Alas, here beginneth The Infernal Project. A few notes to begin with.

1.) I don't own Bleach. Be thankful.

2.) Yes, this is genderswitch. With Ichigo. Yes, this is taboo. No, it is not a pairing fic. Any pairings that pop up are plot-related.

3.) Yes, there is a semi-coherent non-Bleachcanon plot. Yes, it will take a while to become apparent.

4.) This is the first arc of the Strawberry-verse, the "Karakura arc." Like it's canon counterpoint, it's a setup arc. In some places, it is very, eerily (annoyingly) similar. It is seven total chapters long, five of which are complete. After the Karakura arc is finished, I'll probably take a break so I don't get too irritated with it.

5.) Characterization is heavily background-driven. Just because you know canon doesn't mean you know the background here.

Any GS fan should thank Dolphin River for the writing of this fic. I was caught between trying arrancar!Ichigo and trying this, and I went with this because she's a friend and GS fan. So, dedicated to her, is Strawberry. Let the madness begin.


Strawberry

The Karakura Arc

Chapter One - Sword of Fate

-

"Ignorant bastards."

Kurosaki Ichigo: 15.

"Full of themselves, thinking they're the only ones that matter."

Orange hair. Brown eyes.

"Pathetic, ignorant bastards. I hate people like them."

"You'll help me then?"

She gave the floating girl a smirk, unbothered by the corroded chain protruding from her chest or the way half her face was coated with blood from a wound on her temple.

"Yeah. I'd be glad to." Her smirk turned vicious. "Just sit back and watch. Oi, idiots!"

Across from them, across the park, several skateboarders paused in fooling around and looked up.

"See, they even answer to it!" Ichigo crowed as the skateboarders actually began to wander over to her seat. As the first one came into range, she leaped to her feet and lashed out with her fist, dropping him to the ground with a solid strike to the temple.

"What the - you come in here and drop Li'l Yama-"

Ichigo's face split into a nasty grin, and she spun on her heel, kicking the second thug on the side of his face. He collapsed to the ground beside his friend.

"Whoa, she's dropped Li'l Toshi," another boarder commented.

"'t ain't right. She's one blood-thirsty berryhead."

"Better not mess wit' her, she'll kill you."

"Kill you?" The orange-head snickered. "She doesn't deserve to deal with your company for eternity." She straightened up and pointed. "You, smelly-lookin' dude! Tell me, what the hell is that?"

It was a bottle with flowers. Smelly smiled unsurely. "It's… an offering to some dead girl?"

The boarder earned a kick in the face for his trouble. "Exactly! Now, question two: What is that vase doing on its side?"

"We… knocked it over with our boards?" one of remaining thugs said fearfully.

"Didn't you?" Ichigo fell back in a fighting stance. "Well, then, since you don't seem up to apologizing… I guess it's up to me to knock you over for her!"

But it was apparent she didn't need to, because the boarders erupted into screams, their eyes focusing on a point above her shoulder.

"We're sorry, we're sorry! We won't do it again!" Leaving their skateboards and dragging their friends, they ran as if their lives were in danger.

Ichigo snorted and stomped down on the nearest board, snapping it in half through the middle. "Like I said, idiots." She looked up at the ghost that hovered beside her. "But I doubt they'll be back anytime soon. If they do, just let me know, and I'll drive 'em off again." She smirked. "Painfully, if possible."

The ghost laughed. "You're a scary person, Ichigo. I think you're right; they won't be back. I should be able to rest in peace now. Thank you."

She waved vaguely, already walking off. "Don't mention it. Kicking ass is always fun. Just you rest in peace."

That's right. I've always seen ghosts. Seen the dead as clearly as the living.

The Kurosaki Clinic was several blocks away from the ghost's park, but Ichigo saw no point in delaying. The longer she dallied in the open, the more likely it was she would pick up another passenger, and she really didn't want to deal with another. Not today. Hell, not this week.

"I'm home," she called out, brushing open the door, waiting - duck.

"You're late!" The leg of Kurosaki Isshin flew over her head. "Do you know what time it is, delinquent? Dinner in this house is at seven, sharp!"

"Then fuck dinner!" Ichigo retorted from the floor. "What kind of father expects a fifteen-year-old to be home at seven, anyway? Ever heard of making exceptions?"

"There is no exception for brawling," said Isshin sternly, looking down at her with crossed arms.

It wasn't just brawling and he knows it! Ichigo thought sourly. She was never late getting home because of a fight; they never took that long. "I was helping a ghost find peace!"

"There are no exceptions, period! The rules of this house are iron - you break them, you bleed!" Isshin turned plaintive. "Or are you trying to rub it in my face that you can see ghosts and I can't? Why can't I have the gift? Why?"

"Here's a better question - Why can't you just shut up?" Ichigo snapped. She heard this exact speech every time she mentioned something ghost-related; she could almost swear he did it merely to annoy her! "I didn't ask for it!"

Yuzu, a few feet away at the table, was upset by the quarrel, one that was that repeated over and over again. "Please stop fighting! Dinner's getting cold!"

"Let them fight Yuzu. Maybe it'll put Ichigo in a better mood." Karin, on the other hand, was closer to amused. "She's usually only this sour after being a good Samaritan."

"Actually…" Yuzu squinted at a blur next to her orange-haired older sister. "Ichigo, I think you have another friend."

"Another?" Ichigo looked up into the glasses of a smiling middle age man in a suit and growled. "Damn it! I exorcise one and another latches right onto me!"

"Dropped your guard!" Isshin took advantage of his daughter's lack of attention and tried to slam a foot into her gut, but she took a step back and caught the foot, then twisted and pinned him to the floor.

"I give up!" Releasing her father, Ichigo stood and stomped off, ignoring the yells that burst out behind her. "I'm going to bed!" Darkly, she noted the ghost followed her.

I've always seen ghosts, ever since I was small. Therefore…

There've been more and more ghosts bugging me lately, more than ever. Ichigo sat down on the edge of her bed, tired but not in the mood to sleep. She closed her eyes. And most of them are annoyingly sappy. Today was almost a relief.

"It's close…"

Her eyes shot open. There, standing in the middle of the room, ignoring Ichigo as though she didn't exist, was a short girl in a hakama and kimono top, short black hair, and a sword at her hip.

The existence of shinigami…

This was too much. After dealing with ghosts and dealing with her father, Ichigo really wasn't up to being civil. She tackled the stranger, leaping head-first from the bed, and pinned her arms behind her back.

"Wha-what…?"

"What the hell are you doing in my house?" she demanded.

The girl squirmed, twisting to try and look at her captor's face. "I - I do not understand. You can see me - touch me. How is that possible?"

"Why wouldn't I be able to see you-?"

A second later, in an abrupt reversal of fortune, Ichigo went flying off of the intruder, propelled by a kick from Isshin. "Stop jumping around so much, girl!"

"Why should I?" she snarked, not taking her eyes off of the black-clad girl. She was looking from Ichigo to Isshin, looking perplexed. "All you do is jump around! I'll jump around all I like when I'm subduing intruders!"

"What intruder?"

"Uh, the chick right in front of you?"

Isshin looked down blankly.

"It does no good. Normal people cannot see me." The girl sat up, shaking her head. "I am… a shinigami."

Ichigo closed her eyes again. Too many ghosts had been bothering her lately. It was just her luck that when she got fed up she got landed with a freaking delusional samurai-wannabe. "Dad. Get lost."

had never crossed my mind.

It took a long time to convince Isshin that his presence was not necessary, he having abruptly reverted to his generic sappy personality that came out when he thought something was wrong with her that he hadn't caused, and when the intruder had finished her minute-long explanation, Ichigo wondered whether it was worth the headache.

"Okay. Let me get this straight. You're a shinigami, from this place called Soul Society, and you're here to vanquish an 'evil spirit'." Ichigo nodded, as if the load of nonsense wasn't. She threw her hands up in the air. "What do you think I am, an idiot?"

The would-be shinigami took a step back, scandalized. "You can see ghosts, yet you do not believe in shinigami?"

"Of course not!" Ichigo retorted, crossing her arms. "If there were shinigami, I wouldn't have to play nice with all the ghosts haunting me!"

Looking highly insulted, the girl grasped her katana's hilt, drawing it with a metallic sheen. Ichigo tensed and flinched back as the blade flew by her face, only to balk as the other flipped it reverse grip with the ease of experience and brought it down beside her head -

-on the forehead of the middle-aged ghost from earlier. Wide-eyed and fearful, he stuttered, "Please… I - I don't want to go to Hell!" as she pulled the hilt away, leaving an odd tattoo on the ghost's forehead.

"Do not presume." The shinigami - because Ichigo couldn't disbelieve her now, not with the ghost's response - watched dispassionately as the ghost shattered into a dozen shards that were sucked into a growing white portal. "It is not Hell that awaits you. It is the Soul Society."

She sheathed the sword again, turning to Ichigo with a trace of a sneer. "I doubt you need further convincing."

Ichigo shook her head. "What… happened? Where's the ghost?"

"I sent him to Soul Society," the shinigami replied, as though it should have been obvious. "By means of Konso, the soul funeral. You would call it 'passing on' in your language. It is one of the duties of a shinigami." She paused, gazing at Ichigo, something odd in her dark eyes, and then held up a finger. "I will only explain this once.

"There are two types of souls in this world: the wholes, which you are accustomed to seeing; and the hollows, the fallen souls, which prey on the wholes. Shinigami are to escort the wholes to the Soul Society using Konso, while vaporizing the hollows. "

The shinigami doodled on a notepad (that came from nowhere) as she spoke, and turned it around, to reveal two drawings - if that could be called that, bad as they were. On one, a mutant rabbit's head was labeled "whole" and rested beside an arrow labeled "Konso" that extended across a barrier to a bubble emblazoned "Soul Society." On the other, an equally mutated teddy bear (Was it a teddy bear? Ichigo wasn't sure, it could have been another rabbit) was labeled "Hollow" and surrounded by a field of lightning bolts and a cloud that announced "Kaboom!"

The black-haired girl tilted her head. "Any questions?"

"Uh, yeah," Ichigo started, squinting. "Just why do your drawings suck so bad?" She had to dodge the marker the shinigami had used to draw the horrid pictures. "Anyway - actually, yes I do. These Hollows, is that what you were talking about before? The 'evil spirit'?"

She nodded.

Brown eyes blinked. "Th-then what are you doing here!" she sputtered. "Go kill it!"

The shinigami looked away. "I would… but I have not been able to sense its presence for some time now."

Not sense its presence? "Could it have left?" Ichigo wondered.

"It's possible," the girl admitted, shaking her head, "but highly unlikely."

Aaaaaaoooooo!

Ichigo froze, and a chill ran down her back. "What was that?" Not just a scream…

"What was what?"

"That - that bloodcurdling howl!" Don't tell me she didn't hear it!

"Bloodcurdling howl…?" the shinigami repeated, and her eyes went wide as it sounded out a second time. She span on her heel toward the call, but not before Ichigo saw the shocked look she sent her.

Almost in answer to the howl, there was a scream from below. Ichigo shot to her feet. "That was Yuzu!" What's going on…? Is the Hollow attacking us? Dashing past the shinigami, she threw open the door, and saw Karin, lying on her stomach and dragging herself forward.

She saw red, and it wasn't just the fury building, fury at this "Hollow" thing, even at the shinigami - couldn't she have destroyed it earlier instead of being an annoying bitch? There was blood running down from her temple, and a thin spotty line of blood traced her path down the hall.

Karin looked up and gave a strained smile upon seeing Ichigo. "Good," she whispered. "It hasn't come this way yet… Dad's back exploded and he fell… Then it went for me and Yuzu… so fast…" Her eyes slipped closed, but Ichigo heard her last words before she slipped into unconsciousness. "I thought I had to warn… Ichigo…."

"She is okay," the shinigami assured quickly. "She is not dead. You stay here; I will deal with the Hollow."

Stay here?

Ichigo's fist clenched.

Fuck no.

She span on her heel, racing after the shinigami.

And so fell the sword of fate.

Ichigo felt it before she saw it. An overwhelming emptiness, a boundless vacuum, and so cold… something about it made her instincts scream at her to run, that this was a predator. The she turned the corner, skidding to a stop as she caught sight of a huge, hulking monkey-like figure with a bone-white skull-like mask.

"I told you to stay out of this!" yelled the shinigami, dodging the monster's fist. She apparently wasn't having an easy time, since she was heavily favoring one leg and it looked like the monster had tried to make a meal out of her right side.

Is that… the Hollow? Ichigo wondered, not really registering the shinigami's shout. When she said evil spirit, I thought it'd be human - but it's a monster… She looked down suddenly at her hands, which were trembling. Why am I… shaking? I'm not scared.

.Am I?

"Move!"

Jolted to the present, Ichigo barely had the time to register that the Hollow had abandoned the shinigami and was charging her, gaping mouth open wide, before years of instinct ingrained by martial arts flooded into her mind, overpowering whatever held her still. She dodged to the left, rebounding off the monster's hand, and brought her body up, aiming for the neck.

But the Hollow's other arm swung around, and the kick didn't have a chance to connect before Ichigo was thrust away and through the wall. Landing roughly on her back, she nonetheless stumbled to her feet, baring her teeth in a snarl that made the shinigami take a step back.

"…Ichigo?" came a nearly inaudible mumble from behind the dark haired girl.

"Yuzu?"

The shinigami shook her head. "She is unconscious."

"Ichigo, run… don't let it get you…"

Both of them. Karin and Yuzu, worrying about me when they were in danger… Something in Ichigo's gut twisted painfully at the thought. "You were protecting her, weren't you."

"I was nearly too late," she admitted, her dark eyes flickering to her mauled side.

"What'd it do to you?"

"Hollows eat souls…," the shinigami explained, slipping to the ground. "Preferably those with high reiatsu, spirit energy. Your family… your father excepted… have very high amounts of reiatsu, for humans." An inscrutable look crossed her face.

It tried to… eat her? Ichigo tensed, feeling the empty chill of the Hollow at the edge of her senses and approaching. Eat Yuzu? Eat Karin? Dad? Hell, even the shinigami… It may have been an exercise in futility, but she nonetheless stepped back into form. It'll have to eat me first, and I fucking well know I won't agree with it. Strawberry, my ass.

"What would you do… to save your family?"

Ichigo snapped her eyes down to the shinigami, who had switched her katana to her left hand. "Anything," she said firmly. It was true. It was the least she could do. "As corny as it sounds, shinigami, I've never feared death. Pain is just an obstacle to overcome. But if I were to lose Karin or Yuzu or Dad… that would be a failure I could never forgive myself for." Because, then, my life would mean nothing. "Why?"

"Because there is a way," the shinigami began, voice growing stronger as she continued. "You must become a shinigami!"

Well, Ichigo hadn't expected that. She's was fairly sure it showed on her face. "That's possible?"

"It is!" She raised the sword, her left arm showing some strain. Not ambidextrous, obviously. "Place the point of the zanpakuto at your heart - and I will infuse you with half of my power. You will temporarily have the power of a shinigami, and with that can you defeat the Hollow!"

At your heart? Ichigo had a feeling she knew why the shinigami had asked that question now. Either it could fail and she'd die, or she could drop dead once the "shinigami power" left her.

She didn't care. Yuzu and Karin would be okay. And Dad, because even if he was annoying as hell, she didn't want him to be eaten either. She had not been grandstanding when she said she did not fear death.

"Alright, shinigami," said Ichigo, grabbing the blade of the katana - though she'd called it a zanpakuto. "We'll try this plan of yours."

"It's not shinigami," the girl corrected, smiling slightly. "My name is Kuchiki Rukia."

"Kurosaki Ichigo," she returned. "Let's pray our next meeting is under better circumstances."

The Hollow let loose its howl again, appearing in the hole it had created in the wall, and they both grew serious.

"Yes. Let's." And with that, shinigami Kuchiki Rukia thrust her blade through Ichigo's heart.

For Ichigo, it felt as though she'd been frozen from the inside out, like her blood had been replaced by ice so cold it burned as it pumped through her veins. It radiated from her heart, from the point of the zanpakuto, seeking release through her skin.

A second later it was over, and she was standing in front of the Hollow, the lingering fear and instinct to run utterly silenced. Her body felt strangely light, a contrast to the comforting, if unfamiliar, weight on her back. She reached back, grasped the hilt, and swept the sword - no, the zanpakuto - out in front of her, marveling but somehow unsurprised at its size.

Ichigo looked up at the Hollow where it stood a few paces away and examining the new threat.

"Bastard. Dad, Karin, and Yuzu… you hurt them all."

The Hollow lashed out with a hand and lost that hand.

"I really don't like it when my family gets hurt. It pisses me off."

The same followed with its foot.

"And pissing me off is never a good thing!"

As the Hollow fell forward, unable to balance on one foot, Ichigo brought the blade straight down through its masked face, and blinked in shock as the monster's body began to fragment and dissolve until there was nothing left.

"Ha." Ichigo fell to her knees as exhaustion like she had never known overcame her. "'cause when you piss me off," she concluded, her vision going black, "things get messy."


End first chapter, in which things are altogether too much like canon.