was tense, the three arrancar apparently doing all they could to peer into his very soul.
Breaking the silence with a loud sigh, Apacci shrugged.
"Fine?" Ichigo repeated, looking curiously to the others.
"Fine," the others agreed rather lackadaisically.
"We knew that you'd say something like that. You're pretty easy to read, so we just wanted to hear you actually say the words," Mila Rose said, picking idly at the hem of her clothes.
Sung-sun and Mila Rose both stood, joining Apacci. "Come on, then. I am sure they are wondering where we all went off to."
Ichigo stood, somewhat stunned at the rather anticlimactic ending to what had seemed a tense conversation.
Before he had regained his bearings, a soft pair of lips briefly captured his own. Snapping to attention, he noticed Sung-Sun smiling kindly up at him.
"Take good care of her, Ichigo. Mistress Harribel deserves the best, and I think you can be that for her."
Once she had walked by him and out the door, he was surprised as Mila Rose quickly caught his lips in another brief, chaste kiss.
"Be good to her, Ichi. You two are really cute together, not to mention you'd probably be the hottest couple in any realm," she giggled, walking by and shocking him with a quick grab of his rear.
"What?! You can't expect me to see all of that spanking and grabbing and not want to try it, myself!" she said, smiling and laughing as she ducked out the door.
Turning back, Ichigo noticed Apacci standing in front of him, looking shy. Stepping closer to him, she mumbled, "Well…I guess…"
Smiling gently as he expected another kiss, Ichigo bent over and coughed loudly as Apacci suddenly smirked and—rather abruptly—tapped him firmly in the groin with her fist.
"Get over yourself, dipshit. Not every woman alive wants to make out with you, you know?" she said with a satisfied grin. Laughing at the growling profanities coming from his mouth, she patted his back, danced around his half-hearted swipes and out the door.
"Come on, lover boy! We've got to go save Lady Harribel from your idiot of a father!" she called from the hallway.
Grumbling about crazy women and psychotic deer, Ichigo gave a throaty chuckle of disbelief at the sheer lunacy that had become his life.
Lunacy, but it isn't too bad.
Walking awkwardly to relieve his sore groin, Ichigo began to plot how best to get back at his pain in the ass pseudo arrancar sister.
"…and if you use the command protocols, you will have immediate observation coverage of Las Noches, and I'd wager quite a large perimeter outside the fortress, as well."
Leaning over a large panel, Tier hummed in acknowledgement as she stared interestedly at the multitude of lights and buttons littering the surface. Kisuke Urahara had been kindly taking the time to explain to her the complicated workings that Szayelaparro had installed within Las Noches' control room.
"I appreciate your efforts in instructing me. I confess myself to have been unaware of the…liberties…Aizen took with our privacy," she told the blonde man.
"Yes, he was never any good at letting anyone know of his plans or dealings. Something of a personality flaw, I'd say."
Merely raising an uninterested brow at the humorous attempt, Tier watched the man's grin fall slightly and his hand move to rub the back of his neck. While not her intention to insult his joke, she could not shed her own discomfort.
The shinigami who had arrived to protect Ichigo, she would be glad to admit her gratitude for their arrival, their support—their acceptance. They were clearly a group who had Ichigo's best interests in mind.
Their presence was a bit overwhelming. While exponentially better company than the Espada, playing host to Ichigo's closest friends and relative was exhausting her patience. It was through no fault of their own, yet she was feeling taxed, her social graces tested to the extreme.
In actuality, she was looking forward to when the group returned to the world of the living. She looked forward to having space, to having quiet, to spending time together with Ichigo.
Tier had spent but a few moments alone with him since they had reached Las Noches. Whether dealing with Kyoka's manifested form, her own fraccion, or the rest of the group, someone was always trying to claim his attention.
She didn't want to be selfish, but she desired more time of her own with him, to learn more of him and explore the feelings they had so recently confessed. Perhaps she could show him around, take him places where they would be alone and she could learn about his past, his beginnings. She could also tell him of her own story, about her hollow beginnings—
My own beginnings…
Now there was a thought. A way to not only have time alone with Ichigo, but a way to share something with him, something close to her…heart?
Such a strange notion. Yet, there had to be something for her to have the ability to feel, right?
"Ahem, well, anyway…", Kisuke Urahara's voice broke through her musings.
"I've always told you that you weren't funny," a voice called out, the voice and footsteps echoing off of a myriad of polished surfaces.
"You wound me so, Kurosaki-san. And here I was, trying to be helpful."
Turning towards the voice, Tier felt a surge of relief as Ichigo—led by her fraccion—was walking toward her.
It's about time.
He had taken off a few hours earlier, when Kisuke had begun to explain the complicated workings of the monitoring system within Las Noches, leaving her alone with the eccentric scientist.
She held no ill feelings about it. Given all that had happened, she could easily deduce his desire for a few moments alone.
"Regardless of your mean spirited insults, Ichigo, I had a few things to tell you and the lovely Miss Harribel," Urahara called, welcoming Ichigo into the conversation.
"Hey," Ichigo greeted quietly, coming to a stop immediately next to her. Seeing a small smile on his lips, her previous frustration all but evaporated.
Her gaze softening, Tier replied, "Hello, Ichigo. I take it your exploration was enjoyable?"
"Yeah, this place is a lot bigger than I thought. I'm sure that I could look around for days and I'd never get close to seeing it all. It's pretty impressive that you can make your way around here as easily as you can."
"I suppose I do have a good memory."
"Ah, well I will be sure to take that into consideration before I screw up again."
Turning to face the amused shinigami, both Ichigo and Tier looked slightly guilty at forgetting the man standing with them.
"Oh yeah, you had some stuff to tell us. Like what?"
"Yes. First, I wanted to inform you that myself, Isshin, Yoruichi, effectively everyone who came with me aside from Chad, will be returning to the world of the living today."
"Today? Short notice, really, but okay."
Kisuke nodded, noting the obvious relief in the blonde arrancar's eyes.
"Another thing I wanted to do before I left is to provide you with these," he added, reaching into his haori to pull out two small, black devices. Handing one to each of them, he watched as they looked on in wonder.
After a few moments of silent inspection of the intriguing metal and glass device, Tier looked to the blonde man who looked to be having a hard time containing his excitement.
"I assume that the appropriate question would be, 'What are these?'"
"Why, I am so glad you asked!" he cried, clapping his hands together. Snatching Ichigo's from his hand, Kisuke flipped the device open.
"In the world of the living, we call these mobile phones. I took the idea and, of course, improved upon the design immensely. These are communication devices that will not only work between each other, but will work with my own in the world of the living. I dare say that one would work just fine in Soul Society, hence I have made one for Ms. Kuchiki."
Flipping the device open, Tier was impressed by the appearance. The bottom half was covered by a sleek array of buttons, each with a number and set of letters. The top half was a dark glass screen, which lit when she pressed a button to show—
"Kisuke, get your damn face off of the phone! We're not going to have your creepy grin looking up at either one of us every time we turn these things on," Ichigo snapped as he looked on with Tier at her device.
Looking at the device that Ichigo had just snatched from Kisuke's hand, she saw the same picture of the scientist with a silly grin with one thumb raised on his screen.
What a strange man.
Said man was now pouting, his arms crossed in indignation at Ichigo's chastisement.
"Kurosaki-san, you always try to ruin my fun. Fine! I will take that picture off of your phones, since you are being poor sports. Would you rather have one of the lovely Miss Harribel? Might as well, since it's clear to me that she is the only one that can break through that scowl of yours, these—OW!"
A shiny black phone bouncing off his nose, Kisuke's head rocked back slightly.
"Shut up and fix the damn phone. Aside from your goofy face, these are really great to have. It will be good to be able to reach you, should something go wrong, and it never hurts to have some info from Soul Society."
"Such brutes, you Kurosaki men are! Here," Kisuke sighed, handing the adjusted device back to Ichigo.
"Yeah yeah, just can it. And Kisuke…thanks."
Tier watched as the blonde man met Ichigo's gaze. With a kind smile, he said, "Ichigo Kurosaki, if there is one thing that holds true in our relationship, it is that you will never need to thank me."
Stunned at the declaration, Tier's shoulders dropped as Kisuke continued.
"Now, if you want to praise my genius, my ability to bend all things within nature to my will—well, then please feel free!"
"You can definitely ruin a moment, huh?"
"Ichigo," Tier interrupted, doing her best to curtail this increasingly pointless conversation.
"Would you like to spend more time with your friends and family, before they return to their respective realms?"
Eyes widening as Tier's words registered, Ichigo quickly nodded, agreeing, "Good idea! Let's go."
Tier simply shook her head in amused exasperation as she followed Ichigo back to the main throne room.
Rukia watched in poorly veiled amusement as Ichigo followed Tier into the throne room where they were all gathered.
Just like a little strawberry puppy.
She was no fool, Ichigo was head-over-heels for this woman.
Well, as head-over-heels as a fool like Ichigo could be. There's no way he even knows how much he cares for this woman.
It was rather adorable, and fully deserved. If anyone should have happiness, it would be Ichigo, no matter how strange a package it came in.
Chuckling to herself, Rukia could only smile as Ichigo rejoined the gathered group. Yes, it would be hard to leave him behind once more, yet she knew that he was in good hands. The frequent glances and shifts coming from the blonde arrancar made it more than clear that Ichigo was where he should be, and most importantly, that he was cared for.
Still, I owe him for doubting me…
Such thoughts spurred her foot into action.
"Ow! What the hell, Rukia?!"
"That's for thinking I was here to kill you, you jackass! I should hit you worse for it, so be grateful I went easy on you!"
"Yes, I am so grateful that Soul Society's resident midget only gave me one kick to the shins."
This, this is what she was going to miss. The easy connection, the fiery attitude, and the moronic grumbling about sore limbs… They were all staples of the new life she had led since meeting Ichigo Kurosaki. A man who held no expectations of her, but was willing to lay down his life to keep her safe, and would fight her juggernaut of a brother just for her to have a chance at happiness.
She would miss him, indeed.
Trying to contain her amusement, Rukia could only continue the banter for the short time she had left.
"Ow! Damn it, midget!"
Well, that, and she could kick him again.
"I can only hope that one of the ladies here is up to the task to keeping your moronic self in line! I remember it being a near full-time job."
"We've done well to avoid his attempts at forming a harem, thus far. I think we will be able to keep him in line," Sung-sun called from across the room with a light laugh.
"Ah, my son," Isshin cried wistfully as he placed an arm around Ichigo's shoulders. "I never thought you'd move into your girlfriend's house this soon, but alas, the Kurosaki genes cannot be denied!"
Rukia watched in slight astonishment as Ichigo simply rolled his eyes at his father's ongoing antics. Usually, conversations like this would end up in a fist-fight, or someone would go through a—
"—I don't have much time to teach you about being intimate with a girl, but what you want to do is start with the nip—CRASH."
There it is.
"Oh? Where were you planning on starting, Ichigo?" the girl named Mila Rose cooed, her tone instantly triggering multiple blushes around the room. Rukia knew by the way Ichigo's head now hung, as well as his inarticulate grumbles, this was going to be interesting.
"It sounds like you may need some practice before turning your full attentions to Lady Harribel. Sorry to say, but I have to admit, I am really liking the new muscles you brought in," she purred, holding the uncomfortable-looking Chad's arm to her chest.
"But," she continued with a wink and mischievous grin. "I am sure that Bambi here could break you in. Be gentle, though, she's awfully fragile. You virgins tend to be a little aggressive, I hear."
The eruption of laughter and angry shouting were all the answer Rukia needed. With the ensuing 'chaos'—if it could be called such, it seemed that Ichigo was going to be fine. Different, but fine.
It was strange, she pondered, how random the paths destiny offered could seem. She had been subject to them herself. Being born in Rukongai, her sister marrying the most unlikely of men, and Rukia herself getting the chance to meet the angrily shouting man before her.
Strange it may have been, but worth it all. She could not deny her excitement for the future, for the possibilities that were now present. Rukia knew that she would return here. She would visit, likely being established as the liaison between Soul Society and Hueco Mundo, and would be able to see the progress Ichigo made.
She was also sure that he would return, at least for a brief time, to the living world. There was no way that Ichigo Kurosaki would leave his sisters and friends unattended for that long. She had her work cut out for her, running interference between Head Captain Yamamoto and Ichigo, but if she could do it, the future would be so very interesting.
Smiling fondly as Ichigo began saying his farewells, she knew it in her heart to be true.
Yes, the future is going to be interesting, indeed.
It had been only a short hour or so after the shinigami had left that Tier had turned to Ichigo. Her eyes had shone with determination, yet her body had betrayed her diffidence.
Ichigo, would you accompany me? There is something I wish you to see, and things that I wish to tell you.
Unable to refuse her, he had only nodded, giving a comforting smirk as he had taken his leave from the fraccion and the stoically quiet Chad, who had done little more than raise a thumb in his direction.
Currently, Ichigo looked on in wonder as he and Tier quickly approached a towering, jagged range of small mountains that carved their way into the night sky. The view was incredible, an awe inspiring edifice appropriate to the hollow world.
Their trip had been quiet, the soft statics of sonidos the only sounds to break the perpetual night. He had noticed a tension within her, her shoulders squared and her glances—that actually met his eyes—brief.
Strange… Did I do something?
He didn't think so. There had been nothing that had happened that stood out in his mind, nothing to raise any discomfort.
Still, he could not deny the slight excitement he felt at 'exploring' Hueco Mundo. Sightseeing had not been a part of his agenda on his last trip, but now that he was actually getting to take the time, the hollow world was proving to be somewhat fascinating.
Approaching the foot of the nearest peak, Tier's pace slowed. Ichigo followed suit, coming to a brief walk beside her, torn between looking to her and gazing at the incredible stone structures before them.
The mountain was actually quite large, it turned out, the serrated peaks disappearing high into the night sky. There seemed no true order to the peaks' arrangement, just countless points piercing the darkness above, yet Tier seemed to know exactly where she was going.
Following closely, Ichigo was suddenly stunned as they arrived at the bottom of a long, winding staircase.
A staircase. In the middle of Hueco Mundo's desert?
Weird, almost as weird as Tier's sudden shift in mood. The days running up to today had been incredible, nothing in his life really comparing—not that it really could. Yet today, she had seemed much more distant, almost guarded.
It had brought a level of tension to their travel that was only barely able to be overlooked.
"Everything ok?" he asked, looking to her though she refused to directly meet his gaze.
With a sharp nod and sharp inhale, she responded. "Everything is well, Ichigo. Please, follow me."
"Ichigo, hush," Kyoka prodded gently within his mind. "You should follow her, and she will talk to you soon enough. Just don't force anything."
He knew that his zanpakuto spirit had picked up on the change as well, yet she seemed comfortable giving no further clue as to the cause. Confused, Ichigo decided to simply wait and see what it was that had Tier so…different.
Turning his attention back to his location, he noticed that he had fallen several steps behind. His mind began to race, contemplating what was going on, yet he picked up his own pace.
Okay, okay, let's see what this is all about.
Tier sighed as she reached the top of the stairs. The trip had been far quicker than she had foreseen, yet somehow every moment felt eternal. She still had no idea why she had even embarked on this venture, when there was no possible outcome in her favor.
"For caring so much about him, you really do sell Ichigo short, you know?" Tiburon groused within her mind.
Rubbing her temple, Tier avoided the verbal snares that her weapon's spirit had been laying for her since the moment she had concocted this plan.
He deserves to know, to know everything, yet what else could he possibly say when he sees no tangible future with me? Nothing that those living would call 'life'.
"Tier," the spirit groaned in exasperation, "When are you going to finally realize that Ichigo's not any definition of normal? When are you going to pay attention to what he does, instead of 'those living'?"
I do noti—
"Who is it that you are trying to fool? You brought him here, go through with it and just let Ichigo be Ichigo. If what we've seen of him holds true, his reaction will be damn quick."
Tier remained silent, choosing to focus on her ascent. Yet all too soon, she found herself on a familiar step, peering into a darkened entry.
Well, it had been home. For years she had hidden in this cavern, finding solace in the serenity of being hidden from the world.
It had been here that she had first brought together her fraccion, her girls. A small smile crossed her lips, the memory serving to sooth just a touch of her anxiety.
They were her pride, her anchor to sanity in the madness that was a hollow's existence. That wasn't to say that they never drove her to the very ends of that sanity, but their bickering and banter was so innocent, so innocuous, so… so…
That was the word. Simple. Uncomplicated. Nothing more than a handful of boisterous girls who provided the safety and irritation that made for a balanced life.
That simplicity was something that Tier valued immeasurably. It gave her reason, it gave her hope that there was something more than shinigami, other arrancar, and war to look forward to until she died.
And then along comes Ichigo Kurosaki.
A veritable meteor of light and excitement that literally crashed into her world, the young man had been an anomaly from everything she had known. Everything except…
Perhaps what had frightened her the most was how easily and naturally Ichigo had fit into her simplicity. He had his own issues, and more baggage than she imagined most would have, but every instinct overrode those worries, instead saying only that he belonged.
That was why they were here.
She had to know, had to determine whether or not Ichigo could fit into her existence in ways she had never imagined. Sure, she had told herself that she would take things slowly, and that she would figure it out with him, but that was so hard.
How could she wait when he made her feel? How could she delay when there lay such promise within his company, within her desires?
Jerking her head to clear her thoughts, she spied Ichigo just making it to the step on which she stood.
A small smile crossed her lips.
His face was so expressive. She knew that, given time, she would never have to ask how he felt. Deciphering his scowls, his raised brows, and his frequent 'secret' glances her way was becoming easier with each day they shared.
Right now, he was confused and likely wondering if he had done something to upset her. That, and in some state of awe at the seemingly random staircase in the mountainous wilderness of Hueco Mundo.
"This place is pretty interesting," he grunted as he finally reached her step.
"I am glad you think so. Come, there is something I would like to show you."
Leading him into the darkened opening, Tier quietly continued.
"What do you know of a hollow's life, particularly lived within Hueco Mundo?"
The sound of Ichigo scratching his head echoed softly against the stone walls, matched only by their shuffling steps as they now progressed down a descending stairwell.
"Um, I can't really say I know much about it. Nel told me a few things, and I guess I've picked up a few when I came here to save Orihime, but that's about it. Pretty much, it's a hostile place where you have to fight or hide to survive, I guess."
Humming in acknowledgement, Tier continued, "I can understand how you reached that assessment, given your exposure to our world. Hueco Mundo is a simple realm. It is a struggle, a daily fight in which the strongest survive. As you have seen, strength is something hollows can attain great heights in. As arrancar, we have the potential to surpass even the strongest of shinigami."
"Yeah, I get that," Ichigo muttered, his tone reminiscent.
"I imagine that you would. However, strength is something that is often miscalculated, or misjudged in our world."
"Really? I mean, you guys even have a numbered system to keep track of who's the strongest. Granted, Ulquiorra had a nasty little surprise, but I thought that was still figured within the rankings."
Looking over in the dimly lit stairway, Tier studied Ichigo's expression. As their path became brighter, she realized that they were nearing the end of the walkway, approaching the open cave that had served as her home. Shaking her head fondly, she recalled the many stories he had shared of his life both before and after becoming a shinigami.
"Ichigo, you have always lived the life of a protector, as I have I. Yet, one lesson that I learned in our harsh world is that strength does not always come from within. Sometimes, the greatest strength can be achieved with another. That is what my girls and I learned."
Whatever comment Ichigo was about to respond with was lost as they stepped out from beneath the stone covering of the stairs. His face lit with excitement when he looked around. Standing at the foot of the long stairwell, she watched as he walked further into her former home.
"What is this place? It's pretty amazing."
"This cave is where I dwelled before I became an arrancar, when I was an Vasto Lorde. It is where I brought my fraccion—once I had met them—to keep them safe."
"Wait, you lived here? I thought you had a palace or something at Las Noches."
Raising a brow, Tier continued. "You are correct. However, I did not begin dwelling within Las Noches until Aizen had used the Hogyoku to transform me into my current state."
"I guess that makes sense," Ichigo replied, shaking his head in wonder. "It's such a weird thought, imagining life before everything that happened. It feels like a lifetime ago."
Turning with a curious look, Ichigo asked, "Speaking of your transformation, what did your Vasto Lorde form look like?"
However, after seeing her eyes narrow, he added, "Uh, I mean, if that's not rude or anything."
Tier's gaze sharpened, searching his face for something, any clue as to his intentions behind the query.
"It's a fair question, Tier," Tiburon whispered kindly in her mind.
Moving her gaze across the room, she quietly replied, "My form was based very closely to that of what humans would call a shark."
"Huh," Ichigo began, clearly interested. "So it was kinda like what your released form is now?"
"More or less. In my previous form, the only things that resembled a human were my eyes. The rest of my body was covered in hollow bone or skin, and my right hand was my blade."
"Sounds pretty cool, to me."
"I thank you, but I am somewhat more partial to my new form," she responded with a quick glance at Ichigo. Seeing him still looking around at the cave, she frowned.
Was Ichigo completely oblivious to the tension that felt to be rolling off of her? Was he so lost in exploring a cave that he missed the fact that she was opening herself up and trying to show him a part of her that she had never even considered sharing before?
Watching as he sheepishly agreed with her preference to her new form, she fought the urge to roll her eyes.
Of course he was.
Her fondness of Ichigo Kurosaki was high, and increasing, but so too was her awareness of his density to nuance and subtlety.
As if to prove her point, he began walking back to where she stood, asking, "This is all pretty interesting. So, why did you want to show it to me?"
"This cavern is a special place, to me," Tier said, walking slowly forward to meet him. "It reminds me of many of the reasons I am the way I am. Living here taught me the value of strength, and the importance of sacrifice. It is a part of who I am, and I wanted to share that with you."
Seeming struck by her words, Ichigo looked around the room with a new sense of appreciation.
"It's amazing. Even more so given the fact that you brought the girls here to keep them safe. 'Thank you' seems pretty weak when you've shared something like this with me."
She smiled slightly. "It will suffice, Ichigo. However, there is more that I wished to show you."
"Indeed. You have made a choice to stay within the hollow world, to spend your days with myself and my fraccion. We have also told each other things that are far more intimate. We have agreed upon a mutual connection, as well as a growing attraction. It is because of these things that I wanted to show you more of myself, who I truly am."
"What do you mean? It this why you've been so tense all day?"
Raising a brow at her apparent transparency, Tier murmured, "I suppose that it is."
Before a tense silence could settle, she faced him fully. Reaching to the zipper at the bottom of her jacket, she tugged gently, sliding upwards.
"Um…uh, Tier? What are you doing?" Ichigo asked, apprehension coloring his voice.
Pulling her zipper all the way through, her jacket fell to her sides. Taking a deep breath, she focused on Ichigo's flushing face.
"Ichigo, please do not turn away."
It was important, vital that he look at her. She was baring far more than her body to him, she was unveiling her insecurities, the concerns that affected her more deeply now that she had found something to lose. She needed him to see past the irony of the fact that she wanted him to see her heart.
Time was irrelevant, as far as she was concerned. Waiting, evolving their awkward dance was not something that would prove fruitful for individuals such as them. Not to mention, she now had her first true moment alone with Ichigo, and she wanted to make it count.
Noticing him meet her eyes, she raised a hand to the tattoo upon her breast.
"I am an arrancar, the pinnacle of my race. You know what that means, do you not? I am the result, the amalgamation of thousands of hollows, though my personality won out over the others. Like all hollows, I am missing a piece of myself."
Gesturing to the mask on her face, she continued, "My mask, my powers are nothing more than a representation of the heart that once beat in my chest. Tiburon gives evidence to the untamable chaos within me, while my mask represents the voracious predator lurking beneath the surface."
She was surprised to see a smirk playing on Ichigo's lips. Stepping even closer to her, he chuckled, "Yeah, I can see that. Seeing you fight, I'll be the first to acknowledge the predator within. It's pretty impressive."
A warm smile crossed beneath her mask. While it comforted her to hear his words, she breathed deeply and continued.
"Thank you, Ichigo. However, this isn't what I wanted to show you. This is."
Her hand slid to the hem of her hakama. With a gentle tug, she pulled the cloth down, exposing more and more of her tanned skin.
"Tier!" Ichigo gulped, flushing anew and turning his head.
Sighing to herself, Tier grit her teeth. She knew this would happen, she knew that Ichigo would become embarrassed at the exposure, but it was taking a toll on her confidence in the moment. She needed him to focus, to pay attention to what she was actually showing him.
Seeing him finally turn, Tier sighed, sliding the cloth down further still.
Ichigo couldn't help it, he had to look. Tier's voice, something in it called to him. She sounded so…so…vulnerable. Whatever it was, it was something that he couldn't avoid.
Yes, he had gotten over the fact that she had just taken her top off, given what she was actually trying to show him. Yes, he understood that she was wanting to show him something, something important.
But this wasn't like when Yoruichi took her clothes off, no, this was far different.
It wasn't that he didn't want to see Tier taking her clothes off, he could admit to himself that it was something incredible to witness. He just didn't fully understand why she was removing them at this particular moment.
As dense as he was, he was still a male, and his mind and body still reacted to the dark, toned, soft skin that had been so warm beneath his fingertips…
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Focus!
Ichigo cared for Tier, far more than as a friend. Sure, he had no idea how to go about it, no clue as to what was proper, but he still knew that they had moved well beyond 'liking' each other.
Listen to me, I sound like some damn middle school soap opera.
"You sound like a young man falling for a woman for the first time. Give yourself a break, Ichigo, but pay attention to what she's trying to say. Don't forget, this is just as hard—if not harder—for her to do than it is for you to witness."
Uh, okay, I guess I can…oh…
Ichigo's eyes widened as Tier began revealing the most intimate part of herself, only for him to see a large, empty hollow hole where her womb would have been.
So that's what she wanted me to see.
Tier must have easily read his face, as she whispered, "You know of my aspect. It seems that what so many would consider a future was my own sacrifice. I believe my mask's fearsome design was meant as a shield for others. With no true future of my own to create, I would stand as a protector for others'."
"Tier—" Ichigo began, his voice low.
"I do not seek your pity, nor your sympathy, Ichigo. I simply wanted to inform you of my true nature. My affection for you is real, but it would be unfair to pursue anything without informing you of what I am, of what sharing your affection with me would require you to sacrifice."
Looking sternly at Tier, Ichigo stepped forward until he was mere inches from her face. Slowly and gently, he raised his hands to her bare arms. Ignoring the flush creeping up his cheeks at her all but bare body, he met her eye.
"Tier, I can't say that I know what the future holds, but the fact that your hollow hole is…down there…doesn't mean that I don't want to be with you, that I wouldn't want to pursue whatever it is we're pursuing. This doesn't change a thing."
Ichigo leaned forward, saying nothing else but pressing his lips tenderly against Tier's exposed mask. He wanted nothing more than for her to be confident, to understand that her revelation had no bearing on their relationship. Sure, there would be future ramifications, but nothing insurmountable.
It's way too early to think about kids, anyway. I mean, I am only— "Ow!"
Leaning back with a hiss, Ichigo quickly reached up to his pained lip. For some reason, his lip started hurting badly during the kiss, a sharp pain lancing through his skin. Pulling his hand back, his eyes widened as he noticed a red stain upon his fingertips.
"What did I—" he began, only to be cut off by a saddened sigh from the arrancar before him who's eyes had fallen.
"You cut your lip on my mask."
Before he could stop himself, Ichigo snorted, joined by musical laughter within his mind.
My smoothness knows no bounds, huh?
"Ichigo?" Tier asked, looking curiously up at him.
Scratching the back of his head, he sighed as well. "Sorry, I'm just a bit ridiculous. Here you are, barely dressed and pouring your heart out, and the best I can do is tell you that it doesn't change anything and cut my lip while trying to kiss you. I am just… pretty lame, that's all."
A soft, exasperated chuckle met his words. Looking at Tier shaking her head, he smiled as she rested her head on his shoulder. Almost reflexively, Ichigo's arms wrapped around her.
"Thank me? I didn't do anything."
"And for that, I thank you."
"You could have reacted far differently, Ichigo. You could have done anything, but you tried to kiss me and comfort me, instead. I feel glad of my decision to confide in you."
"Do you ever think about just how crazy our lives are? We go from fighting a war to figuring out what we mean to each other, to trying to make sure the other doesn't get scared off. I think we've skipped a few steps, but I can't really say that I have a problem with it."
"True," Tier agreed with an amused hum. "I, for one, am impressed at how you're swallowing your prudish tendencies and embracing me in this manner."
His muscles tightening, Ichigo felt his face warm when he remembered just how close he was to Tier, especially with her lack of clothing.
"Calm down, Ichigo. I mean, I am quite glad to know that you are getting so comfortable with a naked woman, but don't ruin this now. Just keep it together," Kyoka urged.
Feeling Tier shift, Ichigo looked down to see her back away a few paces.
"One moment, please," she replied evenly. With no warning, her reiatsu began to rise, elevating quickly. A sudden burst of pressure rocked the cavern, and a torrent of water cascaded across the floor, taking Ichigo by surprise and his sure footing with it.
The wave was enormous, filling the large cavern to a level even above Ichigo's head. Yet, as quickly as it had appeared, the overwhelming reiatsu settled, creating a far more subtle cocoon over the cave.
Ichigo quickly resurfaced, having been swept away in the wave, and began looking around in surprise at the impromptu flood.
"Tier? Tier?!" he called, unable to see her. Kicking his feet, he swam to the edge of the room, pushing himself up onto a wider ledge on the wall and searching for any sign of the blonde arrancar.
The water to the right of him stirred, and with a soft slosh Tier surfaced, her hair matted to her head and the water trickling down her bronze skin, glistening in the moonlight that snuck its way into the cave. Ichigo turned quickly, stunned to see the now released arrancar looking somewhat sheepish.
"Are you okay?"
She nodded in affirmation, the skin on her cheeks darkening slightly as she swam closer to him. "I wanted to remove my mask, yet I failed to consider the effect of my release."
A deep snort echoed off of the walls, and Tier looked to see Ichigo laughing as he offered a hand to help her out of the water.
"See what I mean? Our lives are crazy!"
Looking abashed, she avoided his gaze.
"I am sorry, I did not mean to flood the cave."
"Are you kidding me? There's nothing to apologize for! Just because our lives are crazy, it doesn't mean that I'd want it any other wa-mmph!"
Ichigo was quickly cut off as Tier covered his lips with her own. Moving insistently, the blonde arrancar was doing all she could to devour him, her fingers running through his hair, clasping his head to her own.
The kiss was passionate, far more so than what she had done before. Tier's lips moved in rhythm with his, though not as smoothly as it had been when Kyoka had kissed him. The passion behind it, however, the intensity of her kisses was staggering.
Warmth surged throughout his body, urging him onward. Excitedly, he moved his own lips against hers, a subconscious memory of one of Kyoka's first kisses prodding him, coaxing his tongue gently against her lips.
With a gasp, Tier paused, her eyes hungrily meeting Ichigo's. It was clear that she had not been expecting what he had done, yet her eyes flicked between his own eyes and his lips quickly.
Slowly, she met his lips again, letting her tongue gently brush his own. The soft, warm sensation drew a satisfied hum, and soon their kisses intensified.
Ichigo was feeling lost, swept away in the pleasure of kissing Tier this way. Her soft touch, her subtle scent, each served to wipe any thoughts from his mind. Tightening his grip around her, he tilted his head, leaning forward and kissing her deeper still—
With a lurch and a sudden sharp, cold sensation, Ichigo's eyes snapped wide. Searching for his bearings, he soon locked eyes with Tier…
However, her smile that bloomed quickly drew one from him.
"You're right, Ichigo. Your smoothness knows no bounds," Kyoka giggled within his mind.
Resurfacing, both his and Tier's laughter echoed off of the walls, rising above the lapping water. What could he say? What could either of them say? Today had been— something.
Whatever it is, it's damn good.
Drawing closer to her in the water, he wrapped one arm around her, as the other held onto the ledge beside them. Still chuckling, he sighed.
"I don't know if there is any better indication of my 'experience' than that."
Tier's chuckled soon matched his. Meeting his gaze, she gently traced the lines of his jaw with her fingertips.
"And yet it is still greater than my own. Though we are…less than coordinated…I confess myself to be slightly overwhelmed. I have never felt such, such joy, such elation in my existence. Ichigo, thank you for making such a day possible."
Ichigo's words died on his lips as Tier rested her head on his shoulder. The embrace was so different than what he had experienced, but it made him feel just as Tier said. Elated, joyous, happy.
It seemed such a simple thing, the meeting of lips and the embrace of another. He was aware of the physical destinations that a romantic attraction led to, and always saw that as the penultimate experience, what he saw as the culmination of love between two people.
Yet, if what he felt now was only in response to a kiss—an incredible kiss, a kiss that boiled the blood in his veins—but a kiss nonetheless, what exactly would he feel should they ever move beyond such an act?
My damn head would explode.
It had been difficult, at first, swallowing the feelings of nervousness and embarrassment that had plagued him when looking at Tier. Having no experience in anything even remotely romantic, all he wanted was to not be the same as the males he knew.
Sure, he had his own wants, and in no way could he deny the desires that had been borne of Kyoka's teasing touches and glimpses, or of Tier's form and kiss. He just wanted to make a great impression in a romantic manner, to try and be what he knew of a 'good guy'.
She'd appreciate that, right?
Even now, it was difficult. Tier was a woman who defined beauty, and she had just revealed nearly everything to him, sharing with him her innermost secrets, the fears that plagued her. She had trusted him, and then kissed him in such a way that his mind had nearly lost all coherence.
Damn, what a kiss.
Soon, the lapping of water and the short pants of breath from them both was all that could be heard. Gently, he lifted Tier's head from his shoulder, placing a sweet, chaste kiss on her lips.
"I think 'overwhelmed' is putting it lightly, at least for me. I feel the same way you do Tier. I don't know what I did to make this day possible, but I'll gladly do it again as many times as you want."
She smiled slightly as she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling his face to hers.
"We still have much to learn of each other, Ichigo, and I am glad that we have the opportunity to do so. I am certain that more days like today would be welcome surprises."
"I don't think I could agree more. And I meant what I said before, Tier. No matter what you've had to sacrifice, it doesn't change anything about whether or not we have a future. I feel connected to you in a way that I haven't experienced before, and there's nothing that would make me give that up."
"But Ichigo, I cannot give—" she began, only to be cut off by a kiss.
"You don't owe me a thing. You've already given me my life, on more than one occasion. Tier, I don't want to worry over what we aren't going to have. I'd much rather focus on what we will have."
Halting any further speech, Tier brought their lips together once more, this time roughly, demanding. While holding his head to hers, her other arm slipped down to his chest, rubbing the skin beneath his cloak.
The contact reawakened the heat in Ichigo's veins and spurred his desire. Pulling her as close as he could, he met her energy, matched her enthusiasm with each kiss.
After what had could have been moments, hours, days—he couldn't tell, they pulled away, their foreheads resting against one another as each fought to catch their breath. His pulse hammering within his chest, Ichigo relished the feel of her body pressed against his, even under the surface of the water.
Meeting each others' gaze, the two floated silently for a long moment. The tension was heavy, their proximity only serving to inspire further want. Time seemed irrelevant, their consciousness' locked away within each other.
Giving her a simple kiss, Ichigo's eyes widened as Tier's teeth held onto his lip for a moment longer. Holding her tighter, there was an understanding, a recognized desire within each other for more.
Finally breaking the gaze, Tier once more rested her head against Ichigo's shoulder. With a content hum, she whispered, "We should return soon."
Catching his breath, Ichigo shook his head and cleared his mind. Tier was right, they had been gone for some time, and they needed to return to Las Noches.
Chad's probably going crazy, being cooped up with the girls. Damn, should've warned him.
But oh how he wanted to stay. Holding Tier this way, sharing such incredible touches and kisses, his body and mind wanted nothing more than to continue.
Seeming to read his mind, Tier softly kissed his temple.
"I would like nothing more than to remain here with you, as well, Ichigo. This is only our first day alone with each other, and I eagerly await the next."
Ichigo smiled at her words. She was right, this was the first of many days together, and that was certainly something to be excited about.
Shifting his position slightly and meeting her eye, he suddenly froze as hers widened, looking from him to the surface of the water between them.
Damn, had it been too much to ask for this to end on a good note? Ichigo was a young man who had just shared many incredible kisses with the woman he was falling for with every day spent together…
…and she just now realized his physiological response to such stimuli. Hearing Kyoka's giggles ringing in his head, Ichigo blushed deeper than he had all day.
Dear Kami, how humiliating.
Of course, he had to trip at the finish line. He couldn't help it! Now she was going to think the worst of him and never want to—
"Ichigo," she whispered, forcing him to look at her. After a long moment, he met her eyes.
"Do not be ashamed, I feel the same desire to be with you. It is not only instinctual, but born of my affection for you. Now is simply not the right time, nor the right place, for us to progress…further."
His cheeks still burning, Ichigo nodded. While comforting to know that she wanted him as well, it was still something of an embarrassing moment. He just couldn't believe he hadn't prevented her from noticing!
Shifting with her as she prepared to move, he was stunned as she quickly leaned up to his ear and whispered, "But… Soon."
Saying nothing further, the blonde arrancar turned, gracefully swimming toward the first stair above the waterline.
Jaw hanging, Ichigo watched her lithe form gliding through the water in amazement.
Did I just hear her right?
Feeling a rush of warmth from his chest, Ichigo heard amused laughter alongside sultry growling within his mind that told him yes. Yes, he had heard correctly.
Genryusai Yamamoto cursed the gods as he drank yet another saucer of sake.
He was never one to indulge in the drink, but the way things had been going lately had damn well called for it.
These kids will be the death of me, of that I am certain.
It had been trying, listening to the Kuchiki brat cover his insubordination under the guise of 'accurate reporting'. Yamamoto knew that the boy enjoyed every second of relaying the words of Ichigo Kurosaki.
They are far more alike then they will ever admit. Cocky, arrogant little shits…who seem to take joy in finding the most difficult of ways to do the right thing.
Regardless, his sixth division captain had told quite a tale. Such words from a Kuchiki were something to be considered.
There was far more to think on than he had been hoping for. Still, what had he been expected to think? The only difference between the man they had all fought and who had stood before them was a simple appearance.
The powers of Kyoka Suigetsu could have most easily created a facade to appear as the young Kurosaki, so his assumptions were not unfounded. Added to that the fact that he was rescued by an Espada, and Yamamoto still had trouble wrapping his mind around the madness of it all.
Could it have truly happened? A zanpakuto moved to another wielder, all because of the whims of the Hogyoku?
It had seemed inconceivable at first, but was it truly? Aizen himself had undergone evolutions the caliber of sheer fantasy, so how far a stretch would it be for such a device as the Hogyoku to move a zanpakuto to another wielder.
Such a notion brought about the hardest questions of all: If he could be convinced of it, which he was not far from being, just what did that mean for the future? What would he actually do?
With his captains all but threatening mutiny over such a debacle, especially now with Byakuya Kuchiki's report, simply killing the child would be a poor choice of action. Due to his presence within Hueco Mundo, surveillance was no true option, either.
So what am I to do?
The child's cooperation with Soul Society was paramount. Even before obtaining the Hogyoku, Ichigo Kurosaki had been an invaluable asset. Yamamoto needed something, something to ensure that Kurosaki would not turn his sword nor his back to Soul Society.
Obviously trust was not something readily available, nor would it be for some time, he imagined.
Hearing the groaning of his doors opening, Yamamoto looked up to see his lieutenant approaching.
"You are to deliver a message for me. Inform Kisuke Urahara that I require his counsel immediately."
"It will be done," the man replied simply, before immediately departing with the soft swish of a shunpo.
Yamamoto would wait. He had been Soutaichou for a millennia, and if he had developed one thing, it was patience. It was only a matter of time before Kisuke Urahara would provide him with information, and then he would make an appropriate plan of action.
Perhaps it was enough to have the boy know that his human family and friends were under surveillance by Soul Society? Perhaps a more direct approach was needed to secure the boy's cooperation, such as having those he had fought alongside urging him to listen to reason?
Or something as bold as fully pardoning the arrancar? If the boy fought so vigorously for her, perhaps he would…
Pushing the digression aside, Yamamoto awaited contact from his lieutenant. Things were positioned quite precariously at the moment, and conjecture would not help them progress. He needed to speak with Urahara, to gain an idea of just where the boy's head was at.
"I sense nothing."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Ichigo sighed. This had been the case for well over an hour.
Upon their return to Las Noches, both Ichigo and Tier had found that the fraccion had gone off in search of some way to occupy themselves, apparently taking Chad with them. Once understood, Tier had turned to Ichigo and broached the subject of her inner world.
"Ichigo, am I supposed to sense something at this point?"
"Yeah, I think you are," he hedged, sighing again as he shifted positions, his rear having become sore from sitting in the same place the whole time.
"Alright, Ichigo, I can take no more. Manifest me into your world, before I tear my hair out," Kyoka growled in exasperation.
Hey! Why are you getting all pissed at me? I tried to teach her!
"I understand that. However, your method of teaching is: Do it. You lack subtlety, nuance. This is communication with her innermost self, Ichigo, so one cannot simply 'do it'. Also, she is an arrancar, and to my knowledge, this has never been done before. Manifest me, and I will help you guide her."
Ichigo frowned. She had a point. They were in uncharted territory, and he really only went with what he remembered doing which, given Zangetsu and Kyoka's method of arrival, he couldn't use as a true example to follow.
"Ichigo?" Tier called, snapping him out of his internal dialogue and back to the present.
Looking at her, he could see the frustration on her face. It had been plain to see that the idea of locating her inner world, as well as deeper communion with Tiburon, was something incredibly important to her.
"I'm here, Tier. Sorry, looks like I've been coming at this the wrong way. Kyoka is going to come help us, if that's alright with you?"
Meeting her eyes, she nodded after a brief pause. With a knowing smile, Ichigo closed his eyes, focusing on the tenor of Kyoka's energy.
"Mmm, I must say that I am beginning to enjoy this world more and more," Kyoka breathed as she was suddenly stretching languidly between them.
Rolling his eyes in humor, Ichigo chuckled. "Glad to know it, Kyoka. Now, what is it that I've been doing wrong?"
Giving a fond smile, she patted the still sitting Ichigo's head. "Oh, don't beat yourself up, my dense wielder. You're just used to doing everything at the speed of light, not taking the time to focus on the subtleties involved."
Kyoka turned, eyeing the sitting arrancar before her. "So, you wish to commune more deeply with that rather aggressive spirit within you? I must say, she was impressive when I heard her before, as well as when I saw her in action."
"Yes, it is my desire to know her more. I confess myself quite excited at the prospect of becoming closer to Tiburon. Our connection has not been weak, but the possibilities that have been mentioned cannot be ignored."
Ichigo watched Kyoka's face, noticing the transition.
Yeah, he knew that she was testing Tier. Communion with one's inner spirit was clearly a touchy subject for her, one that she would not take lightly. He would hate to see the fate of one who disrespected that connection, especially if facing Kyoka's blade.
"I suppose that will do. Now, how do you normally speak? Is it only in times of duress? Perhaps when you need more power?"
"No," Tier replied, shaking her head. "Tiburon is often vocal. We converse many times when the world is silent, when there are no distractions present. Or, when she wishes to aggravate me, such as to prove a point."
Kyoka's chuckles echoed off the stone floors. "Very well. Perhaps this will be easier than I thought. Let us begin by first focusing on Tiburon herself. You are familiar with the feel of her power, yes?"
A sharp nod was her only answer.
"Good. Now focus on that power. Close your eyes, and visualize her energy. Remember the sensation of when she speaks, of when you release your Resurrecion."
Ichigo watched as Tier complied, her breathing slowing and her body relaxing. With a gentle whisper, Kyoka continued.
"When you can feel her energy, when it seems as though a river, immerse yourself in it. Not roughly, just let it wash over you. Embrace her power, seek Tiburon's presence amidst it all."
With rapt fascination, Ichigo continued to watch as his zanpakuto continued to guide the arrancar that he cared for towards her inner world, all the while subconsciously shaking his head at the direction his life had taken.
Tier sat, her lips turned down as she concentrated.
This introspection had been going on for quite some time, and there was nothing to show for it. Ichigo had been patient, and Kyoka had been insightful, yet she could sense nothing from Tiburon other than frustration to match her own.
"When you can feel her energy, when it seems as though a river, immerse yourself in it. Not roughly, just let it wash over you. Embrace her power, seek Tiburon's presence amidst it all."
She had followed the instructions, to the letter, in fact. Yet, there was no river of energy, rather it was a mountain of pressure falling over her, forcing her to struggle to maintain her focus.
Straining to keep her mind on the task at hand, a frustrated growl interrupted her thoughts. The words were hard, direct.
"Why are you fighting me?"
"Tier, I am trying here, but you're so focused on, well, focusing that you're keeping me at a distance."
"I am doing what I can, but your energy is not as a river, rather far greater. I want to commune with you, not lose myself beneath our power."
"Yet again, you're listening to someone else telling you about us. Have you seen my release? We are not controlled, we are not gentle. If you want to listen to that woman, then listen to what she said about visualizing my energy and our release. You say you want to commune with me? Then commune with me."
Tier frowned at the anger lacing Tiburon's voice. Refusing to argue, she closed her eyes once more, focusing on the threads of energy her power was releasing. There was no way that she would give up this chance, especially after Ichigo told her about his own inner world.
She forced the world away, allowing herself to be saturated by the presence of Tiburon. She recalled the fierce roar of their release, the near unnatural calm before, and the chaotic powers that came from within her.
Tier thought to her explanation to Ichigo earlier that day. The notion that her mask, the appearance of her power, was of an alpha predator, a monster lurking beneath the surface that could not be denied.
Over and over, she focused upon the attributes, the actual properties of not only Tiburon, but herself. Tier was a predator, a ferocious being that would forever tread the balance of tranquility and chaos.
I am a predator, a ferocious being that will forever tread the balance of tranquility and chaos.
I am… I am all of those things…
The faint sounds of deep, sloshing water tickled her senses, but not enough to distract.
There was something she was missing, something eluding her focus. This did not sit well with the predator. There was more, something just behind the chaos, inspiring it.
She believed in her mask's purpose. It was her sacrifice, her forfeiture of her future to stand for others'. She was a protector of the weak, more than just a survivor. She was a predator of those who preyed upon the weak.
Feeling a cold sensation caress her skin, accompanied by a louder churning resonance, Tier opened her eyes to a world of blue.
Dark, deep blue spread as far as her eyes could see. Sharp, thin beams of light were noticeable, but quickly swallowed by a world that was undoubtably, and irrevocably the deepest of sapphires.
Her marveling at the beautiful seascape was interrupted by a presence. Turning quickly, Tier had merely a moment to register the tremendous, hulking shark that bore down upon her, jaws opened and teeth bared.