Ichigo reached up to his neck, feeling frantically before his fingers wrapped around a chain. His shoulders sagged with relief and a sigh escaped his lips. The cold desert night stretched on all around them, stealing everything away from sight. Had he lost this...he'd never have gotten it back. He wasn't going to let the desert of the dead steal anything else from him.
"Ichigo? Are you okay?"
Ichigo looked over at Rukia to find that everyone was staring at him. Nell and her fraccion were confused by his actions, Chad and Ishida were waiting for him to announce something bad had happened, and Renji was looking at him very calmly. He knew, even if the redhead didn't know, he knew.
"I thought I lost something," he shook his head. His hand dragged the chain out, clasping around the bauble hanging on the end of it to keep it from sight. It was his secret, his treasure.
"A necklace?" Rukia raised a brow. "I've never seen you wearing a necklace before."
"You've never seen him topless," Chad spoke up from his spot. "It follows him from human to spirit form and back."
"What?" Rukia asked, leaning forward to get a look at the object in his hand. Ichigo leaned away. "Would you just let me see it? It could be dangerous."
"Just leave it alone," Ichigo put the necklace back into his robes.
"Why would Ichigo's necklace follow him?" Nell asked, crawling over to him. Her tiny hands tried to pull the necklace out. "Is it special?"
Ichigo caught her hands and pushed her back, trying to keep himself out Nell and Rukia's grasp. It wasn't working very well, especially when Pacchi decided to reach down Ichigo's shirt and pull the item out. The glint of silver in the moonlight hushed Rukia and Nell both, a silence moved through the small group and anyone could feel the emotions coming off of Ichigo.
The fourteen year old turned at the sound of Tatsuki's voice. His best friend was weaving her way through the crowd of festival goers, cotton candy in one hand and a small bag hanging from her wrist. Ichigo began to move towards her, leaving his father and sisters behind in favor of hanging out with Tatsuki. He could see her mother in the crowd behind her, speaking with a priest about some thing or other.
"Hey Tsuki," Ichigo met her halfway. He always liked seeing her during festivals, especially winter festivals. During those, she wore kimono and heavy robes, looking for all the world like a princess as higanbana blossoms peeked out of her obi. He always felt under-dressed next to her, dressed in jeans and a heavy coat to keep the cold out. He'd give it over to her by the end of the evening, like he always did.
"You look nice tonight."
"Thank you," Tatsuki blushed lightly before handing him her cotton candy and digging into her bag. "I uh, I got you something. For Christmas." She pulled a small box from her purse. "Here."
Ichigo took the box, handing the pink sugar back to the girl.
"I didn't get you anything," he apologized.
"Just open it," Tatsuki stuck a piece of cotton candy to his nose. "Worry about a present next Christmas."
He pushed the pink fluff into his mouth and opened the small box to reveal a small silver charm, no bigger than a nickel. It shone strangely, with a crescent shine or shadow on it at all times. Protect had been engraved on one side, and on the other, an odd symbol was winking up at him.
"Even a protector needs something to keep him safe. Maybe you could finally beat me with it on," Tatsuki smiled at him. Her arms were clenched at her sides to keep herself from shivering and her cheeks had grown rosy from the cold. In a few minutes, he'd have to surrender his coat; he wouldn't get it back until tomorrow and then it would smell like her. That was the reason he kept fighting with her, not to beat her, but to be near her.
"Doubtful," Ichigo pulled the charm from the box, hardly reacting when Tatsuki took it from him. The box went into his pocket as she reached up to put it around his neck. "Thanks Tsuki...what does this thing mean though?"
Tatsuki looked at the side he'd lifted to her.
"That? Don't worry about that." Her hands had gone back into her sleeves and he wondered why she continued wearing kimono to winter festivals.
"Just tell me," Ichigo started to take his coat off. Sure enough, she'd turned around ad extended her arms so he could slide it onto her. He didn't though, instead he leaned over her shoulder. "Tell me, or I let you freeze."
"Victory," Tatsuki smiled up at him.
"I beat her for the first time the next day." Ichigo was twirling the charm between his fingers. "Every time I wear it, I win." He wore it when he got into fistfights and when he was taking a test. He'd worn it into the storming of Seireitei, he'd worn it as they fought against the bount, and he was wearing it now. Urahara and the viazard had teased him about it, but he was glad it followed him around. He was glad some part of Tatsuki was able to come with him.
"What did you get her in return?" Ishida asked.
"I gave her my mother's winter kimono." Ichigo tucked the charm back into the folds of his robe. "Tatsuki was going to wear it this year...I had it planned out." Ichigo looked up at the endless night sky and smiled softly. He didn't hear the sounds of surprise that came from the girls. "I was going to go to her house this weekend and ask her to the winter festival, just the two of us."
"She's going to punch you," Chad pointed out. He was smiling as well.
"Yeah," Ichigo chuckled. "I deserve it though. As soon as we get back, I'm going to tell her truth and I'm going to ask her to the cherry blossom festival instead."
The night she and Ryo had returned, Tatsuki had gone straight to the computer and skyped with her mom. They'd shared quite a bit of information back and forth. Including recent curses both of them had been dealing with. Her mother had been over the moon at the result of Tatsuki's curse, not so much the bleeding part, but the length; Mai had demanded Ryo get a measuring tape and tell her how long it was. The slayer had liked the idea of long hair, but the sudden excess made Tatsuki's neck hurt. It made her scalp hurt, it gave her headaches, and for the last week she'd been been going through a helluva lot more shampoo than normal. She'd even recruited Ryo to help her wash said hair after patrol the other night.
"I keep sleeping on my hair," Tatsuki grumbled as they walked to school.
"You should let me braid it," Ryo sang at her.
"It's four and a half feet of hair. It doesn't braid," Tatsuki snorted. Her brow twitched as she heard her hair tie snap. "It barely stays in a damn ponytail!"
Tatsuki did not like the way Ryo was laughing at her. Not a bit. She did appreciate when one of her fan club darted forward with a new scrunchie, proclaiming that it was the best on the market and the strongest available. Yeah, sure. Tatsuki would put good money on it snapping during Civics class. She still took it, thanking the boy while Ryo continued to laugh at her misfortune.
Tatsuki could hear the elastic begin to strain at the end of Mr. Yamada's class. With each step she took towards Mrs. Sohma's Civics class, she could hear it shift a little bit more. She wasn't a fan of Civics class these days. Ichigo used to sit behind her and Orihime always sat to her left. But Ryo was her right hand woman! Her Watcher, her roommate, her...her best friend.
Her best friend who was selling pictures of Tatsuki in a kimono to Dragon-Moon in between classes. At least she'd take Tatsuki to lunch with the profits. And it was a decent picture, even if it was of Tatsuki laying abed with a fever from the curse.
Sohma walked into the room after everyone had taken their seats, smiling brightly as she pushed a cart in front of her. Sohma was the kind of teacher Tatsuki liked. Happy, helpful, didn't ask too many nosy questions and didn't seem to worry. She supported rebellion and individuality. In other words, she never raised a fuss when Tatsuki wore heels to school or fell asleep in class. Once she'd suggested Tatsuki head up to the roof to catch up on her sleep. She never seemed to want her students to do much of anything except grow and learn from their experiences. Except for today. Whatever had Sohma smiling so widely made Tatsuki very uncomfortable. The unknown contents of the cart made her nervous too.
Then the baby-doll came out.
"Please no." Her whispered plea mixed in with the cries of the rest of the class, some excited and others fearful, just as Tatsuki was.
"Good news everybody!" Sohma cheered. "The school finally agreed to my project idea!"
She set the infant down on her desk and began to write on the chalkboard.
"Sometimes, unexpected things can happen in your life. Sometimes, we plan something we aren't prepared for. Sometimes, we find joy in something we fear." Sohma turned back t them. "Now, I'm going to pair you all up according to a very complex system of compatibility, so we might end up with two dads, or two moms, or even a single parent."
Sohma held up a slip of paper. A list that would send them all to their doom. Everyone was forced to stand and move to the front. When they were matched up, they were to take a seat and turn their desks to face one another. She was very clear about the 'No Switching' rule. As Sohma listed the 'parents', Tatsuki watched her classmates dwindle down and pair off. She was starting to fear the options left to her once Mizuiro was paired off. Keigo and Ryo had been the first couple announced, so when Kojima was partnered with Kuzonoha, Tatsuki was left with her fanclub.
The door of the classroom opened and Tatsuki knew she'd only felt dread before. The people entering the room now? They brought fear with them. Fear and rage and feelings she swore she wouldn't feel when they came back. She'd moved on from them and they had moved on from her. End of story.
"Kurosaki!" Sohma cheered happily. "And Ishida and Orihime, and my favorite, Yasutora!"
The four of them were pushed to the wall by the excitable Mrs. Sohma. Tatsuki couldn't' help but tense when someone's shoulder brushed against her own. She didn't look to see whose it was, barely heard their apology, distracted as it was. She heard that Orihime was paired with Ishida and Chad had gone to some ko-gal. And then her name came up, followed by Ichigo's. Her fanclub, both partnered and free nearly rioted. Begging, pleading, shouting to take Kurosaki's place and 'spare their ojou's feelings'.
"Shut up!" Tatsuki shouted.
Her hair band snapped in time with her temper. She ignored everyone and moved to an open desk, turning it to face the one Ichigo was destined for. When Ichigo sat across from her, he didn't seem to know what to think. His mouth was hanging open in shock as he watched her, his dark eyes must have been filled with some emotion or other. She didn't know for sure, she didn't want to look at him. IT was bad enough that Tatsuki could smell him again, the combination of his soap and spiritual energy combined with something she'd always known was him. This assignment was unacceptable, his presence was unwanted and hurtful, and the whispers and hisses around them only drew attention to the growing headache behind the slayer's eyes.
Sohma spoke up before Ichigo could, handing out the dolls as she explained their assignment. For one week they were going to work together. They would feed the baby, burp the baby, and comfort it when it cried, they would play with it, and they would even sleep with it.
"Of course, not really." Sohma held up a plastic card. "This is the key to your salvation."
Her explanation was brief, and twice more she was forced to explain that no, they could not, and would not switch partners. Not when she'd put so much effort into making sure she'd partnered everyone up perfectly. She left the rest of the class to them, suggesting they make a care schedule and get to know their partner. This was the part Tatsuki had been dreading. The forced talk.
"I'm taking it," she decided. "I was going to do it by myself anyway, so don't even worry about it."
"We're partners in this," Ichigo argued. "You can't just take it over."
"Yes I can."
"No, Tatsuki, you can't," Ichigo argued. "You have karate after school every day. You can't pay attention to a doll."
"Yes I can. I don't have karate any more. My entire team died because of a freak gas leak." She wasn't bitter and that certainly wasn't sarcasm. At least he had the decency to look embarrassed. "I'm taking it."
"What about school?" Ichigo asked. "Tatsuki, you're not-"
"Ichigo, stop." Her arms had crossed themselves at some point. "It's just a doll and with as much as you're in the bathroom and the nurses office, I think it's probably the smarter choice."
"Why are you being so..." Ichigo's pulse was speeding up. She could hear it, she could see the way it twitched beneath his skin. "Fine, what if I take it at night? It'd probably get lost in all of that hair."
"Whatever." Tatsuki looked over to Ryo and Keigo; Ichigo's joke was not funny. Keigo was obviously much more excited about the whole thing than Ryo was. In fact, her friend seemed ready to gnaw her arm off to get away from both of them. Tatsuki got up, moving over to the two of them and ignoring Ichigo's complaints behind her. "Keigo, go sit next to Ichigo, yeah?"
He paused only for a moment before going to distract the orange haired boy. Tatsuki was fairly certain that the only reason Sohma allowed it was because both girls were in possession of their 'children'. Other students seemed to be doing the same thing, moving to sit beside friends and the people they'd hoped to be partnered with. Sohma started moving around the classroom, asking about arranged schedules
"He's still staring at me, isn't he?" Tatsuki asked.
"He's trying to. Keigo is blocking his view pretty effectively." Ryo poked her infant, nearly jumping when it cooed at her. "You'll have to talk to him eventually Tatsuki."
"I know. Considering what his job is, it's only a matter of time before he sees me doing mine." Tatsuki let out a sigh. "I'm not going to chase any of them though. If they want to tell me, fine, if not, I have a life."
"Short though it may be." Ryo nodded.
"Careful Ryo," Tatsuki grinned. "Someone might think you're an optimist."
Tatsuki had never had to avoid someone before. She'd never had to avoid two people before and if it wasn't for Dragon-Moon, there was a high chance she wouldn't have been able to. She wasn't even trying to avoid them, part of her wanted them to approach her. She didn't know what she'd say if they did, but she at least wanted the satisfaction of being able to walk away from them.
"I kind of expected you to go with Keigo," Tatsuki admitted around a mouthful of rice. "I mean, the guys are back...No need to hang with the girls anymore."
"No," he laughed. "Keigo tried to get me to hang out with them, but, I can't leave. If I did, you and Ryo would just keep walking into curses."
Tatsuki couldn't help the bubbling laugh that worked it's way out, even Ryo was laughing lightly and Mizuiro, he seemed to enjoy coming up with bizarre curses to make them continue laughing.
The breeze had finally picked up and on top of the roof, nothing seemed to matter. There were no vampires to worry about, no pending prophecies that she knew of, and the demon population was being pretty quiet. There was a lack of hollows around too, but that wasn't her department, it belonged to the ginger haired girl coming towards her.
Orihime wasn't carrying her lunch with her, but she didn't look like she was going to be leaving once she sat down. She was different now. Where ever she'd gone, it had turned her into someone a bit older, a bit more cautious. Tatsuki wondered if Orihime could feel the slayer crawling around under her skin. Especially when the girl started to hug her. Tatsuki was careful not to injure the girl when she extracted herself from Orihime's arms before taking her lunch back from Ryo; her watcher had grabbed it before the awkward hug. Ryo and Mizuiro were both silent however, watching and waiting as they waited for Tatsuki to act.
She didn't have to. Orihime was apologizing for her sudden trip to her grandmother's house. Lying right to her face and completely ignoring the fact that Tatsuki was upset.
"It's not okay," Tatsuki cut the girl off. "I'm not okay with what you did. I won't be okay for a while either."
"No," Tatsuki held up a hand. "It's going to take a really long time before I can sit down and listen to whatever...story you've come up with this time. Can I please go back to my lunch?"
It hurt to say those words. She wanted Orihime to be her friend again, but time and again the girl had lied to her. Time after time, Tatsuki's life had nearly ended, and still they saw no reason to tell her what happened. As Orihime walked away, looking like a very kicked puppy, Tatsuki found her appetite was leaving her. When the door to the roof closed behind Orihime, a breath of relief and sadness left Tatsuki's lungs and Ryo's hand came to rest on the slayer's arm. Mizuiro put an arm around her shoulders and the comfort the two of them offered broke through a wall the slayer had very carefully built. Not once had she cried in front of other people. She'd never felt comfortable enough to let people see her tears.
The teen let out a sigh when Ichigo shouted to her. He'd been trying to get a hold of her all day, and now that they were waiting for Yukimura, he'd found an opening. Orihime hadn't approached her again, but what times Tatsuki had glanced over, she'd been crying. She didn't like seeing the girl upset or hurt, but she didn't seem to be taking Tatsuki's feelings into account at all. The slayer just wanted to know the truth from those who'd lied to her.
One of whom was standing in front of her desk when he normally sat behind her. He was looking exceptionally pissed off and very confused. For the first time that day, she met his eyes. Whatever he saw in her own made his fist tighten and turned his scowl to a grimace.
"I'm right here," she sighed, reaching up to her temples. The headache was killing her and her eyes hadn't' stopped burning since she'd broken down on the roof at lunch. "There's no reason to shout."
"What the hell did you say to Orihime?" He asked. He was quieter this time, but no less upset. "She hasn't stopped crying since lunch."
"Did you ask her?" Tatsuki reached to her pack for a bottle of water and her aspirin; her head spun from the pain as she reached and her fingers tightened on the edge of her desk. Very briefly, Tsubaki's curse echoed through her head. She would feel the pain of everyone she'd hurt. Three aspirin this time, Ichigo watching her as she swallowed. "Well? Did you?"
"She thinks she deserves it," Ichigo admitted. "Tatsuki, I don't know what's gotten into you lately, but this-"
"Sit down Kurosaki!"
Yukimura's shout alarmed the entire class. She'd never shouted before, not once, but the teacher was looking very pissed off and incredibly frustrated. She must have been trying to speak for a while now; As Ichigo moved to his desk behind Tatsuki, the teacher caught the slayer's eyes. There was a strange understanding in them and Tatsuki knew the woman was going to ask her to stay behind after class. That was why Tatsuki went right up to her desk when class ended, why bother waiting for the summons you knew was coming?
Yukimura was quick to wave everyone out, pulling out a large book as she began to talk about an opportunity for extra credit. The door slid shut and the two of them were left alone at the front of the classroom.
"Wow," Yukimura sighed. "He's certainly rude, isn't he?"
"Excuse me?" Tatsuki asked.
"I've been your teacher for over a month now Arisawa. I know that you are a strong, independent, brilliant young woman." Arisawa pulled something from her desk and Tatsuki sat down on the edge of it. "You have great grades, a real talent for marital arts, and I'm glad that you're taking the time to focus on yourself."
"What?" Tatsuki watched as Yukimura began to pack her bag. "I'm confused, again."
"Tatsuki, it doesn't matter how many phases or changes you go through. You're still you." Yukimura stood up. "As long as you're happy with who you become, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."
Tatsuki watched as Yukimura walked out of the room, faintly pleased to hear her start scolding Ichigo for his behavior in class, along with failing to turn in his long overdue homework. She was doing a pretty good job too, Tatsuki could practically hear the teen shrinking back at Yukimura's anger. A scary thing that. Except, there was one small thing. Yukimura and Ichigo were blocking the only exit and Tatsuki needed to get home. The slayer walked over to the open window and looked down. It was only the second floor...she could handle that.
When the breeze kicked up around where she'd landed, Tatsuki was glad to know she'd actually been able to handle the jump. The grass wavered and a few leaves tickled the backs of her thighs before she stood upright, bag and baby slung over her shoulder and head whirring with thoughts. She couldn't sit at home right now. She just couldn't.
The back room of Obake was actually a very nice place. The hum of magic lulled her to sleep, her mother's magic, her grandfather's magic, so on and so forth for generations, all of it was embued into the artifacts or the building itself. Tatsuki felt comfortable here. Far from the stress of school and the chaos of her life. The only problem was finding the right spot to sleep and the crying baby-doll she had to take care of. She may have taped the key into it's back and left it in the front of the store under the counter. With the doll out of sight, it was out of mind, as was the man attached to it. The headache that had come about just from dealing with him had faded away, a slight pressure behind her eyes, but nothing else. She wasn't going to risk sleeping with it though. No, she was going to lounge on the back couch, enjoying the sun and the calm quiet.
The front door jingled and Tatsuki felt someone's shadow fall over her form. She smelled dust and books and the faint smell of chemicals. She could feel spiritual energy, so strong she could almost taste it. And candy. She could smell and taste candy.
"You're in my sun," Tatsuki waved a hand weakly. The pressure was getting worse.
"And you managed to beat Ichigo into the dirt without lifting a finger." Urahara had moved out of her sun, but now he was sitting on the couch by her feet. "And Inoue."
"I swear to god, if you're here to guilt trip me I will throw you out of the skylight." Tatsuki cracked an eye open. "I'm not even going to think about forgiving them until I get the truth, from them, directly."
"I certainly don't miss the days when I was so young as you." the blonde looked up to the skylight. "When friendship lasted forever and mountains were all around me. Only now, thousands of years later, am I starting to see the molehills for what they are."
"I really hope you didn't come here to act as my therapist." Tatsuki sighed. She opened both yes fully and sat up to look at the shopkeeper. "What sort of thing needs beheading?"
Urahara pulled something from his sleeve, refusing to comment on her words. It was a stack of newspaper clippings referring to a series of robberies across the nation. Not that they had any real links. Random theft mixed with grave robbing. Tatsuki laid the strips of paper out in front of her and began to read through them. Door handles, antique car theft, only to find the car had been returned the next day. Several ancient graves, all from the 1700's or earlier, had been dug up and left untouched. It was strange, but it wasn't exactly magical.
"The police can't find any trace of the thieves, and they're coming this way." Urahara pulled out yet more clippings. "I can't seem to figure out why anyone would want an antique door handle."
"You want me to keep my eyes open for not-vampires?" Tatsuki asked with a raised brow. "I'll bring it up to the others, but your guess is as good as mine."
A crash came from the front of the shop and the babydoll started to wail. She was going to absolutely destroy that thing. With a sigh, the slayer rose from the couch, wavering slightly as the headache came rushing back to her. Urahara's hand was on her arm, steadying her as she sank back tot he couch. If this was Tsubaki's curse, she was going to kill the woman all over again, if this was something else...well, she was going to kill that too. For now though, she'd settle for the asprin Urahara was giving her.
"Are you alright Lady Slayer?"
"Yeah, I haven't been sleeping enough." Tatsuki stood fully and began to pack her things up. "I'll drop this off with the Tenshi and then drop by the hospital."
"Patrol work?" Urahara asked.
"No." The slayer slung her bag over her shoulder. "Some decent painkillers and a check-up."
"It's certainly the curse that's effecting you." Dr. Ishida pulled back from Tatsuki. "But there's something else involved as well. Something feeding off of the curse."
"How is this thing even working?" Tatsuki asked from her place on the doctor's desk.
She'd gone into his office without so much as a phone call. Not that he'd been doing much of anything, his secretary wasn't particularly dedicated to keeping her out either. The hospital director actually looked happy to see he was needed for something supernatural. He'd grumbled and protested and he'd insisted that he didn't have time for the case, but he'd pulled out his stethoscope and checked her over the entire time. Dr. Ishida had taken a real interested when Tatsuki told him why she'd been cursed, when it had started, and what was happening with her hair.
"So far as I can tell, the curse is using your own spiritual energy to keep itself going. But, something else is feeding off of you as well." The doctor began to write a prescription for her. "Take this down to the pharmacy, they'll give you something for the headaches. As for the drainage, i'd suggest you find whatever it is very quickly."
"I did feel better when I was layign in the sun earlier," Tatsuki admitted. "All I felt was a kind of pressure behind my eyes."
"Hm, until we figure this out, keep laying in the sun." Ishida handed her the note, eyes falling on the doll for the first time. "What is that?"
"A lesson in maturity and responsibility," Tatsuki hopped from the desk.
"Responsibility is using protection," Dr. Ishida snorted. "Go lay in the sun and shove that thing in a corner."
The Kurosaki clinic was a bustle of activity and had been since Ichigo had returned home. His sister's hadn't asked him about his adventures, instead they told him of their own trip to Sugisawa with Tsuki-nee-san and Ryo-nee-san. They told him about their stay at the onsen and their time spent at the Arisawa Manor in the mountains. Karin told him how Ryo-nee-san taught her the quick way to figure out her science homework and Yuzu was thrilled to tell him that she'd learned to tie an obi properly. A whole week spent far from Karakura in the small mountain village and the ancestral home of their favorite elder sister. They seemed to be hiding something from him though. The whole time they spoke, they kept some part of the story secret, glossed over it so smoothly and quickly that he might not have noticed it at all.
Except he had.
He'd noticed a lot of things. Like the scarf hanging from the coat rack or the extra pair of slippers by the door. He'd noticed the manga by the couch and he'd smelled the scent of her perfume in the clinic. Every time he'd asked about it, his family gave him the same answers. Tatsuki had come by last Friday to help out. Every Friday she would come by and help out, except for this last one when she'd taken the twins far away from Karakura to keep them safe. She wouldn't come by next Friday either, he knew that. The look of pain in her eyes this afternoon had very little to do with her headache. Sh'd taken th entire project on alone, not because she wanted to do it, but because he'd proven time and again that he'd leave her alone.
He'd watched as she left the classroom with Ryo and Mizuiro. She hadn't even looked to Orihime or Ichigo, hadn't asked where they'd gone or if they wanted to catch up somewhere. She'd taken the project home and the chances of him ever seeing her outside of class were slim to none.
The ringing of the doorbell summoned Ichigo to the present and out of his own thoughts. His father was in the clinic and his sisters were studying upstairs, leaving him to answer the door. Insistent and unyielding, the ringing sound was pushing his temper to the edge. Whoever was on the other-side of the door had better give him a good reason as to why he shouldn't punch them in the face. Maybe if he looked at their shoes first he wouldn't punch them right away.
"Wha..." Ichigo's eyes focused on a pair of booted feet before trailing up a pair of leather clad legs. Whomever was wearing them had been poured into them, and into the shirt she was wearing. His shirt if he wasn't mistaken. The woman's form had pulled lust from his anger, but her face sapped his anger away in moments, replacing it instead with frustration.
"Tatsuki? What...you're here?"
"You said you'd take it at night." Tatsuki pushed the baby-doll towards him. Her face was less drawn than it had been before, but there was a small crinkle just by her right eye. A crinkle that only appeared when she was hurt and trying not to show it. She pushed the doll towards him again.
"I wanted to talk to you about today," Ichigo took the doll and set it on the hall table.
"I have to go," Tatsuki shook her head. Ichigo had to jerk his eyes back to her face when she reached intot he waistband. "Here's the key thing, the tape fell off."
"Just come inside and let me talk to you," Ichigo waved the key away.
"No, because 'you talking' is going to turn into 'you demanding'." Tatsuki put a hand to her head and pressed against her temple. "I do not have the time or patience to sit through an interrogation about the feelings of someone else when I'm..." The slayer let out a breath and walked away.
Ichigo watched her walk into the darkness, not in the direction of home, but someplace else. Her hand never left her head, but her could she her shoulders sag as she went. This wasn't going to plan, Tatsuki wasn't even willing to listen to him for more than a few minutes; he doubted she'd answer yes even if he did get the question out. She was too angry to listen to anyone right now. Especially after what had happened at lunch. Ichigo had finally gotten Inoue to tell him the exact words that had passed between herself and Tatsuki. The redhead's explanation had been tear-filled and confused and Ichigo couldn't feel sorry for her. Especially not now when Tatsuki wouldn't even come in to listen. He'd heard th words she hadn't said before. She wanted him to think about her feelings, but he had been, that was why he wanted her to come in.
The baby-doll started to cry behind him, begging the attention he'd rather give the girl who'd walked away from him. When Ichigo picked the doll up, patting his pocket for the key, he realized something both good and bad. Tatsuki hadn't given him the key. He needed to go and track her down and if he did that, he could make her listen. The only downside was walking around town with a crying baby-doll.
Tatsuki held her arms as she walked through the park. Heron had given her a tip last night in exchange for running his fingers through her hair. The bird spirit didn't understand the purpose of hair on a human, but he'd been awfully eager to feel it; He'd wanted to know if human hair felt like animal fur. A few passes later and he'd spilled all her knew about the local nests. One of the smaller ones tended to hang around the park in between Kaito Liquor Store and Kurosaki clinic. Most deaths were written off as falling on barbecue forks or running into a tree.
"Barbecue forks," Tatsuki snorted. "I'll believe that when the sky turns red."
"I don't think you'll live that long."
Tatsuki turned to the voice, once again cursing the headache that had been poking her all day. Three of them had snuck up behind her and now that she was paying more attention to the tingle, she could feel two of them creeping out of the trees behind her. The one who'd spoken was big. At least so big as Chad with bleached hair and a gap between his teeth, the two fangs standing behind him were barely smaller.
"Thinking? Wow, that must have been a new experience."
The slayer expected it when the leader rushed her, and when the one at her five tried to grab her up. The stake slid from beneath her shirt and right into the rear one's chest, turning the vampire into a pile of dust. She ducked under the leader's arms, dodging between the rest of the rabid fangs as she pulled out another stake. A second vampire went down, one of the burly ones, and the single female of the group began to screech, nails elongating into claws as she lunged for Tatsuki.
The faint cry of a baby distracted her just long enough for the she-fang to toss her into the nearby jungle gym.
Ichigo began to run towards the fight, furious with whoever had thrown her into the steel bars. A single woman was attacking her while three men prowled around them, one of whom Ichigo had seen laying dead in the clinic before he'd gone to rescue Rukia. He didn't have time to think on it, that same musclehead had spotted him and was coming over with a buddy.
"You got ugly after you died," Ichigo couldn't help but blurt. He tossed the babydoll onto a swing behind him.
"And you got delicious after I died," the man grinned at his, fangs peeking from beneath his gnarled lips.
He lunged for Ichigo, faster than any human or monster he'd faced before, fangs bared and his buddy grinning wide. His punches were strong, at least one rib had cracked where he'd connected, but Ichigo had faced much stronger enemies in his time. They'd been far more skilled as well. As he punched and dodged the fanged deadman, he saw Tatsuki gaining the upper hand against her own foe. He'd been worried when she pulled out the piece of wood, nearly getting hit by the vampire he fought, until he saw her stab the woman in the chest. A single strike to his chest from the deadman sent him flying towards the slides. When he looked up, he saw nothing but a pile of dust where the woman had once stood. Tatsuki stabbed another one in the heart, turning the thing to dust.
"Simple enough," he breathed, pushing himself to his feet. The Deadman was stalking towards Tatsuki, leaving one lanky lacky with his back turned to Ichigo. His mistake.
"So, the Lady Slayer decided to grace us with her presence." The Bleached Musclehead grinned. "Once we're done with you, we'll drain your little boyfriend."
"I wish I could feel upset over that idea," Tatsuki smirked. "But he's not my boyfriend, and uh, who exactly is this We you're talking about?"
The man looked around, seeing that his posse had been turned to dust. He lunged once more, the demon inside coming out more than she'd ever seen a vampire allow. His skin mottled and his fangs grew larger, ears pointing to the sky as he grabbed for her. The sound of tearing fabric let her know he'd missed, and she took the chance to stake him.
A wave of nausea overtook her as she went in for the kill, pain radiating from her head to her fingertips and back. The sound of a crying infant radiated through her skull and the cold dead flesh of the vampire closed around her wrist.
"I'm disappointed Slayer," he grinned in her face.
"You're also very stupid."
The vampire's eyes widened as a stake was driven through his back and into his heart. Tatsuki fell to the ground before a fine layer of dust and bone covered her body. The fall, combined with the pain and the incessant crying caused her to start heaving. A pair of hands were on her shoulders, helping her to sit up enough that she wouldn't vomit on herself.
"The baby," Tatsuki burped out.
"I somehow doubt-"
"Shut it up," She bent over the playground wall.
"You have the key," Ichigo tried not to snap.
Tatsuki grumbled, reaching into the waist band of her pants and passing the object to him. Seconds after he took it she began to empty her stomach into the bushes. The doll fell silent and Tatsuki was once more overcome by what she felt. Nothing. No pain, no nausea, nothing was bothering her save for the ache in her abdomen and the taste of bile in her mouth. The headache was fading away once more, leaving only the faintest pressure behind. A warm hand settled on her back and Tatsuki let out a shaking breath. It was only a matter of time.
"Are you okay?"
"Headache got to be too much," she stood up slowly.
A cool breeze blew across her form, chilling the skin of her chest. She didn't even bother looking down; the vampire had slashed her shirt in half. She could feel the cotton tickling her sides where it hung. A bundle of red cloth was handed to her. Ichigo had taken his shirt off and now stood, staring at the tree line with a plastic doll in his hand. The slayer was getting stronger in her veins, the hunger for food and flesh pushing everything back. A topless male was offering himself to her.
She took a shaking breath, focusing on the taste of vomit as she took her own shirt off. The acrid taste and the way it clung to her teeth stuck with her as she put his shirt on. The slayer could smell him stronger now, but she was still pissed at him. That killed desire quicker than anything. He'd busted into her life, her fight, and now he was playing the sweet guy?
"So, those things," Ichigo began. "What are they?"
"Do you see this?" Tatsuki asked. Ichigo turned to look and Tatsuki's fist shot out, sending the teen to the ground in an unconscious heap. "It's the only way I can get you to shut up."
"And you woke up to find yourself on your couch without a shirt on?"
Ichigo nodded at Ishida's question, staring out across the town from the school roof. Topless with the babydoll on the hall table and the key duct taped into the back. He hadn't found his shirt anywhere this morning and his sister's were refusing to speak on whatever had happened. His father wasn't saying much of anything either, he hadn't even attacked Ichigo this morning, simply poked him in the black eye he'd gotten from the girl he'd tried to save. Said girl hadn't spoken to him since this morning when he'd handed their assignment off. She'd been a little woozy at first, but then she disappeared, faster than any normal human aught to have been.
"Something happened in between us leaving and when we came back," Ichigo sighed. "Something big that no one wants to talk about."
"I saw her at the hospital yesterday," Ishida spoke up. "I went to go see my father about something and she was sitting on his desk while he gave her a check-up."
Ichigo's first thought was not one he enjoyed. Vomiting plus sexy new clothes plus older man giving her special attention? No, he didn't want to entertain that thought. He didn't doubt that Ishida's dad would do the right thing, the right thing being whatever Tatsuki wanted, but he didn't like the idea of Tatsuki belonging to another man. His hollow had always howled with rage whenever she sat too close to someone else. It purred in delight when she sat in front of him. He was sure that if Ogihci was still around, he'd been be fighting a number of urges involving her hair.
"Do you think he'd tell you anything if you asked?" Orihime asked softly. She'd been exceptionally quiet today, she'd barely eaten the lunch in front of her.
"He told me to mind my own business," Ishida snorted. "Whatever Arisawa got mixed up in, we'll have to approach her about it directly."
"I think I know where she is," Ichigo pushed himself off of the railing. He could see her on the roof of the gym, her hair blowing in the breeze as she sat beside Ryo.
"Okay, I admit, I should have turned around and given him the key as soon as I realized I still had it. I just wanted him to squirm a bit." Tatsuki took another bite of her lunch, trying not to spit it back up. "I was going to give it to him this morning."
"You mean when he gave the doll back to you?" Ryo was looking at the codex, sifting through curses and cures for curses and waiting for the Caster department to get back to her with some sort of cure. She was waiting for Tatsuki's mother to get back to her and Urahara and even Dr. Ishida, but none seemed to know what to do about a curse that made your hair grow and bleed.
"Maybe I wanted him to suffer more than a bit," Tatsuki admitted. "It's petty I know, but I can't really do much else."
"You could just tell him whats on your mind," Ryo began to dig through her bag. "But that would be easy."
"That would involve a lot of duct tape and me crying by the end." Tatsuki let out a sigh and allowed the sun to wash over her. The doll was sitting next to the fence at the other end of the roof and there wasn't a single person to interrupt them. Even her fanclub was leaving her alone. They were guarding her 'tower' according to the one she'd caught standing by the door of the roof. They would be the dragon guarding the moon princess. "It sucks you know. Because I want him to come to my rescue, I want him to Want to come and save me because he wants me. But he never will because I'm not That Girl."
"You're wrong," Ryo moved to her knees and started playing with Tatsuki's hair. "A slayer can be one of those girls."
"Maybe," Tatsuki shifted to let Ryo play with her hair. "But how come he only wants answers now? How come he's only cornering me now? After I've cried and screamed and given up?" Tatsuki reached up to wipe a tear away. "Even if he did care, he only cares when he has nothing else to do."
Something shuffled by the door, very soft and very faint.
"Well, if that's true, he doesn't deserve you," Ryo slid something into Tatsuki's hair. "No one deserves half of someone's attention." A mirror popped up in front of Tatsuki. "What do you think?"
"I think you stole the bathroom mirror from the museum," Tatsuki turned to face her friend.
"I meant your hair," Ryo rolled her eyes. "Besides, it's not like the thing was on display or part of an exhibit. It was pretty, I wanted it, I took it."
Tatsuki took the mirror from Ryo, letting out a small breath as she saw what Ryo had done. Tsubaki's hair pin had been cleaned and it now held Tatsuki's hair in a clean bun. A few strands got in the way where her bangs once were, but it stayed in place and there was less of a pulling sensation now.
"Thank your Ryo." Tatsuki turned to hug the runner. "For everything."
"What are friends for?" Ryo hugged her back.
The rest of the day passed very strangely for Tatsuki. Ichigo, who'd been so close to her all day, always trying to get a hold of her or corner her somewhere, had left her alone. She'd even go so far as to say he as avoiding her. In civics class, he barely spoke to her, he simply listened as she told him the times the baby had cried, why it was crying and what she'd done. All of it was made up of course, just like his own numbers were, but he hadn't even bothered to question her. He hadn't chastised her for stuffing the doll in her locker for most of the day and her certainly hadn't said anything about what she'd been wearing last night. He hadn't brought last night up at all and he hadn't raised a fuss when Tatsuki decided to sit next to Ryo once more.
And that was fine. Really. There were more important things going on, like the sudden absence of over half of her classmates. The half of the classmates who'd taken the dolls home if she wasn't mistaken. That didn't answer where Keigo and Mizuiro were, but when the slayer turned to ask Ryo a question, she got enough of an answer. Her friend was scowling at her phone and trying not to shout. She set the phone down and picked it back up and the process repeated itself.
"So, should I punch someone in the head?" Tatsuki asked.
"No," Ryo scowled. "I think I'd like to do that myself. They're sitting at home playing Mega Blaster."
"That explains where your assignment is," Tatsuki hummed. "It's not just the skipping school though, is it?"
Kuzonoha fell over as Ryo tried to explain what was bothering her. The watcher almost pushed Tatsuki out of her chair, whispering for her to check for magic. Sohma ran for the nurse as Tatsuki knelt beside the girl to check. Ichigo was beside her next, checking the girl's pulse and helping Tatsuki move the girl out of her desk and onto the floor proper. There was certainly something clinging to Kuzunoha, something twisted around her own energy so subtly that Tatsuki might not have noticed it at all if she hadn't been touching the girl's skin. The longer she was in contact, the more defined the energy was, defined enough that Tatsuki could figure out just what had been stealing her own spiritual energy.
The nurse came in, followed by the gym teacher and Sohma, gathering around Kuzonoha before they carried her to the nurse's office. Tatsuki went back to stand by Ryo, sharing exactly what she'd discovered. Combined with what Dr. Ishida had told her at the hospital yesterday, Tatsuki had every reason to believe these dolls were more than a nuisance, they were evil.
"Text the boys," Tatsuki whispered as the class started to chatter around them. "Tell them to bring Midoriko and your..." Tatsuki fell silent as Ichigo walked past them and back towards his friends. "We need a diversion too."
Ryo pursed her lips, setting aside the frustration she felt in favor of taking care of business. The text went out, and Tatsuki found herself looking at her friend once more. They had a good fifteen minutes and Ryo was in need of an ear.
"So, tell me why I shouldn't punch Keigo as soon as he gets here." Tatsuki sat on top of Ryo's desk.
"It's nothing big," Ryo shook her head. "I've dated enough boys to know what this is but, with Keigo, it's different. I want things to work out with him."
"Have you talked to him about it?" Tatsuki asked.
"He never wants to talk. Whenever I bring anything serious up, he changes the subject or remembers something or runs off." Ryo leaned her head against Tatsuki's hip. "I really wonder what goes through his brain sometimes."
"I kind of doubt anything does," Tatsuki put a hand on Ryo's head.
The fire alarm started ringing around them a few minutes later, causing the students to pause in their conversation before filing out of the room slowly. The boys had given them a very good distraction by pulling the alarm. The volume of the other students increased and attention was thrown every place except for on Tatsuki and Ryo. The boys were waiting by the back door with their equipment and a single doll between them.
"Stop touching that thing," Tatsuki demanded of them. The boys dropped the doll, ignoring the cries when Tatsuki waved them back into the building. "Whatever is inside of it is bad news. Alright, if I were a soul sucking monster living at a school, where would I hide?"
"Teacher's lounge," Keigo nodded.
"The Gym," Mizuiro volunteered.
"I don't think that's how it happened," Ryo shook her head. She was staring at the door to the basement, fingers tracing along the wood. "What if the demon came with the dolls and it grew during storage?"
Tatsuki adjusted her grip on her sword, pushing the door open as those behind her got ready to fight the big bad in the basement. Down the stairs she went, Slayer senses combining with the insistent pressure behind her eyes. It was getting worse the closer they got, and when the four teens finally reached the basement floor, they were only half surprised to see a giant pit in the middle of the floor. Sohma, the Nurse, and the Gym teacher were standing all around the pit, holding Kuzunoha still as a small creature fed off of her. It looked a little like a starfish with hundreds of little eyeballs all over it and more tentacles than any jellyfish aught to have. Tatsuki jumped the final few steps and landed on the other side of the side of the pit. The teachers looked up when she landed, eyes glazed over and jaws slack.
"Damn, I can't even make any good jokes," Tatsuki put her sword over her shoulder.
The gym teacher released Kuzunoha's shoulders and began to lumber towards Tatsuki. Mizuiro was quick to step between them however, even if he was slightly frightened of the coach. The butt of his weapon met the teacher's jaw and the boy was suddenly less afraid. Instead, he'd grown fierce, hitting the gym teacher perhaps a bit more than was needed. Ryo had knocked out Sohma, a quick punch before she tied the woman up while Keigo was crying as he tried to hold the school nurse off.
Tatsuki hurried to Kuzunoha's side, tearing off the squirmy demon before checking the girl over. She was still breathing, and while her spirit was weak, the demonic energy was waning away.
Tatsuki looked up to see a large tentacle swinging up from the depths of the pit. Make that three. The slayer ducked out of the way, pulling Kuzunoha with her.
"Get her out of here!" Tatsuki pushed the girl onto Mizuiro; they were supposed to be partners anyway. The boy nodded and began carrying her out while Keigo moved Sohma from the room. The nurse and coach had been pushed into a corner, guarded by Ryo and her crossbow.
"I really hate calamari," Tatsuki slashed at an incoming appendage. The beast in the hole roared in pain and two more came out for her. "Multiplication isn't my favorite either."
A scuffle sounded behind her, along with the shouts of Ryo and the thunk of bolts into wood. The slayer barely had time to glance over, satisfied when she saw Ryo whack a lunchlady over the head with her crossbow. Tatsuki ducked low and jumped high as two of the monster's tentacles swung at her from opposing directions. Her sword sliced through the offensive things, summoning yet another howl of pain. Several of the tiny monsters began crawling up from within the pit, two throwing themselves at her and Ryo both. As the creature's skin made contact with Tatsuki, the headache returned full force and a sinister voice began to echo through her mind. A bulbous growth rose from the pit, swaying slightly as it's singular eye focused on Tatsuki.
"So strong," it rumbled to her. The unharmed tentacles were worming their way towards her. "So fast." Tatsuki found herself hanging upside down with her ankles bound. Her sword had slipped from her grasp with the sudden movement and increased drain on her spirit. "So pure."
"So...not my type," Tatsuki grit out. "Why don't you...let me down, so I can give you some corrective surgery."
"So smart." The bulbous thing was leaning closer to her and jagged barbs were beginning to poke through it's skin. "I am in need of a new host."
The grip on her ankles tightened and Tatsuki felt herself losing focus as the pain behind her eyes increased. Every movement hurt, and fighting to keep her knees together as the leathery appendages crept along her legs and was nearly enough to push her into oblivion.
Something hot passed above her. Above and through the tentacles holding her hostage, the black crescent dispersed into the air and fell into her skin. The rush of relief from the black granules was almost as intense as the pain itself had been. Better still, the little specks of energy were burning the creature who'd tried to get poke happy. The creature had pulled as far back into the pit as it could, but Tatsuki had her sword again, and she was ready to slice and dice. The slayer slid across the floor and down into the pit. There, burned from the blackened energy, was the bulbous head. The various little creatures were shriveled and dead around it.
It was easier to dodge the creatures attacks, and Midoriko was only too happy to stab through the creature's skin. Over and again she stabbed the beast, cutting deeper each time until she went until Tatsuki could see the creature's heart pulsing beneath the layers of tissue. Tougher than the rest of the creature had been, the Slayer enjoyed slicing it into little pieces. As the blood of the beast filled the pit, Tatsuki pulled herself from the mess and back up to the floor. Ryo had fallen unconscious, but she was unharmed, as were the two she'd been guarding. Good. That was good. The demonic energy was fading away too.
"I want a shower."
"What was that spell you cast?" Tatsuki asked as she and Ryo sat in the small garden.
Both girls had showered after escaping the school and according to Dr. Ishida, the students who'd fallen ill had returned to full health. The teachers had returned to normal, confused, but back to normal. Whatever had been living inside of the babydolls had died when their mother had, meaning Tatsuki could continue leaving it in her locker until the assignment ended as opposed to cutting it open and making with the stabby. All that was left now was letting the school discover the chopped up remains of a demon in the basement.
"What spell?" Ryo asked over her teacup.
"The black thing that cut me loose from the demon," Tatsuki sighed. "You know? The spell?"
"I passed out before the demon grabbed you up," Ryo shook her head.
Keigo came out onto the porch before Tatsuki could think about the implications. The flamboyant boy was kneeling in front of Ryo, face down in the dirt as he promised to never skip school without telling her again. She ducked out once Ryo pulled the boy up and kissed him. Their fights were some of the strangest she'd ever heard of.
Except, leaving them alone meant facing her thoughts. It meant the spell that had cut her loose had come from someone else. Someone who had followed her down to the basement and hadn't gotten involved until she'd been completely doomed and in dire need of rescue.
Ichigo grumbled as he held the tissue up against his nose. It had been bleeding for most of his waking hours thanks to a certain leather pants wearing girl. The teen was forced to switch tissues as her leather pants popped into his head. It was bad enough she'd sat across from him his first day back, looking soft and perfect with her hair all loose and long. It had pissed him off when she'd knocked him out after he'd saved her ass last night; he'd nearly passed out from blood loss right then and there. And this morning, when she'd shown up in thigh-high socks and heels, he could have sworn his inner hollow was back and more than ready to take over his body. Assuming of course Ichigo hadn't wanted the same thing his hollow would have wanted.
But then lunch came. He'd gone over to tell her everything and instead he'd listened to her. He'd listened to everything. He didn't know what a Slayer was, but ti wasn't the first time he'd heard someone call Tatsuki that. Given what he'd seen, it was someone who fought monsters and demons and wore...
"Stop thinking about leather pants," Ichigo grumbled as he pulled another tissue from the box. The jump from tissues to tears dsobered him up quickly enough. He'd seen Tatsuki cry only once before and he'd sworn to never let her cry again. Except he had, in fact, he'd been the one to make her cry. Again.
He'd noticed right away when she disappeared from the rest of the class. Kon had taken on his body and Ichigo had followed the two girls back into the building, staying out of sight as he listened in on them. He'd waited for Keigo and Mizuiro to be pulled from the building by the fire department and then he'd dashed down into the basement. What he'd seen had ignited multiple fires inside of him. He was a seventeen year old boy, watching as a monster held a school girl captive, bound and moaning softly as the monster crept closer. The school girl he'd loved since he was five years old was about to be destroyed. Rage, desire, fear, all of these and more had pushed him to step into the fight, but nothing had pushed him more than Tatsuki's own words.
He'd sent an attack at the tentacles, ready to catch her fall and finish the job. She hadn't needed him though. Half of his attack had been absorbed by her own spirit and the girl in the heels had landed on the ground, energized and filled with the need to take down her prey. He'd pulled back and watched, just out of sight as he watched her slice the demon open and kill it. He'd watched her climb out of the pit, covered from head to toe in slime and talking about a shower.
Ichigo shifted on his bed and grit his teeth. She'd come by a few hours ago, just before dusk. She wasn't wearing leather pants, he really needed to stop thinking about those, and she didn't look ready to go and slay vampires. She was wearing his shirt from last night and a pair of jeans, slim and tight and leading down long legs to the red heels she wore. Th mass of hair had been put up into a bun and for the first time since seeing it, he wanted it to flow loose around her, maybe fanned out behind her. He couldn't speak, he could only nod dumbly as she pushed the doll at him and walked back home. Ever since she'd walked off into the night, Ichigo had been nursing bloody noses and seeking old showers.
She wanted a hero. Someone who would rescue her when she needed it and let her fight her own battles when she wanted to. He would be her hero. He'd been the hero for enough people recently, he'd saved enough worlds and souls for a lifetime. Now he had to be there for That Girl.
His Only Girl.