"Never believing what they say
Counting the days
To meet you on the other side.
I will always be
Until the day that I see you
On the other side.
Come and take me home."
- "The Other Side" by Evanescence
Chapter Seven: To the Other Side
Seireitei was usually bustling in the mornings. I was slipping through the crowds, past black uniformed people and wealthy, brisk officials, through the streets and past pristine white walls toward the edge of the city. Every so often, shattering the air of calm Seireitei was trying so hard to maintain, there was a crumbling, shattered building or a thin, pale, anxious looking person with paperwork hurrying past. I was not in my school uniform or my old Shinigami one today, but instead in a casual set of robes; Rae, Enzeru, and Atsushi were following behind me.
"Aren't you excited?" Rae was asking me incredulously as we were walking. "I'm excited and I'm not even you!" It was true that a number of Academy students had wished they were us - getting to take a break from school, however brief.
"Yeah, I'm thrilled," I said sarcastically. "I love being reminded that only recently half of one of the highest echelons in Soul Society sifted through my brain and pulled out the bits that interested them."
"I still can't believe they did that!" Enzeru said, for once angry. I had told them at last why I'd been upset and her reaction had been uncharacteristically fervent.
"But it's because of that they're curious about your home," said Atsushi peaceably. "That's why so many of us are taking a trip down to Karakura. Won't you be glad to see your home? You must have fit in better there."
I smiled a little humorlessly at his assumption. "You'd be surprised," I said. "But... yeah." It was a frank admittance. "I'll be glad to be going back home for a while." Karakura. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen it in a calm frame of mind. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no Hollows to kill. What had people been doing while I was gone?
We made it at last to that flat space of grass before the great wall. The portal was ready, shimmering in the air before us, and around it were the Shinigami scheduled to be going. Hanatarou was there (he gave me a little, nervous wave), as well as Kira, Hinamori, Byakuya and Renji, Hitsugaya and Matsumoto, Zaraki and Yachiru, Ikkaku and Madarame, and... my eyes softened... Rukia. She was looking upward, toward the sky. Her Captain wasn't coming. He was still too sick.
"You're late," Hitsugaya snapped when I got there. Soi Fong would have done it for him, but she wasn't coming. Certain higher-up people - the ones I wasn't friends with, Kurotsuchi and his daughter, Kyouraku and Nanao, Soi Fong and Omaeda, Unohana - were staying behind in the Seireitei to defend it in case an attack came. We were in war, after all. Also, to my eternal annoyment, my cousins had not been invited, and neither had Jidanbou.
"You're late," I mocked him in a high voice. (I heard Atsushi suck in a sharp, nervous breath behind me.)
Hitsugaya's eyes narrowed and the temperature dropped about ten degrees. This didn't faze me as much as it might once have, so, being exaggerated, I narrowed my eyes back at him.
He looked away, scowling, but I thought I saw something lighter like humor pass across his face briefly as he turned away. "Tch," he said, "don't treat me like a little kid." Hinamori giggled and I saw Matsumoto roll her eyes and smile from behind him.
I turned back to my Academy friends, who were both concerned and very confused. "Don't worry." I smiled slightly, feeling unusually at peace. "We're all friends here."
I had seen Byakuya watching me assessingly, curious, out of the corner of his eye, but when he cleared his throat softly and everyone turned around, he was all business. "We should depart," he said simply, quietly, to the silent assembled.
He turned, then, to the portal.
I managed not to stumble or fall coming out on the other side into the sky above Karakura this time. Small victories.
I heard Rae and Atsushi gasp softly coming out on the other side, seeing the great metal buildings below them, the huge crush of people. They were the only ones present who had never seen the living world - or at least, couldn't remember it if they had. Enzeru's smile was sad, but mine wasn't. A familiar feeling of warmth filled me, and my inner world, which looked so similar to what I was watching, rippled a little in time with the feeling. I couldn't deny it - I was home.
My goal was back in sight.
At last, I heard Zaraki sigh behind me, and then I felt him hit me in the back of the head lazily. "Hey!" I turned to glare at him and he rolled his eyes.
"Lead the way," he said. "It's your trip."
This would be strange.
I could have walked the way in my sleep so, deciding to take a little trip down memory lane, I floated down to the ground and melted down streets, through people who couldn't see me, and past neighborhoods toward where my home was. I stopped in front of the building - and I could see the figure coming long before it hit me.
It was my Dad.
He lashed out in a kick that seemed so slow, I had time to grab his ankle, twist it around, grab his other ankle, and hold him upside down by his feet.
"You're doing great, son!" My Dad seemed impressed. "All the blood's rushing to my head, this is awesome!"
"What...?" I turned around at the bemused voice. People seemed mystified.
"Oh," I said casually, "physical assault factors big in the parenting handbook of pretty much everybody in the Shiba family, I think."
"I've always thought your family... cheerfully energetic," said Rukia politely. She was obviously making an effort to be diplomatic and bridge the gap a little.
"Thank you!" my Dad said - cheerfully energetic.
"No, seriously, thanks," I said more seriously. "That's probably the nicest thing anyone's ever said about it."
I turned to Byakuya curiously. "Yeah?"
He raised an eyebrow at the casual word. "I just thought you should know," he pointed out, "people can see your father hanging in midair for no apparent reason."
I looked around. Our next door neighbor's mouth was open. She was staring at my father as she watered her window box, the water overflowing out of the flowerbed.
"Oh, shit!" I dropped my father on his head.
"OW!" He immediately proved he was alright by standing upright and getting right up in my face. "What was that for?!"
"Stop yelling at me, people think you're talking to thin air!" I yelled back at the top of my lungs. (Renji and Ikkaku were laughing. Yumichika seemed mystified and slightly offended at all the uncouth ugliness.)
"Don't worry about it, people think we're nuts anyway." I looked around at Karin's voice. Karin and Yuzu had come out behind him.
"Maybe we should all go inside..." Yuzu was behind her, counting heads. She seemed a little worried we didn't have enough space.
"Hey, yeah, some of you might have to stand outside," I said casually, turning around.
"Well, what did you expect? For a place this crowded to have loads of huge places?" Seriously.
I took the time to show people around. Mostly it consisted of a lot of, "I was beat up by this guy over here, but I beat him up over there," but I tried to keep things interesting for them. I showed them the arcade, which completely mystified them, and Rukia insisted I show them what a food stand looked like. They also wanted to see the creek where my mother had died, which made me extremely uncomfortable. "Uh... you guys go ahead," I said, and hung a ways back.
No one said anything about it and they all treated the occasion very solemnly, which I thought was nice of them.
I took them to my high school next. Among the best comments were, "Why are the girls dressed differently from the boys?" and "Where the hell are all the swords?" I saw my friends. Ochi ignored them completely and started quizzing me on what I was learning where I was going, Keigo got himself hit by flirting with Matsumoto directly in the direction of her breasts instead of her face, and then Mizuiro tried to take advantage of that and play a good-cop bad-cop routine that got him hit in the face as well. (She was just so casual while she did it. Maybe some Shiba blood somewhere back there?) Ishida ignored everyone and everyone ignored Ishida - pretty coldly, actually, considering what they knew about me - and Orihime for some reason wasn't there that day. Chad got along well with the people he'd met in the Eleventh division, talking casually and explaining stuff to them - he showed them his new dog, which interested the hell out of them because they had little awareness of living world animals - and then there was Tatsuki.
Tatsuki was willing to show people the kendo and karate clubs - my friends sort of became secret, curious invaders onto their latest sessions - but the person she really wanted to talk to was me. We found a quiet place on the edge of my old high school campus during the latter half of lunch break - the first half having been spent with said clubs.
"You've changed a lot," she told me in surprise after we'd been talking for a few minutes.
"What do you mean?" I asked uncomfortably.
"Hey, it's not a judgment call," she said. "You just... carry yourself differently."
I thought back to the last time we'd hung out a lot together. "Yeah, the Shinigami have changed me a lot," I admitted. "They sort of take over your life. It makes me uncomfortable, actually."
"What do you mean?" she asked then.
"Well..." It took me a minute to articulate what I meant. "I used to think it was so clear cut. Right and wrong, the uniform and the person beneath the uniform. But they blur the lines and make it hard to see the difference. And I don't like the idea of just... giving in to that. It's been nice getting away, actually. I need help remembering who I am. I need to gain... perspective," I struggled. She looked at me in concern and I looked away. "Sorry," I said awkwardly, "I know that doesn't make any sense..."
"No, it does. I wish I could be there for you." She seemed frustrated. "I wish they had telephone lines or something."
I thought of my first couple of miserable months in the Seireitei. "Believe me," I said mirthlessly, my mouth a hard line, "you have no idea how many times I've wished that."
Hanging out invisibly by the window, I sat in on a day of classes, and realized I'd fallen so far behind that I really didn't know what the fuck was going on anymore. That was kind of depressing. But at the end of things, I really had had a good day. And yet...
My new friends and old friends - living and dead - met in a big group outside. "Isn't someone missing?" Hanatarou was the one to ask, hesitantly.
And he was right. One person hadn't shown up today. And she really should have sensed me around by now. I wasn't exactly subtle.
Which begged the question... "Where's Orihime?"
Tatsuki and I went up to her apartment door while everyone else waited down below. Ishida came with us.
"Why are you coming?" I'd asked before I could stop myself.
"Because I'm worried, obviously, just as you are," Ishida said in a low, tight voice, glaring at me and then glancing self consciously around him at all the Shinigami.
I smirked. Aww. He was shy.
Ishida flipped me off. I congratulated myself on being a bad influence on him.
Tatsuki knocked on the apartment door, leaning against it, listening. "Orihime!" she said. We waited. There was only silence.
"Inoue-san, please open up," Ishida said, quieter, a line forming between his brows. Still, there was nothing.
Finally, I just stormed through the door. "She's not here," I called backward over my shoulder, looking around in concern. The apartment around me was still and silent, empty. "And say she hasn't been around for a while now. The last date circled on her calendar is from two days ago."
Suddenly, there was a buzzing sound. I heard Tatsuki answer her cell phone. "No, she's not here," she sighed impatiently, and then paused. As I went back through the door and into the dim hallway, she clicked to speaker phone and Chad's voice echoed through to us.
"You need to get down here," it said grimly. "There's something you're going to want to see."
It chilled me through the heart just to see it on Hitsugaya Toshiro's alert phone. Seeing the video in large, clear definition back at my home just made things so much the worse.
We gathered around the living room and a piece of metal was set on the floor. It unfolded like origami into a gigantic screen and then there was a ripple of air, a buzzing, and a screen appeared before us - a connection between us and the Soul Society.
Kneeling there were Kurotsuchi, Unohana, and Yamamoto, and all looked just as serious as Chad had sounded, like they were some sort of grim council hovering over us.
"Wait, this is... possible?" I asked, confused.
"Obviously," said Yamamoto with a slight hint of sarcasm, giving me a look underneath his eyebrows. I saw Tatsuki about to step forward angrily and I put a hand on her arm. We exchanged a glance full of meaning. Both of us knew what we were thinking, but neither said it: it was possible to do inter-dimensional communication and no one had thought to tell me this? No one had considered it might be of import to me?
Had they wanted me isolated from my old home, the way most new Shinigami were?
"Can you show us what you're seeing?" my Dad asked curiously, leaning against the doorway. My sisters were in the background; Yuzu looked worried and stressed, but Karin seemed to thrive under stress. Her eyes were narrowed, as were the Shinigamis'.
The video buzzed into life before us. "Some of our sensors picked up on this happening in Karakura earlier, a day or two ago," came Kurotsuchi's voice. And, tardy as always, they hadn't noticed it until now.
And we saw Orihime, standing on a street in Karakura late one evening. An Arrancar was on either side of her, and I could feel horror ping softly through me: they were aware of my friends. Another thing that was, probably, my fault.
Orihime's eyes were cast down, her face carefully expressionless. One Arrancar, with chin-length dark hair and eerily blank, unfeeling eyes, took out his zanpakutoh and put it into the air before him. A portal was created, a golden hole slashed through the air.
"That one is identified as Ulquiorra," came Unohana's voice, an undercurrent of steel I now always heard identified in her serene tone. "He is the one who nearly killed a sickened Captain Ukitake."
The Arrancar stepped backward behind Orihime, each one taking her by an arm. They walked her through the portal, which immediately zipped out of life behind them.
"They took her to Hueco Mundo," I said immediately, urgency in my voice. My mind was already spinning as to how to get her back; I saw Tatsuki's fists clenched and knew from their expressions that the same thing was already occurring to the rest of my living friends.
"Yes. We believe Aizen may be interested in her regenerative abilities. Even among Shinigami, her powers of healing are... unique."
The three faux Council members appeared again before us. "It is unclear why Inoue Orihime chose to leave," Yamamoto said next, loftily. "It must be deduced that she has turned traitor and gone to Aizen." His eyes narrowed, an anger hidden within them.
I have to admit, even I was caught off guard. "Wait. What?"
"That's completely nonsensical!" Ishida spat, standing up and breaking his Vow of Silence around the Shinigami. "Why would she leave and defect to Aizen?"
"Perhaps she was lured by his power. Many have been."
"Are you stupid?" Tatsuki snapped and Yamamoto's nostrils flared.
"Do not insult the Captain Commander!" a Shinigami snapped and I stepped in front of Tatsuki quickly.
"No," Chad said calmly, though his body was tense. "He is not stupid. They just do not understand Orihime."
"Trust me, sir, she's not like that at all. I can vouch for her character," I said quickly, latching onto this idea.
I hated - absolutely hated - the horrible, pitying looks that were given me. "Unfortunately," Unohana said gently. "We must act as though she is a traitor."
"But - but -" My mind had stopped working. "But she was kidnapped, you can see it in the video! She was practically strong armed into the portal!"
"Even if that were true, we do not have the time nor resources in our current state to go after one human," said Kurotsuchi, rolling his eyes.
"Then let me go after her," I said, stepping forward.
"Us, you mean." And the mutter came, to my surprise, not from Tatsuki, but from Karin.
"Us, yes!" I latched onto the idea instinctively. "Some of my friends have experience with infiltration." I smiled weakly.
"That we do," said Ishida coolly, examining his fingernails, and Chad straightened.
"Like we need reminding," said Matsmoto Rangiku in amusement, but she was still looking at us pityingly. I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore it. Orihime was no traitor. She had no logical reason to go with Arrancar, it went against everything I knew about her personality. She was no idealist, no loose cannon, no oppressed person. Orihime hated violence. She was not their friends. But not even I was cruel enough to say that.
"Shiba Kurosaki Ichigo, you will not go after Inoue Orihime. You are commanded to come home immediately," Yamamoto emphasized gravely.
"But sir -"
"No! I have had enough of you and your family! You are to come home."
But I already was home. And as the view zipped out of life and I was staring at a blank screen - as no Shinigami moved to help me and all looked away - I knew what I would have to do.
I'd have to turn traitor.
Our trip was cut short. We had a one-night stopover in the living world and we were expected back in the Seireitei by the morning. That was all I had. One night.
I lay there on my old bed, staring up at the moonlight out my bedroom window. I waited until I could hear deep breathing on the floor below me - Renji and Ikkaku on the floor and Rukia sleeping in her old place in the closet. Then I reached into my pocket and slipped on the cloak.
I melted out through the window and down onto the street. I traveled to the place I knew my friends would be - the street before Urahara's shop, like last time. And sure enough, there they were. Chad, Tatsuki, Ishida, Karin, Yuzu - Rae, and Enzeru. I stopped in genuine surprise.
"It was a bit intimidating - standing in the back of the room with all those important people," Rae smiled. "But we're here."
"Are you sure? I mean -" I stopped myself. "That's your home. You probably won't be able to go back."
"It's worth it," said Enzeru positively, and she nodded. I looked down at her, and then at my sisters, so small below me.
"Girls... you're going to hate this..."
"Ichi-nii, don't tell us we can't come!" Karin burst out, and for once, she looked practically ready to stamp her foot.
"You're too young!"
"You fought as young as us," said Enzeru, scowling.
"Yeah, and look where that got me!" I took a deep breath and looked up at the sky. "Look - I just - There's only so much I can worry about at once during this thing. And if I lost any of you...
"Nothing would have any point."
The words hung heavy in the air for a moment. "I told you, Karin," Yuzu said at last, softly, worriedly. She put a hand on her frustrated sister's arm. "Maybe we should go back home, with Dad." She smiled over at Enzeru with effort. "You can come with us. Ichi-nii's told us so much about you... I've always wanted to meet you."
They stepped aside.
I looked around at the remaining. Chad, with his arm. Tatsuki, with her fire, who'd never fought anything bigger than a low-level Hollow. Rae, who'd just released her first shikai. And Ishida.
I looked at him, and swallowed. Ishida smirked.
"I'll have you know," I said suddenly, into the silence, "that I can fight without Quincy powers. I'm not stealing your place, or anything." I felt kind of awkward saying it.
But Ishida surprised me. He stepped forward. "Just in case you need to," he said dryly, "connect with the spiritual particles around your arm. Let a lance form up and down your arm out of the power, and use it to anchor the bow.
"It's nice," he admitted gruffly at my surprised expression, looking away, "having someone else like me. But don't -"
"Ever expect you to admit to that again." I smiled, despite myself. "Got it.
"So." I looked around to the other four. "We need to leave. But they'll look for me at Urahara's, and I have an idea of some other people I can contact. If I can just sense out their hiding place -"
"Well, what do we have here. It looks like a party."
I froze. Then I turned slowly around, dreadingly. Standing there, smirking, were a group of Shinigami - Rukia, Renji, Ikkaku, Yumichika, and Hanatarou hiding in the back. Shit.
"You look like an idiot, but damn if that isn't useful, Ichigo," said Renji, smirking, indicating the cloak, and I flushed, glaring at him and resisting the urge to just take it off.
"Don't fight me on this," I said, tensing. "I'm going, whatever you -"
"Yeah, we get it," said Ikkaku casually, waving a hand.
I was caught off guard. "What?" (Yumichika rolled his eyes.)
"Of course we are coming," said Rukia bossily, tossing her hair back. "Everyone knew what you were going to do, Ichigo. We'd have to be idiots not to figure it out." She gave me a look, and suddenly, I was sheepish. "All the Captains are pretending to be asleep," she added dryly.
So they were just going to... let me defect? That - that couldn't be normal. "Oh," I said, dumbfounded. "Well.. okay, then."
Behind them, Hanatarou looked around hesitantly and smiled. A possible healer and spy. I'd have to make use of him.
"So, where are we going, Ichigo?" Rukia asked expectantly, and for a moment, it was just like old times.
"We're going to... some friends of mine," I worded carefully. "But you have to promise not to ask me who they are or why I know them."
Despite themselves, my friends looked curious.
It took me a while to sense out the damn place. When I got there, it was an empty warehouse. Because, of course. Why hadn't I just thought to sense out abandoned places in the first place?
I burst through the door, and there were the Vaizard, standing above me on the other side of the dark, echoing front room. "You brought friends with you," said the leader, Shinji, looking over the others with a mixture of curiosity and distaste. I'd sort of gotten the feeling the Vaizards kept to themselves.
I sighed. "You were right." I lifted my hands in the air, and they'd better appreciate it, because I didn't admit I was wrong very often. "I'm betraying the Soul Society and I need help." (A couple of my friends twitched slightly at the wording - the Shinigami ones, I mean.)
"Alright, now that's the kind of thing I can get my hands around -!" the bratty girl began eagerly, but the army guy with the brutally short hair put out an arm to hold her back. She glared up at him, but he was scowling ferociously down at me. I looked back at him mockingly. He reminded me of Onabara-sensei.
"And you think we're just going to help you?" he asked.
"Seems kind of presumptuous to me," said gay velvet collar dude.
I tensed, glaring up at them. "So you're not?"
"Well, now, that depends on what you mean..." Shinji gave a shit eating grin, stepping forward. Damn if they weren't enjoying this. I probably shouldn't have beat on them so hard last time we met. "We're not going with you. While you're away in Hueco Mundo, Aizen is probably going to make his move. That's why so many people are staying behind. I wouldn't want to miss the chance to kill that bastard Aizen."
There was a pause, and I considered this. I realized saving my friend was more important to me than the fate of the Soul Society, so maybe I was making the right decision anyway.
"But if you still want to go..." Shinji said at last, slowly. "We do have a way for you to get there... A back door, if you will..."
He motioned onward into the next room. "A present from Urahara. Right this way."
Author's Note: This is the end of book three. We made it.
If there is a book four, don't expect it to come for a while. I am currently involved in other projects.
Thank you all for reading.