She uncapped her pen, pulled a chair by the fireplace, and set straight to work.
So You Wanna Bankai, by Arisawa Tatsuki.
She liked it.
Tatsuki yawned. She would revisit the title later if she felt so inclined. First drafts were disposable anyway, right?
Crossing her legs underneath the table, she leaned over the parchment and, with the most adorable look of concentration, began to scribble furiously.
Every society under the sun has a phrase for it. The Buddhists, for example, call it "nirvana," an ancient word meaning "extinguishing." To them, a soul reaper only truly reaches the peak of her potential by flushing away all her worldly concerns. The shinigami sophistry of the Far West, on the other hand, equated it with "salvation," or the eternal bliss earned by leading a life of repentance and generosity. Up here in the Soul Society, we call it bankai. No matter the word or the culture, however different they may be, bankai is universally acknowledged as the physical representation of spiritual flawlessness. On average, it takes five long, arduous decades to achieve manifestation of one's soul slayer, but you're a busy man who can't afford silly things like patience. You hunger for immediate and conspicuous success,and who could blame you? It's just common sense. Know that I commend you, dear sir, and that I whole-heartedly recommend that you read on.
"Some opinion piece," remarked an invisible voice. A violent gust caused books to flutter like butterflies all around the library--clearly a gesture meant to amuse her.
"Shut it, Ichigo," she said, plucking her precious thesis from the air and laying it flat under her binder. "Just 'cause your moving so fast I can't see you doesn't mean I'll never be able to. And when I am--"
"You'll what? Glower at me?" Ichigo, who was now standing behind her seat, bent down to hug her midriff with his bare, sinewy arms, causing Tatsuki to tense up almost at once. "Forgive me, but I think I can survive."
Ichigo drawled on and on, but for some reason, Tatsuki felt the absurd urge to smile. Maybe it was how certain she was that Ichigo's lips were set in that predatory grin of his... an ingenious etch on the canvas of baka that was his face... a crude, efficient smirk that positively sparked with confidence... But this was all conjecture, because she was currently refusing to concede he existed at all.
"C'mon, Tats--'So You Wanna Bankai'? What, was Bankai Today! too obvious?"
"Too obvious? I never knew your special needs extended that far!" she quipped savagely, still focused rather intently on her essay.
"You spelled that word wrong," he said, pointing at random.
She flicked his hand away. "You're smudging it, you idiot! And would you get the hell off of me!?"
"You know, I'd be more than happy to tutor you. All you have to do is ask nicely."
"Go away," said Tatsuki, well aware that half the library was watching them carp and cavil by now, muttering under their breaths.
Ichigo reflected for a second, but his mouth was back open in no time. "I promise I'll leave..."
"Finally," she exhaled.
"...If you show me your shikai."
"Fine!" he hollered, pacing the aisles. "I'll be thanklessly risking my neck for this counterfeit paradise while you curl up to a nice book."
"ICHIGO, GET BACK HERE!" she screamed.
"Oh good." He crossed his arms and pouted in mock-annoyance as she dragged him by the collar back to their seat. "You do have a heart."
"Enough wisecracks. What's going on?" she asked. But Ichigo could tell in that moment she was really concerned, so he took the seat beside hers and patiently explained his predicament.
"Well, Tats, it's a bit complicated. You see, a new, (and, I think, impressively diverse) gallery of freaks has invaded Soul Society and, as these things would have it, I am once again appointed sole savior and executioner."
"Huh. Fate must relish toying with you." Tatsuki turned to look him in eyes at last with a wan smile.
"Nah, I'm convinced it must be something in the water up here," he sighed.
"That's always a possibility," she said, stretching her joints. The cutest stretching he could imagine... "God, I'm tired. So, any particular reason you're here goofing off with me while the afterlife as we know it is in unspeakable peril?"
"Yeah, Tats. You."
"Mmm, me what?"
"You. Your companionship. I desire it."
"W-what?" she stammered. Also cutely. What would she look like if she just let her hair down...
"Tatsuki, not only are you the smartest member of our unit, you're also the person who's known me the longest, which is quite a feat seeing as I've hardly exchanged eight meaningful sentences with the opposite sex. Besides, I'm absolutely itching to see this shikai you can't stop bragging about." He imagined massaging her aching shoulders as if to squeeze out an exasperated yes...
If Tatsuki absolutely had to be honest with herself, the offer was tempting. It wasn't too long after she'd earned her substitute shinigami certification , after all, that she learned Kurosaki Ichigo had become a rock star of sorts among shinigami. As a posterchild for accelerated bankai (a long-discredited theory among the scholars in their ivory towers), Ichigo had a fervent fanbase thrust upon him almost overnight. Droves of Tatsuki's geeky classmates, most of whom kept posters of him in their binders, simply could not swallow the notion that she had known him since she was five, giving her the impression that they idealized him more as an abstraction than as flesh and blood. The posters were hilarious though: Ichigo had never posed for any of them, and had to be physically restrained by Ishida several times to keep him from maiming paparazzi. Meanwhile, she was browsing an infinite bevy of books, culling, squinting, selecting, slaving, theorizing, skimming, and generally getting nowhere.
But Tatsuki was not stupid... And Ichigo was no teacher.
"Kurosaki Ichigo, what's the real reason you want me to come?"
Ichigo glanced away; her eyes struck him with limitless zeal. Her glow contrasted with the cool indoors, like a firefly whose intensity only deepened the surrounding night. Even a monster couldn't lie to the likes of her.
"I... I think I'm losing myself, Tats."
Tatsuki bit her lip. Had she just heard what she thought she heard?
"It was determined... well, under my suggestion anyway... that your abilities need to develop right away. You're showing promise as a prodigy with untapped reservoirs of reiatsu and an exponential growth rate... or, in Urahara's parlance, you're me. 'We could always use two of you.' That's what he said. There are threats biding outside this filler distraction that I can't take on by my lonesome. And I... I... need you," he finished, scratching his head.
"Ichigo, I'm touched. But I've never trained with a sword, let alone held my own against a legion of humongous spirit-spliced monstrosities who desperately wish to devour me. This is all still so experimental to me, still so new." She vividly recalled the arrancar Yammy, how his shade had strangled her tears, how palpable his power had been, pinning her to the grass while Orihime lay lifeless. Her impotence to defend anyone on that one awful day haunted her every night.
"Look at me, Tatsuki. Was I any sort of swordsman before Rukia? Of course not. I knew zilch back then. Of course, I'm not entirely certain I know anything these days..."
"Listen, Ichigo: the sentiment's superb--I mean it!--but I'm simply not ready yet. Just let me settle in Seireitei for a while."
Ichigo's eyes furrowed in a feral arc. "Why would I say you're ready unless you were ready!? If you weren't ready I wouldn't say you were ready!"
"Hey, don't think that just because you're so hot up here doesn't mean I can't deflate that head of yours!"
"See!? When we were kids you used to demean me at the dojo like that every day! It's nice to hear constructive criticism without having to suffer embarrassments like Renji."
Now Tatsuki was running her hands in her hair in frustration. "Ugh! You never did understand the concept of no! I can master bankai from a much more accomplished shinigami at the gradual pace to which I am accustomed, thank you!" She tapped an advertisement on the table, which Ichigo stooped to read.
ATTENTION SOUL REAPERS IN TRAINING
The Seireitei Teachers Association is recruiting! Write us a 3,000 word instructional essay on the topic of your choice. Finalists win a three-year internship with Gotei 13 cofounder Ukitake Jyuushirou!
"Ukitake, huh? What a drag. Guess I can't compete."
"If it's any consolation, you weren't last on my list," she smiled. That smile that made you want to surrender life just to see it again...
"Oh? Then who was?" he shouted, fishing for the cell phone in his hakama.
"HAHA! You're a rascal, that you are!"
"Quiet, Ichigo! Did you forget we're in a library!?"
"I'll lower my voice when you do!" Ichigo plugged an ear and stuck his tongue at her. "Yes, hello, Captain Ukitake?"
Tatsuki's jaw dropped. Ichigo had Ukitake on speed dial.
"Yeah, hey, I know it's last minute but--yes, I realize it's discourteous to call when you're busy. It'll only take a second though. Yes, he's still out
there. I assure you I'll set out to defend the plane shortly. Have I let you down before? Listen, do you remember that sweepstakes you agreed to? That's right, the STA. Yeah, I know. I know. Listen. I was wondering, isn't the bar for application awfully low? As it stands, even a shinigami of, say, fifteen can submit. I'm getting to the point, sir. Thank you. Your time is valuable and it means a lot to me that you lent me this number. This IS an emergency! Why would I be calling you if it weren't!? That's okay, I accept your apology. Anyway, I'm a tad concerned. Maybe we should enact a thousand-year age limit to prevent wee children from hurting themselves. Yes, I realize that all brands of training are rigorous, but consider the facts--what's that? You'll mull it over? Good man, good man. But why in such a hurry, sir? Is Kyouraku calling? Tiny gibe, sir. Alright, seeya later. Bye. Haha, bye."
The sound of the connection clicking off fell on Tatsuki like a black marble tomb. "WHAT. WAS. THAT. JUST. NOW?"
"Payback for you know what in tenth grade. Also, it was this."
He and Tatsuki had practiced often in the alleys of Karakura while their parents were at work or the shrine or whatever, so she'd witnessed Ichigo's unrivaled celerity, but this was the first time she'd felt him outrun physics. Her heart beat like mad and her face blushed with the heat of his departure. The whole library was in shambles. The fallen books and documents would have caught fire but for the candles' swift snuffing, and... hold on, her hair wasn't standing on end...
Even as the bystanders began to panic, Tatsuki rose from her chair like a phoenix and unsheathed her katana, heart now erupting with an altogether different genus of heat. Ichigo had fixed her hair straight.
"COWARD, I'LL KILL YOU!"
"Coward, I'll kill you!"
"I supposed it's fitting," Ichigo taunted, effortlessly dodging yet another projectile boulder. "Big words from a big man!"
This episode's nemesis happened to be a giant by the name of Okino Okimaru, who was pounding his chest and shuffling along the generic and barren desert battlefield with his knuckles. "Quit zipping around, soul reaper. It shall not deliver you from my deadly assault."
"It isn't my fault you're slow as a garden slug, nor is it my fault you've been eating garden slugs instead of training."
Ichigo bore his edge to the heavens and confided an almighty chop. Sediment blasted forth as fault lines formed all around them.
"Now, as soon as I wrench my soulslayer out, this entire ridge will collapse in a blink."
"Don't make me laugh!" he guffawed, rather like a baboon. "Only I can steer the earth's course!"
"Yeah yeah, your sword gives you the power to manipulate stone... you can shut your trap, because I killed all three of your classic-element wielding twin brothers last weekend. By the way, before you go out of your way for the Bleach Cliff Notes, let me give you a brief synopsis of this battle: your hubris will be your downfall."
"Futile provocation!" Okino panted, struggling to keep in step with Ichigo's shunpo.
"Heh." Ichigo stopped to wipe the sweat off his brow for a split second before evading another boulder borne from the giant chasing him. "Yeh're a persistent little Pantagruel, aren'tcha? Why is it you hate Soul Society so much you're willing to run after me?"
"C'mon, it'll be between us." Ichigo instantly appeared beside Okino's ear and whispered, "Did Komamura rape your grandpa?"
"You dare mock my tribe's noble purpose!?" he connipted.
"I dunno, but I daresay 'Getsuga Tenshou.'"
Zangetsu, still embedded, shrieked light and leveled the precipice on which they clashed. Ooinaru shambled towards steadier ground, but this miracle taxed him considerably. Ichigo, buoyed very literally by his stunt, floated above the giant's heavy breathing, sinister cloak draping the wind with blackness. There'd been an ulterior motive to pull off such a spectacle, of course. In fact, she was approaching the smoldering waste even as he descended.
"Tatsuki! I could use some damage control," he moped.
"Whoa, watch where you aim that thing! You might hurt someone." Ichigo parried her playfully.
"You bastard," she seethed, picking up the pace. "I spent years building my reputation! What will the dojo think when they found me all softened up, huh?"
Ichigo's cocksure countenance lifted after a harrowing jab pierced a hole through Zangetsu's blade and sent him faltering backwards; a second swing came so hastily he was knocked numb on the asphalt. What she'd said had caught him off guard. "Tatsuki... we're never returning. We can't, remember?"
"Why do you take everything on yourself? My hair was my indentity!" she cried, her sword shuddering uncontrollably. "Why do you always ruin everything?"
Tatsuki raised her sword and shut her eyes. Her first stroke pared the air into whisps as slowly it inched towards him. Struck speechless, understanding naught, Ichigo spent the last tranquil seconds before the pain abosrbing her beauty. His sight drifted as thoughts of pretty purple hair entertained themselves until at last his autonomic reflexes rescued him from maiming. Indeed, Ichigo couldn't allow himself to admire his handiwork a second longer; Tatsuki's graceful tableaux had morphed into an insane cathartic blur of blades which he feared would gravely injure her soul.
"I'm not an idiot! You lured me here with your hulking getsuga, even after I frankly confessed my limitations. But you wouldn't understand how tough that is, would you? You took my candor for granted. You think I'm some sort of jester? Well my life isn't as breezy as yours is!"
"Tatsuki, stop! You didn't have to give chase! This isn't about me!"
"Yes, it, is!" she wailed. "Everything's, about, YOU!"
"Excuse me, miss," tapped a gigantic finger, "but I believe that's my meat you're tenderizaaaaaaAAAH!"
"Can't you see we're talking!" she asked the owner of a brand new missing finger, blood gushing in free BLEACH fashion.
"B-BITCH!" Okino dug the afflicted hand and heaved an improvised earthen gauntlet out of the clay. "Take this! HAMMERHOOK!"
"Tats, watch out!"
But the confidence was already back. "Don't think you're off the hook yet," she spoke out. "Now, do you wanna see what this ol' thing can do?"
"Even more than I wanna bankai."
Tatsuki grinned, wiping one eye while the other measured Okino's lumbering dash. "Ready or not," she flourished, "Dawn, kireme-ka!"
The giant's punch hardened like a meteor as it hurdled toward her stationary silhouette, but one slash and it all but shattered.
"Kurosaki! I'm going to explain this once! Kireme-ka reduces any lower-level weapon it contacts to rubble, but it cannot physically harm other people. So, in essence, it wasn't you I was mercilessly beating on, it was your sword. Forgive me?"
"So that's why intercepting you was such a struggle," he mumbled.
"Don't worry about it. You would have struggled anyway."
"Looks like everybody's showing off today," Ichigo observed. "A hand, please?"
Tatsuki offered but "You don't need one."
"I know. Didn't anyone ever tell you how shapely your hand is?"
A loud rattling filled their ears, a consequence of Okino's being quite large and quite angry.
"Like I said, we can discuss this later. We have bigger fish to fry."
"Sister, you ain't kidding," he said, idly watching the giant break off a slab of flowstone and assimilate it. "You destroy the shell, and I'll dice what's inside."
"I do believe these are the beginnings of a lucrative partnership," she winked, charging.
"Nice flash-step, Tats, but I'll do you one better. Bankai."
The two met next by the lumbering goliath's armored neck and celebrated by sparring on his shoulders.
"The shinigami must PAY for their SINS!" he bellowed, eyes crossed.
"Shut the hell up!" Tatsuki touched her sword to the armor encasing Okino's neck, which fell away at her sword's command. Seizing his chance, Ichigo then decapitated him.
The filler villain turned to sand and was swallowed up by the horizon, the exception to BLEACH's cardinal rule (No One Dies). Improbably, however, his death kickstarted a ship that should have sailed long ago.
"Sun's setting," said an angel, dangling her legs over the cliff while she leaned back and basked in the rays of the dying sky.
"Sure is." Ichigo's attention was not fixed on the sun.
"Ichigo..." she broached, gripping her arm.
"Look, Tats," he grasped her hand in his, "I want to apologize. It's just... I don't know. I'm not too articulate."
"You're selling yourself short. You've gotten a lot smarter," she commented.
"Er... thanks, I think. Anyway, lately I've been dwelling on how everyday I have less to live for, to fight for. Fighting's the only thing I'm good at, but the death toll keeps piling higher and I can do little to stop it. Sometimes I feel if I don't enjoy myself, if I don't have fun, if things don't go back to the way they used to be, I'll... But we can't go back, Tats. We can't rewind. You're my only link to the past. You're the only one who can make me happy anymore. There's something I've been meaning to tell you... just, swear you won't freak out."
"I won't," she listened.
"Well, you see... my transition wasn't exactly as smooth as yours was. My soul sleep had been forcibly ripped and I was forced to gain my own powers. Faced with a deadline of thirty days, I took the fast route, and in the process I became... half-hollow."
Tatsuki didn't speak, but he could read the tightness of her lips. "Talk to me, Tats."
"C-can you turn into a hollow?"
"No, I'm learning to control my inner demon. But with all the things that have been bothering me--filler cycles, pliable allegiances, my own crippling ineptitude--that control's slipping. I know I'm selfish, but I can't help it; I feel so alone. Everyone always expects me to do everything. I guess I just wanted you as a tether to simpler times. Not that you aren't otherwise awesome to hang out with or anything."
"Ichigo... can you really teach me bankai in three days?"
"I want to now. I want you to."
"Really? After what I did?"
"I overreacted. Besides, since you ruined that contest I've come to my senses: there was no chance in hell I could win."
"What if I told you that Rukia broke my phone two months ago and I forgot to replace it?"
"You bastard!" she laughed, pushing him onto the dust and relishing his "oof!"
"What can I say? A guy's gotta do whadda guy's gotta do."
"I'd shut up if I were you. We're not even just yet!" she said, hair cascading (!) down as her smiling face loomed into view.
"Are you still hung up on that? I did you a service. I always thought your hair would be cuter straight."
"Yes, but whose decision is that to make?"
"Yooours," he admitted.
"Ichigo... look me in the eyes and tell me the truth."
"W-what is it?" he gulped.
"How much of my power is mine and how much is yours?"
"I can't answer that, Tatsuki. No one but you can."
"Yeah... you're right." She rolled to his side, lay down and tried to relax again.
"Don't let these questions snowball like I did. After our first encounter with the arrancar, I was piss scared. I asked myself, 'are you really worth your name?' 'Can you protect anyone at all forever?' But these questions are unanswerable, and soon I was buried under an avalanche of doubt. So, as you can no doubt glean, I decided to become more assertive. You're going to come with me to Urahara's training space. After three days, you will bankai with the best of them. Then you can document your experiences in essay format, win the contest, and take credit for teaching the world how to do it."
"Hah! I honestly think they'll be more interested in the essay as evidence that I know you."
"What are you going to do about it?"
He got on his feet and hauled her by the legs, intending to toss her off the cliff, but she was too quick. They wrestled dangerously close to the edge, but neither of them cared. They just wanted to enjoy this, and enjoy it they did.
"Ichigo, have you been training more?"
"Because," she climbed up his back and locked his head with her arms, "you're a slightly less pitiful martial artist."
"Walked right into that one," he choked, "but you walked right into my trap!" He handled both her arms and threw her down. The maneuver, however, caused him to stumble, and Tatsuki used the opening to sweep him. Ichigo fell to earth with another delightful "oof!" and they immediately resumed to grapple with each other until Ichigo purposely botched a headbutt and their lips accidentally touched.
Time ground to a halt once again, but this time Ichigo was intensely invested in the outcome. If, once she realized what had just happened she recoiled in disgust, he'd rip his hair out and become a monk. Thankfully, finally, an excruciating second passed and Tatsuki returned the kiss. Ichigo's heart soared well past even bankai, and he felt he could undermine convention ten times over. The contrast between the two was astounding, but that made their union all the more delicious.
This would be a lucrative partnerhsip indeed.