Stray Cat Strut
Home Ground Arc
five: A Death In The Family
produced by Two Greedy Losers Without A Fairy ---
A sea of rolling hills, with the cliffside of a mountain presiding over them, slowly rose from slumber and into morning mists.
It was calm.
It was soothing.
It was ...
... well, alright, maybe not so much.
Todou Kyoshiro had spent most of his life in and around the villages and towns around Mount Bandai, first coming there still as a child, with his family, shortly before the Second World War had come to an end.
His father's reaction to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had resulted in their moving from Tokyo, and into the countryside ... and whether it had been mere over-reaction or not, young Kyo had not cared for long. He had, simply put, fallen in love with the area, and had yet to fall out.
And when his family had left again, after little more than four years past war's end, he'd simply ... not.
From smalltime farmer, to store-owner and small-time businessman, and back to store-owner ... it was no grand existence, but he was fond of it nonetheless, and wouldn't have his life going any other way.
And even after close to sixty years, he still woke up at the crack of dawn, to marvel at the peaceful vista of flowing green bathed in morning mist and dewdrops sparkling faintly in the budding sunlight ... so unlike the hasty, rushed, hectic and loud nature of the big cities.
"I still say we should have hit Matsushima first, damnit!"
Todou Kyoshiro ... winced.
"No ... look, we can always do it after, right? Business before pleasure and all that ... or what has Hokuto been saying all this time? You should know, Tatsu-chin."
There were three of them.
"B ... but ... it's Matshushima. Matsushima!"
A girl, smallish but bouncing along with the sort of energy rarely seen even among young people. Dark-haired, and wearing as off a mix of city clothes and hiking gear as he'd ever seen.
"Aaaaand we can go and have a look after. It's for your own good, you know. Or do you want to try ascetic life for a while? I've heard it does wonders for concentration. 'Course, that'll likely have something to do with needing to take your mind off things after Hokuto cuts you off for a while ..."
A bleachy haired punk who, contrary to the bouncing of his companion, looked like he was taking it all in stride ...
... and the third one ...
"We apologize for the disturbance."
... big. Dusky skinned. Walking behind the two and more than a head taller than the punk, absolutely dwarfing the girl ... there was something unnerving about him. Just ... not about any one thing, but the whole picture. Unnerving enough that Kyoshiro held his tongue and merely nodded, where he would have gone off on a tirade about respect for other peoples' peace and quiet normally.
The large one's words seemed to have caught the attention of the other two as well, though, and were followed by some embarrassment on both their parts before they walked on, and heading in a direction that would take them out of the town.
It wasn't until after that the store-owner would blink and shake his head.
Why would he be thinking he'd seen a black cat riding on the punk's shoulder, after all? Must have been a trick of the morning light.
"... a friend of mine, or rather - an acquaintance, brought something of interest to me," the woman had said, lazily.
That was just the way she tended to be in the mornings ... which, for her, seemed to stretch into what others would consider the afternoon, but she'd never let little things like that bother her. If she did, why, nothing would ever get done.
Those words alone had been enough to wake a certain well cultivated spark in at least one, and likely all of the trio.
One had inherited it from his mentor, his very nature being such that he couldn't help but cultivate it, fan it, cherish and worship it almost as much as he did said mentor. And it burned strongly enough to make her wonder sometimes ...
The other's had been kindled by that first, and herself as well, she freely admitted. A breath of fresh air, that one was. Loyal to a fault, and possessed of the sort of devotion and sheer fierceness that Ichihara Yuuko had been unable to help herself from dropping a hint here and there, just to see. Just to witness. Just to be part of this blossom, this person, this coiling dragon.
The third's ... oh, it was there. And it burned because he needed it to burn. He followed because he wanted and needed to follow. Because he had found a purpose of worth, and ... yes, she strongly suspected that not even oblivion itself would be enough to halt the momentum he would gather.
That one word, from among all the others she'd spoken, was enough.
There were, after all, certain patterns to what one Ichihara Yuuko found interesting.
Patterns which they, whom she'd laughed with, whom she'd seen grow, whom she'd nudged here and there sometimes and who'd somehow, somewhen, become ... perhaps the closest thing to ...
No, not that.
It may have been hitsuzen. The guiding light, the Destiny, an unraveling of threads and fates ... but for once, she did not see it entirely as such.
This gathering of souls, rushing headlong into the greater world ... somehow, she'd come to associate another word altogether with the lot.
And besides, it really did have the potential to be interesting. Or simply entertaining?
After all, if it was enough to drive one of the most powerful Shugenja of the Takekoma Inari Shrine to drink and seek the help of one such as her, it had to be worth at least a lopsided laugh.
Well, why not? Why not, indeed?
"Nothing, nothing ... now, see to it that we are ready," Ichihara Yuuko, the Dimension Witch, smiled at her twin 'creatures'. "We must be ready after all. He shall be here soon."
Her own hitsuzen ... well ... what was that again?
... just maybe, there was something to that.
"Is it just me, or is there something very very wrong here?"
Ichigo scratched his chin thoughtfully, then grinned.
"Nah, it's just you."
Alright, so it was playing with fire. Or, no. More dangerous than that by far, all thing considered, but hell, it was what he did, and he'd be long dead an buried before he'd let himself consider poking fun at the dragon.
All things considered? She had it coming.
That Tatsuki had a roughly identical attitude when it came to their relationship made sure of that, right enough.
"Am I right, Chad ... Chad?"
The blond teen cast a glance over his shoulder, to where the remaining third of what they'd jokingly started calling the operational branch of this 'little thing of theirs' stood, an expression of focus on his face.
Which, admittedly, one had to know Sado Yasutora quite well to distinguish, but ...
'If ever there was a man with a face at once like a stone and at the same time more expressive than any I'd seen, he's it.'
Eyes opened, and Chad stepped back from one of the trees lining the faint path.
To anyone else, he'd have seemed indifferent.
To Ichigo and, to an extent, Tatsuki, not so much.
"There is something very wrong here," he said.
"Ha!" Tatsuki crowed, punching a triumphant, glove-clad hand ... into Ichigo's shoulder.
"... I am betrayed," the blond threw his taller compatriot a baleful look. "Alas, poor Kurosaki, they know thee too well ..."
"You know, you need a skull to pull that line off," Tatsuki deadpanned, cracking her knuckles. "Could be arranged, ne? You don't use yours for much, after all."
They stared one-another down for a moment, before nodding as one ... and immediately turning around in a complete about face.
The sudden quiet was ... not to make too fine a point of it ... unnatural.
"Nope, not a Hollow," Ichigo commented, cocking his head after 'tasting' the air and what it carried. "It's pretty faint ... or ... just low intensity. Distinct, though. You?"
"General direction, but nothing more," said Tatsuki, her eyes scanning the forest around them. "I could get more, I think, but ... Chad?"
"Scattered. Not scattered enough," branches rustled in the wind. "Janken?"
"Janken," the other two nodded, turning around again.
"And that's that," Ichigo said. Paper.
"Hm," Chad nodded. Paper.
"Yosh! Cracking time!" Three guesses as to who's gone with scissors?
Tatsuki plopped down to sit cross-legged on the ground, facing out into the forest, removing ofuda from her ever-present vest and laying them down in front of her, leaving herself with one clutched between the index and middle finger of her right hand.
The rice-paper slip, seemingly blank, snapped straight and filled with fine script, even as she chanted a cadence of words and phrases that Ichigo had always found the need to wince at.
After all, if it sounded that painful to his ears, he could imagine how harsh it was to actually have to say that.
Around them, the forest shimmered, shadows shifting and twisting, leaves dancing ... the ofuda on the ground flared with a moment's worth of light in various shades and colors, throwing Tatsuki's sitting form into stark relief ... before fading into the soil.
Motes of light danced through the air, seemingly right outside their reach, before she cut the chant off and stood, the ofuda between the fingers of her outstretched hand bent at an angle and staying bent and pointing in a particular direction even when the hand moved.
"Gotcha," Tatsuki grinned. "Tricky little thing, aren't you? Still got you, though, fufufufu ..."
Ichigo glanced at Chad.
Chad glanced at Ichigo.
Alright, so sometimes Tatsu-chin's Yuuko impression was downright creepy.
Useful, but creepy.
This coming from them ...
"Well?" The girl asked, blinking. "You two lugs coming or not?"
"... eh," Ichigo shrugged. "Lay on, Macduff."
No crickets chirped. If not for lack of trying.
Chad glanced at Tatsuki.
Tatsuki glanced at Chad.
"First thing after," the mexican-japanese teen said, solemnly.
"Alright, alright," the girl conceded, throwing up both hands. The paper slip twisted downwards and kept pointing 'thataway' still, despite the gesture. "Kami, how was I supposed to know he'd be worse than when he was quoting Bogard all the time?"
After a moment, though, the trio moved along the indicated path, Tatsuki in the lead.
Motes of light swirling around them all the way as they went, deeper into the wood ...
"Mika-nee! Mika-nee! This way! It went this way!"
Bright as the sun, clear as a babbling brook. Innocent and unconcerned.
Vibrant greens backgrounding a menagerie of color, like a kaleidoscope fashioned from nature itself.
The boy laughed, lunging forward and missing by the barest of margins.
He looked up, only to pout at the image of his sister sitting on a rock a few feet away, laughing, as the object of his pursuit imperiously planted itself in her lap.
He could almost swear the cat was laughing as well ...
"Oi, what's this here?"
He startled at the voice. So did Mika-nee, and both turned around ...
"Traitor! Soon as a newer model comes along, you're jumping ship. I see how it is now."
"Well, you were taking your sweet time, so I had to amuse myself somehow, or what did you expect, hmm?"
Two pairs of eyes focused on the source of that last voice, ignoring the former - and its source, a blond stepping into the glade - in favor of looking, in barely contained disbelief, at the black cat sitting in the girl's lap.
The boy regained some semblance of his wits first ...
"W ... wow ... wait'll Mae-nee hears about this! Are you a magical masco... ?"
A hand covered his mouth, and the blond guy shook his head for a moment.
"Word of the wise, kid ... she hates it when she gets called that."
"Nii-san?" The girl said a moment later. "Does that mean you're a ..."
"Yes, he is," the cat nodded solemnly.
The blond 'Magical Hero' palmed his face.
"Then you're here to rescue us from the monster?" Asked the girl. "Wow. Mae-nee told us there wasn't harly anyone strong enough ..."
"Mika-chan? Yoshi-kun? What are you doing all the way out ... here ... ?"
The woman was, by all accounts, beautiful. Clad in a yukata of red-patterned golden silk, holding herself with an easy and casual grace, her inky hair falling straight down her back and almost to behind her knees ...
"Mae-nee, look! Look! There's a hero come to save us from the monster!" Yoshi exclaimed, and made as if to run over ... then halted.
... and eyes of flashing amber.
"Mae-nee?" Mika asked, her voice uncertain.
"... sleep, little ones," the voice was a whisper on the wind. "Sleep."
Eyelids drooped. Heads lolled.
The last thing the two heard was their onee-sama's voice ... but, at the same time, it couldn't have been.
It was cold.
It was furious.
And then, for a while, they knew no more.
Like night and day.
Like a gentle rain to a bolt of lightning.
The shift in the atmosphere was obvious as it was definite, and it made some things rather obvious.
"I have told them! I have made myself clear, that I have! These are my lands, by right, and yet they send me striplings and a familiar ... you were unlucky enough to manage to get through my illusions, though you should consider yourself ... fortunate."
She spoke, and a heat haze rose around her as she called upon that most innate of her abilities ...
"Had you not come alone, your companions would have shared your fate ... instead, they will merely wander until they end peacefully, that they shall, you however ..."
"Alone?" The boy said, straightening and staring unflinchingly right back at her. With a grin. "Foxy-lady, alone I ain't."
"How droll," she cast a disdainful glance at the Neko.
"Nah, just a really bad pun," came from behind her, and she spun ...
One of the blond's companions sat, perched atop a great shaggy beast of a wolfhound that trotted in from the tree-line.
An Inugami summoner?! Impossible! The girl was an onmyouji, she was sure ... or had been sure ...
"Did you like that little show of ours?" Asked the girl. "That was some really nice work, but we weren't really separated as much as we split up on our own. And I just followed this bonehead here. No way I can't find his annoying ass so close."
The nerve ... they were bantering?!
"Well, fair's fair, that's pretty much how I found the place too. Kinda cheating, but hey, it's easier that way," he shrugged. "Not like it's much of a chore."
"Mmm ... it is a rather fabulous ass, isn't it? I'm pretty damn proud of it myself," an unfamiliar voice purred ... and where the cat had been, a dusky skin, and very conspicuously nude woman lay in the grass.
That wasn't enough to quite take her aback ... shapeshifters weren't exactly uncommon, hells, she was one herself.
"And Chad ... well, he pretty much doesn't need to cheat his way through a forest," the blond shrugged dismissively. "For him, this was pretty much ..."
"Not a problem," the last of the trio, no, quartet, of interlopers said as he strolled, casually, into the glade ...
... and Mae's eyes went wide, not only because she hadn't noticed him at all before but because there was something malevolently familiar about the boy.
Which made her look deeper, and see, instead of merely skimming over what she'd assumed of the rest of this group.
"So now you see," the woman in the grass commented, unconcerned and unabashed. "The question being, Youko-chan, are you precise enough to end this quickly without burning that which you have cherished?"
A dusky-skinned hand ran its fingers through the locks of a sleeping child.
"Kisuke, I know you're there. Pick up the damn phone already."
"Kisuke, Yoruichi is selling the patent rights to your gigai to a local adult novelties store."
The tangled-up body shot upwards nearly instantly, and if it had been lying on top of a bed, things would have ended with an awkward fall.
Urahara Kisuke, proprietor of the Urahara Shouten, 'mere handsome, perverted businessman' and all 'round Mr. Nice Guy ... except when he wasn't ... had a moment of sheer panic before he actually processed what his ears were hearing.
By then, though, all was lost, as his body kept in motion and things ended up with him sprawled awkwardly on one side, still tangled up, and somehow with the phone to one ear.
His eyes found the clock.
His eyebrow twitched.
"Ichigo ... why are you calling me at three in the morning? Explain. In small words."
"Job. Money. Kekkai. Quick."
"... not that small," Kisuke groaned.
"Okay, you still have those ofuda warding kits you scammed Tatsuki into looking through a month back?"
"... maybe," he hazarded. His ribs still twitched a little at the memory of how the girl reacted when she'd found Kisuke had put them out on sale without telling her and, worse, without promising her a cut.
So he'd been trying to cut his working hours a bit and the girl's enthusiasm had been a handy shortcut to doing his own quality proofing on the wares ... not one of his brighter moments, to be sure.
"Well, she's willing to be a kind and forgiving soul if you pull one or two, bring them over, and put them up. We've had a shugenja messing with something he shouldn't have and we're pretty much on clean-up."
Kisuke considered for a moment ... the girl could hold a grudge, true, so in the long run it might be better ...
"Alright, alright, I can pull that ... I think, just don't expect me to be up anytime before noon, brat."
"As long as you can swing it before tomorrow ..."
"Damnit, Ichigo," Urahara yawned sleepily. "I'll even get it set up today, if you just stop talking and let me sleep, damnit!"
As soon as those words escaped him, though, something nagged at the back of his mind ...
... oh ...
"Ichigo," a suddenly all the more clear-headed Urahara Kisuke asked, very carefully. "Where, exactly, is this job?"
"Not that hard to find, just look for the bigass nature spirit signature - ain't going to be too large, but not hiding either ..."
"In Karakura?" Kisuke asked, dreading the answer, since from what his senses were telling him there was nothing of the sort currently out there ...
"Er, no ... near Mount Bandai, Fukishima Prefecture, Tohoku Region."
"I see," ah, yes, there was that sinking feeling again. "You're there right now?"
"Hmm ... us? No, no, don't worry."
Kisuke breathed a sigh of relief.
"We're in Miyagi. Tatsu-chin wanted to go see Matsushima and all ..."
"You're calling collect, aren't you?"
"Well, yeah. It's a business call. What?"
The air of Karakura was split by the scream of a tormented soul.
Ignore it. Just ... ignore it. It's safer not to ask.
Well, it just is. Trust me on this, even if you haven't before.
Those were, roughly, the toughts of people getting on and off the Shinkasen to Tokyo that day.
It just went to prove that sometimes, standing out was just as good for anonymity as blending in.
Which, in fact, was very much a fortunate occurrence ... when you had a cat sitting on top of your head and trying to look imperious, with a fair degree of success at that.
For Kurosaki Ichigo this was par for the course, and actually one of the more normal positions that his friend, mentor, and ... well, that 'and' was something he didn't think he'd ever really get a handle on, but there you go ... Shihouin Yoruichi was to be found in when exercising her right to be a lazy layabout.
And yes, he called her that too, whereupon she'd reply something along the lines of 'if you're comfortable with yourself, truth doesn't hurt'. It was something he figured he could get behind.
Words to live by ... or, un-live by, as it were.
"Ooooooh, I just love expense accounts," Tatsuki sighed, sinking into the first class seat.
The sentiment was shared enthusiastically, though in Chad's case the fact may have been less than obvious.
"Well, I've gotta hand it to Yuuko, that did count as interesting," Ichigo said, leaning back in his own.
"Mm ... behold, world! See, Japan! Mahou Shounen Ichigo is here!"
Ichigo groaned. "You just had to mention that ..."
"Oh, come on, it turned out for the best, right?"
Some time ago, he would not have been able to get entirely behind that ...
Some time ago.
It came with the territory. Dealing with people, with beings, who simply worked on a different sort of ... wavelength, he guessed ... morally, ethically ... it tended to be a bit of a juggling act.
In this case, there had been an injustice wrought, but the exact nature thereof was very much reliant on the point of view of the observer.
Mae-san's wardings, her own work, had been disturbed. That place, which had been uniquely hers for quite a slice of time, as assured by contract, had been disturbed through the bumbling of one who really should have known better.
As a result, a part of the wood that people simply did not venture into because of the wards was ... invaded, he supposed was the right word to use.
New wardings could have been erected ... but this was a matter of principle, a matter of possession, and a matter of right at the same time.
So, Mae-san did not remake her wardings.
And in that part of the forest, unvisited for years, decades ... longer ... people would disappear. Led astray, confused and befuddled, until their bodies could no longer go on and died of dehydration. Of starvation. Or simply of fear.
But she was, in her own way, merciful as well. She loved children. Cherished them, when she could have simply left the illusions to do their work there too ...
Different morals, different perspectives, different interpretations ... all in all?
"Yeah, it did," he replied.
"Good sake," purred Yoruichi dreamily.
"You would mention that, wouldn't you?" Ichigo snickered.
"What's wrong with good sake? So nice of Mae-chan to share. We'll be making time to come back in a few weeks," it was a statement, not a question, which for Yoruichi pretty much meant a fait accompli.
Another day on the job.
"You know, you've got a perfectly good seat reserved ..." he finally said after the train had started moving, and Yoruichi refused to change perches to one that was less of a strain on his neck. Not that it was much of one, but it was the principle of the thing.
"Don't wanna move," the cat murmured. "Tired."
"... from what?" Tatsuki frowned.
"Running around last night, trying to keep all the brats from yanking my tail off ... you have any idea how annoying that is?"
"You didn't used to complain that much when ..." Ichigo started, only to be interrupted by a paw to the face. Wisely, he stopped talking.
"Ah, but you, my dear chewtoy, are mine ... and right now I want to sleep, so stop moving so much or I'll shred your recreational reading when we get home."
"Last I checked it was yours as much as it was mine."
"... damnit," an amber eye opened, giving Tatsuki and Chad a look. "Word of advice, brats ... don't share your H. What you win in splitting the price you lose in blackmail material."
Tatsuki blinked owlishly ... "You two share your porn?"
For a moment, Ichigo looked like something wasn't quite computing, before he shrugged his shoulders. "Um ... yeah? Doesn't everyone?"
Tatsuki's impending blush of realization that, yes, she and Hokuto did, was interrupted by something so utterly uncharacteristic that it made all three of them stop in their tracks, and Yoruichi to open her remaining eye.
Chad was snickering.
"Oi, Hokuto-chin, we're back!"
Let it never be said that Kurosaki Ichigo was unfamiliar with the art of making a subtle entrance.
It's just that he didn't tend to use it very often that left people with an inaccurate first impression.
And besides, sometimes there was ritual. It didn't need to be mystically significant, or otherwise what some would consider 'important' ... it just was.
"Ooooh! You're back! Did you get me something? Did you?"
If you could only use one word to describe her, the first to come to mind at the image Sumeragi Hokuto tended to present would be 'unique' ... but then again, that could apply to any of them, really.
Vivacious would be a close second.
Sometimes it was ritual ...
"Hey, Chad, did we?"
... and sometimes ... well, paybacks were always amusing.
The taller teen nodded, turned around, grabbed Tatsuki by the shoulders and proceeded, with little to no effort at all, to deposit her in front of their self-appointed social secretary and manager.
"Here you go," Chad deadpanned. "Don't wear it out too soon, we don't know if we can get a replacement."
"Y ... you guys!" The manhandled girl protested, blushing.
"Yes! The revenge of Mahou Shounen Ichigo lives!" Crowed the blond. Well, she'd been calling him that from almost day one after she'd found out about Yoruichi, or close enough for government work. Might as well get some milage on it ... "Ow!"
"Hmph. Serves you right," Yoruichi hmph-ed, hopping down from 'her' shoulder after poking him with her claws a bit. Wouldn't do to encourage him too much, or else he might get it into his mind to call her 'the L-word' again.
Honestly, of all the talking black cats to give the breed a bad name.
"Anyway," Ichigo continued, wincing a bit at the stinging sensation. "Have there been any calls?"
"Oh, right. Almost forgot about that ... Ritsuko-san called and put in the usual consulting fee ..." Hokuto replied, leafing through an organizer. "Didn't seem like it was life and death, but she sounded a little out of it."
The addressed nodded. That was pretty much that as to who'd go and check it out. Ever since a while back, the taciturn young man was always the one to handle those requests, having become something of an instant hit to the ladies working under Ritsuko-san and even the manager herself with his strong and silent manner.
Hokuto shrugged. "Yeah. It's been sort of quiet lately ..."
"It has at that ... well, if there's nothing else, I think I'll be heading home," Ichigo mused. "I go 'lazing around' any longer, and Karin's going to throw a fit." He chuckled.
A moment later, and he was gone, leaving behind a scattering of paper and a dislodged sliding door, as well as a pair of scorch marks in the tatami.
The property was silent for one long instant, before its occupants erupted into a flurry of activity ...
The was a number of things Kurosaki Ichigo was intimately familiar with.
The wind was one.
Reiatsu was another.
Using it, sensing it, hiding it or bringing it out, it made little difference. He was a natural at it, a natural reiatsu Adept, as Yoruichi had once put it, and control was something he needed more than additional power ...
And he'd become, by simple virtue of time and experience, intimately familiar with the 'feel' of Karakura. That was not to say he was omniscient. Far from it.
But any discharge of spiritual power of the sort he'd just sensed he could almost pinpoint.
In this case, there was no need to be quite that precise.
He didn't think about the steps, didn't even notice the world literally freeze around him, no longer the bleached out starkness he was used to but a nearly colorless study in black, white, and shades of gray. Didn't notice his reiatsu becoming as sharp as a razor for a moment ...
He was far too focused on something else.
The burning, consuming spiritual bonfire that had just appeared ... right freaking on top of where he knew the Kurosaki Clinic, his home, was had his full attention.
Up until he fell back out of shunpo, stumped and staring.
The reiatsu had felt both off and familiar.
Now he knew why.
There'd been two.
One was what he'd feared it would be ...
... the other was a surprise, or rather, the way it had manifested was so totally unexpected it just threw him for a loop.
After all, it isn't every day you see one of your younger sisters, in full Shinigami battle dress, preforming a Soul Burial on a Hollow in front of your home.
ooo END a death in the family
END home ground arc