Disclaimer! I don't own Bleach!

And Chapter 3 up XD

Dead on Time
75 percent/00:20:00
Crossed Roads 3

He wanted to open his eyes, and failing that, brushed his numb hands around against the surprisingly soft bed sheets. They smelt like sun. It was very odd because he swore he was underwater.

And he was only underwater when he dreamed.

And that was baaaad, he thought hazily. An attempt to lift his head ended in it rolling to the side uselessly.

Everything was slow. He wanted to move his finger, and it took a minute. He croaked - his throat ached like he had eaten sand.

He decided he might be having a fever.

Don't fuck with me!

He wanted to open his eyes. Would he be at the River?

And it was all a dream. Ha.

Zangetsu. He called.

The ensuing silence that greeted him was more solid than any blow he had been dealt in his life.

Zangetsu…?

Gone. Lost.

It was possible, his fever wracked brain reasoned. Whoever had brought him here could have left the gun where he had fallen, and Ichigo felt the panic he kept at bay hit him like a bucket of ice water.

Don't. He tried again, weaker. I'm so close.

He forced his hands to move and search around, feeling for the gun's smooth, cool black steel. He felt the urge to call Zangetsu's name out-loud grow in his belly and die in his aching throat.

Three years ago, Zangetsu would appear a little after breakfast - well-rested and with food in his belly he was up to the task of producing a corporal image. The memories calmed him down a little somewhat.

His thoughts erupted like a geyser. But he's not here now and Death is waiting he could be in this town he could be killing someone he could be here find him catch him kill him-

Ichigo tried to shake his head, but it was too heavy, too leaden. "No," he mumbled instead. "Answers. Just answers. I just want answers."

The voice quieted, and he felt oblivion coming again.

My limit eh?

Cool hands pressed against his fever-flushed skin as he blacked out. He noted that he'd been taken in again.

...How pathetic.

--

"Hey Boss."

Seven looked up to see Johnny. He patted the kid he had been consoling (the one Rukia had used as a human shield) and sent him on his way. "Yeah? What is it Johnny?"

John (or Johnny, as what he went by) was a good guy by Seven's book. Always around when you needed him, always ready to lend a hand.

"What do I do with the body?" Johnny asked, pointing to the still steaming, headless corpse of the Hollow.

Seven considered it for a moment. "Take it out back, and burn it."

Johnny nodded. "Got it." He was just glad to be rid of it. He smoothed his lank hair back. Everyone else didn't even want to touch it, but Johnny felt the faster they got rid of it the better.

In fact, he'd rather be the one to get rid of it than stand another minute looking at it.

"Hey, Claude!" He called out, after having a quick exercise in futility. The thing was heavy. "Help me out with this!"

--

The second time he reached consciousness enough to think, he tried to rise, and failed miserably. What he did manage to do was crack his eyes open. The light made him squint, but even as he adjusted to it, no amount of blinking would make the images sharpen. He closed them again when he felt a sharp pain behind his eyes.

He was on the verge of slipping back when a hand touched his shoulder, and helped him up. A cup was placed to his lips. He drank.

Who was it?

Foes could use gentle hands to reach your neck and strangle you, just as friends could use rough hands to hold you down and dress your wounds.

He was too thirsty to protest. He finished the cup, coughing; he had drunk too fast.

When he didn't die of poison, he relaxed.

Poison.

Snake…poison…he struggled again, a twitch upwards, a knee-jerk reaction to danger. The hands pushed him down.

--

He flitted, in and out of consciousness, and he would dream, and most of them were pretty fucked up.

Like how his mother would call him over after he had gone swimming. He wasn't at The River though.

He turned around. Yup. No River.

But he had only gone swimming at The River.

The paradox made him frown, but he shrugged it off and ran into the open towel his mom was holding up for him.

It was already wet.

When he looked up, she was more than soaked to the bone - it seemed water was oozing out of her pores, dripping from her eyes, pouring out of her mouth when she opened it to say—

--

And then one morning, he cracked an eye open to see Zangetsu, in all his wind-swept glory, gazing down at him.

"Yo."

"How are you feeling?" He asked quietly.

"Pretty good," Ichigo replied, trying to sit up, and succeeding somewhat. "Let's go."

Zangetsu's eyebrow went up by a millimetre, and then he watched Ichigo try to stand-

…only to collapse with a gasp. He lay there, glaring at the ceiling. "…So who'd I get taken in by this time?" he asked.

The silence between them stretched on, and he felt the need to break it grow.

…But he couldn't. What could he say? Memories of the verbal lashing the spirit had had given him were still fresh. It had been much too raw to have been simply an effort to keep him awake.

And the most horrible thing is that maybe he deserved some of the things he had said.

Ichigo looked for a window. He wondered what day it was. How long had he been out?

"It is Fir-day."

Ichigo jumped at the prompt answer, and then chastised himself. Zangetsu could read his mind, he knew that. He settled on a window, but the curtains were drawn and the light streamed forth from a crack.

Then what Zangetsu said hit him. Fir-day! "You saying I've been out since the night before?!" He shifted his gaze to the spectre speechlessly. He felt the rush of seeing Zangetsu again, of getting his sight again, drain from him, to be replaced by frustration like he had never felt before. He clenched his fist angrily. "Dammit…!" He cursed. "I was so-

"Ichigo." Zangetsu began. "You listen."

Ichigo shut his mouth. And now that Zangetsu had his young charge's attention, he wondered what to do.

He closed his eyes.

"It will only get harder from here," he said. "I need you to realize that what you did the other night was what led us to here."

Ichigo only said - "We were close," but his mind was a tornado of thoughts. So close I could feel him. So close I could imagine grabbing him by his shadow-shroud and demanding he uncover his face. So close I could taste Karakura again—!

"Yes, we were. But you will not catch him if you are dead."

Ichigo shrugged, going back to the window. "I—"

"—Last night would have made it three years, would it have not?"

Ichigo did not answer, but Zangetsu didn't need him to.

"I will let you rest. You have yet to recover fully." Zangetsu turned away, painfully. He couldn't be anything but the mirage on the horizon for this young man.

Ichigo was alone again, to stare at his hands.

Inertia settled over him like a cold, wet, suffocating blanket, and he clenched his fists.

"Tch!" He clucked through grit teeth, and settled in to sleep again. Even if it took the rest of his life...he would catch him. "Something like this is nothing."

He lied to himself, that his core had not been shaken by this failure, and it seemed to work for now.

The door opened.

Rukia finished the apple she was eating and set the groceries on the floor. Studying the bed's occupant, her blue eyes unreadable, she tossed the apple core into a wastebasket.

--

"God-DAM!" Claude swore heartily, arching his back. "This be heavy."

Johnny nodded. "See! I told you so!" He said irritably, but no less bushed.

They had resorted to dragging it by the feet. They didn't get very far.

They both stared at the still headless, still steaming corpse.

"Wheelbarrow," They both said at once, slapping their foreheads.

--

When Ichigo next awoke, the first thing he saw was the crystal clear vision of a plate of cut apples.

"The doctor said you'd wake up today."

He spun around, his hands searching for his gun instinctively. He couldn't find it. "Zangetsu!"

"Zangetsu?" The voice asked. "Is that what this is called? It's rather different from the other night."

Ichigo's eyes widened comically when his gaze fell on her. He opened and closed his mouth a few times.

The girl!

The crazy bitch!

That's my gun!

He settled on "YOU!"

Rukia sighed disdainfully. "…That's exactly what I expected you to say," she said, setting the gun on the table in front of her.

…If it could be called a gun. From a distance, anyone would mistake it for a broadsword. The barrel itself was almost as long as she was tall, and definitely thinker than her forearm. Symbols were etched into silver and black. There was no stock, just a handle that was two fists in length.

She frowned down at it. Was the user supposed to shoot with this or club people to death? Despite how uncouth it looked…there was…a certain…'elegance' about it.

Ichigo didn't really have time that night to study her, but he had now. She wasn't child-like. She was petite. Strands of raven-black hair fell across her face, and her eyes - blue - held the glint of an easy confidence. No, she wasn't a child, a voice muttered somewhere in his brain. He checked to see if that voice was Zangetsu. It wasn't – and that made him feel relieved, deeply afraid and…a mess of other things.

He closed his mouth. "...What are you doing in here." He muttered, turning away.

"This is my room?" She said pointedly. "I rented it?"

"So you sav-" He scowled. "You picked me up?"

She considered him for a moment, and then smiled. "Hmm. I suppose. But only after I robbed you."

"—You did what?!"

--

"Whew." Johnny panted. "Okay. You think this is far enough?"

Claude nodded, turning back to Blue Mountain to see if he could catch a glimpse of the camp. "Yea. I think so."

Johnny sighed. "Great. Let's set this bitch on fire so we can get back. It's bloody cold and honestly…" he trailed off, listening carefully. "I'm getting the creeps. It's totally quiet out here."

Claude scoffed, striking a match. There was a spark, but it wouldn't light up. "You puss. Have some backbone."

Johnny spat. "Puss? Backbone? You pond-scum!"

"…What the hell you say?"

--

"And the bruises?" He asked.

"Oh. That happened when you fell off the horse I tied you to." She popped an apple piece into her mouth. "You were dragged behind for a while before she took pity on you and stopped."

Ichigo slapped his palm to his face. "…."

Rukia frowned, a little miffed. "Well yes, you're welcome."

"I should be thanking the HORSE right?"

"I could have left you."

"I gave you enough of a thanks didn't I?" He demanded. "In the form of MY half of the reward!?"

"…True…" Rukia shrugged. "Still, a simple, 'thanks for saving my life' would be nice."

Ichigo ground his teeth, and took deep breathes. "You know…you really—"

"—Anyway." She said, cutting in and getting up. "I'm going for a walk. Probably going to hit the tavern." She cinched her belt to her waist. "You might want to talk to the doctor later. He'll probably be able to tell you why your brain can't process gratitude, even if he couldn't tell how a person sleeping in a ditch the whole night could catch a fever and fall into a coma."

Ichigo was still trying to deal with '—going to hit the tavern' when she closed the door. He finally shook himself out of his stupor. "HEY! ARE YOU SAYING I HAVE BRAIN DAMAGE?"

--

"I called you pond scum." Johnny said irritably. "Got a problem?"

Claude spat his cigarette out. "Yea I do! I was jus' joking, bastard!"

"Oh sorry! I didn't think being callously talked to like that is joke material! See here, I called you pond scum, and I meant it. I mean if I called your mum a whore would you take that a joke then? I wouldn't! I honestly can't tell why—" Johnny paused. "What are you looking at?" He asked, turning around.

It was all teeth. Rows of teeth. Rows behind rows of teeth.

Sticky strings of drool dripped to the floor, and a hungry rumble issued from the blackness.

Johnny screamed.

--

"What?!" He demanded of Zangetsu.

I may not know much about inter-human relationships, but I'm quite sure you are being extremely rude.

Ichigo frowned defensively. "...She robbed me!"

But she has saved your life twice, and you've insulted her rather badly for it.

Ichigo turned away, gazing at the bowl of apples. "…She should've gotten in the tent."

Zangetsu sighed. You're too dependant on The War-Seeker. So far, you've been both lucky and quick. You have no idea just how bad the situation was that night. I can only feed so much information into you before it sends you into a coma. Zangetsu narrowed his gaze. But you seem to have no problem slipping into one on your own—

"—What are you saying?" Ichigo broke in.

I am saying you wouldn't have made it to the Hollow if I hadn't depended on her to watch your back.

Ichigo didn't respond, choosing instead to glare at the door.

Zangetsu sighed. All he detected in the bond was obstinacy. "I take it you don't remember her name?"

Ichigo scoffed picking up an apple slice. "How could I forget? She told it to me when she tried to stab me."

Zangetsu's eyebrows went up. "You don't normally remember, you know."

"Yeah, well I do." He muttered, turning the slice over in his hands before consuming it. "Her name was—"

--

Rukia was on her way to a tavern for information and some food, when a sound like a building collapsing caught her attention.

She turned around, walking in the direction of the crash. People might be in need of rescue, she reasoned. She had never helped save a person from a collapsing building before.

Still, as she walked towards it, she noticed something a bit odd. First of all, it seemed that she was retracing her steps.

Hmm, she thought.

It was coming…

She started walking faster…

…from…

…and then she broke into a run…

…the direction…

She started sprinting and un-holstered Shirayuki—

—of where the inn was!

--

Drool dripped onto his thigh, and he winced when he saw his skin turn red and hiss. "You bug." It grated out, slamming Ichigo against the headboard of his bed. "You insect!" It said, drawing out the insult. "Do you know what I am!?" It asked, lifting him and tossing him into the wall. It splintered. Ichigo tried to rise but it had him by the throat again and pinned him to the wall.

"You dare compare me a Hollow?! I am a Duke of Eligor!"

It squeezed and Ichigo eyes widened. He glanced to his left desperately, but could barely even see the table where Zangetsu lay. "AND YOU DARE TO PRESUME THAT YOU CAN KILL ME?" It asked, slamming him against the wall. "That you can interrupt a soul harvest I have been preparing since last winter?" He was slammed again. "I will drag your broken body to hell and make you my plaything!"

He kicked feebly at the Hollow's iron stomach. It watched, with a wide, sadistic grin, full of teeth. "And then you will learn why my kind and I are called 'Nightmares.' "

Ichigo! Zangetsu called. Listen carefully - you are the gun's master. It will respond to your call. Focus and call it into your hand.

Ichigo smiled, and The Hollow, irritated that the fear had left his plaything's face, stabbed a clawed hand into his side. Ichigo screamed but there was no sound, just a hoarse wheeze.

You're kidding right?!

It didn't call out to you that night in Karakura! He exploded. You called out to it - I want none of this disbelief, the gun will not come!

Ichigo felt he was in no position to argue. "Zangetsu." He croaked out, opening his palm.

The Hollow…no, it called itself a 'Nightmare'…the Nightmare paused in mid–squeeze. "What did you say?"

Ichigo ignored him. Zangetsu! He tried again.

The Nightmare shook it off and prepared to watch The War-Seekers of this insolent boy pop—

A baby wailed into the night.

It cocked its monstrous head towards it, its teeth forming a grin-

Ichigo's vision went red, like someone had poured blood over his eyes. "…I know what you're thinking!" he hissed. "YOU…SICK…FUCK!!" Lifting his body up and kicking the Nightmare in the teeth, he loosened the grip by a fraction as it rumbled its displeasure.

"ZANGETSU!" he roared, and his fingers closed on cool metal. He plugged the barrel into the middle of the Nightmare's stomach.

The Nightmare jumped to the right, and howled when a chunk of its side was blown away. It stumbled and rolled to its feet, clutching its side.

Ichigo got up, feeling Zangetsu pour strength into his battered body. Keeping his barrel trained on the Nightmare he sauntered to where his clothes lay across the room. When the Nightmare twitched in his direction, he fired at its foot in reply.

It howled with rage, backing off.

Insultingly uninterested, Ichigo continued his circle, coming to a stop in front of a chair which held his tanned cloak. He threw it over his shirtless shoulders, and directed a cocky gaze at the monster that, up until barely a minute ago, was quite sure it had the upper hand.

--

Rukia stumbled to a halt right in front of the inn, which was now sporting a rather large hole. A muscle near her eye twitched.

…That was their room.

--

Ichigo dodged a bone-crushing smash nimbly. He guessed his augmented speed was getting him a little high.

"Not bad," he taunted, tucking and rolling back into a run. Dashing towards the hills and the forests to the south of the town's borders.

Concentrate Ichigo. Zangetsu chastised. I'm not even sure how this ability works…

Ichigo shrugged, still grinning. What's there to worry about? Whatever it's called, I feel like I could run up walls!

He slowed, making sure his cat and mouse game didn't end too quickly, but the Nightmare was keeping up, with uncanny agility for such an imbalanced frame.

There could be penalties! It's reckless to assume that you'd be given such abilities without an appropriate price! Think! Everything has been given to you at a price – The War-Seeker, the gun, the—

Zangetsu didn't finish his sentence, instead forcefully synchronizing his memory with Ichigo.

Ichigo almost stumbled at the level of disorientation, but he recovered just in time to leap forward in a flying lariat, barely dodging a roaring tackle from the side. The Nightmare's claws ripped into a tree, shredding the trunk. It fell.

Ichigo rolled, standing up and panting. The town was far enough away. The Nightmare approached, rolling its shoulders.

The game was over. A new one had begun.

He wouldn't put his gun down until the enemy was dead.

--

It wasn't difficult to follow them. Rukia just had to follow the trail of destruction. What she cursed though, was their speed. She was going deep and deeper into the forest, and still couldn't see or hear them!

"Faster!" She begged, pushing the horse through the newly blazed trail.

--

Zangetsu was right about the augmentation, Ichigo thought, as he blocked claws with black steel; there was a definite downside. After using it in conjunction with the War-Seeker, Ichigo gained the upper hand for a bit, but eventually, he could feel its effect flag…and his muscles screamed bloody murder as its crutch left them.

What was especially disheartening was that the hole in the Nightmare's side had almost sealed up.

Never mind, he thought grimly, he had added a few more—!

Claws raked against black steel.

...But it was unnatural. The speed was unnatural! Visualconfirmation-aim-shoot/the bullet leaves at 0.3/travels at 1000fps-

Shut it up! He roared at Zangetsu. I don't need to know this!

I can't!

It didn't matter how many times he shot it, the Nightmare just roared its displeasure, and continued the attack.

Ichigo parried the claw with the barrel of his gun, and then put some distance between them, gritting his teeth. He barely dodged a return swipe meant to disembowel him. Doesn't this thing have organs?! Recovering his balance easily he took the open shot.

But the Nightmare had thrown an angry, left-clawed uppercut that whacked the barrel up - the shot rang into the night sky. Ichigo twisted around; he spun on his right foot, bringing his left into a roundhouse kick that was grabbed by the Nightmares right claw. Zangetsu came down and Ichigo lined up a shot smoothly. The Nightmare abandoned its catch – it wasn't confident enough to take a shot point-blank.

On and on they danced, and Ichigo fought desperately, pulling everything he thought might work - but his bullets weren't hitting as hard anymore, and the Nightmare had started to notice. What used to tear through its thick skin was now getting lodged.

Suddenly they found themselves staring at each other, panting, the Nightmare breathing like a bear, but standing a little straighter and firmer than him.

And Ichigo knew he was a dead man.

If you're wondering why it's become a little more difficult to move, I've cut you off from the Acceleration ability and put more into the gun…but soon your reserves will be empty.

Ichigo blinked a mixture of sweat and blood away …And the bullets will be normal.

Exactly, Zangetsu replied.

Suggestions? Ichigo asked, circling his opponent warily.

Is putting all your reserves into Acceleration and running acceptable?

No, he replied, hatred of his opponent filling his mind, tightening his muscles—

Then…everything into the gun. You have one shot to incinerate him. Then it will draw on your Time.

Ichigo shrugged. Don't sound like so bad an option.

We have discussed this! It could take ten, maybe twenty years of your life, for one bullet, and you might miss. It could take a month, but you'd need it at a crucial moment, and it would hit him like a pebble. We can't control the input, we can't control the output!

Yeah, well, it feels like I got about two minutes now. How hard will that hit? Ichigo quipped.

Ichigo heard a deep, deep sigh as a reply. Just…don't miss. He dispelled Acceleration.

Ichigo gasped, and nearly fell, but he managed to grab a tree trunk and stay upright.

The Nightmare saw his chance and charged. Ichigo kept his face straight and tired. He was a dead man, and had dead eyes to match it. There was no way he could move another step. He fired a shot, keeping the impact low. The Nightmare winced…but the pain never came. The bullet lodged itself into its thick flesh harmlessly. It grinned, as Ichigo let his face sag a little more.

Ichigo waited, keeping his tired visage true. In his mind's eye Zangetsu was with him.

If it doesn't work, you must be prepared to say the Release Key, and say it quickly.

Ichigo closed his eyes briefly, and then opened them. The Nightmare was two feet away.

He pulled the trigger.

"Yeah." He told Zangetsu. "I'll be ready."

The Nightmare's eyes widened, as it watched a single bullet leave Ichigo's barrel. A single bullet that entered its outstretched palm…

…and blew away its entire arm.

It howled in pain, a howl that shook leaves and the earth. It was missing most of its right shoulder, and its head sat precariously on a neck that was missing a quite a bit of its base. It sunk to the ground as it twisted and screamed its torment to the world.

Ichigo sank too, propping himself up against a tree. "Dang." He muttered, reloading.

You missed. Zangtsu said, watching the Nightmare writhe with equal disdain. Ichigo's reserves were empty. They would now unlock the gun's true potential. There was no rush.

The Nightmare got up, standing on its feet unsteadily. Its left arm grabbed Ichigo by the throat. Its teeth closed in to bite his face off. Ichigo whispered "Ban—!"

But a lithe young figure had come out and kicked the Nightmare in the side of the head.

Ichigo watched with horror as The Nightmare released its grip and turned its attention to the silly human who dared to interrupt his meal.

-"You leave him alone!" she cried, her voice shaking with emotion as she stared at all her bad dreams come true. "Y—you…leave him a-alone!" Tears began to fall as she stared to sob, its massive frame towering over her hungrily. She was so brave. She was-

Ichigo could only scream as he watched her get eaten.-

ICHIGO! Zangetsu screamed, trying to shake him out of it. COMPLETE THE RELEASE!!

-Tatsuki smiled at him.

Before her arm was ripped off.

Well, he didn't think she did, but she always did in his dreams. She smiled, as if to say, "Bad luck huh?" as she always did when she kicked his ass in practice. She smiled, as if to say, "Whoops. But…I'm not sorry."-

ICHIGO!

-Why wasn't she coming up for air? Why mom? why why why why why-

THE RELEASE!

Rukia kicked at the Nightmare, and felt her toes bruise. She gritted her teeth. "Dominator!" She whispered harshly, and the Nightmare's eyes widened. "That which has the name human! Truth…and…kah!—" The Nightmare squeezed with the intention of snapping her neck—

Rukia felt her vision swim. …Temperance. Carefully imbed your claws into the wall of innocent dreams.

"Blue firefall." She spat out, and the Nightmare let her go as it writhed and screamed its torment to the world for a second time that night, this time with an air of finality and panic that only a living creature set on fire could produce.

Panting, and holding her side, she fired repeatedly into its body. The screams - and the fire, ended abruptly. She retrieved her sword, and walked over to a stunned Ichigo. By this time she had her breathing under control.

"Hey," she began. Her face filled his vision. "Are you okay?" Her hand was extended.

Everything was becoming…rather difficult to process…but finally, he extended his right hand, Zangetsu dropping from nerveless fingers.

"…Kurosaki, Ichigo," he managed.

The hand twitched in surprise and then a small smile creeped onto her face. "Kuchiki, Rukia."

She closed the gap and clasped his hand, but Ichigo could not deny the exhaustion any longer, and everything faded away.

Rukia.

Tsuzuku

And now the story will pick up XD