10. Castles in the Sky
Lying inside a futon, Tatsuki stared up at her extended hand. The moonlight from a nearby window played off her knuckles, washing the color from the skin, turning them a pale white. Her open palm reached a bit further towards the ceiling, as if grasping for something that had just floated out of reach.
Her first life, she guessed.
Dead as a human: alive as a Soul Reaper. After lying awake for an hour, mulling it all over, that was her conclusion. She had died – not temporarily, but not permanently, either. This was more like a vacation from her body: a trip into unfamiliar frontiers. First Tokyo, and now the afterlife. She was getting around.
And hey, she'd even learned something new. Apparently, people were like cats: the 'nine lives' rule applied to more than one species. Maybe the one she had seen two weeks ago had been her own little harbinger.
Or maybe it had been another one of that fucker Shiro's tricks.
Shiro. She – it – had been silent since Tatsuki had returned to reality. Even now, in the middle of these thoughts, Tatsuki couldn't hear it at all. It was as if it didn't exist – and Tatsuki hoped that somehow, that was true. She couldn't stand the thought of Shiro being inside her, being a part of her.
No. It wasn't a part of her. It said things she never would, and did things she'd never consider. It twisted her emotions, and played off her heart. It forced her to face things that she never wanted to see. It led her down tunnels that she had always kept sealed. It made her doubt herself. It made her frightened. It made her–
Tatsuki's hand clenched into a fist. She exhaled, narrowing her eyes at her knuckles.
That was it.
Shiro knew about this. It had known all along. It had wanted Tatsuki to lose her body: that was its goal. Why else would it have stayed quiet, when both their lives were at risk? Why else would it have done nothing?
There was no reason. Shiro knew about the Hollow; Shiro knew that Tatsuki would die; Shiro knew that this was its chance. It had something to gain from Tatsuki's death. That was the only explanation.
And it pissed Tatsuki off.
It was her own fault. This whole mess had only gotten started thanks to her mistakes. First she had let Orihime out of her sight, then she had let her emotions get the better of her, and now she had gone against her gut: she had put her trust into someone – something – that was intent on seeing her dead. And to top it all off, Shinji – the person who had actually saved her – probably thought that she was an ungrateful bitch, because she hadn't even had the nerve to swallow her pride and apologize.
Tatsuki's arm fell onto the dark green quilt of the futon, crossing her covered body at the waist. She peered up into the wooden rafters, staring into the shadows.
"I'm going to name him Enraku!"
And now her thoughts drifted into memories, as they often did when she was alone. Memories of a certain girl at a certain festival, one year ago.
"Yen and easy?" asked Tatsuki, staring at the pink teddy bear in Orihime's folded arms. The odd choice of kanji had her confused. "Why that?"
"You don't know?" Orihime tilted her head curiously. The answer seemed so obvious. "Because of his soda pop castle."
Tatsuki blinked, blank-faced.
They were walking along one of the festival thoroughfares, passing by lantern-lit game booths and concession stands, heading away from the purple canopy of the Ring Toss tent. Just a minute ago, Orihime had run up to that tent, startling the operator with a long 'Wooow!'. Her eyes had twinkled with wonder at the colorful array of stuffed animals and shining soda bottles. Like a kid in a candy store, she had turned back to Tatsuki – prompting the operator's eyes to twinkle as well.
His game was rigged. It had been obvious to Tatsuki: his face had said it all. But, since she couldn't say no to Orihime's puppy eyes, she had sighed, smiled, and gone along with it. By some stroke of luck, she had actually won: the last ring had bounced off one of the highest bottles, dropping down over another, landing in her favor. Orihime had cheered; the operator had sneered; Tatsuki had refrained from knocking him on his rear. Her parting gift was a stuck-out tongue, given as she claimed the spoils of her victory.
Enraku, the pink teddy bear. His tale was legendary. Now, he found himself in the arms of his new owner – an equally legendary storyteller.
"Once upon a time," said Orihime, beginning her explanation, "Enraku wasn't Enraku. He was a nameless bear king, and he sat high above all his subjects in the tallest tower of a soda pop castle. Every day, many adventurers would come to his castle. They came from all the animal kingdoms: The Giraffe Empire, The Butterfly Monarchy, even the United States of Zebra. Each of them was on a long journey, and they were all very tired. They had heard that soda bubbles made comfortable beds, so they wanted to spend the night at Enraku's castle.
"But Enraku was greedy, and he wouldn't let them in. He would walk out onto his tower's balcony, and call down to them. 'Hear me, all animals at my gates!'" Orihime's Enraku voice was decidedly squeaky. "'Only those who can overcome the Ring Toss Trial shall enter my domain. Read the sign for rules and payment options.' And after that, he would disappear into his room."
"Bear of few words," said Tatsuki, grinning.
Orihime nodded. "Yes. He would never allow questions about the trial – because he knew that it was impossible."
A look of surprise found Tatsuki.
"The sign," said Orihime, "was very deceptive. It made the trial seem easy." She switched to her Enraku voice, reciting the words. "'I, Enraku, own magic rings. I will trade them for metal coins. Any animal who is able to throw a magic ring upon a bottle-top of this castle may spend the night. Please see my attendant to make your purchase.'"
A passing teen snickered at Orihime's voice. Tatsuki glared at him from over her shoulder.
"Many of the animals fell for Enraku's trick. They bought the magic rings, but they were not strong enough to throw them up onto the bottle-tops of the castle. Some could not even hold the rings, because they had hooves." Orihime shook her head, looking sad. "And so, no-one ever spent the night at Enraku's castle."
Tatsuki looked over, knitting her brow. "So he conned them out of their money. I bet he got pretty rich that way."
"Oh, yes." Orihime met her eyes, nodding. "At first, Enraku was very pleased with himself. He would gather up all the coins of the animals, and stack them into a shiny throne. Then he would sit there, swinging his paw feet, waiting for more adventurers." With each step, Orihime bobbed her head from side to side, imitating the swaying motions of a pleased Enraku. "But–" and the bobbing stopped, "as time went on, things changed. All the other kingdoms told their animals about Enraku's trick, and fewer and fewer adventurers visited the castle. Enraku became very rich – but also very lonely."
Tatsuki blinked, curious. "So what happened to him?"
"Well, after many days..." said Orihime – and she smiled, "a dragon came to the castle."
"The dragon was very strong, but also very smart. She knew that Enraku's trial was a trick, even though no-one had told her about it. So, when Enraku came out onto his balcony and called down to her, she huffed and puffed, and said very quietly..." Orihime furrowed her brow, putting on her 'irked Tatsuki face'. "'This guy's a crook.'"
Tatsuki burst out laughing – loud enough to draw odd looks. How did Orihime even know about that? She had been twenty feet away at the time!
"So," Orihime continued, smiling, "the dragon came up with a plan. She wanted to teach Enraku a lesson, so she kept her wings hidden from him."
Orihime nodded. "Yes. She had wings, but only the Bat Air Force knew about them – because they were invisible."
"Oh, I see."
"But Enraku couldn't see them, so he told his attendant to sell her the magic rings." Gray eyes soared into the sky, excited. "The dragon took the rings, and she flew up to the bottle-tops of the castle. One, two, three, four! She bounced them off Enraku's tower."
Tatsuki grinned. "I bet that got his attention."
"Oh, it did." Orihime began to sway in place. "The whole castle shook. Enraku thought it was an attack by the Mole Militia, so he ran out onto his balcony. Then he saw the dragon, and he was very shocked. He said 'Oh no, please don't eat me!'" Orihime huddled down for a moment – and then sprang back up. "But the dragon was friendly. She stuck her tongue out at him, and tossed the last ring onto one of the bottle-tops."
"But she didn't spend the night."
Orihime smiled. "No, she didn't. The castle was bear-sized, so the rooms were too small for her." An index finger leapt into the air. "But Enraku was very distraught. He thought that the dragon would want to sleep over – so he told his attendant to break down all the walls inside the castle."
"Uh-oh. If he did that, there'd be no place for anyone else to sleep."
"Exactly!" Orihime was beaming. "His attendant figured this out, and he got very angry." A cute scowl took over as she began marching in place. "So he went to every floor of the castle. He told all the mare horses, and all the bear men: 'We can never put the castle back together again.'" She paused – and then chirped:"So they started a revolution!"
Tatsuki nearly cracked up. "A revolution?" she asked, grinning wildly.
"Yes! They all marched up to Enraku's tower, and they threw him out the window!" Orihime's arms shot out to the sides, flailing wildly. "Enraku went 'Aaaaah!', and he fell all the way down to the bottom of the castle. But before he hit the ground–"
Tatsuki looked up at her, balancing the fallen bear in one hand. "... The dragon caught him."
Orihime blinked, looking down. She stared at Tatsuki for a moment.
Then, she smiled. "Yes."
A slight breeze drifted across Tatsuki's skin. Slowly, she stood, holding Enraku between her hands.
It was strange. Now that she looked around, she noticed that they were on the walkway just next to the riverbank. She could see the moonlit water past the iron railing, and the glow of distant lanterns to her left. But, thinking back, she had no idea how they had ended up here, or when they had arrived.
It didn't really matter, anyway.
"So then..." said Tatsuki, smiling, "the dragon made Enraku an offer."
Orihime blinked, curious. "An offer?"
"Uh-huh." Tatsuki tilted her chin up, closing her eyes with a smile. "She said: 'If you promise never to trick anyone again, you can come with me to my castle, and I'll introduce you to a beautiful princess.'"
A pause. "... So what did Enraku say?"
Tatsuki opened her eyes, finding an odd twinkle in Orihime's. The moonlight, probably.
"He said..." Enraku moved forward, held out by toned arms. Tatsuki grinned. "'Jackpot.'"
How long had she been in love with Orihime?
Looking back, it was hard for Tatsuki to answer that question. She could search her memories forever, and yet never find the time. The more she looked, the more clues she found: comments that should have stayed unsaid, long gazes to the back of the head, curious thoughts while lying in bed. She supposed that, really, she had always been in love with her. That concept had just never been one she'd considered.
Well, until today.
Tatsuki lifted her arm from her waist, holding her palm back towards the ceiling. She reached out towards the invisible sky.
Orihime was up there, somewhere.
Tatsuki could still feel her. She could feel those gray eyes looking down from high above. The distance between them was staggering: it seemed like Orihime was in the stratosphere.
Making sense of it was actually very easy. Orihime's head was usually in the clouds: it was the rest of her that rarely followed. She wasn't on a plane – flying one was on her to-do list, but Karakura didn't have an airport. The feeling didn't match up with that, anyway. There was no movement to it – or, if there was, Tatsuki was too far away to be able to tell. If anything, it was like staring at the moon: like peering at someone on the surface of some celestial satellite. And since Orihime wasn't an astronaut (yet), that only left one possibility.
The Soul Society.
Just where was that place? What would she have to do to get there? What trials were waiting for her? What would the outcome be – for her, for Orihime, for Ichigo, for Rukia?
Tatsuki didn't know.
She couldn't see the future. Her thoughts only traveled so far. She viewed the world through the happenings that met her eyes – now, in the present, at this moment. There was no way for her to picture the Soul Society: some strange, distant world that had barely offered her a glimpse into its inner workings. It was impossible for her to imagine what such a place might look like, or what threats it might hold. And so, thinking of them – of those threats, of her friends, of their fates – made her uneasy.
But she could still feel Orihime – and that gave her hope.
Tatsuki closed her hand around a phantom star.
Get her body back, clear the air with Shinji, grill Urahara out of everything he knew, get to the Soul Society, find Orihime, slug Ichigo, and save Rukia.
She could do that.
Flying up there wouldn't be a problem. After all, she had wings.
They were just invisible.