It used to be so simple.
Back when I was a kid, I thought I knew how the world worked. I'd seen enough suffering to figure out that things rarely come up roses. When your best friends lose people that mean everything to them – a mother, a brother – you realize just how cruel life can be.
I learned what endurance really was back then. I saw it in their faces every day. It's not just what your body can take, how much of a beating you can live through before your tendons tear and your bones break. It's what's in your mind, your spirit, your heart. It's standing through everything the world throws at you, and not losing yourself, not losing what's inside, even when you want to break down and cry.
I don't think I'll ever be as strong as they were back then. But I made damn sure to try. I gave everything I had – in my classes, in the dojo, in our friendship – for them. I made sure that, when they really needed me, I would be strong enough to share the weight. To help carry the burden.
Things got better, eventually. Life went on. We left the past in its place, and held the memories close. School became the worst of our troubles – the local thugs for Ichigo, the classroom perverts for Orihime, and (by extension) a certain touchy-feely redhead for me. But we stuck together, we looked out for each other, we made it through the day. It was never easy, but it was nothing compared to what we had been through. And honestly, at that time, we were happy.
But things change quickly – and so do people.
Looking back, I can't imagine that it would have turned out this way. I guess I was naïve – about the world, about them, maybe even about myself. I thought that, no matter what happened, the way forward would always be obvious. I thought I would know what to do.
That changed three months ago.
When I died.
1. Flood A Life
Tatsuki Arisawa opened her eyes to a blue sky.
Paper cranes. Her first thought made as much sense as her current situation – which was just about none at all. Where the hell was the ceiling? Why was she asleep outside? She wasn't the type to lie down and take a daylight nap in the grass, much less on the solid clay of the school courtyard. How did she end up here?
She didn't remember. In fact, she couldn't remember much at all.
She lifted her head, using her elbows to prop herself upright.
The memories hit like a flood.
A mob. Some weird green ooze out of a B horror flick. The feeling of her knuckles slamming into jaws. A hand on her shoulder. Chizuru. Something that pissed her off more than Chizuru. Some kind of heat mirage... No, not a mirage. Something. Bullets. Falling. Gray eyes.
Tatsuki looked around the courtyard in a panic. The student body littered the place: their crumpled frames were strewn about the grounds, lying still. At a glance, she couldn't tell if they were unconscious or dead. That just made it worse.
No sight of orange. No sight of her. She had to be here. She had to be! If she was missing, that meant–
A stirring caught the corner of Tatsuki's eye. Her head whipped towards the direction; her eyes searched for the source. Nothing. Quickly, she rolled to the side, claiming her feet, ignoring the sudden throbs of pain, tensing her muscles as she prepared for an incoming attack.
A second movement – but not from the air. It wasn't what she had thought: a movement from that thing, the monster that had attacked them. The stirrings were coming from a student lying a few dozen feet away: a girl, a redhead, a familiar face. Tatsuki threw the aches crawling through her body into the back of her mind, and ran over to Chizuru, dropping to her knees beside the girl, grabbing her shoulders and trying to shake her awake.
"Chizuru! Wake up, damn it!" she shouted, jostling her again. The eyelids behind the gleaming lenses fluttered slightly, but didn't open. "Where's Orihime? What happened to–"
Tatsuki's body stiffened with a jolt. A vein in her temple ignited with an all-too-familiar pounding. Her eyes slid downwards – down to her skirt, down to her thighs, down to the arms wrapped around one and the cheek rubbing against the skin.
"That flash bomb was soooo scary!" squealed Chizuru, squeezing her eyes shut tight with delight as she continued her cuddling assault. "I'm glad it's over, but you're just so soft that I might never let–"
Tatsuki's free knee flew into Chizuru's stomach, cutting off that thought. The arms around her thigh squiggled back to their owner, this time clutching the point of impact as Chizuru doubled up and rocked on the ground.
"Moron! Look before you try to molest someone!" yelled Tatsuki, glaring down at the angry pout being shot her way. Probably not her best piece of advice to Chizuru – but hey, it was Chizuru. She needed all the 'help' she could get.
"Like I would if I knew it was you," said Chizuru, muttering through sullen lips. She sprung up to her knees, surprising Tatsuki with an accusing finger pointed towards her nose. "And maybe you should explain why you were trying to impersonate my Hime!"
Tatsuki gave her an annoyed glare. "Now why the hell would I... Ugh, never mind! Do you know where–"
"Orihime!" called Chizuru, cupping her hands around her mouth, conveniently ignoring the question as she scanned the courtyard. "You can come out now, my love! Tatsuki scared all the creepy weirdos away!"
A hand clamped down on Chizuru's shoulder. Startled, she glanced back towards its owner, and found Tatsuki giving her a cautionary stare.
"Use your head. That monster could still be around here," whispered Tatsuki. She glanced around the courtyard, searching for any disturbances in the air, looking past students that were beginning to pick themselves off the ground.
Tatsuki looked back to Chizuru. An odd stare of confusion was sprawled across the redhead's face.
"Are you... feeling okay?"
Tatsuki blinked in surprise. "Huh?"
The two stared at each other for an oblivious moment – and then Chizuru thrust her finger back towards her attacker's nose, declaring: "Oh, that's low! I get what you're trying to do!" She crossed her arms, peering over the rim of her glasses – at Tatsuki's bewildered expression – with disapproval. "Playing off Hime's superstition, so she clings onto you, just to keep her from me..." She closed her eyes, shaking her head. "I never thought you'd resort to acting, Tatsuki. I'm disappointed."
Tatsuki trailed off as she looked over her surroundings. From the moment her eyes opened, from the beginning, something didn't seem right. She had passed that feeling off as dread, as the sinking sensation inside her gut that came along with a missing Orihime; but now, she realized that it was something separate, something entirely different. There was something... manufactured about this whole thing. She remembered the attack clearly now. She recalled the details. She knew that it was real.
But, looking around, it seemed like it hadn't happened at all.
Most of the evidence had been erased. The shattered windows of nearby buildings remained, but the ground was free from shards of glass: the gleams that should have covered the place were nonexistent. The green slime was gone, too: the stains on the uniforms of the students around her – the ones rising to their feet, the ones glancing around curiously, the ones that had attacked her – had vanished. She looked back to Chizuru, to her left arm. No pulsing veins, no rigid muscles; no damage at all. Even as she looked down at herself, as the aches of her body knocked at the door of consciousness, she found no visible cause for any of it.
This didn't make any sense. Everyone – even she herself – seemed to be unharmed. But that couldn't be right. That monster had attacked her head-on. Shouldn't she be in worse shape?
And what the hell was that image in her mind? Some kind of paper plane... or bird... against the sun?
"Hey, uh...?" came Chizuru's voice.
Tatsuki's head snapped up, startling the strange look off Chizuru's face. "You said something about a flash bomb, right? What did you mean?"
"Huh?" Chizuru blinked at her. "The one those punks threw."
"The guys that came at us when we were cleaning up!" said Chizuru, holding her arm up and off to the side, pointing towards the courtyard entrance. She cocked her head at Tatsuki's blank expression. "How can you not remember? You're the one that chased them away!"
Tatsuki stared at her in disbelief. Deja vu. She knew this feeling. A sense that her memories were betraying her, that reality and dreams were churning together, that a veil had been thrown over her eyes. It was the same as that time at Orihime's apartment. Nothing about that night had made any sense. Her mind had told her that there had been an earthquake, that she had hit her head and passed out – but there was nothing about it on the news. Orihime's story made no sense, either (what kind of sumo wrestler has a giant gun?) – but maybe it was more than her overactive imagination. Maybe the image from that night was real. Maybe she had been there.
And now there was this. And now, she thought, it had happened again. But this time, she remembered – and this time, she was sure.
Something – someone – had tried to wipe out her memories.
"But I could have sworn Hime was right here with us..." said Chizuru, looking around in confusion. Her gaze stopped on a boy, brown-haired and rather short, that had approached them. "Hey, have you seen the girl that was sweeping up around here?" She pressed her fingertips against her cheeks, giving herself dimples. "Orange hair, a real cutie-pie?"
The boy blinked, then shook his head.
Damn it. There's no time for this! Tatsuki snatched her cell phone out of her shirt's front pocket, flipping it open and preparing to speed-dial a number – but her thumb froze over the keypad. She doesn't have one. I told her a million times that she needs it for emergencies!
"Tat– Hey! Where are you going?" called Chizuru, as Tatsuki leapt to her feet and dashed towards the courtyard's entrance.
"To look for Orihime! Call me if you see her!" she shouted over her shoulder – and, a few steps later, she had rounded the corner, disappearing from sight.
Chizuru gave the barren entrance a blink, then turned back to the boy that was standing over her. She peered up at his face as he smiled and extended a hand.
Weird. He looked a bit familiar. Wasn't he... one of those three? The punks from before?
She tilted her head at him. Hm...
Nah. Don't be silly.
If Orihime was being chased, that's where she would go. It was backwards logic – if you needed help, running towards people made the most sense – but Tatsuki knew her too well, knew how she thought. Orihime was always more concerned with the safety of the people around her than her own. That's why she had insisted on getting Tatsuki and Chizuru away from school grounds. That's why she had stayed behind to protect them from that thing. That's why she had led it away from the school. That's why she was still running.
That's what Tatsuki hoped, because the other possibility was...
Don't think about it.
She raced through the streets of Karakura Town, heading for the Community Park, sprinting as fast as her legs could carry her. Her cell phone had been snapped shut and returned to her pocket; the thought of calling Rukia had crossed her mind, but she didn't have the girl's number. They weren't exactly chummy, but after this, maybe she would make an effort – to catch her alone, beat the hell out of her, and force her to spill her guts about whatever the fuck was going on around here.
The treeline of the park came into view. She could see the entrance to the path up ahead. There was no-one around: in a small town like Karakura, it was rare to bump into a crowd, especially on a weekday afternoon in a place as large as this. That was exactly the reason it had popped into mind. She just hoped her intuition was right.
And maybe it was. As she came upon the park's entrance, she noticed someone running down the path up ahead – the one that formed a 'T' with her own. It was a young girl: short brown hair, frantic, with what looked like some kind of chain hanging from her yellow dress.
Tatsuki didn't give the sight a second thought. She dashed up to the intersecting path, turning in the direction the girl had run from.
Her feet pounded over the paved pathway. Her eyes darted among the tree trunks. Her nails dug into her palms. Nothing. She came to an abrupt stop at a four-way junction in the path, glancing down both of the side avenues. Still no sight of her. Where the hell was she?
Don't panic. Keep looking.
She broke back into a run, heading deeper into the park – but, after only a few steps, something forced her to freeze.
It was like the sharp gust of a hurricane – the kind of wind that screams past, that makes it impossible to even catch a breath – and yet, it wasn't a wind at all. It was some kind of force, some kind of tremor, some invisible weight that seemed dead set on crushing her beneath its feet. It was emanating from all around her, from the entire park...
No. Not from all around. From one direction. From... above?
Tatsuki raised her head, looking past the ruffling leaves of trees, towards the sky – and her eyes went wide.
In her frenzy to find Orihime, she had been blind to everything else. It was sitting there, so glaring and obvious, but it hadn't caught her attention. She had never looked up. But now – now, it was hard to miss.
In the middle of the blue sky was a gaping black tear – like an eye of creeping shadows, its apparitions dancing and fading, blending together and shifting apart.
And suddenly, there was something else.
A mass of white rose from the bottom edge of the tear, peering out of the gate as if it were a peephole. A face – a mask – that looked like something out of a deranged soul's nightmare. Its eyes were beady pupils of yellow; its nose stuck out like a dunce cap; its teeth were gnashed into an expressionless line. It bulged through the opening, pulling the shadows with it, sticking its gigantic head out into the blue.
"What the..." murmured Tatsuki, staring up at the freakish thing in shock.
Her heart pounded along at the speed of a spinning cog. The monster's jaws ground open like the gate to some hellish abyss. And then the wind pulsed, and the roar came, and Tatsuki's voice was lost among the echoes.
"What the hell is that?"