the size of a man's pride

Ichigo had always figured that Chad's attitude towards alcohol ("No thank you, I'm not old enough to drink it yet") was all of a piece with Chad's attitude towards offensive violence (don't do it), breaking the rules (don't do it), and so on. In other words, sure it was admirable of Chad to hold these strong views, but it wasn't something that you'd expect a normal teenager - young man - of Ichigo's age to stick to.

So when Renji suggested hitting the local bar for a drink with the "other guys", not to mention an absolute definite positive statement that Zaraki Kenpachi would not be there, Ichigo figured it wouldn't hurt to go along with him.

After all, Ichigo knew he could handle alcohol. He'd tried a sip or two from his father's private stock a few times, and it hadn't made him faint on the spot, drive fast cars, or run round drunk and try to chase girls, which he understood from the literature was the sort of thing that people did when drunk. All he'd have to do would be to take care not to drink too much. Not a problem.

He just hadn't expected the place to be quite so full. He subtly chose a seat next to a wilting flower arrangement. If they tried to make him drink too much, he'd just pour his drinks in there, and he'd be just fine tomorrow morning. (So much for Quincy predictions that he was going to have to be carried back and that he'd regret the day he ever tried this.)

Drink one went down nice and smoothly, and tasted much better than the stuff Dad kept in his drinks cabinet. This was probably because that Kira guy was buying it. He was the blond one who looked permanently depressed, and Ichigo didn't know the full story there, but apparently his Captain was one of the ones who'd betrayed everyone, so probably depression was the right sort of expression, but he certainly knew how to buy good drinks. Renji explained out of the corner of his mouth that this was because Kira was buying the wimpy expensive stuff rather than the hardcore cheap stuff. Ichigo decided to pour the hardcore cheap stuff into the flower vase when they got there.

Renji had announced at the beginning that Ichigo wasn't going to be buying any of the rounds ("cause the kid ain't on a salary - not yet, anyhow") and everyone else had agreed.

Ichigo had said that he was only there for a couple of drinks. Everyone else had laughed.

Drink two was a bit stronger. Renji was paying for this round. Ikkaku and his friend with the fluffy eyebrow said something about how Renji's tastes had got all la-di-dah since he started hanging out with Kuchiki Byakuya, and Renji threw the table at Ikkaku, which meant that drink two didn't last long.

Drink three was Ikkaku's round. Whatever it was, it was harsh enough to take the skin off the inside of Ichigo's mouth. He unobtrusively dumped his cup into the vase, and watched the flowers wilt.

Drink four was the round of another guy Ichigo didn't really know, the Hisagi guy with the bare arms and all the tattoos. Unfortunately Ichigo never actually got to find out what the round would have been, because at that moment someone came in behind Ichigo, and the Hisagi guy jumped up and began babbling welcomes and dropped the jug.

Ichigo got up himself, turning round, and ended up with his face in the middle of two huge big bouncy white-skinned bouncy big pale warm bouncy things.

"Let go of the poor boy, Rangiku-chan," a new voice said, and a helpful hand on his shoulder pulled him out of the clinging embrace of the breasts, before dropping him back down at the table again. The hand belonged to yet another damn Captain who he didn't know - oh wait, wasn't he the one who'd killed Chad? No, the point was that he hadn't killed Chad, that was it - who sat down next to him on the other side from Renji in a big rumple of clothing. "Landlord! It seemed we spoiled Shuuhei's round, so get out my private stock, and a drink for everyone at this table!"

Amid the wild cheering and shouts of enthusiasm, Ichigo managed to get his balance back. For some reason he was feeling a little bit shaky - it must be those breasts, the way they were bouncing up and down would unsettle anyone.

"Always good to see young people out and enjoying themselves," said the Captain (Ichigo decided not to try to remember his name, it was too much trouble). "But when I asked my Nanao-chan to come with us, did she come? Did she even consider coming?" He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye while pouring drinks for everyone from the jug the landlord had brought to the table. "No, she struck me down with a single sinister stroke from her book, and as she stood gloating above my prostrate body -"

"She didn't gloat," Rangiku said.

"Yes she did," the Captain said.

"No she didn't."

"You didn't hear her," the Captain said. "She looked at me with an expression of scorn that was at the same time one of unmatched beauty and regal disdain, and with those perfect red lips she said -"

"A toast to the Gotei 13!" Renji hastily shouted, raising his cup, and everyone joined in.

The Captain sighed, and knocked back his own cup in a single swallow. Ichigo tried to imitate him, and was astonished at how easily the stuff went down. Clearly expensive alcohol from a Captain's private stock was the way to go.

The conversation got a little confused after that, with the Captain's side of the table getting into metaphor and bosom and gossip, while Ichigo's side of the table got into how everyone was going to win their next fights.

"- well, yeah," Ichigo rebutted Ikkaku's argument, "but my zanpakutou's bigger than yours."

"So?" Ikkaku said. "That doesn't prove nothing. Hell, Renji's zanpakutou can stretch longer than yours if it has to. Even damn Ichimaru's zanpakutou - oh hell, Kira, I'm sorry, have some more of this wine."

It seemed to Ichigo, through the slight vagueness that had somehow enveloped him, that they might have hit on a fundamental point here. "Renji," he said. "Your zanpakutou is big. Right?"

"Oh yeah," Renji said, and took another swig from his cup. "And you should see it when I go bankai. Even bigger."

Ichigo nodded. "And, right, a zanpakutou is like a man's - you know - a man's thingy. Thing. You know. It should be big and proud. His pride."

Renji nodded slowly. "Right. For Kuchiki-taichou it's all about his pride."

"Right," Ichigo agreed. "Pride. Right. So - so it stands to reason, right - that a man with a big zanpakutou is going to have lots of pride."

Renji kept on nodding. He splashed more wine into both their cups. "Yeah. And we've both got big big zanpakutou."

"Hey," Ikkaku put in, "I've got a big zanpakutou as well." He took the jug and poured more of it for everyone. "And I've got fucking masses of pride."

"Wait a minute." Rangiku leaned forward over the table. Her breasts swayed and went bing bong boom against each other. "Don't women have pride?"

"Not like men do," Ikkaku said. Then he said, "ow," but that was because Rangiku had hit him and he was lying on the floor.

"Rangiku-chan has all the pride she needs," the Captain said, "and I at least have the sense to leave it there."

"Matsumoto!" a voice trumpeted, and everyone turned to look at the doorway. It was the little Captain, whatshisname Toushirou, standing there and waggling his finger. "Matsumoto! I have been looking for you half the evening! Would it be too much to ask that -"

Ichigo realised that here was the perfect unbiased person to ask. He rose to his feet and strode manfully over. "Hey, Toushirou," he said. "You've got a big zanpakutou, right? Doesn't that just prove that you've got lots of, you know, manly? I mean, you're going to grow bigger, right, and then -"

For some reason whatshisname Toushirou had turned brick red and was making a noise like a steam kettle about to explode. Perhaps he wasn't that manly after all.

"You know," the Captain (the one sitting next to Ichigo in the big pink robe) said, "I think this is a good moment for me to leave, before you start asking me questions about the size of my zanpakutou. Come, Rangiku-chan! Come, Toushirou-kun! Let us investigate the next tavern along!" In a swirl of silks he was swooshing out of the door, Rangiku tucked under one arm and whatshisname Toushirou tucked under the other and still making squawking noises.

"It could have been worse," Renji said. "He left the wine."

"He didn't tell us about his pride, though." Ichigo swayed a little, navigated back to the table, sat down again and poured them all another cup. "I mean, I know about you because I've fought you, right? Though I didn't fight Kira here. I mean. Should I have?"

"Fighting is depressing," Kira said, and hiccupped. "It is a gloomy and morose tragedy where nobody wins. It is overshadowed by darkness. Besides, Ichimaru-taichou's was longer than anyone's."

"Treason!" Hisagi yelled, jumping to his feet. "You called him Ichimaru-taichou!"

Kira put his hand to his mouth. "Did I?" he said unconvincingly.

"And you said his was longest!"

"Siddown," Renji said, pulling at Hisagi's hakama. "So he said something wrong. It happens. Besides, mine's longer now, and it's hairy."

"What we need," Ikkaku said, and drank some more. "What we need is an impartial judge. Besides, mine's bigger."

"Yeah," Ichigo agreed. "We ask the next person who comes in."

The door creaked open.

Ichigo didn't actually know the person standing there, though he'd seen her standing behind Captain Thingy in the Pink Kimono. She had glasses and was carrying a book. "Has anyone seen Kyouraku-taichou?" she enquired coldly.

"Ise-fukutaichou!" Renji shouted. "You're just the person we need!"

"I am?" she said, in tones of deep suspicion.

"You have to tell us which of us has the biggest manliest zanpakutou," Ichigo said. "Here. You gotta have some wine with us and then you can tell us which of us is -"

For some reason he was lying on his back with a buzzing noise in his ears. Miss Glasses put her book back under her arm. "I don't think so," she said, and walked out again.

"C'mon," Renji said, hauling Ichigo back upright and shoving a full cup into his hand. "She wouldn't have done anyhow. She'd have had to say it was her, her, her Captain. Loyalty. Thing. You know. Can't expect her to give a reasonable answer."

"Right," Ikkaku agreed. "She couldn't have said anything else. Couldn't expect her to."

Kira hiccuped again, slid forward till his chin was resting on the table, and started snoring.

"But then how are we going to know about the pride thing?" Ichigo asked. A vast and undefinable sadness loomed over him, and he sniffled. "Got to have the pride thing. The bigness thing. Got to know who's biggest."

"I've got it!" Renji said, sitting upright. "What we do, see, is we go ask someone sympathetic. Someone, you know, who's a man. Someone who'd understand."

"Zaraki-taichou!" Ikkaku said happily.

"Someone who's not Zaraki-taichou," Ichigo put in.


"No, Kurosaki's got a point," Hisagi said. "Zaraki-taichou would just want to fight and we all know, right, how big his zanpakutou is. So it's not how big his is, it's about how big ours are." He waved his hands around descriptively and nearly upset his cup. "We could go find Matsumoto-fukutaichou and ask her."

"She's a girl," Ichigo said. "She wouldn't get it. But we could go ask that Captain with her. The big pink one. You know. Not that Toushirou one."

"Naaah," Renji said thoughtfully. "I mean, he's two thousand years old, right? So his would be, you know, unfair. It doesn't count if they're two thousand years old."

Everyone nodded.

"We'll ask Byakuya!" Ichigo said. "'Snot like, like, not like he'd feel, you know, threatened, because his is all cherry blossom foofy stuff anyhow. So we can ask him."

"Yeah!" Ikkaku cheered. "Gotta go to the Captain for a decision in these things. You want to impress him, right? And you beat him in a fight anyhow so that shows you have to be bigger than him."

"I didn't beat him," Renji said, slumping.

"But if you show him your, your pride thing, that has to be good," Ichigo said encouragingly. Every instinct in his body urged him to go and wave his sword at Byakuya. He even knew where the other guy was. In a hospital bed. Easy to find. "Come on! We're going to see the Captain!"

Several streets later they'd lost Hisagi (who'd gone to try and find Matsumoto) and Ikkaku (who'd become discouraged because there wasn't enough alcohol), but Ichigo and Renji continued on heroically together. Renji knew some really good old songs which he sang very loudly. They arrived on the doorstep of Fourth Division together, hanging onto each other.

"Open up!" Renji shouted, banging on the door. "We've come to show our manly pride!"

The door slid open. A slender figure stood there. Ichigo recognised it as yet-another-captain, since the figure was wearing a white coat with black bits on it. Yes. That was a captain all right. "We are together!" he declared, and tried to get Zangetsu off his back to brandish it. "We are manly! We are going to show Byakuya our zanpakutou so that he can say whose is biggest!"

"Bigger!" Renji said. "There's two of us so it's bigger."

"Biggest," Ichigo corrected him. "Because it doesn't count as bigger unless it's biggest." This made splendid sense in a way he was absolutely sure he understood.

"You're comparing zanpakutou?" the Captain enquired in a sweet melodic motherly voice. "Can anyone join in?"

There was a swirling concussion in the air.

Ichigo passed out with the sense of something unthinkably huge and brainmeltingly appalling stooping towards him.

Next morning, he explained to Chad that he would never have touched the drink if he'd known it would induce hallucinations of huge hooded spectre bat dragons, and that there must have been something wrong with it.

Chad nodded very soberly.

And then Unohana-taichou came round with some medicinal tea, and both Ichigo and Renji hid in the wardrobe until she went away again.