Disclaimer: Bleach is not mine, the characters, names and related material all belong to Tite Kubo.
Rated M: violence, language, adult content, Newtonian and relativistic physics, seasoned with lemons and served in space.
"This is the medical ship, Masaki, to Karakura station traffic control requesting clearance to dock," he said, a slender finger against the comms. He slid his hand back to the flight control panels as he waited for a response. Sighing, he began to run through docking procedures, his fingers moving quickly but resignedly across the glowing screens. He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, the fingers of his other hand completing docking preparation by rote. Procedures complete, he leaned back in his seat and pushed the control screens away with his foot. He ran his fingers through his hair, ruffling the already mussed orange spikes, and clasped his hands behind his head as he stared out the wide front viewports. Karakura station, huge and silent, stood in stark contrast to the deep black. From the angle of their approach, the station wasn't framed by the nearby asteroid belt or the twin suns of the system. Only a few pin pricks of light dotted the scene, making the station seem that much more lonesome and remote.
The sound of boots pounding against the metal grating heralded the arrival of his sister. He looked over his shoulder to see her grip the jam above the door and swing herself onto the bridge. She had done that ever since she could reach the lip, and she's done it every time.
"We made it huh?" she said, walking over to stand at the bow. "Nice flying Ichigo."
"Whatever," he mumbled.
"This is Karakura station traffic control, to the Masaki," replied a syrupy sweet voice, "You are cleared for docking at berth..."
Ichigo flipped the audio from the speakers to his neural interface and noted the berth number and location, simultaneously bringing up manual flight control. "Karin, take a seat somewhere, could ya? You're blocking the view."
Karin shot him a nasty glare and threw herself into the chair of the opposite station. She swiveled over one of the control panels and brought up a computer game, leaving all the piloting to him.
"Ensign Yuzu requesting access to the bridge!" giggled a boisterous voice from the rear door.
"My precious daughters do not need to ask permission to the bridge!" bellowed another voice, this one carrying up the halls. "As captain of this ship, my daughters can go anywhere the please!"
"Thanks Daddy!" Yuzu said happily and skipped up onto the control deck.
Ichigo sighed as he felt Yuzu peering over his shoulder, staring wide-eyed out the front viewport as he worked the controls. "Yuzu, go sit down, traffic's pretty busy."
"That's what traffic control is for, son!" Isshin said, bounding up onto the bridge and leaping into the central captain's chair. Standing with one foot on the armrest and his chest puffed out, he struck a heroic pose. "Nothing could harm the great ship Masaki, named for my beloved wife, as we are guided to our berth by gentle hand of Karakura traffic control!"
"Traffic control can't control everything old man! There's all kinds of crap hurtling around this station!" To exemplify his point Ichigo rolled the ship hard to the left, dipping the aileron beneath a floating chunk of debris. In the back of his mind he knew the deflector system would likely have pushed the debris out of the way, but the less they had to rely on the unpredictable system the better. As an added bonus, Ichigo's smirk widened as he heard his father tumble from his precarious perch and land unceremoniously on the control deck floor.
"Bah, you worry too much!" Ichigo heard his father say from the ground before he was able to tune him out. He focused his ears on the chatter of station traffic control through his implant and glanced back to the navigation screen, a blinking yellow pathway charted through other ship's routes and around major obstacles led all the way to their docking point. Ichigo made a minor adjustment, forcing the computer to recompute and compensate, as he idly wondered how long they'd be on Karakura station this time.
Ichigo smoothly moved the Masaki to their designated docking location, coupling the umbilicals and locking the pressure clamps that would keep the ship anchored. Watching the seal go green on the airlock status display, he cycled down the engines, killed power to directional thrusters, disengaged the navigation computer and thanked traffic control for their assistance. He then swiftly stood and slipped down the bow ladder leading directly to the airlock.
"And where are you going? We have a clinic to set up here!" Isshin called out.
"You're the doctor! I'm going for a walk!" Ichigo yelled back before slamming the blastdoor between the airlock chamber and the landing at the bottom of the ladder to the bridge. Hands buried in his pockets, he walked quickly up to the huge airlock and waited for the doors to part. The scent of Karakura station greeted him first as the airlock doors rolled open. A gust of air rushed past him as the pressure equalized, ruffling his spiky orange hair even more, tugging at his sleeves and carried with it a wealth of sensations not experienced in a long while. Cooked food, simmering in actual heat, the sharp tang of heavy machinery oil and the myriad scents of thousands of people. The low, murmuring cacophony of people bustling past poured through the widening airlock doors, a sharp contrast to the low hum of the Masaki's engines and the comparative silence of stellar space.
Ichigo knew the layout of Karakura station well enough to know that their docking location was right along one of the more heavily trafficked commercial rings which was good for business but bad for privacy. Ichigo let his scowl etch further into his face as he walked out onto the airlock landing and poked their license and registration into the station's mooring control panel.
He raised his thin eyebrows to look up at the banner over the airlock as it sprang to life, reading, "Kurosaki Medical Clinic."
"We didn't think you were ever coming back," said a flinty, feminine voice.
Ichigo glanced over his shoulder to see a pair of women standing at the bottom of the steps. "How did you get here so fast, we only just arrived thirty seconds ago," Ichigo said crossly. As if it were taking advantage of the freedom from the confines of the Masaki, his body involuntarily stretched.
"Inoue works for traffic control, we've known you were here since you first popped up on radar," the other said, exasperation growing on her face, "And that's how you greet us? No, 'Nice to see you Tatsuki and Orihime,' for us?"
Ichigo, rolling his head and working the kinks out of his neck, stopped suddenly. "You work for Karakura traffic control?" he said, working to erase the alarm off his face.
She nodded, her auburn hair dancing about her shoulders as she clasped her hands behind her back. "Yep, I started soon after you left last time."
Ichigo noticed the tell-tale glitter near her temples, the six pointed star shaped neural connector used by station personnel. "Huh," he huffed, fixing his scowl back onto his face. "C'mon then, let's get something to eat. I'm starving." He shoved his hands back into his pockets as he descended the steps, the two women falling into step beside him, Tatsuki rolling her eyes and Orihime smiling girlishly.
The three of them strolled down the wide causeway of the commercial ring towards a popular cafe, Orihime chatting animatedly about what it was like to herd little glowing blips about the station and Tatsuki warming up once the conversation turned to her budding career in the station's professional sports circuit. For his part, Ichigo shrugged away questions of what he had been up to, saying only that piloting his father's ship around the further reaches of the system with only his family for company wasn't terribly exciting. After what must have been his fifth deflection of conversation, asking Orihime what it was like to have a neural interface directly to the station's central processing core instead of answering how long he'd be on station, Tatsuki narrowed her eyes at him.
"You're being more evasive than usual, Kurosaki," she accused, interrupting Orihime's colorful description of the processor core interface and how it tended to make her feel like a giant battle-robot.
Ichigo scoffed, though inwardly admitted that last one had been less than subtle. "It's just nice to be out of that ship," he admitted. He breathed in the various scents wafting from the inside of the cafe out onto the patio. He skimmed his eyes quickly over the dozens of people moving past, the vibrant colors so different from the endless night of space and gunmetal gray of the ship. He cleared his throat and leaned back, fixing his amber eyes on a far away point and returned to sipping his tea. Orihime clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes shining with sorrow while Tatsuki quirked her mouth at him.
"Well, now that you're out of that ship and back on the station you should think about what you're going to do with yourself," Tatsuki said, finishing her tea and standing up. "There are a lot of people who missed you."
"Are you leaving Tatsuki?" Orihime asked, voice tinged with a hint of pleading.
"Yeah, I'm late for a training session. It was nice seeing you again Ichigo, you guys should come to a match sometime, Orihime has tickets. I'll see you guys later." With that, she headed off onto the causeway and blended in with the people walking past.
Finding himself sitting alone with Orihime, Ichigo let the silence draw out interminably as he watched her facade of girlish enthusiasm slip away. Her smile faltered and she nervously clasped her hands together in her lap. He quietly continued to sip his tea, finally shooting a glance up to her gray eyes. Hesitantly, she forced a smile onto her face that didn't quite reach her eyes. He sighed and ran a hand through his messy hair, preparing to speak before she interrupted him.
"You don't have to, you know," she said quietly, looking down. "Come to Tatsuki's match that is."
"I'll, uh... I'll think about it," he forced himself to say, mentally kicking himself for hesitating.
She glanced back up, meeting his eyes with her own. Her face was carefully composed as she nodded once before standing up to leave. "It's alright, I know you like your privacy."
"I'm sorry Ichigo, I have to leave," she said quickly, turning away. "I'm sure you're familiar with that."
Stung, he watched her slip out of the cafe's patio and into the rush of people. In moments she was gone. Sighing ruefully, he was about leave when he heard another familiar voice.
Ichigo groaned, hands balling into fists as he dropped lifelessly back down into his chair.
"Hey man! It's been a long time, how've you been? You just get back onto the station?" Keigo exclaimed, practically running across the causeway and jumping into one of the recently vacated chairs.
"Hey Keigo," Ichigo said tiredly. The man had not changed a bit in the time he had been gone.
"So how long do you think you'll be on the station?"
"I don't know man, I just got here," Ichigo said, letting some acid slip into his voice.
"Where ya been all this time? Do anything exciting? Meet any hot babes?" Keigo continued on, blithely ignoring Ichigo's tone.
"No, I'm just the pilot of my dad's ship. I point the ship in whatever direction he wants, that's it."
"It's good to see you again, Ichigo," rumbled a deep, slow voice.
"Chad! Good to see you too," Ichigo said, looking up at the towering figure of his friend as he walked up to the table. He held a hand out to shake.
"I better not," Chad said, raising his right arm in explanation, "I'm still getting used to it." His entire right arm and shoulder had been replaced with a bionic prosthetic. Hundreds of tiny servos and actuators quietly worked in unison beneath a chassis of black metal and maroon ceramic as Chad flexed his fingers a few times before dropping his arm back to his side.
"Fair enough, have a seat," Ichigo said, finally thankful to have the company of someone who wouldn't press him for details.
Far above them a small shape crept silently in the darkness. With a faint whir, it fixed the group squarely and magnified several times, focusing on the trio of young men. Contextual information began filling its databanks as it analyzed the big one with the artificial arm and the tall, thin one with the orange hair. The orange haired one drew up sharply and began scanning the area he was in. Alarm warnings activated throughout its neural pathways and the small shape retreated back into the darkness and slipped away along the high ceilings.
"What is it Ichigo?" Chad asked quietly, beneath Keigo's uninterrupted stream of social updates, seeing him look up at the duct and pipe shot ceilings.
"Nothing, I guess."