The ballet lessons were originally Joy's idea. Georgia's mother often tried living out her own fantasies through her eldest daughter, at least until Georgia's personality or clumsiness got in the way. But something out of the ordinary happened during the ballet classes.
While she was initially just as ambivalent to ballet as she was to all of her mother's ideas, Georgia soon realized she actually liked dancing. She was no ballerina by any means, but she did enjoy twirling. The instructor, an older woman with a broad smile and a foreign accent, patiently tried to teach her how to spin on her toes, but Georgia was a chubby little five year old and her ankles just weren't strong enough to support her weight.
When the class held its first recital, Joy went overboard and dressed her daughter in a brand new pink leotard complete with crinoline tutu and tiara. All the other girls were wearing their regular practice outfits and Georgia was embarrassed. It didn't stop her from enjoying the performance though. She twirled and twirled, bumping into other girls, chairs, the piano and even a wall. But it was fun and Georgia wished she could just twirl and dance like that forever.
Then the music stopped and Joy went on the warpath. She grabbed Georgia by the arm and dragged her over to confront the instructor. "What kind of ballet teacher are you? You were supposed to make her into a ballerina, not some circus clown!"
The instructor tried to explain that Georgia was just beginning to learn the basics, but Joy was too mortified to stand there and listen. She dragged Georgia to the car and that was the end of ballet lessons. Georgia never danced in public again, but in the privacy of her room she would sometimes twirl for hours on end.
o o o
Spiritual bodies are strange things. They appear to have the shape and strength of corporeal bodies, but without the weight of gravity pulling on you it was sometimes possible to do things no human was capable of. Not that Georgia was known for leaping tall buildings in a single bound or running faster than a speeding bullet, but in the present situation she was willing to give anything a try.
That is if Mr. Takahashi weren't clinging to her like a leech. The fat little ghost was using her like a shield, always keeping the blonde shinigami between himself and the grotesque manifestation of a graveling threatening to eat them both. Georgia had to keep pushing him back as the hollow continued to press them slowly across the playground.
She kicked again at Mr. Takahashi, but this time he didn't move. When a second kick did nothing more than elicit a tiny frightened yelp she dared to glance away from the advancing hollow to see what was wrong with him. They had backed into something resembling a concrete igloo covered with big holes and Mr. Takahashi was sitting on the ground with his back pressed up against it.
"Get inside! Quick!"
"Inside this? I'll never fit inside this thing."
"Would you rather end up inside that thing?" Georgia used her soul-slayer to point towards the grinning hollow now several feet closer than it had been when she looked away. She heard the sound of scrambling feet behind her and began edging her way to the right.
"So, trying to rid yourself of distractions, shinigami?" The monster reared back with laughter, making it taller and even more menacing than before. "Excellent! Now we'll see what you can do with that kitchen knife you've been waving around."
Georgia was at an impasse. She couldn't just run away and leave Mr. Takahashi to become the hollow's dinner, but she had the terrible feeling her first swing at the massive beast would also be her last. So far she'd only swung the sword at living humans who didn't even know she was there. This thing would probably knock the soul-slayer from her shaky hands and bite her head off in one easy motion.
"Georgia-san! Get down!"
Both Georgia and the hollow looked up to find four bright points of light arcing towards them trailing long streamers of smoke. Georgia dove for the cover of the concrete igloo while the hollow hesitated just a second too long trying to pick a direction in which to run.
The rockets hit the ground at the hollow's feet, knocking it down and rolling it away from the igloo and Georgia. She sprang back to her feet as the dust settled and looked for the source of the incoming fire. There on a pair of fiberglass rocking horses stood Jinta and Ururu. The girl holding an oversized rocket launcher while the boy swung a huge baseball bat over his shoulder.
"Run for it you idiot!" Jinta shouted at her.
Before Georgia could move, the hollow lurched to its feet again. Facing the children it roared in anger. "You'll pay for that you meddling kids! More shinigami, my feast just keeps getting bigger all the time."
"Give him another round, Ururu." Jinta said smugly.
"I can't," the little girl cried apologetically while frantically pulling at the rocket launcher's trigger. "It's jammed!"
"Jammed? Not good!"
The kids jumped from their perch and made a run for it, but the advancing hollow cut them off and cornered them against the playground's fence. Jinta took up a defensive stance with his bat while Urara continued trying to get the rocket launcher to fire.
"I just love a nice little appetizer before a big meal!" The hollow's putrid tongue licked at the painted on lips of its mask as it closed in on the children.
"Leave - them - alone!"
It is called en pointe, the position of standing on the tips of your toes. As elusive as this had once been for Georgia as a child, her spiritual body had no problem now rising en pointe even without the support of ballet slippers. She executed a quick series of Pas de Bourrée to close the distance with the hollow, her soul-slayer held high above her head. Then she launched into the Fouetté, a sweeping spin on one leg propelled by a whipping motion of the other.
As she spun around, her soul-slayer came down and sliced cleanly through the hollow's neck just behind the edge of its mask. Black fetid blood poured from the wound as she rotated in place on the tips of her toes. Her sword continued to sweep downward, missing the ground by millimeters before swinging up again to bury itself deep in the monster's skull.
The hollow shuddered from the impact, but did not fall. It stood there convulsing as cracks slowly appeared on the mask. The cracks widened and spread across its face until with a loud snap the mask broke in two and half of it fell to the ground.
Georgia put her foot on the side of the beast's head and pulled the sword from its skull. The monster fell away from her, landing on its side with a great thump. She stared at the blade in her hand with wonder, even covered in black blood and bits of brains it glowed with a spiritual light of its own.
She hadn't paid the sword much attention until now, it was just something Urahara had thrust into her hands and told her to use. But looking at the long curved blade she was suddenly appalled by the muck covering it. Nothing so vile and offensive should ever be allowed to defile something so beautiful. She quickly used her own robes to clean away the goop until the metal gleamed brightly once again.
The hollow lay motionless on the ground before her, but Georgia approached it cautiously. It certainly looked dead, but she wasn't sure a graveling could even be killed. She had always assumed they were un-dead just like her. She circled guardedly around to face the beast and then froze.
Where she expected to find the gray mottled face of a graveling staring out from beneath the broken mask, she instead found the plump round face of a middle-aged Asian woman. The only thing marring her otherwise normal appearance was the look of stark terror in her lifeless eyes.
Georgia didn't consider herself an exceptionally sympathetic person, but compassion overwhelmed her and ignoring the dangers she knelt down before the immense skull. She raised her soul-slayer and set the butt end of the hilt gently against the hollow's forehead. Golden light spread across its skin, but rather than coalesce into a butterfly the massive form disintegrated into thousands of fireflies. They rose fluttering into the air and quietly disappeared.
"Great job, Georgia-san!" Urara cried out as she and Jinta joined her.
"I can't believe you managed to kill a hollow." Jinta seemed shell-shocked by the very idea. "And then you buried its soul too."
They heard the sound of someone clapping and when Georgia looked up she saw Urahara and Tessai walking through the front gates. The old hippy in the green stripped hat stooped to pick up the remains of the hollow's mask. Waving it in the air like a fan he said, "Georgia-san, you continue to surprise me. That was some impressive fighting you just did."
"Fighting?" Jinta shouted scornfully. "You call that fighting? That was no fighting style I've ever seen. She left herself wide open. If Urara and I hadn't been distracting…"
"Quiet, Jinta!" Urahara snapped. "Can't you see Georgia-san has something she wants to ask me?"
Red faced with anger, Georgia stood up. "You're damn right I have something to ask you. What the hell was that thing?"
"That was a hollow." Urahara's calm smile never changed. "And as we discussed the other night, a hollow is nothing more than what you call a graveling."
"Bullshit! That was no graveling. Gravelings are mischievous little bastards who show up at death scenes. They're not the size of an eighteen-wheeler. They don't wear ugly white masks over human faces. And they definitely don't eat dead people and soul-reapers."
"Ah… but they would if they had been corrupted the same way the hollows were. Once Japan had gravelings that looked and acted much the same as those everywhere else. Then something happened and they learned to devour the souls of the dead, taking their power and becoming the monsters we see now."
"I don't believe you. You're hiding something."
Urahara bowed his head. "I see the time for simple explanations has passed. There is indeed much more I can tell you, Georgia-san, but now is not the time or place. The rift that hollow used to enter this world is still open and you too have some unfinished business to attend."
Using his cane as a pointer, Urhara indicated the concrete igloo where Mr. Takahashi's pouting face protruded from the top hole. He then handed the remains to the hollow's mask to Tessia. "Be sure to dispose of this properly and then prepare the cavern."
"Jinta, stop sulking and take Urara back to the shop. Figure out what's wrong with her weapon and then clean the place up."
"But what about the other hollow?"
"I've already taken care of that. Now go! Georgia-san, we'll meet back at the shop later and discuss this over dinner. I'll make sure there's something you can eat this time. Okay?"
Georgia's foul mood was fading. It was probably the next and hopefully final stage of shock, so she nodded her head demurely and trudged over to where Mr. Takahashi was waiting.
"Um… I managed to squeeze in here, but now I can't get out."
The little man looked so ridiculous Georgia couldn't help but smile at his predicament. "I'm sorry Mr. Takahashi, but the only way I know how to get you out of there is to send you on to the Soul Society."
"Are… are there more of those… things out there?"
"I'm not sure, but I'd be surprised if there aren't."
"Then I'm ready!"
After watching Mr. Takahashi's fat little butterfly disappear into the night sky, Georgia finally slid her soul-slayer into its scabbard. Feeling suddenly exhausted, she went and sat down on the swing set. Closing her eyes and swinging gently back and forth she tried to collect her thoughts.
The reason these people needed help collecting souls was obvious now. If Rube and the gang had to deal with giant ravenous gravelings all day, they wouldn't have time to collect souls either. Why the hollows became such monsters and what was keeping the gravelings back home from the same fate would have to wait. Right now she needed to sort out her feelings.
She'd never been a fighter before, she was too cynical to take up a cause and defend it, but something had definitely changed that tonight. Sure the hollow had threatened the children, but for all she knew Jinta and Urara had been children since long before her grandmother was born. It was something else and it had something to do with the soul-slayer…
She sighed and opened her eyes only to find she was not along. Under a bush at the edge of the playground sat a large gray rabbit, twitching its nose and staring intently at her. "I didn't know they had rabbits in Japan," she said to herself.
The rabbit nodded its head intelligently and Georgia blinked. Remembering the black cat named Yoruichi she smiled at the rabbit and asked sarcastically, "Don't tell me, you're a shinigami too?"
"No, I'm not a death god." the rabbit said. Then it winced as Georgia slipped off the swing and landed on the ground with a thud.
"Ouch! I've really got to get out of the habit of talking to strange animals."
"I apologize for startling you," the rabbit said as it hopped over and sat down next to her. "I merely wanted to commend you on your victory over the hollow. You truly surprised me, George."
Georgia stood up, rubbing her rear end and dusting off her skirt. "Yeah, the beach bum said that already. Hey, did you just call me George?"
"Would you rather I call you something else?"
"No." Georgia looked quizzically at the little rabbit. It looked like any other rabbit she'd ever seen outside of a cartoon except that its eyes appeared more human. That and the fact it was talking started to creep her out a little. "George is just fine."
"Very well then, George. My name is Hanegetsu. If you ever get into trouble, just call out my name and I'll do what I can."
Georgia tried to imagine what sort of help a rabbit could be in fighting a hollow. Then she remembered a Monty Python movie she'd seen once and laughed out loud.
"You're a 'killer' rabbit, eh? Ha-nay-get-sue?"
"Close enough, we can work on that later. You'd better be going now. I think your boss intends to introduce you to Benihime tonight."
"Is that anything like Benihana? I sure hope so! I could use a good steak dinner."
Georgia yawned so wide an observant passerby might have been able to see what she'd had for breakfast. Rice, thin soup, smoked fish and some hard little yellow disks Tessia insisted were pickles. It wasn't breakfast by the standards of Der Waffle Haus, but that little corner of her former life… and death… now seemed nothing more than a happy dream she'd once had.
Urahara's two night crash course in swordsmanship had left Georgia exhausted and bewildered. Part physical conditioning with a healthy dose of mysticism thrown in, fighting with a soul-slayer was so much more than she imagined it would be.
Wednesday night, over a dinner of pepperoni and corn pizza, he told her everything known about hollows and how they had become monsters. How the thirteen divisions of the Soul Society's inner court worked together to force the hollows into Hueco Mundo, the dimension separating heaven and earth. And how recently the hollows had mysteriously become stronger and bolder in their attacks.
They moved down into the practice cavern and Urahara began teaching Georgia the basics of Japanese sword fighting. From his cane he pulled a slender sword, which he called Benihime, the Crimson Princess. For hours on end he attacked her with it until the ring of steel against steel had become as familiar as the clicking of keyboards at Happy Times Temporaries.
On the second night of her training Urahara demonstrated the spiritual power of Benihime's initial 'release' by blasting boulders into dust. He showed her how to predict such attacks from hollows and avoid them if she could. He also let a few of them hit her to prove she could withstand them up to a point.
The old hippy had encouraged her use of ballet moves. Not for attacking with her sword, but rather as a means of evasion and escape. "Running away," he'd said, "is the only defense against lack of experience."
And just when Georgia thought she had seen everything, Urahara unleashed Benihime's bankai form. Her mind still reeled from the transformation and the display of raw spiritual energy. She wondered what sort of horrors from beyond the grave required that kind of power to defeat?
No, this was not Seattle and breakfast wasn't going to be blueberry pancakes any more. The death-gods, for she was finally ready to see them as such, were not the kind of people to sit around discussing the relative virtue of waffles over French toast. These people were in a battle for the very balance of existence itself.
Georgia took out the cell phone and checked her messages. She still had three soul burials to do, but they were all on the other side of Tokyo and could wait for later in the day. It was hot and she was still emotionally drained by the two suicides she'd released during the morning rush hour.
She looked up at the clock on its tower at the center of the shady tree-filled park she'd found near Urahara's store. The sound of cicadas rang loudly in her ears and somewhere in the distance someone was grilling a fishy smelling barbeque. It wouldn't hurt just to hang out here for a while, even if every Japanese person who walked by sped up to avoid the suspicious foreigner sitting on their park bench.
There had been plenty of them a while ago, jogging past her on their way to and from lunch, but now the park was rather deserted. She hadn't seen anyone for several minutes and then a boy appeared on the path. She watched him running towards her and recognized Jinta at about the same time he spotted her. He started to turn and run the other way, but she waved at him and he stopped. With his shoulders slumped he slowly trudged the rest of the way down the path.
"Hello, Jinta," Georgia said with a deadpan expression.
"Don't you have work to do?" Jinta looked very uncomfortable. His disapproval of Georgia had only increased after she defeated the hollow. He'd only come to watch Georgia practice in the cavern once and left after only a short period of time.
"I could ask you the same question. What are you doing out of the shop on such a hot day?"
"Nothing that concerns you." Jinta scowled at her, but Georgia could tell he was desperately trying not to look guilty about something.
"Georgia-san!" Urara came skipping up to them from the opposite direction. The little shinigami looked cute dressed in a pink jumper and sporting a pink baseball helmet. With her pigtails sticking out from the holes on either side she looked like a dark-haired, almond eyed version of Georgia's sister Reggie.
"Hello, Urara. I see you're playing hooky from the store as well today."
"Uh huh! Jinta and I are supposed to meet…"
"She doesn't need to know what we're doing," Jinta snapped.
Georgia looked at the boy and noticed he too was dressed differently than usual. His bright red shorts and ball cap seemed to compliment what Urara was wearing. Then with a sudden burst of recognition, Georgia smiled broadly. "You're playing Power Rangers, aren't you?"
"We're not playing anything!" Jinta's embarrassment was obvious now.
"Yes you are!" Georgia laughed. "You're the Red Ranger and Urara is the Pink Ranger."
The little girl giggled and nodded her head. In spite of himself, Jinta looked a little less humiliated at being recognized as the Red Ranger.
"So where are the other Rangers? What are there, five altogether?"
"There's only two more," Urara said. "Karin and Yuzu are supposed to meet us here."
"Are they death-gods too?"
"No, they're just Ichigo's sisters, but they can both see hollows and dead spirits." Jinta's hard exterior seemed to be cracking. He must not have expected a foreigner to know anything about the Power Rangers.
"Ichigo? You mean tall, blond and full of attitude?"
"Yeah, that's the one. Yuzu is the yellow Ranger and Karin has a lot of spiritual power like her brother."
"Really? And what color Ranger is Karin."
Jinta scowled again and refused to answer. Georgia suspected a power struggle was underway for the top Ranger spot and couldn't wait to meet the girl yanking the other end of Jinta's chain.
"Well it all sounds like a lot of fun. Would you mind if I tag along? I've always wondered what the original Power Rangers looked like. Besides, maybe I'll pick up some fighting tips from the Red Ranger himself."
Jinta stared down at his feet. "We're called the Karakura Superheros. I guess you can come along, just don't get in the way, all right?"
Georgia grinned. "You'll never know I'm there. And if anyone asks I'll tell them I'm your British nanny." She winked at Urara who giggled in reply.
They began walking down the path together with Georgia trailing behind the children. This was just the sort of diversion she needed to get her mind off the whole hollow fighting thing. And watching these death-god children at play might just give her some insight into Charlie the pet reaper back home. She'd always wondered if he had anyone to play with when he wasn't releasing the souls of animals.
"Hey, Jinta. Are you the ringleader of this little band of super heroes?"
"Um… Well, no. The leader's someone… it's a little hard to explain who the leader is actually."
"Oh really? Why is that?"
Georgia felt the man's presence behind her only moments before she heard him shout, "Bu-wah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!"
x x x
1) Pas de Bourrée – A traveling step performed on pointe as a series of swift miniature steps.
2) Hanegetsu – literally means Leaping Moon.
3) Benihime – Urahara's soul-slayer, literally means Crimson Princess.
4) Benihana – A chain of Japanese steak house restaurants.