Disclaimer: - I don't own Bleach. Kubo Tite owns Bleach.
WARNING MASSIVE SPOILERS
Attention: Sorry to the first 97 readers of my last chapter. I forgot to accept changes on my document before upload so if you're familiar with word and uploading to when you do that it jumbles up all your edits with the finished document. Hence the bad all round grammar of it. The problem has been rectified and my sincerest apologies for an error that was mine alone. My bad. Please don't blame my editor Shannon as her edit was spot on! Cheers and enjoy the somewhat late chapter.
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Ichigo knew he was awake. He could smell disinfectant in the air and hear the bustle of people as they walked around. Groaning, he struggled to open his eyes. The light stung and caused it to water. His body felt stiff and stung all over. He raised a hand to wipe away the moisture.
"Where the hell am I?" he muttered to himself.
"You're in the 4th Division Hospital, Kurosaki-san."
Ichigo glanced over to the bed beside him. The voice had belonged to Saito, bandaged heavily like an ancient Egyptian mummy. The shooting through his neck meant that his body was not ready for him to move around. He felt a weight pressing down on him. Yukino and Hyou were both fast asleep on his lap. A thin trail of drool traced itself from Yukino mouth. 'Figures,' he though to himself, 'no more brush licking and she's got too much spit left over!'
"Saito, how's Rukia?"
He grinned a little before opening his mouth. "You're worried about her?"
Ichigo was about to retort, Saito shocked him into silence. "She was frantically worried about you. She watched over you day and night along with Inoue-san. If it wasn't for these two forcing Kuchiki-sama to get some rest," he pointed at the two sleeping forms. "The one drooling on your lap would be her. It seems you're quite popular. You've had some unusual guests."
"Madarame-san, Ayasegawa-san, Shiba-san, Inoue-san to name a few," smirking he added. "Various girls from the academy came too. One dark haired girl with particularly large…"
"I get the picture," Ichigo moaned. Not those three again.
"It seems your deed has spread throughout the entire academy. 'Lone Shinigami bare-handed, fights two Arrancars', you're pretty famous now."
"I never wanted to be!" Ichigo retorted.
His voice grew heavier when he spoke. "How are you going to keep your power a secret now?"
"Damn the stupid keep it low stuff!"
"There's a reason behind it all I assure you. Commander Yamamoto would not carelessly waste time especially with a shortage of ranked Shinigami like that."
"Reason?" Ichigo's curiousity was piqued. "How much do you know?"
A gentle breeze wafted through the open window into the tiny room, carrying with it, the scent of the timber furnishings. Saito contemplated his answer, carefully wording his reply. "I know of some things, but I feel Kuchiki-sama has not told me everything. It is not my place to know. I have merely been assigned to protect you– "
"You mean spy on me?" Ichigo interrupted.
"Protect you, so your confidentially is paramount to my assignment. As for the academy, they are all students so it's highly doubtful that they are aware of what level your powers are at, although I dare say they know you're quite powerful."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, to accurately judge power you need to have power yourself. For the students it's equivalent to looking up at a mountain and wondering where the top is."
Taking up the analogy, Ichigo theorized, "so in order to know which mountains are higher, you'd have to climb to the middle, at least."
Ichigo thought the situation through. Something Saito said still bugged him. "You said there is a reason for me withholding my power."
Saito sat upright, wincing against his pain. Looking around he explained in a low and even tone. "You're a special case. I know you've led men into battle before, good men, most stronger than the average vice captain. However you have known them all and before they were your troops, they were your friends. Loyalty was never an issue. Here in Soul Society you'll be leading men you have never known before. You'll be commanding on position, not respect or loyalty to you. I think that's a big issue considering you don't have a reputation here yet."
"Is that all?" Ichigo was a little perturbed by the simplicity of the idea.
"Not really," Saito closed his eyes. "If anyone were to find out about your past, it would be difficult to command with that kind of respect. Ryoka are not particularly trusted here, as you can tell."
Ichigo started to see the bigger picture. Saito further extrapolated, "If you spent a year developing a reputation, bonds, gaining the respect of those who will one day follow you, maybe it would help alleviating their bias."
"You have some rather revolutionary ideas Kurosaki-san, especially for Soul Society. The people here tend to be a lot less approachable to new ideas. Things haven't changed here in centuries. A year is very little time for a Shinigami. Commander Yamamoto must have thought a year was a worthwhile sacrifice to give you the best foundation possible for your future Captaincy."
"If I decide to accept it."
"Yes, If," opening his eyes, he leaned a little closer and whispered, "Then there's you being a Vizard."
"You know…?" Ichigo eyed his roommate with suspicion.
"Only the captains and a select few know. It's not a secret you will be able to hide forever. Especially with this upcoming round of warring that's about to happen."
A knock on the door woke Hyou and Yukino from their slumber.
"Kurosaki-san, you're awake! How are you feeling? We were so worried about you!" Hyou was the first to notice.
"Fine thanks," Ichigo managed a smile.
Yukino and Hyou helped Ichigo get up into a sitting position as the newcomer entered the room. Captain Unohana Retsu of the 4th Division stood by Ichigo's bed. She smiled plainly at the patient, "How are you feeling?"
"I'm good, should be able to get up soon I think."
She straightened her long dark pleated hair. It flowed over her shoulders and down the front of her body, highlighting her warm, gentle features. She cupped her hands together at her stomach and asked Hyou and Yukino for some privacy.
Hyou and Yukino got up and excused themselves, deciding to find Rukia and Ganjyu to tell them the good news. Unohana nodded in acknowledgement to Saito, who greeted her formally. As the door slid shut behind them, Unohana turned to Ichigo. "You'll have to stay here for a month for security reasons."
"What? But I'm fine. In a few days I'll be able to walk out of here."
"What I say here does not leave this room," she said, addressing Saito. "I have been informed by Captain Kuchiki of your knowledge and involvement. I trust in your confidentiality."
"Of course, Captain Unohana," Saito cordially replied. "Kurosaki-san's confidentiality is of utmost importance to my assignment."
"That's reassuring to know," Unohana focused her gaze on Kurosaki once more. "You are to stay here for one month under my personal supervision."
"Personal supervision," Ichigo was aghast. "Why?"
"When you fought with the Arrancar, your body utilized a few powers subconsciously. We have to make sure he isn't getting loose again. In addition to your use of normal Shinigami abilities, it seems your body also activated reiatsu damage absorption, and of more concern, your super accelerated Hollow regeneration. This is just a precautionary measure."
"I see… So I'm basically under quarantine."
Orihime wandered the noisy hallway of the 4th Division, lost deep in her own thoughts. Bumping into a trolley brought her stiffly to reality. The nurse turned around and dog eyed her.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Orihime pleaded. Turning to leave she bumped into something else and plopped hard on her rump.
"I'm sooo sorry," she moaned apologetically. Raising her head she was met with a proffered hand. Its owner was Koutetsu Isane, Vice Captain of the 4th Division.
"Are you alright?" she asked in a soothing voice.
"Yes," Orihime nodded and took the offered hand. "I'm fine. Thank you."
"You look troubled. Would you like to come in and have some tea? I'm on my way to the office right now."
"No, no, no. It's okay. I'm fine, really!"
Orihime looked up at the tall, silver haired vice captain. Two long thin strands of hair draped down the right of her face ending in beads. She looked imposing to Orihime, like a vice captain should. Yet she was always kind and gentle to everyone. Isane in turn regarded the young orange-brown haired woman before her, the lines on her face spoke of worry and the haze in her eyes told her, her mind was elsewhere.
"It's Kurosaki-san, isn't it?" Isane asked.
"I'm just worried about him that's all. Is he alright?" nodding, a tear came to Orihime's eye as she fought to hold it back.
Isane knew Orihime's prognosis was usually as good as hers. Obviously the girl just wanted to hear it from someone else. "He'll be fine, Inoue-san. You worked on him for a full day. Short of Captain Unohana, you are the most gifted healer here. Come, let's get some tea. I insist."
Orihime followed the taller woman to the other end of the hall and entered a small, fastidiously tidy office. Isane signaled for Orihime to ignore the larger work bound office table. Instead she found herself kneeling on a cushion at the other end of the room as Isane went to fetch the tea.
"He saved a lot of people with his actions, Inoue-san. He is a very tough man and a survivor, I wouldn't worry so much if I were you. Most of his injuries were not too serious. Blood loss was what defeated him."
"I know," Orihime sighed. "I'm happy he saved so many people…"
Returning with the tea on a tray, Isane observed that Orihime had left the statement unfinished. Obviously something troubled her.
A gasket blew as all the pressure from the past few days vented itself.
"He was so stupid, fighting those things, unarmed. And yet… and yet… if he didn't… he wouldn't be the Kurosaki-kun I know," sobbing a little she found the strength to continue., "I worry about him so much and yet he… and yet… he… Rukia was wounded… and he… Ichigo almost died."
As a woman herself, Isane understood the deep seated fear that Orihime couldn't verbalise. Offering the girl a cup of tea, she tried to comfort the youth. "You know, Kurosaki-san made short work of three vice captains unarmed, a long time ago. I think the Arrancars were rudely shocked when they thought they found some easy weaponless targets."
It was years ago that it had happened, Isane could still see the look of determination in Ichigo's eyes and the force in which he had struck her with nothing but his arms. Rumour has it among the captains that he's stronger now than then, but the whole subject was strictly confidential and no one was permitted to mention it. The girl was struggling with something, Isane could see that. She decided to give Orihime some time to organize her own thoughts, sipping patiently at her tea.
Orihime barely tasted the beverage passing through her lips. She paid no attention to the warmth it imbibed in her chest. Her musings floated across time and space to a pleasant afternoon walk with Ishida. She was near the south gate of Seireitei. The air was warm and a slight breeze danced and teased her hair. The sun was out on a cloudless canvas of deep blue. The city was left behind them as they meandered through the maple forest. Ishida had brought the subject up for no apparent reason.
"You're in love with Kurosaki, aren't you?" he asked.
She knew he knew and was no longer afraid of admitting it to him. There were only two people she was afraid to tell.
"Yes," she replied, calm as the weather. "Not that it matters."
"Of course it matters. Your happiness matters a lot."
"Thank you Ishida-kun," Orihime blushed at her confession.
"Everyone can tell you're in love with him. But that's just the big irony of love."
"What do you mean?"
Ishida gazed away in the distance and murmured. "The only person the loved cannot see, is the one loving them."
Orihime paused. She knew what it meant but it still left many questions unanswered. "I just don't know what I should do anymore."
Ishida explored the grass with his hands as his eyes memorized the features of the great wall. At length he spoke, his stricken heart, forlorn.
"You should tell him you love him."
The ensuing silence was suffocating. Those three words 'you love him' echoed violently as it strove to drive her to despair.
You love him…
…you love him…
…you love him…
"Orihime!" Isane's gentle nudging realigned her with reality.
"Sorry," she mumbled. "My mind was somewhere else."
"It's okay." Isane's warmth was genuine. "You know, everyone can tell you love him. Only he doesn't know."
Orihime shifted uneasily. The chill quiet turned into muted minutes. Casting a soft eye to Isane, she finally raised her voice to speak. "Thank you Isane-san. For everything today. Really, Thank you."
Orihime bowed in gratitude and Isane nodded back. Exhaling as she stood up, Orihime attempted her best sanguine smile.
"I know what I have to do. No matter what happens, I will move forward with Ichigo."
The titanic structure ahead heralded the end of countless days of flight. Kurotsuchi Nemu had used up her precious store of blood and flesh replenishing pills. Her hair, normally neatly pleated, was a disheveled mess, flailing about her face, confusing itself with her long, usually separate sideburns. Her kimono was shredded in many places and her legs were scarred from miles of harsh trekking. A lone unseated Shinigami, Fumari Hanai supported her as they both limped towards the fortress known as Las Noches.
They dragged their weary forms through the gritty, soot grey sands. It was eerily silent as they arrived at its heavy wooden doors. Two huge brass ring were set on the doors acting as knockers. Hanai pulled back the ring and rapped loudly.
"Help! Anybody there!" he called out with what little strength he had.
Little swirls of sand was kicked up as two pairs of feet landed behind the Shinigamis. A tall male stood in cargo pants, sporting a grey military crew cut. His simple singlet showed off his muscular tones. Beside him was a small girl with short, lime green locks and sunglasses tucked in like a hair band. Dressed in a pristinely white jump suit she looked rather like a retro drag race driver. The Zanpaktous strapped to their backs indicated they were not as harmless as they looked. The man stepped forward, hand on his hilt.
"What the… Shinigamis!"
Nemu looked up groggily at the newcomers. "I am… Kurotsuchi Nemu… Soul Society…. Vice Captain… 12th Division… injured…"
Hanai seeing the pain in his vice captain continued the explanation for her. "Sirs. We were sent here by Soul Society to investigate the occurrence of new Arrancars attacking the real world and Soul Society. During our investigations we were ambushed and we managed to escape. We have come here seeking aid."
"Kensei, what do you think?" the little girl asked her partner.
"I don't know. For now they look harmless," he replied examining the pair. "Let Shinji decide what to do with them."
"Okay." The young girl smiled casually as she screamed out, "Hiyori-san! Please open the gate."
At the mention of the name, the doors unlocked itself and swung open. A short pale blonde girl, with light brown eyes and freckles greeted them. She looked rather childlike in her red tracksuit and hair tied to either side of her head, pointing outward like a human bon bon. Her voice and mannerisms however, were gruff.
"Damn! Just what we need, shitty Shinigamis. Shit!"
Nemu was half carried, half walked to the large dining hall. A long ellipsoid table decorated the centre of it. Rows of high backed chairs surrounded the table and at the end sat a thin blond youth in a golf cap. His sneer reminded Nemu of Gin's. He sat as if he was in charge of the group. A chilly, commanding aura emanated from the man. She deduced that he must be Shinji.
"Hirako!" the little blonde slapped him across the head with a thong and dragged him by the collar towards the Shinigamis. "Do something about them."
"Hiyori! Please." All semblance of authority seemed to vanish from him.
He appraised the state of the Shinigamis, motioning them to take a seat at the grand table. A moment passed as intelligence flickered back into his eyes.
"Hacchi! Heal them first and then we'll hear their story."
A large, rotund man with pink hair and a bushy moustache steeped out of the shadows. Fingering his bulbous chin he inspected the two of them before beginning his ministrations. Time ticked on slowly and as the colour returned to the Shinigamis' pallid faces, Shinji finally began his questioning.
"So, tell me what happened. And what you are doing so far away from Soul Society."
"My name is Kurotsuchi Nemu, Vice Captain of the 12th Division. This is my subordinate Furima Hanai," Nemu nodded as an introduction. "We were sent here by order of Commander Yamamoto to investigate the appearance of new Arrancar in alarming numbers, attacking Soul Society and the real world. We began a routine sweep of the area slowly increasing our radius of operations. We were ambushed by the former Espada, Grimmjow Jaggerjack and three new Arrancars. Taken by surprise we were annihilated."
"How many?" Shinji asked.
"Twelve of us came here. Only the two of us remain."
"Pssha!" grunted Hiyori. "Pathetic weaklings. Twelve on four and you lose."
Shinji reproached Hyori with a reprimanding look. She returned a petulant glare before storming out of the room.
"Forgive Hiyori, she's a little immature at times. Please, go on."
"The maturity and occurrence of the Arrancars suggests an outside influence. We suspect they are receiving help from someone or something. My mission was to investigate this and reconnaissance on the current strength of the Arrancar forces. Hence most of the group consisted of the 12th Division, we were not ordered, or expected, to engage the enemy."
Shinji walked back to the head of the table and sat down. "It seems that we are on the same side. What is it you want from us?"
"We wish for sanctuary to recover from our wounds and if it is possible, to send word to my Captain, Kurotsuchi Mayuri confirming our survival and current mission status. It seems our equipment is unable to connect to Soul Society from here so I have been unable to report."
Hanai sat uneasily as the seconds ticked away into minutes. The Vizards seemed to bore their eyes into the deep recesses of his soul, his Vice Captain however sat like a mannequin looking unperturbed as ever. Finally Shinji stood up and bowed loftily.
"It seems you'll be a guest here for a little while. I guess introductions are in order. I am the leader of this little group, Hirako Shinji. The big guy in the tuxedo is Ushouda Hachigen, we call him Hacchi for short. The man who greeted you outside is Muguruma Kensei and his partner is Mashiro," pointing his thumb at the door he continued, "The shorty sulking outside that door is Sarugaki Hiyori…"
"Who're ya calling shorty! Bastard!" a voice behind the door rang out.
"…and the rest are out and about doing stuff." Shinji fixed a serious eye on Nemu. "Welcome to Las Noches, our base of operations."
Tatsuki picked up the ladle from her simmering pot. She tasted her soup and approved. Tetsuya had flipped candidly through his collection of photos, organizing into different shooting sessions. His mind rested on the questions, many of them that his colleague, Reika, had brought up. She came over, not too long ago, and he had shown her the photos in his drawer. The disbelief in her face changed into satisfaction only after a long and arduous trial of his explanations. In the end, she seemed content and had commented that this was indeed, 'the story of the century'. Still, he hated this feeling of guilt as he sat here in Tatsuki's lounge room.
Getting up, he shook the paralysis out of his legs and strolled over to her wall unit. Looking at the various framed photos, he had never known her to have many friends. He had never met any of them except that thin youth, Ishida Uryuu. A splash of colour caught his eye.
"Who's this in this photo?" Tetsuya asked out loud.
"Who?" Tatsuki called out from the kitchen. "Gimme a minute. The Udon's nearly done."
She finally came out carrying two bowls of Udon noodle, placing them on the table she walked over to Tetsuya. The tall but narrow wall unit contained a variety of odd objects, usually purchased from the various places she had been while attending tournaments. A couple of photos sat in frames that she had long forgotten about. The sight of them brought back many memories for her.
"Who's this?" Tetsuya asked pointing to the tall, dark skinned teen. "Ex-Boyfriend?" he mocked, turning the question into a joke.
"No way!" she jabbed him playfully in the shoulder. "He's a friend of mine. We used to go to school together."
"Does this friend have a name?"
"Why? Are you jealous?"
He laughed. "Nah, just curious. We've been together for a while and you never seem to mention anything about your friends. It's like you don't have any. I just want to get to know you better," He turned to look at the martial arts prodigy. "Really get to know you better. Right now I hardly know anything about the girl before me, her past or her friends or anything."
He pondered the irony of his statement. Silence descended upon the couple. It was a natural question and a normal thing to know in a normal relationship, she mused. Taking a silent prayer, she decided to frame her answer as best as she could.
"They were all my school friends. We had so much fun together in high school, but I hardly see them all much now."
The pain in her voice did not escape Tetsuya. Instead he decided to ignore it and to continue to pursue the topic,
"Wow sounded like you had a fun high school life! Mine was all just books and study!" he laughed to calm her tension down. "Who are they anyway? I recognize Ishida but I've never seen the others before."
Taking a moment to control herself she spun a story about her imaginary past. "The guy you asked about is Chad, he was a quiet guy but reliable as a donkey!"
He laughed at this, thinking back to the scene he witnessed. Yes, 'reliable' was definitely one way to describe him. She saw him laugh at her joke and decided that maybe this wasn't such a bad idea. Pointing them out as she went along she actually enjoyed relieving some of her fond younger memories.
"This is Orihime. She was my best friend in high school."
"Where is she now?"
That struck a nerve. Tatsuki couldn't bring herself to say that her best friend was dead. She never considered her dead at all. "She's overseas. She visits on occasion."
"That's Ichigo. He was a child hood friend that used to come to my dojo. I gave him his first beating. He bawled his eyes out!"
"You must have traumatized him," he laughed. "So is he any good at Karate?"
"Ha! He could beat me now," she smiled thinking about all the sparring sessions they've had since.
"He must be some thing to watch out for if he's that good. Where is he now?"
"He died a few years back, "her voice became solemn. "A tragic accident."
"Oh, sorry. Who's this?" he asked, pointing to the guy in front of Ichigo. "He seems like a practical joker, flashing his butt like that!"
She smiled, "That's Keigo. He was a bit of a pervert but he's funny."
"Who's that beside him?"
"That's Mizuiro, he died a few years back too. Another accident."
Tetsuya was surprised. Why did she have so many friends that were dead. "Oh, sorry again."
"It's okay. Keigo and him were best friends. He took it the hardest," moving away from the subject, "That dude there is Renji. He was an exchange student. The bastard kept on getting on my nerves!"
"You became friends with him right?" he looked at the heavily tattooed red head.
"As if! We fight every time we see each other!"
So she was friends with him too, he decided, maybe a Karate rival. "So where is he now?"
"He's uh, out of the country. Anyway, that there is Hitsugaya-kun. As you can tell, he's a child prodigy that's why he's in our class."
"Wow! He must be doing great things right now, at such a young age. So where is he?"
"He's in Tokyo University so he moved out of the area." Her responses were starting to get better as she felt more relaxed. It actually felt good for her to finally have someone to share her, albeit edited, life with. "And that one there is Rangiku, as you could probably imagine she was really popular with the guys."
"I can see that." That earned him another jab at his shoulder.
Frowning she continued, "That's Ikkaku, just don't ever tell him he's bald. That's his best friend Yumichika."
"Who's the shrimp?"
Tatsuki laughed, "Suya! That's Rukia! If she heard you call her that she'd pulverize you!"
"Another martial artist?"
"You could say that."
"How good is she?"
"Very. Maybe even as good as I am!" she strutted confidently.
"So where is she now? Is she competing?"
"She's gone overseas and she doesn't compete."
"Interesting group of friends you have." He meant it. There was a bald guy, a tattooed freak, a gay looking one, a child prodigy, a couple of dead guys and most were no longer here for one reason or another. Added to this fact he got the impression they were all capable fighters or martial artists. Maybe he had photographed so many martial arts pictures he could subconsciously tell a fighter by his composure.
This school was definitely worth investigating and he filed away the names for further study. He finally came upon an idea that might be interesting.
"Hey you know, our company is having a party soon, celebrating something or other. You should invite your friends along. It'll be great to catch up with them. Then I can finally find out what type of guys you usually hang out with."
She looked at him mournfully. Her voice softened as she put on a smile he knew was forced. "Not this time, maybe another time."
He walked briskly over to the luke warm Udon and sat down. "Now that I know something about your highschool life, I guess it's only fair to tell you about mine."
His words wiped away the damp mood.
"Yes, that sounds fair," she took her seat and began listening intently to the tales he regaled as they ate.
End Chapter 15
A/N: Regarding Tatsuki's softness in my story, I think it's only logical that people treat their partners differently than they treat others. In this sense I based Tatsuki's approach to relationships similar to her approach to Orihime. In my opinion, she wouldn't be pounding a guy's into the ground constantly if they were in a serious relationship. Hence I softened her in regards to Tetsuya.
Again thanks to my editor for doing a great job even during the Christmas break. Also sorry to all my readers about my tardiness in getting this chapter out. Too much partying during the festive season had stripped me of my sanity and ability to walk a straight line let alone write. I blame Jim Beam so you can vent your anger out on him.