Author's Note: Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Consider this my thank you to all my readers, and I hope you enjoy this wrap-up of the squirrel arc! :)
After much deliberation, I've decided not to do the thing due to several reviewers bringing up legal gray areas that could get me in a lot of trouble. Thank you all for sending in your opinions!
After escaping from the Student Council and making sure that they weren't being followed, it didn't take long for them to find the next squirrel.
They had more or less picked a random direction and started wandering when they stumbled across it, this one splashing around in a park fountain. A quick jolt from Candice and it was down for the count, leaving Ichigo free to stuff it in his inventory while Candice picked another direction. Compared to the drag-out brawl from earlier, the fight was almost anticlimactic. The same could be said of the three after that, because none of them shared the electrical immunity of the car-sized rodent from earlier it simply took zapping them once to knock them out.
Ichigo wasn't about to complain about the simplicity; since the two of them were running around Kuoh to find the squirrels, easy fights weren't something he was going to question. Candice was having a good time seeing how much she could get the rodents' fur to stand on end, something that reached new heights of hilarity when one of the them fell out of the tree it had been perched in after being jolted. By the time she was done, they all looked like giant static puffballs, and he greatly enjoyed laughing at the sight as he collected them and followed after his - friend? Date? - companion.
It was starting to get late, nearly dinnertime when Ichigo and Candice found the final two squirrels which, in the fine tradition of saving the best for last, were the boss squirrel and the one with laser eyes.
Honestly, he wasn't even sure how they managed to find them - they weren't standing in an open or easily accessible area like the previous squirrels, and there were no obvious trails of destruction leading to the demonic critters. One minute he and Candice were wandering down a street lined with mysteriously empty stores (not one of them with a 'closed' sign in the window), and the next they were standing in front of a deserted warehouse with no idea how they'd gotten from point A to point B.
There wasn't even a real reason for them to be in the part of town that had warehouses, but lo and behold, there they were, standing in front of a building that could have been the definition of 'derelict'.
Long empty and in the state of disrepair that said the place had been forgotten to the point that no one had even remembered to demolish, the warehouse was a squat, rectangular two-story building. The outside had the weathered, dusty gray-brown color of a structure that had been left untended and at the mercy of the elements for more than a few years, the walls cracked along the foundation in multiple spots and the number of broken windows outnumbering the whole ones by a wide margin. Shards of glass like so many fangs framed the openings to the darkness within the building, giving the impression of dozens of gaping mouths waiting to swallow anyone foolish enough to try to peer inside.
The sliding metal doors were rusted to the color of old blood, and with one look Ichigo knew that trying to force them open would create one hell of a racket. The smaller employee entrance off near one corner of the building wasn't in better shape, brown flecks of rust showing through the gaps in the boards that had been used to barricade it. By all appearances the place was thoroughly abandoned with no signs that anyone had passed by recently, but for some reason the hairs on the back of Ichigo's neck stood up just looking at it.
A quick glance at Candice showed her rubbing her arms to try and smooth away the goosebumps on her exposed skin. Obviously something didn't feel right to her either. The best way he could come up with to describe the sensation was the feeling you got when you first stepped into an empty school or other large building, the sound of your footsteps echoing in the halls and your suddenly loud breaths making you think 'am I really alone in here?'. It was creepy as fuck, and you knew it was bad when Ichigo was the one saying that. He'd faced down ghosts, Hollows, and gods of death bent on killing him in addition to a war of the dead and somehow managed to take it more or less in stride - if he considered something creepy, it meant that any sane person would be running in terror.
He knew the smart thing to do would be to turn and walk away, but there was something about that building that made him think that that would be a mistake. Not only did it put him on edge, it also made him reluctant to leave it alone, and he balanced precariously on the fence between either walking away or going inside. The conflicted expression on Candice's face told him that she was fighting with the same dilemma.
"...We have to go inside, don't we?" Ichigo finally voiced, his query not directed to anyone in particular, and if there was a touch of resignation in his voice, well he didn't think anyone would blame him.
Candice hesitantly nodded, her reply tinged with reluctance, "Yeah, I think we do. There's just something about that place...we can't just leave it alone, can we?"
Ichigo withheld a groan, instead sighing as he agreed, "No, we can't. With my luck, the place is probably haunted, or more likely there's something sealed inside that could potentially destroy the world and the minute we walk away some idiot will break in and somehow let it out." Candice let out a somewhat hysterical giggle, likely thinking that he was trying to lighten the mood, but the truth was he was completely serious. That was just the way his life worked.
As it turned out, he was sort of right and sort of wrong, they discovered after climbing through one of the broken lower windows (no need to make more noise than they needed to by prying open one of the doors). There was something in the building, but it wasn't world-ending. No, it - or should he say they - was just a pain in the ass to deal with, Ichigo mentally deadpanned as he looked around the dark warehouse that was illuminated just enough by the setting sun outside that he could clearly see the two giant squirrels in the middle of the ground floor.
He had a second to take in the corroded walkways that made up the second floor and dust thick enough to act as a carpet before his attention was forcibly drawn to the squirrels when the larger one screeched. It was like the sound of nails on a chalkboard had an affair with a microphone screech and the noise the squirrel was making was their horrible lovechild. He flinched, hard, the urge to cover his ears and hunch over like Candice was doing almost overwhelming, but he resisted. It was a good thing he did, because that meant he was able to grab Candice's arm and pull her out of the way of a laser blast from the smaller squirrel's eyes.
They hit the ground awkwardly, Ichigo having only one hand free to soften the impact and both of Candice's being occupied covering her ears. The storm of dust the landing kicked up caused them both to cough and hack, but since neither of them got seared in half by the laser swipe nor lost any limbs, he was still counting it as a win. Thumping one fist against his chest to dislodge the dust from his throat while Candice sneezed explosively beside him, Ichigo was profoundly relieved when the shrieking stopped.
It turned out to be both a good and bad thing; good because their ears were no longer being tortured, bad because it meant the squirrel was gearing up for something worse. The pain in his ears had barely faded to a dull ringing when the bigger squirrel snarled and began stamping its feet, and barely a minute later Ichigo became conscious of the small tremors beneath his feet. As he pulled Candice into a standing position, the green-haired woman stumbling a little as she tried to regain her balance, the vibrations grew stronger. His stomach felt like it dropped to the vicinity of his feet as he realized what was going on, and he swore violently as he dragged Candice behind some of the large crates that were scattered through the warehouse.
Both fell to their knees behind the makeshift barrier when a stronger rumble shook the ground just in time.
A laser beam scored the wall above their heads, leaving a smoldering black line on the concrete as it swiped back and forth before sputtering out. The pair stayed crouched down for several moments just to be sure the attack was actually over, listening to the high-pitched, angry chattering coming from the other side of the crates. His gaze darting around to try and get a better lay of the land, he noted the various giant crates - like the one he and Candice were hiding behind - scattered around, some broken, and some stacked on top of each other. Beside him, Candice took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, drawing his attention as he checked to make sure she was actually recovered.
Seeing him looking at her, Candice gave a shaky smile and a thumbs up, indicating that she was good, then making a face as she tapped one of her ears. Apparently she couldn't hear that well yet, which...yeah, that could be a problem, and they both knew it. Calling out a warning to duck was a lot less effective if the person being warned couldn't hear it, much less the sounds of an attack coming from behind or any other blind-spot. Either handicap could be fatal, and Ichigo grimaced in understanding. They would have to be careful.
There was a sudden squeaking-growl on the other side of their cover, this one much closer than the last noise from the squirrels. They bolted just as the crate exploded, sending screws and shards of wood flying in a rain of potentially deadly shrapnel. Several chips bounced off Ichigo's back, his jacket absorbing most of the impact as he shielded Candice and hurried her towards another flimsy barricade as the small squirrel chattered, high and triumphant. Ichigo silently promised himself that he would punch that rodent in the face at the earliest opportunity.
What happened next was like a game of cat-and-mouse, except they were the mice and the cats were actually giant demonic squirrels.
By means of pointing and yelling loudly, he was able to warn Candice of when a squirrel attempted a sneak attack, enabling the green-haired woman to soundly electrocute the oversized mammals before retreating. It was an admittedly undignified hit-and-run tactic, but as far as he was concerned anything goes when it comes to avoiding being mauled by killer squirrels. He did, in fact, get to punch that one squirrel in the face when it ducked to the side to evade one of Candice's bolts. It felt really satisfying, and he magnanimously ignored his companion's amused giggling as he jumped straight up to avoid a charge from the Boss Squirrel. Passing straight beneath his feet, the big squirrel ran right into the smaller one shaking off the effect of his punch, knocking both head over tail and no, he wasn't smirking, what are you talking about.
"Shut up," Ichigo muttered to Candice, blushing faintly as she clapped both hands over her mouth to try and contain her laughter.
As it turned out, the Boss Squirrel could cause localized earthquakes by stamping its' feet, which was a rather unpleasant the place looked one sneeze away from collapsing, that really didn't bode well for them in a prolonged battle. The tremors had them jumping up and down like they were in a bouncy castle in order to avoid the shockwave and no doubt looking ridiculous, especially when the laser squirrel decided to take pot-shots at them while they were in the air.
Ichigo could admit that he hadn't thought that the demonic squirrels would think of teaming up, and much to his dissatisfaction he learned that yes, they were quite capable of teamwork.
Something else he learned? Laser burns hurt.
His shirt resembled swiss cheese, sporting several still-smoldering holes as he landed and ducked behind another crate, cursing lowly as he crouched and braced himself against the next tremor. It was slower than the last he'd jumped to avoid, and he wondered at that for all of three seconds before he threw himself into a roll to avoid the follow-up lunge. It left long gouges in the floor when the Boss Squirrel hooked its claws in and used the momentum to throw itself into a tight turn to snap dagger-sharp teeth at his legs.
There was a loud ripping sound as one pants leg was suddenly half the length it was supposed to be. Loose fibers of denim brushed against a bare calf as Ichigo scrambled backwards and left the monstrous rodent to savage its prize as he put distance between them.
Candice was tossing lightning bolts at the laser squirrel, her bracelet glowing in the light of the electricity wreathing her hands as she kept it busy to give Ichigo time to recover. He ducked behind some crates to catch his breath, calling a quick, "You okay?!" over to where the green-haired woman was perched midway up the steps that led to the second floor catwalk. He got a distracted thumbs-up in response and decided to take the gesture, along with the ecstatic grin on her face, as a yeah, she was fine.
A sharp crackle of lightning and pained squeal from the squirrel she was fighting pretty much confirmed that.
By then the Boss Squirrel realized that its prey wasn't inside the fabric it had been busily shredding, and it roared in thwarted anger as it dropped the strips of denim. Ichigo had the inane urge to roar back, but immediately suppressed it because that would not be helpful, damnit! Anyway, Candice had the battle cries covered; shrieks of ferocious joy blended with the harsh crackles of lightning and screams of fury from her opponent, creating a cacophony would probably be very distracting if he wasn't so focused on running over and behind crates to slow the maddened charge of the Boss Squirrel.
Splinters and nails flew as the crates practically exploded, the flimsy wood a poor match for the car-sized bundle of furred, fanged doom. One good thing was that the Boss Squirrel had apparently given up on using its tremor-causing ability, likely because it would have had to stand still in order to use it and its tag-team partner was currently being electrocuted. Eight demolished crates later, and Ichigo decided that he was done being on the defensive and just evading the huge mammal's attacks.
He wasn't the running away type, as Soul Society could attest, and it was time to do what he did best: fight. And win.
When the Boss Squirrel burst through yet another crate, the look on its face when it was greeted not by the back of fleeing prey but a solid punch to the snout was priceless. Ichigo filed the memory in his mind to be remembered whenever he needed cheering up, and then got to work, putting all his martial arts training and fighting experience to good use. Fighting a giant rodent was different from fighting people, but the important bits were still the same, namely breaking a leg still hurt and most importantly slowed the injured one down.
Ichigo jumped back after slamming his heel into the knee-joint of the squirrel's left hindleg, a loud crack sounding briefly before being drowned out by the demonic creature's shriek. The pain briefly paralyzed the monster squirrel, and he took full advantage of the pause to rush in and deliver one, two, three blows to the rodent's ribcage. On the third strike feeling some give, he followed his instincts and jumped up as the Boss Squirrel swung its head around to try and catch the thing hurting it.
Landing feet-first in the middle of the thing's back was rather satisfying, as was pulling back a fist and clobbering the beast in the back of the head. It dropped like a sack of potatoes, landing with a loud thump on the floor and actually causing the building to shake from the impact. He wobbled a bit before jumping down from on top of the demon critter, carefully checking to make sure it wasn't faking the loose-limbed sprawl. Nope, it looked well and truly unconscious...at least until it reared up to try and bite his head off, and then a jolt of green lightning came out of nowhere and zapped it straight back to dreamland.
"...The fuck was that?" He asked the air, and received a reply as his companion sauntered (there was really no other way to describe that walk) up to his side.
"You're welcome," she preened, beaming in victory as she blew streams of smoke off her fingertips. He could see the laser squirrel she'd been fighting laying in a smoking heap behind her, obviously a little worse for wear and twitching spastically.
"This bracelet is awesome, by the way," she added, looking down at her accessory with an adoring expression, the gems still faintly glowing from the power they'd been channeling.
"Glad it came in handy," Ichigo said drying, opening his menu and picking up the Boss Squirrel and laser squirrel to stuff in his inventory. "I'll see if I have anything else that might suit you," he finished after closing the menu, Candice promptly squealing and jumping up to hug him. "Oomph," he grunted, air leaving him in a rush, his arms automatically rising to both return the embrace and hold the woman steady. A faint red hue colored his cheeks as he was abruptly made aware that a very prominent part of Candice's anatomy was pressed against him in this position, and he stared fixedly over her shoulder as she slid down his body to set her feet back on the floor.
'He would not look, he would not look, he would not look...'
Repeating the mantra in his mind, he focused his gaze on Candice's face as he asked, "Mind if we head back to my place? I need to change." Truer words than that statement had seldom been spoken, as even a second's glance was enough to see that although Ichigo had escaped with only minor scratches (and one slightly medium scratch from when Boss Squirrel tore his pants), his clothes had not been so lucky. His shirt was barely preserving his modesty, and his pants were barely doing any better, although his shoes were fine, if a bit ragged.
"No problem!" Candice nodded, bobbing her head as she grabbed hold of his arm and practically dragged him out of the warehouse. "After you change, what do you say to getting something to eat? All that excitement worked up an appetite!"
Ichigo's stomach growled in agreement, and he smiled slightly as he said, "Sure thing, I promised you food after the fights, and I try not to make myself a liar...know any good places that might be open?" The last question being voiced because of a quick look at the sky revealing that it was almost fully dark.
"Of course! And it's close by your apartment too," She responded before starting to ramble about an awesome restaurant she'd found that he just had to try. He placidly followed along since she was towing him in the direction of his place, not protesting the grip she had on his arm as he listened to her talk about the restaurant. It did sound good, and now that the squirrels were taken care of and safely stored away there was nothing to stop him from sitting down to enjoy a nice meal with someone he actually enjoyed hanging around with. He could really picture Candice and him becoming great friends, especially since she was doing a good job taking the weirdness in stride.
("Your Candice Catnipp bond has gained a level!")
...Yeah, he'd kind of been expecting that. He idly wondered how far up bonds could go and if he even wanted to chance finding out. Probably not, but since he couldn't turn the damn thing off, looks like he had go along for the ride.
Author's Note: Happy Thanksgiving once again! I rushed to finish this chapter today, which is slightly longer than usual in celebration, and I hope you all enjoyed it. There might be some mistakes since this is hot off the presses - still with that new chapter smell and everything! - but hopefully they're minor in the grand scheme of things. I'll need to refresh my knowledge of DxD since after this the story jumps back to canon happenings and we figure out what Kalawarner's been up to, so feel free to look forward to that. :) As always, constructive criticism is welcome!