.

.

01.

Ishida Uryuu is about to get his ass kicked.

Again.

Goddamn it. Ichigo is sick of this shit. Out of obligation, he motions to Chad to get his ass over here before Ishida goes and does something stupid, like look at them funny or open his mouth.

"Oi, nerd-boy." The upperclassman leers as Ishida sits under a tree, reading a book. "Hey, I'm talking to you."

"I heard," Ishida says.

"Dammit," Ichigo says. "Chad c'mon."

"Hey, did he just talk back to me?" The upperclassman invades Ishida's space, nostrils flaring as the rest of his gang converges around him. "Huh. Hey guys, get a load of this. Nerd-boy talked back."

Ishida closes his book. With perfect grace, he stands, pushing up his glasses.

"Hey." The upperclassman knocks Ishida against the shoulder. "Who said you could leave?"

"I'm sorry, but the stench was getting a little overwhelming." Ishida stares the upperclassman down, four-eyes flashing, a silent warning. "Don't get too close. You might make me angry."

"What did you just say-"

"He didn't say anything!" Ichigo says. The upperclassmen turn.

"Shit," Ichigo says. The upperclassmen crack their knuckles.

xXx

.

"Goddamn it, Ishida! Can't you just shut the fuck up for once, already?"

Ichigo rages as Chad gingerly nurses the bruise on his ribs, Ishida frowning in front of them. "No one said you have to fight my battles, Kurosaki," Ishida says.

"Dammit," Ichigo says. He moves too abruptly; the pain wrenches at his chest. "They wouldn't have even picked on you, but you had to go and antagonize them."

"I only said what was on my mind," Ishida says. "I only regret that Sado got caught in the crossfire."

"Yeah, thanks," Ichigo says. Ishida ignores him.

"Are you okay?" Ishida says, turning to Chad.

"He's fine," Ichigo says. Ishida rolls his eyes.

xXx

.

One of the perils of becoming Ishida's friend (or kind-of-friend, acquaintance really) is that it attracts all sorts of unwanted attention. "Hey! Kurosaki!" Keigo bounces behind him, waving his arms. "What are you up to?"

"Nothing," Ichigo says. Keigo grins, slyly.

"I heard you're joining the arts and crafts club," Keigo says.

"What?" Ichigo says.

"It's all over the school," Keigo says. "Hey, what's with dorkasaurus over there? Some sort of pity friend or something?"

Ichigo glances behind him to see Ishida, sitting at the corner of the classroom. He is knitting. Ichigo glares.

"He's not my friend," Ichigo says.

"I heard they were making doilies together," Mizuiro says.

"We were not," Ichigo says.

"And stuffed animals!" Keigo says.

"Shut up!" Ichigo says. Keigo and Mizuiro laugh and high-five each other.

Ishida stands and puts away his knitting.

xXx

.

On the battlefield, Ishida is a powerful ally. His Quincy bow flashes; arrows strike hard and true, slamming into the hollow's body. Ishida never misses. That much Ichigo knows.

In gym class, however, it's a different story.

"Shit, look at that kid." Ichigo's classmates stare as Ishida awkwardly runs ahead of them, gangly arms and legs moving as if independent of one another. "Jesus. That guy has no torso."

"Oi, knock it off," Ichigo says. He picks up his pace, muscles tensing as he races forward.

He matches Ishida's pace finally, running in the lane next to his. "Yo," Ichigo says. Ishida glances back and glares.

"What? So you're not gonna talk to me?" Ichigo says.

"Kurosaki, I don't have time for this," Ishida says. Stringy pieces of hair stick to his face. He's breathing hard. It reminds Ichigo vaguely of a fish.

The whistle blows. Reluctantly, the students jog toward the pole by the basketball course. Again, Ishida sticks out like a sore thumb. Surrounded by athletic, tan, muscular guys, Ishida is the scrawny outcast, too tall and too thin and so pale Ichigo can see the delicate blue veins running under his skin.

"We're picking teams," the gym teacher says. "Who's captain? Next!"

The boys jog to their respective sides. "Sado. Over here. Kurosaki, you're next! Move it, move it..."

Ishida is the last to be picked. The game is dodgeball, and Ishida barely has time to move when the ball smacks him squarely on the head.

"Ishida you suck," his teammates say. Ishida glares.

"Dammit, Ishida," Ichigo says.

A ball smacks Ichigo on the head.

"Out!" the gym teacher says.

Ichigo glares.

xXx

.

Physics. Ichigo gnaws on his pencil and daydreams of slaying hollow when Ishida walks up to the chalkboard, neatly writing his calculations and diagramming the trajectory of a vector arrow.

"Very good, Ishida-kun." The teacher beams. Ishida takes his seat. "Now class, it's time for a pop quiz..."

Everyone groans. Everyone except Ishida, who pulls out his mechanical pencils and neatly sets them next to his rubber eraser.

"My dad is gonna kill me," Ichigo says. He stares at the forlorn "69%" scrawled on top of his quiz. "Dammit. If I knew there was a quiz, I would have studied."

"You should be studying anyway," Ishida says. He catches up to Ichigo and Chad, wearing an irritating smirk on his face. "It's called reading a book, Kurosaki. Maybe you should invest in it."

"I spend all night killing hollow, when the hell am I supposed to read?" Ichigo says. He snatches Ishida's paper and gawks at the red "100%" written at the margins. "Dammit!"

"Hmph." Ishida looks smug. "Better luck next time, Kurosaki."

"Fuck off," Ichigo says. Ishida walks away from him, slinging his bag across his shoulder.

xXx

.

"You should be nicer to him," Inoue says. She and Ichigo are sitting in the cafeteria, Ichigo inhaling his food and Inoue turning a soda in her hands. "Ishida-kun gets picked on all the time. He doesn't mean to be the way he is."

"He gets picked on because he's an ass." Ichigo mumbles with his mouth half full of food. "He's an arrogant prick. He thinks he's better than everyone else."

"He's insecure," Inoue says.

"Yeah, right," Ichigo says.

"Look at him," Inoue says, and she motions for Ichigo to look. Ishida is sitting in the corner, reading a book and eating his lunch by himself.

"He probably doesn't want anyone to bother him," Ichigo says.

"He doesn't have anyone to sit with," Inoue says, and she stands.

"Inoue-"

"Hey, Ishida-kun!" Inoue waves her arms. Ishida looks up.

"Inoue! Don't-"

"Want to eat with us?" Inoue says. She's still shouting across the cafeteria.

"Dammit, Inoue," Ichigo says. A shadow falls over him. He glances up and sees Ishida standing stiffly in front of him.

"Kurosaki," Ishida says. Ichigo glares.

"Ishida-kun!" Inoue bounces, smiling and clutching his arm. "I'm glad you came! Want to try one? It's eel cake, I got it from the market..."

Ichigo glances back at Chad, flashing him a suffering look.

"Hm," Chad says, and reaches for an eel cracker.

.

02.

Inoue feels bad for him. She can't help it. Sora was unpopular too, and she loved him more than anything. Ishida didn't have anyone to help him like that.

She first noticed it in the Handicrafts club. Even before they became friends, she noticed how none of the other girls really talked to him, only once in a while coming up to him to fix a plushie or request materials for one of their new projects. At first, Inoue thought nothing of it - he's the President, after all, and it's only natural to be intimidated - but then she started noticing how he kept to himself, and how he seemed to shrink back in the hall, and Inoue made up her mind to become his friend.

"Ew, why are you talking to that guy?" Her friends stared at her wide-eyed.

"He's nice," Inoue said. Her friends gaped in disbelief. (It doesn't change, either, even after months of hanging out with him. "Ew, you're still with him? What, are you getting free fabric, or something?" And Inoue laughs, nervously)

Even after she gets to know him better - after she finds out he's a Quincy and he has all these neat powers and that he can shoot arrows really, really well - she can't help but notice how awkward he is. Ichigo and Chad and the others are at home with their bodies, all muscular and athletic and generally well-liked, but not Ishida.

"He's as lovable as a cactus," Tatsuki says. "What do you see in him, anyway?"

"He likes to sew," Inoue says. Tatsuki frowns.

xXx

.

It's a general sentiment in school that Ishida Uryuu is not someone worth getting to know. But Inoue knows better. She sneaks into the library and loudly sets her pack on the table, pulling up a chair right in front of him.

"Studying, Inoue-san?" Ishida smiles kindly but his eyes don't leave the page.

"Mm! I want to get a hundred on the next quiz!" Inoue says. She pulls out her papers and smiles.

Inoue has a list of things she likes about Ishida. He's quiet, he's good at math, and he never complains when she brings everyone her food.

An hour into studying, her pencil breaks. She's not the least bit surprised when Ishida hands her another one.

He's also kind, even if he doesn't act like it.

xXx

.

There's one instance in particular that comes to mind. It was after a particularly grueling battle; Chad and Ichigo had subdued a particularly vicious hollow, and as usual, Inoue got in the way. So Inoue slunk back, away from the cheers and high fives, so she could sit underneath the bleachers and have a good cry.

"Inoue-san?"

Inoue looked up. Ishida was crouching just under the bleachers. Wordlessly he folded his long body in half and ducked beside her, squatting in the dirt. "Are you all right?"

"Y-yes." Inoue sniffed, pathetically. Fat, greasy tears rolled down her cheeks. "Don't tell Kurosaki-kun. Please-"

"I won't." Ishida kept his eyes trained on the ground.

Neither of them spoke for the half hour or so Inoue sat sniffling pathetically. The tears slowed, and eventually they stopped. Finally, Ishida spoke.

"I never did thank you for healing my arm," Ishida said. He smiled gently. "So thank you, Inoue-san."

Inoue gaped. It wasn't a big thing, healing his arm - he had gotten grazed by one of the hollow's claws, and Inoue had just happened to be standing next to him. Inoue smiled. "I guess I wasn't too useless, huh?"

"You're not useless," Ishida said. And Inoue felt her eyes begin to water.

xXx

.

She's walking in the parking lot when she comes across the group of upperclassmen; they've surrounded Ishida, whose back is toward the wall.

"Yo four-eyes, what's with the look?"

"Hmph." Ishida sniffs. The look on his face is somewhere between boredom and thinly veiled annoyance. "I was just wondering," Ishida says, and he steps forward, an unspoken challenge, "what must it be like, having your head so far up your ass."

"Oh you've asked for it," the guy says, and he rolls up his sleeves.

Ishida ducks. The guys fist goes slamming into the wall.

"Ishida-kun!" Inoue shrieks, her hands flying to her mouth. Ishida breaks into a sprint. The goons chase after him.

Ishida turns, a hard right, but the goons catch up, grabbing him by the arm and yanking him down.

"Teme!" Ichigo out of nowhere comes barreling forward. He jumps and spins, punching one guy after the next.

Inoue's eyes widen. In the dust, Ishida crouches, moving to get out of the way.

"Yeah! That's right! Go run to your mommy!" Ichigo says. The upperclassmen run.

"Kurosaki-kun!" Inoue breaks into a sprint. Ichigo breathes heavily, wiping the sweat from his eyes.

Ishida springs upward. "I could have handled it!" Ishida says.

"Like hell you could!" Ichigo says.

Ishida pulls out his Quincy arrow.

"Stop it! Stop it!" Inoue says. She pushes between them.

"Inoue-san." Ishida sheathes his arrow.

"Tch," Ichigo says. He leaves, Chad dutifully following after.

.

03.

"Eighty-eight percent!" Ichigo says. He flashes the paper in front of Ishida's face. "Suck on that, asshole!"

"Hmph," Ishida says. Quietly Chad steps up behind them, in case the conversation gets out of hand. "It must be difficult, having an IQ roughly equivalent to that of a bath sponge. Tell me, Kurosaki: do you find it difficult to grunt?"

"Sorry, I lost you. I was too busy looking at this," Ichigo says, and he shoves the paper in Ishida's face. "Ha! That's a C+ average now, asshole! What do you have to say about that?"

"You're confusing me for someone who cares," Ishida says. Chad's mouth quirks into a smile.

As dysfunctional as their friendship is, Chad has grown used to their idiosyncrasies. He's found that the insults are hurled at each other are their own way of bonding: when Ichigo makes fun of Ishida's thin legs, Chad knows he's really expressing concern that Ishida is losing weight. The reverse is also true.

"Kurosaki, you're a moron," Ishida says, and Chad knows Ishida is worried that Ichigo is not applying himself academically, and that his hollow hunting is overtaking his life. "Sado and I can find time to study, then certainly you can find time, too."

"Hmph." Ichigo stretches lazily, the paper flapping in the breeze.

xXx

.

Unbeknownst to most people, Chad is keenly perceptive. He lurks in the background, soaking up information like the proverbial bath sponge.

"He's so cute," Random Cheerleader Girl says to her friend. "He has such a cute butt! I could squeeze it in my hand-"

"I hate school," Disgruntled Male Student says. "I just wish this place would sink into a hole."

"Dad, I know," Ishida says. Chad's ears perk up. Ishida is on the phone, whispering furtively. "I've been working hard. You know that-"

A pause. Ishida wipes his brow. "Yes. Yes I realize an A minus is less than ideal. Yes, yes. Dad of course I want to get into med school-Dad. Dad." Ishida turns off the phone. "Damn it," Ishida says. He glances up. Chad waves. Ishida doesn't see him.

"Damn it," Ishida says again, and walks past him.

xXx

.

It's midnight, and Ichigo is hollow hunting. "Where the fuck is Ishida? We need him," Ichigo says. Chad shrugs and Ichigo slays a hollow, its body dissolving into the air.

Chad is walking home when he sees the thin yellow light coming out from Ishida's room. Ishida is studying. Chad glances at his watch.

It's 3 AM. School starts in four hours.

Chad frowns, then goes home to go to bed.

xXx

.

"Ishida? What the hell?" Ichigo says.

Ishida is sitting in the cafeteria, daintily dabbing his mouth with a napkin before rising. "Oi, I'm talking to you!" Ichigo says.

"I'm busy," Ishida says. Chad frowns as Ichigo races ahead of him, invading his space.

"Where were you last night?" Ichigo says. "Just because Quincy suck doesn't mean you can leave!"

"Hmph." Ishida arranges his books under his arm. "I take it you're conceding the inferiority of shinigami, am I right?"

"Asshole." Ichigo glares.

Later, Chad finds Ishida pouring over a stack of books, a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead.

"His grades are slipping," Inoue says. Chad glances down to see her standing next to him, a worried look on her face. "He said his dad is getting angry at him. He's spending too much time being a Quincy and not enough time with his studies. They had a huge fight about it yesterday."

Chad glances down at her, frowning. "I'm worried about him," Inoue says. Across the room, Ishida shifts position, pulling the book closer and tapping the pencil in his hand.

xXx

.

"Hey, nerd boy!"

Chad startles as the upperclassman smacks Ishida behind the head. Ishida pitches forward. His books clatter on the ground.

"So, when are you gonna give it up?" the upperclassman says. "The digits, man. When you gonna give me her number?"

Chad peers behind a pillar, watching. "C'mon, we both know that bitch's too good for you. Now come on, hand it over."

"No." Ishida grits his teeth. The upperclassman pushes his shoulder.

"I told you. You keep being this way, and we'll just have to keep getting physical."

The punch comes from nowhere. Ishida's thrown back, his glasses flying across the courtyard. Ishida staggers forward, a shaky hand coming up to his lip.

"Hey look at this!" the goon picks up Ishida's Quincy cross. "What the fuck is this? A fucking bracelet?"

Ishida throws himself at guy, tackling him sideways. The guy pitches forward.

"What's going on?" their classmates start to gather. "Oh shit! It's a fight!"

"Fight! Fight!" Classmates rush toward the courtyard, circling them.

Ishida explodes.

Chad's eyes widen. Ishida is a whirl of movements, a kick to the gut. A punch. His hand grips a fallen branch. He slams it against the guy's head.

The guy staggers backward. "Shit." Blood bubbles up from his mouth.

"Dude, come on," the goon's friend says. "Finish this bitch, let's go." The goon glares.

"You were lucky," he says. "This time."

Ishida drops the club and the crowd disperses. Slowly he leans against the tree trunk, clutching his ribs and reaching for his glasses.

And Chad steps out from the shadows, holding out his hand.

xXx

.

"Thanks for not getting involved, Sado-san." Ishida winces, clutching his ribs. "I appreciate it."

Chad nods. He helps Ishida down, guiding him to the bench. Ishida takes a breath, then sits, gingerly favoring his bruised side. "They've been trying to get Inoue's number for almost a month," Ishida says. "I guess after they figured out we're friends, they went after me instead. I'm glad, for her sake," Ishida says. "Inoue doesn't need that kind of harassment."

Yeah, Chad thinks. He shifts his weight, watching Ishida quietly.

"It's been hard," Ishida says. "What with exams and those guys and everything. But what am I supposed to tell my dad? 'Sorry dad, your son is failing academically because he's getting beat up at school?' Tch." Ishida glares. "He doesn't understand me, anyway," Ishida says.

On the soccer field across from them, Chad can see Inoue rushing up to Ichigo. From the looks of things, she's chatting about some new dish or some such, smiling and taking Ichigo's hand. He glances back at Ishida, who's watching them, darkly.

"Figures," Ishida says. "Girls always go for his type."

The irony: the girl Ishida is killing himself over is in love with the guy who keeps saving him. Chad doesn't need to give voice to it. He knows how humiliating it must feel.

"It's not like I can offer her anything, anyway," Ishida says. He kicks a rock, frowning. "I'm sorry, Sado. I'm just in a mood."

Chad nods, understanding. It's never fun to get beat up.

They sit together on the rickety bench, watching the soccer team practice, until the bell rings and it's time to go.

xXx

.

04.

Rumors swirl around that Nerd Boy fought an upperclassman. "Shit. Seriously?" The students turn toward Ishida, who's sporting a cut lip and a black eye, hushed.

"All right, maggots, gather round!" the gym teacher says. The students grumble and grudgingly circle the basketball pole, where the gym teacher holds out a bow and arrow.

"Today, we learn archery!"

And to everyone's surprise, Nerd Boy tries not to smile.