Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, or the characters.
Author's Notes: There has been a disturbing lack of IchiRuki lately – I needed to write this.
Enjoy, and see you at the bottom (if you make it to the bottom -.- ).
Edit: I think I'm taking the suggestion 'Don't be afraid to rewrite', a liiiiitle bit too far. Oh well. It's all in the name of a better read.
It was a town where paths diverged or joined – the Vagrant term was a Crossroads, and its name was Loft.
She had 'The Wanderer' stuck in her head, and the horse seemed to like the tune – his tail swished in time with her humming.
"Alright," she sighed, adjusting the rim of her white hat. "This is it."
The horse turned to stare at her questioningly.
"The town gate." She explained, tightening his saddle and making sure her gear was secured.
The horse examined the gates carefully. and tossed his head. He supposed you could call it that.
It was little more than three poles nailed together to form a rectangle, the ground as the base. The wood was sun-washed and full of cracks, but since everyone else called them town gates he supposed that was what they were.
She laughed. "It…doesn't look like much, does it?" She looked to the gates wistfully. "…But town gates are deceptive."
In a smooth, practiced motion, she saddled up, hooking her foot into the stirrup and swinging into the saddle.
"...Work before play." Her features became harder as her oft-said motto rolled around her psyche. Being in Buirin was just a bonus. She pressed with her knees and her horse turned south.
As she rode out, he rode in.
He was just another wanderer. His cloak was tattered at the edges, though someone might have recognized the large gold badge as the Shihouin Crest – if it wasn't so scratched and dull.
No one paid him any attention usually, he was just another wanderer.
He pulled the rim of his hat so the shade would hide his eyes. 'Just another wanderer. I'm just another wanderer.' As was his habit, he tried to will everyone around him to believe it.
It wasn't true, of course.
"Excuse me! You there!" Shouted a voice taut with tension, and three men were running to him, their boots thumping hard on the ground.
His gaze cocked to the right in a sharp glance, a tightening of muscles - none of them carried weapons, none visible anyway…he kept riding.
He tugged the high collar of the cloak down irritably. I don't have the time!
Reaching out to his right-shoulder, his knuckles whitened upon a handle - on his cloaked back there lay what looked like a broadsword wrapped in cloth.
They caught up, their bodies flagging with the effort. "P…please—!" One panted, as the others caught their breath. "…You must help us! We've been robbed! All our savings and—"
You don't have the time.
"-and you've been the only person to come in for days!"
He sighed, turning around. "…Yeah?" Ichigo asked, with an expression that was part fury and part exasperation. "If that's the case, what do the hell you guys expect me to do?"
Dead on Time
"It was a long time ago...but there was someone known as The God of Death."
The Wall had been here since forever, and it's high, isolating peaks had only one break in them - the large hammer like rock formation called Buirin's Arc.
Ichigo would have called it The Wave, but he didn't need someone to tell him his naming sense was off.
That's what it looked like anyway! Like someone had turned the ground to liquid, and then dashed it up, leaving it to freeze again in mid-splash.
Gods, it was so hot.
And that was probably what had happened. What the hell did truth matter when it came to the Lost Age?
Kurosaki Ichigo wiped his forehead free of sweat.
Somewhere, high above, a bird cried out annoyingly, its high-pitched screech grating on his nerves.
Heat was something you had to deal with in the desert, and Ichigo really liked to think he knew that better than some.
"I…am not crazy," he spat.
A firm voice spoke up from beside him. "Insanity is a matter of perspective."
Desperate to escape the heat, he ignored the smartass on his right and tried a trick a lady had taught him a few years back.
Erasing all frustration, he tried to cool himself down with sheer willpower, letting the oppressive heat wash over him and away from him. He concentrated on the desert, the empty silence, interrupted only by the occasional blast of wind and the rattle of the sand and—
—and the bird cried again and popped his bubble of serenity with the grace of a two-year old handling a balloon. He snapped his gaze up with the intention of shooting it down and frying it on a boulder.
"It would be possible, yes. De-feather it first though." Zangtesu frowned. "But I'm quite sure you've had Craven before."
Ichigo gazed at his ghost/partner/friend flatly, and Zangetsu gazed back, his face equally impassive, the only difference being the sweat and dirt on Ichigo's face.
The orange-haired young man stifled the choice words that sprang to his mind. Shouting would make it hotter, he decided tiredly.
"Yes. Studies have shown stress resulting from an argument causes body temperature to increase."
Ichigo glared at him venomously.
"And I would insist," Zangetsu continued. "That you stop being so vulgar about my mother."
Zangetsu sometimes looked to Ichigo like one of the actors he had seen in the circus. These people would hold so perfectly still, you could have sworn they were painted mannequins until they spoke. Well, Zangetsu took the painted-mannequin act one step further. His hair and coat-tails seemed to have been frozen just as the wind had whipped them up.
Ichigo would love to see anyone at the circus try and do that.
…Selling Zangetsu to the circus though, would be impossible, since no one could see him but himself.
"…I'm not crazy, or stupid," the cloak-clad young man muttered irritably. "Since I'm neither, I'd like to know what the fuck we're doing out here, at noon."
"But you know," Zangetsu replied. "And it is totally your fault."
"…Tch." Ichigo settled back into his horse.
"Why do always act surprised when things like this happen? If it is your nature, there is nothing that can be—"
"—Alright!" Ichigo snapped. "...Alright! I get it - now get out, I'll lose sight of the Arc." Zangetsu complied, returning to Ichigo's side.
And so the odd pair rode in silence, moving ever closer to the gigantic rock formation, its backdrop the clear blue sky.
"You feeling anything yet?" He snapped
Zangetsu shielded his vision from the sun, and Ichigo wondered why. The glare was surely no obstacle. "Yes. Actually, I can."
"Ahead. Towards the area Kray described. I'm afraid I can't be sure till we get closer."
Ichigo's fingers crept under his hat and he scratched thoughtfully. "The bandits should be hiding in the canyons past here…at the base to Blue Mountain."
"If that is so, I shall take my leave," He intoned briskly. "You will need whatever strength you can recover from my absence."
Ichigo grunted an affirmative.
He faded away and called out "Watch your back while I'm gone."
He found them in the dying minutes of twilight; their lights had betrayed their position.
Ichigo had climbed to a suitably high location and waited, till the pinpricks came on, like fireflies in the gloom.
The canyons and hills at the base of Blue Mountain was a Mother Nature-made maze of brown rock, and the Blue Mountain Wolves, as they were called, expected the hills they were nestled in to offer adequate cover.
He had picked a good vantage point, the best actually, and that made all the difference. Anywhere else and he would have seen nothing. He sat, reached for his canteen, and gulped a reasonable amount down, biding his time for night to fall.
From the information the townspeople gave, they had probably settled in this area to become a Clan. Ichigo yet to meet a Hunter who would assault a bandit encampment without help, and the Wolves relied on that fact more than the cover the canyon provided.
Finding them was simple - now it was time for the hard part.
The wind picked up, and Ichigo, gazing out into the indigo glow, tugged the collar of his tattered cloak up too.
The camp echoed with song and fire, alcohol and card games; the standard cocktail for the celebration of a successful heist.
He tried counting them idly. Fifty…? Sixty? More were out of view, definitely, as sentries or asleep. He was up against an army, and there was only one of him; two if you counted the bluebird on his back. He could assume they weren't expecting company; again, there wasn't a Hunter alive who would assault a bandit clan without help.
Well, he had the element of surprise at the very least. He could probably shoot the generator, kill the light. Then he could grab the cash, shoot a few of them, and get away in the confusion.
Hmm. He murmured. Catchy.
Shoot, shoot some more, run.
He liked it.
…Must you always insist on such uncouth tactics? Zangetsu cut in wearily.
Ichigo nodded, unfazed by Zangetsu's sudden appearance. Right, he replied. I don't know where they keep the money yet. Once I know that, then I can shoot the generator—
He stopped as he heard a deep, weary sigh echo in his head.
"You have a better one?" Ichigo bit back. "I'm not hearing it."
I had initially planned to give you free reign tonight, but your battle sense has obviously not strengthened since our last encounter.
...Oh really? He snapped heatedly. Why would you say that?
You haven't sensed 'it'.
Ichigo felt his blood freeze. "It?" He breathed.
There. The one in the corner.
The 'it' in question was sporting an almost black cloak and a broad rimmed hat. He had neither food nor drink beside him, and everyone seemed to give him a wide girth. Brown leather gloves rested on faded jeans.
If you concentrate…Zangetsu began, but halted upon sensing the steel in his young charge through the bond.
Ichigo stared hard at the man, who at first glance would seem quite normal, and the air around him…flickered. It was enough. He saw it all; leathery skin, a monstrous arm, and the mask!
That mask with two red soul piercing circles of light.
"A 'Hollow'…" His grip whitened on the straps of his bundle. "…and this time—"
Patience! Zangetsu chastised. You are too brash! You have ridden throughout the day with without rest and I can tell your reserves are—
—A gunshot rang out, sharp and clear as a bell. Someone screamed in pain.
The bandits jumped, and Ichigo followed suit. "I didn't…"
The camp exploded into anarchy. Men jumped to their feet, pulling on masks, jamming on hats, socks, shoes, dropping their cups, and grabbing their weapons…the gunshots continued, four more, and sharp cries of pain followed.
They were under attack. It was unbelievable but it was happening. Curses and confused cries echoed.
Lights were shot out, and amidst the chaos, the Hollow rose from where he was seated. It seemed to tower over everyone else.
Everyone slowed to stop. "Check the sentries," it said. Its voice was like gravel on steel. "And find me the intruders."
Everyone moved at once, like amateur actors who suddenly remembered their lines. To Ichigo they were less than ants on the kitchen floor. All his attention was rooted on what he knew was a Hollow.
One minute, a bandit was running past it, the next minute, it had him by the throat.
Quiet commands were whispered. The young man nodded, the shine of his sweat visible from Ichigo's position.
He was released, and the unfortunate bandit stumbled off in his haste to obey.
Ichigo had understood every word perfectly though he had heard none of the conversation.
"Check on our treasure," he grinned. "Bandits. Ya gotta love 'em."
There aren't many things constant in this world, but a thief's greed is one. Zangetsu comented. …And our surprise benefactors agree.
Ichigo shrugged. "A Hunting Party got past their net in the previous town. It wouldn't be the first time." He traced the unfortunate bandit as he stumbled off. "A bandit's mistake and a gracious gift - it'd be rude to waste both. I'll buy the group leader a drink when I get the reward."
…Into it now, are we? he asked.
"Oh shut up," Ichigo spat, and moved to follow his quarry, hugging the shadows of the cliff shelf.
He didn't notice the rock he had kicked, its path to the camp amidst the chaos, or the intensity of the stare the Hollow had, an intensity pointed in his former hiding place.
Their quarry was easy to follow, but they were running out of ledge space. They would have to move to camp level soon.
At first, Zangetsu did not want to say anything, in fear of setting his young charge off.
Still, in the end, practicality and curiosity won out.
Ichigo, concerning the Hollow… he began, and regretted it as he felt the turmoil of emotions rush through the bond.
Ichigo's countenance darkened as the thrill of competition left him cold. "I can't pass up a chance to secure the loot…but afterwards, I'll take advantage of our surprise benefactor's grace in a very different way."
Zangetsu didn't know whether to praise him for putting the townspeople first, of chastise him for thinking slaying the Hollow would be so straightforward.
Deeper into the canyon lay tents. There were torches fixed into the cliff walls, and their flickering light granted Ichigo some help in tracking his quarry.
He was right. There were about two dozen more emerging from tents, fingering their weapons…but…there was something wrong here, something fundamentally different from past bandit camps he had some across.
The townspeople could demonize them all they want, but bandits turned to this life because of how bad the farming was becoming. Although wells weren't drying up, crops were failing, and no one could figure out why. No amount of Arcadian Magic could return the nutrients to the soil.
And since Arcadia couln't do jack to help them, so they turned to robbing convoys and richer towns.
And so, most Clans looked like villages.
There were clothes hung out to dry, horses in stables, dogs…children…. It was why no one dared attack a bandit camp without a large group of Hunters, and maybe some help from Vanguards just to be sure; they were attacking a person's home, and a person defending a home and family would often fight to the death.
…Ichigo— Zangetsu began.
"—I know, I know. There's something wrong here."
He hesitated. There were many explanations for why the place looked like it did. Maybe this wasn't the main camp. Maybe the 'village' was further in the maze of canyons that lay in at the base of Blue Mountain.
Too many maybes, but he crept down the ledge he was perched on anyway, slowly, making sure to cover his bright hair by pulling his hat down.
His hair was bright enough to warrant attention in this light, but there wouldn't be a problem thanks to his good friend the bluebird.
Incoming. Tent occupant exiting. Zangetsu warned in clipped, tense tones.
At that, Ichigo hugged the wall of the canyon, crouching in the shadow between two tents.
The tent's occupant ran across Ichigo's vision, not paying a second's glance to the shadows he had passed countless times.
With that, Ichigo smirked and moved on, he and Zangetsu falling into a rhythm of commands and movement. Ichigo focused on his immediate surroundings as he continued to his quarry's tent. Zangetsu would be his radar - it was up to Ichigo to spot the appropriate hiding places, and he did so with an eye trained by experience.
It was a tactic that was only possible with complete faith in the other.
Two hostile. Ichigo shuffled into a crevice smoothly and crouched. Two bandits rushed past and he shuffled out.
Three hostiles, exiting tents. He hid behind some crates and waited for the group to move on.
Left tent good. One hostile fast, right corner, and he ducked quickly into the empty tent to his left. A bandit uttered curses about hunger and how bloody late it was. Ichigo waited till he the curses fade away.
The Target has entered the right tent two tents away. Zangetsu reported. Three hostiles in three tents to the left. One in each. No movement detected. Quarry is alone. Move.
Ichigo pushed the tent flap up and strode quickly towards the tent with his quarry. As he did, he gripped the cloth covered handle of Zangetsu. The cloth reacted to his touch and fell away, trailing down into a tassel that stopped at his knees. His gloves were dull beige upon impossibly black steel.
Ichigo passed the tent purposefully, spinning the weapon around, his wrists cracking as he readied for a fight.
Closer. He took longer strides, his heartbeat rising along his quickened pace.
Ichigo gripped Zangetsu hard, and whispered "Turn."
The huge gun glowed and became a slim handgun with a long barrel. The tassel had been transformed into chains. There wasn't a bit of it that wasn't jet-black.
The target is inside, leaning against the right wall!
He cleared the last few strides, and with his left arm pulling the flap open he slid in smoothly. The arm aiming Zangetsu extended and—
Ichigo was suddenly staring down the barrel of a gun, and instinctively jerked back to point Zangetsu at the head of the gun's owner. His finger twitched on the tigger—!
"A kid?" Three voices asked; Ichigo's, Zangetsu's and the young girl with the gun.
He recovered as best he could, studying the young girl from head to foot. "…You seem a little young to be handling a gun like that," he said tauntingly, moving slowly to the left, inching closer as nonchalantly as he could. Oi! He asked. Are we in the wrong tent? This ain't the damn guy.
Zangetsu was so confused Ichigo could feel it through the bond. It was usually only open one-way.
"Young?" the girl echoed. "I'd say the same to you, child. You do know you're moving in on another Hunter's game?"
Hunter? Zangetsu echoed.
"Child?!" Ichigo snapped back. He quickly tapered the volume of his words. "…Just who the hell are you calling—"
A groan sounded to the side, and the two gunslingers reflexively pointed their barrels at it. Ichigo's bandit lay comatose against the tent with a large and conspicuous lump.
Ichigo's eyebrows shot up. "Hey, that's my quarry."
The girl's dark blue eyes narrowed at that, and swiftly moved the barrel back to his face as he spoke. Ichigo did the same.
"Your quarry? I'm afraid he was mine."
Ichigo's lips tugged into a feral grin at this. "Okay kid, let's say you're a Hunter. I don't hear any of your friends, so I think that you should put your weapon down and let—"
"First," she said, and her voice was rather husky. Ichigo imagined she was angry. "I came here alone."
He cocked an eyebrow. Alone? No way. She was either crazy or stupid. Or both. His scowl deepened - he liked to keep clear of either minority.
"Second," the girl continued, "I have a faster trigger finger than you." Ichigo's felt his ire rise. He could probably shoot her first and punch a hole through the wall behind this little—
Ichigo—! Zangetsu cried.
A dagger flashed into her hand as she pivoted towards him.
Ichigo blinked, she had closed the distance, the dagger in her left hand and as she spun she warded off his long barreled gun with her own.
He barely had time to stop the knife's path - the edge of his palm met her wrist solidly. A split second after contact, he moved seamlessly from a block to a grip, twisting her wrist down tightly until she dropped the knife.
Golden-brown glared into an angry blue as she said, "My name's not 'kid'; it's Rukia."
She's pretty good. Zangetsu muttered.
And why didn't you warn me earlier? He snarled in reply. Silence greeted him.
…I could not read her. Cannot read her. It would seem she is masking her lifeforce.
He studied her fully, her gaze never wavered. "Drop the gun," he said calmly.
"No, I think you should," she suggested. "This fight was decided the moment you walked in."
Her gun is muffled.
"I can see that!" Ichigo snapped aloud, and regretted it when he watched her eyebrows rise fractionally. He felt oddly uncomfortable now.
"Then you can start by letting me go," she said, gesturing to her wrist.
Ichigo snarled mentally at his partner. You could muffle the shot if you wanted to!
...You're planning on shooting her?
"Hello?" She asked, cutting in. "Let me go?"
"…Yeah, all right." Ichigo grunted, lowering his weapon to point to the floor, and then he threw her to the side, striding past her as nonchalantly as possible.
"You—!" Rukia exclaimed, too unbalanced to make an effort to impose herself between him and the bandit's ill-gotten loot. "…Just what do you think you're doing? We'll talk," She recovered and moved to his side, her gun pointed at his head. "Not divide the loot!"
"You can keep the damn loot." Ichigo snapped back irritably.
Stop sulking, Zangetsu chided.
Ichigo opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut again.
Dropping to one knee, he rummaged around the chests as Rukia looked on irritably.
Inside lay various jewels, bags of gold and silver coins, he shoved them all aside until — He spotted it; a crystal shaped like a prism, coloured gold like the sands of the Great Desert. Is this it? Ichigo asked, careful not to voice his thoughts. He thumbed the image of the flame that was stamped into it.
It must be. It seems vaguely familiar. He replied. Ichigo touched it and suddenly—
Fire. Heat. It burned him choked him brought tears to his eyes his skin was on fire and—
He wretched himself out of it with a snarl, dropping the stone like it was hot. "It…"
Are you all right?! Zangetsu asked anxiously. The bond! I felt…
"I'm fine," he murmured, picking up the stone gingerly. Nothing more happened, but it felt warm to the touch. He thumbed the flame stamp again. More importantly, did you remember anything?
No. Zangetsu sighed. Whereas the previous stones had some sort of an effect, this one did nothing. Anyway, the bond! I felt some kind of—
Wait! Ichigo cried as he suddenly remembered he had company. She was watching him with a closed, thoughtful expression on her face. "So," she said, deciding that it was okay to holster her gun. "What's that? It looks like a Soul Stone, but…"
Ichigo shrugged. "Not sure." He got up. "All I know is I had to get it back." He started to stride past her. "You seem to think you're capable enough. I'll leave it to you to get everything else back to the townspeople."
Ichigo… Zangetsu muttered warningly.
Rukia raised a hand. "Wait," she said. "Unfortunately, I won't be able to sneak all this out in two trips."
Ichigo halted. "So?" He asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.
"We'll divide the reward between us, seventy-thirty, if you help me out." She stuck out her hand. "Fair?"
Ichigo stared at the hand. "Nah, you'll be fine," he said trying to stride away.
Ichigo! Zangetsu admonished.
"Very well then," she said, calling for him to stop. Her teeth grit against each other as she struggled to maintain a smile. "Sixty-forty. Though I think it a bit unfair, since I let you keep that Stone."
Ichigo glanced at her for a heartbeat, and then made to move. "I'm sure you'll be fine, hunter-girl. Good luck."
Ichigo! Zangetsu exclaimed. She—
Rukia kicked Ichigo's shin.
"Okay listen up!" She hissed as he bent over. "I'm feeling generous tonight, so what I'll do is; I won't hit you again if you carry half the bags! And I'll spilt the reward fifty-fifty. Deal?"
Ichigo glared at her angrily, rubbing a spot he was sure would bruise. What the hell! Those soles must be stuffed with ROCKS.
Ichigo. Zangetsu sighed. Just take the bags.
"Yeah fine!" He snapped, more to Zangetsu than to Rukia.
"Thank you." She said.
He felt a vein tick somewhere on his forehead, and had to reply - "I'm only doing this because it's obvious you're too small to carry it all."
Rukia's foot twitched towards him but instead of kicking him again, she looked up and beamed a smile too sweet to be real. "Okay," she said. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Good," he muttered, nodding hesitantly as he hefted a bag.
Resisting the strange urge to watch her face for any signs of treachery, he pushed aside the tent flap—
ICHIGO!— Zangetsu warned, but it was too late.
He found himself face to face with the bandits, and their tall, imposing leader.
Orihime set her cards in the earth-deity pattern. Sora had taught her a better one, rather, she knew she should be using it, but it didn't seem right just yet.
The candle-light flared, and cast everything in shades of blue.
No. This would not do. Her heart, unfocused, would ruin her understanding. She emptied her mind, removing all but the sight of the candle flame.
She wiped at her eyes. "There." She whispered. Now that she had succeeded in cleansing her heart, she whispered the ancient chant, her fingers dancing among the cards now, flipping them up in smooth practiced motions. "I Invoke the Voice. Heard by the Mind, understood by the Heart - let the Cards speak."
The candle brightened, the faces revealed. Her gaze was drawn to two cards, each dominated by an intricate painting of a skeleton in black robes and cowl - Death Parvulus, Death Custodis, two of the three cards of Death within her eighty card deck.
Suddenly breathless, she brushed her index finger against the painted images to feel for a flash of insight. Tearing her gaze away from the twins and scanning the rest of the pattern—
She had seen this reading before.
She had to clam herself down, she was getting ahead of herself. After another breathing exercise, she pushed back the cowl of her hood, as she bent over to study the rest of the Cards for answers.
The candle flared again, and cast the top-most card, the signifier, the standard by which the entire pattern must be construed, into shadow.
– It was labeled 'The World'.
Dead on Time OMAKE aka a fancy name for author's notes and so clearly within the guidelines set by ffnet -eye-roll-
-Throws confetti into the air- Congrats! You made it past my retarded prose to the end of Chapter 1!
Tsuzuku means 'to be continued'. You can find it at the end of a lot of old j-dramas and anime.
Also, I just remembered that I used it cause syaoran-no-hime used it to end her chapters. She's a legend (and one of my idols). Go read now!