The First Day…(Part 1)
Nearly everyone in class was on edge. With mere minutes before the end of school for the weekend, even the teacher was glancing at the clock just over the door, willing it to tick faster as she handed out homework to her antsy students. Even these would only prove temporary distractions for the inevitable stampede. Finally, the last second clicked away, and the bell rang. Ms. Ochi snatched her class folder off her desk, darted to the door and slapped it open before saying the blessed words as she zoomed out into the hall: "Enjoy your weekend! See you next week!"
The entire class whooped for joy save for the most composed bunch. However, even they could not suppress the grins, save Ichigo, Chad and Uryu, who may as well have been unflappable. The class emptied in a matter of seconds, leaving a handful of students who were more controlled in their departures. These consisted of Ichigo Kurosaki, the hero of many secret, epic battles, including the near-total sweep of Las Noches just over a month ago. He scratched at his orange-haired head as he reached for his bag, trademark scowl firmly in place. Uryu Ishida was already waiting, Orihime practically bouncing with excitement beside him at the door, Tatsuki on her opposite side. Rukia shouldered her bag as the behemoth form of Chad followed close behind. They departed in a group bound so tightly that not even three whole worlds could hold them apart, though there had been some very earnest attempts to do so.
Very few had failed to notice the group's changes since last spring, amplified over the last several months and culminating into their unique "clan" that they seemed to form. Ichigo was noted for no longer getting into fights. Those that tried to pick fights with him completely lost their nerve after he glared at them, sending people to their knees without him even lifting a finger. The new girl, Rukia, was seen as something of an unofficial girlfriend to Strawberry; she certainly could rein him in like one. If she heard you say so, though, the temperature oddly seemed to plummet sharply even as she modestly corrected your assumption. Orihime, though still the happy sweetheart, was far more serious and confident and wore an invisible strength few knew she could have like a mantle. The gentle giant, Chad, seemed as peaceful as ever, though when a gang confronted him after school earlier in the month, he actually swung back. He only did so once, but the act and the strength behind it seemed to completely stymie any further attempts to provoke him. Uryu Ishida, once a complete social outcast, had joined the group and bore a strong bond with them, making him even more unusual, as he seemed to have nothing in common with any of the rest. And of course, where Ichigo and Orihime were, Tatsuki was not far behind. She still protected Orihime, but now seemed to hold Ichigo in higher regard for some reason.
Together, they departed school in a mostly silent pack. Instead of splitting up over the course of their route, they would wait outside each house as whoever lived there would go inside, change and free themselves of their school burden before returning to the group. Eventually, the now casually dressed group meandered down a side street towards a dinky little candy shop hidden in a mostly empty lot. Greetings with the children who lived and worked there were exchanged before they went inside. To an outside observer, things were eerily quiet after that, with no movement coming from the scene save for the two little employees.
What you couldn't see was the massive space beneath the store, where the gang had settled alongside a black cat and a scruffy, blonde-haired man in a green and white striped bucket hat and green coat. "Alright ladies and gentlemen, I'm glad you all could make it!" the shopkeeper and namesake of the Urahara Shoten said cheerfully.
Ichigo sighed. "What do you have for us this time, Hat-n-Clogs?"
"It'd better be important; Yoruichi-sensei was gonna start teaching me Shunpo today," Tatsuki groused with arms crossed. Over the time Ichigo had been in Las Noches, Tatsuki had been receiving direct combat training from Yoruichi, since both were hand-to-hand fighters. Ichigo was livid when he found out, but he relaxed a hair when he found out that Urahara had refrained from putting her through any of the known methods to give Soul Reaper powers, instead just fighting her until her own special powers awoke naturally. That still earned the blond shopkeeper a swift kick to the face from the fiery deputy Soul Reaper, but he was slowly warming up to the idea of Tatsuki at least being able to hold her own against lesser hollows that may be drawn to her high spiritual pressure.
"I assure you I wouldn't be asking all of you if this wasn't of utmost importance, my friends," he replied solemnly. Everyone immediately went silent and focused all of their attention on him. It was excessively rare for old Hat-n-Clogs to be so serious. "Have any of you been watching the news recently?"
Uryu adjusted his glasses silently, the false sunlight in the massive chamber concealing his gaze as it reflected off the lenses. "I assume you are referring to the sudden string of deaths in Fuyuki City?"
"Correct! Over the last few days, a string of 'gas leaks' and similar 'freak accidents' has claimed no less than eight lives during the night. Normally, the Soul Society would ignore this as a purely human issue, but we have reason to believe something bigger and more dangerous is going on," the way Urahara's demeanor shifted from cheery to grim and back made Ichigo briefly entertain the notion of the ex-captain being bi-polar. He knew better of course, but that didn't change how weird his outward mood swings were.
"What do you mean?" Chad rumbled.
"You were all probably too young to remember this, but about 10 years ago, a similar string of events started with a few accidents, followed by complete disappearances, culminating in the Great Fuyuki Fire that destroyed over a square mile. It was only when the fire started that Soul Society took an active interest, as it was preceded by an extremely short, massive burst of spirit energy that completely eclipsed even the Soul Society's Captain-General. By the time an investigation was underway, most of he evidence was lost in the blaze, save for traces of extremely powerful spiritual beings the likes of which have never been seen before. However, archival records indicate something like the first two steps in the process had occurred 4 times previously over the last 300 years. The spirit energy burst from the last time was something new, though. Since then, Soul Reapers assigned to Fuyuki have been advised to monitor for the early signs of an event brewing of similar magnitude," Yoruichi answered in her cat form's male, wise voice.
Rukia listened with her hand at her chin, nodding her head thoughtfully. "I see. However, there are still a few things you are going to have to explain. For one, if the Soul Society is already monitoring the situation, why did you call us? A Soul Reaper could simply call for reinforcements if the situation started again, unless…"
"You're on the right track, Kuchiki-san. The on-duty Soul Reaper was indeed able to get off a call for help before disappearing. We believe he encountered the cause of the disturbance and was killed for it. For that reason…" Hat-n-Clogs waved his hand eloquently, letting the team follow his implications.
Ichigo summed up his nakama's general response quite nicely as realization dawned. "Aw, hell."
Not missing his cue, Urahara whipped out a handful of train tickets, holding them in front of his face like his trademark fan. "The Soul Society has specifically asked for you, as the unofficial rapid response force in the World of the Living, to investigate the matter and, if necessary, put a stop to it. But don't fret too much, the Soul Society is pulling some strings to cover all of your expenses, within reason, as an apology for the inconvenience and to work off some of that monster debt they owe you, so feel free to load up on souvenirs!"
The last comment made Ichigo's lips twitch as he suppressed a smile at the thought, though he switched to indignation almost immediately. "You have got to be kidding me! You mean the Soul Society is forcing us to drop everything for who-knows-how-long and throw ourselves into some crazy mystery mission? "
"Yep!" was the damnably cheery reply he received.
Tatsuki huffed as she strode forward, smirking in her oldest friend's direction. "Relax, Ichigo. This is practically an all-expenses-paid vacation! Compared to your LAST battle, this should be cake." Just from her tone, Ichigo knew Tatsuki was going to go charging in without hesitation. She had made the point abundantly clear that she was going to tag along on the next mission, regardless of his opinion. His jaw still ached from when she punched him after his return from rescuing Orihime before she hugged him and her other best friend. Though nowhere near the level of a captain or lieutenant as of yet, her unique ability to channel spirit energy into any part of her body and enhance it was proving incredibly versatile for both offense and defense.
"What about Karakura Town and school, should the mission take too long?" Uryu inquired, covering all the bases while he mulled over his vote.
"Not to worry, the Soul Society will be sending Renji and a few others to watch over Karakura while you're off gallivanting, and I doubt the Visored are going to sit back if Aizen launches any schemes while you're gone, which is highly doubtful. It's safe to say you guys in Hueco Mundo and the Soul Reapers here derailed his plans pretty handily last time. As for school, the Soul Society and I have made a few arrangements to make this seem like a school-sponsored event. No one will mind if you are gone for a bit, and you get a pass on some of the work you'll miss."
Ichigo sighed as Orihime leaned forward next to him to get his attention. "Come on, Kurosaki-kun! I think it might be good to see somewhere new. Besides, everything's already paid for! It's like winning a contest you didn't even know you entered!"
Ichigo scratched his head and surrendered. "Fine, fine. We'll go. How long will this take?"
Urahara smiled as he dealt out the tickets like a card sharp. "According to records, once the phenomenon started, there was a two to three week build-up before the events ceased. If the trend continues, you should be done without falling too far behind. On that note, bon voyage! The train leaves at 6, so pack up and say your farewells!"
For most, the preparations were uneventful, Urahara having already sent falsified letters of congratulations for winning a "cultural enrichment experience to Fuyuki City" to each of their homes. Needless to say, Ichigo had the most trouble getting ready, what with his father's "suggestions" on what to take with him and do while out and about. Yuzu was near tears, but cheered up some when Ichigo was, for once, able to give her a definitive timetable for his return. By 5:50, the gang had reconvened at the train station. It was agreed that they would eat somewhere quick on arrival and establish a base of operations at a decent hotel.
As the five teens and one century-and-a-half-old Soul Reaper boarded the train, Uryu was struck with a thought that paled his already white skin. "Guys, I just realized: how are we supposed to pay for anything? The Soul Society may have decided to pay for this venture, but we haven't received anything to do that with." His words rippled through the group, save the ever-optimistic Orihime, who shrugged.
"Don't worry, Ishida-kun. I'm sure everything will work out. Ooh! Maybe there'll be a limo waiting to take us to a fancy hotel with incredible food, like lemon and sweet bean curry with wasabi on rice!" Her tangent lightened the mood, but they still worried about their supposedly "taken care of" finances.
As the train roared down the tracks towards Fuyuki, Ichigo turned back towards Rukia, who was still seated, irritated at the "no cell phone calls" rule. She had every reason to verbally thrash Urahara for the apparent oversight of money. "Hey, Rukia, any ideas on where we start and when?" Ichigo may have been their hands down strongest fighter, but when it came to strategy and experience, he would always defer to the diminutive Soul Reaper, even after all that he had gone through.
Her response was only slightly above a whisper so as to minimize eavesdroppers. "Once we deal with the housing situation, we could start right away. Ideally, we lock our bodies in our hotel rooms to look for clues in Soul Reaper form while Uryu and the others sweep the streets for any signs of activity after sundown. We all have cell phones if we need to get in contact, right?"
Each member of the group nodded once. It was one thing that they were all glad to invest in, seeing how many times being able to call for help would have avoided half of their disasters. Minutes later, the conductor called out their stop at Fuyuki's central station. The six of them gathered into the lobby, each carrying one bag as they formed a ring around Uryu who, prepared as always, pulled out a map of the city. "I regretfully did not have the time to do as much research into the city's history and the locations of the events in question as I would have liked, but this should give us a starting point," he said in the same mildly condescending tone that was normal for him.
As the gang of super-powered souls examined the map and pointed out possible locations to stay, Chad spared a glance upwards and stared at the odd sight less than 20 yards away. His visible eye widened at the irony. "Ichigo. Turn around and look at this," as straightforward as always, he pointed with one of his thick, bronze arms over their shoulders. Instantly, the 5 followed his gaze and gaped.
Orihime's prediction had proven eerily accurate. Outside of the station, visible through the glass doors, was a black limousine. A small man was holding a sign high over his head with their names written in big black kanji just inside the station's double doors. He was dressed like a rich man's servant, and was fairly nondescript. However, Rukia recognized him, and her expression shifted to incredulousness at the possible meaning. "No way…"
Tatsuki grinned at the sight "Hey Orihime-chan, looks like your guess was right on the money!" she exclaimed as she trotted off towards the small man. The group followed suit as the figure bowed respectfully. Rukia kept shaking her head, trying to process what it meant that this particular fellow was the one waiting for them.
"On behalf of my employer, I welcome you to Fuyuki City. If you would kindly load your bags, we may be off," the man droned. He popped the trunk of the limo and stood aside as his charges loaded their bags into it. Once that was accomplished, he opened the rear door and swept his hand in a gesture to enter. Orihime practically leaped in first.
"Whee! I've never been in one of these before!" her positively giddy voice was enough of a cue for Tatsuki to climb in after her, smiling.
One by one they piled in, awed by the size of their mystery chauffeur's ride. Even Chad was able to fit comfortably. Ichigo found it hard to maintain his scowl in this thing, as this sudden pampering was a refreshing change from the norm when he got involved in spiritual matters. He occupied his time by listening to the happy chatter of Orihime as she mulled over the possible identity of their sponsor and Tatsuki's bemused responses. That and watching every building they passed as they were escorted deeper into the city, mapping the area along the road as quickly as he could. After nearly ten minutes, he noticed a distinct trend: wherever it was they were going, it was in the nicer part of town. Buildings were getting larger and fancier, with stores looking increasingly high-class.
The car finally pulled up in front of an almost obscenely grand building that could only be a true five-star hotel. The driver quickly jaunted out of the car and opened the door for them, holding his hand out to assist his six charges like a true gentleman. As the group entered the building, everyone, even the normally unflappable Chad gaped at the sheer opulence and elegance of the immense lobby. The walls had wood paneling for the first 4 feet before giving way to a tasteful cream paint that reflected the light warmly. The ceiling was easily level with most two-story house roofs, centered around a crystal chandelier the size of a small car. The entire room radiated a pleasant glow of welcome, though it usually only catered to the rich, which left the relatively poor high school students nearly overwhelmed.
A gentle cough at their side drew them back to the small man who had been leading them around so far. "My employer would like to speak with you all before you settle in. Please follow me," the man said calmly as he led them to an elevator and pressing a button labeled "P."
'Whoever called us up here must be filthy rich to have a meeting in the penthouse,' Ichigo mused. He and everyone in the elevator save the servant were all wondering who the Soul Society was having them meet in this fancy hotel's fanciest room of all places. Tatsuki and Orihime secretly hoped whoever it was would let them keep the penthouse for the interim. The rest were neutral about it: any room in this place was bound to be impressive.
After nearly a solid minute in the elevator, the steel doors opened and revealed an ornate wooden double-door at the end of a short hall. With the twist of a key, the doors clicked open, revealing yet another awe-inspiring sight. A small landing lay before them, where they left their shoes before stepping into the penthouse proper. It was magnificent. That was the only word to describe the space that made up the living room. Nearly double the size of Orihime's entire one-bedroom apartment, the floor was fine hardwood until you got to a space that served as the room's center lounge area, where it gave way to soft gray carpeting. Two couches and two expensive-looking recliners were arrayed around a glass table, which in turn was placed before a stone fireplace, where an already made fire burned in a warm welcome. A flat-screen TV nearly filled the space over the hearth, and sitting in one of those recliners, dressed in an immaculate black business suit and sipping a glass of white wine, was their mystery host.
Byakuya Kuchiki, captain of Squad 6 and 28th head of the Kuchiki noble family.