Chapter 18: i Sorpresa! [surprise]

Wherein challenges are made,

Patience is tested

And frights are given a new name.


Nel walked at a simple pace beside the girl whose hand she currently held onto. In truth her day wasn't as pleasant as she enthusiastically told the young girl beside her, and it was starting to become such a bother. At first, in the beginning, it wasn't like this: she loved it. A new place with new faces that resembled hers in curiosity and youth. Of course she had been a little frightened on her first day, but who wasn't?

Though her fears had eventually been calmed and her first day had been a lot of fun, the week that followed was just as exciting if not more so, up until the last day of the week strolled about. She remembered the assignment, her enthusiasm as she picked out the paper and colors for the picture, her frustration and embarrassment when she realized she began painting with canary yellow instead of eggshell white. Aside from the slight mishap in colors, she remembered being so excited to show the people featured in the painting her masterful work. Then she recalled that the assignment had been called to rest for that day; they would get to pick up from where they started later next week. Nel had just put her brushes away for cleaning when a few children whom she talked to and hoped to call friends approached her desk and began commenting on her work.

"Why does yours have such funny colors?" Questioned a boy with freckles across his nose.

"We were suppose to draw our family." Commented a girl with pigtails and a bandage across her forehead.

"Yeah, normal families don't look like this." The boy commented, snatching the paper away from the tiny green haired girl and peering at it from odd angles. "Who are they s'pose to be?" He frowned before his dark brown eyes turned back to Neliel.

Nel pouted but pointed at the figures on the page. "That's Itsyugo and that's Gwimm," she identified each blob.

"Eeh? Wierd. They both sound like boy names." The other little girl voiced, placing her hands on her hips in a mature fashion.

"'Cause they are."

"Eeeh? Your family is supposed to be your mommy, daddy and you and brothers and sisters if you have them." The girl replied, eyes focused on the picture the little boy handed back to Nel, who snatched it once it was in her grasp. "Are they your brothers?"

Pausing at the statement, Nel stared at the picture in her hands. "No..."

She didn't really know or understand what Ichigo and Grimmjow were to her, but she was fairly certain that they were important enough for her to consider them family if not more. The other little girl once again voiced her distaste of the artwork.

"Then they can't be in the picture."

Nel frowned her small green eyebrows at that, not understanding completely what the girl meant. "...but teacher said our most important people..." She had said to paint portraits of family, important people and the like. Neliel wasn't sure what the little girl was going on about but she was certain she was wrong because if Ichigo, Grimmjow and the others weren't important, then she didn't know who was.

"That means family." The boy with the freckles enunciated, sniffing his nose rather loudly. He pointed at Nel's paper as he continued, "These people don't look like family, this one doesn't even have the same type of hair. Family share the same blood, a stranger can't be family."

That couldn't be true. "But..."

But the boy waved away her protests with a flimsy hand, already walking away from her side of the desk. "I know, I have three brothers and we're all family and we look the same. They can't be your family, you look too different. Draw your mommy and daddy, it'll be better." He walked over to sit at his desk before the teacher readied herself to give out another assignment.

Nel was conflicted, unaware of how to respond. "But... I don't..." Her voice trailed off, not knowing how to explain that she couldn't draw her real family because she didn't know nor could not remember them. Because she was truly a hollow, she had no recollection of the years that she spent on earth, all spirits that end up in either spirit realm are like that, but they wouldn't understand. "I don't know how..."

"Eeeeh? You can't draw your mommy and daddy? What are you weird?" The little girl placed her cheeks in her hands while leaning on the desk they all shared as she asked the question. Nel simply shook her head slowly.

The pigtailed girl lifted up and leaned back slightly, a small grin showing her missing front tooth. "Oh? You're a weird girl with weird pictures who talks funny."

It was a hard thing to deny because Nel had no type of rebuttal for the other children, instead she tried not to let the hurt show on her face as she attempted to drown out the words that the little boy lashed out with next.

"Yeah you probably don't have normal parents, they must have weird hair and talk funny like you."

Each time she remembered the incident, Nel wanted to cry. She didn't know what was right anymore, and that was starting to affect her more than she came to realize. If her and Grimmjow weren't family, then what were they? Friends? She didn't fully understand that concept either, but from what she could tell, friends don't take care of each other the same way Grimmjow takes care of her and Ichigo. Pretty much since she first met the shinigami, Neliel had understood that there was something about him she'd never be able to let go. She knew that seeing his face or being near him was the only thing she'd ever need inorder to have any type of happiness. Didn't that make him important to her? But did that make him family? She didn't really know. And what about Grimmjow, she couldn't really imagine herself apart from the stupid blue haired espada for long periods of time anymore. He genuinely just made her happy. Doesn't that make him special as well? What was family anyway and why was it so unique they felt she couldn't have it too?

Nel tried to discretely wipe the tears that fell down her cheeks, but Yuzu was far too perceptive.

"Nel-chan? Are you okay?" At the girl's simple nod, Yuzu frowned and reached into the folds of her bag, pulling out a clean, pastel colored handkerchief. She stopped and knelt to the little girl's level. "Here, use this." It must have been something she said or the emotions of that moment, but whatever it was forced more tears from the girl, causing her to wrap her short arms around the youngest Kurosaki girl's neck. Yuzu patted Nel's back, rubbing soft circles as she whispered into her hair as the tiny teal haired girl cried harder. "Shhh... it's alright."

After a moment and when her tears were mostly gone, Nel pulled away from the mouse haired girl, taking the kerchief and wiping her face with it. Yuzu watched tentatively, hoping she'd say something but knowing she wouldn't, until a familiar yet distant voice pulled her out of the moment.


She heard a voice call from in front of her, Yuzu looked up to find a wild Orihime waving brightly at her. "Inoue-chan, long time no see." She smiled and waved back, perking Nel's interest and causing the girl to turn and see whom she was greeting.

Orihime paused once her eyes flitted towards the little girl, genuine shock and surprise plastered on her face. "...and Nel-chan?!" she gasped.

Nel's eyes went teary again. "Odihime-tan!" She ran towards the girl, glomping her at the waiste. Orihime smiled patiently and kindly down at the little girl.

"It's so good to see you again, Nel-chan." She stroked the girl's teal green hair, still a little surprised that neither Grimmjow nor Urahara told her about this. In the back of her mind she wondered if Kurosaki knew, until she realized who the girl was walking with and deduced that if he didn't know then he was more of a dunce than he lead on to be.

Yuzu smiled happily at the girls change in demeanor, however still mildly concerned. "I didn't know you knew Nel, Inoue-chan." Gray eyes glanced up into her own light brown ones, Orihime blanched.

", yes! I met her a long time ago, eh-heh. So where are you two off to?" She pulled the conversation away from her, hoping the young Kurosaki girl wouldn't ask too many questions. Yuzu smiled.

"Home, actually, I have homework and dinner to prepare."

Orihime had almost forgot how the young teen had to pretty much be the mother of the household now that their real mother was gone. She smiled at the brown haired girl, patting her head. "Eeh, such a good girl." Yuzu squeaked and giggled a bit before Orihime stopped. There was something in the others eyes that changed, "How... How is Kurosaki-kun."

Her smile was nearly forced this time. "He hasn't changed much."

Grey eyes looked over at the young girl almost sadly, but with a strength that said she would pull through. Orihime supposed that it sounded a lot like Kurosaki, still brash and rough, no matter what. It was good, she didn't want to see him act any different, didn't want to admit that so many things had changed. As her mind wandered over this, the small hands that were clutching her waist now tugged on her dress, Orihime looked down into woeful hazel eyes.


"Odihime..." She looked on the brink of tears once more.

"Nel-chan? What's the matter?" Sinking to the ground, The older girl took the handkerchief that dangled in the child's left hand and used it to wipe at her cheeks.

Though her voice betrayed her worry, Yuzu managed to say in a calm voice, "She's been behaving oddly for a while, I don't know what it could be."

Orihime bit her lip and looked back at the little girl. "Is it something wrong with Ichigo?" At the subtle shake of a teal head, Orihime frowned. "Grimmjow?" Another shake. "Then what is it?" Nel shrugged, clearly not in the mood to divulge anything at the moment, not with Yuzu so close, she couldn't have her say anything to Ichigo about her current predicament, even if she knew the girl would never betray her trust that way.

"Nel-chan, we have to get going, papa will worry." Yuzu said sadly, not wanting to tear the two away from each other. Orihime looked up at the younger girl then.

"Don't worry, Yuzu-chan, I'll speak with her then see that she gets home safely." Mousey brown eyes widened as their owner looked a bit sheepish.

"Oh, I wouldn't want to bother you, Inoue-chan..." She did want Orihime to coax what she could out of the young girl, in hopes of bringing her current mood up, but it was asking so much from the older girl. Orihime shook her head, standing up once more.

"It's fine, I promise, I can go shopping later, just get going."

Yuzu looked a bit worried but grateful. "I'm sorry, I owe you, Inoue-chan," she admit, bowing slightly before turning towards Nel. "Make sure you listen to Inoue-chan and make sure not to be out too late. I'll see the both of you later." At the young girl's nod, she smiled a the both of them before turning towards the Kurosaki Clinic.

Orihime watched the retreating back of the girl for a while before turning to the child at her side. Though Nel still waved at Yuzu's disappearing back, she could still tell that something was very wrong. But she knew that since Nel was a child, she would have use different tactics to retrieve information from her.

"Brrrr! , it's cold..." She said, shivering and rubbing her arms, even though the weather was fairly warm considering the clouds in the sky. "... how about some hot chocolate?" The offered treat got the young girl's attention and Neliel looked up brightly at Inoue.

"Yes!" she exclaimed.

Minutes later, after finding a vending machine that sold hot drinks, found the two ladies on the bench in a nearby park. Orihime sipped delicately at her drink while Nel just looked at the brown liquid rippling off the sides of the cup. She didn't press it, however, if Nel had something to say, then she would stay here ready to listen, it was good practice since she was to school to become a teacher.

After a few more moments of silence, Nel's soft voice made itself known. "Does Odihime have family?" She looked up at the older female, questions and so many emotions in her big hazel eyes. Orihime sat her empty cup on the side of her and smiled.

"Well... yes. My brother."

"Where ith he?" she asked curiously, her lisp a little more prominent. Orihime smile softly again, remembering the ordeal, and though it had not been a completely pleasant one, she couldn't forget it, even if she wanted to.

"Back before I could see spirits, his turned into a hollow. Kurosaki-kun saved me... and saved him, my brother, I mean."

"Y-you mean he purified him?" Greenish eyebrows rose in slight shock.

Orihime chuckled at the way the small girl's eyes widened. "Yes. But before he left, I was able to finally tell him goodbye..."

"And you weren't upset?"

"You know, I can't really say that I was. I think I was so happy to see his face again that it didn't really matter. Besides, I'll be able to see him again eventually."

Nell seemed to take that in and frowned. "But you might not remember him."

"That's fine," The brunette girl said after a quick pause. "Just the knowledge that we might be together again is enough for me."

A string of time passed where the two girls simply sat on the bench, staring at the abandoned playground, Nel still nursing her cooling beverage. She looked into its chocolate depths and all she could see was her reflection. She pouted then looked up at Orihime.

"Is that it?" She asked timidly, causing the older girl beside her to turn her kind grey eyes in her direction. Inoue had an expectant look on her slightly smiling face.

"What do you mean?"

"Is your broder the only family you have?" the girl seemed to understand what she meant and for that Nel was grateful, she was becoming increasingly unsure of how to express herself to people nowadays, when once upon a time, not very far in the past she had no problem saying what she meant, even if others didn't understand. This situation made her hyper aware of the people and relationships around her and she just wanted everything to go back to normal.

"No, there's still Tatsuki-chan and everyone from school... Ishida-kun, Sado-kun, Asano-san, Mizuiro-kun... even Kurosaki-kun..." Her voice seemed distant somehow, but Nel didn't recognize the emotion.

The list of people who Orihime named off caused the small girl beside her to frown. "But they're not related by blood."

"No... I guess not, but we are bonded by something stronger." She leaned her head to the side in thought. "I suppose everyone has people in their lives like that."

"Nel doesn't have any family." The statement earned the small girl an odd look from the older fairy wielder. Orihime frowned.

"Why do you say that?"

Nel played with her cup idly, wondering if she should tell the girl or not. If anyone could understand it was Orihime, she was the sweetest, most kind human she had ever met. The girl sighed softly, "Nel's friends at school... They said family is your mommy daddy and brothers or sisters... They told Nel that sometimes you can live with your grandparents too. That's what family is."

She had hoped for some type of denial, a reassuring word to tell her that those children had been wrong, she didn't really expect what the redhead said next.

"I suppose that makes sense." Orihime nodded and Nel looked up at her once more, her hazel eyes full of distress.

She felt hot tears pinch at the corners of her eyes. Has this been all a lie then? Was she really only alone? "See? Even you agree. Nel isn't human; Nel doesn't have a family."

"Of course not."

The words were cruel even if they were true. Apparently she had been wrong, horribly wrong, about Orihime as well. She wasn't nice, she was as bad as the children at her school. "Waaahh! You don't have to make fun of me Odihime-tan!" She dropped what little liquid chocolate she had left in her cup, spilling it over the dirt ground. Nel lifted her hands to wipe at her eyes, the tears flowing over non-stop as she bawled her eyes out.

Orihime turned her shocked eyes towards the girl, unaware that her words caused such harm. "Uwaah! I'm not, I'm not making fun of you, Nel-chan!" She placed a comforting hand on the girls back to try to calm her. When it didn't work she made a sound of distress. "Maybe I said that a little too harshly... I'm so sorry. What I meant was of course you don't have a normal family like those human children because you're not human."

Nel cried harder and a small laugh managed to break through her mask of concern. Orihime smiled. "I don't mean it in a bad way, I'm just telling the truth. Your family and their family is different. You simply can't compare the two."

Sobbs lifted long enough for the girl to gaze at her in question from behind tear filled eyes. Lifting a hand to place on her head, Orihime patted the small hollow lovingly, the way a mother would comfort her child.

"Nel-chan, you can't remember your parents, no spirit can, but I'm sure you've found someone who makes a wonderful substitute in their place for you. I'm sure you don't recall if you had brothers and sisters so you've allowed others to come in and fill that place. You may never be able to remember your grandparents or aunts and uncles so that opens up a place for those you consider special to fall. Do you understand what I'm saying? Not all families are the same, but all family love one another."

There was a moment of pause as Nel allowed the older girl's words to sink in. "Nel thinks she understands a little." Her mind immediately went to Ichigo, Grimmjow, Isshin, Karin and Yuzu, even the friends she'd left in Hueco Mundo. They were her family, she didn't have to question it.

Orihime smiled. "Good. I hope what I said helps you feel better."

Her smile was returned and Nel felt lighter, less burdened. "Mmm, Nel feels a lot better. Thank you, Odihime-tan." She was sure the girl knew what she was talking about and she would make sure she didn't let the others at school get her down anymore. Her family was small and unconventional but it was the kind she needed.

Ichigo prayed to the gods, whatever ones that happened to be listening at this very moment, that what he saw before his eyes was not real. He willed the image to leave his mind. He fervently wished that the short, black-haired shinigami was not in his room. It was at this time he wished he was just a little more religious, offered up a few more prayers, participated at any temples near his home more often because the gods- shinigami's be damned- that were there either hated him or weren't listening. And judging from the look the shorter woman gave him, it was a little of both.

"R-Rukia..." He swallowed, forcing the lump out of his throat. On one hand he was happy to see her again, although she was still a fully registered soul reaper and the last time he checked Grimmjow was still a hollow, gigai aside. "What... er... what are you doing here?" He tried to smile, it didn't work, but he tried.

Thankfully the Arrancar wasn't in the room when she popped through the widow, unluckily he was still in the house, just downstairs. Ichigo didn't know how much time he had to get rid of Rukia before the stupid blue haired hollow pranced up the stairs and into the room like a moron.

Thin black eyebrows arched up at his inquiry and the small death god looked as if she was contemplating answering that question.

"Well, in all honesty, I had a few days vacation and I thought here would be the perfect place to spend them." She admit, eying Ichigo's closet.

The orange haired male blanched, face draining of color before he got a hold on himself. "You can't just volunteer yourself to stay here." He wanted to get angry but figured he should have expected something like this from the woman. Rukia mock pouted at the teen.

"C'mon, Ichigo, it's not like it's a big deal, your family practically knows everything by now."

"It still doesn't keep it from being weird." He nearly grumbled.

The raven haired girl rolled her eyes. "I don't see why your still so bothered by this... Okay, I got it! Instead of staying in here, I'll just bunk up with your sisters like last time. No problem!"

Ichigo massaged the bridge of his nose. "Why can't you stay somewhere else? It's already crowded here as it is." His eyes snapped open to glance at the girl, did he just bring attention to that? For the first time since the small female stepped into the room, she really looked around, noticing the extra furnishings littered throughout the room.

"Now that you mention it, this room does seem a lot smaller than normal." She gazed around, missing the glare sent over by brown eyes. Rukia's deep blue eyes fell on the bed next to her that she realized didn't belong to Ichigo, it had a different scent, come to think of it, everything in this place does, even Ichigo. She turned back towards the substitute with curious eyes.

"So what's this now? Family move in with you or something?" Ichigo smiled, nodding.

"Exactly. Like four or five of them. They're real messy too... I can barely think with all the clutter and noise. Yuzu and Karin have to deal with the bulk of them though. Dad doesn't like it but hey, they're family, right?" He hoped she took the bait and from the look in her eyes it seemed she was going to.

"Yes... I suppose, it is family and I wouldn't want to impose any more than what you're already dealing with." Her hand was placed delicately below her chin and her face looked a little disappointed. Ichigo cheered within his head, thanking the Buddha that Rukia wasn't the sharpest blade in the bunch sometimes. "Well..." she voiced, about ready to give up, turning towards the window out of which she came. "I guess I can just go to Orihime's place... it is a bit bigger after all."

Ichigo continued with his decidedly creepy smile and all but pushed the Kuchiki out of the window. "Yeah, plus you and her will have way more to talk about, definitely a better place to spend a vacation."

"Oi, don't say it like we won't be seeing each other at all, I plan on getting my gigai from Urahara, so be prepared." She grumbled, allowing herself to be pushed out the window by Ichigo. The redhead nodded once more.

"Sure, I'll take a whole day off, now go!" He gave her a final pushed as she sat poised to jump off the window sill, but she didn't fall, just hovered right outside his house.

"Oh yeah!" She turned suddenly, realizing a detail she had forgotten. "I would have contacted you sooner about this but something intercepted my butterfly message, so I couldn't send you the news." Ichigo thought on that information for a moment, considering when she probably sent the communication device. Rukia took the male's silence as confusion and made a bewildered face also. "Eh, it doesn't matter, probably some corruption in the spirit, no harm done, only a bit odd... All that matters is-" Whatever she was going to say was left forgotten as her ocean blue eyes widened in shock before narrowing in anger. "Ichigo! Behind you!"