Darn you, Daricio, I blame you for this ENTIRELY!!!!!
Seriously, it's all her fault...and a continuation of the story she put up for "adoption". Please check that out before you read her story "Friendly Faces". Here is her home page: http://www .fanfiction .net /u/295067/ (no spaces)
"Welcome home, Kuchiki-sama." Rukia looked over at the servant woman who stood just inside the door, waiting to take her outer captain's robe with slippers in hand.
The dark-haired shinigami rubbed the back of her neck as she stepped up onto the wooden floor, leaving her outside sandals neatly below.
"Thank you, Kana-san," she said, handing the other woman the robe. "And please just call me 'Rukia-san'."
"Would you like me to draw a bath, ma'am," Kana asked as Rukia slipped her aching feet into the slippers.
"Maybe later," Rukia responded, eying the eerily silent house suspiciously. "More importantly, where's Ichigo?"
Kana hesitated before answering, which sent warning lights off in Rukia's head almost immediately. It had been nearly two weeks since she had found the 8-year-old boy in the Rukongai, identified him as a memory-less Kurosaki Ichigo, who had been missing for two years, and brought him back to the Kuchiki household, much to Byakuya's apprehension (and amusement, although he would never admit it out loud). So far, nothing too outrageous had happened, but she knew Ichigo's very nature, and that it was only a matter of time before everything hit the proverbial fan somehow.
"What's wrong, Kana?" she asked, trying to keep the worry out of her voice.
"Kuchiki-taichou!" Rukia heard Hanatarou behind her and immediately turned, not knowing if he was referring to her or to Byakuya-nii-sama, who often appeared randomly and quite suddenly, especially in his own household.
The medic strode towards her, looking even more flustered than he normally did. At the sight of him, and no sign of her brother in the vicinity, she felt vaguely relieved, until she realized that Ichigo wasn't with Hanatarou as he should be. This did not help to calm the captain's nerves.
She hurried over to him. "Hanatarou," she nodded in greeting, "where is Ichigo?"
"I-I," He stuttered slightly, but took a deep breath to calm his nerves and continued, gesturing towards the outer wall where Rukia had just come in from. "I took him outside today. Captain Zaraki was..." He sighed, obviously trying to choose the right phrase. "...waiting for us."
Rukia shook her head. Ever since she'd brought Ichigo back, the Eleventh Squad's Captain had practically been stalking the poor kid, scaring him out of his senses half the time. "I'm not surprised," she muttered. "What happened?"
"Well... nothing," Hanatarou said, hesitating pointedly between those two words. "He just sort of... followed us around."
Rukia almost didn't dare to sigh in relief. She'd been expecting Ichigo to snap and give the insane captain what he wanted: an outright fight. True to his nature, even little Ichigo tended to have monstrous power, and didn't hesitate on subconsciously drawing on that and his previous shinigami training if he needed it, although he had a hard time doing so consciously.
"He's under orders to not attack Ichigo. I'm glad he's living up to that," she said with a nod. Actually, it came as a rather pleasant surprise. Kenpachi wasn't exactly known for following the rules. "So, what's wrong?"
Hanatarou looked up at her, obviously frustrated. "I don't know," he said.
Rukia blinked, now thoroughly confused and slightly panicked. "Then where is he?" she asked, glancing at Kana in hopes of some clarification. The servant simply shook her head apologetically and bowed.
Hanatarou went on, earning her attention again. "While we were out talking to people, he kept glancing over his shoulder at the captain and vise-captain and hiding behind me, but nothing happened. We finished a little earlier than I had thought, and headed back here. He seemed fine until we arrived. Then he locked himself in a parlor and hasn't come out."
"Really?" the captain asked, now looking even more perplexed. "And you have no idea why?"
Hanatarou glanced up at her skeptically before returning his eyes to the ground. "I believe he's frightened of Zaraki-taichou."
Rukia nodded and turned to Kana. "Do you have a key to the room?"
"Yes, ma'am, but we felt it better to leave him alone unless we heard something breaking," she said slowly. Hanatarou nodded in agreement.
"I see." Rukia paused in thought for several moments before looking back at Kana. "May I have the key?"
"Of course, ma'am," the woman bowed politely and produced the key from beneath her robes. Rukia smiled. Kana tended to be able to pull anything from somewhere on her person, from brushes and ink stones to bottles of sake. Since nothing ever went missing in inventory, no one really questioned it. Rukia herself had gotten used to it rather quickly, although it still seemed to throw Hanatarou off since he'd been coming to the household to look after Ichigo.
Rukia smiled at her. "Thank you, Kana. Why don't you go draw that bath? One for me and one for Ichigo?"
"Yes, ma'am," the housemaid said, bowing out and disappearing down a hallway.
The captain then turned to her fellow shinigami. "Now, let's go see what's wrong with him."
"Ichigo?" Rukia said quietly as she entered the sparsely decorated room. Few rooms in the manor had more than a few pieces of furniture. This one was hardly an exception, although it had been fashioned after modern Earthen European style, with chairs, couches and even a tea table.
Ichigo sat curled up in one armchair staring out a nearby window at the sky, far more still than Rukia had seen him since she'd found him. When she entered, he turned and looked at her, blinking his large brown eyes. It hit her for the millionth time how absolutely adorable he looked, dressed in his little casual kimono, hugging the little lion that Kon had given to him in a moment of rare fondness. More than once, she had pondered grabbing some fake rabbit ears just to see how cute she could possibly make this little boy look. She never had lost her fondness for adorable things.
Still, the seriousness in his expression kind of ruined the whole effect this time. Normally, it only made him even cuter, but there was something about him at that moment that stood out to her.
"So, what's wrong?" she frowned, thinking just how weird it felt to say that to him. Back when he'd been an adult (and with Ichigo, she used that term loosely), she would have just kicked some sense into him, but she just couldn't bring herself to do that to an 8-year-old boy.
Mentally, Rukia took her previous thought back. Feeling her forehead throb slightly, she flash stepped up to him and knocked him over the head. Hanatarou bit his lip and watched in horror from the door. He'd learned better than to question Rukia, but that didn't stop him from looking like he wanted to.
"OW!" Ichigo yelled, rubbing the spot she'd hit. "What was that for?!"
"Lying to me," she said matter-of-factly.
"How'd I lie to you?" he asked.
"Something's wrong, and you're not telling me," she said, sitting down on a nearby couch. "I'm not going to let you do that this time, so tell me what's wrong."
Ichigo muttered something under his breath about 'mean old hags', which had Rukia pinching his cheeks and pulling before he could blink.
"Owowowowow! OWW! I'm sowwy!" he yelped out painfully.
"Good," she muttered and sat back, vaguely wondering why he hadn't dodged that. He could have. She knew him. Maybe he couldn't always count on his previous training, especially since she hadn't given off any killing intent. Was it more like subconscious conditioning? Hit or miss depending on the severity of the situation? She'd talk to Urahara about that later.
Ichigo sat, glaring at her and rubbing his cheek, looking far more like the old Ichigo than he had since he'd come to the house.
"Well?" she asked. "Are you sulking in here because you're afraid of Kenpachi?"
Immediately, the orange-haired boy looked away from her, his scowl deepening. He didn't answer, and that was all the answer she needed.
Feeling her anger subside slightly, she sighed. "Look, Ichigo--"
"Why am I afraid?!" he blurted out suddenly. "Why does he scare me that much?"
Rukia blinked and glanced at Hanatarou, who blinked back and shrugged. "Well," the Fourth Squad Shigami started, edging in shyly, "he is big, and kinda mean, and scary--"
"No, it's something else!" Ichigo shot a pleading glance at him, cutting him off.
Rukia studied the smaller boy. "Well, you did fight him when you came to rescue me," she paused and added dryly, "and several times afterwords; practically on a daily basis."
Ichigo looked back at her skeptically. "Did I win?"
"Usually," she conceded.
"Then why?" he asked.
"Maybe because you don't think you can beat him now?" she ventured.
Again, he shook his head, looking more and more frustrated. "No!" he said. "That's not it either!"
They sat in a thick silence for several minutes before Rukia broke it with a sigh and sat forward. "Ichigo, fear is a natural part of humans and souls. It's how we survive."
"That's not what 'Other me' says," he muttered.
It took Rukia several minutes to fully comprehend those words. "'Other me'?" she asked.
"Yeah," Ichigo looked up at her. "He lives in my head too."
"You mean, Zangetsu?" she asked.
Ichigo shook his head, "No, the other me. He says fear will get us killed."
Rukia suddenly felt her face pale slightly. "Us?" she managed to get out.
Now Ichigo looked adorably perturbed, but Rukia was far too distracted to notice his new, cute expression. "Me, Old Man Zangetsu, and 'Other me'," he said. From Hanatarou's sharp gasp, he saw where Rukia was going and fully understood the implications too.
The captain licked her lips. She'd been afraid that third personality in his mind would eventually surface, and had been rather unsure what kind of control Ichigo would have over said personality....
Gulping softly, Rukia realized she was jumping to conclusions. Maybe there was some other voice in this kid's head. Of course, hat didn't exactly have the best implications either. Still, she figured she'd better make sure. "Does he have a name too? I mean besides 'other me'?"
Ichigo blinked and looked up thoughtfully. "He says he doesn't have a name, so I just call him 'other me'."
Well, that confirmed that, Rukia thought grimly. "What else does he say?" she asked slowly.
Ichigo paused, staring blankly at nothing before he turned back and focused in on Rukia. "He says 'Hi'."
Rukia blinked at the child, wondering exactly how she was supposed to react to this. So Ichigo had met his inner hollow, but their relationship had apparently changed...drastically. The Ichigo she knew never talked to his hollow. Never. It had taken him months after the Winter War ended before he could even openly admit he had the inner hollow, and longer still before he'd talk to anyone about it without dodging questions or avoiding the subject like the plague. When said subject had come up once during a conversation she'd had with Ichigo, he'd said that he hated the fact that he had anything in common with the enemy...that he was just like them. She'd had to beat him over the head for that one too.
When the Soul Society had begrudgingly asked him to substitute as a captain until the end of the 'Final War' with Aizen, he had accepted the restrictions on him using his hollow mask or any power that came along with it almost too quickly.
He seemed to loathe his hollow, so what was he doing talking to that thing like it was nothing? Like they were (dare she think it) friends?! And more importantly, why hadn't 'other me' decided to take over? Ichigo had described his Inner Hollow as just that: A pure hollow who just wanted more control and power. He'd been willing to try and devour Ichigo just to get those.
"He says to tell you that 'fear causes mis...um...," he paused for a moment, concentrating on the bigger word, "misun...um...," he paused again, as if listening to someone, and then said the syllables more slowly. "Mis...under...standings," he finally finished, looking rather proud of himself.
Rukia blinked. Well, there went her hot bath. With this new, not completely unexpected but definitely unwanted turn of events, she couldn't get in contact with Urahara soon enough.
"Hey, Ichigo," she smiled as she leaned down and looked him in the eye. "Why don't we keep 'other me' secret for now, okay? You, me, Hanatarou, and Urahara."
"Um, okay," the boy said slowly. "He wants to know why. Me too."
"Because," she chose her words carefully, "we don't want to alarm anyone."
Ichigo blinked at her for several seconds. "He's from my life before. You know him. He says people knowing would scare them. Why?" Of course, he would ask her that. She hesitated, wondering if was it a good idea to tell him. "He won't tell me either," Ichigo pouted when she didn't answer immediately, the familiar scowl returning to his face.
Rukia resisted scratching her head. This really made no sense to her. Hollows lived for fear, often fed off of it like it added flavor to the human souls they consumed, and from what she knew, Ichigo's hollow was no exception.
"People having voices in their heads that aren't Zanpakutous make other people nervous," she said finally.
Ichigo's scowl deepened. "He says 'good one Rukia-chan'," Ichigo muttered. Then his eyes flew wide and he put a hand over his mouth in a way that couldn't help but advertise 'I'm cute!' in big, bold letters. "I mean taichou!" he said, bowing apologetically. "Kuchiki-taichou!"
"Well," Rukia stood up and looked over at the door and Hanatarou, exchanging glances with him. "I think it's time for your bath."
"Huh?" Ichigo whined. "Do I have to?"
"Yes," she said sternly. "Hanatarou," she looked back at the fourth-squad officer. "I'm sorry to impose on you, but would you mind staying a little longer? It seems I have a few more things I need to do."
Hanatarou blinked and nodded hastily before bowing. "Of course, Rukia-san."
"Thank you," Rukia smiled at him, watching the two walk out of the room. As soon as they had gone from view, she practically ran to the communications room and requested an immediate, private, emergency line to the human world.
"Hmm," Urhahara muttered. Rukia could just picture him rubbing his chin behind that fan of his.
"You sound like this was unexpected," she muttered.
"Well, it is," he said cheerfully. That vein on Rukia's head started to throb again.
"What do you mean, it is?!" she practically shouted. The silence coming from the other end only ticked her off more. "I thought you said you suspected he still had his Visored powers!"
She paused for a few moments, waiting for a response, and was about to start chewing him out when he finally replied. "It seems he doesn't."
That threw Rukia for a loop. "What?"
"Being half hollow and half shinigami doesn't make you a Visored or an Arrancar," he clarified, but that only caused Rukia's confusion to deepen.
"Why not?" she asked, noting the dry tone in her voice. After almost a decade of being a captain, he could still get under her skin almost as well as Ichigo used to be able to.
Urahara paused again, seeming to contemplate before she heard his rather staticy voice. "Becoming a Visored or an Arrancar is about control. Arrancar gain back intelligence to an extent which gives their power a focus that couldn't be achieved any other way. The Visored can control their hollow powers at will, and taught Ichigo to do so as well."
Rukia saw where he was going now and gripped the metal phone-like device tighter, thankful that she'd requested a private room for her communication. "And he doesn't seem to be able to anymore."
She imagined Urahara shook his head in agreement before she heard him again "It seems that he has reverted to point similar to where he was before he met the Visored."
Rukia couldn't help it, she stood up, willing herself not to panic without much success. "Then it's only a matter of time before that...thing tries to take over again?!" Again another pause, but this one felt more skeptical. "Urahara?"
"You said he's freely talking to his hollow, right?"
"Yes," Rukia gulped. "That's not good, right?"
A slight hesitation. "I'm not so sure."
"What do you mean?" she asked, feeling herself growing more and more impatient with the man.
"If that's the case, why hasn't he tried to take over Ichigo's mind already?"
Rukia nodded and sat down, "I did wonder that myself."
"Last time, it took the hollow a little less than month to get strong enough to try and take over," he explained. "He's had almost two years, so we're looking at two options. Either the training set up by the Visored is still there in his mind, but Ichigo himself is ignoring it in favor of interacting freely, or..." he faded off.
Rukia finished for him. "Or the memory block erased the training, but somehow made the hollow weaker." That brought up another question. "Why does he still have that hollow? Normally a hollow gets cleansed before it can even enter the rukongai."
"He wasn't cleansed or lead to the Soul Society," Urahara pointed out. "If he hadn't already known about the soul society, he would have continued to wander around as a normal spirit."
"With no soul burial. I see. So," Rukia put a hand to the bridge of her nose, "what do we do, and how do we stop it?"
"That," Urahara started, "is a very good question!" he finished in a happy tone.
"Urahara," she growled threateningly. If she'd been there, he'd have a lump the size of China on his head right now...
"I will get in touch with the Visored," he said, feigning a soothing voice that didn't help at all. "Maybe having them look at him will help."
"Fine," she grumbled. "When do you want me to bring Ichigo there?"
"I should be able to get them here by Tuesday," he responded.
"I'll be there," she said, and slammed the receiver shut. Why did talking to that man always seem to drain her?
"We're going to the human world?" Ichigo asked as Rukia lead him up to the gate, looking at the little butterfly on his finger in amazement. Rukia's own black butterfly flapped near her ear.
A slight breeze blew by, and the captain took a deep breath. Ever since Ichigo had come to rescue her, she'd made it a habit whenever she left the Soul Society. She'd take a breath of the air there, and picture everything just as it was in case something happened and she never saw it again.
"Yes," she finally answered the boy's question.
"Why?" he turned his brown eyes up to look at her.
She didn't look back, instead keeping her eyes fixed on the gate. "To talk to Urahara-san," she said.
"Oh," he looked down, and then right back up again. "Why?"
Rukia repressed a sigh. Weren't kids supposed to get over the 'why' stage by the age of eight? "Because he has someone he wants you to meet...again."
"Oh," Ichigo looked back at the butterfly, and then immediately back at her yet again. "Who?"
Rukia felt her patience thinning. The last thing she wanted to do was alert the hollow to what they were doing. Wouldn't that go down well, she thought sarcastically. 'We're going to go see the Visored so your 'other me' won't try to take over your mind'.
"You'll just have to see when we get there," the Captain finally said, looking down with a smile she hoped didn't look too fake.
"Oh," he looked down again, and this time, he didn't look back up. "Okay."
The gate opened in front of them, and the dark-haired Shinigami led a miniature Ichigo Kurosaki carrying his sword (on his back for once) through the doorway to Earth. Rukia couldn't help but feel the somewhat awkward silence, although from Ichigo's wide-eyed stare at the passageway across the worlds, she doubted he did.
Again, she wondered if this was the right thing to do. She never had much cared for the Visored. She did feel for their situation, and she had no problem supporting their cause so long as no one got hurt, but something about them really bothered her. At first, she'd thought it was the fact that they were half hollow, half shinigami, but she had no real problem with Ichigo who had the same problem. After months of contemplation, she'd finally come to the conclusion a few years ago that it was their attitude towards both their hollows and the soul society. They'd showed up to save the captains from serious casualties if not complete extinction in the winter war, but they'd only done so to get revenge on Aizen. The fact that they'd saved the Soul Society had just been a side-thought.
Truthfully, she couldn't blame them after their treatment from the Soul Society, but a lot of people they hadn't known at all could have died that day without them caring. Sure, the shinigami weren't perfect, but most of them continued their duties because they thought it was right, or the only thing they could do to change things for the better. The Visored treated them like previous slave masters or piles of waste they couldn't deign to touch. It bothered her that every group seemed to feel that way about the next group. Too many shinigami felt the same way about humans, although they were so interconnected if only by the fact that all shinigami used to live on Earth themselves, or were born from souls who did.
Deep down, they all had the same beginning...even hollows now that she thought about it. Why did everyone have to hate everyone else just because the others lived in different circumstances?
"Rukia-taichou!" a little voice pulled her out of her thoughts, causing her to stop and look back at Ichigo. They'd already passed through the gate to Earth, and had come a considerable distance during the time she'd been lost in her own thoughts. "Why are we going so fast?"
It was then that Rukia realized that she'd been walking so quickly that Ichigo had probably had to use shunpo to keep up with his smaller legs.
Mentally berating herself for becoming so distracted, she smiled down at him. "We don't have to. Sorry, Ichigo."
"It's okay," he said with a shrug, looking around at the street they'd stopped on. Buildings of apartments surrounded them, rising up a few stories here and there. They'd come through a residential area on their way to Urahara's shop. Why the twelfth squad couldn't come up with a more accurate and somewhat closer placement was beyond her.
It was then that she felt the spiritual pressure shift around them.
"What's that?" Ichigo asked, looking around curiously.
"A hollow," Rukia muttered, drawing her sword and pushing Ichigo behind her protectively. They didn't have to wait long before a large figure jumped at them, gaping jaw open. Truthfully, Rukia probably would have barely given the thing any thought if it hadn't been for Ichigo. She knew he could take care of himself, but she felt she had to protect him. He had been—was, she had to remind herself—her friend, after all.
Almost as soon as the monster appeared, Rukia had cut the mask in half, and was watching the spirit dissolve when she realized Ichigo had moved from behind her to stand beside the thing as it vanished.
"Ichigo!" she shouted, sheathing her sword and walking over to him. "What do you think you're doing?"
"What was that?" he asked, completely ignoring her question. Normally, that would have played on her nerves, but the sheer absurdity of the question had her staring at him in shock instead. How could he of all people not know what a hollow was?!
"You...don't know?" she asked in amazement. How could any soul from the Rukongai not know a hollow when they saw one?
He looked over at her in annoyance. "I wouldn't ask if I did."
Well that sounded like the old Ichigo, but still. "That was a hollow," she finally managed to say.
"It was?" he asked as he turned to study the air above him where the hollow had been only moments before. "They're not very scary."
"Huh?" was all she could get out this time. That hollow had had some pretty large spiritual pressure, and a mask that screamed 'I want to kill you', with spikes and thorns sticking out all over it. It had looked pretty creepy, even to her.
He shrugged and walked back towards her. "Everyone said they were really big, and really powerful, and that they ate shinigami. It was big, but not very powerful."
'Compared to you,' Rukia thought with a shake of her head.
"Well, they're right," she said. "That one wasn't very strong, but there are some out there who are."
"Have you ever met one?" he asked, looking up with those eyes that seemed to drink in information.
She opened her mouth to answer, but had to close it and think for a moment. She had met Arrancar, which were technically hollows and very powerful. She'd also met Visored, although she'd never actually seen even Ichigo's hollow form, let alone the others, but wasn't sure if either of those really counted. The only pure hollows she'd ever really met that she could describe as even somewhat powerful had been Gillian. From what she'd been told from Orihime, Ishida (when she could get them to talk about it) and Urahara, Ichigo's inner hollow could actually be the equivalent of a Vasto Lorde if he ever became pure hollow.
"Yes," she finally said, "although they might not seem too powerful to you or me now."
"Oh," he said. "Do they really eat people?"
She didn't like where this was going, but decided to answer anyway. "Yes."
Well, at least it was a good thing they were going to walk to Urahara's a little more slowly, this one might take a while to explain.
"Do you know what a hollow really is?" she asked as she started to walk down the street again.
"No," he answered. She sighed again. Just how much did this kid not know?
"They're souls of humans who have lost their heart," she explained slowly.
"Oh that," Ichigo said nonchalantly as they rounded a corner, "yeah, I knew that part."
Rukia cocked her head. How did he know how a hollow formed without knowing what a hollow was? It didn't make sense. She made another mental note to bring it up at Urahara's.
"Well, what are people's hearts?" she asked.
That one seemed to throw him, as they walked in silence for several seconds while he thought about it, a look of concentration on his face.
Finally, he shrugged. "I dunno."
"They're feelings and memories of people and places they have connections to," she said.
The look of concentration came back, and she realized that he might not have been able to follow that, although she couldn't think why. He usually spoke with a vocabulary far above his outward age.
"People like you and Hanatarou-san?" he asked finally. Rukia couldn't help but feel touched as she nodded. He felt connected to her, and she couldn't help the thought that what he'd said had been very sweet.
"Exactly," she said with a grin. "So, what happens if someone loses their heart?"
"Um..." he started to think on that again, staring at the ground as he contemplated this new question. "They want it back?" His words sounded fairly uncertain, but she was surprised he'd come up with that on his own so quickly. Honestly, was the kid two, eight, or twenty eight? Half the time, she couldn't tell.
She nodded at him, feeling a twinge of pride for some reason. "So who do you think you would go after?"
"You and Hanatarou-sa—oh," he cut himself off as his brain finally made the connection. "And hollows eat people they loved so they can have their hearts again."
"Very good," Rukia grinned. Well, at least he got the concept of the theory. That's all it was, after all; a theory. Shinigami didn't know hollows as well as they knew humans. All that they could really predict was that their predictions would be completely useless for many of the hollows simply because of the diversity in nature and thought. Evil or not, hollows were still sentient beings, which made them very difficult to both study and categorize.
That's when another question from Ichigo caught her off guard. "So, why does everyone think they're evil?"
She'd thought that if he could follow her train of thought before, he'd be able to piece together a hollow's very nature. The fact that he couldn't worried her.
"Well, they kill and eat people," she pointed out with a frown. "Mercilessly and often in large amounts. How is that not evil?"
"But they just want what they lost. Why is that bad?"
"It's how they do it," Rukia said matter-of-factly, and nearly cheered when she saw the dead end that turned into the shop's entrance come into view. "No one has the right to kill and eat other people."
Ichigo looked up at her. "Why?"
The captain froze in her tracks. Why did that one word scare her more than almost anything else she'd heard of since she'd met 15-year-old Ichigo Kurosaki more than ten years before? "Would you want to be killed?"
"Then do you think you should be able to kill other people?"
He thought about that one for an awfully long moment before he finally looked back up at her. "No."
And that one word gave her more relief than she'd felt in a very long time. "Then why should we treat hollows differently? Besides, our Zanpaktous purify a hollow's spirit and sends them onto the soul society. When that happens, they can get their hearts back again."
"Oh, okay," he said brightly and started walking ahead again. She started to follow him when he paused and turned back around, speaking words that almost stopped her heart. "So, why didn't you do that to me?"
Her face paled as those words sank in. 'He knows.' The thought flashed through her mind as Ichigo stared up at her, looking far too serious for a teenager, let alone an eight-year-old. 'Does the hollow know what we're doing, or does Ichigo know about his inner hollow? Did the hollow tell him to ask that or was that the old Ichigo coming through? What's going on?'
He continued to stare at her, but she found herself completely speechless. "Why?" he repeated, nudging her out of her stupor.
"I...we didn't think we needed to," she said. "We didn't think you'd disappear like that."
"Oh," was all he said. She wanted him to yell at her, to ask her why she couldn't do the one simple task of ridding his spirit of a double personality, of making it whole again so he didn't have to endure the pain and fear he must have felt. His hollow had been a bane to him, and she hadn't even thought about how she might be able to fix that. She could have. She should have.
Most people who died wanted some sort of peace. Why would Ichigo be any different? Why did every excuse they'd given him suddenly sound so empty in her head?
As she watched him turn around and continue to slowly walk, she found herself wanting to run after him, to apologize and beg his forgiveness. He had suffered so much because she hadn't done her duty as a shinigami, both when she first met him, and now. She desperately wanted to do something, but the words running through her head seemed horribly inadequate.
"Ichigo," was all she managed to say, and he didn't even hear it.
"Urahara-san," Ichigo tugged at the man's robe to get his attention. He blinked and looked down at the eight-year-old. "She's doing it again."
Surely enough, Rukia-taichou's eyes had lost their focus and seemed to be staring at the air in front of her absently.
"Indeed she is," Urahara smiled down at Ichigo before raising his hand in front of the captain's face. "Rukia-san," he yelled and snapped his fingers in front of her eyes for the third time that night. She blinked and looked up at him. "Do you need me to ask Tessai to bring you something?" he asked, looking about as concerned as Urahara could.
"No, no," she smiled over at him and waved her hand. "I'm fine. Just...thinking." Ichigo watched with a worried expression. She'd first acted that way just before the red-haired teenager had met them and brought them into the shop. Urahara had snapped her out of that one too. She's gotten lost in thought at least twice since then, and they'd only talked in the back room for a few minutes. Ichigo didn't catch much of what they'd talked about, and wondered if the shop keeper was always like that, or if it was just around them.
"Very well," he smiled at her and opened the fan in front of his face. Then he turned to Ichigo and bent down. Without removing the fan, he continued to (hopefully) smile at the boy.
"So, Ichigo, are you ready to meet the people we brought you here to see?"
The eight-year-old shrugged. "I guess."
"Excellent!" the store owner immediately straightened up with far more energy than any adult should rightfully have. "Let's go!"
He led them down to the large underground, which made Ichigo curious. Why were they meeting people down here? Maybe there were so many people that just the store couldn't hold them all.
'Che,' Other Me scoffed in his head. 'Did they really think I wouldn't figure it out?'
'Figure what out?' Ichigo asked Other Me. 'Do you know these people?'
'Yeah, I do,' Other Me grumbled. 'You can't trust them, okay? They're gonna tell you a bunch of things. I'll tell you what you can believe and what they got wrong, got that?'
'Okay,' Ichigo mentally blinked at him, but kept that in mind as he stepped off of the ladder.
He started to turn around, and found himself with a view full of green hair.
"AW! It's Chibi-berry-tan!" a high-pitched voice came from somewhere below the...bush? He stepped back, bringing the face that had been too close to him to really focus on before into view. A girl with goggles and short, green hair grinned at him from where she knelt beside him.
Suddenly, Ichigo saw something heading right at him, and had to jump out of the way before it broke the bottom several rungs of the ladder, and crushed the rock directly underneath it, much to Urahara's displeasure. "I don't care if he is little! I'm still gonna kick his bald little butt!" Ichigo looked up with wide eyes to see a girl only a few inches taller than him, with blond hair gathered up into pig-tails on the side of her head turn and glare at him.
"Give it a rest, Hyori," a voice behind him said. Ichigo swung around and looked up at a man with chin-length blond hair and a very creepy, eerily familiar smile just in time to see him get a face-full of sandal from the girl he'd just addressed.
"You give it a rest, baldy! He disappears for two years, makes us think he's dead and all that hard work we did was for nothing, and you want me to give it a rest?!"
"What was that for?!" the man asked, holding his red nose in one hand, and the sandal in the other.
The girl scoffed and folded her arms. "That was for you being an idiot."
"I was not!" the man yelled back.
Meanwhile, Ichigo had slipped over toward where he'd seen Rukia and Urahara standing. He'd almost reached them when he ran into an even taller, more muscular man with short, gray hair.
"Where do you think you're goin' kid?" he asked. Ichigo stepped back. Something about this guy reminded him a little of Kenpachi, and he didn't like it.
'I told you, don't be afraid!' Other Me practically yelled at him.
'Right,' Ichigo nodded, trying to put on a brave face. "I'm going over there," he pointed to Rukia.
"Ichigo," the blond man from before called as he walked up to them, having finished his argument with the Hyori girl or ignoring her completely. "You really don't remember us?"
The child blinked up at him, and then looked around. There were four other people besides the four he'd already run into. A disinterested girl with long, black hair tied back in a braid sat on a rock not too far away, reading a book, while a man with frizzy, dark hair sat beside her, reading over her shoulder. Ichigo vaguely wondered why the man's hair had been cut to look like a star. The largest man he'd ever seen sat on the ground a little ways away from them. He smiled nicely and waved at Ichigo, who returned the gesture. The last person was a man with long, blond hair who leaned nonchalantly against a rock. He didn't seem interested either because he wasn't even looking over at Ichigo.
The orange-haired boy finished his survey of the room and looked back up at the man.
"No," he said with a shake of his head.
"You've gotta be kiddin' me!" Hyori appeared out of nowhere and grabbed the front of Ichigo's shinigami outfit, lifting him off of the ground. "We saved your sorry butt and you can't even remember us?"
Ichigo felt a tiny flare of anger swell inside of him. "I don't remember anything or anyone," he said back, a little louder than he intended to. "Especially mean, stupid, short people!"
"What?" Hyori's voice dropped dangerously. "Are you saying that I'm not good enough to remember?"
"Yeah," Ichigo shot back.
"Hyori-san," Urahara suddenly appeared beside them and stuck his fan between their faces. "He doesn't remember anything, even his family. That's what we're trying to fix."
The man with short, blond hair scratched the back of his head. "Is that why you wanted us to come, Urahara?" he asked, looking slightly annoyed.
The shop keeper flipped his fan open and turned to the other man. "Of course!"
"You baldy!" Hyori yelled and threw her remaining sandal at him, hitting his head dead on and almost knocking him over.
"Hyori-san, why do you have to do that?" he lamented, holding his head.
"If that's all you needed us for," the girl with black hair walked by, "then we'll be going now, as it obviously didn't help."
"Before you do," Urahara called out to them, the tone in his voice suddenly much more serious. He turned to Ichigo and looked at him squarely. "Would you tell us about 'Other Me'?"
Ichigo pouted. "Rukia-taichou said that was supposed to be a secret!"
"It's okay, Ichigo," the captain called out to him. "I gave him permission."
"Oh," Ichigo grumbled. 'Then why didn't she tell me?'
'Because she didn't want me to know,' Other Me replied, shrugging.
"Other me?" the short-haired, blond man asked, looking at Ichigo curiously. "Are you tellin' me that this kid didn't get a soul burial? That he's still like us?"
Other Me scoffed again. 'Don't put us in the same category,' he muttered.
Rukia-taichou's mouth thinned out, and she nodded. "We think so."
Every one of the new people stopped what they were doing and looked over at Ichigo, who suddenly felt very self-conscious.
"Alright, who is this 'Other Me' you're talking about?" the man smiled down at Ichigo, which did nothing to soothe the boy's apprehension
"Who are you, first?" Ichigo shot back.
The man straightened up. "Fair enough," his grin widened. "I'm Hirako Shinji. Nice to re-meet you."
"Who are they?" Ichigo pointed over to where most of the people had gathered.
"That's Yadoma Lisa, Mugurume Kensei, Hyori, Aikawa Love, just call him Rose, Kuna Mashiro, and call him Hachi," he said, pointing to each of the others in turn, then he turned back to Ichigo. "So, 'Other Me'?"
"Why should I tell you?" Ichigo asked with a slight pout.
This time, Rukia spoke up soothingly. "Ichigo, they're all like you. They have another voice in their head. That's why we thought they could help."
'You just didn't know what to do 'cause you didn't think!' Other Me practically yelled, causing Ichigo to wince slightly.
"Please," Rukia continued, "tell them."
It was the look on her face that did it, a completely helpless look that he'd always hated...although he felt pretty certain he'd never seen it on Rukia-taichou's face before.
'Fine, tell them,' Other Me said.
Ichigo looked directly at Shinji and nodded. "He lives in my head with Old Man Zangetsu."
"Oh really?" Shinji asked in an obviously fake voice, squatting down so he'd be more even with Ichigo.
"Yeah," the boy nodded as he spoke. "He talks to me a lot and explains things I don't understand sometimes."
The man blinked at that, looking surprised. "Really?" he repeated, this time with a much more sincere voice.
"Uh-huh," Ichigo confirmed. "He's saved my life before, too."
'Whoa,' Other Me protested suddenly, 'That's going a bit too far.'
'Why?' Ichigo asked, even as he watched the man's eyebrows shoot up.
"He did what?" Hyori suddenly butted in.
"Yeah," Ichigo said slowly. "There were men, in the Rukongai who were chasing me, and Other Me helped me beat them." Well, Ichigo wasn't really sure if he had or not. Truthfully, he'd woken up in the middle of what had looked like a battle ground, with people unconscious all around him and a wooden stick in his hands. Other Me had said that it would probably be better if Ichigo didn't remember, and they'd left it at that.
"Has he ever tried to hurt you or take over your mind?" Shinji asked, his voice sounding more and more incredulous.
Ichigo looked appalled. "No. Why would he do that?"
"Because, kid," the guy named Mugurume said from his position only a few feet away, "that's all that voice in your head wants to do."
"How would you know?" Ichigo shot back.
The man scowled at him. "'Cause this 'Other Me' you've become so friendly with, is a hollow."