Chapter 8

You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans - Ronald Regan

Her head hurt. As did her arms and legs and chest, and her entire body, really. But she needed to train, and night was the best time to do so, while no one could see her. She needed to get better, to help her, to help them. Her sword gleamed in the moonlight, and her hair dripped with sweat. For a moment, she let the tip rest on the ground, her breath escaping past her lips in sharp huffs. Her eyes drooped closed, and she tilted her head back to breath in the cool, dew filled air. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. Then her head tipped back to level, and her blade was raised in the perfect starting position. Anything she needed to do, she would; anything to bring herself back up to standards so she could protect them.

Uryu didn't know what to think of their mismatched new group. Chad was quiet and somewhat of a loner, but he belonged to the same group as Ichigo, which was the group of somewhat outcast and delinquent boys (Uryu thought it was hilarious that a girl was the leader of that group). Orihime was one of the most popular girls in school, being as lovable and kind as she was. And then there was Rukia, the soul reaper who clearly had no idea what was going on. Tatsuki sat just behind and to the side of Orihime, and Mizuiro and Keigo sat between Chad and Ichigo. As Uryu watched, the group slowly began to converse, until it was obvious to him that these people were now friends. His new friends, he shuddered.

Orihime noticed Uryu's discomfort, and smiled at him. He was so nice to come and sit with them when it clearly wasn't his forte, she thought, and her grin turned a bit wider. She turned back to Tatsuki, and therefore missed the Quincy's blush, but Chad, Rukia, Mizuiro, and Tatsuki didn't. Ichigo and Keigo were too busy shouting at each other to pay attention, but they probably wouldn't have noticed anyways.

So yeah, things were weird, people were either too observant or oblivious, and part of Uryu was having a panic attack about the possibility of being sunburnt, but a bigger part of him wouldn't have it other way.

Rukia had been quiet all day, and while Ichigo had pretended she hadn't noticed, apparently Paku couldn't do the same. "You have to tell her!" The mod soul, now placed in a stuffed mouse toy, exclaimed as they entered Ichigo's room. "She can help you, or have you forgotten what I told you, what the soul society will do to her for taking your powers!"

Rukia glared at Paku, and Ichigo moved to close the window the other girl had climbed in through so she wouldn't shrink back against the wall. "She didn't take my powers, and I would do it again in a heartbeat! But I can't burden her with my mistakes."

"Yes, you can," Ichigo and Paku said at the same time. Ichigo blushed, and looked at the ceiling as she rubbed the back of her neck, "I was awake the other night when you were thinking about never having a sister before. We'll always be family after this, and what's family for if not to help each other?" Rukia paled, shrinking in on herself. Ichigo watched her closely in the corner of her eye. They pulled the barrier down most days so Ichigo couldn't hear her thoughts now, but she didn't have to, not anymore. Not when she knew Rukia better than anyone she had ever met, when they may as well have grown up together for all they knew and could feel about the other. "I can handle it, Rukia. You protected me and my family when you didn't know us from a hole in the ground," she took a deep breath. "That war I said I wouldn't fight when you first showed me what I had to do? I was wrong. I would go to war for you, sister." Rukia's breath hitched, and Ichigo could see the tears dripping off her chin and falling to the floor. The silence was tense, expectant, and Ichigo found she was unsure of what to do, as well as unable to move. She bit her lip, glad Rukia couldn't see her, then blinked twice. If it were Yuzu or Karin in front of her, she would…

("Idiots!" Paku murmured, climbing up to stare out the window. She was ignored.)

Slowly, as if the girl in front of her was a wild animal instead of a person she treasured, Ichigo pulled Rukia to her and put her arms around her shoulders. Rukia returned the hug, sobbing into Ichigo's shirt. They stood there for a long time, until Rukia's tears reduced to sniffles and Ichigo felt she could let go without her falling apart. "They're coming after me," Rukia whispered tiredly. Ichigo opened her mouth to ask more, but Rukia was asleep, exhausted from crying. Ichigo carefully placed her on the bed, and looked at Paku who was watching her intently.

'What will you do for her now?' Sode no Shirayuki said, startling Ichigo. 'What will you do, partner?' 'You are not the only one at the Shinigami girl's disposal. Rally your army, before you are too late!' Two new voices, familiar but not, added themselves to her thoughts, and Ichigo briefly wondered if she really was going crazy.

"Rally my army….."

'And yet now you interfere," Zangetsu chuckled softly to his newest companion. 'Isn't that a bit contradictory to "we are moving too fast"?' He watched her closely as she watched Ichigo's hollow half suspiciously, not that he could blame her. The boy was strange, even for a hollow, and he sat by the pond in the side of the skyscraper. Their inner world had changed too much in the last few months, and none of them particularly enjoyed it.

Sode no Shirayuki glared and Zangetsu shivered as she dropped the temperature around him by several degrees. 'Ichigo and Rukia are almost one, now. You cannot tell me you wouldn't do anything for mine as I would do anything for yours.'

He held his hands up in defence. 'You are right, sister. I never meant to imply otherwise.' She grinned, her demeanor changing drastically when he called her sister. They shared a look, and missed the hollow boy's intrigued mumble, 'Two queens?'

When Rukia woke up, she was surprised to find her head in Orihime's lap. The other girl was running her hands through Rukia's hair, cooing nonsense under her breath as two of her hairpin fairies healed the girl in their lady's arms. "Rukia?" Ichigo asked quietly. Rukia sat up, and blinked away the leftover confusion from sleep when she saw Uryu sitting in Ichigo's chair and Chad leaning against the wall. Ichigo sat on the floor, waiting calmly for her sister to speak first.

'What's happening, Ichigo?' she asked, feeling a bit stupid.

"Relax, Ruki," Orihime said, placing her hand on her shoulder. "We are here to help you and Ichi. She phoned us because she knew you would need help." Chad nodded, and Uryu met her gaze steadily. Rukia could feel the panic rising in her.

"No! You can't, they'd kill all of us. I can't let that happen, not because of me," she looked at Ichigo, her eyes pleading to be understood. Whoever they sent, none of her new friends could stand a chance, not when every move they made wasn't trained into their bodies more than a thousand times, when they acted on instinct without any trained skill. How could she let these wonderful people put their lives on the line for her?

"You saved my life first," Ichigo replied.

"Mine too," Orihime piped up.

"Hn," Chad intoned, and Rukia knew he was agreeing.

Uryu pushed up his glasses, and opened his mouth to speak, but Paku interrupted, "This was Kisuke-san's plan all along, nee-chan. There are more players in the game than he expected to have at this point, but it works in our favour. Ichigo can go meet Renji-san, convince him to give you a few more days, and Yoruichi will distract Byakuya-taicho while these three take you to Urahara's shop."

Rukia bit her lip. "It won't work."

Paku grinned. "That's because you don't know all of it."

'I feel stupid,' Ichigo told Rukia, rubbing her hands on her arms to warm them up. She stood all alone in an empty street, shifting her weight nervously.

'You look stupid too. Just relax or you'll muck it all up.' Ichigo sighed, glancing down at the sundress Orihime and Rukia had forced her into, saying she needed to dress more like Rukia would if they were going to keep up her disguise. She shut her eyes, slowly letting out a bit of the spiritual pressure that Rukia had shown her, the stuff that belonged to Rukia in the first place. Then, she waited.

"You aren't Rukia," a voice said behind her, and Ichigo turned to face the redhead there.

"Renji," she breathed, letting Rukia take control of her body through their connection. "Renji, it's me. It's really me." She shivered slightly; she had never seen the look of hatred that he was giving her. It hurt, seeing him look at her like that. She wished they were still friends, but they hadn't been able to speak since…. "I've missed you," she whispered. "I knew they would send you, and nii-sama. I'm a Kuchiki, after all." She could see he still didn't believe her. "Renji….."

"You look nothing like her, how do you expect to make me believe you are her? We were sent because some human took her powers. You are that human, aren't you?" She didn't answer, and his anger intensified. "Aren't you!"

"No one took my powers, Renji. Something swapped our minds. I am here as much as the girl who owns this body is in mine. She had nothing to do with this, doesn't even have strong spiritual pressure. Because I do, I have been doing my job as her. It's all I can do!"

"Prove it," he hissed, and she swallowed Paku's capsule, separating from her body in a smooth motion. She still looked the same, of course.

But Sode no Shirayuki rested proudly against her back, and she pulled the zanpakuto from its sheath, swinging it in her usual arc around her body. "Dance," she and the sword cried, feeling their energy in sync for the first time in months. "Even if a human had stolen my body, she would have her own zanpakuto, no?" she exclaimed, feeling the thrill race through her as the pure white blade whispered through the air. "Do I have to encase you in ice to 'prove' what it can do?" Renji watched her with shock in his eyes, but there was tenderness in them that she had missed. "I haven't done anything wrong, Renji! I just need more time to figure it out, to get my body back. Please, I cannot do this without you! I need you, Renji."

"I can give you a week, tops," Renji promised, and she hugged him. He tensed, before he relaxed and draped his arms around her waist. She was amused to see that she was almost taller than him.

"Thank you."

"What kind of dumbass has a large training room in his basement?" Rukia exclaimed angrily. Orihime, Chad and Uryu exchanged glances, Orihime's laughter almost bubbling out of her while the boys managed to keep their faces straight. They knew it was Ichigo in Rukia's body, but that didn't make it any less funny to hear the dainty girl sound so brash.

"And so it begins," Ichigo said to Paku, cradling the stuffed mouse in her arms. "We train now, right?"

Paku nodded. "We teach Ichigo to use Sode no Shirayuki and Zangetsu, and you to use her blade. We will stop this from ruining lives."

Shunshun Rikka, for that was also the name of her blade, was growing heavier in her arms, and Orihime sighed. She knew that training at night these last few days would come back to bite her. The tip of the blade rested against the sand, and Orihime sighed.

"Have you figured anything else out?" She asked Shunô quietly, watching Uryu practice his aim as Chad worked with the cat, Yoruichi. Rukia and Ichigo couldn't be seen from where she was standing, but she could hear the metal in their swords clashing as each stroke of their zanpakuto connected, and Urahara-san yelling advice and encouragement.

"We had to save someone important," Ayame said shyly. "Whoever it was died, and we had to go back to bring them back." Tsubaki laughed harshly. "More importantly," he said, "if we aren't careful it will happen again. You can't let your hatred of force hold you back this time. I am only as strong as your anger, just as the others are only as strong as your will to protect and to heal."

"I know," Orihime said, and she lifted her sword and got back to work.

A/n: Uhhhhhhhhh, hi? I would just like to say that the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated, and I'm back now. I had some pretty crazy stuff happen that I'm not going to share, but I should be updating pretty regularly now.