"I'll be going back to Soul Society," Rukia said.
Ichigo ignored her. He didn't lift his eyes from the book he was reading.
"I said I'll be going back to Soul Society."
"That's good. When?" He crossed his legs and went to the next page.
"Two weeks from now."
Her eyebrows creased. She clenched her teeth. "Two weeks from now."
"What's wrong with you? I'm not deaf," he said.
"S-sorry. I didn't mean to—"
He closed his book with a thud, stood up, and threw himself onto the bed. "Let's stop this. I have a class tomorrow."
"Wouldn't you ask me if I'd return?"
He looked away. "No need. You decide that for yourself."
That ended it. Rukia offered no further contention and decided to withdraw to his closet, her sleeping quarters. She lay down on her futon, knowing that she would not have any sleep that night.
It was two in the morning. Ichigo sat up on his bed. He couldn't sleep. He stood up and walked towards his closet. He stared at it for a while. Swallowing, he slid its door open.
Under the dim light of the electric lamp and the darkness of the night, he could still make out her pretty face. Fair skin, cute nose, and small soft lips—he sighed. If only she was more feminine. He shook his head and smiled.
Gingerly, he reached out to touch her face. It was the first time he did that and possibly the last. So, he made it count, laying his hand long enough for him to remember her smoothness.
Then he reached out for her hand. He slid his fingers through hers. Like lovers. He let it that way for a time, savoring the moment. Rukia tried hard to feign sleep. After a while, he pulled the entwined hands to his face. He kissed her hand and memorized its smell, its softness, its feel.
Rukia, if I could only stop time…if we could just stay this way forever… I just can't understand it. Why should the two of us have to be of different kind?
He looked at her face and then focused on her lips, glistening under the little light that reached them. Should he kiss her? He closed his eyes. He shouldn't be an idiot. It would only complicate things. She had her own world, he had his. He put her hand down and then caressed her lips with his thumb, softly, as if skimming on the surface of butter. That was the only act he permitted himself to do.
It shall end here, he thought. Return if you want, but I'll not wait.
He slid the door close.
Rukia pressed her eyelids tight on her eyes to suppress the tears that were about to come. But she couldn't stop them for long. Quietly, she sobbed on her pillow.
Six months later…
Ichigo was not a Death God anymore. The Soul Society had been active these past months in the Human World and Hollows' appearances had decreased, giving the Soul Council no more reason to keep temporary Death Gods on active service. Furthermore, Urahara had told Ichigo that his reiatsu had leveled down to that of a mere human. So, even if the Soul Council badly needed temporary Death Gods, he would not be fit to have the job.
On an early morning of Saturday, Ichigo had gone shopping. He chose the route that passed the park on his way home. Because he was deep in thoughts, he didn't notice Inoue, who was sitting on a bench and reading a pocketbook. Inoue saw him.
"Ichigo!" Inoue called out, waving a hand.
Ichigo glanced up to see who was calling him. "Inoue? Hey!" He approached the lovely, orange-haired girl.
"Gone shopping?" She stowed away the pocket book she had been reading in her bag.
"Can't refuse these days. The old man is sick," he said, slightly lifting the bags of goods to show her. "Quite a purchase, huh?"
"Why didn't you tell me your dad is sick?"
"It's just a bad cold. Nothing to worry about."
"But I'm worried." She stood up.
"The man's a monster. Two days from now, he will be running around town, looking for lovely girls like you to ask out on a date."
"How about your break? Because of your dad's condition, you're not enjoying it, aren't you?"
"Well, I planned before vacation that I would do the chores at home so that Yuzu would be relieved from her responsibilities for a while. I want her to enjoy the holidays a little. So, even though dad was well, I'd still be doing this. And please don't worry about me, Inoue. In a way, these chores relieve me of my boredom."
"But—" This is your only chance to completely move on.
He put a hand on her shoulder. "No buts now. Don't worry. Everything's fine. And you, you better go home now. It's getting cold out here."
"All right," she said but her tone suggested otherwise.
"Want me to walk you home?"
She nodded yes.
The long pavement was littered with dry leaves of fall. In every step, the sound of their crackles was fairly audible in that quiet morning and somewhat reminded them that Christmas was fast approaching.
"Have you already thought something for Christmas?" Ichigo asked.
"That's weird. The Inoue I know plans just after the last day of class before vacation. Are those Death Gods doing their jobs properly?"
Inoue halted. "What do you mean by that?"
He grinned. "That maybe you're not Inoue I'm talking to."
"That you're a hollow disguising as her."
She resumed walking. "Maybe."
Her answer struck him frozen. If he didn't reach out to hold her wrist, she could have gotten far from him.
"What's the matter? You're acting strange."
"Nothing. I just want to get home fast."
She retrieved her wrist from him and took off. Without anything to say back, Ichigo just stared at her as she left.
Once at home he chose to forget about what had happened. Girls are always like that, he thought. Maybe she only wants to be alone.
The hours passed by unnoticed. Then the evening came and passed like any other before. After he had eaten, he went straight to bed. Then he slept immediately, afraid of worrying about some stupid thoughts that always robbed him of his sleepiness.
After two days…
Ishida was on his way home with three books under his arm. He had gone to the district library that morning to have references for his investigation of paranormal activities. Taking the shortcut by the videogame store, he accidentally saw through his eyeglasses Ichigo picking some games from a shelf inside the store. Having it weird for him to see Ichigo inside such a place, he decided to drop by.
"Hey, Ichigo!" he greeted, pushing the glass door in.
Ichigo turned to him. "Hey, Ishida! Getting some games, too?"
"Nah. Just came to greet you and ask you something."
"Yeah. Why are you here?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"Don't you hate videogames? I mean, you said it was only a waste of time and money, so how come you're in here?"
"For a change, maybe."
Ichigo picked Frontline 4 and Battle Ghosts, and then went to the counter. Ishida followed him.
"What do you mean 'that easily'?" He paid up and started for the door.
"You know what I mean."
"Umm…let's see. I think we could say that I discovered a new pass-time." He grinned at Ishida. "Well, see you later."
Couldn't think of any counter, Ishida could only say, "Alright." Standing by the counter, he followed Ichigo with confused eyes as the latter walked away.
Ishida fell deep in thoughts as he walked home. What did he mean a pass-time? Was Ichigo so afraid to be idle to even resort to something he hated far more that Hollows just to have something to make him busy? He went on, looking down at the pavement, thinking some logical answers to his questions. When he reached the first junction from the store, he met Sado and Inoue turning to his direction from the left.
"Good morning, Ishida!" Inoue greeted him.
"Yo, Inoue, Sado," he replied.
Inoue glanced down at the books under his arm. "Have you been from the library?"
"Still doing the investigation Manager Urahara gave you?"
"Yes. What about you two?"
"Keigo invited us to his house. He said his mother wanted us to taste her special chocolate cake. Want to join us?"
"Oh." He thought for a moment if he should tell them what he was thinking about.
"Guys, have you noticed Ichigo's strangeness these past days?"
"Ichigo? Umm…speaking of that, I did. Last time we met, he said he didn't mind doing chores, and he tried to crack a joke for me."
"He also invited me yesterday for a basketball match," the big, reticent Sado added.
"Even this morning, I found him buying some video games."
"Video games?" the other two blurted out.
"Yes. The thing he would choose death before he would try playing."
"Is it that serious?" asked Inoue. "Even video games?"
"What could be his problem?"
"I'm not sure, but I think he always keeps himself busy. I don't know why he is afraid to have nothing to do, but I just thought of something. Could you tell Keigo you can't come?"
"Okay," Inoue promptly replied.
Forgetting the things they were about to do that day, the three of them went to Manager Urahara's store. The bashful girl Ururu ushered them into the receiving area and told them to wait for the manager. After some time of quiet waiting, a gray-haired man, wearing a loose cloak and a hat, which rim shadowed his eyes, arrived. He sat in front of them.
"So, what can I do for you?" Urahara asked.
"It's about Ichigo, sir," Ishida said.
"Ichigo? What about him?"
"Could I ask a favor for him, sir?"
"Could you make him a Death God again?"
Urahara didn't answer. Even Inoue and Sado were surprised.
"No," Urahara said after a moment. Now, it was Ishida's turn to be surprised.
"No? Why not?" he said.
"Ichigo is not fit to be a Death God anymore."
"What do you mean?"
"Ichigo's spiritual energy decreased to that of an ordinary human."
"What?" Ishida could sense Inoue and Sado were shocked as well.
"I can't risk his life. He might die in battle."
Ishida sagged, thwarted. He looked up at the ceiling. Everyone was quiet as well. Silence seemed to take forever until Urahara broke it.
"Well, since you're already here, I might as well tell you what's happening on the other side. The officials have been experimenting about a way to enter Hueco Mundo by forcing to open a worm hole through a fourth dimension plain."
A large drop of sweat ran down Sado's cheek. Inoue scratched her head. Ishida pretended that he understood.
"About your friends," Urahara went on, "Abarai Renji is now the Captain of the tenth squad and Hanatarou, the second lieutenant of the fourth. About Rukia…well, she's difficult to understand."
"Rukia?" It was Inoue.
"Her instructors complain about her lack of focus in training. Some people I asked reported that she avoids talking to anyone except to her brother Byakuya and friend Renji. They said it started a week after she left this world."
Urahara spoke no more. When the three didn't ask any questions, he rendered his goodbyes. Same as ever. So busy a man. He left the three in the room with a problem twice as many as when they only had the one about Ichigo.
"What now?" Inoue asked. "What are we going to do?"
"I don't know," said Ishida. "And now even Rukia has become a pain in the ass there. What's happening to these guys?"
"Hey, Ishida, wait up!" called Jinta, the boy attendant of Urahara's store, running with all his might towards the trio. "There's a note from manager here!"
They halted and turned towards the boy.
The boy stopped in front of them and gave them a piece of paper. He was panting hard. "You guys professional hikers? Damn, only a minute ago, you were at the store, and now you're here miles away from it. You almost had me puke my guts." He straightened up. "Anyway, it's actually from Captain Byakuya. Something about Rukia."
"Rukia?" Ishida asked. He read it…twice…three times; then he grinned.
"What does it say?" Inoue said.
"Something about Rukia," he replied.
Few hours ago…
Byakuya found his sister sitting under a tree after her instructor in fencing reported she had skipped class. She was holding her soul slayer close to her.
"I heard you skipped class," he said.
Rukia jumped from her seat. "Brother?"
"Good afternoon, Rukia."
"L-look…um…you know…I don't feel well today—"
"I know. Ever since you came back, you haven't felt well."
"I'm…I'm sorry for failing your expectations, brother."
He smiled at her. "I know how you feel. Is it about Ichigo?"
She blushed. "Ah, no…of course not. I forgot about him already. There's no way I would think about him."
"Like what you're doing now?"
She averted her eyes from him.
He sighed. "Do you want to return to the real world?"
"No…I don't want to…I mean—"
"I've arranged your papers already. You'll be leaving tomorrow."
She tried not to breathe to stop herself from crying, but she couldn't hold it for long. Her tears flowed down her cheeks. "N-no…I…"
"I wrote to Urahara. I told him that you'll arrive tomorrow. Be good there, okay. I'm count—"
She hugged him.
He put his hand on her head. "Everything will be fine."
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much," she said, burying her face in her brother's tunic.
Ishida decided to visit Ichigo that afternoon. Upon his arrival, he could sense that even Ichigo's father and sisters were confused about Ichigo's sudden change.
"I don't know what's happened," Ichigo's dad said, sniffing. "Since the start of vacation, he's been acting weird."
"Where is he now, sir?"
"In his room."
Mr. Kurousaki led Ishida to Ichigo's room on the second floor. Both found Ichigo seated on the floor, playing Battle Ghosts like crazy.
"You can win it! You can win it! You can win it!" Ichigo coaxed his character. "C'mon big guy! Win, win, win!"
"Looks like you're enjoying yourself," Ishida said.
Ichigo turned his head to Ishida. "Hey, Ishida! Want to join me? I—"
"You lost!" the game announced. Ichigo jerked his head back to the screen.
"Oh, crap! I lost again," he said. He put the joystick down and then sat on his bed. "I haven't gotten the rhythm, yet. But surely, two to three weeks from now, I'll be finishing enemies in a matter of seconds." He smiled at the two men. "What's up?"
"Just came to visit," Ishida said.
"Well, I'll be below if you'll need something," Mr. Kurousaki said.
"Ah, don't bother yourself, sir."
"Ishida is right, pops. Don't push yourself too hard. You should be resting."
"I'm okay. I feel weaker when I'm in bed." Mr. Kurousaki held the knob. "I'm going."
"Thank you, sir," Ishida said. He sat beside Ichigo.
The door closed.
"What's up, Ishida?"
"I have something important to tell you. Well, you see, tomorrow, Rukia is coming."
Ishida nodded. "A letter from Byakuya told us earlier."
Ichigo thought for a while. "Rukia? I'm sure I heard that name before," he murmured.
"This Rukia, is she our classmate?"
Ishida stood up, eyes wide in surprise.
"What's wrong?" Ichigo said.
"Don't kid around, man. It's not funny."
"I didn't tell any jokes."
Ishida put his hands on Ichigo's shoulders. "Rukia? You even risked you life saving her!"
Ichigo took Ishida's hands away. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"But it's Rukia, Ichigo. Are you sure—"
"I'm sorry. Her name is familiar, but I don't remember anyone named Rukia, Ishida."
"It's Rukia…" Ishida murmured.
Ichigo stood up and put a hand on Ishida's shoulder. "All right. I'll try to remember her. Maybe I just forgot. Will you cheer up?"
Ishida nodded reluctantly. "But it's Rukia…"
Ichigo frowned, but not at Ishida. At the name Rukia.
Inoue read her pocketbook as she waited for the water to boil. It was already 8:15 PM. She was already in her sleeping pajamas. Suddenly, the phone rang.
"Hello, Orihime's residence. May I help you?"
"Inoue, it's Ishida."
"I have something to tell you. Please don't sleep yet. I'm coming to your house."
He hung up. She frowned at the phone before setting it back on the cradle.
She was now on page 38 of the 100-page pocketbook she was reading. When she was to flip to the next page, the kettle whistled. She got up and prepared two hot chocolates.
"Ishida is taking so long," Inoue said, carrying the tray to the table. "I wonder what happened—"
The doorbell rang. She smiled. "Speaking of the devil. Coming!"
Inoue laid down the tray and went to the door.
"Good evening, Inoue," Ishida said.
"What took you so long?" Inoue feigned irritation.
Inoue smiled. "Just kidding. Come in!" She led him to the low table and offered him a cup of chocolate.
He took a sip and brightened. "This is good."
"Thank you," Inoue said. "I'm glad you like it."
Ishida put the cup down. He looked up at the wall clock. It was 9:52 PM. He exhaled. "Did you know that Ichigo doesn't remember Rukia?"
Inoue slammed her hands on the table. Some of the chocolate spilled out of the cups. "What did you say?"
"I don't understand either, but this afternoon when I came to tell him about Rukia's arrival, he said he didn't know her."
Ishida just stared at her. Inoue closed her eyes and put her butt back on the floor. "Do Sado know about this?"
"What are we going to do? He risked his life to save her. She is his friend. Why can't he remember her?"
"I don't know. I'll ask Manager Urahara if he knows something. Tell Sado."
"Rukia…what about Rukia?"
Ishida stood up and adjusted his glasses. "She must not meet with Ichigo tomorrow."
After leaving Inoue, Ishida went straight to Urahara's store. It was already closed, but the light coming from the windows told him that nobody was sleeping, yet. He knocked at the door.
"Who could this be on such late a time?" Jinta asked, grumpily. There were knocks again. "Coming! Coming!" He opened the door. "Ishida?"
"Jinta! Is Manager around?"
"Yes. He's in the study room."
"Sorry for the late visit, but could I ask him about something?"
"Sure. Come in."
Jinta ushered Ishida to the receiving area. A fluorescent lamp lit the room brightly, revealing a modest, but cozy surrounding. Even though a little curious, Jinta didn't ask any questions; instead, he promptly left to get the manager. Ishida said his thanks to the boy and sat on the matted floor.
"Yo, Ishida, came to report any progress in your investigation?" the Manager said, appearing by the door.
"Good evening, sir."
Urahara sat opposite him. "So, any progress?"
"None, sir. But I'm not here for that."
Urahara unfolded his fan and started fanning himself. "Oh. So why are you here then?"
"It's about Ichigo, sir."
"Yes, sir. I believe you can explain something about him."
"I don't understand."
"This afternoon, when I told him about Rukia's arrival, he said he didn't know Rukia."
"Really? Anything that happened to him that could have caused the amnesia?"
"Nothing. He hasn't been in any accident where he could have hit his head."
"Maybe he's just playing a prank."
"This is serious, sir."
"Ummm, it sounds like a memory breakup."
"You see, when we Death Gods want someone to forget the last thing that person saw, we use memory breakup. In this principle, we will decrease the spiritual energy of a person so that he will lose the last fragments of memories attached to his consciousness. The spiritual energy acts as the binder of these fragments that attaches them to the human's mind. If the spiritual energy is decreased, the binder will lose hold of those fragments, and they will disperse and disappear."
"That means a Death God did it to him?"
"Impossible. Ichigo's existence is very important to Soul Society. The Council has even assigned special agents to make sure that he is safe. Besides, someone very powerful is always near him. If someone wants to sabotage his memory, it will not be that easy and I would have already caught wind of it."
"Well, there is still a way to do it. If a person who can control reiatsu decreased his or her reiatsu's level, he could lose some of his memories. Since Ichigo's reiatsu has been decreasing every day, his memory broke up."
"Wait, sir. Isn't it that it only applies to memories that have been recently acquired by a person? Rukia is not a new person he has met recently. He has known her for months."
Urahara rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "When was the last time Ichigo talked about Rukia?"
Ishida was caught off-guard. He looked down. "He has never talked about her ever since she left for Soul Society."
"So, he is deliberately forgetting about her. With the decline of his reiatsu's level, he is succeeding." He nodded to himself. "When you told him about Rukia this afternoon, did he say the name was new to him?"
"He said the name was familiar."
"Just as I've thought. The breakup is not complete. Some of his memories of Rukia remain."
"Is that true?"
"Yes. The time to breakup memories using your will is also the time you spent in acquiring them. Since he knew her for more than six months, those memories couldn't be broken up for only six months. You still have a chance. Unless Ichigo decreases his spiritual power further, he won't forget some of those pieces of her that are still intact."
Ishida brightened up. He stood up hastily and made a bow. "Thank you very much, Sir Urahara."
Urahara smiled at him. "You're a good friend, Ishida."
When Ishida was leaving, Urahara gave him a pill. An opener, Urahara told him. He said that Ichigo should take it while he slept. With the help of Mr. Kurousaki, they successfully fed the pill to Ichigo. Ishida didn't know what the pill was for, but he trusted Urahara completely he didn't ask about it. He told Mr. Kurousaki that everything would be fine. Mr. Kurousaki thanked him for that. About eleven o'clock, they parted. On his way home, there was only a single thought in Ishida's mind.
Urahara had told him, "After he has taken the pill, your job is finished. It will be up to him if he wants to remember anymore."
One o'clock A.M. was the time being shown by Ichigo's Toshiba digital clock on his study desk. As usual for a late evening in December, the wind that entered his room was prickly cold. It entered his window that was half opened even though before he had slept he made sure to close. Also, the curtains that he rarely parted were parted to the sides, letting a rich, silvery, slanting stream of moonlight in.
Ichigo slept deeply that night. He had done chores all day, and had never let himself to take even a few moments of rest, except for eating and taking leaks, just to avoid thinking of a girl who always called him by his name, but he didn't recognize. However, even in his sleep, he could hardly avoid her.
The dream he was having worsened the chill that the wind brought. In his dream, the girl was in front of her and smiling.
"She is special to you," a voice in his head said.
"Who are you?" he said.
"You would lay your life on the line to protect her."
"I don't know that girl! And I would not do a dumb thing like that!"
"Damn you! Get out of my head!"
"Get out of my head!"
There was silence. He looked around. The girl was still smiling at him.
"Who are you?" he asked. The girl smiled. "Tell me your name!"
"She will not answer you."
He ignored the voice. "Tell me who you are!"
"Let's not stray from the subject. I want to test your honesty."
The surrounding began changing. The pitch-black darkness began to register forms. First, a very dark, cloudy sky appeared, booming with thunder and flashing with lighting. Then, a ground with deep cliffs beyond its edges materialized together with the rusty smell of blood in the air. Lastly, a tall concrete pair of pillars showed up looming behind the girl.
The girl soon floated up to the top of the pillars, arms stretched wide apart. She was still looking at him, but didn't try begging for help. He realized she was giving him the choice.
Now a shocking, skull-numbing, giant figure appeared behind the pillars, wielding a very large blade above the girl's head, ready to strike at any time. When the lighting flashed, he could hardly breathe when he realized that the figure was he himself, sneering evilly, thirsty for blood. Pushed by the weight of confusion and pulled down by the gravity of awe, he lost his balance and fell kneeling to the ground.
"This test will show me the truth of her importance to you," said his monstrous self. "But I'll go easy and give you choices. One, I know that this girl has been bothering you lately, and I want to offer a hand in eliminating her so you can have peace. If you choose me to do so, not answering at all is easily comprehensible. Two, if you want to save her and decide to yourself that she is indeed important, just tell me her name, even faintly, and I shall hear and reward her freedom."
"I don't know her name! How can I save her if I can't tell you her name?"
"Figure that out yourself." He raised the huge blade until it was vertical. "Before this blade brings forth her death, you still have time to save her. The answer I have now is the first one until you say her name. Tell me her name."
"I can't! Is there no other way? Don't do anything to her, please."
"I won't do anything to her," the evil Ichigo said. "Because you're the one who will be doing this!"
The blade rushed down, slicing the bloody air in half.
"No, stop it! Please!"
The blade ripped her apart and blood rained on him.
He bolted up from his bed, gasping for air, his face drenched with cold, sticky sweat. It was a horrible dream, and he felt the need to embrace someone. But, on that night, who could be there to lend him warmth?
"Ichigo," he heard someone whispered. The sound was distant to his ears, and he thought he was still dreaming.
"Ichigo," he heard again and this time it sounded more real.
A hand touched his shoulder. He reached out and embraced whoever it was in front of him. As his arms enfolded the soft body, he heard a sudden gasp of surprise but ignored it. All he cared about at that moment was to ease his trembling. Other things didn't matter.
Rukia sat stiffly while Ichigo enfolded here with his arms. It was her first time being embraced like that, harsh, tight, but warm, and she thought she could endure letting him do it even until forever. The pleasant feeling of his chest against her breasts, his breath on her nape, his hands behind her head and on her back—it was enough to make up for all the longing she had felt back in Soul Society. She wished he would not let go. She embraced him back.
"Everything's fine, now, Ichigo. Everything's fine," she said in the sweetest voice she could managed.
Suddenly, Ichigo trembled. It was first imperceptible, but soon Rukia felt it together with the tightening of Ichigo's arms that began choking her. Her eyes widened. Her mouth gaped. The arms she lovingly had embraced Ichigo with soon loosened and parted away from his body.
"You will die!" Ichigo hissed. His voice was full of hate.
"I'll kill you!"
"Ichigo, I can't breathe…"
"Die!" He exerted more force into his deadly embrace.
Suddenly, Ichigo let go. Her lungs automatically breathed in air. When her vision cleared, she saw, standing beside the bed, his cane propped up horizontally towards where Ichigo's head had been, holding his hat's brim with his free hand as if to greet her, Manager Urahara. Ichigo had fainted on her chest.
"I'm too late," Urahara said. He swung down his cane, came closer to Ichigo, and then retrieved something from the blonde boy's mouth. It was the green pill he had given Ishida a while ago.
"What's going on?" Rukia said.
Urahara threw her a pitiful look and reconsidered if he should tell her what he knew.
Rukia stood up. "Will you tell me what's going on?"
"Rukia." His voice made her wince. "You better start forgetting about him."
"What? Are you crazy? Why should I do that?"
"Because he doesn't remember even a little bit about you now."
"I don't understand what you're saying."
"This pill," he said, raising the pill to make her see, "has gone too far. I'm sorry, Rukia. This ate him down. I tried to come here earlier, but some distractions came by."
"Is that an opener? Why should he need…No!" She charged and yanked Urahara's cloak, bringing him closer to her. "What did he forget? Why did he need some forbidden pill from you?" Tears of anger welled up on her eyes.
"You," he said without any trace of hesitation. "He forgot about you."
"No!" she said. Her arms began losing their strength. "No! You're lying!"
She let go and groped for support. She thought she might fall anytime. "No."
"I'm sorry. I tried my best to help, but even fate intervened."
She didn't move for a time. Her right hand trembled on the bed sheet. Urahara propped up his cane towards her temple. Rukia turned towards him in a snap and then took hold of the cane.
"Don't," she said. "I'll decide this on my own."
Urahara smiled sadly. "Okay."
He waited for a few moments before going to the window to leave. He asked, "Want me to walk you home?"
Rukia shook her head. "I want to be here with him a little longer."
Urahara sighed. Then you've already decided. I just hope you would not regret it.
The alarm clock went off at five-thirty. Ichigo wailed with it in surprise. He crushed it with a quick fist hammer. The Toshiba C-1104 model he had bought for two thousand yen just two weeks ago was now a rain of debris falling in his room.
"Damn it! Who the hell put it in here?" he said.
Grumpily, he got off his bed and went out, snatching a towel on the way. The pleasant smell of frying bacon reeked up to the second floor. He became aware of his hunger. He climbed down the stairs two steps at a time. He reached the kitchen. Yuzu was cooking.
"Good morning," he said.
Yuzu gave him a glance. "Good morning, brother!"
"You the only one up?"
"Nope. Dad's opening the clinic."
"Searching for me?" his father said, charging from outside towards him with a clenched fist. "Try my Super Ichigo Destroyer Before Breakfast Attack!"
"Oh, brother…" Ichigo sighed.
Ichigo clenched his fist, waited, and then, with an incredible sharpness, sent a fist into his father's face. His father tumbled repeatedly, ending stuck to the wall.
"Brother, I think you overdid it," Yuzu said, worriedly looking at their father.
"He deserved it." He went to the bathroom to clean himself.
When he came back, the table was already set. His father was reading the Daily Japan. Yuzu was eating silently. On the table were loaves of bread, sunny-side up eggs, and bacon. There was already a hot cup of coffee prepared for him. He went to his seat beside Yuzu.
"Hey, Yuzu, did you put an alarm clock in my room?" Ichigo said, getting some eggs from the serving dish.
Yuzu glanced up. "Alarm clock?"
"Yeah. I think a digital clock, but I'm not sure. I destroyed it before I could confirm."
Yuzu shook her head. "No. I don't know about any digital alarm clock."
Ichigo turned to his father. "Dad, don't say you've put that in there to play a prank on me."
Mr. Kurousaki lowered the newspaper, revealing a pair of challenging eyes. He was grinning. "And if I say yes?"
A vein twitched on Ichigo's forehead. "Why you old geezer…I knew it!" He took a sip of coffee to calm down.
Mr. Kurousaki went back to his reading and didn't speak for a while. However, when he stopped to sip his coffee, he said, "I didn't do it."
Just as Ichigo was about to say something back, Yuzu stood up and went to the sink. She opened the faucet to wash her hands. "Hey, brother, eat well. There's a lot to do today."
"So? What about it?"
Yuzu turned the faucet off. "What so? Have you forgotten you insisted doing the chores all by yourself this vacation?"
"What? Did I do that?"
Yuzu and Mr. Kurousaki exchanged meaningful glances.
"Yes," Yuzu said.
"Hey, come on, this is not funny. You know I'm not good with chores."
"Not really, Ichigo," Mr. Kurousaki said. "I think you're better in doing them compared to Yuzu."
Ichigo bolted up. "Would you stop fooling around? There is no way I'm gonna do those, for God's sake. You know how clumsy I am at chores."
"But you did them good, you know," Mr. Kurousaki said. "And you have done them every single day."
"What? Hey, Yuzu, aren't you supposed to this job. I don't understand what father is saying."
"Yes, I'm supposed to do—"
"Okay, okay," Mr. Kurousaki said. "You're out. You can do what you want today."
Still confused about the conversation, Ichigo decided not to answer anymore. He went up to his room.
"I'm glad he's himself again, Dad," Yuzu said.
"Yes." Mr. Kurousaki went to the sports page. He read the article about the soccer championships, but didn't make out any sense out of it. He was thinking about the pill that Ishida had given him the last night.
"Ah, this day is weird. An alarm clock, then me insisting to do the chores." Ichigo went to his closet and got from there a pair of black jeans and a yellow green shirt. "One more crazy thing and I'll go nuts." He dressed up, pulled a sport magazine from his drawer, and then threw himself onto his bed.
"Brother, are you there?" It was Karin's voice at the door.
"Come in," Ichigo said.
The door opened, but Karin stayed outside. "Brother, thank you for this." Karin held out the Battle Ghosts videogame CD.
Ichigo brought down his magazine and looked at the CD. "What's that?"
"You drunk? This is your videogame."
"My videogame?" Ichigo got off his bed and went closer to Karin. "You said my videogame?"
Ichigo suddenly grabbed Karin's shoulders. "Hey, Karin, are you with Pops, too?"
"Huh? What are you saying? You bought this videogame, remember? I just burrowed it for a while."
"No, I don't remember buying it. You know I hate videogames."
"You hate them, eh? Then why have you wasted buying a lot? If I include this, let me see…seven…no, eight. You have eight in total."
"Yes. You're keeping them in your closet."
With heart beating fast and mind growing increasingly confused, he ran to his closet and searched for the videogames. He found them stacked neatly on the upper layer.
"Aaaaah! They're here!"
"Hey, brother, you're overreacting."
Ichigo looked at Karin. It was funny how confusion and shock was mixed on his face. "Karin." He reached out for the stack without looking and handed it to Karin. "These are yours now."
Karin got them. "But, why? I thought you needed these."
"Well, now, I don't. It's yours from this moment on." He looked around and found the Nintendo game station. "And this, too—this is really weird. Just promise one thing."
"What is it?"
"Never ever put them inside my room again, okay."
Karin went out after that, walking slowly with eight videogames under her left arm and the game station in her right hand. She was happy not only because of the games, but also because his brother was back.
At six-thirty, when he finally decided to went out and use a little exercise, Yuzu asked him if he could do the shopping, which Ichigo didn't mind doing.
"Here's the list, brother," Yuzu said, handling him a torn page of notebook scribbled with the day's necessities and their father's credit card. "Don't forget anything, okay."
Now he was out in the bright morning. There were only few passersby and mostly he didn't notice them. He was thinking, what is happening? First, the alarm clock, then the chores, then the videogames? It's not April. It's not my birthday. Why are they playing a prank on me?
"Hey, Ichigo!" Ishida was approaching in a jog, wearing a sweater and dark tinted jeans.
Ichigo turned around. "Hey, Ishida!"
"What's up, man?" Ichigo said.
"I saw you going downtown and thought to accompany you. Gonna go shopping?"
"Yeah. Yuzu's request. You too?"
The two of them walked on without anyone wanting to talk. Ichigo went thinking again about the weirdness of his morning while Ishida pre-occupied himself about Ichigo's amnesia. When they passed the post office, Ishida spoke.
"Hey, Ichigo, want to join us to welcome my friend this afternoon?"
"What time this afternoon?"
"Sounds fine. Okay. I think I won't be doing anything at that time."
They finished the shopping fast, both having their own lists to purchase.
"Hey, Ishida," Ichigo said, walking astride with Ishida, large plastic bags of goods in each hands. They were now a few blocks away from the market. "Where's our rendezvous?"
"At Inoue's house. I and Sado will pick you both up from there. Then we'll go to Manager Urahara's store."
"Manager Urahara knows this friend, too?"
"Yeah," Ishida said, grunting to the weight of his purchase.
Ichigo peck a glance at him. "I wonder why you didn't let it separated in two bags."
"What, this? Oh, this is a part of my training. I should strengthen my arms to be able to hold more reiatsu. I'm doing every possible way to achieve that strength."
"Ah, Quincy business." He paused for a moment. "I envy you because you still have your power."
"A Quincy is different to a Death God. I can use my power in my physical form; a Death God can only use his in his spirit form. You're not dead, yet. It would have been hard on your soul to switch on and off when you separated from and returned to your body. What happened to you is only normal."
Ichigo smiled. "Yeah, you're right about that. But sometimes I miss seeing ghosts."
They fell silent. For a time, they just walked. Their plastic bags did the talking when one rubbed a knee.
It seems he doesn't remember her, yet. Ishida thought. Could he remember if I hint about her? Maybe I should try.
"Hey, Ichigo," he said.
"The friend who's coming this afternoon is Rukia. Are you familiar with the name?"
"Nope. I've never heard that name before."
Ishida stopped and looked at him. "What do you mean? Are you serious?"
Ichigo nodded. "What's the big deal? Do I suppose to be familiar with it?"
Ishida was caught off-guard. "I-I'm sorry. It's just—I'm sorry."
There was doubt in Ichigo's eyes. "Are you setting a blind date for me?"
"Why do you think we'll set you up at Manager's place?"
"I don't know. Anyway, I'm wondering why I have to be familiar with her name. If we're meeting for the first time, then that's it."
What has gone wrong? "I think you're right."
They went on in silence.
"Everyone is weird today," Ichigo said. "Did you know that Karin accused me of buying videogames?"
"Accused. You sure took it as a crime, eh, buying videogames."
"Yeah. But the thing is she said I did it."
"You did it."
"I saw you at Phil's. I was surprised, too, you know. I thought I was dreaming."
Ichigo didn't reply.
What's happening? It seems that his memory has broken up some more, Ishida thought. Could the pill be…
"Hey, Ishida, do you think I have amnesia or something?"
Ishida stiffened. "What do you mean?"
"You know, the videogames, this Rukia…they all suggest nothing but memory lapse. Is it possible that I fell from the stairs, or Pops got me in one of our fights?"
Ishida shook his head. "I don't know how to explain."
Ichigo sank in deep thoughts. Now, Ishida even said it. What could be happening to me? And Rukia, who could she be?
They finally reached Ichigo's house.
"We're here," Ishida said, rousing Ichigo up from his thoughts.
"Huh? Ah, yeah, I didn't notice."
"Well, don't be late."
"Sure. Don't worry."
Ishida watched Ichigo as the latter went inside. When Ichigo closed the front door, Ishida started walking.
"Manager, could you tell me what the pill you gave yesterday could do? I mean, this morning, Ichigo…Ichigo was like somebody else," Ishida said. He came an hour before the set time. He was sitting in front of Manager Urahara.
Urahara's little smile vanished. He didn't answer.
"Manager, could you at least tell me what that pill really was? Please. I want to know."
"It's an opener. A pill designed to revive dead or sleeping memory in the subconscious mind at the cost of one's reiatsu."
"One's reiatsu? At the cost of one's reiatsu?"
"And you made me feed Ichigo with it with such a risk? Weren't you the one who said that Ichigo's reiatsu had already decreased to the level of a mere human?"
"Then why? What were you thinking last night when you gave it to me?"
"I was thinking it might work. I'm sorry, Ishida."
"Sorry? Damn it! What could your sorry do?"
"It's all my fault. This shouldn't have happened if I wasn't careless."
"You are making this difficult."
"The pill is only an experimental drug. There is the risk that if it remained in one's body for over two hours, it could consume the entire reiatsu of that body. I didn't arrive on time last night to take the pill out of Ichigo. That's why—"
Ishida punched Urahara square in the jaw. The former captain hit the floor with a thud.
"Why have you given my friend an experimental drug as if he was a guinea pig?"
Urahara slowly got up, one hand cupped over the spot Ishida had punched.
"Nobody wanted this to happen," Urahara said. "I could have been there if hollows didn't bother me. I tried to pass through them, but they were too many, too many it made me wonder if somebody was intentionally preventing me to get to Ichigo."
"So what now? What are we going to do?"
"Don't let him meet her. Yesterday, Rukia came to see him. He almost killed her."
With fear in his eyes, Ishida took off. As he was about to reach the gate, he saw Ichigo.
"Why are you here?" Ishida said.
Ichigo smiled. "I got bored of waiting."
"Let's get out of here."
Ichigo raised his brows. "What's going on?"
Ishida took hold of Ichigo's elbow and forcibly dragged him out.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Ichigo said.
"I'll explain later. Let's go."
"I thought we would be welcoming a friend here?"
"I'll explain later."
"What are you so frantic about, Ishida?"
"I said I'll explain later!"
Ichigo stopped and retrieved his elbow from Ishida."What the hell's wrong with you?"
Ishida didn't answer. He grabbed Ichigo's left wrist and pulled him away.
Ichigo pulled his arm from his grip. "Okay, okay. I'll go."
"Follow me," Ishida said.
Ichigo eyed Ishida with suspicion as he followed him. They walked in silence until Ishida stopped and turned around to face him.
"Our little reunion is cancelled," Ishida said. "Rukia's not coming."
"Is that it? If that's the only reason, then why did you need to drag me?"
"I needed to, or you would have ended talking with the manager."
"Huh? What's wrong with me talking with him?"
Ishida looked away. "He's…he's sick."
Ichigo stared at his friend for a while. Then he sighed. "Well, if that's the case, then we have no choice but to go home."
"Look, I don't know what's going on, but I know there's a reason you're keeping it from me. I'll wait until you're ready to tell me."
They walked in silence. Ichigo thought that they would be like that until they reached his house, but Ishida broke the silence.
"Ichigo, do you want to know who Rukia really is?"
"I do. She's beginning to bother me."
"Then listen carefully. I'll never gonna repeat this again. Rukia is—"
"Stop it, Ishida!" a voice said. "Don't tell anything!"
Ichigo and Ishida were startled when they heard the voice. They knew it was a girl. They looked up. A cute girl with brilliant black eyes and a shoulder-length, silky, black hair was ten paces away from them, glaring at Ichigo. Ichigo was unsure if he knew her, but her glare told him that she despised him. Sweat broke out from his forehead. When he glanced at Ishida, he suddenly swallowed the words he wanted to say. Ishida was pale as if seeing a ghost.
"Don't say anything to that idiot!" Rukia said.
"Hey, who are you calling idiot?" Ichigo said. "This is the first time we meet. Don't be rude."
"You're an idiot! A miserable dimwit!"
"Hey, take that back!"
"I won't even if you kill me!"
Ichigo blushed and his heart raced in his chest. His forceps tightened up; his hands trembled.
"Ishida, is this the Rukia you were telling me about? Man, even if I knew her, I wouldn't have been friends with her."
Ishida cut him off with a punch. He looked at Ishida as if the Quincy had gone insane.
"That's enough, Ichigo! Don't hurt her anymore," Ishida said.
"What? Are you kidding me?"
"Leave him alone! Please, Ishida!" she said.
Her voice was powerless now. Ichigo heard it and sobered. He looked at her.
"I hate you! You're the worst!" She turned on her heels and ran without looking back.
He glanced at Ishida. Ishida looked back at him, pleading. "You want me to run after her? What's…?" He reconsidered, bothered by the expression on Ishida's eyes. "This is not happening!" He ran after her.
Ishida didn't move. He couldn't. He just kept staring at the pavement as if answers would pop up on its surface. I'm so useless, damn it!
"If you're thinking you're useless, think again," Mr. Kurousaki said.
Startled, Ishida turned around. "Mr. Kurousaki?"
"Don't brood over it too much, Ishida. It won't help."
"Don't be. I know everything about what's been happening to Ichigo ever since he began acting strange, and I appreciate all the things you've done for my son. Don't think you're useless just because you haven't achieved you expectations. The thing is you tried. It's the thought that counts, and I'd say that it's more than enough to show me how important Ichigo to you. Besides, you made him pursue the cute girl."
Ishida avoided Mr. Kurousaki's eyes. "It won't change anything, sir."
"But you still hope." Mr. Kurousaki said.
"I do, but—"
"Whatever will be, will be. It's up to Ichigo, now. Have faith in him."
"Hey, stop!" Ichigo said. They had just passed the campus and were about to reach the river.
"Stop following me!" she replied. "Go away!"
"Please stop! I just want to say I'm sorry!"
"I don't need your sorry! Leave me alone!"
When she reached a sidewalk cafeteria, Rukia grabbed a chair, and then hurled it towards Ichigo. Ichigo ducked. The chair missed his head by an inch.
"I almost got killed!" Ichigo said.
"I told you to stop following me!" she replied.
"Then stop running!"
Rukia kicked a trashcan. It flew towards Ichigo. Ichigo was too late to dodge. He could only cross his arms in front of his face for defense. The trashcan hit him. Its contents exploded out around the road.
"You're going too far!" he said.
Rukia ran into a group of four construction workers, who had just finished a day's work. She bumped with the guy with a mustache. His barrel chest bounced her back. She fell on her butt.
"Oh, sorry, Miss," the mustached guy said. He offered his hand to Rukia. She accepted it and let herself be pulled up. "Are you all right, Miss?"
"Thank you. I'm okay."
The mustached guy leaned closer and squinted at her. "Hey, are you crying?"
"A-ah, you see…"
"Hey, you!" Ichigo called out behind her.
Rukia and the construction workers jerked their heads towards him. He was fast approaching.
"Hey, Miss," the mustached guy said. "Who is that guy?"
"It's my stalker!" she said.
Rukia looked back at the men with pleading eyes. "Please, sir, stop him for me. He wanted to rape me."
"Is that true?" said the bald one.
Rukia nodded at him.
"Well, look at what we have here," the mustached guy said, glaring at Ichigo. "A perverted youngster chasing a helpless lady." He stepped up and crunched his fists. "Let us handle this. Run!"
"Thank you very much," Rukia said. "But could you be light on him?"
"I mean, please don't hurt him too much."
For a while, the mustached guy just stared at her. Then he smiled. "Sure, I promise. You're a nice kid."
"Hey!" Ichigo called out again.
"You should leave, now," the mustached guy. "Hurry!"
Rukia ran. "I'll not forget this!"
The men waved at her, smiling.
Ichigo reached the group. He ignored them and tried to pass through, but the mustached guy suddenly grabbed his shirt.
"Where do you think you're going?" the mustached guy asked.
"Please, I have no time for this!" Ichigo said.
The four construction workers grinned balefully at him and made their fists crackle.
"Please," Ichigo said. "I have to catch her. There's…there's a…you know, a wedding rehearsal we're gonna attend to."
"Huh?" said the four men, exchanging glances with each other.
"Please…" Ichigo said, forcing a smile. "If I don't catch her, my future mother-in-law will castigate me."
There was a long pause. Then, suddenly, the four men laughed. Confused, Ichigo let out a gust of forced laughter along with theirs.
"Well, well, well, how about that? A couple's misunderstanding, eh?" said the mustached guy. He was still laughing together with his three friends.
"All right." The mustached guy let go of Ichigo's shirt. "Catch her with all your might, boy!"
"Thank you very much for understanding, sir," Ichigo said giving them a courteous bow. Then, he turned to leave.
When he was about to go, the mustached guy put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Let me give you some advice, boy. If you want her to calm down and listen to you, give her a kiss first." He winked at Ichigo.
Ichigo's heart reacted violently to that, and, under the setting sun, his face glowed bright red, which the construction workers heartily laughed at.
He left after thanking them again.
Rukia was now running along the length of the river that was mesmerizingly sparkling orange because of the setting sun. There was no one on the bank that was usually occupied by students lingering after school. The ever-constant yellow green lawn covering the bank was quite inviting while the wind created ripples on it.
Rukia decided to rest a while under the bridge. Sitting under the shade, she slowly caught her breathing, and then, not noticing it, she fell asleep.
Cursing under his breath, Ichigo looked for Rukia in every corner she might have run into. He had lost track of her after the encounter with the four construction workers.
When he reached a junction near a restaurant called Moshi Meshi, Ichigo decided to rest for a while. He was determined to find her and talk to her, not only to apologize, but also to know why she hated him.
Suddenly, Ichigo heard a truck coming from the opposite direction at full throttle. He could have just ignored it, but there was a little girl across who was about to cross the street oblivious to the impending danger. The driver didn't notice her because he was busy watching his favorite program on a small television on the dash board. He was confident because the road was exclusive for the truck's use being the delivery transport of the Toy Toy Factory. The local government had passed an ordinance prohibiting any one to cross that road anytime of the day and dispersed enforcers at every hundred-meter stretch. However, there were no enforcers now in sight, only Ichigo.
The girl landed one foot beyond the curb and she must have been deaf because she totally ignored the loud noise coming from the truck's engine. Ichigo saw that the truck was only a few meters away. Only seconds now and it would hit the little girl. He started to run towards her, shouting at her to go back, but she didn't listen. She just went on walking. Ichigo increased his speed with only one thing in mind: he would push the girl back. Nothing was on his mind now but to save the girl. The truck closed in, and, before it could hit the girl, Ichigo lunged with all his might to push her back. The truck hit him. He flew to a row of trashcans, pushed through it, and crashed to the side of a parked car, jerking once and bouncing off, ending face down on the pavement, unconscious. Blood oozed from his head. The girl just stood, looking at him without any traces of emotion on her face, and then went on crossing the road, where she slowly disappeared. She was a ghost.
The truck driver, after some moment of hesitation, hit the gas because of fear. He was late to realize that even if he did that, there would be no other one to blame for the incident but the Toy Toy Factory, and the factory would be forced to surrender him to the authority.
Ichigo woke up. He slowly opened his eyes. Drops of rain fell into his eyes and mouth. The sky above was dark with clouds. He carefully sat up, not remembering that a truck had hit him moments ago. He looked around. He was on a pavement where water flowed towards the direction his feet were pointing. There were wrecked buildings all around, their surface filled with bullet holes and collapsed edges. However, the most noticeable of all were the pictures of Rukia scattered around. He could see some where she was crying, some where she was laughing, and some where she was irritated. All to him were usual images of a girl except some pictures had a weird characteristic. In some of the pictures, she looked as if she was talking with someone, but she was alone. There was one where she was embracing somebody, but there was no one to embrace. Another one showed her being carried by her waist, but no one was there to carry her. He frowned. Then he saw a middle-aged, long-haired man, wearing a semi-transparent pair of glasses, and a pitch-black, feet-length coat with torn out hem, staring at him. He hastily got to his feet.
"Zangetsu?" Ichigo said.
The man didn't reply. He kept on staring at him.
"Zangetsu, do you know why am I here?"
"Who are you to call me by my name?" Zangetsu said.
"What are you saying?"
A large sword, almost as tall as a man, with no hilt, only gauzes wrapped around the appendage for a handle, suddenly fell from the sky to Zangetsu's hand. The water around him splashed violently as if an invisible bomb exploded where he stood.
"You are the one at fault in destroying my world. Who are you to call me by my name?" Zangetsu said, gripping his sword tighter
"Destroy this world? Wait, Zangetsu, I don't understand what you are saying."
"I can't remember anymore when this rain started. All I remember is it started along with the appearance of the first of those images. Since then, there hasn't been a single day when it stopped like how those images didn't stop coming. The buildings began collapsing and earthquakes began occurring every single day. You are destroying my world. It's only a matter of time before it completely ends."
Ichigo's heart beat fast. He didn't remember doing something as destroying his Soul Slayer's world, but he somewhat felt guilty of doing it. As soon as he had opened his eyes and found himself lying on the flooded pavement, he felt that someone was condemning him for a crime he knew he didn't do, but he felt he did. Now thinking about it, the guilt pierced deeper into him. That made his confusion fade, which, in turn, made him believe that what Zangetsu had told him was true.
"Did I bring all of this?" Ichigo's voice was sad. "Did I make this happen?"
"Why are you so ignorant?"
"I don't remember anything."
Zangetsu grinned. "You don't remember anything? Is that right? Or should you say you don't remember her?" He pointed the tip of his large sword towards a picture. "I know the reason why these pictures has kept appearing in my world and how these are connected with the calamities this world is experiencing. But tell me, Ichigo. Tell me why you let these things to happen?"
Ichigo couldn't answer.
"Why did you endure the pain? Where is the courage I found in you a long time ago? Why did you hesitate to tell her?"
There was a long silence. Then Ichigo spoke in a very low voice. "I forgot."
Zangetsu sighed. "Then it's hopeless. The only choice I have now is to kill you before you completely destroy this world."
"I know," Ichigo said. "If I'm gone, this world will return to normal. But…"
Zangetsu's stance changed for battle.
"But if I die, I might destroy another world like this."
With his sword held to kill, Zangetsu ran towards Ichigo.
"If I die, I'll be destroying another world like this, right?"
Zangetsu leaped up, raising his sword above his head. "But it's too late!" He made a swift vertical slash, aiming for Ichigo's head. Then, when the slash was completed, the ground exploded.
"I will live," Ichigo said. He was now behind Zangetsu, a blue light enfolding his body.
Zangetsu's eyes grew wide in surprise.
"I will mend the wounds of this world. This is my fault and I don't think death is the proper atonement for it," Ichigo said. "I will live to make everything right."
A chill ran along Zangetsu's spine. His reiatsu is increasing. He turned around. He saw with bewildered eyes Ichigo's flaring reiatsu. Unbelievable! If this goes on, he can attain his original level of reiatsu in no time."
"My fear is the reason everything has been ruined," Ichigo said. "I was afraid to tell her because I was not sure if she would accept." Around, blue threads of light shot out from one picture to another, bridging every piece together. "And I was afraid not to see her again."
He is not noticing it, Zangetsu thought. He is not noticing that piece-by-piece his memory of her is being put together by his reiatsu.
"I'm so pathetic," Ichigo said. He looked up at Zangetsu.
"Old man," Ichigo said. "I will live. I know now what I should do."
The pictures began dispersing into tiny dots of blue light. It started from the piece farthest from Ichigo and went on. The area where a picture disintegrated got fixed. It went on until every picture disappeared and the clouds parted to reveal the sun and the blue sky.
Slowly, Zangetsu realized what was happening. He lowered his weapon and looked at Ichigo with a smile. The large sword also disappeared into dust of light. He smiled at Ichigo. Ichigo smiled back.
"The next time I'm here is for training," Ichigo said.
Zangetsu disappeared and instantly appeared an arm's length from Ichigo. He put his hand on Ichigo's hair and ruffled it as a father would. He laughed.
"The next time you do this, I'll definitely kill you," Zangetsu said. "It's just fortunate that spirits don't get sick."
"I'm sorry," Ichigo said with a smile.
Suddenly, Zangetsu's smile disappeared. He grabbed Ichigo's head with his hand to crush it. Ichigo blanched. He grabbed Zangetsu's wrist with both hands. Zangetsu put pressure on his head. Ichigo screamed. Everything became black.
He opened his eyes, panting. He sat up, put his hands on his head, and felt over it, carefully looking for any damage. When he found none, he sighed. He looked around and, seeing the messed up trashcans, the dented car, and the bloody pavement, he remembered that a truck had hit him. There was dried blood on his face and shirt, but there was no pain. He couldn't even see bruises. He frowned. Then Zangetsu came into mind. He realized what had happened and shook his head. He stood up. Surprisingly, no one had found him.
"She is where the souls gather," Zangetsu whispered to his ear.
He jerked his head to his right, but found no one there. Where the souls gather? Suddenly, the answer occurred to him.
After descending down to the bank and washing his face, he saw Rukia sleeping under the bridge. He approached her quietly.
Once in front of her, he hunkered down and watched her as she slept. The act was enough to make his heart race, even though her face was hidden behind her knees. He kept on watching her for a time until she stirred and finally woke up. She slowly glanced up at him.
Her eyes widened. "Ichigo?"
Ichigo smiled at her.
"What are you…no! Get away from me!" She pushed Ichigo back, got up, and started to run away.
"Rukia, wait!" he said.
Surprised by the sound of her name, she stopped. Ichigo got to his feet and approached her.
"Don't leave me again," Ichigo said.
She turned around and glared at him. "You chose to forget me and now you're telling me not to leave?"
"I love you," Ichigo said.
Rukia gasp. "What?"
"I love you."
"No. You're only saying that." She stepped back, shaking her head.
"It's true. I didn't have enough courage to tell you before. I was afraid that you would not accept it."
"Stop it!" Rukia said. "Stop it, now!" Her tears blurred her vision.
Ichigo came and embraced her. Her shoulder trembled. She began to sob in his chest.
"I'm sorry. I was wrong for trying to forget you. Would you forgive me?"
She kept on sobbing. Ichigo felt his clothes getting drenched with tears. He knew she would not stop until he did something.
"You stink," he said. "When was the last time you took a bath?"
Rukia pinched his side, twisting the small skin in there.
She giggled, crying at the same time. "Dumbass! I don't smell!"
He held her face with both hands, leaned down, and kissed her. She closed her eyes. Her first kiss. He savored the moment and she let him. His tongue went inside her mouth and challenged hers. She accepted. The sensation brought by the battle made her skin tingle and her groin hot. Ichigo's hands crept down to her butt. Her eyes sharply opened. She broke the kiss and pinched his arms away from her behind.
"What?" Ichigo said.
"This is enough," Rukia said. "I won't tolerate this anymore."
She looked up at him with determination. "I'm engaged with Renji."
Ichigo gaped at her. His eyes were inquiring. Rukia tried to keep her solid expression, but Ichigo's face was too much. She accidentally let out a smirk. Hastily, she turned around.
"Oh, really." There was no stress in Ichigo's voice. "Nice try. Well, I tell you what. I'm gonna rape you and tell Renji about it. In detail."
"What?" She giggled. "You're so mean."
He embraced her from behind. "I love you, Rukia."
"Are you sure you have the thickness to do that?"
Ichigo grinned treacherously. "Is it a dare?"
"Try it and I'm gonna kill you," she said.
"I won't if you say you love me."
"I love you, Bunny."
"Okay, okay. Anything for you."
Up on the bridge, leaning on the railing, were Manager Urahara and Mr. Kurousaki. They had been watching the two since awhile ago.
"I didn't think he'd recover," Urahara said. "Last night, his reiatsu was really in a critical state."
"Don't underestimate my Ichi," Mr. Kurousaki said. "He's the son of the former, strongest Death God Captain, you know."
"Getting breezy again, eh. Well, actually, I should agree to that. But he sure makes me wonder how he did it."
"I guess the saying 'The heart remembers in its own way' is true.'"
"I don't believe in anything science can't explain."
Mr. Kurousaki snickered. "Yeah, yeah. But could you explain to me how Ichigo did that? How he selected someone specific to forget?"
"I think what happened is a rare case, a form of memory breakup that is considered by many as a myth. It is called Tree Spirit Annihilation. The Soul Society ancient philosopher Khan theorized that everything and every person we meet can be considered a seed. It will have its own existence in our minds, growing and growing as we know about that person or thing. It will be a part of our soul. In his theory, our mind is a large field where these trees thrive. When a person masters everything about his spirit, being able to see it as what it really is, being able to feel his will as though it's something tangible, he can uproot that tree anytime he wants. The theory is not proven, yet, and it's one of my ongoing research projects. But there is a record in history that Master Kenji Yuno, a legendary Death God, was able to remember and forget at will. An ancient article tells that one time to defeat his Soul Slayer's ultimate power he chose to forget how to feel afraid."
"How did he remember then? If he has already uprooted her tree, it will be impossible."
"Two plains of consciousness exist inside the soul of a Death God, his and his Soul Slayer's. That's a Death God's advantage. When a Death God meets a person, two seeds are planted on each consciousness plains."
Mr. Kurousaki stared at Urahara for a moment before glancing down at his watch. "Oh, it's dinner time."
"Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"It's only a myth."
Urahara glance up at the sky and smiled. "It is. Yes."
Below, Ichigo and Rukia shared another kiss.