Disclaimer - I do not own anything from Bleach
Warnings: AU, Time Travel, Ichigo-centric, violence, language, angst, romance
Author's Note: Yep. It's me everyone. How ya been? Before we start I'd like to preface this by saying that due to my absence, some of you might want to glance over the last chapter, if only to remind yourself of what happened. If you'd rather not do that, then I'll just say that Ichigo was about to ask Raphael to teach him to be a doctor. More to follow.
Chapter 16: This Is My Life
He was repeating history.
It was a strange feeling. He'd done this at least once before, and yet it felt like the first time all over again. He'd done it with Shunsui, and in an indirect way with both Kisuke and Yoruichi. Now here he was, doing it once again with Raphael, and he felt just like he had those other times.
He was nervous.
It was funny in a way. Now that he remembered this feeling he could sympathize with Kaien. The kid had undoubtedly felt this way when he'd asked him to be his mentor years ago. Though, this and that were very different things. Kaien had wanted to become a warrior, an engine of destruction trained to slay horrible beasts. Here he was asking to become a doctor, a savior and a man whose purpose was the exact opposite of killing.
That suited him just fine though. He wanted this. He wanted this more than he wanted a lot of things in fact, and that surprised him.
He was tired. He didn't know where life was taking him. However, he knew where it had brought him thus far, and where he would have gone had he not made this choice.
Life had decided to drag him through nothing but death…and that was absolutely exhausting.
Even in his earliest childhood memories he'd had death shoved in his face. It had started out small, and even innocent, just like most things do. Some lost ghost would give him special attention on his way home from elementary school, and in the beginning he didn't really mind…but then it'd escalated.
He still remembered the weight of his mother's body on top of him. He could still feel the blood wetting his cheek, and staining his clothes. He could still see her eyes staring at him, blank and dead, and above all else he could still feel the rain.
After that, things hadn't been the same. Ghosts weren't just random passerby anymore. He stopped being a child during the time in his life when all he was supposed to be was one. He'd kept walking though, despite the limp, and it was a miracle that he hadn't stopped just to lay down. He kept walking even though his own father wasn't really a father. He kept walking even though everyone in his home town thought he was a rotten delinquent. He kept walking even though every ghost he saw reminded him of what he'd lost, and it was because he'd kept walking that he'd run smack into a petite black haired shinigami who was so short that he couldn't really be blamed for knocking her on her ass.
Then she'd died too. Just like Renji, just like Chad, and just like Uryu and Orihime. Just like Shunsui, Shinji, Hiyori, Kenpachi, Jushirou, Nanao, Retsu, Yoruichi….and Yuzu and Karin.
The names went on. It was a long list, just like the list of all the people he'd killed in return.
He'd packed a lot of death into his 40 years.
There are a lot of people out there who can see exactly where their lives are going, and even when they don't like what they see they don't do a thing to stop it. They keep right on walking down the street, ignoring all of the paths branching off in different directions in front of them. They just sit down in their little cubicle in their little office building in their little town, and they're absolutely miserable.
He couldn't sympathize.
Just like them, he could see where his life had been headed. It would have been the same as before. He'd have just kept on killing, bouncing from one war front to another. One day he'd be breaking-in to some corrupt noble's house to assassinate him in the name of a better soul society, or wiping out entire gangs of bandits out in the outskirts of the rukongai. He'd pass the time…by killing people. Killing would turn into a 300 year hobby.
Sure, they were horrible people that he'd be killing, people who deserved death more than most, but this wasn't about them anymore.
It was about him.
It was about how he didn't want to do that. It was about what doing that would change about him. It was about how being a roaming killer for centuries wasn't a life worth living no matter the circumstances.
He'd once told Zangetsu over a decade ago that he was horribly afraid. He'd been afraid of seeing that future realized. He'd been afraid of what living for hundreds of years without anyone there to keep him from falling would do to him. So, here he was with two paths in front of him, and he'd chosen one.
He'd chosen the path of a doctor, because forsaking life as it is lived for life as it might be is always a risk that's worth taking.
He stood his ground, unwavering in the face of a now silent Raphael. The doctor still refused to look at him, but neither did he move to leave him alone in the study.
Eventually Raphael sagged where he stood, and he glanced at him over his shoulder.
"I am truly sorry Ichigo…but I-"
He was abruptly cut short when the loud sound of running feet met both of their ears. Bursts of shouting from below drifted up after the feet, and just as the storm of footsteps neared the door to the study a mighty crash shook its frame. Raphael remained standing there as though struck for a few moments longer, but then he cautiously stepped forward to open the door. There, laying prone on the ground and grasping his ankle in apparent pain, lay a young teenage boy. He was blonde and scruffy, with what could only be described as a very poor attempt at a balbo sprouting in patches across his face. The boy blinked blearily up at Raphael for a few dazed moments, and then attempted to climb back to his feet.
"Sorry s-sir! In my haste I-…I."
Raphael grabbed the young man by his shoulders, and shook him lightly to steady him, "It's all right Thomas. You just need to be more careful. Are you unharmed?"
The teenager nodded uncertainly whilst throwing an annoyed glance at the top of the stairs, and he hurriedly patted down him clothes to rid them of dirt. Once he'd straightened himself out, he seemed to register Ichigo's presence in the study, and he started in surprise, "Oh-I'm sorry sir. I didn't know you had a guest."
Raphael also glanced in Ichigo's direction, and the shinigami picked up a brief moment of pained weariness in the gaze. It was gone in the next second, and the doctor turned his eyes back on his servant.
"Don't worry about it. Now, why were you running around up here? Is something wrong?"
The servant's eyes lit up at the question, as though he'd just remembered that he'd actually had a reason to come careening up the stairs at break neck speeds. From his mannerisms, Ichigo got the sense that the boy might not be all there. "Ah, yes sir. There's a messenger here to see you. He's at the door."
Raphael quirked an eyebrow at the boy, and brushed passed him heading for the stairs. Ichigo ambled along behind him, and the boy gave him an inquisitive look as he passed.
"A messenger? From who? Did the man say anything?" the doctor inquired as he took his first step down. Thomas turned his attention away from a mysterious Ichigo, and at the new question he seemed to remember something else that he'd managed to forget.
"Oh! He did sir. He's a man sent from Whitehall."
"WHAT?!" Raphael almost screeched as he rounded on the boy, and Ichigo jumped to the side to avoid the doctor's sudden and unexplained ire. "Wha…Why didn't you say so earlier?!"
Thomas backpedaled rapidly into the wall, and he threw up his hands in surprise, "I'm sorry sir! I-"
"Never mind!" Raphael dismissed just as quickly as he flew into a panicked flurry. He practically threw himself down the stairs in his need to get to the foyer, and Ichigo was hot on his heels, "You didn't leave him outside did you?!"
"I-I-I I did sir!" Thomas anxiously called back, his voice a mixture of panicked confusion and distress, and the sound of Raphael cursing loudly in Italian echoed up the stairwell, "But you said not to let anyone into your home unless you said so sir!"
Raphael didn't answer as he took the steps three at a time, and he hit the landing at a run. He practically lunged for the door to pull it open, and the sight of the three men that had been left standing on his stoop greeted them.
Two of the men were obviously an armed escort of some kind, all dressed up in odd looking armor with visors hiding their faces, and the third man stood between them dressed head to toe in black. He was lithe yet short, with an obnoxious sneer painted on his face, and atop his head sat an odd, equally black hat. Raphael quickly bowed to him, and with speed opened the door fully to offer for them to come in.
"I apologize for my servant's rudeness good gentlemen," Raphael breathed as he forcibly calmed himself, "I humbly invite you to come into my home." The supposed messenger didn't even deem to look at the bowing doctor, instead glancing around at the interior of the house. The sneer seemed to grow at what the messenger saw, and Ichigo could guess just what he was thinking. He made no move to enter.
"It is good you apologized," the little man stated instead, and the pompousness in his voice was so overwhelming that Ichigo could practically smell it, "I haven't been treated like that in a very long time. To say I was surprised would be a drastic understatement."
Raphael rose steadily, and he once again gestured for the three to come in. Ichigo stood by him, watching with keen eyes. Strangely enough the messenger shook his head at Raphael's offer, despite having made a fuss already, "No, we will not be coming in. You are the master of this house, yes? The physician known as Raphael Diamante?"
"Indeed I am, sir," Raphael answered with a hesitant nod. The messenger then turned his eyes on Ichigo, and with a cursory once over sneered a second time, "And this man? Who is he?"
Raphael glanced at Ichigo for a moment, and he seemed to fumble with his words as he tried to come up with an answer. He eventually settled with, "He's an associate of mine. He's just paying me a visit."
The messenger raised a curious eyebrow at Raphael, "An associate?" he turned to regard Ichigo fully, "Are you perhaps a physician as well?"
Raphael moved to answer for Ichigo, no doubt about to say that he wasn't, but Ichigo beat him to it.
"Yes, that's right," Ichigo shot back with speed, and Raphael made a chocking sound that he tried to bury, "And you are a messenger. So how about you stop standing there, and tell us the message?"
The man's jaw practically detached at that, and Raphael groaned audibly. One of the guards shifted, and Ichigo's incredible hearing managed to pick up a small snicker from inside his helmet. After a few stunned seconds the messenger picked his jaw up off the steps, and started sputtering madly, "H-How dare you speak to me in that tone! I'll have you know that I am the personal messenger and retainer of-"
The stupid fool's jaw went slack again before he could say another word, and he started stuttering incomprehensibly as an unknown force made its presence known on his shoulders. His knees started to visibly shake as well, and the other three blinked in confusion at his sudden change in behavior.
Ichigo took a single step closer as he spoke up again, his voice balanced and expectant, "Tell us the message."
"Uh-h-uh yes, um—R-Raphael Diamante's presence is requested immediately. We are to escort him to Whitehall as soon as we find him," the messenger managed to stutter out, and one of the guards reached forward with a concerned hand to steady his charge. Ichigo turned away whilst letting the man breathe again, and he looked expectantly at Raphael, "Well, looks like someone is in need of a doctor." He glanced back at the messenger and pinned him with one of his patented glares, "Or two doctors perhaps? Wouldn't that be so much better?"
The messenger, still shaken to his core, managed a feeble nod at Ichigo's suggestion.
"Good!" Ichigo stated with a clap of his hands, suddenly seeming far less menacing, "Then we should get moving. Come on Raphael."
He breezed past the still stricken man to head for the street, but halted when he didn't hear the rest of them following. He turned back, and pinned the messenger with another glare, "Lead the way."
The small man immediately obeyed, and with movements that appeared mechanical headed for the coach that waited on the road. The obviously lost guards followed suit, but Raphael remained at the stoop with his arms now crossed. He gave Ichigo an unreadable once-over, and only spoke up once the others were out of earshot, "Ichigo…what the hell do you think you're doing?"
The visored quirked a small, almost mischievous smile, and answered as he walked away, "Just changing your mind."
"You're sure you haven't changed your mind yet?" Raphael whispered to him as they walked side by side, the sound of their boots echoing in the vast hall as they walked, and the teasing glint in his eyes honestly made Ichigo a bit nervous.
He didn't say anything back…but the doctor might be right. This wasn't what he'd expected to come out of his impulsiveness.
Ichigo wasn't stupid, and he certainly wasn't a coward. He knew what he was capable of handling. He'd been through some really weird shit after all. However, if he was being honest with himself he could admit that he was a bit out of his depth at the moment. Plus, he was even more on edge because of Raphael. He'd questioned him during their ride over, but the Italian prick had decided to leave him in the dark about what he was up against. It was no doubt some form of revenge for his impeccable manners back on the doctor's door step, although he got the feeling that there was something else to it as well.
His anxiety didn't matter though. This was necessary. He knew what Raphael had been about to say back in his study, and he wouldn't settle for that. He was far too stubborn, something that the aging doctor was probably beginning to realize, and if he had to put up with whatever this "Whitehall" had in store for him, then so be it. Besides, even if the place was a massive palace that was obviously meant to house some form of English nobility, it couldn't be much worse than dealing with the nobles back in the Seireitei.
He grimaced at that thought, and quickly retracted it. With nobles there was no way to tell.
He reached down into his trouser pocket to fiddle with the medallion as they kept walking, and he reminded himself that if things went wahoonie-shaped he could snag Raphael and make for a window. The owner obviously had the funds to replace some broken glass.
The messenger kept leading them down different passages, each as spacious and luxurious as the last, until he finally came to a stop before a massive set of wooden double doors. He glanced back at them nervously, eyeing Ichigo longer than he did Raphael, before he stepped back.
"Please wait here a moment," he stated quietly, obviously trying to mask his voice from whoever was beyond the door, "I will call you in shortly."
"Of course," Raphael accepted with a nod, and he turned severe eyes on Ichigo, "We are perfectly fine with waiting, right?"
Ichigo huffed silently at the doctor's accusatory tone, but nodded at the messenger anyway, "Go on."
As though waiting for Ichigo's approval the messenger visibly relaxed, but stiffened again as he turned to face the door. He hesitantly knocked, and then disappeared into the room, leaving the two of them alone.
He turned reproachful eyes on Raphael, "I wasn't going to just barge in you know."
The doctor scoffed quietly, and crossed his arms, "Of course you weren't. As if you haven't already shown me how rash you can be."
He didn't have a comeback for that, and for a moment they waited in silence. In the quiet his ears picked up the sound of voices from the other side of the doors, but just as they began to come into focus his friend spoke up again. Raphael reached over and grasped his arm tightly, "…Seriously though Ichigo, do not do anything stupid in there. If you make a fool of yourself, being embarrassed will be the least of your worries."
Ichigo looked at him fully, and he noted the stern look on the older man's face. Raphael was being very serious, and if Ichigo was right, he was also a little nervous. With his arm now released, he nudged his friend with his elbow, "You still not gonna tell me what's going on then?"
The doctor looked unsure at the question, and he opened his mouth. He didn't answer immediately though, only whispering cryptically once they heard footsteps approaching the door.
"You'll see soon enough…let's just hope she's in a good mood."
The door opened at that same moment, and the little messenger appeared once again, his face having grown far paler in the short time he'd been inside.
"Please come inside, she's waiting for you," he stated with a shaking voice, and he opened the door fully to reveal an antechamber.
So, he pondered with another grimace, they were dealing with a 'she' then. He'd have preferred a guy in this situation, that would have been infinitely easier to deal with, but he didn't have a choice. If he could determine what caliber of a 'she' though then perhaps he could get his bearings.
They stepped forward together, and Raphael gestured for him to follow behind. Ichigo didn't really notice, instead trailing along with his eyes firmly glued to the ceiling. He coughed quietly at what he saw there.
What was it with artists and painting naked people on ceilings?
It was beautiful though, he admitted, just like everything else in the massive room. Incredible artwork adorned the walls, and furniture of expert craftsmanship lay about. An open balcony hung over a courtyard several stories down, and light cascaded in to bathe the chamber in gold. Across the room from them was another doorway, this one already open, and beyond lay an equally beautiful bedroom. They both entered, Raphael looking visibly hesitant as they did, and Ichigo craned his neck to try and see just who lay within the curtained master bed.
Raphael came to a stop, halting Ichigo along with him, and the messenger scurried forward to slowly pull aside the curtains. Unfortunately, the occupant of the bed was mostly hidden, save for a tuft of orange hair that was bursting from beneath her sheets. She made no move to acknowledge their presence, and the messenger turned around and puffed out his chest.
"I present to you, her majesty Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Ruler of the isles of-"
"Jesus fucking Christ," was all Ichigo was able to get out, and that was because Raphael had managed to ram his elbow a good five inches into his sternum. The lack of oxygen meant he also couldn't start screaming.
This was FAR too high a caliber of a woman for him to deal with.
A pained groan erupted from the bed at the man's voice, and a muffled feminine one interrupted him, "Oh…for the love of God…will you just shut up you bloody fool?"
The poor sod fell silent save for a whispered apology, and Ichigo probably would have laughed at him had he not gone into a state of catatonic shock. As it was, he could barely keep himself from falling over onto the overly expensive carpet.
"Leave us," came the voice again, sounding so overwhelmingly miserable that Ichigo was still able to feel pity despite his shattered brain. The man was gone in a flash, obviously overjoyed to be able to escape, and the two of them were left to stand there awkwardly before the bedridden ruler.
Eventually, a small pair of hands appeared from the mass of sheets. They drew aside the top bedding, and an overwhelming mass of orange hair followed suit. The light shone off it like a beacon of fire, and it looked absolutely breathtaking despite its disheveled appearance. The face came next, pale and sharp, yet round and full of color. She was beautiful in that patented aristocratic way, but it was decidedly muted. No doubt from the sickness that had taken hold of her. She was definitely older however, easily into her forties, though that failed to detract from her beauty. A pure white gown covered her, but it was half way off one shoulder, disheveled just like her hair.
She sat fully upright, graceful even in that simple action, and she regarded them with dark brown eyes that nearly matched Ichigo's own. Her gaze shifted between the two several times, and she didn't speak.
Then, without a word, she lunged sideways off the bed.
The loud sound of her throwing up into a hidden bucket resonated off the walls.
All at once Raphael was at her side, and a horrified Ichigo watched on as the doctor calmly pulled the queen's hair back behind her head as she continued to wretch. The shinigami for his part was still too stunned to move a muscle, and Elizabeth, much like a water hose, kept right on going for a good half a minute. Eventually she spat, cleared her throat loudly, and whined like a dying animal.
"Raphael…R-Raphael, I swear…I swear that if you don't cure me I'll have you thrown off my balcony."
"Shhhh…It's alright," Raphael quietly consoled, not seeming to register the threat to his life, and he produced a handkerchief from his pocket. He gently began cleaning off her face, and then helped her back into her bed, "Don't worry your majesty, we'll figure this out."
Elizabeth swung back around, flailing slightly as she collapsed back into her mass of pillows, and she turned her eyes on the still motionless Ichigo.
"They told me that two of you were coming," she stated with a sniff, her voice sounding far stronger now that she'd thrown up, "But I don't recognize this man. Who are you?"
Having been addressed, Ichigo managed to find his voice, and he took a tentative step forward, "My name is Ichigo. I'm-uh…an old colleague of Raphael's."
He fell silent after answering, not really sure of what else to say to the fucking queen of England, and she lifted a curious eyebrow at him.
"Is Ichigo your only name young man? Or is there a reason that you don't want to tell me your full name?"
He opened his mouth, internally groaning at the question that haunted every single one of his introductions, and then closed it again as he fumbled. He spoke up quietly, "I'm sorry your majesty…but I don't have a family name."
Her delicate eyebrow rose even higher, and to Ichigo's confusion she smirked.
"Okay Ichigo… then tell me. What is it with nameless doctors and being devilishly handsome?"
He choked on air at the unexpected question, and he could feel his face immediately warming up. She laughed lightly at his reaction, no doubt reveling in his plight, and she shifted as she sat up again. Her grin grew even more cunning once fully upright, "If you had better hair, and a little blue box, I might just decide to keep you."
Now confused and internally screaming, Ichigo turned helpless eyes on Raphael. The bastard looked like he was barely containing his laughter. Elizabeth noted where Ichigo was looking, and turned around to face Raphael. She smiled up at him, and he visibly straightened.
"Oh relax Raphael," she crooned, though her voice suddenly quaked as though holding in a cough. She cleared her throat quietly before speaking, "You're just as handsome. You know there's a reason I always call you out here."
"Yes," the doctor replied calmly, not seeming to react, "At the expense of your own personal army of doctors that you keep on hand."
"Oh, don't worry about them," she stated with a pout, though it was obvious that she was teasing, "None of those fools are nearly as…skilled…as you. Their remedies never work. You are the best in London after all."
The older woman suddenly turned a very dangerous gaze on Ichigo, and all at once the shinigami felt very very small, "Though, I wouldn't mind if your good colleague took care of me…just this once."
That was it, Ichigo decided silently, and his fist closed into a white knuckled grasp around his medallion. He was literally inches from getting the hell out of there. He didn't know how much more he could handle. He'd never had an aneurism before, but between the coquettish Queen of England, Shiro's squealing, and the overhanging scent of puke, he just damn well might.
Raphael made a show of scratching his chin thoughtfully, and then gave Ichigo a mischievous look, "Hmmmm…I suppose that's alright. I'm sure he can figure this out. So Ichigo, tell us, what's the diagnosis?"
"Yes, Ichigo," Elizabeth teasingly agreed as she took a sip of the water on her bedside table, and she coughed heavily, "…What's the diagnosis?"
The flirting edge to that question sent a chill straight up his spine, and he had to fight tooth and nail just to keep from fidgeting. He opened and closed his mouth like a fish, much to the amusement of the other two, and he self-consciously shut it again. His brain desperately tried to drag the medical knowledge he had stored up in his head back to the forefront. It started coming back to him, and he silently thanked his idiot father for all those impromptu lessons from when he'd helped out in their clinic. He'd had to take care of Yuzu and Karin when they'd been sick too, what with Isshin not being able to leave his patients, and those memories would serve him just as well.
Now, he just had to put them into practice…on the Queen of England.
Suddenly, his resolve flared up at their teasing looks, and he squared his shoulders.
He could do this. He needed to do this. If he was going to convince Raphael to teach him then he needed to put on a good show, monarch or not, and one foxy middle aged woman wasn't going to stand in his damn way.
He schooled his features, and his face settled into a professional mask. With a confident stride he stopped at the edge of the bed, and he reached out toward the Queen's face. A sense of triumph welled up in his chest when Elizabeth reddened at the sight of his outstretched hand. He slowly brushed his hand against her cheek, causing her to turn scarlet, but then swiftly laid his palm against her forehead.
"…Yep. You're definitely running a high fever."
Her mouth dropped open in a silent stutter as he called her bluff, and that sense of triumph swelled further. He kept his features calm though, despite his own internal struggle.
"I can see that you've been vomiting, so I won't rule out the stomach as the root of the problem, but I also heard you coughing. How do your lungs feel?"
Elizabeth's eyes were as round as saucers, and Raphael was just as bad. She managed to answer him anyway, though she was definitely quieter than before, and there wasn't a hint of her previous teasing, "I um-…it's been hard to breathe for a while now, and they hurt."
He nodded calmly, "Alright, can you take a deep breath for me? As deep as you can."
She glanced at Raphael uncertainly, but complied just the same. She tried to draw in a deep breath, but almost immediately started coughing heavily. Her frame shook as she coughed over and over, and Ichigo could definitely hear the sound of phlegm deep in her lungs. He frowned at that, and once her cough started to calm down he gently took hold of her wrist. He frowned even harder at the clammy feeling of her skin, and he looked up to meet her eyes again.
"Okay…overall how would you say your body feels? Are you excessively tired? Feeling weak, and not up to moving around?"
She blinked in surprise at the question, and nodded, "Yes. That's exactly how I've been feeling…how did you-"
Ichigo didn't let her finish. With a swipe of his hand he whispered a hakufuku, and Elizabeth's eyes rolled back into her head as she slumped sideways without a word.
"Jesus Christ Raphael!" Ichigo almost screamed as he jumped away from the bed, "Why the fuck didn't you tell me we were going to see the Queen of England!?"
Raphael blinked stupidly, first at him and then at the suddenly comatose body of the Queen…and then he too exploded.
"What the hell are you doing?!" he yelled, and he practically lunged onto the bed to shake Elizabeth by the shoulders. When she didn't respond he turned horrified eyes on the visored, "What the fuck did you do to her?!"
"I-I knocked her out!" Ichigo yelled back, and if it was possible the doctor's eyes grew even larger. "You knocked her out?!" Raphael exclaimed, panic painted across his face, "Why in God's name did you do that?"
"She was totally coming on to me!" he cried, and he flailed his arms around without thinking, "She was coming on to you too!...Wait…ARE YOU SLEEPING WITH THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND?!"
"No I'm not sleeping with the Queen! She just does that sometimes, and keep your voice down you bloody idiot! Now undo what you did!" Raphael demanded, and he lunged off the bed to run and close the bedroom doors to muffle all the noise.
"I can't!" Ichigo exclaimed as he tried to calm down, and he numbly trailed after Raphael. He stopped though when the doctor suddenly rounded on him, and he honestly looked inches away from decking the shinigami right then and there. He threw up his hands defensively on instinct, "Don't worry man she's perfectly fine! She'll wake up in a couple of hours, and won't even remember it happened!"
The furious Italian slowed down at his words, and his shaking hands sank back down to his sides again.
"…You're sure she's fine?" he asked, suddenly a lot quieter, and the edge in his voice made him realize that the doctor might not be as harmless as he usually appeared. Ichigo nodded as he breathed a heavy sigh, "Yes. She's completely fine. I swear."
The doctor closed his eyes, and he drew in several fortifying breaths as that sank in. He relaxed after a few moments, and his voice came back in a quiet question, "Okay…now why did you knock her out in the first place…and don't tell me it was because she was coming onto you because that's a ridiculous reason to knock someone out."
Ichigo chuckled nervously and scratched his head. He glanced between the knocked out queen and his friend for a few more seconds before he answered, "Well. The diagnosis is definitely bacterial pneumonia…and I knocked her out so I could heal her with kido. I can't really heal her with it if she's watching."
Raphael nodded his head slowly as though he understood, but then shook it the other way, "Okay first, I still don't understand why you did that. Second, I have no idea what 'kidos' or 'bacterials' are. Finally…I'm really impressed that you diagnosed that correctly because she does indeed have pneumonia."
Ichigo managed to resist the urge to smack himself with a face palm, but he did sit down on the bed with his head in his hands. He silently cursed Kisuke for the thousandth time for dumping his ass in the dark ages. "Alright…okay, I can't really blame you for not knowing about bacteria since the microscope hasn't been invented yet. That isn't important right now though."
He looked back up at a confused Raphael, and he raised his palm for the doctor to see. A moment later it was surrounded by the green light of healing kido, a light that only the two of them could see, "This is healing kido. I can heal a lot of different things with this like wounds or sickness. Elizabeth over there wouldn't have been able to see the light, but if she saw me wave my hands around only for her to be magically healed, she'd have burnt me at the stake. Now watch."
He turned around, and started healing the downed monarch. He began at her head, and slowly worked his way down to her lungs. Raphael watched on in silent wonder, and he finished within a minute. He turned back, and gestured for the doctor to come forward, "Touch her forehead."
Raphael did, and was visibly amazed to find that the fever had completely disappeared, "Successone…you can heal them just like that?" his gaze shifted back over to Ichigo, suddenly looking incredulous, "Why the hell do you want to be my apprentice when you can do that?"
He quirked an eyebrow at the doctor, and his friend caught on a moment later, "Ah…right…burnt at the stake. Makes sense."
"Exactly," the visored breathed as he rose off the bed, and he scrubbed a stressed hand down his face, "I want to help people, by being a doctor like you, but as I am now I can't. I want to learn practical methods, become a real doctor, and…right now you're the only one I know who can help me with that. I can't just knock out every patient I get."
Raphael didn't look at him, instead looking over at the bedroom's balcony, "…I see."
He grimaced at his friend's noncommittal reply, and he grabbed Raphael to make him face him. The doctor frowned at being forced to look him in the eye, and with as much earnest sincerity as he could muster, he repeated his request.
"Will you please help me, Raphael?"
They shared a brief silence before the doctor shook him off, and he turned away again. The Italian sighed heavily, and a dejected line suddenly appeared along his shoulders as he walked away toward the open balcony. Ichigo followed after him, not about to give up without an answer. The doctor came to a stop before the ledge, his gaze turned downward toward the immaculately manicured courtyard below, and Ichigo started boring holes into his friends back with an unrelenting stare.
Eventually, the doctor let out a small, resigned chuckle. It was quiet, so quiet that anyone beside Ichigo would have missed it, and there was a sadness there that he could hear just as clearly. Raphael turned back with a forced smile that was halfway to a grimace painted across his face, and he crossed his arms as he leaned back against the balcony.
"You know Ichigo…maybe you're right."
Fragile hope blossomed in his chest, but on the outside he cocked an eyebrow in question. The aged Italian continued before he could ask what he meant.
"This morning, Meli, one of my retainers, told me that I should take the day off. I brushed her off, adamant that I keep going no matter how old I've become…but maybe it is time. Maybe I should…start to let go."
He popped himself off the balcony, and he laid a hand on the silent shinigami's shoulder, "Perhaps," he wearied with a pause,"…Perhaps Meli's words and your unexpected arrival weren't just coincidence. Maybe it's time I let someone else take over. As much as I don't want to admit it, I really have turned into an old man. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to last on my own…so having you as an apprentice is probably what I need."
Relief flooded his vein at the doctor's consent, but he couldn't stop a frown from forming despite that. Raphael may have just agreed to be his teacher, but a deaf man could have heard just how unhappy the doctor was. He knew he was asking Raphael for a lot, especially since the Italian didn't owe him a thing, but he got the feeling that his despondency wasn't born from this alone. There was something his friend was hiding from him, and while he definitely wanted to be a doctor, he hadn't intended for it to turn out like this. Not really knowing what to say he apologized out of reflex, "I'm sorry Raphael…I-"
The doctor waved his hand in a vague dismissal, "Whatever you're about to say, don't. You've done nothing wrong. Besides, my staff will be over the moon about this, so I suppose I should thank you for taking the job," he chuckled lightly at that, actually sounding sincere this time, "I know they'll be thanking you, Meli especially-"
Abruptly, Raphael was interrupted by the sound of loud knocking on the antechamber door, and both doctor and new doctor-in-training froze up at the sound.
"Your Majesty? Is everything alright? Why is your bedroom door closed?"
The two men, suddenly finding themselves in an extremely compromising position shared a single silent look. The look managed to speak volumes, but still boiled down to a single word. A word both of them whispered in panicked apprehension.
They immediately flew into action. Raphael practically lunged for the door, and Ichigo dove across the room to the downed sovereign's side. The shinigami's panic doubled when he saw the state they'd left her in, and with haste he tried to slide her lopsided body further under her sheets. He tried to close her gaping mouth, but her slack jaw didn't really want to cooperate. Raphael had already opened the door by the time he realized that her eyes were still wide open, and that the pupils were rolled back into her skull.
"Good afternoon my good man!" Raphael greeted boisterously as he wrenched the door wide open, sounding so exuberant that the poor, unsuspecting servant actually took a step back in fright, "What, pray tell, can we do for you?!"
"Ahh-uh…," the new servant stammered as he tried to hold onto the stack of linen he almost dropped, and he blinked owlishly up at the tall Italian that he didn't recognize, "I was just-uh-"
Suddenly, he seemed to remember himself, and his demeanor immediately turned suspicious. He stared up at the Italian with accusing eyes, and then jolted when he scanned the room. His eyes fell on Ichigo, who'd been standing next to the bed, trying (and failing) to look as inconspicuous as he possibly could.
"What on Earth are you two doing in-?!"
The doctor interrupted him with an overbearing laugh, and he slapped a hand roughly on the man's back, "Do not worry Sir! We are just a pair of medical professionals, here to help our blessed Queen!"
He gripped the man by the shoulder, and practically dragged him into the room, "As you can see!" he exclaimed as he gestured at the now peaceful looking monarch, "Her majesty has fallen into a deep slumber, thanks to the wonderful sleeping tonic that I've given her!"
"E-eh? A sleeping tonic? I've neve-"
"And so!" Raphael continued, not giving the man a chance to protest, "She has instructed us to make sure that NO ONE disturbs her rest! So please, if you have business here then return in-," the doctor turned his eyes on Ichigo, obviously looking for help, and the visored mouthed 'four hours' silently, "Four hours!"
The Italian spun the now thoroughly bewildered man around by his shoulder, and gave him a firm yet gentle nudge back out the door, "Do tell the rest of the staff please! Have a pleasant day!"
With that, he slammed the door closed, and he pasted his back to it looking like a cornered animal. His head snapped in Ichigo's direction, and his wide eyes matched his next words.
"Time to leave."
Ichigo tore his medallion from his pocket, and slapped it against his chest.
Kaien leaned his head back against the wooden post, and he gently closed his eyes. Light shown through his eyelids at random from up above, but it was sometimes darkened by the leaves in the trees blocking out the sun. He grunted quietly in annoyance at the irregular flash, and it made him cover his face with a hand. Muffled sounds of talking and laughter drifted towards him from behind, and he knew without looking that his mother was in the house talking with a few of their family members.
A short distance across the field from him stood his father and little sister. He peeked out from underneath his hand to look at them, and smiled lightly at the sight. Kukaku was standing before a table, (or actually standing on a box to stand before a table), and she was diligently tinkering with the fireworks she was learning to make. His father stood across the table from her, and even from a distance Kaien could hear his old man giving his little sister instructions on how to properly prepare gun powder for fireworks.
The sight warmed his heart. He really wanted to go over there, if only just to watch, but he didn't. This was something they needed to share, and he wouldn't interrupt their father-daughter bonding time. He closed his eyes instead, and slid down into a more comfortable position on the back porch. He ran a hand through his mess of black hair to scratch it, and he silently wondered what to do with himself. The majority of his family was out at this time of day, either at work or…not. The Shiba family was far too large for him to keep up with all of their day to day shenanigans.
Either way, his home wasn't exactly lively, and thus he was left with only one alternative.
With a genius plan now in mind, he scooted further back into the shade, found himself a comfortable plank of wood, and settled.
He smiled slightly when that familiar drowsiness crept up on him, and the sleepy afternoon soon grabbed him fully. His head lulled on the wood, and his thoughts slowly blurred. He jumped a little when Nejibana started humming a nameless melody, but the tune she offered him didn't come alone. As though led by her angelic voice, he found his heart and soul standing on a nameless beach, and the warm water lapping at his heels beckoned him deeper into that vast ocean.
In mere seconds, he was at peace.
Then, all at once, that lovely peace was shattered.
His eyes flew open as his heart was gripped with sudden panic, and as though guided by a mysterious force, his closed fist shot straight up in the air. It collided with the face of a pouncing Rōrensu Shiba, and his father was sent rocketing straight up into the ceiling. His head, as though abiding by a different set of natural laws, managed to break straight through the porch's wooden roof, and his body dangled there limply several feet off the ground.
Kaien jumped to his feet, annoyed, bewildered, and still halfway asleep. He shook his fist at the dangling body in front of him, "Damnit dad! I swear, this was half the reason why I wanted to go on sabbatical so much! At least out there I could get some sleep!"
As though by magic Rōrensu appeared beside him with his arm draped over his son's shoulders, and he laughed jovially even though his face was already starting to swell.
"Ha!" the clan head cried as he clapped a hand on his son's back, "Well done my son, I can see that I have nothing left to teach you! You really are ready to be Clan head!"
Kaien deflated with a long suffering groan, and he shook his father off, "You're crazy old man. Leave me alone. I'm going back to bed."
He stalked away, partly because he actually wanted to sleep, but mainly because he didn't want to listen to whatever his father was about to say. Hearing the words Clan and Head together in the same sentence was nausea inducing at best.
But of course, that didn't happen.
He paused at the threshold, but not because he wanted to. The voice his father just used was one he knew, and the way he said his name made his stomach twist.
Well. That was it then. Looks like his dad had finally decided to say something.
'It's your own fault you know,' Nejibana unhelpfully supplied, but he could tell that she pitied him despite the words, '…Are you going to ignore him?'
'No,' was what he said, but deep down he really wanted to say yes. Nejibana knew that of course, so she nodded with that serene, knowing smile, 'Good. Why?'
There was an infinitesimal pause after that, and Nejibana frowned in confusion.
He nodded slightly, 'Yeah. Respect.'
Because that's what it truly was. Respect was literally the only thing keeping him rooted in place instead of sprinting through the house. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have, ever, and especially not on the back porch with other family members in ear shot.
Nejibana was right though, which was unsurprising. He really had brought this on himself. His old man had told him to come talk to him about becoming the clan head when he was ready, effectively putting the ball in his court. What his father probably hadn't expected was for him to drop said ball, along with his racket, and for him flee with his tail between his legs from the court all together.
Of course, even running from a talk was understandable…up until a certain point. He'd crossed that point a month ago. Even his father, who was incredibly patient even on the worst of days, had to decide eventually that enough was enough.
He sighed as resignation took hold. If today was the day, then that was that. He couldn't keep running forever.
Best to just get it over with.
He turned back, a scowl unintentionally forming on his face, and he crossed his arms, "What?"
The scowl faltered a second later, and a little bit of guilt weaseled its way into his heart. He'd just sounded incredibly confrontational without really meaning to, and the look on his dad's face made him feel like crap. He hadn't meant for that one word to come out the way it did.
Rōrensu didn't say anything for a second, probably because Kaien's tone had off balanced him, but he started talking eventually.
"Is…everything alright Kaien? You, uh, haven't exactly been in the best of moods lately, and when I say lately, I mean you haven't been in a good mood in weeks. Your mother is starting to get worried…and frankly so am I."
His gut twisted, and if it wasn't for his low simmering indignation he would have hung his head in shame. His father sounded so uncharacteristically tentative that it hurt to listen.
"You guys don't have to worry about-"
"Of course we do," Rōrensu interrupted, "We're your family." His dad took a step forward and laid a hand on his shoulder, "You've stopped talking to us Kaien. Hell, you've been avoiding us so much that we haven't had a decent conversation in weeks. What kind of parents would we be if we weren't worried?"
He blinked in surprise at his father, and that guilt grew a little more. Had he really been avoiding them that much?
'Obviously,' Nejibana deadpanned, 'How have you not noticed?'
He scowled harshly. Well he hadn't, and now he was the bad guy.
"I'm sorry dad, I didn't mean to do that to you guys…I've just got a lot on my mind."
"I can see that," was his father's semi-sarcastic reply, but he dropped the sarcasm as he sighed, "Look, I know you came home to news you didn't expect. In hindsight, dropping the news about you taking over as soon as you walked in the door wasn't my best idea, and I don't blame you for being upset about it. But you can talk to us Kaien. About anything. You know that right?"
"Of course I know that," he insisted, "It's just…"
What the hell would he have said?
It was the main reason why he'd been running from this in the first place. He just didn't know what to say. What could he say? That he was happy about it? That he was excited to become the new clan head?
Who in their right mind would be happy about something so terrifying?
He'd seen what clan politics were like. It was betrayal, murder, lying, and bribery. It was a deadly game, one the other families played out of sheer lust for power. Every part of it was disgusting, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He'd seen good people, friends from his childhood, turned into uptight assholes in the blink of an eye all because of that cesspool, and that wasn't even the worst of it. He knew what the other families were like, and while some of them were alright, the others were just hives of backstabbing cutthroats.
If he became clan head he'd be put in their line of fire every day for the rest of his life. He'd be forced to dance with them even if the rest of his family didn't give a damn, all for the sake of appearances.
So no, he didn't know what to say, and if he did know what to say, it would be along the lines of 'Well dad thanks for the offer, but how about NO.'
When he didn't say anything, his father heaved a heavy sigh, and he dropped his hand from his son's shoulder, "Look. If…if you don't want to be clan head that's alright. You're first in line, but if it's really something you don't want I'll name someone else. I don't know for sure, but Kukaku or Ganju might want it-"
"I'll do it."
Rōrensu blinked in surprise as he took an involuntary step back, "Wh-what?"
"I said I'll do it."
Silence hung in the wake of that, and his father stared at him like he'd grown a second head for several seconds.
"O-kay…you're gonna have to back it up and explain that one Kai-"
Suddenly his father stopped, and his head slowly craned around to look behind him. Kaien looked behind him too, and both of their gazes settled on the small girl across the lawn. There Kukaku stood on her little box, happily fiddling with the fireworks she was making, and she was so engrossed that the double pair of eyes that had settled on her didn't even register.
His father visibly deflated as he sighed, "Oh."
Kaien shrugged, "Yep. When do I start?"
Rōrensu looked back at him, suddenly very stern, "Kaien. That is NOT a good reason to decide something like this."
"It's the best reason I can think of. Besides, I've made up my mind, no sense in arguing about it now."
The Shiba clan head smacked a hand to his face in a resounding face palm, "I can't believe it. I swear it's like they're not even my kids."
Kaien shrugged a second time, "Sorry."
"No you're not," his dad deadpanned, but there was a hint of good humor in his voice that made Kaien want to smile, "Sometimes you're absolutely ridiculous, you know that?"
"I don't think it's ridiculous. Besides, you should be happy. You managed to find the one reason that I'd accept this so easily."
"I guess…," Rōrensu agreed, but his voice sounded unsure. He glanced between his son and daughter a few more times before he deflated even further, "Damn it Kaien this isn't what I wanted to happen."
He turned his back on Kukaku and grabbed Kaien by his shoulders, "I wanted you to decide to do it, not…this. I know what's going through your head right now. You feel like this is the only way now, and I want you to see it differently. I want you to see it the way I saw it! As a great responsibility, and a service to the family you love!"
"That is exactly how I see it."
Rōrensu stared at him for a long time after that, and Kaien stared right back. He wouldn't back down, and he ignored how the other family members in the house had gone silent to listen in. Them eavesdropping didn't matter to him anymore.
Finally, his father smiled a small smile, and he reached out to grab Kaien by the shoulder one last time. He squeezed it lightly, and the look in his eyes was of nothing but pride.
"You really love them don't you?"
He nodded, and he didn't waver in the slightest, "More than anything."
Rōrensu nodded as well with that small smile still in place, and he stuck out his hand. Kaien grasped it and shook.
"Very well…congratulations, Kaien. With your acceptance, I now officially name you my successor, and our Clan head in training."
He opened his mouth, either to say thank you or something else, but whatever it was abandoned him as he nearly jumped out of his skin. Raucous applause had erupted behind him, and the unexpected noise made him spin in place. He was greeted by the sight of several dozen of his family members all jam packed against the windows and door frame clapping and cheering.
He shook his head at the sight, but he couldn't help his smile. What a bunch of loons.
Suddenly, a commotion at the back of the group broke out, and he could hear his mother Rozan somewhere in there making noise. A moment later he saw her poke her head out of the mass, and a swift elbow to one of his cousin's kidneys let her make it through the door. She strode up to him with a smile on her face, and she brushed her long black hair aside as she came to a stop in front of him.
He smiled down at her, and scratched his head sheepishly, "Heh…uh-sorry mom."
She shook her head good naturedly, and reached up to grab him by the face, "Don't worry about it. Just don't ignore your mother anymore," she planted a kiss on his forehead, "Congratulations boy."
She subsided, that loving smile still on her face, and Kaien opened his mouth a second time to say thank you.
But once again, he didn't quite make it.
Time slowed around him as something inside him started to twist. His mouth hung open from the unfinished words he'd been speaking, and he watched as his mother's eyes suddenly abandoned his to stare out across the yard. He kept staring at her, and he saw how her eyes lit up in sudden horror. He watched as her hands flew to her mouth in slow motion, moving to muffle the scream of terror that her face foretold. He watched as similar expression grew on all of his family members, and a sense of horrible fear welled up in his chest.
Something was coming. He could feel it in his flesh, in his bones, and in his soul. Something was about to happen, and every single molecule in his body was yelling in warning.
Like clockwork his body shot into overdrive. Fourteen years of training and honed instincts came flooding back into his frontal lobe. Adrenaline blasted through his veins as his heart started slamming mercilessly against his ribcage. He could feel his arms and legs tense, and without a conscious thought he was already facing towards the yard.
The sight that greeted him was something straight from a nightmare.
There Kukaku stood, her little box teetering as she started to fall back with her hands outstretched. Her face was a painting of terror, and the pulsing, crackling light in front of her was the only reason.
It was the only reason she needed to be afraid. It was the only reason any of them needed.
It was the only reason he needed to take off in the fastest shunpo of his entire life. It was so fast that for the briefest of moments there were two Kaien Shiba's in the yard. One was left standing on the porch, his face twisted in fear. The other stood tall, arms outstretched, and before his mother even had time to scream he had his little sister wrapped up in his arms.
Then there was only one Kaien, and as the other vanished, the table finally erupted.
Like a strike of lightning, blinding white light was seared into the retinae of the gathered Shibas. The shockwave from the exploding mass of fireworks floored all of them.
All of them, except for one.
He stood there, feet firmly planted to the ground with his back to the explosion, unwavering like the mast of a ship in the middle of a storm. He could feel his clothes burn away, and the skin on his back was flash cooked by the overwhelming burst of fire. Unholy pain burned away all of his thoughts, and it was all he could do to keep from screaming. He wrapped his arms tighter, pulling the fragile body of his little sister closer to him as he shielded her the best he could, and he felt her desperately try to writhe out of his grasp.
Then just like that, it was over.
His whole body creaked as he slowly let her go, and the joints in his arms popped loudly as he released the tension from them. He looked down at her teary eyed face, and she too looked back up at him in shocked wonder.
He smiled, but the numb feeling that was spreading through his body made it difficult. He reached up to touch her head, and he stroked her hair. He gently wiped away her tears with his other hand. He pulled her forward, and he hugged her tight.
"You're okay Kukaku…you're okay."
Then just like that, the pain came roaring back to life. He could feel the blood pumping all across his back, and he knew instinctively that he'd lost the majority of the skin back there. The ragged pieces of the robe he'd been wearing started to soak up the blood that cascaded down from his shoulders, and within moments his vision started to fade. His knees gave out first, and the only sound that he could hear over the roaring in his ears was his sister screaming his name. He hit the grass like a sack of potatoes, and sweet blissful unconsciousness washed over him like a cresting wave.
With his last conscious thought, he took the chance to appreciate the irony. It looked like he'd be getting that nap after all.
Sam stood tall with his chest puffed out, and he drew in a massive breath of air through his nose. He released it in an explosive sigh of happiness, and he closed his eyes as though relishing in what he'd just done.
"Christ I missed that smell. Ne're thought I'd make it back here again. It's good to be home."
"Don't know what the fuck you're talkin' about mate," Gareth grumbled as he ambled up beside his friend, "Smells like straight sheep shiet. The sooner we leave this piss hole the better."
"Oh now don't be sayin' that," the Englishman retorted with a laugh, "This is where I was born Gareth. Show a little bit of respect! London's what made me into the man I am today!"
"No wonder you're such an arsehole then. It all makes sense now."
"Oi! Mates! Isaac's nae doin so good o'er here! Could ye come take a look at him?" Ian called from the nearby alley, managing to stop Sam mere moments before he pounced on the burly Welshman. The two turned in the Irishman's direction, and Sam's face cracked into a wide grin when he saw what was wrong.
Isaac had sequestered himself in a side alley, and he was bent double against a wall clutching his stomach in apparent pain. They started heading over to him, but both stopped and started laughing when the Cairo native started spewing his stomach contents all over the muddy street.
"Well now…" Sam cajoled as he came up beside Ian, "What's wrong with you Isaac? Finally gotten a taste of my homelands great cooking? I told you it was good didn't I!"
The darker man grimaced up at his friend, and his foot lanced out to kick him in the shin, "I-I trusted you Sam. What the h-hell have you done to me?"
Sam continued to tease his swaying comrade, and Gareth slid over to nudge Ian in the side, "What did he get in him exactly?"
Ian tisk'd at the question, and his expression morphed into one of pity, "He was so hungry after we got off the ship tha he went right up to one of those sausage sellers on the wharf. Bought three of'em, and ate them before I could stop him."
Gareth cringed visibly, his mass of scars shifting as he did, and he too tisk'd at the situation, "Shiet. I'm surprised he's still breathin', much less standin'."
Ian nodded in agreement, and Gareth stepped forward to smack Sam upside his head, "Alright, leave the lad alone. Do you know this part o' town Sam?"
The Englishman rubbed the back of his head with a scowl, but looked around despite that. He glanced at several of the shops until he spied one in particular, and his eyes lit up in recognition.
"Aye. I know where we are. You got somewhere you want to go or-?"
"Nay, not for me," he interrupted, and he gestured at the still heaving Isaac, "For him. Where's the nearest doctor around here?"
Sam blinked at him as though in a daze at the question, but then he turned around again to look back at the street. He scratched his head before mumbling something to himself, and then he answered, "…Well, there was the doctor my ma took me to when I was a boy. Don't know if he's still around though. It's been years. Everyone always said he was a great doctor tho-"
Isaac suddenly made a noise that sounded a lot like pained protest, and he tried to push himself off the wall, "There's no way in hell you pricks are taking me to a doctor," he started ambling away at a pathetic pace, "I can't fucking stand doc-"
"Oh, no you don't," Ian chastised with a sigh, and he came up behind Isaac to grab him by the side. Gareth came up on the other side, and he swung the dark man's other arm over his shoulder too, "We're taking you to a doctor lad. Those sausages aren't meant for anyone but an Englishman."
Isaac groaned once more in protest, but they collectively ignored him. Gareth glanced around, and when he didn't see what he was looking for he raised his voice, "Oi! Aiden!"
A loud 'What?!' drifted toward them from further down the alley, and Gareth grunted as he got a better hold on the man he was carrying, "We're leaving. Get your ass over here!"
Another loud 'Fuck you!' was his answer, and the Welshman rolled his eyes. He looked over at Sam, and nodded, "Lead the way mate, before he really does croak on us."
They took off down the muddy road, and Sam led the way with his head on a swivel. They were forced to back track several times, but eventually their guide seemed to figure out where he was going. Their surroundings morphed as they navigated the crowded streets of London, and they faced death by horse drawn cart several times along the way. Sam was entirely oblivious, and happily gave them a running history lesson. The fact that his lessons were largely incoherent, or that no one actually asked for them, didn't seem to bother him.
"Over there was where my mate john died. A good fellow, if a bit of a prat. He never did tell me why he-"
"Sam!" Ian interrupted with a growl, and he kicked some dirt in their guide's general direction, "Where the hell is the doctor?"
Sam frowned, and then huffed before continuing down the street, "He's just down a ways! Sheesh. I know where I'm going, no need to get so upset."
Ian scowled and pulled Isaac closer to him, "I'm not upset," he began, but he paused when his cargo groaned loudly. He glanced down at the dark man with trepidation, and relief flowed through him when his semi-comatose friend's head just lulled a little. He didn't want more throw-up on his clothes. Ian shared a look with Gareth before he spoke up again, "I just want to find this guy already. Isaac isn't…looking…so good…"
He trailed off as his words left him, and they collectively came to a stop. Sam stood in front of them with a smug look on his face, no doubt proud at having managed to find the right place, and Gareth grunted as though impressed.
"Nice place," was all the Welshman bothered to say, and he slipped out from under Isaac's arm, leaving the still silent Ian to hold him. He made to pass Sam to knock on the massive house's door, but his friend grabbed him by the arm before he could.
"Nah, this way," the scruffy Englishman informed, and he inclined his head toward a path that led around to the side of the house. They ambled away, and both forgot Ian.
The Irishman sighed as the other two disappeared around the corner, and without taking his eyes off of the house he jerked Isaac around to straighten him.
"We're here mate. Can you stand?"
Incoherent mumbling was his answer, but Isaac still managed to stand on his own two legs again, even though both were visibly shaking. He grasped Ian's shoulder as he tried to remain upright, "W-…Where are we?"
Ian flicked a glance at him for a moment, "Some doctor's place…and judging by the house, he's a very good one."
Isaac groaned loudly at the news, and he swayed where he stood, "Bullshit...there are no good doctors."
He huffed a laugh as he grabbed his counterpart again, and he steered him toward the side path, "That may well be, but you're still going in there. You'll be down sick for a week otherwise. Now, come on."
They came around the house to discover a smaller building attached to the side of the main one, and they both entered. Practically milliseconds after they walked in Ian had to lunge back out the door to grab a fleeing Isaac, and he forcibly dragged the poor man back inside. The Cairo native kicked and writhed in Ian's grasp, but he was still too weak to really escape. Gareth and Sam watched on with matching grimaces, but neither moved to help. They didn't blame Isaac for trying to run, especially since neither really wanted to be there either. The doctor's office…hadn't had the atmosphere they'd been hoping for.
The screeches of a man crying in apparent pain echoed throughout the small building, and the voice of another man trying to console him joined in. All four of them could hear the wet slopping sound of unknown fluids splashing on the floor in the other room, and a strange cracking noise also drifted into their ears. Each crack unsettled them in an unexplainable way, as though whatever was cracking wasn't meant to crack in the first place, and the sound itself was muffled like the pop of a large knuckle.
Gareth was the first to act since the others were still trapped in their disgusted imaginations, and he turned to address the only other person in the room.
"When can we get our friend in to see the doctor?"
The other three all overcame their apprehension at the same time when they heard the Welshman's voice, and they turned as one to see who Gareth was talking to. There, sitting at a table with a massive book in front of him, was a young orange haired man. He lounged there with his eyes almost staring through the tome, and it was obvious that he'd zoned out and stopped reading it some time ago. He flicked a bored glance up at them, and after sparing each of them a look his eyes settled on the obviously ill one of the four.
"He's busy at the moment," the younger man began, and he leaned back to study Isaac with shrewd intensity, "…What exactly did your friend eat?"
The four of them blinked in surprise at whom they all assumed was the doctor's assistant.
"Oi…how did you know tha-"
"Some sausages from down at the harbor," Gareth supplied as he railroaded over a stupefied Sam, "He had'em a few hours ago."
The orange haired assistant grimaced as he nodded in understanding, and he scratched his chin thoughtfully, "He's thrown up right?"
"That's right," Ian answered this time, and he pulled Isaac forward toward the table, "Just once before we brought him in."
The assistant nodded again, and he absentmindedly started drumming his fingers on the desk he sat before, "Well, he's got food poisoning, though you probably already-"
"Ichigo! I need the chisel!" the voice from the other room suddenly shouted, and judging from the tone whoever the voice belonged to was struggling with something.
"Which one?" the now named Ichigo called back, and he spun around to face a grill over an open fire. On top of the grill was a large pot, and the steam rising over it showed the rest of the men that it was filled with boiling water.
"Bone!" was the answer, and Ichigo's hand darted into the boiling pot of water. It emerged with what looked like a fat headed scalpel, and with speed he twisted to fling the medical instrument through the door that led to the operating room. The echo of it thunking into what sounded like a fabric covered wall could be heard over the screaming.
A muffled 'Thank you' drifted back, and Ichigo turned his attention back on Isaac, "Like I said. He's got food poisoning. I don't think the doctor will-"
"O-oi! You just stuck your fucking hand in a pot of boiling-" Sam interrupted with a cry, but Gareth reached forward and smacked him over the head again, "Let him fucking talk you idiot."
"-Need to help your friend," Ichigo continued, not having paid attention to the by-play between the two, "There isn't much we can do for food poisoning, but the one thing we can do is get those sausages out of you."
He stepped around from behind the table, and he grabbed a slumped Isaac by the shoulders to guide him back out the door. The rest of the men followed, and they watched on as Ichigo steered their friend over to a beautifully tended flowerbed.
He patted the dark man on the back, and gestured down at the obviously cared after flowers, "Go on. The faster you get it over with the better you'll feel."
Isaac made no move to comply, and instead turned lost eyes on the man who was helping him, "I-I…I don't-"
"What?" Ichigo asked as he peered questioningly down at the slumped man, "Do you want me to leave? It's alright if you do. I know it's kind of embarrassing."
Isaac opened his mouth again in a silent stutter, but his voice abandoned him as unholy pain surged up from his stomach. Ichigo patted him on the back again, "I'm telling you man, you'll feel a lot better the sooner you do it. Your stomach hasn't fully digested the food yet so there's still time."
Isaac shook his head as he bent double, and he clasped his stomach tighter, "I-…I don't know-!"
All at once Isaac's eyes flew open as his knees buckled, and he collapsed down on all fours as a torrent of throw up flew all over the beautiful flowers. Ichigo dusted his hands off, and he nodded happily down at his handiwork.
"Sorry," he consoled, and the downed man paid him no mind, "I didn't mean to hit your back that hard. You just needed to throw up."
Ichigo turned away, and he headed back for the small building. The three other men stood motionless, and just as the assistant was about to head back inside he gestured for them to follow him.
"Make sure he drinks a lot of water after you take him home," he informed as he sat back down in front of the book, "And if he has trouble keeping food down then let him have soup or something. He'll be fine after a little while."
With that he left the gathered men in silence, and he turned his attention back on the book. The altogether perplexed group of wandering swordsmen stood there staring at him, not entirely sure what to say, and after several seconds of awkward silence Ichigo took note.
"Why are you all still standing there?" he asked without taking his eyes off his book, "Unless one of you needs help as well?"
They all took an involuntary step back at the otherwise harmless suggestion, and Gareth shook his head, "Nay, we-uh-don't think that'll be needed."
Ichigo looked up again, and stared at the group incredulously, "…Okay…then what? What do you want?"
"Don't we need to pay you?" Ian inquired with a lost look on his face, and the other two nodded in agreement.
Ichigo huffed a laugh, that incredulous look still on his face, "Uhhh—no? All I did was make him throw up?"
"Wha-why the he-?"
"Thank ya kindly," Gareth stated evenly while smacking a hand over Sam's mouth, "We'll just be going then."
The Welshman dragged his angrily writhing friend out the door with Ian not far behind, and the screaming from within the clinic subsided when the door shut. Now out in the bright sunlight Gareth released the still wiggling Englishman.
"Oi!" Sam loudly exclaimed as he wiped his mouth off, "Why the hell wouldn't you let me talk!"
"Because you're stupid when you open your mouth, that's why."
"I'm stupid?! That guy in there's the stupid one! What kind of doctor don't charge huh? Every one I've met would charge you for just standing in his office!" he shot back with his hands thrown up in the air, "That guy was a fucking weirdo! Of course I was gonna ask why!"
"Oh Christ, just forget it will ya?" Gareth dismissed as he started walking away, and Sam growled at being ignored by his arch-nemesis, "Now come on. Grab Isaac when he's done. We need to find Aiden before he accidentally kills someone."
Since the dawn of soul society, the Shiba family had always been unique. Almost all of the other families would say they were too unique, but when they did say it, it was always in hushed whispers. A casual observer would think that they whispered because they didn't want to tarnish their own well-manicured image, and while that was slightly correct, there was more to it then something so simple.
They whispered because they were afraid. Afraid of what would happen to them, not as a family, but individually. Political backlash was usually at the forefront of every noble's mind, even when they were having a simple conversation over lunch, but when it came to the Shiba, they had other reasons for keeping their voices low.
It was because the Shiba's didn't give a shit, and it wasn't the nonchalant kind of not giving a shit either. It was more of an, 'I don't care what people say, so if I want to punch you in the mouth then you better get ready to catch these hands.'
It was more accurate to say that they aggressively didn't give a shit.
And when a whole family of nobles aggressively doesn't care, about appearance or tradition or even self-preservation, then fear should be the only natural response.
Satoru nudged Rōrensu in the side and cracked a smile, "You know, when you invited me out here for this, I was kind of expecting a ceremony? Your letter did say ceremony."
The now retired clan head huffed a laugh, and clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder, "Ha! What are you talking about? That was our ceremony!"
"All you did was throw that robe on him, and yell that he was the new clan head."
"That's right! Just the way my father did it, and his father before him. We do value tradition here."
Satoru scoffed loudly, and he slanted a sideways look at his companion, "Shibas? Tradition? You don't know the meaning of the word."
The bald Shiba shrugged uncaringly, but there was good humor buried in the gesture, "I guess that is our tradition. Breaking from them."
That was true enough. There really wasn't a single noble family out there that matched the Shibas in the slightest. It was something he'd always been jealous of, if only slightly. When he'd been young and still growing up he'd sort of wished that he'd been born into this family. That wasn't to say that he didn't love his own of course, he obviously did, but if he was being honest…the Shiba family did have it better, or at least easier. No elders, no overbearing traditions and customs to adhere to, and no real obligations either. No one expected anything from the Shiba, not even themselves.
Although…that might not be exactly accurate. People did expect things from the Shibas, but none of them were decent.
Satoru watched on, content to subside and let Rōrensu enjoy the moment. The father couldn't be spared to take his eyes off his son for one second, and the sheer pride emanating from the bald man made it stuffy to be near him. The captain turned to spy the new clan head down amongst the gathered crowd, and he shook his head good naturedly as he watched Kaien fight to fend off his own relatives. It seemed that no matter which way the young man turned or how many hands he shook, there was always someone new just waiting to put him in a headlock.
He eyed the boy closely as he waded through the mob, paying special attention to his mannerisms, and his brow creased in concern. He silently tapped on Rōrensu's shoulder.
"Your boy…how is he?"
Rōrensu blinked over at him as the question registered, and then frowned a little at the reminder.
"He recovered quickly, surprisingly so in fact…however, I don't think it was a full recovery. He won't admit it, but his back isn't the same as it used to be."
Satoru frowned as well, "I'm sorry I…," he glanced out at Kaien again, and shifted as he changed tunes, "Well he definitely hides it well. Looking at him you'd never know he'd been hurt."
Rōrensu nodded, "True, he's always been resilient. His recovery was so rapid that the doctors couldn't rightly explain it. It was like his body was healing through his sheer force of will," the father smiled warmly then, "My sons always been a strong one. I'll admit, seeing what I saw that day still turns my stomach, but I'll always remember what he did. He pulled some downright crazy shit…and no matter how you look at it he saved his sister. That explosion would have taken her arms, if not her life."
The Shihouin head cocked an eyebrow, "What crazy shit did he pull?"
The bald man started in confusion, "You mean I didn't tell you?"
"Well I know the jist of what happened, but from what you said I don't think I've heard it all."
His companion smiled and huffed a laugh, "Ha! It's quite the story let me tell ya. Kaien doesn't like telling it, he's too modest, but I swear it was the wildest thing I've ever seen."
Satoru frowned and crossed his arms, now suddenly intrigued, "Alright, we've established that the story is crazy. How about you tell it to me now?"
Rōrensu huffed another laugh as he planted his hands on his waist, and he started to tell the story. He recounted from start to finish almost exactly what happened, minus the specifics of his conversation with Kaien, and by the end Satoru was similarly amazed.
"Damn. You weren't kidding. That is some wild shit."
"I know right?!" Rōrensu vehemently agreed as he threw his hands in the air, "I don't know how he did it! There were two Kaiens! Two! He shunpoed so fast he left an afterimage, AND managed to outpace already exploding gunpowder! He did the impossible, and the boy hasn't even gone to the academy yet!"
Satoru nodded along in agreement, but his mind was reeling at the information. Rōrensu was more right then he knew. What that boy had done was certifiably impossible. The speed or skill he'd apparently displayed wasn't of course, he knew shinigami who could have done the same, but it was the fact that he hadn't been to the academy that made it impossible. Inborn talent only went so far, and that level of skill only came from one place; Professional teaching. To pull something like that off without it?
"And he said he's never had a teacher?" he questioned incredulously.
Rōrensu nodded, looking just as incredulous, "That's right. He apparently taught himself, as strange as that may sound…though I am a little inclined to believe him. He's always out in the yard training. Even when he was bedridden for all that time he was still yearning to go out and train, much to our annoyance."
Satoru 'hmm'd in acknowledgement, not really sure what to make of that. If the boy had taught himself then just maybe. Besides, witnessing the impending death or mutilation of a loved one can push just about anyone to do the impossible. Maybe that's all it was.
Still, he'd have to pull the new Shiba head aside in the next few days, and talk to him personally about it, if only to praise him for his deed. He deserved it by all accounts.
Suddenly, he felt a tugging sensation on his leg, and Satoru glanced down at his side. There standing next to him, and only reaching up to his knee, stood his little girl. His face broke into a smile as he knelt down to her eye level, and he ran a hand through the vibrant purple hair on her head.
"What's wrong baby? I thought your mother had you."
"I did," Tindra supplied with a huff as she materialized next to the three of them, "But she snuck off again. I swear she's better at hiding from me than you are."
"Ha!" Rorensu exclaimed, "She takes after her father!"
"Indeed," she agreed, still looking annoyed, "Though I'm not sure how I feel about that."
"Oh don't worry too much dear, she's just getting some practice in for the future is all. Right Yoruichi?"
His daughter, who still hadn't told him what she wanted, nodded in agreement. Tindra looked close to busting a blood vessel, "She's only 17 years old damn it! Quit teaching her this stuff Satoru!"
"I haven't taught her a thing," he retorted with a smile, "She's just that good."
Tindra rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything else on the subject. Instead, Rōrensu engaged her in conversation, and Satoru turned his attention back to his daughter, "What's wrong hun. You don't look very happy. Tell dad what's wrong."
Yoruichi shuffled a little, but she met his golden eyes with hers. She spoke up after a few seconds, "I'm sorry otou-san…I'm just bored."
He huffed a laugh at that, and smiled softly, "Trying to tell me that you want to go home huh?"
She shrugged her little shoulders, and glanced away, "I don't know. There's just nothing to do here."
Rōrensu suddenly took a step towards them and cocked an eyebrow at them, having obviously overheard, "Did I just hear right? Did the little lady say that's there's nothing here for her to do?"
Yoruichi turned around looking a little frightened that she'd upset the adult in front of her, but the smile on his face made her nod.
"Well now," Rōrensu exclaimed with a raised finger, "That won't do at all! We can't have the Princess of the Shihouin clan go home, and tell all of her family members that the Shiba are a bunch of lame losers! Come! I'll introduce you to my kids! You and my daughter Kukaku will get along famously!"
The little girl's golden eyes lit up a little in excitement, but she turned around the next second looking for her parent's approval. Satoru nodded down at her with a smile, and gave her a little push on the back.
"Go on baby girl! Make some friends! Your mom and I'll come get you when it's time to leave."
Not needing anymore encouragement the little princess took off with Rōrensu hot on her heels, and the two parents smiled as they watched her leave. Tindra slid over to his side, and placed her hand on the small of his back.
"Good," she stated softly, "She can make some friends outside of the family now…and maybe this'll help Kukaku a little."
Satoru glanced down at his wife with a look of concern, "What's wrong with Kukaku?"
Tindra frowned sadly, and pulled herself closer into her husband's side, "Rōrensu was just telling me that Kukaku has…been down lately. She thinks what happened to her brother-"
"Was her own fault," Satoru finished for her with a grimace, and he sighed, "Then yeah, you're right. Hopefully our girl can help her. We'll have to bring her over here more often in the future."
Tindra smiled up at him, and then rested her head on his shoulder. She settled in as both stood off to the side, and they quietly observed the Shiba clan's wild festivities.
Alzheimer's disease; a disease that affects the mind.
More like a disease that completely shatters it.
It's difficult to see a fate worse than death, to see something that no amount of kido or medicine can heal. There are so many horrendous ways to die, all full of pain and anguish and suffering, and yet sometimes you come across that one circumstance where death is a welcomed blessing.
Is it worse to die while you're aware of it? Is it so terrible to face death head on knowing that the end has come? Yes, you might not be prepared, and you might want nothing more than to keep on living, but is that not preferable to the opposite?
A man may live a full life. He may travel the world, bear witness to the wonders of existence, forge undying friendships, fall head over heels in love, and be all that he can be, but those things only matter if he remembers them. No one else is going to remember his struggles and triumphs quite like he will. Thus, is it not preferable for him to die with that present in his mind, like a warm companion holding his hand before the open abyss, than be forced to live on with nothing at all?
Alzheimer's disease has been, and always will be one of the absolute worst diseases to ever affect mankind in its entire existence. However, in 16th century Europe they didn't even have a name for it yet.
Blank eyes stared up at the ceiling, and the quiet murmur of a whispered mess of a word escaped the mouth of the dying man. At first it went unheard due to its muffled hush, but it soon turned into a subtle whine that couldn't be ignored.
Ichigo blinked drowsily as he was slowly pulled from his troubled sleep, and he shook himself as he tried to wake up.
"Y-yes Raphael? Is everything alright?"
The bedridden doctor blinked lazily up at the ceiling, probably not aware of what he was really seeing, and he shifted over onto his side with another quiet whine. Ichigo rose from the chair he'd fallen asleep in, and gently pulled the doctor back over onto his back.
"Do you want something to drink Raphael? Do you want some wate-"
He abruptly halted, and then wrinkled his nose as the smell hit him, "Oh…I see. Come on my friend, let's get you up."
He pulled back the sodden blankets, and lifted his old friend up as carefully as he could manage. After setting him back down again in a nearby comfortable chair, he called for Meli who lived in the room next door. The maid stumbled in with a yawn, obviously about to go to bed, but she perked up as she too realized what was wrong. They shared a silent conversation with a glance, and she nodded.
"I'll go fetch some new sheets, and I'll change his clothes when I get back," she whispered, and then left just as quietly as she'd come.
With that matter dealt with, Ichigo turned back to examine his companion. Raphael sat there, blank faced and silent, and he made no move to change his awkward sitting position. Ichigo reached forward to do it for him, and then looked into his dead eyes.
They were strained, with a bloodshot tint to them, and Ichigo sighed quietly.
Raphael hadn't fallen asleep then, meaning something was wrong with him. Of course, that could be explained away with him needing to go to the bathroom outside of his normal schedule, but he'd rather play it safe then force his friend to endure any more torment. He'd do what he could, and try to set his mind at ease. He turned to grab a few sheets of paper off of the nearby end table, and he sat down to read them aloud.
It was a letter. A very long letter in fact, and one that had been written many years ago. The parchment was rumpled, and the ink had almost entirely faded from the page. It was an old memory, one that had been revisited over and over throughout the years, and it was the last link to any kind of joy for the doctor.
It was the last letter he'd ever received from his wife. The last words she'd given him before she'd died.
"To my dearest love, Raphael," Ichigo began quietly, trying his best to maintain a soft composure despite his subtle grief, "I hope and pray that this letter finds you safe and in good health."
He carried on, flowing from line to line without missing a beat. He'd read the letter many times before as it was. It was the only thing left that could ignite a spark of emotion in his teacher's eyes. As he spoke, Raphael sadly remained much the same, and that feeling of subtle grief grew a little stronger.
Was even this not enough anymore?
He forced himself to keep reading even though it did neither of them any good. He flipped through the wrinkled pages, feeling their texture on his fingers, boring holes into the faded ink, and seeing through the lines. He didn't want to forget them. He didn't want this life to pass without someone remembering it, and just like so many other things, Raphael couldn't do that for himself any longer.
He wound to a close, trying his hardest to imitate an emotion he'd never felt before, but despite his performance nothing seemed any better.
"For you my love, I will wait all my life, and I will always remember our promise, for I know you will as well. From my heart to yours-Gabriella."
Where once there were smiles, there wasn't even a twitch. Where once there were laughs, not even a word. Nothing happened, and the husk that Raphael had become stared off into the distance with nothing to see.
Ichigo clenched his fists, crushing the letter in his hands, and he released a tired sigh.
For a moment, there wasn't anything else to be heard. The house was entirely silent, and the only thing that filled it was the doctor's quiet breathing. Even then, that only lasted for a few seconds more, until that too finally came to a complete stop.
He blinked tiredly at the body only for his eyes to shoot open in genuine surprise. Slowly, a chain of iron links rippled into existence on the still chest. It lengthened and stretched, but stopped short with nothing connected to it.
Ichigo cracked a small smile.
"Well. Certainly took you long enough."
"Not by choice, I assure you," Raphael commented dryly from beside him, and he frowned down at his slumped corpse, "…How long did you take care of me exactly?"
Ichigo casually kicked a leg over the arm of his chair and he waved a flippant hand, "Eh, a few years."
"Uh-huh," was his response, and Raphael made a show of sniffing the air loudly, "And yet you still couldn't let me die without some piss in my trousers. How kind of you."
Ichigo shrugged, and the smile was still there, "Blame Meli. She's the one who changes your clothes."
The ghost face-palmed, "That's…a tad embarrassing. What would Gabriella think?"
They were quiet for a spare moment, but then they're gazes met at the same time.
Both cracked up laughing.
Ichigo jumped from his seat still laughing, and not sure of what to do offered his hand in greeting. Raphael decided to grab him instead, and they shared an embrace. "It is so good to see you my friend!" Raphael exclaimed happily, "It has been far too long."
"Definitely," Ichigo agreed, and he placed his hands on the doctor's shoulders to give him a once over, "How are you feeling?"
Raphael flicked a glance down at his body, and smiled, "Honestly? I'm glad to have that over and done with. It wasn't on purpose, but I really did drag that out," he turned his eyes back on Ichigo, and the visored was momentarily taken aback by the sheer gratitude he saw there, "With that in mind, I must thank you. For taking care of me, I mean. I've never had a truer friend."
Ichigo scratched his head sheepishly, and he turned his own gaze down at the corpse. He reached forward to close the dead body's eyes, "Nah. What carries more weight? That I took care of you when you needed it, or that you let me be your apprentice for years? I owe you for far more than this."
Raphael chuckled, looking and sounding several decades sprier, "You don't see it how I see it then."
The doctor strode forward to squat and personally examine his own corpse, and he absentmindedly fiddled with the long chain that dangled from his chest.
"Then how do you see it?"
Raphael turned a wry smile to him, "You did your best to let me live out the last of my days with dignity, and for right now, nothing can equal that."
Ichigo grimaced and did his best to shrug it off, "I did what anyone would have done-"
"No Ichigo," Raphael interrupted, and that wry smile grew a little more earnest, "Not anyone, you know that, and especially not for as long as you did. Now, quit arguing about it."
Ichigo opened his mouth to argue about it anyway, but stopped himself when Raphael's didn't stop smiling. With a mental shrug he let it drop. It wasn't like it was a contest.
"Anyway," the doctor continued as he turned away from his dead body, choosing instead to point dubiously down at his soul chain, "Mind telling me what this thing is?"
Ichigo flapped a hand, "Don't worry, it just means you're dead."
"Oh," he stated mildly, and he gave it an experimental tug, "That's nice."
"Yep," he agreed as he rose, and he patted down his pockets for his medallion, "There are worse alternatives."
Raphael shrugged, "True enough I suppose. Becoming a hollow never did sound appealing when you explained it."
He turned to leave, but Raphael stopped him, "Where are you going? Is something wrong?"
"Just need to go grab something," he dismissed as he left, "Don't go anywhere alright."
The sardonic 'Where do you think I'm gonna go?' drifted after him, and he shot back a half-hearted scowl as he left. He headed down the dark hallway for his room, but paused half way when Meli rounded the corner with the new sheets in her hand. Suddenly remembering that she'd been due to return, Ichigo screamed internally and desperately started thinking of an excuse to send her to bed so she wouldn't discover that her employer had just croaked. She kept walking despite him standing right in front of her, and even with his mind flying a million miles a minute he failed to realize what was about to happen about a second too late.
She walked straight into him, squawking in surprise and sending the bedsheets flying to unfold, and cascade along the hallway as she fell right on her butt. She flailed there in a brief moment of disorientation, and then ripped away the sheets that had fallen on her face. She turned annoyed eyes on him.
"Damn it Ichigo," she quietly seethed, trying to keep her voice down so as not to wake the other servants, "Why do you always have to be so quiet all the time?"
Ichigo stood there mouth agape, and with his hands poised at odd angles like he'd been trying to make a sales pitch. He blinked and let them drop, "It's-uh…not by choice. Sorry," he extended a hand to help her up, "Are you alright?"
Once she'd regained her feet she huffed and nodded, "Yes, I'm fine. Now, help me with the sheets. I want to go to bed."
"Ah-uh," he fumbled as she started picking up the strewn bedding, "It's alright Meli. I can take care of it. You can go to sleep."
She gave him an odd look from below, and shook her head, "Don't be silly Ichigo. Just help me. It will go faster with two people anyway."
He tentatively tried to take the sheets from her when she turned her back, but she stepped out of reach, "No, really Meli. I don't mind doing it-"
She frowned at him, and grabbed the last stray pillow case, "Are you going to change Master Diamante's clothes?"
She managed to make him fumble for words again, and she nodded before breezing past him, "I didn't think so."
Now at full panic, he spun and grabbed her by the shoulder, not entirely sure of what he was going to say. He faltered there as a mess of words formed in his mouth…and then he froze.
Something horrid brushed against his senses, something dark and familiar, and he felt Meli's shoulders tense up under his hand. He didn't know what she felt, but she had obviously felt something. She was probably feeling her flight of fight instinct kick-in too.
He knew this feeling. He knew it very well in fact. An internal alarm had been set deep in his soul that screamed every time he sensed it. That very alarm had saved his life more times than he could count. When he'd try to catch a few hours of sleep in the shelter of a ruined home in the crater of Karakura, or in the shadow of a sand dune in Hueco Mundo, that very alarm had often times been his only line of defense.
That alarm meant that a garganta had just opened. Somewhere very close to both of them a portal into oblivion had been ripped through the fabric of space. From it that sinking feeling of dread and doom was seeping into the hall like a high tide, and within the span of a nano-second something deep inside him snapped.
Honed instincts born from years of war ignited in his veins like a trail of black powder. Muscles tensed and relaxed in rapid succession down his arms and legs, cracking joints and easing out the tension in his frame in automatic preparation. Everything around him slowed to a crawl. He could hear the creak of the wood beneath his feet, he could hear Meli's shallow breathing, and he could hear his own heartbeat pulsing life through his fake body. Like a drum it pounded in his head, smacking his skull down over and over into the massive pool of adrenaline hiding within.
A heartbeat. His eyes snapped to the closed door as he sensed the maw in Raphael's bedroom. He heard the surprised shout from his friend, and the following clatter as the doctor stumbled away in fright.
A second heartbeat. He sensed the hollow that had decided to pay a visit. He could feel its primal emotions saturate the air. He heard the thump as it took its first step into the human world, and his fingers twitched in desire for his zanpakuto
On the third heartbeat, he cursed.
With all the might his gigai warranted him he shoved Meli back down the hallway. In their last moment of deafening silence in the still peaceful house, he screamed at her.
The wall of Raphael's room exploded as a massive armored tail ripped through it. As thick as a tree trunk and as fast as a sword it tore through the wood in a horizontal swipe, and it cut into the wall across the hallway leaving a gaping breach. Horrified screams and chocking coughs filled the house as the sleeping staff were all torn from their dreams, and a thick haze of dust and debris hung in the air.
Horrific screeches of an unholy beast echoed throughout the house, but Ichigo was the only one who could hear it, just like he was the only one who could see the tail that was still wreaking havoc in the hallway. It kept swaying back and forth, and the beast it belonged to probably hadn't even realized what it was doing.
He dove headlong into a sprint, slammed his shoulder into his bedroom door, and he came to a screeching halt before his dresser. His hands blurred as he ripped the drawers out, flinging their contents every which way, and out of the corner of his eye he spied the metal disc sailing across the room. He snatched it out of the air like lightning, slapped it against his chest…and then breathed.
He couldn't stop himself from cracking a small smile.
He shifted as his senses and reaction time melded into a single well-oiled machine. Like clock-work his hands found his blades, and their familiar weights nestled themselves amongst the sea of background emotions that drove him forward. He was moving through his bedroom wall before the gigai had even hit the floor, and then straight through the next wall that followed. He stepped out of the last wall that remained, and then drank in the sight before him. He yelled a curse the next second, and surged forward in a shunpo.
"I'M NOT GONNA LET YOU GET AWAY!"
He desperately lunged into the garganta that the hollow had just retreated into only to find himself engulfed in darkness. He stomped harshly as a new path way ignited beneath his feet, and he took off into a sprint as he tried to catch up to the hollow that had just vanished into the oblivion. He could hear it a good distance ahead of him, running just like he was, and the sound of more than one set of feet echoed back to him.
His eyes spotted the opening of the exit as soon as the crack formed, and another surge of crazed adrenaline shot through his veins. He sprinted harder, almost desperate enough to risk an actual shunpo within a garganta, but his common sense managed to scream louder than all of the other emotions he was feeling. With another several yards still remaining he dove again, and he managed to slip through the closing breach by the skin of his teeth.
He tumbled into a roll, and his back ignited with pain as it roughly hit stone. He bounced back up at full alert, ignoring the pain entirely…and then he stopped. He gazed around at his new surroundings, and a sinking feeling of dread clawed its way into his chest.
They were in the Menos forest.
Raphael, a normal, freshly dead soul with just enough reiatsu to be sensed, was in the Menos forest.
He was going to be the only fish at a shark feeding frenzy.
His desperation tore to new heights, and he spun towards the nearest sound. His eyes managed to catch the tip of a barbed tail as it disappeared behind one of the giant quartz trees, and he blasted into shunpo. With crazed fervor he slammed his blades into the tree that separated him from his prey, and like shattered ice the quartz exploded into millions of shards. He fell through it with his blades descending from overhead, but he was forced to spin away as the barbed tail he'd seen went streaking for his gut. He disappeared into another shunpo as soon as his foot touched down. He came screeching to a halt on the other side of the beast, and for the first time since the chase had begun he actually got to fully see what he was after.
A massive scorpion conjoined with the upper body of a woman loomed before him. Far larger than a truck and entirely black, it gripped Raphael's writhing form in one of its massive claws. The claws themselves sprouted from the humanoid midsection, and almost everything was covered in a black armored carapace. The only place that lacked the carapace was the human section itself, and the beast's hollow hole rested right at its naval. The head was engulfed by a horrific hollow mask that matched a scorpion's face, and the tail hovered above the hollow's head with its tip poised to strike down.
Suddenly, the hollow started screaming in an obviously feminine voice as she retreated from him, and she pulled the still writhing body of Raphael closer to her chest.
"Stay away shinigami! I will not let you take him from me!"
Ichigo's fingers twitched around his blades, and his ears picked up the distant screeches of hollows drawing near. It seemed they'd caught the scent, either from Raphael's signature or from their echoing cacophony. He eyed the female hollow, and with a grimace saw how her claw had started biting into the skin on Raphael's neck.
This would have to be close…and quick. He get inside her guard, slice up through her sternum and bisect her mask from below.
His foot shifted back a fraction, and his grip tightened.
He'd slay her before she could harm a hair on his friends head.
The voice of Raphael reached his ears to tear through his murderous thoughts, and he blinked in surprise when the doctor twisted in the hollows grip to stare up at it.
Ichigo stared incredulously.
"Oh hell. Not this again."
He clenched his teeth, making them grind loudly in his head, and he took several steps forward, "Raphael! We don't have time for this!"
"SILENCE SHINIGAMI!" the hollow screeched shrilly before looking down at Raphael, "Yes! It's me my dearest! I knew you hadn't forgotten about-"
She was suddenly cut off when a sandaled foot planted itself directly in her midsection. Like a cannon she blasted away to bounce across the stone, and only stopped after slamming into another crystalline tree. She staggered and righted herself with her many feet, and started to panic when she realized that Raphael wasn't in her claws anymore.
Ichigo set the doctor back down on his feet, hastily moving to open a garganta out of there, but the doctor instead rounded on him and grabbed him by his front, "What the HELL has happened to my wife Ichigo!?"
"That's not your wife anymore," he refuted harshly, ripping the doctor's hands away, "And you need to get out of here right now!"
He turned away again, but Raphael started shouting. Just what they needed. "LIKE HELL ICHIGO! I KNOW THAT VOICE, AND THAT IS MY WIFE! WHAT IN GOD'S NAME HAS HAPPENED TO HER!?"
Ichigo's expression turned murderous beneath his hood. They really didn't have time for this. "She's a hollow."
"A HOLLOW?!" Raphael exclaimed, knees shaking and looking like the world was coming to an end, "HOW COULD MY WIFE BE A DEMON?!"
He snatched the doctor's wrist and pulled him closer, and with the other hand ripped opened the garganta, "Not important right now Raphael! I can save her, but you can't stay here!"
Suddenly, alarm bells rang in his head, and letting Raphael go he instinctively spun into a slash. His katana cleaved through the mask of the hollow that tried to attack his rear, and its head split open like a watermelon. It sailed over his head to tumble like a limp ragdoll, and a pound of lead dropped into his stomach when he realized what he'd just done.
Well. That was it. Their fates were sealed.
Screeching and roars of every kind erupted from all directions. Each one added themselves to a single chorus and more and more joined with each second. They could smell it, just like they could sense it. There was a corpse, an uneaten corpse brimming with reiryoku, and every single hollow that had been coming for Raphael wanted to eat it.
"FUCK!" he roared, and he twisted again to try and grab Raphael, to physically throw him into the garganta if nothing else, but the man was gone. His head snapped to the left, and he damn near exploded.
There the dumbass was, running like a madman across the rocks trying to reach his hollowfied wife…who was now being swarmed by a pack of hollows.
"GABRIELLA!" the idiot screamed, and he kept barreling headlong into certain death. His shouts drew the attention of several of the hollows, and the shinigami watched as they turned towards the sprinting ghost.
"YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!" he roared once more. He made to run after him, but he was forced to twist again. He dragged his wakizashi down the length of the soft underbelly of another ambushing hollow, and it died before it hit the floor. Several more spilled out of the darkness all gunning for him, and he shouted for Raphael to get his ass back to him as he slew them.
"NO! I'M NOT LEAVING WITHOUT HER!"
That was it. He'd had enough.
Within a second the hollows surrounding him were dead. All of them crushed into bloody masses from the sheer weight of his reiatsu. He turned back, his eyes molten rage, and he materialized next to Raphael in a blink. He smacked the doctor so hard across the back of the head that he face planted. He turned and looked over at Gabriella, who was putting up a valiant fight against the other hollows, but she was obviously about to be overwhelmed. He appeared beside her, grabbed one of her legs with a hand, and then threw her entire body away to slide across the cavern.
"I am SO FUCKING DONE right now!" he yelled at the surrounding beasts, all of whom were now preparing to attack him. He dropped his swords, letting them clatter on the stone floor, and he pointed both of his index fingers straight ahead.
Two crimson ceros erupted from his hands, and they joined as one in a cataclysmic blast. The unholy beam of energy tore through the earth in a straight shot, carving a tunnel into the black abyss that seemed to go on forever. Every hollow that'd been standing before him simply ceased to exist, and by the time he lowered his hands the rest had already started to flee.
'Sweet jesus…' he muttered as he watched them turn tail, and his shoulders slumped out of relief.
That had been too close.
He turned around, about to say as much to his idiot of a friend, but then he froze…and his heart shattered for the 1000th time.
"No…" was his only whispered word. His knees shook. A moment later they gave out, and he fell. His eyes were wide, unblinking, unable to look away, and at that moment he knew that he was in a living nightmare.
"This can't…no this can't be happening," he whispered again. It couldn't be happening.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
That was his last conscious thought.
The atmosphere shifted. It was a change in the wind that any spiritual being could pick up on. A chill swept through the cavern like mountain air, and that very air started to tremble.
Gabriella's already broken mind had its focus shattered by the new feeling crawling up her back, and she paused her delirious feeding frenzy to glance around. Her eyes fell on the kneeling shinigami across the cavern that she'd forgotten about, and a sinister smile curled across her bloody mouth.
"I told you he was mine shinigami."
The kneeling entity didn't make a sound at her words, and she stood up straight to examine the shinigami.
"Did you hear me fool?! I said he's mine. Just like he's always been. His soul is now within me, so there is nothing you can do. Now leave!"
Once again, the shinigami didn't make a sound. The hooded being was apparently frozen in place, locked in time. The hollow scowled at not receiving a response again, and she took a step closer.
"Shinigami! If you do-"
That was her last comprehensible word.
All of her legs gave out at once as a weight she never imagined possible came crashing down on her entire body. Her cheek was pressed against the stone floor with the force of a million tons, cracking her mask with the pressure, and she started howling in blinding agony as her body started to snap under the strain. Her multiple eyes desperately tried to see through the pain, and what she did manage to see left her with but one emotion.
The shinigami was long gone, now replaced by an unholy fiend. It stood tall, with its horns reaching high, and after one last moment of silence it threw its head back and roared.
The cavern shook as the profane scream shattered rocks and cracked the walls. Energy poured out of the beast's body like a maelstrom, and it raised its hands high as its reiatsu climbed ever higher. Particles of matter from every surface started to slowly disintegrate, and the cavern began growing larger as the monster's very voice destroyed it.
Finally, the roar came to an end. The creature's hands fell to its sides, and the empty sockets of the demonic mask found the eyes of the scorpion. Slowly, it took its first steps forward, and it stalked toward the downed hollow. Gabriella couldn't move no matter how much she tried.
There was no escape.
The closer the being got, the worse the pressure grew. Steadily, the rest of her bones started to snap. Then they were crushed within her own flesh. She felt her internal organs start to rupture, and blood started leaking out of her every orifice. Finally, the monster was before her, staring down emotionlessly without a sound. It reached down to grab her by the neck, and lifted her up.
Her screams ceased when he crushed her voice box in his clawed hand, and her many eyes bulged as her airways constricted. With the reiatsu still crushing her even while being held aloft, her limps started ripping themselves out of their own sockets to slam to the floor.
Yet she wasn't quite dead.
At long last the creature opened its mouth wide. Its lower jaw stretched down to an outrageous degree, and in one slow bite ripped Gabriella's head clean off. The sound of crunching bone and other horrific noises echoed in the cavern as the beast kept eating, and blood and entrails flew every different direction as he ripped into the corpse. Eventually, there was nothing but scraps left, and the creature dropped the remains of the carcass on the stone floor. Its gore drenched hands fell down to its sides, and it stood there frozen once again.
It was done.
"WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST LISTEN TO ME!?" Ichigo yelled, and he flailed his arms around in annoyance, "IF YOU HAD, THEN MAYBE YOU WOULDN'T HAVE HAD YOUR HEAD RIPPED OFF!"
"Damnit Ichigo will you stop yelling! It's not like I asked my wife to devour me!"
"S-sorry about that dear."
"It's quite alright," the doctor consoled as he rubbed his wife's back, "You weren't yourself. I know."
Ichigo smacked a hand to his face, and sank down to a seated position on their skyscraper. "It's 'quite alright' he says…I can't believe this. I got all worked up over nothing."
"Good. I'm glad you see it our way. Now how about you tell us where we are exactly."
The shinigami scrubbed a tired hand over his face, wiping away the rain, and he turned his eyes on the Italian couple. A couple that had despite all, somehow managed to end up in his inner world.
"You're in my soul," he deadpanned, and he kicked his legs over the side of the building to let them hang there. He didn't move to explain anything else, and instead sullenly stared out toward the stormy horizon.
"…Do what now?" was Raphael's apprehensive response, and Ichigo sighed again.
"Your wife ate you, and then I ate your wife. Or at least Shiro ate your wife. I wasn't in the driver's seat for that one I assure you…and now you're here."
"Y-You ate my wife?!" Raphael exclaimed, looking utterly lost.
"She ate you first man, we were just retaliating."
"Christ Ichigo that's hardly an excuse."
The shinigami shrugged noncommittedly, "Yeah, my bad. Won't happen again, I promise."
"Uh-huh…," was his response, and Raphael crossed his arms, "…Well. Can we get out of here?"
"Not right now we can't. Shiro's a lost cause right now, and without him I can't do konso on either of you. Or on all the other witless idiots that came in here with you…damnit there's got to be hundreds of them down there!" He trailed off as he watched the crowd of confused people meander around the streets down below. None of them had a clue what was going on.
"Then what are we supposed to do?"
Ichigo huffed in annoyance and glared over at the dead doctor, "Take some of your own advice, and relax. We're gonna be here for a minute, so have a seat."
He patted the concrete edge next to him, motioning for them to join him, and he eyed the two of them shrewdly.
"Besides…I think the three of us need to talk."
Author's Note: Alright, so I know a lot of you might want an explanation (and some of you probably don't care), but I had my reasons for being gone for so long guys. There are a lot of reasons actually, but rather than list them, suffice to say that I'm just a loser. Sorry everyone. I didn't want to let you all down, but I did.
Been goin through some shit I guess.
Anyway...that chapter was wild. Like, I mean there was the queen of england for some reason? Two separate instances of projectile vomiting? I mutilated two of my main characters? (Poor Kaien...and Raphael seriously couldn't catch a break, I mean he dies from Alzheimers and then gets eaten by his own wife.) There were also several references in there too.
Also...why do I have nearly 2,500 followers on this shit train?
Finally, I'd like to dedicate this chapter to my auntie linda. She suffers from very severe Alzheimers, and I love her to death. Till next time guys!