Date written: 27/08/12 – 09/09/12
Posted on FanFiction: 12/09/12
A/N: Here comes the next update. Due to uncontrollable circumstances on my end, I can't update my fics as fast as I can years ago. There won't be actual spare time for me until December, which is saddening.
Anyway, here's a relatively short denouement of the training arc. My original plans, like in the previous chapter, aimed much higher—in epicness, humor, and length—but it didn't go as I planned it to be. During the years between my sudden and unexpected hiatus, I had come to realize that I hate training sessions, be it reading or writing them. Naruto fanfics with one chapter dedicated to his training? Let me skim through that for you. Same with Bleach. Most of the 'training' I've read from before this epiphany was, all in all, the worst kind of training sessions I've read. It just got ingrained into my head at some point. I can't control. That does not mean, of course, that I'll be skipping training sessions from here on out; this just means that I won't be emphasizing them as much as I did back then. You'll still get to see the fruits of the characters' labors, but at a reduced word count.
Next chapter will be the last of this current arc and marks the beginning of the Soul Society arc. I'll see you when I see you, guys.
–– CHAPTER 33 ––
Back in Black/Back to Basics
Ichigo uttered a groan that seemed to have come from the deepest depths of his stomach, growling out of his lips as if he had swallowed a still writhing beast. He scrunched his eyes before opening them slowly. They espied a ceiling he somehow recalled seeing days ago: a clean white paint finish brightened by a sole light source dangling at the center of the square room, the string lightswitch adorned with a skull keychain which looked more in place strapped to either a cellphone or keyring than where it was now.
There was barely any feeling in his limbs, but he was at least glad of his achievements before exhaustion forced his body to rejuvenate and his mind to sleep inside a dreamless land. Dreamless, it was, and he was certain he had rested as if he were in eternal peace.
Requiescat in pace, huh? Screw that.
He had regained his shinigami powers and acknowledged the spirit of his zanpakuto, Zangetsu. Power was once more in his hand, the power to save, the power to protect. Three days had already passed. Seven days more. He needed to get stronger within that time limit.
When the numbness had receded enough for him to move about without much difficulty, he tried sitting up except his attempts did not bear fruit. Something was holding him down on the futon on which he lay, and in consequence, his mind contemplated a sickening thought about that shaggy blond strapping him there for his own sick amusement. Ichigo really hoped he hadn't been out long. He was in the middle of grumbling out profanities pertaining to his trainer's brain capacity and then his rectum, while pulling away the blanket so he could get a better look at what was pressing him down.
All thoughts left his brain. Except for one: sexy. Gripping onto his waist was Orihime. He couldn't process anything else properly.
Almost like it were timed to Ichigo's awareness—in other words, flinching—Orihime moaned and snuggled closer to him. The spot between his chest and stomach was feeling two mounds that were as soft as marshmallows. He blushed like it was the only place his blood would go, and with the discipline of a faithful but secretly lecherous monk, he tried to disentangle from the girl's embrace while a part of him enjoyed not just the feeling but also the view. Her face was leaning on his chest, her short steady breasts—breaths, he meant breaths—tingling his skin and fuelling his imagination with hormonal fantasies. He had to stay strong, in control. This was Orihime! If he touched her inappropriately he'd be summoning the blind wrath of Tatsuki if word ever got to her. Not to mention what kind of trauma he'd instill on the innocent girl here.
So with trembling fingers, he grabbed her shoulders and pushed her a foot away. Her embrace locked him there, though. It would take a bit more maneuvering to slip out, all while making sure Orihime didn't wake up from the moving and repositioning.
He didn't account for her being very clingy when in bed. The gap between disappeared faster than when it was made, and so as not to initiate a repeat, Orihime embraced him tighter, her moist lips dragging across his chest, her bountiful marshmallows squeezing and spreading as if they were about to pop.
Ichigo uttered another groan, this one more ambiguous, split between pleasure and aggravation. He took many deep breasts—breaths dammit!—anything to calm the presto tempo of his heart, its beats enacting force equivalent to a jackhammer in his chest.
Things couldn't get any worse, he thought.
"Uwa," Jinta said in awe, "we have ourselves a lecher."
Surprised, Ichigo turned towards the door and saw the two kids looking at them and their embrace. Ururu's blush was more profound. She was also trembling either out of embarrassment or nervousness. Most likely both.
"H-How long were you two . . .?" Ichigo questioned.
"I don't know." The redheaded boy shrugged. "We just came to check on you guys. I know Orihime-chan is hot and all, but even I would've shown some restraint. Show some respect, pervy-berry."
"This isn't what it looks like!"
"Harururu," Ururu squealed, her blush deepening. "A hug between lovers. How romantic and embarrassing at the same time. I don't know which to feel!"
"I doubt this has mutual consent, Ururu," Jinta opined.
She didn't listen, continued rambling, with both hands grabbing her cheeks. "I-I-Is this what Yoruichi-san calls 'spooning?'"
"Wait! It's not what it looks like," Ichigo repeated.
The commotion escalated like the volume of their voices. It would've been enough to awaken a normal person, but Orihime looked like she paid little heed to the noise surrounding her. Little heed, however, was different from no heed.
Ichigo heard her groan a little, snuggled even closer, and murmured, "Stop it, Kurosaki-kun, stop eating me."
It stopped the angry retort he was about to release. Now there was only silence from both parties. He looked from the snuggling girl to the kids with dumbfounded expressions.
Ururu's whole head had turned red that he wouldn't be surprised if steam started whistling out of her ears. And Jinta . . . well, he got that look in his face after the shock wore off, the kind of look Ichigo was certain he'd never like on any guy's face.
"Dude," Jinta said, prolonging the last syllable and shaking his head. "How low can you get?"
"C-C-Consummation!" Ururu yelped. "I need to tell Urahara-san."
"Let me help you with that."
"Hey, wait, stop!"
It was too late to explain anything; Jinta and Ururu already slid the door closed at their leave. Ichigo wanted nothing more than to get up, get out, and deliver a strong punch onto the boy's insolent head and clear up the misunderstanding to Ururu. Why he'd resort to violence to a boy and gentleness to a girl was merely a matter of principle for Ichigo. He only had experience with little sisters not brothers after all. But as much as he wished to bring both violence and explanation to the kids, it would mean disturbing Orihime's sleep. He wanted to avoid an awkward greeting in the morning at all costs. But she wouldn't be sleeping forever and it was important to slither out of her tight grip like a slippery snake.
"Kids these days," a gruff voice said.
Ichigo's gaze instinctively returned to the door, only to see it closed and untouched.
"You would think the two of you will show restraint while under someone else's roof."
He shifted his gaze, expanding his search everywhere. He eventually caught sight of a black cat perching on the windowsill, its tail wagging left to right, almost giddy of something, although its face looked more solemn and serious. And . . . he just characterized a cat with human expressions. He must be more out of it than he thought. He'd admit that animals like cats have feelings and moods too, but there was no way for them to mimic human expression, much less be easily readable by a human. It was not as if—
"I may have misunderstood the situation, though," the cat said. "Nothing happened other than you two sleeping, right, Ichigo?"
The cat talked. A cat just talked. Moved its mouth, rolled its tongue, mimicked human speech. It didn't look shocked at all that it was destroying the natural order of the world. Cats do not talk, period.
"Hey! Listen to me when I'm talking to you, brat."
Was there a ventriloquist nearby? Was Urahara-san playing a very sick joke on him? No, wait, then how was the cat able to lip-sync with every word said?
The cat leaped down from its perch and approached him. Its movements were graceful. Natural. Were robotic pets that advanced? He was unsure, but Urahara-san had created a vast battlefield in his basement, breaking dozens of physics laws in the process. Was an artificial domestic feline too complicated for him to build?
"Aaaah!" The cat jumped back after he grabbed it by the tail. "What the hell are you doing?" And it retaliated by headbutting his chin. It hurt.
Scratch the "I must be dreaming" theory then. Also scratch robot. The tail was definitely organic and the animal's pained yelp when he strongly squeezed proved that it could feel like an actual feline.
Which left the only possible explanation.
"A CAT JUST TALKED!"
Ichigo entered full panic mode, pointing an accusing finger at the black cat. Maybe it was magic or something. Yeah, yeah, that was quite possible, staying organic while able to talk. There was that old American teen show he had watched by chance through channel surfing when he was a kid. Something about a teenaged witch living with her two aunts with rhyming names who were also witches, and joining them was this charming black cat with a low voice reminiscent to the voice coming out of this feline's mouth. It . . . it couldn't be, could it?
He'd believe shinigami, Soul Society, Hell, Quin-something like Ishida, and even Hollows, but witches and warlocks?
"That's crossing the line!"
"What line?" It asked, its tail wagging as if it were amused, and judging by how readable its face was, it exhibited a happy face as well. This was probably the first and only cat he'd ever see smirking.
"There's no freaking way a cat can talk!"
"Yet," the cat retorted, sounding nonchalant, and if it had wide arms, it would've gestured to the surrounding in general, "here we are."
Then a groan from under him brought a pause to his heart. She was still wrapping her arms around him as she yawned cutely to the side, opening and closing her droopy gray-colored eyes. Her half-asleep state wouldn't last forever, and he should've acted at that point, maneuvering his body out of her reach and skidding to the far end of the room. Instead he stayed where he was, torn between escaping and watching the steps of how this girl switch from drowsy to active in less than a minute. Where her eyes observed his close proximity, then to where her arms were.
To his credit—and ears—Orihime didn't scream or yell pervert or even deliver a slap to his face as punishment for some wrong created from woman logic. Contrast to what she'd do, Orihime unwrapped her arms, rolled away, and sat up with her back facing him. She was undoubtedly clutching her face with her hands. He couldn't really explain how he knew that, especially when he couldn't see the girl's front; he just knew somehow.
"Inoue?" he said, going through the mental motions of ignoring the elephant in the room—which meant forgetting all about a cat in their vicinity and that it actually talked, talked, like a human. "Inoue, are you . . ." He stopped himself from sounding like an idiot. Of course she wasn't all right. She woke up hugging a guy. A guy who was her friend, yes, but her naturally shy personality made it hard to grasp the idea without it . . . without it . . . well, he had no idea how she would properly react other than his stereotypical idea which was spawned from reading too much manga with violent women in them. He should've known better than to complement Orihime with violence, but with all that had happened since her brother attacked her, she began to change in very subtle ways. He didn't take notice of it right away because they weren't as close then as they were now, so it was like trying to find changes in a picture without reference to its original state. Plus his suspicions only came to be because they were actually backed up by Tatsuki, who knew her far longer than he did.
Orihime took a deep breath before about-facing and then stammering out, "It's fine. It's my fault to begin with. Sorry." She finished it off with disarming laughter, laughter racked with nervousness as well.
He knew Orihime enough to know if she's nervous about something. She really was trying to keep a strong front, but her attempts were less than impressive. Changing the subject was probably the best course of action. To keep the subject on her or to call on her obvious lie would not sit well, his gut told him, but he was neither listening nor obeying its advice. There were times where he trusted his heart more than his gut, and his heart yearned for clarity, for the blanks left behind by her abrupt statements. He wanted to help his friend in any way possible.
"What do you mean it's your fault?"
Her cheeks bloomed with the color of a rose and she avoided looking at him. "Um, well . . ."
"Come on, Inoue, it's not as if you hurt me or anything." A small part of him even liked the feeling of her in his arms, but he kept that to himself.
"B-But still . . ." She gulped. "I hugged you in your sleep."
Now his cheeks got infected with rose red. He didn't need to look in a mirror to figure that out. "Don't worry about it."
He wanted to hit himself. Of all the things he could've said . . .
"I promise it won't happen again." Orihime waved her hands frantically in front of her. "I'll even sleep at the far end of the room if you want."
"Inoue . . ."
"Or I can ask Urahara-san if he has another spare room I can use—"
"No one's hurt. No one's in danger." He neared her, close enough to grab her wrists—which he idly noted were slender and soft—and position them back to her sides. "It's nothing big, okay? Let's just . . . put it behind us."
He lifted her hands an inch and pushed them down, wanting to deliver finality, wanting to have the last word of this argument.
"No buts." He took a breath, expecting some bit of wisdom to channel through an impromptu speech after the pause but suddenly realizing midway that wisdom, any kind of wisdom, was not forthcoming at the moment. "No buts," he repeated. Sometimes life gives you lemons to make lemonade, sometimes it doesn't.
She avoided his gaze again, keeping silent and looking at the tatami mat floor. She did, however, give a response: a subdued nod alongside an agreeing grunt that sounded like "Oom."
Ichigo nodded as well, despite being out of her sight, but that was all right.
"Quite a touching scene," a gruff voice said, breaking the silence. It was the cat. "Reminds me of a teen romance movie from the 80s."
The teens in question realized their prolonged closeness and swiftly detached from each other, neither wanting to look at the other right now.
"Wait," Ichigo said, and looked back at Orihime, embarrassment forgotten, "you heard it talk, right? The cat talked, right? I'm not crazy, right?"
Orihime, at first, failed to see the importance of his questions, but one look at the thing chipping his sanity bit by bit was what she needed. "Of course you aren't crazy. That's just Yoruichi-san."
He waited for an elaboration. He didn't get it. "And?"
"A cat is talking, Inoue. Talking! That's just not right."
"But Yoruichi-san is no ordinary cat."
"That's correct, Orihime-san," Urahara said as he entered the room. "Yoruichi-san cannot be Yoruichi-san without a few surprises."
"I live for giving people surprises," the cat added. "And for pranks."
Was this one of them? He had to wonder.
"Now that you are both awake"—Urahara opened his fan, which he then used to cover his mouth—"we will proceed with the final phase."
Ichigo took more than a moment to process that, long enough to see Orihime suddenly paling. "Are you saying we're not done yet?" he asked, trying and succeeding in keeping his voice calm and hitch-free. He also succeeded in staying his hand, lest it ended up breaking the asshole's nose. He already regained his shinigami powers. What more did he want?
"Why, yes," the shaggy blond replied immediately, "the most important phase of all. It has been over seventeen hours since Tessai placed you, Kurosaki-san, in the futon. It's already the morning of the fourth day, so that means . . ."
Urahara closed his fan, and his face, solemn and withdrawn, gazed upon both teens in tense silence. Ichigo didn't say a word, but there was no doubt a thick air of tension permeating the place almost instantly.
"It's . . ." Urahara paused again, keeping the solemnity in his face and tone. "It's time to eat lunch!"
Ichigo broke his nose. And everyone, except for Orihime, agreed he deserved that.
Orihime set down her chopsticks and offered a quick prayer with the words, "Goshuushou-sama."
Jinta and Ururu, who finished their lunch at the same time as her, mimicked her thanks. Orihime smiled; Urahara had certainly taught them well, especially when giving thanks after a meal.
The three men had already finished with their own meals and were merely waiting for her so they could begin a quick debriefing before tackling the main training regime they'd endure for today and the next six days. Yoruichi and Urahara had said as much at the start of the meal, prompting Ichigo to dive into his food like a man who hadn't eaten in three days. Considering that both of them immediately retired to sleep after the 3-day onslaught—though in truth, hers spanned for only two days but there was no need to fret over the details—maybe it wasn't so far off from the truth. It left her wondering which of the reasons had prioritized her crush's gusto in eating.
"So," Ichigo said, his face serious, posture straight, "when do we start?"
"In an hour," Urahara said without any trace of a change in pitch from his broken nose, which shouldn't be an issue since Orihime had healed it before they started lunch. "It should be enough time to digest the food."
Orihime raised her arm like a student. "Urahara-san, a question."
"How are you going to teach us?"
"You'll see. But I can divulge one tidbit about what I have planned. It won't be any kind of fighting style."
"If it's not about fighting, then what exactly are you going to teach us then?"
"Oh, I didn't say it's not about fighting. It's just not about style." His face turned solemn again. "I'll be blunt with you two. One week is not enough time to teach you any fighting style. This isn't some shounen manga after all. Instead we have to compensate with the main weakness your enemy will undoubtedly center on."
"What weakness?" Ichigo asked.
"You'll be facing people who had been fighting Hollows and perfecting their techniques for decades at least. You two only had about a month under your belt." His gaze directed to Ichigo. "You've seen the superiority of a captain firsthand. Teaching you some style would not give you any kind of advantage." He held up a hand when Ichigo was about to say something. "This is why I have to prioritize on your inexperience. For the next seven days I'll be drilling into you how to fight, how to dodge, how to counter. Basically, I'll be teaching you how to survive."
Ichigo said nothing back. His face contorted as if he swallowed something nasty. But he was not about to back down.
She asked their teacher another question: "What about our shikai?"
"I cannot help you with that. Refining your shikai and its abilities is solely up to you. I can only give you pointers."
"So we're on our own." She honestly didn't know what to feel about that.
"Not precisely," Yoruichi countered, sitting next to Urahara. She might be in cat form right now, but she still ate at the table. It unnerved Ichigo somehow, though she couldn't understand why this was so. "You'll be learning from your zanpakuto. They know more about your abilities than you do."
"So how do we talk with them?" Ichigo asked.
"Meditation." Urahara opened his fan. "But right now, I want you two to rest before we train."
"And make the most of it," Yoruichi added. "There won't be any breaks once it starts."
They were forced to split, Ichigo with Urahara, and she with Yoruichi. The two adults had agreed on this one-on-one training session from the get-go to ensure little distraction and complete concentration. At least that was what Yoruichi said when she asked the specifics of the arrangement. Her opinion was worthless, seeing that the teachers knew better than her about fighting and training, so she silenced her desire to train alongside Ichigo. It wasn't as if it'd be the end of the world. He'd still be here in Urahara Shop's basement with her, out of sight, yes, but not out of mind or feeling.
His presence had grown immensely since she last sensed him, as if the turbulent flow of his reiatsu had found a small conduit to regulate a bit of the ferocious pressure. No doubt it was because of his shikai, which she noted to have remained activated since he released it. She hadn't asked him why it was like that, but she could wager a guess or two.
Like his zanpakuto refusing to revert to its former, bulky, ugly form. It felt more comfortable in its new form, after all. More space to stretch (the blade thicker and more elongated). No hilt to constrict it, like a bra two sizes too short that one could barely breathe (she idly noted that her breasts were still growing; she had to buy a few new bras last week). And a more breathable and cool-looking scabbard in the form of bandages. Yeah, if she were a zanpakuto, she'd also refuse going back to something completely hideous in both appearance and practicality.
When she and Yoruichi had found a decent place for their training, the cat reverted to her lady form, birthday suit and all. Thankfully, she had thought ahead and asked Ururu to give her a some clothes to bring along. She gave this to Yoruichi while averting her gaze.
"Relax a little, Orihime. We're both girls here."
"Yes, I know, but still . . ."
"You didn't have problems when you and that Tatsuki girl went into an open bath."
"How did you know about that?!" That had been during their middle school years on a winter break vacation to a renowned onsen in rural Hokkaido. It was also the embarrassing incident where Tatsuki expressed her utter envy for her developing bosom. She'd rather not think about the incessant groping she had done afterwards.
"I didn't." She grinned like the Cheshire cat from Wonderland. "Now I do."
"Eh? What do you—"
"Took a shot at the dark; got a bull's eye."
"Ah! You tricked me." Not once did Orihime turn around or dare take a look at the tanned woman. Her ears caught no rustle of clothes, and that was enough evidence for her to draw a conclusion. But what if she puts on clothes stealthily like a ninja? she asked herself. It was easy to think of her as someone akin to a ninja.
Yoruichi said, "I'm decent. You can look now."
True to her word, she was decent, if barely. The clothes Ururu provided were okay; they were just tight around the chest area. Tight enough for the catwoman to disregard the three top buttons on the white button-up shirt, thus exposing an enticing amount of cleavage.
"Uh . . ."
"My eyes are up here, Orihime."
Caught unintentionally peeping yet again, Orihime bowed her head. "I'm sorry!"
For some reason, Yoruichi laughed wholeheartedly. "Where did this happen before, I wonder?"
"I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to look."
"And I'm okay with it."
"Oh come on, girl. I've been going around in the world naked for the past century. Besides, if you got it, I say flaunt it!"
"B-But that was you in your cat form."
"Only when people are around." She gave her a sultry grin. "You should try it sometime. It feels . . . liberal, you know."
"Uh, I think I'll pass." Just thinking about it made her cheeks hot as boiling water.
"There was this one time on a nudist's beach—"
"Shouldn't we get to training, ma'am?"
She kept up the sultry grin, but at least she stopped, to Orihime's relief. "All right, then." Yoruichi rubbed her hands together. "While Kisuke believes pure brawn can get Ichigo out of any problem Soul Society'll sic him with, the same cannot be said for you."
"Is it because I'm weak?"
"It's because you're more timid than your boyfriend."
"Oh?" It took her three whole seconds to process the whole thing. "Eh?! Wait, Kurosaki-kun's not my boyfriend."
"Maybe not now, anyway."
Speechlessness compounded with a blooming blush.
"Joking aside, while Ichigo can go for muscle, you can go for knowledge."
"What kind of knowledge?"
"Oh, there's plenty for you to learn, but very little time to get them all. Souls are required to attend the Shinigami Academy before becoming actual shinigami. That means years of learning, although I've heard of one student graduating from there in just one year.
"We only have one week to whip you two up. That either makes us desperate or kickass teachers." Yoruichi held up one hand, the other hand supporting it by its elbow. "There's kidou, hakuda, zanjutsu, and hohou." She raised a finger for each subject. "I'll do what I can to cram everything up for you."
"So which one first?"
"I'll let you decide."
She asked Yoruichi for clarification of the different subjects, and though she could benefit with a little more kidou training, she believed one other subject will benefit her more. Hohou, the subject matter of the shunpo. If there was one thing she learned from her inner battles between Amaterasu and then Emi, it was that she could need work in improving her speed. Her natural sword technique required speed, to which she already had but like what Tatsuki often said during her karate lessons, there's always room for improvement.
She could compensate hakuda with her karate skills—skills Tatsuki boasted to be about black belt level—and zanjutsu with instinctual grace that kept coming to her whenever there was a fight, as if the art of swordplay had been ingrained into her since she held a zanpakuto. Kidou, she realized, would require time to cast and from the brief explanations she heard from the two teachers, their opponents were not the kind to stand idly by as she cast them.
That left hohou as uncharted territory for her. There was the occasional burst of speed, but they were always out of her control, done through desperation and a whole lot of luck, the kind of things she shouldn't rely on in every fight. She needed control over it, must find the means to quickened her movements with a conscious mental command.
"Hohou," she declared. No doubt, no hesitation.
Yoruichi just nodded at her choice, though Orihime noticed the wide smile on her face.
And so for the next eight hours, she was drilled without mercy or pulled punches. She was okay with that, or rather she welcomed it. They were going on borrowed time and every second had to count in training.
She didn't want to look weak in front of Ichigo. Not anymore.