Disclaimer: Creator Tite Kubo owns the manga and anime Bleach and its characters. No offense or infringement is intended.
A/N: Thus begins the long-awaited (I hope) sequel to Afterthought. Such a great response to that story! Thanks to everyone who took the time to read it and add it to their favorites or leave comments. Hopefully this one meets and exceeds expectations!
Immediately following the events of Afterthought- The Urahara Shoten…
Rukia was troubled.
So young, so fragile, so… human. The two teen boys currently huddled on the floor of Urahara's back room were the furthest thing from fighters she'd ever seen… and that was saying something.
Leaning stiffly against the opposite wall, the petite Shinigami eyed the two critically. Since her first encounters with Ichigo and his bizarrely gifted group of friends, she'd come to expect the unexpected. Ichigo himself had turned out to be stronger than she'd ever imagined. In an unbelievable coincidence one of the last heirs to the Quincy dynasty just happened to attend his high school. The quiet demeanor of Sado Yasutora belied the veritable rocket launcher contained in the boy's right arm. And Orihime's gifts…
Currently, the girl in question was fussing over the two newest arrivals- yet more 'classmates' by the looks of them- after using her abilities to heal the less frantic of the pair. Both gaunt and gangly, the first thing Rukia had noticed when Renji had stalked in with the two in tow was the unmistakable pallor of fear in each of their faces. The taller one had been an unintelligible mass of gesticulating screeches; the injured one had been shocked into a muted trance. At the recount of their harrowing rescue from Aizen's deadly Arrancar she'd marveled that they hadn't accidentally killed themselves in the process of escaping. Lacking any discernibly useful abilities or skills beyond a bit of pure dumb luck, their proximity to Ichigo had given them spirit awareness… and nothing else. And now they were Soul Society's problem.
Renji knew, she was sure. Seated on the floor next to her with his back pressed against the same wall, forearms resting on his knees, she could practically hear the gears turning in his head as he watched the group of teens with a detached sort of curiosity. Sado and Uryu had finally made their way over to the others; to Rukia's horror the animated chatter amongst the five reunited classmates had quickly redirected towards discussions of spirit energy, formerly secret powers and homework assignments.
She felt a headache coming on.
Renji's words from minutes earlier echoed again in her head, '…so now there's more reiatsu-wielding teenagers running around this city? Fuckin' fabulous! And Aizen's targeting them-'
As much of an asset as Ichigo had presented with his unique abilities, his overabundance of raw power seemed to be indiscriminately infecting those closest to him. The consequences of that were finally catching up to them- a wrench had been thrown in the form of a pair of unsuspecting and ill-prepared high school students.
Make that three…
It was no longer a mystery. In light of recent discoveries everyone now knew where Ichigo had gone: a third and final Arrancar had been sent for a third and final spiritually aware friend. Arisawa. Another well known classmate and comrade, even Renji seemed to register recognition at her mention. Spiky haired, blunt, with a bit of a temper- Rukia recalled an unusual attachment to Orihime, but little else. There had been suggestive eye rolling and hints at a violent streak… perhaps, Rukia thought, this one might not be a total waste. Now, if only a certain orange-haired pupil of hers would drag his tardy ass back to the Shoten-
No sooner had the thought entered her head then a loud ruckus erupted from the front of the store. All eyes veered to the door where a pair of familiar voices could be heard approaching from the other side. Suddenly the door swung open revealing the missing substitute Shinigami, arms full of a petite wriggling female.
Oblivious to the occupants of the room, Ichigo was still trying to wrangle the struggling girl, "-told you to hold still until I got us inside! Jeez, Tatsuki!"
At first surprised by Ichigo's brashness with the girl, Rukia was downright shocked by Tatsuki's even more venomous tone as she attempted to push herself out of his cradling arms, "-And I told you to put me down! I'm not an invalid- I don't need to be carried around like some fucking damsel in distress!"
Finally winning her freedom, the girl not only landed deftly on socked feet but turned and emphasized her point by shoving him in the chest, "And I'm pretty sure I can find the goddamn door! So lay off!"
For Rukia the bickering was hauntingly familiar- apparently she wasn't the only female Ichigo was willing to openly squabble with. It was odd seeing that infamous scowl directed at someone else for once, especially someone so…
Only then did Rukia really take in Tatsuki's utterly battered appearance. Smeared head to toe in dirt, the girl's skin was frighteningly pale except for some violent red marks encircling her neck that were already starting to darken. What little clothing she wore seemed as though someone had tried to tug it off of her body- dressed like a runner, Tatsuki's tank top was twisted across her torso and her tiny shorts had ridden up to the tops of her thighs. Grit had caked to the bloody scrapes running the lengths of her shins. And for some unknown reason she was missing shoes.
Ichigo seemed to have fared better without any visible injuries. Still, he seemed peppered in just as much dirt as Tatsuki. His black kimono hung open and askance while his hakama had several long tears in them, perhaps from the slice of a sword. However, neither of them seemed to register their disheveled states as their arguing continued, "Sue me for trying to make sure you're alright! That thing almost killed you! Why the hell can't you accept a little help?" Ichigo growled.
"Because I'm fine, damn it!" Tatsuki barked back. However, Ichigo's point was made when, after successfully pushing him away, Tatsuki swayed on her feet as her eyes squeezed shut, a sick look washing over her face. Ichigo was right there to catch her around the waist even as she cursed herself, falling against him. "Ah, shit…"
Only Rukia was close enough to hear Ichigo's soft yet frustrated whisper against the girl's hair, "Damn it, Tats- the hell's the matter with you? I thought we weren't supposed to make this weird… Who's acting like a nut job now?" Confused by his words, Rukia missed Tatsuki's unintelligible response as it was muttered into the crook of his neck- the scrappy fighter was twisting a fist into Ichigo's shirt in an attempt to regain her footing.
By this time everyone was up and converging on the pair, Renji surprisingly being the first to reach them. "Hey Ichigo, looks like you two went a couple of tough rounds- maybe you're little friend could use a seat," the redhead intoned meaningfully. Without really waiting for a response, the lieutenant lifted the girl away from a confused Ichigo and set her down against the nearest wall.
As his friends congregated around them Ichigo could only watch in numb silence, a mix of concern and weariness on his face as Renji did a quick field check on the girl. Barely tolerating the intrusion, Tatsuki watched his hands warily even as she continued mumbling about how she was fine and to leave her the hell alone. Questions started floating around as the rest of the group took in the pair's appearance,
"Are you two alright?" Sado asked Ichigo even as his eyes scanned Tatsuki on the floor.
Ishida offered, "Renji and I defeated a couple of Arrancar sent after Asano and Kojima. Did you encounter something similar?"
Ichigo nodded distractedly, "Yeah… This one said Aizen had sent him after her- Tatsuki was specifically targeted. I don't get it."
Meanwhile Keigo and Mizuiro had squeezed to the front to kneel beside their friend, "Um… Tatsuki, are you okay?"
The girl blinked, taking in the two, "Mizuiro? Keigo? What're you guys doing here?"
Keigo seemed to bubble to life, "Hey Tatsuki, did a giant scary dude come after you, too? You should have seen the ones that came after Mizuiro and me! They were totally sick!" A dark look clouded the girl's features as the two boys prattled on, "Man, those guys were huge! Ishida and the Lieutenant saved us-"
"-Not before I was thrown into a building, though-"
"-Oh yeah, Mizuiro! Man, you're leg was totally thrashed!-"
"-But Orihime fixed it. It was amazing! Like it was never broken. Wanna see?-"
"Hey Tatsuki, where are your shoes? I thought you were going running again tonight?"
"-Are those scratches on your stomach? What happened to your neck?-"
"-Wow, are those claw marks? They look painful. Maybe Orihime can fix you, too?-"
Upon mention of the stomach wounds, the lieutenant wasted no time in pushing Tatsuki's shielding forearms out of the way to begin lifting the hem of her top for closer inspection- **POW!**
Renji grabbed his stinging jaw, "OW! What the-?"
"BACK OFF! What the hell's the matter with you?" Tatsuki screeched, tugging down her shirt with the hand she didn't punch Renji with- that one was still balled in a tight fist at the ready. The two boys wisely scooted back in retreat.
Reigning in his anger over the unexpected decking, Renji calmly raised his hands, "Look, I get you're upset- you've been through a lot. But you have wounds that need medical attention-"
"And I told you I'm fine! Is everybody deaf?" At that moment she looked up at all of the shocked faces hovering over her. Their pity and confusion were reflected as raw anger and helplessness in her pained features. From the corner of her eye she saw Renji leaning toward her again. Her reflexive recoil propelled her further down and against the wall as she screamed, "I SAID DON'T TOUCH ME!"
The entire room fell silent. Renji blinked, raised an eyebrow, and then slowly leaned back. Tatsuki closed shining eyes, the heat of embarrassment already beginning to rise in her cheeks. She drew up her knees and hugged them to her chest. "Please… just leave me alone," she muttered.
Oh yeah, she's just peachy, Rukia lamented. Even without knowing the details, repercussions of such an undoubtedly violent abduction weren't so easily shaken off, despite the young girl's best efforts. Shattered innocence. But what do you expect when you mix naïve children with the real-life monsters from their nightmares? Aizen's foray into the physical world seemed to be claiming more and more victims.
Tatsuki's shoulders visibly stiffened at the soft sound. After inhaling a long deep breath, the girl lifted her head just enough to peek over the tops of her knees as her dearest friend sank to the floor in front of her. Orihime was holding a glass.
"I thought… Tats-chan might want… some water to drink…" Orihime whispered. Then she slowly presented the offering, eyes large and searching.
Tilting her head, Tatsuki just stared at the girl for a moment. Then she sighed. "Orihime…" A corner of her mouth twitched upward as she accepted the glass, "…thanks. Water… sounds good." The orange-haired girl warmed into an impish grin as Tatsuki lowered her knees, folding them Indian-style beneath her. Then she chugged the water, upending and draining the whole thing.
Even after setting the glass down against her leg Tatsuki stayed like that for bit, eyes closed, head back to catch her breath. When she finally opened her eyes and leveled them on Orihime's expectant face, she murmured, "Thank you, Orihime."
That was all it took before she had a lap-full of sobbing friend as Orihime threw herself at the girl, hugging her far too tightly around the middle, "Oh Tatsuki! I'm so, so sorry! Can you ever forgive me?"
At first surprised by her reaction, Tatsuki soon closed arms around Orihime, water glass and all as she shook her head, "Hime, you don't have to-"
But the girl suddenly popped up, face pouting as she vehemently nodded, "No, I do, Tatsuki! I wasn't supposed to say anything, even to you! And you're my best friend! But I wanted to- I wanted to tell you everything! But I didn't and now you were almost taken-"
"-Sssshh, 'Hime. Please don't let me be the reason you're crying," Tatsuki sighed as she used her free hand to wipe away a stray tear from her friend's cheek. "I knew you had your secrets. I guess I just got a little impatient waiting for an explanation…"
"A little impatient?" Keigo scoffed, earning a scathing look from the little fighter from over Orihime's head.
An eerie voice sounded from the opposite end of the room, "Your friends were just trying to protect you, Arisawa-chan."
Urahara Kisuke smiled to himself as all eyes turned at the sound of his voice; he never seemed to tire of startling the young people. However, his intentions were well-placed- once Ichigo had taken off he'd sensed the significance of the Arrancar's arrival in the physical world and had gotten straight to work. Noting everyone's presence, it was time to put his hastily prepared plans into action.
Tatsuki rolled her eyes before shooting the man a bored expression, "Are we gonna do this again, old man?"
The eerie shop owner smiled from behind his fan, noting the disheveled appearances of the two newest arrivals. Thankfully, everyone had made it in one piece, more or less. He shook his head, "No, my dear. I'm afraid we haven't the time to rehash such matters. You all need to be getting on your way soon."
"On our way? Where are we going?" Keigo asked. The whole room appeared utterly confused.
"You're going to the one place where Aizen and his minions will be the least likely to find you." Urahara replied.
Rukia's eyes widened, "You don't mean…" She shook her head, "But they can't! They don't have permission!"
"Actually…" the mysterious man drawled, producing a piece of rolled parchment in his other hand, "… they do. I've been quite busy since learning of the latest Arrancar threat. It's a Temporary Order of Asylum, the details of which will be clarified within a forty eight hour time period… by the escorting Shinigami, of course."
From his spot on the floor, Renji began chuckling, his smile split wide with mirth, "Hehehe, oh man! You really are trying to get us killed, Kisuke."
Keigo huffed in frustration, "I don't get it. Where are we going?" Mizuiro just shrugged in response.
Uryu palmed his chin thoughtfully, "Urahara, are you sure this is wise? Surely there are other options."
The signature fan fluttered. "Normally I'd be open to suggestions. However, I'm afraid we haven't the time. Due to the impending threats to our human companions, immediate action was necessary. It's the best I could come up with on such short notice. You all should be departing for Soul Society right away."
"Soul Society? You're sending them there?" Ichigo scoffed.
However, Orihime had caught another detail, "All? As in 'everyone' is going?"
"Everyone in this room, save myself. My voluntary exile still stands, of course, despite the circumstances," Urahara clarified. "I'm sure you understand. But don't fret- Yoruichi has agreed to escort you in my place. You'll be in very good hands… er, paws. Haha!"
Excited chatter rose around the room as the seasoned travelers attempted to fill in the inquisitive newcomers. However, Urahara noted the conspicuous silence of one member, lips tight as wary eyes watched the others, "Everything alright, Arisawa-san?"
His stealthy yet sudden appearance next to the girl startled her, but Tatsuki recovered her emotionless mask quickly as she glanced up at him. "Great. Awesome. Magical field trip." Then she brushed a hand through her dirty hair, "I've got time to run home and shower first, right?"
"Um, no," the shop keeper stated.
Her face fell. "Then is there a shower here I can use?"
Urahara noted Ichigo (who'd coincidentally never ventured more than a few steps from the girl) take sudden interest in the conversation. "Afraid there just isn't time," the older man contritely apologized.
Tatsuki frowned, "Well, what do I have time for?"
He concealed his smile behind his fan, "Ururu can offer you a wet paper towel as you all make your way to the training room!" He turned his back to her as the others in the room immediately began moving. His hidden smile deepened as he felt Arisawa rise and lunge, only to be bodily restrained by a quick-acting Ichigo. Over his shoulder he added, "Feel free to take it with you."
"I think I hate him," She muttered.
Ichigo nodded, "He has that effect on people. Try not to let it get to you."
As the rest of the group filed out, Ichigo noticed how Kisuke paused, blatantly eyeing head to foot the girl whom he still had a fairly firm grip on. He felt Tatsuki's body stiffen and knew she must have noticed it, too. "What?" she barked. Ichigo only braced himself.
Kisuke shook his head. "Also, please have Kurosaki lend you one of his extra shirts from the storeroom- can't have a young lady parading around Soul Society in her underwear!"
"WHAT? These are running clothes, you twisted son-of-a-!" The shop keeper chuckled as he disappeared through the door, leaving Ichigo to once again wrangle a raging, sputtering best friend.
…Sometimes Kisuke just couldn't help himself.
A/N: And here we go! You didn't think everything was going to be rainbows and kittens following 'Afterthought' did you? Thanks to all who favorited that story- it seems there are more IchiTats fans out there than I had originally thought. Or maybe you just like my writing? After reading this first chapter you've probably noticed that unlike the oneshots, reading 'Afterthought' first is kind of necessary to understand what's going on. So if you haven't already, hop on over and give it a look.
In any case, this one promises to push our characters a little bit further out of their comfort zones. Hope you've enjoyed this first installment and that you'll stay tuned for the next chapter, due out soon!