Disclaimer, summary, pairing, warnings, etc: See part one.
A/N: I'd apologize for the long wait, but I did warn you. Perhaps it is easier to wait for the next chapter knowing that the story is now written in full and the only problem is transferring it from my notebook (yes, I'm the kind of freak who prefers using a pencil and an actual paper notebook) into the typed in form. Which may take surprisingly long.
A/N2: I began to write this one quite a long time ago. I'm basing it on the series as it was when I started writing.
A/N3: There are some revisions in the previous chapters. Nothing big, except for Zangetsu and Shiro's conversation at the end of the third chapter.
Edited on May 24th. Thanks, Enslavement Thesis.
Third Layover (Part One)
The sky was blue. No, that was not right – the sky was blue. Impossibly deep blue of a summer day with not a cloud in sight. Midday blue even though the sun was already low enough to be partially hidden by Shiba Kuukaku's rocket launcher.
Ichigo turned to lie on his stomach, supporting his chin on clasped hands. Shiba Kuukaku's rocket launcher. Shiba Kuukaku.
Ichigo looked towards the house carefully ignoring the big sign and its support. Especially the support. Whatever Kuukaku said about being "quite natural" and "you've seen them enough, every woman has two", there were some things – ahem, body parts – that in Ichigo's opinion were just not meant to support signs. But who asked him? Kuukaku always did what she wanted. And she was guaranteed to want the most insane and embarrassing thing Ichigo could think of. Well, at least it was always unexpected and surprising also. Which didn't actually make it better.
Yeah, Kuukaku liked defying expectations.
Ichigo remembered meeting her for the first time... Well, this time around. Heh, like he could ever forget that!
Ichigo's backside ached. Really, it felt as if there was not a patch of his lower body that was some other colour than black and blue. A quick way of traveling riding Bonnie might be – but comfortable it was not.
When the boar stopped in front of the gate Ichigo gathered up his willpower, mentally commanded his cramped fingers to release Ganjyu's belt and more or less fell on the ground. Good, solid, ungalloping ground. His legs were shaking. Ganjyu turned and grabbed Ichigo's elbow, frowning.
"Sorry, I forgot that you aren't used to riding boar-back. I have been told it can be rather trying the first time."
Trying it had been. Ichigo doubted it would be any easier the second time, either. Or the third. In fact, he quietly avowed never to ride a boar again, no matter the need. Nothing could compensate feeling like this. Still, it had gotten them here quickly. Ichigo shrugged looking around - and froze, his eyes transfixed on the... What he had taken for a gate was actually a sign declaring the house a Shiba residence. The sign was mounted on two giant ears. Ganjyu's words, sounding during most of the ride from hell, but largely ignored by Ichigo who was being more concerned with not falling off Bonnie's back, were were rising up in his brain.
A bit eccentric, Ganjyu had said. Quick tempered, some say a little violent – but don't worry, she'll just beat you into ground, nothing more, you'll be able to walk again really soon, and she forgives quick once she's gotten it out of her system, and you didn't get on all that well last time, so she might be a little annoyed with you...
Ichigo swallowed. If Ganjyu's "a little annoyed" was on par with his "a bit eccentric"... Ichigo decided he did not need to solve the problem of his memory loss all that badly. Actually, Izumi might need his help with the guests. Like, right now.
Ichigo turned to his companion.
"Oy, lazy-bones," the voice came from the direction of the house. It was not a kind of voice you could ignore, both in tone and decibels. Ganjyu fairly jumped.
"Where'd you ran off to? You were going to... Kurosaki?!"
The woman was...impressive. Yeah, that was the word. Impressive. She was pretty, sort of – Ichigo desperately hoped she could not read his thoughts – despite the clothes, the hairdo, the metal arm, or perhaps because of them... Actually, the arm kind of suited her...
But she had a presence and that presence told she was not the one to be trifled with. Ichigo had a sudden impulse to prostate himself on the ground and beg her not to kill him. Which was stupid, of course, because he didn't think he usually did prostating and begging, and he had done nothing that merited killing. At least to her. At least as much as he remembered. And what did "didn't get on all that well" meant, exactly?
"I beg your forgiveness, Nee-sama," Ichigo had not imagined a person could that quickly and still be understood, but Ganjyu obviously had a long practice.
"I went further than planned and met Ichigo in the twenty-seventh district. He doesn't remember anything."
The woman's face lost that slightly (well, a lot, truly) manic grin that had made Ichigo's knees tremble.
Her voice was slow and calm, stretching the word out questioningly. The tone was also much more terrifying than the earlier happy expectation of violence.
"See, he has..." Ganjyu started, but Ichigo decided to take things into his own hands and interrupted Ganjyu.
"I woke up in Rukonkai and knew my name was Ichigo. And that I was in the Soul Society. That's all."
Ichigo be damned if he let anybody scare him, no matter how dangerous they might be. Or, at least, he wasn't going to show his fear.
Her gaze held almost physical weight, demanding explanations. Ichigo had no idea why it seemed to be so important to her that he explained – or to him to explain, but he had learned to trust his hunches. And all his being was almost screaming at him, telling that tis was important... And that he should not disappoint this woman. Bizarre, really.
"I woke up in Rukonkai," he repeated. „I knew my name was Ichigo and that I was dead. And I was hungry..."
The woman lifted her hand – the flesh and blood one – to stop him.
"If we speak about being hungry, I must say it's well past dinner time," Ganjyu hunched under her gaze, "it would be good to finally eat it. We will continue this conversation after we have eaten."
Her eyes caught and held Ichigo's.
"I am Shiba Kuukaku and I welcome Kurosaki Ichigo in my home. Come," she turned and walked towards the house.
Ichigo looked at Ganjyu. Who shrugged, apparently understanding no more than Ichigo. Ganjyu shrugged, tilted his head - a sort of: well, what you're waiting for? and together they moved to follow Kuukaku. As Ichigo watched her disappear through the door, he had a feeling that when Shiba Kuukaku said: "Jump!", most people didn't even pause enough to ask: "How high?"
Food was good. The sake was also good. Ichigo felt much less tense with his stomach full and his head buzzing pleasantly. Ganjyu managed to look both sleepy and alert at the same time. Kuukaku was... Actually, Ichigo couldn't decide what mood Kuukaku was in. She had listened to his story attentively, asking questions here and there, getting out of him things he didn't even kow he had noticed – or remembered.
Judging by Ganjyu's reaction, who was looking at Kuukaku with a puzzled frown, this calm and attentive demeanor was not a side of Kuukaku oft revealed to him. Ichigo was not sure why his story was receiving what seemed to be an unusual level of attention from Kuukaku – hey, it was important to him, all right, but to anybody else? Though he did feel strangely pleased that it was. Kuukaku was inexplicably important to him – considering that by Ganjyu's words – which he had no reason to doubt – he had met her all of five times, all of them brief, and they had not left a good impression on each other. Perhaps it was simply because like Ganjyu, she was somebody who knew him – even if he couldn't remember her.
It also might have been that she was a clever and beautiful woman. Although... All right, she was beautiful – and dangerous, not to forget that (and Ichigo could almost hear something in him say dangerous is good!), but Ichigo didn't really think it was that. Or only that. He'd met women – working at Izumi's he was bound to – who'd he liked and, well, desired, and this wasn't it. He wanted Kuukaku's approval all right, but not... Well, it was confusing.
Ichigo finally reached the conclusion in the depths of his mind that he wasn't likely to fall in love nor in lust with Shiba Kuukaku and left it at that. There were some things in life that, in Ichigo's opinion, were better not dwelt on. This was definitely one of those.
"Well," Kuukaku said, breaking the silence that had fallen after the end of Ichigo's story.
"Well," she nodded thoughtfully. "Not remembering your life is not unheard of. Sometimes it happens to souls whose death and transition to the Soul Society was especially hard. But," she looked at Ganjyu, "from what I have heard, yours was not the case."
"A clean bullet through the head," Ganjyu supplied. He shrugged. "Instant death, the medics said."
Ichigo knew what a bullet was, now that Ganjyu had mentioned it. However, he had a feeling he shouldn't have been in a position to catch one.
Ganjyu met his questioning gaze and explained with a shrug: „You walked into a group of local criminals having a showdown."
Well, that certainly explained it.
Kuukaku shook her head thoughtfully. "That would be a no, then." She pursed her lips. "The other common case of memory loss are the souls who were given a soul burial at the last possible moment – or near it – before becoming a Hollow... Or," Kuukaku was clearly weighing her words, fitting them to the situation, "souls who did become a Hollow and were then purified." Both she and Ganjyu were now looking at Ichigo in a way that made him rather uncomfortable. Hollow?
Ichigo licked his lips. "Did I become a Hollow?"
Ichigo didn't really want to know the answer. It would explain much, though. Somewhere at the edge of his senses he could hear somebody chuckling. What had Ganjyu told him about his...inner Hollow? Was that why...?
Kuukaku eyed Ichigo thoughtfully.
"After the shooting? No, there was no time. It takes along while for a soul chain to erode, and your spirit force disappeared from the Living World in the matter of minutes after your death. Which in itself was unusual, since there were no Shinigami around to preform the soul burial. But, in your case I understand there was not a question of so much becoming as being," she flicked a finger to stop Ganjyu, who had started at her words, "I know, Ganjyu. Considering that I talked to Yoruichi I probably know more that you."
Yoruichi. That name brought a memory with it. A black cat – and Ichigo remembered now why he had considered black cats an exception from the non-talking fauna. Not all the black cats, really, just one. And also there was a memory of a naked woman in pool with him. That had been embarrassing. But why had they been in that pool together in the first place?
"Yes," Kuukaku nodded, apparently concluding something for herself, "that reason for your memory loss is actually rather probable. It still does not explain the absence of your zanpakuto, but I suspect that is a sign of another problem entirely. Which I currently have no idea about."
Ichigo considered her words. All right, he had an explanation on how. However, he still had no idea why. Inner Hollow, okay, but – but there had not been enough time for him to turn into a Hollow after his death, and Ganjyu was sure he hadn't, there were people in Karakura who would have felt the change in his spirit force if he had. Also, Ganjyu had spoken of Ichigo's inner Hollow as if it was something that had been around for a while – hey, it had been around long enough to be named! - and again, Ichigo could hear faint laughter – that meant...
Actually, Ichigo had no idea what it meant. Or where he was going with it. But perhaps Kuukaku would know?
"But why "quite probably"? Ganjyu mentioned there was a Hollow in me – sort of – but how did it happen?"
Ichigo looked from Ganjyu to Kuukaku.
"Forgive me for asking, Shiba-sama, but I do not understand...No," Ichigo corrected himself, "I do not remember."
"Ah," Kuukaku grinned and suddenly in front of Ichiogo was once again the woman who had greeted him near the house-sign. „This," she took the bottle from the table and poured herself a generous amount, "is a rather long story. One that I think Ganjyu and I will enjoy telling you. At least," she looked thoughtfully at the newly empty bottle and then threw it carelessly out of the window. Ichigo winced at the crash, "the parts that we know of. If you say hearing about things helps you to remember, then why not? And call me Kuukaku-neesama. Most of the district boys do."
Ichigo picked up a grass blade and chewed at it, deep in memories. They had all ended up dead drunk that night. He and Ganjyu woke up the next morning still on the dining room floor, although covered with blankets, and with killer headaches. Kuukaku had obviously had enough presence of mind to get into her bedroom and face down on the bed. The headache Ganjyu and Ichigo nursed was also glaringly absent in her case. But then, as Ichigo later found out, Kuukaku was famous for her ability to drink anybody under the table, and having no hangover no matter how much she drank.
Ichigo knew that being envious of the ability to drink a lot and not suffer a hangover was childish, at the very least. He still was. Envious, that is.
Ichigo was not quite sure how exactly he had ended up accepting the offer to move into the Shiba residence. Or how that offer had been made. All he could recall after a certain point of that first evening was impenetrably covered in the haze of strong sake, but Kuukaku swore that he had agreed. Actually, Ichigo could, with very, very great difficulty remember a conversation on the theme of his living arrangements in the Soul Society. He just wasn't all that sure what had been said.
Well, however it had happened, here he was. With his own room and everything. Ichigo had even quit working at Izumi's – not because it was a long way to go each morning (Ichigo had, despite his fervent vows, mastered riding boar-back... okay, he had mastered clinging to Ganjyu and not having his backside pummeled on every hop) – but because Izumi had sat him down and told him it was time for Ichigo to move on. And not to worry about her, she'd already found a young man who was eager to start working for her. Ichigo was not surprised – Izumi paid good wages.
Anyways, Ichigo had, with some regret, said goodbye to Izumi and Mina, promised to visit and moved his things to the Shiba residence. Moving on, however...
Well, that proved a bit difficult. Because Ichigo had no idea where exactly to move. More than once he caught himself considering the far-away glow of the golden roofs of Seireitei thoughtfully. But there was a kind of feeling in him, a feeling that said: "Not yet."
"Once there lived a goddess. She lived in a far away land near a big river. Some say she was the river. She was honoured and worshiped and she blessed her followers so they lived in prosperity and were lucky in all they did. But times change and new gods came to the land and her followers turned away from her. The goddess grew sad seeing her people bowing to others. But she still loved those who had once followed her teachings so she did not start a war against the new gods for many would have died. Instead she turned her face to the East and left her old home behind. She flew for a long time until a sea was beneath her. And lo – behind the sea she could see the mountains of a new land. She landed on the shore. When the gods and goddesses of the land came to greet her she told them her story. And a wise goddess among them told: „Our land is not big, but our people are numerous. They know how to hold all of us in their hearts. If you wish them well and bring happiness and peace to them, you are welcome among us."
The goddess bowed her head. She reached out and felt the land and the people and she felt they said „Home!" to her. She opened to the gods and goddesses of the land so they could see she was true and told them: „I wish to stay."
The land and the people accepted her and she became much loved and honured. In time she gave birth to fourty sons and then she gave birth to fourty daughters and they were wize and taught people many important things."