Chapter Five – Why They Said Goodbye
For all the tension and all the waiting, the war came to a surprising, sudden end. Brutal but quick and with no regard to all that had been invested in preparations.
A large clash between Aizen’s Espada and Yamamoto’s Gotei 13 was the epitome, the ultimate battle. Blood rained from the sky, and everywhere, the world shook at each clash of reiatsu. Lives were lost, buildings destroyed, each moment a desperate grab at victory.
In the end, however, it was the Shinigami who had emerged triumphant. Their victory was given by the machinations of a traitor who had stabbed his former captain in the back before taking his own life in turn. No one knew or understood why. And as the parties involved were dead, it would forever remain a mystery.
Stark, however, couldn’t really find it in him to care either way. If Aizen won or the Shinigami won, it hadn’t mattered to him. He had no place in their victory.
True to his word, Stark took little active part in the war. Instead, he would always be found at Ichigo’s side, watching his lover’s back. Preventing several of his former comrades from sticking their zanpakutou in it. He didn’t dare interfere with Ichigo’s battles or ask him to stay out of things. He wasn’t so foolish as to think Ichigo would actually listen to him. Even if anger was a cute color on Ichigo’s face.
Soul Society hadn’t been too happy to see an Espada next to their special substitute and had been even less pleased to learn of their relationship. Of course, that was thrust aside when they caught Ichigo shifting into his Hollow powers in the middle of the battlefield. Stark had warned his lover about that, but the teen was reckless. So long as he won the battle, he didn’t care what truth Soul Society discovered. Or perhaps it was that he just didn’t think about it. Probably more the latter.
Aizen’s defeat granted them some respite from Soul Society. Too occupied with the fallout from Aizen’s loss and what had to be done with Las Noches and the lingering remnants of his army, they didn’t have the manpower to spare for focusing on Ichigo and his Espada lover. Small favors, Stark supposed.
As long as it meant he didn’t have to abandon Ichigo’s side for another few weeks, Stark was more than happy to leave them to their business. He had the feeling that whatever Soul Society decided in the end, it wouldn’t be beneficial for either of them. Nor would he be so willing to agree. He planned on getting as much time with Ichigo as he could, hiding his concerns beneath his usual calm exterior. The last thing he wanted to do was worry his lover, especially if they only had a brief time left. He didn’t need Ichigo doing anything reckless.
And he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Ichigo would inevitably perform some sort of daring, reckless rescue of a sort. He’d done it before for a woman who was practically a stranger. He wouldn’t hesitate to do it for his lover. And while Ichigo was a powerful Vizard, not even he could stand up to the combined might of the Gotei 13, no matter how many of them would claim to be on his side.
At the moment, however, Stark wasn’t thinking about any of that.
No, he had his mind on other and far more important things.
“What?” he replied innocently, rocking his hips forward in a very small movement that was unsatisfying for both parties. He was teasing himself as much as he was teasing Ichigo.
Brown eyes glared at him, darkened by want. “Move, dammit,” he cursed, and the muscles in his arms rippled invitingly from where they were pinned above his head. They were bound by a thin strip of cloth and wound about the blade of Stark’s zanpakutou, which had been thrust through the wooden floor. Surely, Urahara wouldn’t mind. Much.
Ichigo looked utterly sexy like that. Debauched even. His body covered in a sheen of sweat and straining, desperately trying to make Stark move. He’d been keeping his younger lover on the edge for several long minutes now, pushed deep inside of Ichigo but not moving. He concentrated on the feel of the teen pulsing around him, tight and hot, pulling him deeper.
“But you’re so sexy when you beg,” Stark returned casually, running a bare hand over Ichigo’s thigh, the Vizard’s legs on either side of him.
Ichigo arched his back, planting his feet on the ground and attempting to force Stark to thrust. “Stubborn… gah!”
He fell back, panting and glaring at Stark, a hot blush staining the tops of his cheeks. “I think you get off on seeing me helpless,” Ichigo muttered.
“Mmm.” Stark hummed low in his throat, putting his palm on Ichigo’s taut belly and rubbing it across the hot skin, watching with intense interest as Ichigo shivered in want. “You might be right.”
“Pervert!” Ichigo accused with a faint gasp escaping his mouth as Stark’s other hand curled around Ichigo’s arousal, stroking him once. He rocked into the teasing touch, shoulders straining quite attractively.
Stark chuckled, his fingers moving upwards and flicking over a peaked nipple. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Brown eyes, edged with gold now, narrowed. “Move,” Ichigo demanded with an edge of promise in his tone. His jaw set tightly.
He gave the appearance of considering it before shaking his head. “I don’t think that I will,” Stark replied with a lusty grin.
In all honesty, he should have seen the next bit coming. Ichigo had always been a rather impatient young man, and he never was one to take things lying down.
Ichigo growled low in his throat, exasperation and desire mixed into the sexy noise. It sent shivers down Stark’s spine. But in that same instant, he twisted and jerked his wrists against the bindings, snipping them perfectly on the edge of Stark’s zanpakutou.
The former Espada had all of a moment to be impressed before Ichigo surged upwards in a rather inspiring and flexible maneuver, twisting out from under him and practically tackling Stark. He ended up flat on his back, landing against the softness of his mattress, with his young lover straddling him, a rather smug look on his face. Ichigo’s hands were splayed across his chest, holding him in place.
“I think that’s what I like about you the most,” Stark purred, hands settling on Ichigo’s hip as his lover positioned himself appropriately, guiding Stark back inside him once more.
“What?” Ichigo panted, somewhat distracted. He licked his lips, sinking down on Stark’s arousal and rocking his hips teasingly, much to Stark’s enjoyment.
He skated his hands up Ichigo’s side, feeling the warmth of his skin, occasionally dotted with the ripple of some scar or another. “You follow your own rhythm,” the Arrancar replied, his hands journeying back down to squeeze Ichigo’s hips gently.
Brow furrowing, Ichigo flexed his thighs and lifted himself up to drop back down again. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he muttered, a sharp pant escaping his lips.
“It does to me.” Stark groaned, head falling back against the pillow and causing his hair to sprawl loosely around him. “Damn, you feel good.” His fingers flexed against Ichigo’s skin, feeling the strength of those muscles beneath his touch.
“Would be better if you’d damn move,” Ichigo growled, one hand flattening out against Stark’s chest for balance as the other dropped to his own aching shaft, seeking his much-denied release.
“You’re too impatient,” Stark returned with a heated chuckle and finally began to move.
He thrust upwards in the same moment that Ichigo shifted down. Their bodies collided with an erotic pulse, and both moaned, the sound echoing lightly in the rather small room. Heat spread through Stark’s limbs, his body registering nothing but want, want, want, even as he gripped Ichigo harder. Their movements were finally in sync.
Stark really enjoyed these positions the best. He could see every expression on Ichigo’s face. And it was that much more erotic when their eyes met because Ichigo was looking only at him, and it was Stark’s possessive side which desired that. Ichigo had so many who depended on him, who he cared for and protected, who gravitated around him. And he gave himself to anyone he thought needed him. So it was times like this with Ichigo moving over him and seeing only him, that Stark wanted the most.
One of his hands left Ichigo’s hip and joined the fingers over his arousal. The teasing had been double-sided, and Stark could already feel his release hovering over him. Ichigo felt too good for his control, which he always seemed to lack around his younger lover.
They moved together, bodies in a familiar rhythm after months of intimacy. And yet, Stark couldn’t seem to tire of his lover. Just when he thought he understood Ichigo, the teen confused him yet again. The same as he had all those months ago when Stark had first accepted his assignment from Aizen. Never would he have expected it would turn out like this.
He felt Ichigo clench around him and knew that the Vizard was getting close, a soft red flush taking over his cheeks. Licking his lips, Stark squeezed Ichigo’s hip and thrust up into him. Ichigo gasped, fingers flexing around Stark’s hold on his arousal before he moaned lowly, body hunching forward as he came. His release splattered over their combined fingers, eyes shuttered as his body shook with pleasure.
The erotic sight broke the last of Stark’s already tenuous control. Surging upwards, Stark wrapped one arm around Ichigo’s back and tangled his fingers in orange strands, pulling Ichigo towards him in a hungry, open-mouthed kiss. A hand clenched on his shoulder as Ichigo curled the other around his neck, closing the distance between them. Their tongues touched, and Stark moaned, his hips giving one last ragged jerk upwards before he felt his body spasm, and he spilled inside Ichigo.
Their lips met harshly before gradually shifting into something slow and sensual, bodies losing their frantic pace towards release. Stark’s fingers pressed against Ichigo’s back, holding him close as he enjoyed the kiss. It was a lazy embrace, their skin cooling and sticky with sweat and the remnants of their release.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
The door to Stark’s room slammed open, accompanied by a loud yell and the sound of small feet squeaking across the floor. Ichigo leapt in surprise and whipped his gaze towards the open doorway, glaring heatedly at the stuffed toy even as a blush brightened his cheeks.
“Kon! What the hell are you doing?”
The lion affected a melodramatic swoon. “Ah, nee-san, Ichigo has–” His voice was cut off as Ichigo chucked a pillow at him.
Stark shook his head and chuckled. “You’re so violent.” He leaned backwards and snagged a small, clean towel that he usually kept near his futon for such occasions.
“He’s annoying,” his lover grumbled, looking ever-so-desirable with that red tinge to his expression. He accepted the towel and put it to use, his hand swiping over Stark as well and threatening to make him stir once more.
A leg twitched beneath the weight of the pillow before it was moved upwards with a loud grunt. “Ichigo!” the plushie complained. “This is important!”
“Maybe you should listen to him,” Stark suggested as he slowly pulled apart from Ichigo but not before stealing one last kiss.
Ichigo waved a hand of dismissal, wincing a bit as he started scrounging around in the piles of discarded clothing for something to wear. “He’s always screaming about something or other.”
Kon stomped a foot on the ground with a really annoying squeak, though Stark could only see the stuffed lion as amusing. “Fine. Then I won’t tell you about the other Shinigami who are here!” Kon huffed, and crossing his arms, he attempted to storm from the room. Though the effect was lost in the wake of the noise.
In the midst of pulling on a shirt, Ichigo crossed the room and grabbed Kon by the back of the neck, leaving him dangling in mid-air. The plushie wriggled around, waving his fists helplessly at Ichigo.
“Hey! Ow! Put me down!”
“What do you mean other Shinigami?” Ichigo demanded and gave Kon a little shake.
Stark listened intently, pulling on his own clothing. It wasn’t much more than a yukata and under-robe, something he’d borrowed from the geta-boushi since he hadn’t had any desires to continue wearing the white clothes of Aizen’s Espada. Besides, he looked rather good in it, if he didn’t say so himself. He’d even foregone the gloves, since it didn’t matter if he hid the symbol of his prior position or not.
With a petulant expression, strange considering he was just a plushie, Kon folded his arms over his chest and glared at the wall. “I tried to tell you. They’re here, and they want to talk to you, Ichigo. And nii-san, too.”
Ichigo blinked, confusion entering his expression. Stark, however, understood exactly what was going on. Their moments of respite had finally ended.
“Will you put me down now?”
Rolling his eyes, Ichigo abruptly let the stuffed lion drop to the floor. He bounced a few times before scampering out of the room, muttering under his breath about being under-appreciated and missing his “nee-san.” Whoever that was.
“I wonder what the hell they want,” Ichigo muttered under his breath, raking a hand over his disheveled hair.
Stark thought briefly of enlightening his lover, but since he didn’t know precisely what Soul Society had in mind, he kept his suspicions to himself. Instead, he grabbed Ichigo’s elbow as the teen passed him and dragged him in for a kiss.
Ichigo released a startled sound but returned the embrace anyway, submitting to the rather random kiss with his usual passive aggression. Stark’s fingers briefly tightened in their hold on Ichigo’s arm before he released him, parting with a lingering press of tongue against tongue.
“What? Hadn’t had enough yet?” Ichigo questioned, a smirk on his lips.
“Never,” Stark returned easily, just because he knew that sort of admission never failed to make Ichigo turn a little red.
Though pleased, Ichigo looked away, pretending nonchalance. “Yeah, well, we should get going. I don’t want to hear them bitching that I kept them waiting.”
For the briefest moment, Stark had the thought that he should grab Ichigo and just take him away. Though he hadn’t the slightest idea where they would go. Just run from Soul Society and whatever they thought to do, abandon everything. But he reminded himself that Ichigo didn’t belong to just him. He had his family and his friends, those he needed to protect. He couldn’t demand so much from Ichigo.
Stark kept his silence and finished tying the knot in his obi. Sufficiently dressed, the two of them left the room and wandered down the hall, towards the main area where the Shinigami were no doubt waiting for them. Surprisingly, the rest of the shouten was deserted, at least to Stark’s senses. Though he suspected Urahara was lurking in the shadows somewhere, observing thoughtfully.
Ichigo entered ahead of him and as a consequence saw the Shinigami first. Immediately, he scowled, even as he was greeted in a half-hearted, somewhat polite manner.
“Kurosaki Ichigo,” the captain of the second division stated, flanked on either side by two of her underlings.
Stark wasn’t surprised that they had sent Soifon. There were few that Yamamoto would choose to send who wouldn’t immediately sympathize with Ichigo, and the old bastard wanted results.
“What are you doing here?” Ichigo made no room for pleasantries. It wasn’t his style.
The woman didn’t flinch, her ever-present frown in place. “Soul Society has not forgotten about your circumstances. They’re aware that you’re harboring one of Aizen’s Espada.”
“Formerly,” Stark drawled, making a statement as he hovered next to Ichigo’s side and met the disinterested gaze of Soifon’s entourage. “I’m reformed.”
“What you are is a Hollow, regardless of your current form and intelligence,” Soifon corrected, one brow twitching. Her glower deepened.
Mah, she would be pretty – perhaps even beautiful – if only she smiled. Such a waste.
Ichigo growled. Stark could practically feel the annoyance rippling through his reiatsu, no matter how good he was getting at containing it. But it wouldn’t be a good idea for him to antagonize the captain, so Stark put a hand on Ichigo’s arm, squeezing in a quiet warning.
“That may be true,” he responded, speaking before Ichigo could. “Are you saying I must then be exterminated as one?”
“Stark!” Ichigo hissed in outrage, eyes darting between Shinigami and Arrancar.
Pale eyes returned the look before shifting back to Soifon, awaiting her answer. “Perhaps,” she conceded, though it was pretty damn obvious what she meant. “Soul Society would like to take your case into consideration. It may only be confinement.”
Oh, because that made it so much better. Confinement or death. Neither was enticing. Not that Stark had any such plans to go along with what Soul Society wanted. He made his own choices, and no arrogant, self-righteous Shinigami was going to decide his fate for him.
“For how long?”
Ichigo started forward again, only Stark’s hold on his arm keeping from making any reckless behaviors. “Stark,” he growled under his breath, but he was momentarily ignored.
The captain gestured vaguely, expression unchanged. “It’s hard to say. Decades?”
Not. Going. To. Happen. With a big, resounding hell-the-fuck-no.
Stark thumbed his chin, fingers rubbing over his goatee. “I’m sorry,” he replied with a shake his head. “That’s just not going to work for me.”
Grey eyes narrowed, the sense of threat in the room rising considerably. “You don’t have a choice in the matter,” Soifon returned, and her lackeys immediately straightened, giving off a greater presence.
“Like hell he doesn’t!” Ichigo interrupted angrily, his words biting and edged with the last strings of his patience.
Soifon glanced at him almost dismissively. “In light of your service to Soul Society, we will overlook your Vizard abilities, given certain stipulations, but we cannot overlook the existence of an Espada.”
“Stipulations?” Ichigo repeated, and objects in the room began to rattle as he lost his tenuous grip on his composure. Brown eyes gradually shifted to gold. “That’s stupid. I’m not giving him up to you.”
The simple declaration warmed something inside of Stark, but he had to save the fond feelings for another time. The situation in the room was threatening to become explosive, and the last thing they needed to do was destroy the shouten. Urahara wouldn’t like that at all.
Stark laughed, but it was a bitter sound and cut through the glaring contest going on between his lover and Soifon. “Soul Society certainly hasn’t changed,” he muttered, not that he would have expected it to. “Sorry, darling, but I’m going to have to side with Ichigo on this one. I’m not going anywhere.”
Silence swept through the room, heightened by the rising tension. Ichigo struggled to get his reiatsu under control, hands clenched into furious fists. And Stark wondered if there was any way to stop the violence before it exploded.
Therefore, Soifon’s sudden defeated sigh surprised them all. “You had better be grateful, Kurosaki,” she suddenly spat, annoyance causing her brow to twitch. “You owe Yoruichi-sama very much.”
Ichigo and Stark blinked in tandem.
“What does Yoruichi-san have to do with this?”
Glancing away, Soifon sniffed imperiously. “As a favor to her, I’m giving you the opportunity to show up on your own without dragging either of you in. This is the only chance you’ll get.”
“We don’t need any favors,” Ichigo spat, body shaking in a building rage.
Stark squeezed his arm. “When does your opportunity end?”
Her eyes shifted between them again, as though trying to measure something before she inclined her head. “Tomorrow. We’ll expect you at the first division in the morning.”
Ichigo opened his mouth, but Stark beat him to it. “Was that all then?” His smile was coolly polite, but a sense of danger reflected behind it. Even Soifon’s lackeys took a small step back, though the captain herself stood her ground.
She appraised them briefly. “Yes.”
“Good.” Grabbing Ichigo’s arm, Stark turned and headed out of the room, leaving the Shinigami to see themselves out. He pulled Ichigo along with him, his younger lover brimming with anger and scowling fiercely.
“What the hell? You’re not just going to go along with this, are you?” Ichigo demanded, though he didn’t attempt to stop.
“Of course not. I just wanted to hear them out. Soul Society has no right to dictate my existence for me.” He cast a glance over his shoulder. “And you shouldn’t let them tell you what right you have to exist either. You didn’t choose to be this way, and neither did I. Besides, it’s not like we go around eating souls or anything.”
Ichigo’s scowl deepened. “I wasn’t planning to.”
“Good.” Stark grinned and abruptly stopped, pulling Ichigo up against him and kissing him soundly. He didn’t care that they were still in the middle of the hallway.
Ichigo didn’t resist, returning the embrace with equal if not stronger determination. His fingers lifted to twist in Stark’s hair.
It was obvious that neither of them had any attention of doing as Soul Society asked. The words didn’t really need to be said. Where they would go from here would need to be discussed.
Stark, however, knew that his decision had already been made.
– – –
The moon shone awfully brightly that night as Stark quickly noticed. He hated that it reminded him of Hueco Mundo.
Ichigo was a warm, sleeping presence beside him, though his body twitched like his dreams were anything but restful. Stark stroked a bare palm down his lover’s back, nuzzling a kiss into the side of Ichigo’s neck. The teen murmured something and settled down, the furrowed lines in his brow smoothing out.
He was going to be pretty damn pissed when he woke in the morning.
Stark let himself lie there for several minutes more, soaking in the warmth, before he gradually eased himself out of their bed. It took only a second of concentration for him to completely conceal his reiatsu, shoving it deep beneath so many cloaking layers that it would be impossible for anyone to sense unless they were less than two inches away from him and staring into the whites of his eyes. He dressed in the dark with only the light of the moon to help him locate his scattered clothing.
He told himself that it was the best decision for all of them. Ichigo was reckless, and the last thing Stark wanted was for him to waste his life trying to stop all of Soul Society. He’d done it before; he’d do it again. And while he had a good many allies in the Gotei 13, he had weaknesses. And Stark didn’t want to see another war break out all for the sake of the one remaining Espada.
He’d rather die himself than see Ichigo do so for his sake. The kid had too much going for him whereas Stark was just an Arrancar, just an evolved Hollow. He had his pride, but Stark knew what he was. A being that shouldn’t have existed but did anyway. He wasn’t going to give up his existence. No one was going to take it from him, but he was also logical. He knew when to cut his losses.
Stark didn’t want to call this “sneaking out.” He preferred “avoiding a delicate situation.”
Grabbing his zanpakutou from where it stood leaning against the wall next to Zangetsu, Stark pushed it through his obi and headed for the door. Ichigo hadn’t moved the entire time, a testament to how thoroughly Stark had tired him out. He was really going to miss that kid, but then, he slid the door open quietly and stepped out into the hallway.
It was dark and still within the shouten. This late at night everyone was asleep. He could sense their quiescent reiatsu. Stark crept down the hall, steps completely silent as he headed for the main door. He passed by candy racks and pulled it open, peering into the lamp-lit night. No one around. Perfect.
“You don’t understand him at all, do you, Primera-san?”
He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden voice. It was a testament to Stark’s composure that he managed to look only slightly perturbed as he turned to see Urahara-san looming in the shadows as usual. He should have known better.
Stark folded a hand in his pocket, making no immediate moves to leave or remain. “I never really claimed that.”
The shopkeeper stepped out of the darkened corner and into view, though his gaze was still shadowed by his hat. “It’s not that difficult. He’s really a simple person beneath.”
“You’re going to stop me?”
His lips curled into something like a smirk. “It would do me little good. You’ll leave no matter what I say. And I dare say I could never force you.”
Stark never had understood this man, this former captain who still obeyed the Shinigami but was nevertheless confined to the Living World.
“He’s fought enough,” the Arrancar replied, remembering the feel of scars beneath his fingers. Scars no teenager should ever bear. “He’s bled enough.”
“Hmm, that may be true.” Urahara’s fingers nimbly twisted his cane in his hand, watching it spin around and around in a circle. “I am sure he’ll be pleased you made that choice for him.”
Stark lifted his shoulders and turned towards the opened doorway. “He’ll understand in time,” he returned and stepped out of the shouten, already concentrating on summoning a Garganta to take him into Hueco Mundo. There really wasn’t anywhere else he could go where the Shinigami would not chase him.
Geta clacked in the doorway behind him, the first true noise to break the calm silence. “That, Primera-san, is where I think you are entirely wrong.”
The sky throbbed and rippled before tearing apart, revealing the endless black of the path between worlds. Only small enough for Stark to pass through and no one or nothing else. He didn’t respond to the shopkeeper because Stark had nothing more to say. Hunching his shoulders and hands in his pockets, Stark stepped into the Garganta, leaving the living world and everything in it behind him.
He landed in the middle of the solitary desert, surrounded by sand and dead trees and the faint smell of ash and blood. In the distance, nearer than it seemed, the ruins of Las Noches loomed like the waste of a lost civilization. Aizen’s tallest tower remained standing, but the rest was a crippled mess of white stone that was now blackened by explosions caused by both sides.
It was still going to be his home.
A few quick bursts of sonido took Stark to the remnants of Las Noches, and he walked along shattered halls. He wondered if any of his former companions had survived and now hid amongst the destruction. Some he knew for certain were dead; he hadn’t seen the demise of the others. Lilinette was one of them. Had his fraccion survived? He didn’t know, so that would be one of his first orders of business.
It was so much colder here, and his steps echoed hollowly as he leapt from a piece of shattered wall to a piece of a broken ceiling. Here and there, Aizen’s fake blue sky still hung in place, contrasted grimly by the bits of black night that hovered nearby. And the debris still hummed faintly with reiatsu, both Shinigami and Arrancar alike.
All in all, it was a rather desolate and bleak place.
Stark sighed to himself and thought of his warm futon in the shouten, even more because Ichigo was usually in it. How strange that he had met the kid with the intention of bringing him to Aizen and found himself nowhere near his former goal. Stupid Shinigami always ripping apart the happiness of others. He knew there was a reason he despised them.
Hands in his pockets, Stark searched for the most stable building. Might as well make a relatively safe shelter. It got damn cold here at night. Not that it wasn’t always night in Hueco Mundo.