The wharves of Karakura Town were a rundown area, sprawled along the river's edge, the fringe of the industrial district. It had been the stomping ground of the Karakura Skulls for years, and they had only really cleared out after the police got hold of their infamous leader. The tagged walls of the broken warehouses were the only remnant of the rowdy gang, the alleys crowded with the refuse of decades past. Only a few haunted the derelict quarter now, the outcast ghosts of the better part of the city taking refuge from the disdainful eyes of Karakura's citizens in the dank setting of the riverside area.
Ichigo scowled as he kicked over an empty trash can, wrinkling his nose in distaste as a fowl odor wafted up from the drum's spilt contents. He had always hated this place. Even before he had known that it was one of the first places in Karakura that a Hollow would emerge, he had hated it for its ghosts. There were more ghosts in this tiny, abandoned section of industry, than in the rest of the city's districts combined.
And, as it had always been whenever he found a restless soul, the ghosts spoke of death.
He stopped as the trace of reiatsu he had been following wavered, but continued on with a quirk of his lips when it returned full force only seconds later. So they knew. Not really a surprise, considering who they were. Odds were they'd been playing with him the whole time. Or at least, it sounded like something their pain in the ass leader would do anyway.
A low cackle echoed in the distance.
Ichigo stiffened, his hesitation only the briefest of seconds. Not changing his pace, he glanced into the grime-streaked glass of one of the worn down shop-fronts, surreptitiously peeking at the reflection of the alley behind him, futilely wishing that he would see the owner of the voice staring back at him. That thought almost brought him to a halt. No, there was not even the slightest chance that he wanted to meet that particular … thing.
Shivering involuntarily, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to push away the notion that the little voice had echoed, not from the broken streets of the Karakura wharves, but from somewhere far darker.
Somewhere within his soul.
Scowling, he quickened his pace.
As if it could sense his urgency, the reiatsu exploded, so heavy in the air that it would have forced lesser souls to their knees. Its sheer force reminded Ichigo of his first … excursion into Soul Society, and the less-than-warm welcome given him by the Eleventh Division Captain, Zaraki Kenpachi. But while that had been a tangible threat, and weighed on him heavily, this was far less aggressive, leading him ever onward.
Toward the home of the Vizard.
He glanced out over the river, barely able to make out the lights of the city on the other side. Looking upstream, he could see the bridge where he had made his pact with Chad – so long ago it seemed – and beyond it, where the green slopes of the riverbanks blurred into the lines of the city in the dusk's azure haze. Somewhere within that mess of buildings was the clinic, his home, and that one, lonely street where it had all began.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he barely managed to stop himself from walking straight into the steel door of one of the waterfront warehouses. He glanced up at it ruefully, eyes skating over the rusted surface and the battered sign which read Takahashi & Co. Perfectly nondescript, no different from the dozens of other warehouses which lined the wharves. Not one thing about the structure suggested that eight of the most powerful souls in any of the three worlds would be hiding within.
Well, apart from the monumental reiatsu overflowing from the warehouse's walls anyway.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed through the doors of the old building.
Almost as soon as the door clicked shut behind him, the constant flow of reiatsu was cut off. Ichigo was barely aware of the change; the object of his search was arrayed out before him, their expressions carefully doctored to blank impassivity. Well, all but one. And, in spite of his earlier plans to keep his cool, Ichigo couldn't help the irritated scowl that twisted his features as he saw the smug grin that stretched the lips of one Shinji Hirako.
"You're late!" A pause, "Well, later than I expected, considering how much reiatsu we were throwing at you."
His frustration disappeared, replaced by confusion, "You knew I'd come?"
Shinji's face shifted instantly, his smirk replaced by a grim stare, "After last night's performance? We were surprised you weren't breaking down our door at dawn."
Ichigo ground his teeth together, a cold spear of pain shooting through him as images of the Arrancar attack assaulted him. The ring of wicked laughter, as cold as ice, shaking with the grip of insanity. Darkness, swallowing him, consuming him. And worst; a pair of frightened brown eyes, the vitality slowly seeping away from the dark irises.
Restraining an instinctive shiver, he gave the Vizard a level look, "I'm here now, aren't I?"
Much to his relief, Shinji let it go, "Yes, for now, I suppose that's all that matters."
There was a moment's uncomfortable silence, with Ichigo feeling suddenly out of place under the gaze of the Vizard leader. Doubts ate away at the edges of his conviction, burning away at the small amount of determination that remained in him. Snarling inwardly at his own feeble resolve, he steeled himself, meeting Shinji's gaze directly, "I'll do it."
He tried to block out the raised eyebrows, the absence of faith. It was as if they knew. Knew that he desperately wanted to be able to take back the words he had said. Or better; to swing back the pendulum, undo the actions that had led him here in the first place. It was not what he wanted; to become an outcast, a member of a society remote and small, isolated from the rest of the three worlds. It would be hard and lonely, and had there been any other alternative, he would have taken it without a second's hesitation.
Though, judging by the faintest hint of sympathy in the eyes of the Vizard, it appeared that they too regretted his loss.
But any signs of empathy vanished as Shinji grinned, spreading his arms out wide, "Now that's more like it! If only you'd agreed when I first offered, then a lot of … trouble may have been avoided." His expression turned serious, eyes boring into the Kurosaki's downtrodden ones, "Believe me, Ichigo, if you hadn't come, you'd be walking across your friends' graves in weeks."
The wide grin returned, "But I don't think I've properly introduced my fellows. From the right!"
With a sardonically grandiose wave, he gestured to the seven people laid about behind him, "That brooding guy over there is Mugurumu Kensei, and the girl in front of him is Kuna Mashiro." Kensei gave him a curt nod, which Ichigo returned with equal fervor, while Mashiro winked cheekily, to which Ichigo couldn't help but roll his eyes. "The big guy next to her is our resident Kidō expert, Ushōda Hachigen, and the one beside him is Aikawa Love." Both Hachigen and Love bowed politely, Ichigo stiffly returning the gesture. "The next two are Yadōmaru Risa, and, of course, Rose." Risa didn't even look up from the manga her head was buried in, and Rose's eyes only darted up for a brief acknowledgment before falling back to the record he was examining. "And finally, we have Sarugaki Hiyori."
Unlike the other seven, whose reception of him ranged from Mashiro's enthusiasm, to Risa's quiet indifference, Hiyori's response was decidedly hostile. She directed a dark glare at Ichigo, before apparently dismissing him and shifting her gaze toward Shinji with an apparently implacable scowl. Despite himself, the Substitute Shinigami felt a spike of irritation at the girl's attitude, his own inherent temper bubbling beneath the surface.
"You'll have plenty of time to get to know them," Shinji continued, eyeing Hiyori with annoyance, "But we have a bit more than idle chatter to deal with at the moment."
Ichigo tensed; this was what he had been waiting for, "What do I have to do?"
"In a hurry?" Shinji chuckled, before abruptly turning serious, "Look, we'll teach you to control it, but you have to do something for us first." At the Kurosaki's frown, a wry expression, "We're not gonna ask for Soul Society's secrets or anything; to be honest, we're not really interested. What we want, is something far more valuable." He paused, gauging Ichigo's reaction.
Inwardly, the boy was seething. His original plan had been to gain some sort of foothold in the Vizard, an exchange of sorts; himself for support in the war with the Arrancar, or something like that anyway. But somewhere since his arrival, he'd lost any element of control he may have had. He was now fully dependant on their decision to give him control over the monster that resided within him.
If their methods were anything like Urahara's, he wasn't sure he'd stick around, no matter what he promised them.
"To swear allegiance to the Vizard," Shinji murmured, utterly derailing his train of thought. Ichigo couldn't help but stare as the Vizard leader continued in a soft voice, "We are not asking you to completely sever ties with your friends here, but your ultimate loyalty must lie with us. In other words –"
"Ah, just shut it, Shinji!"
The Vizard leader's face scrunched up in a fierce scowl as the diminutive Sarugaki Hiyori landed beside him, "There's no call for messing with the guy, even if he is just some punk kid." Turning to the now-fuming Ichigo, she scowled, "And you. I don't think we really need to bandy about with you anymore. What Shinji's saying is pretty clear, right?"
For a moment, his temper fought with his despair. Yeah, he knew exactly what the Vizard were asking of him. There was no point in them spelling it out; though Hiyori seemed intent on doing so anyway, if only to piss him off.
She grinned smugly, "Plain and simple, we're asking you to pick us over Soul Society. Sure, you can talk to your pals from school whenever the hell you feel like it, y'know, the Princess and the Tiger. And hey, if you really want, you can even pick up a job or two from the higher-ups over in the Sereitei. But, when it comes right down to it, you pick the Vizard over the Shinigami. If we're on par with them, then whatever, you're still cool with them." She paused, "But, if our ideas ever conflict with theirs, if ever we are against Soul Society-"
"-I think he gets the picture," Shinji muttered irritably, throwing a dark look her way. Seeing Ichigo's pained look, he sighed, "Look, the odds of us ever directly confronting Soul Society are a million-to-one. A band of nine Shinigami-Hollow hybrids is hardly a match for the united power of the Gotei Thirteen." He paused, "That said, Hiyori is essentially spot on. You want our help, you join our side. That's the deal."
The Kurosaki grimaced. In the dark corners of his mind, he thought he could already hear him, mocking, questioning Ichigo's sanity. It was tearing him apart from within. And yet, the price of the Vizard's training made him shiver. To give them his loyalty, even over that of the Gotei Thirteen, was beyond ludicrous. He knew next to nothing about them, and they expected him to trust them. The whole situation pissed him off no end.
Though his fury was somewhat dulled by his unspoken fear of what might happen if he didn't accept their offer.
The bastards had backed him into a corner; they had to know he had no choice. Glancing up at Shinji, who was grinning that infuriating grin once more, he adopted his equally infamous scowl.