Their waraji was a faint scrape in the mostly empty halls of Las Noches. Ichigo walked beside Renji and Rukia, knowing the questions that had to be brewing on their minds. Both had been mostly silent since he had led them from Aizen’s throne room, showing them to their quarters as Aizen had commanded. Byakuya had been scooped up by Gin and Urahara, the geta-boushi making plans to examine him.
Rukia was the one to break the tentative quiet between them.
We asked around, but no one would give us a straight answer. Why did you leave?”
Why did you?” Ichigo returned.
And it wasn’t until then that he realized he still retained some of his mistrust. These two, who he had long considered friends and were even now walking beside him, he just couldn’t look at them the same. Not when he knew what Soul Society had planned to do to him and those he cared about.
On her other side, Renji glared. “‘Cause we wanted answers.”
Rukia elbowed him immediately, ignoring his glower of pain. “Because of what you did to nii-sama. And because of what Zaraki-taichou said. But we don’t know the whole story.”
You don’t need to,” Ichigo answered, tone short and clipped. “Just know that they were going to kill Orihime and the geta-boushi. And I was next.”
Two pairs of eyes widened in astonishment.
I don’t understand. Why would they do that?” Rukia had a hand over her mouth.
We were too dangerous,” Ichigo answered evenly enough. “Hanatarou told me as much.”
They passed a few Arrancar, most of them appearing to be either Halibel’s or Grimmjow’s fraccion. They were wise enough to lower their eyes and hurry on, disliking the appearance of the Shinigami. Ichigo wasn’t surprised. They’d had the same response to him all those months ago, though now they were on rather friendly terms most of the time.
Yet another example of the Kurosaki Effect. The ability to turn an enemy into his best friend.
That’s why he disappeared,” Renji commented aloud. “I asked fer him at the fourth a month or so ago, and no one could give me a straight answer there either.”
Ichigo nodded. “I sent him away with my family.”
Sado, Ishida, and Orihime, too?” Rukia asked.
The two Shinigami exchanged a glance, silently conferring before their attention was stolen by their surroundings. Stark white walls. Passing Arrancar. High ceilings. Unlabeled doors and corridors that seemed unending. It was easy to tell by their tense shoulders that they were on edge, bodies poised as if prepared to fight at any moment.
Ichigo looked at them, nearly rolling his eyes. “Take your hands off your zanpakutou. You look like you’re ready for a fight.”
Well, excuse us fer not feelin’ comfortable here,” Renji grumbled, though he wisely obeyed, abandoning his grip on Zabimaru’s hilt.
It was your choice to come,” Ichigo reminded him.
Rukia pursed her lips. “You could try to be a little happy to see us,” she said crossly, looking three steps away from hitting him as she planted her hands on her hips. “You were missing for over half a year. We thought you were dead.”
He ground to a halt, whirling on the two of them. A bevy of emotions flickered through his expression.
You didn’t know anything?” Ichigo asked with surprise. “Really didn’t know?” A sense of relief crept across his face.
His friends simply looked at him, as if unable to believe he would doubt them without even asking first.
Ichigo sighed. “I should’ve known you would follow me.”
Renji scoffed. “Rukia’s idea. Not mine.”
Rolling his eyes, Ichigo started moving again, picking up the pace. They were forced to fall in line with him again, lest they get lost in the confusing halls of Las Noches.
So,” Rukia began conversationally, though her tone was brimming with curiosity. “What’s up with Urahara and Aizen?”
Somehow, Ichigo had been expecting this question. “They’re special friends.” He shrugged.
What the hell’s that mean?” Renji demanded.
A part of him was amused by playing stupid, even if his lack of knowledge was halfway true. And Gin was being particularly hush-hush about the matter. “It’s not my story ta tell,” he had said and then distracted Ichigo with a particularly steamy kiss.
I honestly don’t know.”
Renji and Rukia exchanged another look.
Are they just buddies like ya and me?” Renji suggested rather tentatively. “Like Yumi and Ikkaku?”
Or are they…” Rukia made some faint gesture with her hand that had her flicking her wrist and twiddling her fingers. “You know?”
Ichigo blinked. “What the fuck does that mean?” he asked, copying the movement she had made. He looked to Renji, but the other man seemed just as confused.
Don’t ask me. I don’t know what it means either.” He scratched his red head.
Rukia looked at the two males as if they were idiots. “You should know what it means, Ichigo. Since you are… You know.” She made the gesture again.
A vein ticked in Ichigo’s forehead. “What? Really fucking strong?” He was being deliberately difficult.
Understanding dawned on Renji, and he scoffed. “No. Really fucking Ichimaru.”
Ichigo froze, whirling on them and glaring angrily. “Yeah. And if you have a problem with it, we can settle it now.” He warned, voice low and dangerous. There was something on his face, something unnamable but intense.
The others blinked at him. Renji even backpedaled a step at the fire flashing in Ichigo’s eyes, which had shifted to gold.
Rukia tentatively stepped forward and gathered Ichigo’s attention. “We don’t, but… how did it happen? I mean, you barely even know him.” She made a placating gesture, pleading for understanding.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Ichigo tilted his head slightly. “I barely even knew you, but you still slept in my closet.”
Yeah, but that’s all we ever did,” Rukia retorted, temper flaring again. “Never anything else.”
And maybe that shoulda been your first sign,” Renji muttered under his breath, trying not to appear too cowed by Ichigo’s subtle display of aggression.
Glaring, Rukia reached up and slapped Renji upside the head. “Shut up, idiot. The grown-ups are talking.”
Rubbing the back of his skull, Renji settled for giving her a churlish glare. But he didn’t retaliate. It was against the code to hit women, after all. Even if the woman in question was Rukia, who was too short and flat-chested to really count.
Returning her attention back to Ichigo, Rukia continued the conversation. “If you were just lonely, it’s not a big deal. This was… is a strange and new place.” She motioned around her. “And you were without us, without your friends. Besides, I could hardly see you going to one of the Arrancar.” She made a face at just the thought.
Or Aizen and Tousen, fer that matter,” Renji commented in an undertone, ducking as Rukia absentmindedly tried to smack him again.
Ichigo frowned, his irritation growing. “That’s not it.” He squared his jaw. “I can’t explain it. You wouldn’t understand.” He turned to look away, deeply wishing that Gin were here but also grateful that the man didn’t have to hear this. His lover didn’t need to have his own insecurities shoved in his face, after all.
Is it because you both have a Hollow,” Rukia tried again, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “That he could relate and wasn’t afraid. It’s not like we ever had a problem with it or anything.” She wisely didn’t mention Orihime’s initial reaction to the mask.
You didn’t. Soul Society did,” Ichigo corrected with a roll of his still golden eyes. “Besides, it’s not just that.”
Renji scoffed, “Yer not in love with him, are ya?” He gave a snort filled with obvious disbelief.
Looking three steps away from hitting him again, Rukia hissed, “Renji!”
No, he’s right,” Ichigo interrupted before she could bring more violence into the corridor. He met both of their eyes evenly. “I am. I do love him.”
And it was so easy to admit.
The two Shinigami exchanged yet another confused glance, gaze darting between Ichigo and each other. Rukia shifted in discomfort, Renji’s hand returning to his zanpakutou as though he needed the simple touch.
Are ya sure that’s what it is?” Renji asked with incredulity. “Yer still a kid, yanno.”
He and Rukia conversed wordlessly again, obviously having some sort of discussion as they came to their own conclusions. Their eyes met, conveying all manner of things without any sound.
Finally, Rukia looked at Ichigo again.
I know that you’ve never… been with anyone else before, Ichigo. Are you sure of what you feel?” she asked very softly and with a deceptive casualness. “Maybe you were just lonely. Simply needed a friend.”
He didn’t take advantage of ya, did he?” Renji added rather thoughtlessly. “When ya were here and alone. Without even Urahara-san.”
Ichigo’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” he said frostily, not liking at all where they were headed.
They didn’t know Gin, not really. Not at all. They didn’t know how unsure he could be, how afraid he was that Ichigo would one day decide to leave. Didn’t know that Gin was powerful beyond their wildest dreams but far more fragile within than out. That his hair was soft and his eyes warm. Hands and fingers adoring if not always gentle.
They didn’t know that he was the only reason Ichigo had yet to completely lose his temper.
He didn’t force you or anything, did he?” Rukia clarified, cutting into his thoughts. She watched him with obvious concern. “Make you do things with him? Hurt you in any way?”
Renji added in his two bits, “Matsumoto said that bein’ with him was painful enough. She’d know, af–”
He was about to go on, but a sudden flare of reiatsu silenced him. His mouth snapped shut. And the hall went deathly quiet.
You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Ichigo said in a dangerous tone, echoing with his Hollow’s anger. “I’d be careful what you say and what rumors you bring up around here. Especially since the lot of them aren’t true.”
The two Shinigami could only nod weakly, Ichigo’s intentions clear to them.
Sensing their comprehension, the Vizard took a deep breath. “I know you didn’t mean that the way it sounded, and that you’re just thinking of my best interest. But you’re in Las Noches now. I would be careful what you say and who you say it to. Aizen won’t take kindly to you badmouthing his heir.” He felt the gold slowly seep out of his eyes as he exhaled. “And I won’t hear you talk like that about Gin. You don’t know him like I do. And you never will.”
He was met with twin wide-eyed stares as they absorbed that information. Nevertheless, it soaked in very slowly.
But… he murdered Hitsugaya,” Renji spluttered, obviously grasping for anything. One hand pulled at his hair in frustration.
Ichigo gave him a cold smirk. “No, that was Izuru-chan,” he responded, mimicking the way Gin spoke of his vice-captain.
Rukia and Renji blanched at that, and Ichigo knew what they were thinking. Izuru didn’t seem the least bit violent or capable of real harm towards another. He was too nice, too gentle. Whereas Ichimaru was the evil one, the only capable of raping and pillaging and massive amounts of murder and mayhem.
Oh, how the tables had turned.
Inoue wasn’t the only one the little bastard was after,” Ichigo added just for their benefit.
Rukia shook her head doubtfully, looking up at him. “What’s happened to you, Ichigo? It’s like we don’t even recognize you anymore. Letting your Hollow out freely? Not to mention all the rest.” She twisted her hands together.
Ichigo turned away. “Maybe you didn’t know me that well in the first place.”
Several seconds passed before that little revelation sunk in. Ichigo knew when they recognized it. That he wasn’t the substitute Shinigami anymore. That he was no longer Soul Society’s lapdog. He was now a Vizard, a true hybrid. Aizen’s Ichigo. His loyal friend and follower.
Gin’s Ichigo. Lover. Friend. Defender. And so much more.
He no longer belonged to them.
Rukia shifted uncomfortably, clearly not knowing what to do with this different Ichigo. Renji, however, was far less contained.
Are we gonna have ta fight?” he blurted out, apparently having been sitting on this question for some time.
Ichigo resumed his pace, leading them down another curved hall that was the same as all the others. “Not if you don’t want to. But you might want to stick close to Byakuya.”
Aizen said we wouldn’t be hurt,” Rukia insisted, fingers starting to creep towards Sode no Shirayuki again.
And you won’t,” Ichigo answered and raked a hand through his hair. “But accidents happen, even here. Las Noches is a big place, and Hollows do wander around freely. And some won’t appreciate his attitude. Especially the lower Arrancar.” He paused, a smirk stealing onto his lips. “Then again, Stark seems to like him. Byakuya probably won’t need your protection.”
Renji furrowed his brow and tried to recall all the Espada. “The Kyouraku-look-a-like?”
La Primera Espada to be more precise,” a voice smoothly interceded, melding from the shadows around them.
The two Shinigami jumped in surprise, hands immediately going to their weapons as their senses registered the threat. Ichigo merely glanced towards a nearby shadowed alcove and lifted a hand in greeting.
Yo. Didn’t expect to see you here.”
Stark stepped out in front of them, lips twisted in amusement. “The boss wants you as soon as you’re done showing them to a room,” he said with a nod towards the two Shinigami, only giving them a passing glance.
Ichigo snickered. “Got you playing messenger-boy again?”
The Espada shrugged but smiled. “Whatever the boss commands, I obey.” He flipped a hand in Ichigo’s direction, already turning away. “Later, mi amigo.”
Do they always fuckin’ do that?” Renji demanded, watching Stark promptly disappear into the shadows.
You’ll get used to it,” Ichigo replied, suddenly stopping in front of a door to push it open and step into another hallway, this one lined with doors similar to an apartment complex or hotel. He gestured to two of them, directly across from each other. “These are your rooms. Byakuya’s will be the next one down. Gin, the geta-boushi, Aizen, and I are on another hall. The Espada are just down from you.” He pointed to half-hidden corridor at the very end of the one they were currently in.
Just like that?” Rukia asked disbelievingly. “No demands to stay in our rooms?”
Ichigo shrugged. “Aizen said that you’re free to roam around.” He moved to head back the way he’d come. “I’ll catch up with you guys later. I promised Nel and Halibel I’d play Go with them after lunch. You could join us if you want,” he offered casually. “Izuru usually does.”
They turned to watch him leave.
But Rukia grabbed his arm, stopping him before he could go more than a few paces. “Wait, Ichigo.”
He paused, turning to look at her.
You look happy,” she inserted, something honest in her blue gaze. She let him go. “Ichimaru… regardless… I’m glad to see it.”
It wasn’t quite approval, not that Ichigo sought it, but something inside of him still warmed to hear her words. It didn’t completely ease his annoyance with them, but it helped.
Yeah. Me, too,” he answered and turned, not wanting them to see the emotion in his eyes. “I’ll have someone bring you some maps,” he tossed over his shoulder. “Gin made them for me a while back. But I don’t need them anymore.”
And that was that.