Author's Note: Happy Birthday to me! This is my present to myself and also all of you readers who have been so patient with me. Inspiration has begun flowing freely, which I did not think being out in the sun would cause to happen but which is a nice surprise (thank you, Apollo!). I admit I got sidetracked by two new projects, but some of that motivation spilled over onto this story, so I hope you enjoy the chapter!
The next day, Ichigo found out the downside of Candice knowing where he lived: ridiculously early visits by a too cheerful woman before the sun was up.
He'd stumbled out of bed when he heard someone knocking and staggered to the door, opening it to find Candice standing there all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. That description made him think of the squirrels they'd had to chase down yesterday, thus he was already scowling before she was even halfway through her greeting. Her words faltered at the stormy look on his face, but she recovered admirably when he stepped back to motion her inside.
Closing the door in the midst of her, "Sorry for disturbing you!", he swallowed back the sigh that wanted to emerge and instead shuffled over to the kitchen to get some tea started. He needed something to help wake him up, and he didn't have a coffee maker. Not that he ever drank the stuff, but it was the principle of the thing. Within minutes the water was boiling and he was putting in the tea bags, turning off the stove to let it steep. Yuzu would be disappointed with his laziness, but he was still half-asleep, give him a break, damn it!
He didn't so much sit as fall down at the coffee table, Candice lowering herself down with a bit more restraint while they waited for the tea to brew. After a few awkward minutes, Ichigo broke the ice, "So, why are you here?" Blunt and to the point, he saved subtlety for after the sun was up. And no, the faint line of orange he'd glimpsed on the horizon didn't count. Candice had the good grace to look sheepish when she saw the faint dark shadows under his eyes.
The exhaustion from the squirrel hunt had caught up with him almost the minute he'd staggered through his door last night and the adrenaline wore off. Upon returning home, Akagyoushi had let him know in no uncertain that the lizard was very put out with him. Ichigo honestly had no idea what he'd done to upset the reptile, but it was clear Akagyoushi had been most displeased with him. Nearly losing an arm had given him the jolt needed to make it through that scuffle, and he'd collapsed into bed and been out like a light almost immediately afterwards.
(The stove was only a little dented and he was pretty sure those cabinets were still structurally sound...maybe.)
Several hours later, a bundle of green-haired walking sunshine woke him up, and now they were sitting in awkward silence as he sipped tea waiting for his brain cells to wake up. Candice had an untouched cup in front of her, the steam from the liquid wafting up to her face and turning her cheeks a warm pink from the heat. But was it just from the heat? Now that he was slightly more awake, he noticed that she seemed sort of anxious - shifting in her seat, repeatedly brushing her hair back, playing with her fingers, etc. She practically radiated nervous energy, and he was starting to get a bit worried the longer the silence dragged on.
Candice took a deep, slightly shaky, breath, and then the quiet was broken, though not particularly well. "Well, um, I was...er, that is to say...um," she stammered. Candice, confident, outgoing Candice actually stammered. He was confused and somewhat concerned. What could possibly be bothering her so much that she couldn't manage to get the words out? Or, bothering might not be the right word. Embarrassing could be a better fit, since she couldn't seem to decide how to word her request or whatever she wanted to say.
He watched as she took a gulp of air, visibly steeling herself, and finally blurted out in a single breath, "Iwaswonderingifyouwouldmaybeliketotrainwithme?" the words fading into more indecipherable mumbling as the pink tint on her face darkened.
It took him a moment to pick apart that statement, a moment in which Candice's face steadily turned red and combined with her green hair to make her resemble a ripe tomato. Once it clicked what she was asking, he shrugged, "Sure," he answered blankly, because he still had to figure out how to control his power enough to extract whatever he'd put into the squirrels in order to complete the quest. He supposed he should just be glad the thing didn't have a time-limit, or else he'd have been out of luck.
The mumbling abruptly cut off, Candice's teeth clicking audibly with how fast her mouth closed. Judging by her stunned blink, she hadn't expected such a laidback reply. He didn't know why, it was just training, and chances were it wouldn't be nearly as dangerous as Kisuke's 'training', so what was the problem? She looked like he'd just tossed hot tea in her face instead of agreeing to spar. He would probably never understand women, Ichigo mentally groaned, taking a gulp of tea while he waited for Candice to get her act together. Thankfully it didn't take too long.
Candice blinked rapidly, apparently snapping out of her stunned daze, straightening up as she chirped, "Right! Good! Thank you!" Somewhat disjointed but understandable. He'd take it. She immediately took a drink of her cooling beverage, and they finished the rest of the tea in silence. Minutes later, a loud thump came from the guestroom, causing Candice to look up curiously. Ichigo calmly refilled his cup and continued drinking, the sounds increasing in volume as he ignored them. "Um, what's that?" His guest finally asked, voice filled with more than a little trepidation as the door rattled on its hinges. She was almost afraid to look away, even if Ichigo didn't seem concerned.
"My pet lizard. We're fighting at the moment, just ignore him and once he gets done throwing his tantrum he'll settle down," Ichigo replied, the very picture of composure as he lifted his cup to his lips.
"...Ooooo-kay..." At a loss, she followed his example, and between the two of them it only took another ten minutes to finish the pot of tea. It was a decently-sized pot so, not surprising. What was surprising was that the commotion in the guestroom only subsided when Ichigo put his cup down for the last time and heaved a large sigh, cracking his neck and shaking himself briskly, now fully awake and alert. Apparently Ichigo's 'pet lizard' didn't want to push his luck now that his owner was awake enough to be motivated to go shut him up if he made too much of a racket. Must have been a smart lizard, she thought distantly.
"So, when and where do you want to train? If you don't have a regular spot, we can go to where I've been practicing. I've got a list of things I need to try and figure out," Ichigo grimaced, and when Candice giggled added, "Also, before we leave, remind me to grab a watch, otherwise I'll forget and won't be able to cross three things off the aforementioned list."
Candice bobbed her head in agreement, saying, "Sure, no problem. I don't really have a training spot here, so wherever you go is fine." Really, she was just relieved that her sudden request hadn't made things awkward between them. If anything, she'd say that he actually looked relieved to have some help, and in truth he was, because so far he'd just been playing things by ear and he knew that that wouldn't cut it forever. It never did, which meant he had to figure out how some of his skills work, pick a direction, and freaking run with them.
It had worked with Getsuga Tensho, and it would work with this.
An hour later, now fully alert and facing Candice across his de-facto training ground, he found himself wondering if he should maybe have thought things through a little more.
Watching Candice stretch and limber up in preparation, it occurred to him that he really didn't know how to, you know, spar. All the training battles he'd ever had had gone hand-and-hand with a significant risk of injury and possibility of death. Regular sparring had none of that. He wasn't confident about being able to pull his blows so his opponent wasn't injured. It had been a long time since he'd had to; and for all he was human at the moment, he knew his own strength, and a blow from him would definitely hurt, tough as Candice was.
The fight with the squirrels had proven that the green-haired woman wasn't someone to take lightly, but he still worried. He didn't know if his game-powers affected his base strength, or if he only got that increase when he switched forms. He was a bit leery of finding out in the middle of spar, as that would be a very unpleasant surprise. He hesitantly performed his own stretches, wondering how to bring up his dilemma without sounding crazy. Then again, Candice hadn't batted an eye at helping to round up a bunch of demon squirrels or encountering the Demon Student Council, so maybe she would take it all in stride?
Something to think about, he decided as they took positions across from each other, simply breathing as the moment dragged on before both burst into action. Kicks and punches flew, blows turned aside by the flat of a hand or knock to the arm, turns and twists used to avoid the most serious blows. By unspoken agreement, neither of them used any powers. This was a purely physical battle, and it was skill that would decide the victor, not special abilities. And when it came to skill, they were both fairly evenly matched. Candice was more limber and acrobatic, favoring speed and unpredictability in her strikes that Ichigo countered with pure power, moving only as necessary to prevent Candice from landing any clear hits while maintaining his stance.
He felt his muscles burn and ache with exertion, the pleasant strain telling him how long it had been since he'd had a good, old-fashioned, no-powers brawl. He wasn't that surprised to find that he'd missed it. He'd always felt at home in battle, and his learning curve for anything related to fighting was frankly ridiculous. However, he quickly realized that he was woefully out of practice in fighting like a regular human, as he learned when he blocked one of Candice's roundhouse kicks and his forearm went numb for almost a minute. He pushed her back with a swift right hook followed by a leg sweep, but it was still a much-needed wake-up call.
Candice flipped away, managing to clip his jaw with a heel in the process, and he could already tell that that was going to be one heck of a bruise later. He could already feel the skin starting to swell, and he made a mental note to put some ice on it later. Otherwise it would be really awkward to explain to anyone come Monday. There was a brief pause as both recovered their footing, and then the battle resumed, Candice targeting his arm with a flurry of kicks and jabs as he regained feeling in it. Sharp tingling shot through the nerves in his arm as they woke up, his muscles twitching in reaction as he ducked away from a sweeping high-kick and retaliated with an uppercut that knocked her off-balance.
The exchange of blows lasted another ten minutes before Candice went tumbling to the ground and didn't bother getting up. She laid on her back, panting and sweating and grinning wildly like she'd just had the time of her life. Ichigo knew his own expression was an exact match for her elated one, his teeth bared in a savage grin of victory as he toppled over onto his own back, laying flat on the ground and staring up at the sky with a delighted look. As one, both of them laughed, voicing their joy for a battle well-fought.
He was grinning so widely that his cheeks hurt by the time the sounds of mirth faded, and Ichigo let out a deep sigh as he relaxed into the grass. "That was fun," he declared, still breathless from both the fight and the following laughter.
"Yeah, it was," Candice agreed, sounding out of breath but happy. She stretched out, spread eagle on the ground, and caught her breath, giggles occasionally escaping as she breathed. As much as she wanted to, she knew she couldn't lay there for much longer. Ichigo knew that as well, as it was with almost synchronized groans that they pushed themselves to their feet and began their cool-down routines. Both knew all too well the pain that would result if they failed to stretch after that large bout of exercise.
Once finished, Ichigo went over to his backpack and retrieved the watch that Candice had indeed reminded him to get, tossing it to the green-haired woman and saying, "Time me," before immediately shifting to Fallen Angel form. Hearing Candice suck in a sharp breath as the blue flash covered his vision, it occurred to him that maybe he should have warned her about what he was planning to do. When he blinked the spots from his eyes and saw the ball of lightning crackling above a freaked-out Candice's palm, that confirmed it. Definitely should have warned her.
"What the hell?!" Candice yelped, eyes wide in shock and electricity sparking warningly.
Ichigo held up his hands defensively, hurriedly speaking, "Calm down! Sorry, didn't mean to surprise you. You know I have powers, right? Well this is just one of those powers - I have two other transformations, and I know I should have warned you but I wasn't thinking, please don't electrocute me." He kind of babbled towards the end, but he thought his point got across. She was still watching him warily, but the lightning ball was smaller, and her hand was lowered just slightly as she processed this new information.
His wings rustled, drawing her gaze towards the dark feathers, and he stifled a laugh at the curiosity in her eyes. Curious was infinitely better than homicidal, in his opinion, so he extended one wing and shook it enticingly. "Go ahead, have a feel. It's real, I swear." He concealed his growing smirk when Candice all but pounced on the offer, the lightning vanishing between one blink and the next. Making appropriately awed noises, the woman ran trembling fingers lightly over his long flight feathers, eyes bright with childlike excitement.
"Amazing..." Candice breathed. Ichigo did his best not to preen too obviously. He failed, but thankfully she was too engrossed in examining his feathers to notice. He snorted when one hand sank into the fluffy mass, ruffling them and causing a sensation that wasn't unlike being poked in a ticklish spot. It didn't make you laugh, but it made you twitch like you wanted to. "So, just to be clear, you're not actually a Fallen Angel, you just occasionally look like one?" She asked seriously, tearing her eyes away from the wing she was fondling and glancing up at him.
"Pretty much, yeah." Ichigo agreed. "Others times I look like a Devil, and very rarely I look like a specific Devil." He made a face, "It's hard to keep track sometimes, but mostly I switch as needed if I'm attacked by someone particularly tough. Since I usually only transform during fights or when I'm training - and I keep forgetting to bring a watch - I have no idea how long the change last before I'm forced to revert back-"
"-Which is where I come in." Candice finished, nodding in understanding. Reluctantly, she pulled one hand away from surprisingly soft feathers and reached into her pocket for the watch she'd had Ichigo get before they left his apartment. Pulling it out, she looked at the time before nodding, saying, "Okay, it won't be exact since I was kind of freaked out at the start and you took a bit of time explaining, but that just means you have a bit of a safety net."
"I can also cancel the transformation without letting it run out of time, same as with the Devil one, but yeah, safety net's good." Ichigo agreed.
By the watch's count, forty minutes later the blue flash heralded the end of his transformation, Candice making a disappointed sound when the feathers disappeared from between her fingers. She got over it pretty fast, perking up as she asked, "So, Devil Form next?"
"Devil Form next," he confirmed, activating that skill and watching as she immediately looked down at the watch to note the time. Then she really looked at his new form, and he chuckled in amusement as Candice ooh-ed and aww-ed over his wings and tail. He swished the appendage from side to side just to see her fingers twitch like she wanted to pounce on it, a very cat-like expression on her face. She sneakily took a few swipes at it when he wasn't paying attention, or so she thought. Mentally, Ichigo was cracking up.
Fifty minutes later, than transformation wore off.
"Okay, so if we assume that the Fallen Angel form lasts as long as the Devil one, it looks like I've got around fifty minutes in each," Ichigo summarized, Candice nodding along with him. "That's more than I knew this morning, so I count this as a successful day so far." He declared. "What do you say to trying something else while we're on a roll?"
"Depends on what it is," she replied honestly.
"I'm going to try and change those demon squirrels back to normal, and you get to zap any of them that try to make a run for it."
A great deal of trial, error, and lightning bolts later, Ichigo had successfully de-demonized three of the squirrels. He was pretty sure he'd figured out the trick to it; it was simple in theory, difficult in execution, but at least Candice was having fun. There were three smoldering rodents camped out in a nearby tree glaring at them both, but otherwise being quiet after Candice sent them a smug look the first time the larger one chittered.
He still felt uncomfortably like Kisuke as he removed the energy he'd put into the fourth squirrel, then the fifth, but thankfully that feeling was starting to go away as he worked to fix his mistake instead of leaving it laying around or tossing it to someone else to deal with. No he wasn't still sore about Kisuke sticking the Hogyoku in Rukia, what are you talking about. He was sure that Kisuke had done his very best to find a way to destroy the Hogyoku before deciding that it was a good idea to hide it inside Rukia and use the young Kuchiki as bait in a convoluted scheme with more twist and turns than the world's longest roller coaster to lure out Aizen and ultimately defeat him. No, he wasn't bitter at all.
By the time all the squirrels were back to being regular squirrels and he had bandaged the resulting scratches (the Boss Squirrel had not been happy with him - and what's with that window saying 'minus 10 reputation with the squirrel faction'?!), he was exhausted, despite having been taking energy out instead of putting it in. Candice wordlessly passed him a bottle of water, which he promptly drank half of and nearly choked on when a large window appeared.
[Quest Complete] It proclaimed as Candice patted him on the back as he coughed, [Gain 3000xp, [Wrath of the Wild], [Demon Squirrel Fur] x12, [Fang of the Boss], [Amulet of Forest's Anger], [Demonic Crystal Shards] x38. Kurosaki Ichigo has gained a level.]
Wow, that was a lot more than he'd gotten from the Tiamat quest.
Thankfully the stuff didn't just appear in front of him, otherwise that would have pretty hard to explain. Candice had been pretty relaxed about the insanity so far, but he didn't want to push his luck. Fortunately for him, he had just the thing to keep her occupied. "Hey, we still have some time left, want to help me figure out a few spells?"
"You can use magic?!"
Worked like a charm.
Author's Note: Annnnnd done! Hot off the presses and here for your reading pleasure! :D For those who don't know, there's now two versions of this story - the original version here, and the modified version I'm posting on AO3, so if you happen to see this story over there, don't be alarmed, it really is me. If you see it anywhere else though, it's definitely not. If you want new and improved content with better flow, feel free to head over and compare. As always, constructive criticism is welcome.