A/N: It was really only a matter of time before I wrote a Bleach fic, and here is the result. This story is really an ode to Tatsuki, as she is my favorite (and sadly, quite neglected) character of the series. It starts as a continuation of the events in the middle of Chapter 239 of the manga, just so you're all warned; this means spoilers up to that point.
Push Comes to Shove
She remembers the sky opening then closing again like the great maw of some ancient god long forgotten by the world, remembers it vividly; it's not the sort of sight that would be soon lost in the annals of memory. She can perfectly recall the feel of the strong wooden rungs of the never-ending ladder under her palms, the quiet crunch of baked earth under her school shoes, and the foreign scent of energy flickering through the air leaving a sharp tang in her nose and the back of her throat. She remembers all of these details, down to the exact expression of Keigo's exaggerated features upon first looking through the trap door to the basement and which type of gum Mizuru had been chewing nervously during the hurried trip between school and the mystery shop.
But what Tatsuki remembers most clearly is the tangled mess of emotions vying for dominance. There's anger: a clean, sharp burn somewhere behind her heart. The sadness is tinged with helplessness and together they succeed in making her stomach queasy and her limbs numb. And there's love, too blatant to ignore, and all the pesky feelings that come attached to it. She never realized it before that morning, just how deeply she loves her friends and how much their well-being means to her.
The thing is, Arisawa Tatsuki has never been known for dealing well with feelings. Feelings are something for girls – real girls, not Tatsuki-girls.
"Arisawa! Arisawa! Stop!" yells her sparring partner. But she can't stop, not just yet because there's an annoying ball of something that's been burning in her chest for the last week and it won't let her stop until she's eased the ache. She growls as she strikes out once more, this time sending her partner to the ground. Guilt creeps in at the edges of her mind, but she looks away from his contorted expression before it gets overwhelming.
She's already unwinding the tape from her hands when the coach comes over and asks her if maybe it would be better if she takes a few days off. Tatsuki nods but isn't able to meet his eye; if she did, she's afraid something very un-Tatsuki like would happen. There might even be tears. She rushes to change and hurries out before she has a chance to give into the uncharacteristic prickle in the corners of her eyes.
On the way home she takes a familiar detour, walking the streets to Inoue Orihime's apartment without even realizing that is where she is heading until she's at the foot of the stairs leading up to the door. It's the first time she's been there since her friend vanished. There is no friendly light in the window when she arrives, no happy conversation trickling through the crack under the door from the recent houseguests, and even though she knows this is to be expected, it still pains her. The place is dead – a home that has become merely a house in under a week. Tatsuki traces the name on the plate next to the door twice over, praying for possibly the thousandth time that her friend is still alive and well in that place behind the sky.
Maybe it's because it hasn't happened to her for years, but Tatsuki doesn't realize that the reason her face feels warm is because there are tears streaming down it until they've stopped and her eyes are red, sore, and tired.
She returns home surprisingly exhausted but can't go to sleep. The visit has made her face the reality that her friends are gone, hopefully not for good; in school, it had been easy to simply say they were home sick but now that she's seen it, seen the empty house, she can't deny it. Her closest friends in the world have gone to fight and she has been left behind. Again.
Tatsuki knows why Ichigo acted like such a cold-hearted bastard: it's in his nature to protect. She knows he had her well-being in mind, as well as Keigo's and Mizuru's, when he tried to brush off their worries with indifferent, harsh responses but, she realizes as she watches the moon set from her spot on her cold bedroom floor, that still doesn't stop her from feeling pissed off. There's more to the feeling than that, though. She's not just angry with Ichigo. More than that, she's angry with herself: angry for not being strong enough to protect Orihime, angry for nearly getting killed on a number of occasions, angry for having to depend so entirely on others because she is too weak to even save herself.
'Weak' is not a word Tatsuki has ever used to describe herself, but now she feels it suits her perfectly. And she hates that. Hates it so much she can't stop her fist from slamming loudly down against the floor of her room. When she hears footsteps shuffling down the hall, she clambers into bed a moment before her father appears at her door, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
"Is everything alright?" he manages through a yawn. Tatsuki glances over at her clock to see it's now nearly four in the morning.
For a moment, she considers spilling everything. But a beat passes, long and silent, and with it goes the urge to talk. "Yes, everything is fine," she lies.
She knows he doesn't believe her, but he leaves anyways. He trusts his daughter, even if he's never said so aloud; she has always been independent and has dealt with her own problems her own way, for better or for worse.
For another few hours, Tatsuki continues to wrestle with the realization that she is weak. A solution doesn't come to her until just before dawn, and by this point her eyes are aching from her earlier bout of crying as well as from staying open far long. But the shot of adrenaline racing through her is enough to make her get out of bed and start pacing. Weak. She is weak now, but she doesn't have to always be so. Wasn't Ichigo the one who would always cry when he lost a fight? And now he is going off to supernatural lands carrying a sword that's taller than she is to fight monsters without batting an eye. Orihime as well. The picked-on little girl of middle school days has been replaced by a strong woman willing and able to fight for the safety of her friends.
Her friends aren't weak anymore. Tatsuki decides it's time she stopped being weak as well.
With that thought in mind, she finally falls asleep. It's only an hour later that her mother opens her door, wondering why Tatsuki is sleeping through her blaring alarm clock. She doesn't wake her daughter up when she sees her, though, just walks over and switches the alarm off so she can rest longer. She'll call the school and tell them that Tatsuki is ill, she decides, shutting the door softly behind her.
Because this is the most peaceful her daughter has looked in a long while.
Her mother smiles at her quietly when Tatsuki eventually wanders into the kitchen for breakfast, though at this point it's more like a late lunch. There's food set out on the table – her favorite meal from when she was a child – and she smiles gratefully before she begins to devour it as fast as she can without making herself sick. It's funny: she didn't realize before she was quite so hungry.
"You know you can talk to us, your father and me, if there's something that's bothering you," her mother says eventually. Tatsuki stops chewing, a noodle hanging unladylike from her slightly open mouth. Her mother's face is open, encouraging, and above all else worried. That sense of guilt she originally felt when she sent her sparring partner to the floor yesterday returns with a vengeance, but she swallows it along with her mouthful of food.
"I know. But this is something I have to do by myself," she answers seriously. And it's true, at least for her. As much as it pains her to see her parents worried about her like this, she knows she'll never be able to live with herself if she can't do this on her own.
Though she looks a little sad, her mother nods and smiles. "That's what I thought. Just know that we love you, Tatsuki."
"I love you both too."
Tatsuki goes out after that, grabbing her jacket and walking to… to somewhere. She doesn't know where exactly, only that it will be obvious when she gets there. Her feet carry her across town, past her school which she uncomfortably skirts, past the dojo, past the spot by the river she remembers watching Ichigo pace all those years ago, up to the woods by the cemetery. There she stops. It's quiet, as befits the area around a place like a cemetery, and since it's the middle of the day people are still in school or at work so none of the nearby graves and shrines have any visitors. A cool breeze rustles through the trees, tinged with the last undercurrents of summer heat.
This is the place.
A few moments pass before Tatsuki realizes something: now that she's here, she has no idea what she's supposed to do. At all. It had all seemed so straightforward in those moments before she succumbed to the overwhelming pull of sleep last night: everything would surely just fall in place if she could get started. But now that she's here, it's quite obvious she has no clue how to start in the first place.
Tatsuki runs her hands through her short hair a couple times, making the ends stand out straight and spiky, an unconscious imitation of Ichigo's normal hair style. She's pretty sure there isn't a book for this sort of thing, which is good because Tatsuki has never been much for book learning. And if there's no book, then Ichigo, Orihime, and the others must have learned some other way, learned how to not be weak anymore. A teacher, possibly – some sort of mentor. Her mind jumps back to the little shop with the basement cavern and the strange blonde man with the hat and wooden sandals. But somehow, Tatsuki can't bring herself to ask for help just yet. She's always been stubborn like that.
For a time, she sits there, back to one of the trees, puzzling over how to start. As the minutes wear on, each as unproductive as the last, her eyes start to droop and her gaze goes unfocused. She's not tired enough to sleep, but she stays in that halfway state until she feels it.
It's soft at first, a gentle stirring somewhere in the pit of her stomach, warm and pleasant yet fragile like the first breeze of spring. But as she continues to sit, it stirs a bit stronger, a bit more intensely. With a start, she snaps back to attention. She's certain: this is her strength she's feeling. It's small now, barely there, but she knows what it is. It's the same feeling that stirs when she's close to her friends, especially to Ichigo. She has ignored it before, not knowing what it was until this moment.
Determined, Tatsuki settles back against the tree and closes her eyes. If anyone had passed by her then, they might have thought she was dozing; her eyes are almost closed and her breathing is slow and deep. But there is a light sheen of sweat on her forehead and her brows are knit slightly, giving away her intense concentration. What she's doing is like no meditation she's ever heard about, though that is the only thing Tatsuki is able to liken the process to. She spends the rest of the afternoon attempting to find that warm energy again, and possibly draw it out a little.
By the time the shadows are getting long and the street lamps are switching on, all Tatsuki has to show for her efforts are some very stiff muscles, a headache, and an incredibly empty stomach. She drags herself home as fast as she can and before she even speaks two words to her parents begins to shovel down her dinner as if she hasn't seen food for the past decade.
Her parents watch as she eats, eyes a little wider than usual. "Where did you go this afternoon?" her mother asks once Tatsuki's plate is empty.
"The woods by the cemetery," she responds succinctly and gets up to search through the refrigerator for more to eat; her stomach still seems painfully empty. If her parents are shocked by her answer, they don't show it. "What happened to the leftovers from yesterday?"
Her mom moves over to pull out the container from behind a large box of juice. Tatsuki doesn't even bother to sit down before she starts digging into the dinner she abstained from yesterday. "You seem better," her mother comments, an almost-amused look spreading across her face as she watches her daughter stuff her face.
Tatsuki swallows and grins. "Yeah, yeah I am."
The following days are particularly grueling. The only time Tatsuki can find for her personal training sessions is in the early morning before school, but this inevitably leaves her exhausted for the rest of the day. But she doesn't give up, not even when she starts falling asleep in class because there's just no way she can keep her eyes open one second longer and the teacher starts developing an annoying habit of smacking her desk right next to her head as a wake up call or when she takes a few punches at practice that she normally can block with ease. Because this isn't just about some sort of meditation training, even though that seems to be all she's able to do at the moment. This is something that she not only won't give up on, but also can't give up on.
Her mother comments after two weeks that the grocery bills are getting rather high. Tatsuki has an explanation on the tip of her tongue, but the table top is far too comfortable a head rest for her to be bothered to answer.
The gentle stirring of energy in her stomach from before has transformed in this time, or maybe it's that Tatsuki is more in tune with what little was there in the first place. She's not sure, but by now it doesn't take nearly so long to reach out and touch that power, and when she does it spreads like warm oil across her skin, sinking into every part of her being and filling her with a sense of lightness that makes her worry that she might float away if a strong enough breeze were to come along.
She next begins to focus that energy, much like she would do for a kick or a punch. She pictures a white pinprick of light against a black nothingness in her mind's eye and tries to mould her energy into that shape. It's frustrating though; for a while, it feels almost as if there is something physical in her way and her frustration is only compounded by her apparently insatiable appetite.
On the morning after the first surprise frost it happens. She's cold, her nose turning red and starting to run annoyingly because of the early morning chill, but she's still outside practicing, praying that this will be the day that things fall into place. She also has a math test later, which she can't help but panic over even though she has spent the last week preparing. So it comes as a surprise that, even though part of her mind is on her upcoming test while the other is cursing the fast-approaching winter, something finally happens.
Her accomplishment comes in the form of a glowing bluish-white ball of energy. It floats a little above her mitten, pulsing steadily as if it has its own heartbeat. Tatsuki's eyes fix on it. She'd be lying if she said she didn't feel a small bit of fear at this accomplishment; it's not exactly normal for humans to make balls of energy float above their hands, is it? However, the sense of achievement is almost overwhelming and she lets out a loud whoop of excitement that cuts through the crisp morning air and sends what birds are left for the season flying off to quieter trees.
After that, it's astounding how fast things seem to fall in place. Two days later when she takes a step forward, she accidentally shoots ten feet in front of her, her muscles easily launching her across the ground. She stops abruptly and lands in a tangled heap on the ground, knocking all the air out of her lungs. The same thing almost happens the next day, but this time Tatsuki has a little more control and is able to stop herself almost gracefully after three steps. By the end of the week, she can "walk" faster than an Olympic sprinter can run, and can "run" at least ten times faster than she can walk.
But it's not just her ground speed that has been supernaturally augmented. Her punches strike the practice target faster than her eyes can follow; the only way she's certain she hits the target is because they keep breaking under the repeated batterings. The same goes for her kicks. She nearly takes out a tree with one of her wilder attempts; the old wood groans ominously but doesn't break, though the tree stays leaning at a sharper angle than is normally found in nature. After that, Tatsuki moves her exercises to a more open area of the woods.
A week after the incident with the tree, she has her first encounter with the strange man in black. He's dressed like Ichigo sometimes is, clad in a black hakama and kimono, though his sword is shorter and thinner than her friend's. His hair stands up in a great bushy heap on his head. Before this, Tatsuki would have just assumed he was some crazy with a strange fascination with time of samurais. Now, however, she can sense there's more, or rather less, to him than meets the eye. He's there, she can see that easily. But at the same time, he's not. He has a different feel to him than the people Tatsuki passed on the street on the way to the park, and some sort of pressure is pushing on her from his direction, albeit a weak one. The thought that he's a ghost floats to the front of her mind unbidden, but she tosses it aside immediately. Ghosts don't feel like this; she's seen ghosts before and they aren't nearly so complete. Some sort of spirit, then. Like those spirits that nearly killed her if it hadn't been for Orihime and Ichigo. Or maybe not like those spirits at all. Still…
Tatsuki shies away, grabbing her bag and running so fast through the trees she doesn't even notice when a bare twig slashes across her cheek, drawing blood. She doesn't stop running until she gets to the school gates. For the first time since she started her training, Tatsuki is early to class.
Lately, more often than not, Tatsuki is distracted during class. She no longer falls asleep, but her attention wanders so much that it almost makes no difference that her eyes are open instead of closed. Every day, she is faced with the conspicuously empty seats of Ichigo, Orihime, Sado, and Ishida. Her thoughts invariably stray back to them: what they're doing at the moment, whether they're hurt, what kinds of demons they're facing, whether they're winning, if they've already found Orihime or not. Sometimes she thinks of those monsters, and one time she hears one of them howling outside so loudly she's amazed the windows and walls don't vibrate. She excuses herself to the bathroom after that, feeling sick to her stomach with the unexpected wave of malicious energy.
In the dojo, it's a different story. She's positive she's never been more focused in her life, and it's showing in her sparring matches. It's hard sometimes for her to stop from reaching down and bringing up the energy that makes all her kicks faster and her punches harder, and sometimes she does so without even thinking; the process has become so natural it's almost like breathing for her now. Her partners end up on the ground so fast that it takes them a few moments to realize they've been beaten. When her coach starts talking about how she could win the National tournament next year even if she were to break both of her hands, Tatsuki grins sheepishly and makes a mental note to tone things down. While there are no rules about something like this, she's fairly sure that using this extra energy that can make glowing balls appear out of thin air and carry her ten feet in a single step would be considered cheating.
The praise feels nice, all the same.
One night, she wakes up with a start, her body shivering and covered in sweat. It registers in her mind that one of those monsters is close by even before she is fully awake, and she's half dressed before she realizes that it's nearly three in the morning and she should be a little quieter or she'll wake her parents up. Tatsuki finishes silently, not entirely sure what she plans to do, but determined to do something all the same. She rushes out of the house without a second thought, pausing just long enough to grab a hat to cover her sweat-dampened hair.
The beast is six blocks over in the middle of a park, prowling like a caged lion around the swings there. It's ugly, she can see that much even from a distance: long, thin head, bulging body, large dull claws, and a long whip-like tail. Moonlight gleams unnaturally off its face except for its eyes. They remain fathomless and black, two holes in a mask hiding a vast chasm of nothing. It howls when it catches sight of her and the sound makes her skin jump and crawl. She tries to swallow but finds her mouth suddenly devoid of moisture.
Tatsuki watches as the monster launches itself at her, as though it is part of a dream. She's frozen, her limbs not responding to the signals from her brain telling her to move, dammit! The thing is almost upon her when she finally does the first thing that comes to mind: she hits it.
The blow glances off its shoulder, but succeeds in stunning the creature for a few precious moments while Tatsuki regains her faculties. Then it howls again, obviously angry at her audacious move, and turns to face her. She's ready this time, though; her stance is loose but tense with energy and all her muscles feel warm, almost uncomfortably so, with the glow of that internal energy. It moves to strike again, but she meets its head half-way with a kick, knocking it off its feet and sending it rolling across the ground.
After that, the beast changes tactics, trying to approach Tatsuki from the side or even behind, but its movements are slow and ungainly compared to Tatsuki's and there's no way it can go anywhere without her following its every movement. She starts moving in on the offensive, pressing her advantage and darting in for a few moments of close-fighting before retreating, only to strike moments later from a different angle. In her exhilaration, she gets a little careless; a swipe that should have missed her catches her shoulder and tears through the fabric of her jacket and shirt leaving a dark, warm stain. Pain spreads down her arm, but it's so mitigated by the feeling of raw, warm power that she barely notices it.
It's tired now, but so is she; her breathing is becoming labored and it's becoming harder to control her movements. She overshoots her target a couple of times as she flies across the ground, nearly ending up with her face in a pole for her efforts. Her shoulder throbs, her chest aches, her legs feel like warm jelly, but she doesn't stop. She can't stop. Not until this creature is gone. Then it stumbles slightly in its advance towards her, and Tatsuki spots her chance. Darting in, she launches herself and kicks, making sure her foot lands squarely between the creature's eyes. Upon impact, she hears a crack, deep and resonant, and then the beast is howling again. A few moments later, it's gone; there's no physical trace left to show that a monster like that was ever there, though the deep gouges in the ground from where its claws churned up the earth are evidence enough that some sort of battle took place.
Tatsuki bends over double, her breath ragged and catching in her throat. She's never felt quite so exhausted, nor has she ever felt nearly so accomplished. A few thick drops of blood fall from her shoulder, pooling on the ground at her feet. She'll have to get that looked at in the morning. It'll be hell explaining the injury to her parents; she won't be able to hide a gouge as big and as this one.
For now, though, Arisawa Tatsuki lets out a triumphant yell that echoes through the night sky. Weak, she most certainly is not.