On the Run

Part eight of a fanfiction by Velkyn Karma

Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, Bleach and any related characters or concepts. That right belongs to Tite Kubo alone. All that belongs to me here is the concept for the story.

"There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena."

~Friedrich Nietzsche

It was nearly midnight by the time they actually made it back to Karakura Town. Rukia had insisted they head for Hat-and-Clogs' shop first, in order to deal with a few loose ends. Ichigo didn't really feel like dealing with the guy again so soon, but was too tired to argue with her otherwise, even after sleeping through most of the train ride home.

He ended up staying at the mysterious shopkeep's place for another two days, while Rukia convinced, bought, or bribed Hat-and-Clogs' services to help with his recovery. Under the man's snarky, cheerful, and annoyingly know-it-all care, all of the physical problems Kon had gathered during his panicked flight were remedied. The bruises and cuts melted away with stunning quickness, his shoulder and leg injuries were completely healed, and under a foul-tasting dietary plan he managed to regain the weight Kon had lost at twice the usual rate. By the time those two days were up, he was well-rested and looked as good as new, returning home with none of his family the wiser.

Kon's recovery was equally efficient—spiritually, at least. While Hat-and-Clogs focused most of his healing regime on Ichigo, Rukia had focused her efforts on repairing Kon. By the time Ichigo returned to the clinic, Kon's pill was once again unblemished and looked as sturdy as ever, and he was rested enough to start possessing his lion doll once again.

But that was only spiritually. Mentally speaking, Kon was still a wreck, and neither Ichigo nor Rukia really knew what to do about it.

They first discovered the problem the night they returned to the clinic, after the rest of Ichigo's family had gone to bed. They put Kon back in his usual plush toy for the first time since recovering him then, and were surprised at the results. Almost as soon as Kon had seized full control of his current body, he flung himself headlong at Rukia.

At first, Ichigo had felt relief, and irritation. Not even thirty seconds, and Kon was acting like his old self again; it was annoying and obnoxious, but at least it meant he was better. But Rukia's bewildered expression made Ichigo take a second look, and he was stunned to find Kon wasn't acting like himself at all. He'd thrown himself at Rukia, yes, but he wasn't trying to cling to her chest or rant pervertedly about her female, ah, attributes. No, Ichigo was surprised to see the stuffed animal's little arms wrapped around her neck, and his tiny cloth shoulders were shaking in an approximation of sobs.

Ichigo hadn't even known Kon could cry in that form. It wasn't like he had tears hidden in the cotton. But there he was, sobbing, with Rukia exchanging stunned looks with the teen and awkwardly patting the lion on the back in a failing attempt to be comforting, and neither of them knew what to say.

Kon had subsided after a while, looking miserable and a little embarrassed. He promptly hid himself under the bed after that, not responding to anything Ichigo or Rukia attempted to say to him. They had eventually given up trying to fish him out, and both had retired, since the next day was a school day. But Ichigo was not terribly surprised to find the stuffed animal curled up just behind his back under the sheets the next morning, just close enough to have the reassurance of a safe presence nearby without actually touching it. Kon scuttled away quickly as soon as he heard Ichigo waking, and the teen pretended he hadn't noticed Kon at all, though he wasn't sure why he was bothering to spare Kon the embarrassment.

It got worse. Kon's recent near-death experience made him more than a little paranoid, and as the only people Kon interacted with, Ichigo and Rukia were often left dealing with it. For one thing, Kon loathed being left alone now, and frequently took action to make sure he was near one of them at all times. When they went to school, Kon took to sneaking into Rukia's backpack, hiding beneath her school supplies and silently spending the day there. Rukia caught him at it fairly quickly, and allowed it for a few days, until she eventually got tired of it. Then Kon started sneaking into Ichigo's bag instead, when he could. And during the three instances Kon had been left in charge of Ichigo's body while he went off to kill a hollow, they had been appalled to find the mod soul following them at close range, not even attempting to hide himself from them.

Ichigo supposed he couldn't blame the mod soul for that, in a way. After all, he had been attacked as soon as they were out of his sight, and he obviously didn't want to repeat the experience, as unlikely as it was to happen. Still, it was getting annoying to find the lion in his bag in mid-class, and no matter how many times Ichigo and Rukia explained that the two mod-soul hunters wouldn't be coming back, Kon refused to believe them.

His other habits were more pathetic, or downright disturbing. Kon didn't talk as much as he used to. He often attempted to bicker with Ichigo or lavish Rukia with perverted praises, but they could both tell the mod-soul's heart wasn't in it, and he just didn't seem normal. Both of them had observed Kon's new nightly habit of patrolling Ichigo's room after they went to bed, when he thought they were asleep; he would frequently shuffle to Rukia's closet and Ichigo's bed, reassuring himself that they were both there. And Ichigo had caught the mod-soul climbing into his bed and burying himself in the sheets and blankets near the teen several more times, though he never let on that he did.

The fact of the matter was that Kon was still scared, still obviously had a lot on his mind, and he wasn't getting over it. That alone was bad enough, but if he kept up with his habits—especially the ones when he followed them—he was going to eventually make a mistake, one that could really cost them. They had to figure out what to do about it, and soon.

It finally came to a head three weeks after Kon's near-death incident. After yet another case of Kon refusing to be left behind while piloting Ichigo's body, the substitute Shinigami had finally had enough.

It was midday, and they had broken out of school in the middle of lunch to go track down the latest Hollow Rukia had reported. It had been clever, taking more time to defeat than usual, time that went well into their next class period. Rukia could usually charm her way in and out of any class with that fake-happy false personality, but people would notice if Ichigo went missing, mostly because the teachers loved to rag on him for breaking rules at any opportunity. It wouldn't have been a problem a month ago, when Kon could easily have faked his way through half a class period while Ichigo was away—and probably would have even enjoyed it, since he wasted no opportunity that put him close to girls. But Kon still steadfastly refused to be apart from either Rukia or Ichigo and had followed them straight out of the school grounds to the Hollow encounter.

Seeing Kon trailing behind them in his own body had been enough to finally make Ichigo snap. Once the Hollow was defeated, he waved Rukia on ahead— "Come up with some excuse for me, okay?" —and turned to face Kon squarely. Rukia, sensing the mood and just as fed up herself with Kon's recent clingy behavior, nodded quietly and dashed off towards the school again.

Kon looked more than a little confused, and slightly nervous as well. "So? Take your body back already. You don't have all day. And I don't want to be stuck in here anymore."

Ichigo looked him squarely in the eye, scowled at him, and said flatly, "No."

"What? C'mon, this is a dumb joke, y'know? Just take the body back already."

"I said no. I'm not taking my body back until we straighten a few things out."

Kon licked his temporary lips and looked around anxiously, probably trying to appeal to Rukia. But she was gone, along with her glove, the only other method for removing Kon from his current possession. Ichigo narrowed his eyes at the mod-soul further.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kon said finally, his voice pathetic, his lie so lame even an idiot would know it for what it was.

"Sure you don't," Ichigo said, a trace impatiently. "You've been acting weird for weeks. Don't think me and Rukia don't notice what you're up to. We told you a dozen times, those two hunters aren't coming back." Kon visibly shuddered, but Ichigo plowed right on. "We definitely took care of them, they're finished. They think I destroyed you too, so there's no reason for anybody to come looking for a rogue mod-soul in Karakura anymore. I can see why you might be nervous for the first week or so, but this is too much. You're going to screw up and get somebody killed if you keep doing this." He scowled again, and then added as an afterthought, "Probably me, since you do the really stupid stuff in my body."

Kon looked both surprised and a little guilty at the lecture, and Ichigo's body seemed to tense as the mod-soul absorbed what he'd said. Then, rather abruptly, he spun on one heel and tried to bolt the way Rukia had gone.

Ichigo was equal to that. If Kon had actually been allowed to get a head start, Ichigo knew he'd never catch the mod-soul, not after what that hunting incident had taught him. But he'd been expecting Kon to panic and try to run for some time now, once he started the confrontation—Hat-and-Clog's calm explanation about underpod types was still in his mind. So when Kon had tensed, Ichigo had as well, and when the mod-soul began to turn he threw himself forward.

He tackled his own body to the ground, eliciting a yelp of surprise from Kon as he went face-forward to the pavement. An awkward backwards kick came next, still promising to do significant damage with Kon's enhancement even if the angle was all wrong, but Ichigo had again anticipated the reaction. He'd already rolled off Kon's temporary body, then sat on his back before he could stumble to his feet and try running again. At that angle, he was safe from any stray kicks.

"What the hell is your problem?" Ichigo growled, but before he could start ranting in irritation a stream of panicked babble came from the mod-soul.

"This is about the body, isn't it? Look, I'm sorry okay, I'm sorry I got it beat up so bad, I didn't exactly want to get it killed or beat up or starved or anything, I mean yeah I thought about going outside but it wasn't like I was really going to, I swear, I won't do anything like that again, you can have it back now, just don't throw me out—"

"Kon," Ichigo said, but the artificial soul was still babbling, almost incoherently.

"—knew you'd be mad about the dumpster food too, I mean I wouldn't have eaten it but I had nothing else, have you ever been that hungry before? And I didn't have any money, you didn't leave any in your pockets, and I didn't think to grab the wallet off the desk when they attacked, I was so scared—"

"Kon," Ichigo insisted, more firmly, louder than before, a little surprised at the babble—he could barely make out what Kon was saying, the mod-soul was talking so fast—but still the artificial being did not notice, other than perhaps the tone. He cringed slightly, attempted to curl up while Ichigo was still sitting on him.

"—Not a fighter, sorry, geez, how could I know they would attack like...it's not my fault, it's not. It isn't! I'm not like you, okay, I can't just get used to fighting and act like it's nothing or beat up the people who want to kill me, I'm not that strong, I could hurt them badly and I don't want to and it's not the kind of thing I'm used to outside the simulations they trained us with, I did the best I could, okay, sorry it's not good enough for you—"

"Kon!" Ichigo finally shouted, almost at the top of his lungs, and the mod-soul finally cut off in mid-babble. His temporary body's head twisted as best as it could to stare at his 'attacker,' and he looked embarrassed, confused, angry, and more than a little afraid, so many emotions all rolled into one expression that Ichigo was surprised he could even pick them apart.

"Kon. Look," the teen said with exasperation, "I'm not blaming you for what happened when those guys were after you. Okay? Me and Rukia know you did the best you could. Those guys were experts at hunting mod-souls. The fact that you're still alive says a lot about what you can live through, so don't pretend that's nothing."

Kon looked bewildered now. And still embarrassed, too. He probably didn't like that he'd panicked in front of Ichigo, or that the teen he usually bickered with was now, ugh, trying to make him feel better. It made Ichigo scowl all the more. He wasn't exactly fond of the situation, himself, but Kon's paranoia had to stop.

"I don't expect you to fight or kill either," Ichigo added after a moment. "You know that. That's why we rescued you. Hell, it's the only reason I even put up with you; you're an irritating pain in the ass otherwise." Kon glared at him, bristling for a moment with a shade of his former self. But it faded quickly, replaced with a trace of anxiousness, as though what Ichigo had just said made him nervous.

"But like I said," Ichigo finished, "You're going to get somebody killed if you keep this up. There's a reason we leave my body behind when I go to fight Hollows. Too easy to get damaged otherwise. People will notice if I start disappearing all the time, too, or acting different. We don't want to draw more attention to ourselves than we have to, right?"

Kon looked even more nervous at that, and after a few moments of silence he sputtered, "I...that's...you're right. Sorry..." There was a short pause, and even though he was flattened to the pavement and unable to do a damn thing about it, Ichigo could have sworn he was steeling himself for something.

Then it happened. "Have you...has anyone ever told you that you don't have the right to exist?"

Ichigo frowned. "No. Plenty of Hollows have tried to kill me, but that's not what you're talking about, is it?"

Kon shook his borrowed head quietly. "No. Let me up."

"You promise not to run?"

"I won't," Kon swore. "It's just hard to breathe with you sitting on me like this. You're too damn heavy."

"I am not," Ichigo growled, but he stood up all the same, taking a few steps to give Kon a little personal space. True to his word, the mod-soul only rolled over and sat up, rubbing his temporary chest with a grimace as he did so. Ichigo waited patiently. He and Kon didn't really talk often, but he knew that single question the artificial being had asked was only a start, not the end. Kon would get to it in his own time.

The mod-soul was silent for a while, staring at the pavement with a tired, faraway look in his eyes, before he started speaking again. "I've been told I don't have the right to exist a lot. You know that. I'm an artificial soul; people think it means I'm not real, or really alive. But I know better. I know I'm a living person. I know I'm a guy. I know I have my own goals and emotions and dislikes. I know it wasn't programmed into me somehow. It's mine."

Ichigo could only nod to that.

"Or...at least...I think I am," Kon added, almost hesitantly.

That caused the teen to raise his eyebrows in surprise. "Think? What's there to question? You're alive. I can see it too." He shrugged, as though the matter wasn't worth debating. In his mind, it wasn't. Kon wasn't any different than the hundreds of ghosts he'd exorcised since he started working as a Soul Reaper, other than not having his own personal appearance.

But Kon was shaking his head. "At the end there...you have to understand. The whole time they were chasing me, I was an 'it.' They called me all sorts of things. A machine soul. A fake soul. That I'm inferior. And they believed it. They really believed I didn't have the right to live."

"So? You gonna listen to'em? Great way to let them win," Ichigo said. There was annoyance in his voice, but he was frowning, too. He didn't like where this was headed.

"Not just that. The way everybody stared at me...nobody cared, out there. I got so many annoyed and angry looks. Like they didn't even know what I was, but they hated me anyway. I couldn't understand why..."

"Because you were in my body," Ichigo said with exasperation. "I get weird looks all the time. My hair is orange for crying out loud. Plus it probably looked like you were playing hooky. Or just a punk. Covered in blood and dirt like you were, I wouldn't be surprised."

Kon was glaring at him in frustration. "You're not getting it, you idiot. Do you know how hard it was to think clearly after the first day? Do you think 'logic' mattered at all? Everyone out there hated me. And these hunters, they wanted me to die just because I was born. They let me know it at every opportunity, how completely and utterly worthless I was. At the end...at the end, I think I might have believed them. I stopped fighting. I didn't have the strength to keep believing in my right to live. To keep going. In the end, they made sense. And...I don't know. I don't know what to believe now."

Ichigo shook his head, not even believing what he was hearing. "You're alive," he repeated firmly. "And like you said when we met, you have the right to keep it that way. No arguments. So what the hell does this have to do with you following us around?"

Kon looked a little ashamed. "I, ah...well I mean, I was scared they'd come back, but...I...I was also a little afraid you might, um...kick me out..."

Ichigo blinked. This definitely was not the answer was expecting. "Huh?"

"You know. Get rid of me. Or turn me in to the Soul Society. Or that shopkeeper that wanted to des—kill me when we first met."

Ichigo could only offer a blank stare. "You can't be serious. Me and Rukia followed you around for three days to keep the Soul Society from getting you. Why the hell would we hand you right over after all that?" He considered the way Kon had started the conversation, and then added thoughtfully, "Don't tell me you thought we changed our minds about your...uh...alive-ness too."

"You saw me give up," Kon pointed out, though he still looked a little ashamed. "I was going to let them just kill me. They would have if you hadn't shown up. They won, in the end. I thought maybe you'd see that..."

"You're pretty damn stupid if you really believe that," Ichigo said, still exasperated.

Kon hesitated, and then said, "There's another thing, too."

Ichigo was a little surprised at the sudden nervousness that caused Kon's voice, via his own body, to tremor. The mod-soul was clearly afraid to tell him whatever this 'other thing' was. So he stayed silent, allowed the artificial being a chance to work up his nerve. He could be patient, when he had to be.

Which was a good thing, because Kon was silent for nearly five minutes before saying so softly it was almost impossible to hear, "I...I almost killed that guy, Shichi. Back then, when I was running..."

Ichigo was expecting some horrific confession, and was mildly stunned to see Kon taking something like this so seriously. Before he could stop himself he raised an eyebrow and said flatly, "What...seriously? That's what you were so worried over?"

Kon actually looked a little hurt, alongside those expressions of anxiousness and fear. "It's not as simple as you make it sound! You know how I feel about life. I swore I'd never kill, and if that Juusan guy hadn't used kido on his partner he'd probably be dead. I couldn't live with myself if I caused that. And a pacifist rogue mod-soul is one thing, but if a murder-capable one got free, you'd have to turn me in, it's too dangerous to leave a murderer out there to keep killing."

"Yeah," Ichigo agreed. "A killer on the loose, we'd definitely have to deal with that. But you aren't." Kon gave him a bewildered look, and Ichigo shook his head again, adding, "Don't give me that. You aren't. I do know how you feel about life, and you didn't violate that belief at all."

"What are you talking about?" Kon nearly shrieked. "I attacked him, I almost killed him. Don't you understand that?"

"Yeah, I do, and you did it because of your right." Ichigo scowled at him, causing the mod-soul to snap his mouth shut with an audible click, before continuing. "Look, I do remember what you said when I first met you. That you had the right to live and die freely, as you chose, not anybody else. Well, that's great and all, but living isn't free, and it's never easy. If it's your right to live, then it's your right to defend that life too. That's all you were doing."

"I still almost killed him," Kon groaned, putting a hand to his head. "I didn't even think about it when I attacked. I'm no better than them..."

"Idiot," Ichigo growled. "Of course you are. I'm sure you didn't attack him with malicious intent. And I know you didn't do it because you decided he didn't deserve to live anymore." Kon visibly shuddered, hunching his shoulders a little at the very thought. Ichigo nodded grimly at the reaction; it only proved his point. "He was trying to kill you, to take away that life that you told me yourself was yours. You were just defending that right to live. That's all. Anything alive would do it."

Kon went still at the word, and then almost hesitantly asked, "A...alive?"

"Yeah," Ichigo said, now entirely fed up with the conversation. "Alive. Now quit moping, it's getting annoying."

Kon scowled at him, imitating his own expression so perfectly that for a moment Ichigo couldn't help but blink. Then, a little stronger, a little less hesitant, the mod-soul asked, "So...I can stay? You...you said you only put up with me because of my beliefs, but...you're not kicking me out or turning me in or anything?"

"If you keep asking stupid questions I will toss you right out the window," the teen answered, deadpan. "Or worse—I'll give you to Yuzu to play with. You know how much she likes stuffed animals." Kon shuddered quite ferociously at that, and while there was a faint trace of a grin indicating he got the black humor, the look of horror on his face was almost priceless.

"Anything but that," Kon said, and his speech was once again gaining back its overdramatic tone, audible even via Ichigo's own voice. "Spare me the horror! You're too cruel!"

"I'll think about it in class. Now give me back my body before I miss another one. Rukia's story had better be good or I'm going to get so much crap from the teachers again..."

The transition went off smoothly, and within moments Ichigo was picking up the ejected mod-soul pill from the pavement where it had dropped. "I'll put you in the doll after school," he said, loudly enough to be heard by Kon's natural form. "You'll just have to deal with it until then, too many things could go wrong with a moving stuffed lion at school..."

The pill, naturally, said nothing, but Ichigo had the feeling that if Kon had a mouth he'd be arguing about now. He smirked a little to himself as he pocketed the little sphere and set off at a jog back towards his school. Kon would probably still take a little while to recover fully, but Ichigo had a funny feeling that it would still come too quickly by half. Before long the mod-soul would be bickering with him once more, and throwing perverted compliments Rukia's way. But despite how irritating it could be, Ichigo wouldn't have it any other way.

And there we are...the final portion, the end.

To all of you out there that kept following this fic, thanks very much for keeping with it to the end. It didn't get nearly as much feedback as I had hoped (poor Kon), but if it made even a few people happy, then I'm satisfied. :)