Nothing in Bleach or Buffy belongs to me. Darn it.
- Last we saw, Buffy came out to her mom and Joyce Summers freaked. We wonder why; it's not like Buffy told her she was a lesbian or something. That would happen much, much later in the series (check the comics).
- Angelus got his soul back and turned into Angel, just in time to be shish-kebabed by Buffy and get sucked by some bad-special-effect-style vortex into presumably hell. Which has nothing but elevator muzal played on an endless loop and secondhand car commercials on every screen for all freaking eternity. One might argue that Angel deserves it, seeing how he likes Barry Manilow, but there's evil and there's Evil. No one deserves elevator muzak.
- Buffy decides that, hey, boyfriend getting sucked into hell kinda sucked, so she flees her life in Sunnydale to gods-know-where, and leaves the rest of her friends hanging.
- Ichigo was caught again by the Family, as he really likes the décor and Shuuhei is so darn handsome. Or perhaps he really likes being incapaciatated and made helpless, but that's a valid lifestyle choice.
- Freaked by the prospect that Ichigo might just become a munchable for the Family, Urahara trades his integrity for Ichigo's life, and Gin gets desouled, and we get non-emo Gin back in all his creepy homicidal glory.
- After all that, Ulquiorra gets a hand from Urahara. No, really. Plus the arm that was attached to it, but let's not quibble.
- The Family gets Hinamori Momo and engages in some educational fun. Just because they're vampires doesn't mean they don't learn about history or don't spend some quality torture time together.
On to the Third and Final season!
Aizen dictated and Nanao typed. The only sound in the entire house were that of the keys on the keyboard, and the occasional turn of the page.
"That's all," said Aizen quietly and looked up.
Nanao saved the document and waited for the computer to print out a copy. "It's remarkably brief, isn't it?"
"Brief is good," said Ichimaru, ensconced in the corner, his head resting on Kira's thighs. The silver-haired vampire nuzzled into Kira's soft cotton pajama bottoms. "Let's have a hearing then."
"It's brief, but nowhere near as poetic as it's meant to be." Aizen took the paper and adjusted his glasses. "But of course it is exactly as cryptic as all such things are."
The rest of the family sat up a little straighter except for Gin, who curled more tightly into his comfortable seat.
Aizen didn't bother clearing his throat but he did put on a pair of glasses before he recited:
"The end times come; rise the dark suns.
The new gods come to devour the innocent.
The dragon ascends and the dark moon also;
From them shall be a new world dawning in darkness;
The right seat of God claimed by the one true son of Hell."
"That's it," said Aizen, folding the paper neatly and handing it to Nanao. "It makes little sense right now."
"I'm sure we'll be able to see more of it as we approach the end times," said Gin idly. He rolled his neck. "More importantly, where are we hunting tonight?"
Urahara strode through the rain-slicked streets. He knew that he was taking a big risk returning here, but he had to. The passers-by hurried along the sidewalks, few – if any – sparing him a second glance. This was Kyoto, after all, and staring was considered impolite.
Even if the man in question was a blond dressed in an impeccable suit and missing an arm.
When he reached the dingy shopfront, Urahara stopped. It still bore the name he gave it. The blond had to smile; it was designed purposefully to deter potential shoppers, but somehow there would always be the occasional curious teen or a drunk wandering in in the middle of the night. The shop windows were unwashed, and there was a 'CLOSED' sign on the door. There was even new graffiti on top of the old, faded one he had sprayed before.
He walked in without even knocking. The door squealed like a cat sliding down a board.
Hell, it even smells like cats. They haven't got rid of the damn strays.
"I didn't think you'd ever return," drawled a lithe female way in the back. Yoruichi sauntered out with a kitten perched on her shoulder, a skinny black feline with wide golden eyes. It hissed at the intruder. "What happened to your arm?"
"How nice to have a warm welcome," Urahara replied. "Not even small talk."
"I don't do small talk," said Yoruichi, allowing the kitten to jump off. She stared at Urahara, one eyebrow raised.
The blond sighed. "Is he around?"
"You've checked in Tokyo before you came. You ought to know."
"Is he around at the moment?" amended Urahara. When Yoruichi got in that mood she was the most difficult person to deal with.
She jerked her head to the back. "Downstairs. Watch your step; we've blown the light again."
"You really should have a contractor step in to renovate."
"And how do we explain the array of weaponry and military-grade fittings?"
"You don't. Just hint that you are yakuza or something." Glancing at the forbidding expression of his former friend, Urahara sighed again. "Right. No friendly quips."
The harsh lighting below reminded Urahara of military institutions. Locked rooms, one after the other, held arcane spellbooks, deadly weapons, of mythical artifacts, some of which he had contributed after myriad battles. He also knew that he would never be able to access them again.
Yoruichi paused before a door. "So. What happened to your arm?"
"I lost it," said Urahara simply.
The woman stared at him a little longer than was comfortable, smacked his hat off his head, and strode off. The black kitten that she had had on her shoulder earlier now wandered up to the blond visitor and stared up at him with the same knowing gaze of all felines.
Urahara matched the stare and murmured, "Here goes nothing."
I can't believe I'm talking to a cat.
After a few raps on the door, it slid open to admit Urahara. Inside was a large metal desk cluttered with assorted books – leatherbound, hardback and paperback – three computer monitors, and a Nerf football. Jazz played in the background.
Urahara removed his hat and said, "Good afternoon, Hirako-san."
The lean, blond man in the chair sat back, folded his arms over his chest and smiled. "Hello, traitor."
A rough, ragged hand clawed through the earth. Following the hand was the rest of the body, wrapped in a dirt-encrusted suit, and the newborn vampire snarled as it sensed someone towering over its grave.
Willow smiled downwards. "Come and get it, big boy."
The vampire matched the smile and leaped upwards. Someone pulled Willow aside and the vampire was left sprawling. Before Xander – the someone who pulled Willow to safety – could stake the newborn vamp, it clambered over the dirt and raced for the asphalt. Oz tried to trip it but the vampire leaped over the outstretched leg.
"He's getting away!" cried Willow.
Nonplussed, Oz took aim with his stake and threw it overarm. It sailed straight and true until it hit the vampire's back – and bounced off harmlessly.
"Ichigo!" Xander yelled. The redhead emerged from the mausoleum nearest the exit with a long sword in hand.
"Got it," said Ichigo and beheaded it.
Willow, Oz and Xander jogged up. "Thank goodness one of us has actual slaying skills," said Xander.
Willow huffed. "We don't do too badly. Usually. That was Andy Garten and he was in the gym squad."
"That would explain his agility," said Oz placidly.
Ichigo shrugged. "Agility versus cutting power. I'll go with the sword anytime."
"I thought yours was still with that creepy Japanese vampire family." Xander dusted off the seat of his jeans. "Where did you get that?"
"It's Urahara's. He loaned it to me while he's in Tokyo. This," said the redhead, hefting Benihime gingerly, "isn't the easiest thing to get through customs. And just now... did I actually hear 'Come and get it, big boy'?"
Willow pouted defensively. "You try thinking of a witty saying each time!"
"You know, I knew we appreciated Buffy's slaying skills, but in a way I feel we took her punning skills for granted." Xander's comment made Willow stop in her tracks.
Oz looked over. "What's wrong?"
"Xander, past tense rule."
Xander hastily backpedaled. "I meant that we have been taking it for granted and we will not once she's back."
"Do you think she knows it's the first day of school tomorrow?" asked Ichigo.
"I'm sure she does," said Willow, though her tone was rather dubious. The four of them walked out of the Shady Hills Graveyard, each trying not to articulate the thought. But Ichigo could not help hearing a snide voice in his head:
Even if she does know, does she care?
"So, what brings you to the wacky side of the world?" asked Hirako Shinji. His blond page boy's hairdo seemed rather immature and silly, but when you met his gaze you saw a battle-hardened veteran, for all that he was thirty-two years old only. "And how's the kidnap victim?"
"He was here for practically the whole of last summer, so don't give me that bullshit about me abducting him," said Urahara, dropping into a seat. "I followed him. And now I came here to ask a favor."
Shinji smiled very thinly. "You have nothing to ask a favor with, Lefty. There is nothing you can repay me with."
"Even information about the legendary Silverblue Army?"
Now he had the man's full attention. "Talk."
"I want a functioning right arm, not the crappy prosthetic that the hospital fixed me up with." Urahara opened with his request. "I don't care how many spells you throw at it, but I need to be able to work fully in order to protect Ichigo."
Shinji shrugged. "I'm sure we can get something done down at R&D. Tessai's quite handy. He's probably the only one in your old crew not too pissed at you to help." He narrowed his eyes. "Talk to me about the Silverblue Army. Are they still around?"
"They're in Sunnydale now."
There was a pregnant pause. Shinji cocked his head and spun a slender black pen in his fingers. Urahara waited calmly.
The blond man slammed the pen down suddenly. To his credit, Urahara did not jump in shock. Shinji hissed, "They decimated the Shinigami, and you're telling me that they're in Sunnydale?"
"Not just the two of them," clarified the teacher. "They've their family with them."
Shinji scoffed. "That I know. Renji told me about Rukia's death."
"Where is he? And Byakuya?"
"Byakuya's off in Nepal or Tibet or Bhutan right now; can't get a bead on his exact location. Renji's off in Macau with Ikkaku, drinking to death his liver or something." Shinji sat back in his chair. "Rukia's death hit 'em hard."
Urahara shook his head. "We need to take down the family piece by piece or we'll never get to the core two."
"Tell me about it." Shinji pressed a digit on his phone and yelled, "KENSEI! Get yer chainsmoking arse in here right the motherfuckin' now!"
Urahara restrained the urge to roll his eyes at Shinji's coarseness. Though the slender blond male was one of the tactical geniuses within the shinigami and the most devious bridge player Urahara ever met, there was some unspoken competition between the two and Urahara would not put it past Shinji to create some personalized hassle.
In about two minutes Kensei slammed open the door and stalked in. His white hair and multiple piercings spoke of a lifestyle that generated unwanted attention and the trouble that went along with it, but his muscles more than backed up the man's argument that he would bloody well dress any which way he wanted. Today it was a black tank top with brilliant red pants.
"What the fuck you want?" he growled. Then he saw Urahrara. He scowled and lit a cigarette, before he raised a small salute. "Yo."
"Hello." Urahara nodded.
Kensei was the captain of another division, one that run the truckers' routes up and down the length of Japan. He and his division all had the number 'sixty-nine' tattooed somewhere on their bodies to represent the number of trucks plying the roads. They were usually the trackers that found out nests in the hills or deserted villages and alerted the rest of the shinigami.
"Urahara said Aizen and Ichimaru had a family," said Shinji, looking at Kensei. "I thought you'd like to hear it, since you're our resident expert on them."
"Aizen and Ichimaru are the two leaders, of course," said Urahara. "We all know that. There are two female vampires. This is someone they call Peaches; she's a strong magic user. I think this was Princess Hinamori Momo back when Aizen was posing as a poet-philosopher and had gathered followers about him. The other is this woman." Urahara pulled out a photograph showing the two females sipping drinks at the Bronze. As with all vampires, they did not photograph well, but the features were captured clearly enough. "She is a vicious fighter. An Ise Nanao; ring any bells?"
"Ise clan? They were bodyguards of the nobility since they were formed." Kensei blew out a stream of smoke. "It was rumored that Aizen seduced her first before turning the princess, but I doubt it."
"There is a blond male, who probably was a foreigner. They call him Kira." Another photo. Urahara slid it across the table. "He has some facility with magic, not very powerful, but very specialized. I couldn't figure it out back when I was an involuntary guest at their place."
"Involuntary?" Kensei raised his pierced left brow.
"And there was this guy. A bruiser, tattooed with that number, and seemed fiercely loyal. He also fights well – and looked really familiar."
"He should," growled Kensei, picking up the photograph that Urahara dug out of his pocket. "This was one of the shinigami trackers that ran the hill routes back a hundred years ago. There's a photograph or daguerreotype somewhere in the archives."
Shinji motioned for the picture to be shown to him. He frowned. "I can't place him though."
"He wasn't someone major." Kensei scowled even more fiercely. "Hisagi Shuuhei. He was a good hunter-tracker by all accounts. Heard they lost him one day when he never turned up for a slay in a village. Figured he was killed battlin'. Never thought he would have been turned."
Urahara exhaled slowly. "That would explain the fighting skills. He seemed rather familiar with shinigami style of combat."
Shinji packed the photographs together neatly. "That all?"
"I know where they stay." Urahara raised his stump. "I know they have a Panthera half-breed and a half-Schiffer Klaardis demon working with them."
Kensei looked intrigued. "A Schiffer? Is he as good as the legends say?"
"Let's just say I wouldn't want him armed with a sword when I have to face him." Urahara winced at the memory of how he lost his right arm. "In fact, I don't want to face him again. He can tap into his full Klaardis heritage, complete with wings."
"That bad, huh." Kensei was grinning now. "What didja do to piss him off that much? The Klaardis bloodline isn't something easy to rouse."
"Unimportant," commented Shinji. He pushed himself out of the chair. "What do you really want, Urahara Kisuke? Don't gimme that bullshit about prosthetics. You and me both know that you can easily come up with a new design and bolster it with spells. For once, you stupid blond freak of nature, be honest with me."
The mage met Shinji's clear gaze. He then breathed out slowly and spread his hands, the real and the non-existent. "Shinji, I need to be at a hundred percent. I feel the portents, I can taste the signs. He needs me to be there, and I need to function better than ever. Not as a cripple, Shinji. If I am to protect him, I must have something better than this plastic piece of crap."
"You're ashamed of yourself," stated Kensei calmly. His dark gray eyes were somber. "This isn't about protecting him, this is about you not feeling that you're good enough for him. You think that just 'cause you've lost an arm you ain't a complete warrior? You ain't a mage no more? You ain't a shinigami no more?" He leaned in, almost nose to nose with Urahara. "You ain't a man no more?"
Urahra felt his face turn pale with shame and anger. "This isn't about that."
"Then why did you leave him alone in Sunnydale?" asked Kensei, his voice still as even and quiet.
"He can take care of himself-"
"-then don't use him as an excuse to have us fix yer goddamn arm." The white-haired shinigami captain shoved Urahara's chair away and it crashed into the wall, tossing the mage out of it. "You're scared. That's all. Admit that you are scared about your missing arm, and we'll work from there. You came crawlin' back here for us to kiss and make it better, to tell you that everything will be okay, but you owe us, Urahara. You took Ichigo away, without any explanation. You took him away and he was the center of the operation. You knew that! He is Tsukiyomi's avatar and he was to lead us next. What are we supposed to do now, Urahara? Abandon Japan and head to the Hellmouth?"
Urahara pushed himself to his feet with some difficulty. He glared at Shinji. "So he's your mouthpiece? Says all the things you wanna say to my face but can't because you wanna be cool or something?"
"Kensei speaks for the rest of the shinigami." Shinji tilted his head and regarded Urahara. "I speak for myself. We can help you, but on one condition."
"When I die, Ichigo comes home." Shinji smiled again, his teeth brilliantly white, his expression strangely resembling a grinning skull's.
Ulquiorra paced his room slowly. Every step was measured, deliberate, steady. His sword lay naked on the table alongside a black blade – that Kurosaki boy's sword. He stared at the weapons, his vivid green eyes examining the blades from hilt to tip and back. He imagined them sliding into pink flesh and out a rigid back, pinning the Kurosaki boy to the wall, hearing his screams, hearing his life ebb away.
Ulquiorra's fingers twitched. He yearned to get that Kurosaki boy again, to immobilize him so that he could drag Shirosaki out of him and back here into this plane, his poor Shirosaki right here with him, and never ever let him leave or be abused by those wretched, disgusting humans again. The pale demon shuddered and he forced his bloodlust down to a tolerable roar, and resumed pacing his room.
He could practically taste Kurosaki's blood right now. In the furthest corner of the room a discarded human limb had finally been removed of most of its flesh and now a noxious stench had permeated the space.
On the other side of the room was the wretched thing that once used to be Hinamori Momo. Ulquiorra and his bloody prize had been ordered to move in here to watch over the mutilated female vampire and to spare the rest the disgusting smell of rotten human flesh.
As for the vampires, Aizen had stopped coming in entirely; Gin visited every day, removing a piece of Hinamori's flesh every time he stopped by, the size varying according to his mood. Kira and Hisagi followed his lead, but it was Kira who took more pleasure in the torture. Nanao veered between wanting to stake her sire and wanting to prolong her pain; she came only once in a while, and always in the company of Hisagi.
Grimmjow had taken on another assassination job, got the blessing of Aizen and left to hunt his quarry somewhere in the frozen wastelands in the north.
Ulquiorra didn't care whether he was in this room or above. He barely cared about the sniveling, pathetic creature which could barely move or speak, though she still cried out whenever Gin performed his incisions. He kept flickering between forms: human Schiffer and demon Klaardis, trying to determine which was better for capturing and imprisoning Kurosaki Ichigo.
"Naa, are we back to the wings again?" Ichimaru Gin said as he strolled in, this time with his own blade shining in the firelight. He planted Shinsou on the coal fire carelessly and wandered up to Ulquiorra. "You'll be too big a target in this."
"What do you suggest then?" asked Ulquiorra curtly.
"Inconspicuous approach, daring retreat." Gin smiled and pinched Ulquiorra's cheek. If not for his seniority Ulquiorra would have torn that hand off too, and Gin knew that. "Look at you – so possessive and darling. I'm sure your lil' demon friend would love to be here to watch you worry over him."
Ulquiorra bristled and forced himself to calm down again. "When can I go?"
"You gotta wait till he's alone. He's always with his friends these days," said Gin.
"I can kill his friends."
"Their deaths or disappearances would raise an issue. Too many teen deaths at the same time would overload the population's selective amnesia."
Ulquiorra growled deep in his throat. Gin paid him no heed and picked up his sword, which he then cheerfully plunged into Hinamori Momo's throat.
"I got sick of her whining," Gin explained to Ulquiorra over the agonized burbling. Then the silver-haired vampire frowned and asked rhetorically, "Then again, if she doesn't scream, how would I know she's in pain?" He then twisted the blade sideways and, almost as an afterthought, decapitated her and ended her misery.
Ulquiorra watched and Gin kicked at the pile of dust that used to be Hinamori Momo. The vampire sniffed. "You really should get rid of that trophy arm," he complained. "What use is it to you now?"
"It reminds me that I have to find the remaining pieces," said Ulquiorra evenly.
"Ah. I see."
Somewhere in Los Angeles
"Hey girlie, another coffee 'ere," shouted a beefy man in a yellow cap. He leered at the blonde who walked over to pour him a refill. "Thanks sweetheart," he drawled, and slapped her butt.
The girl paused, almost looked around, and walked back to her station. The large man laughed raucously with his mates, sharing a lewd joke.
"Ignore the bastards. There's someone wanting to order there, Anne," said Fion, nodding at a lovey-dovey couple who had just taken a place. "Don't think they'll tip though."
The girl, Anne, glanced over and took an ordering pad from the counter. "Who does these days?"
The couple were cooing and laughing over an inside joke, but untangled themselves when Anne came over. The young man grinned almost shyly. "Hi. What can we get for, uh, two dollars and... seventy-five cents?"
"Cake and a coffee," said Anne.
"We can't have cake, we gotta stay healthy," chided the girl. She was rather pretty, with long blonde hair and full lips. She smiled at Anne. "Do you have some kinda fruit?"
Anne shrugged. "We have peach pie. Can't guarantee there's a peach in it."
"All right, then we'll have pie," said the boy.
The girl nuzzled the boy. "We shouldn't have spent all our money."
"It's worth it." The boy smiled at Anne again. "Look."
The couple stretched out a forearm each, both coming together to form a heart shape. The half on the girl's arm said 'Ricky' and the other on the boy's arm said 'Lily'.
"It's nice, isn't it?" continued the boy, presumably Ricky.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's nice and, uh, permanent."
Ricky kissed Lily on the cheek and gazed adoringly into her eyes. "Well, forever. Kinda the whole deal, you know?"
Lily giggled. Anne turned to place the order at the counter when Lily called out, "Do I know you?"
Anne shook her head. "I doubt it." When she got to the counter she passed the order chit to Fion. "Cover my table. I'm gonna take a short break out back."
"No problem," said Fion, reading the chit and slicing some pie for the couple.
It was pandemonium at Sunnydale High. Or at least it seemed that way to all the teachers when students threaded their way past gaggles and crowds that clustered at restrooms and drinking fountains; some walked while yelling at the top of their voices, others walked backwards and yet somehow navigating the crowd, and all adults stayed in the sanctuary of their classrooms.
"So, how was the evening at the cemetery?" asked Giles, relying on Xander to part the milling crowd and following close behind with Willow. Ichigo brought up the rear.
"Pretty okay. Ichigo killed the vamp," asked Willow.
"Well that's good. I'm glad you're all trying to keep down the vampire population in town, but I would take it slightly amiss should any of you be hurt in the attempt before Buffy gets back."
Willow smiled. "You'd be cranky?"
"Exactly." Having navigated safely to the library, Giles pushed into his workspace and was immediately swamped by students and faculty wanting to borrow books.
Having fought for his texts out of the teeming crowd, Xander leaned against the counter. "How's my hair?"
"It looks fine," said Ichigo, not looking at him.
"I'm psyched. It's the first time I'm seeing Cordelia after the summer and, well, not to get too geeky or anything but, whoo, watch out for sparks, y'know what I mean?" Xander couldn't hold back his grin. Then he ran his hand over his hair again. "Okay getting a little too geeky now. How's my hair?"
Ichigo replied again, "Still fine."
"All right then." Xander dashed off.
Willow took some volumes from Giles and rejoined Ichigo, passing him some of his. As they pushed out of the library, they saw a familiar face headed their way. Willow brightened and Ichigo wagged his fingers in greeting.
"Hey!" chirruped the redheaded girl. "You came to see me! You came with books? Are they books for me?"
"Uh, it's kinda a funny story," said Oz as the three of them turned to move down the hallway, neatly avoiding a running schoolmate. "Remember when I didn't graduate?"
"Yeah," said Ichigo. "You had all those incompletes."
"But that's what summer school is for," said Willow.
Oz half-shrugged. "Well, remember when I didn't go?"
"Ichigo!" Cordelia hurried up. "Hey Willow, Oz. Have you guys seen Xander?"
"Yes, he's about somewhere," replied Ichigo. Willow and Oz stepped aside a little, still negotiating the issue of Oz repeating senior year.
Cordelia fanned herself a moment. "I'm really excited. How was your summer?"
"I spent it helping Urahara with his prosthetic right arm."
"Great! Did Xander meet anyone new?" The brunette was obviously not listening; her dark eyes scanning the students milling about the lounge. "What am I saying? Who is he likely to meet, here in Sunnydale besides monsters and stuff? But then, he's always been attracted to monsters and stuff..."
Cordelia trailed off. Ichigo caught Oz saying, "... so 'cute' is out of the picture?"
"Well, traditionally academic failure isn't a big turn-on..."
Cordelia spoke again. "Did he forget about me?" Before Ichigo could reply, she smiled in an anticipatory way. "Well, I'll just have to make him remember."
She walked off and then darted back.
"Your hair is fine." Ichgio gave her thumbs up.
Continuing his conversation with Willow, Oz remarked, "I'm willing to bargain down to 'eccentric' with an eye on 'quirky'."
"We'll need to work on that," Willow told him seriously. Back to Ichigo, she asked, "Is Urahara coming back today?"
The Japanese boy shook his head. "He's got a week before he gets back. I hope he's all right though."
"I'm sure he is," Oz reassured.
Across the lounge, Xander caught up to Cordelia. The boy waved and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Hey."
"Hi," said Cordelia. They looked at each other and Cordelia nibbled her lower lip. "So, how was your summer?"
"It was okay," said Xander. They stared at each other some more. Then the boy waved again. "Okay. See ya around."
"Yeah, bye," replied Cordelia.
The two separated to head to class, but neither seemed satisfied with the exchange.
Aizen threaded his hand into Gin's hair. It clung to the blood on his skin and tainted the silver strands. Then the fingers dug in and gripped.
"I did not tell you to kill Momo, Kitsune," crooned Aizen. The fingers tightened further. "How dare you?"
Gin's teeth were bared and he hissed. He could not see; the blindfold was thick enough and his hands, bound behind him, were clenched tightly. His sire slammed Gin into the carpeted floor and aimed a well-placed kick at his midsection. Gin whimpered softly and snarled again.
"She should die," Gin rasped. "One whole summer failed to give us any more information. Why should I keep her alive?"
"You should have waited for my command," snapped Aizen. "She was mine, Gin. I had the right." He ripped off Gin's blindfold and pressed his mouth over his lover's. "I would have wanted to watch. I would have wanted to be the one to slay her for hurting you, Kitsune. You should've known better."
Gin licked his bottom lip. It was bleeding. "Maybe I do."
"Boy I'm glad we showed up for 'depressing night'," Xander quipped, supine on the couch.
Willow, curled up in a chair nearby, stirred her drink morosely. Oz was not there yet; he had band practice and would be late. She sighed. "I wonder what she's doing now."
"Oh I know what she's doing," said Xander bitterly. "She's gabbing to all her friends about her passionate affair with Pedro the cabana boy and laughing about me thinking she might still care about me." He caught Willow's look. "It's possible you were talking about Buffy."
Ichigo sauntered over and pulled Xander's feet off so he could sit. "What's up?"
"Nothing, just the shell of my life," Xander drawled.
"Depressing band, huh." Ichigo sipped his mocha. "And we're not doing well in the vamp department either. They're all scattered and it's hard tracking them properly."
At this moment a group of girls, carefully dressed to impress, walked into the Bronze and made sure they had everyone's attention. Cordelia basked in the spotlight as the jocks grinned at her and the girls ranged themselves carefully to make sure no one was obstructed in their view of Cordelia's dress.
"Well, I think I have a solution," said Xander.
Ichigo raised an eyebrow. "Have a Slayer?"
"Next best thing." The dark-haired teenager narrowed his gaze. "Bait."
Narita International Airport
At the airport, Urahara kept touching his right arm. It almost felt as if he had not lost it to Ulquiorra. Now that was a problem lurking for a solution, which he did not have. Ichigo would be at home right about now... He had called the night before and lied about when he was returning, since he wasn't sure how long it would take for Tessai to engineer the prosthetic.
"It's gonna take time for that to be used to you," said Shinji, tapping the join where the new arm met the old stump. "Be gentle. Don't think you can start with swinging Benihime about within the first month."
"When will I know?" asked Urahara.
"You'll know," Shinji said. He put on his newsboy cap. "And remember to tell Ichigo about the deal."
The physics teacher looked up from his right hand – still mechanical, but somehow so much more – and saw that Shinji was serious. The current leader of the shinigami placed his arm deliberately over the mage's shoulders and pulled him close, looking to all the world as if he was hugging the man, but only Urahara knew it for the threat it was. He could feel Shinji's grip tightening fractionally and the power that radiated off the head of the shinigami.
"I gave you what you wanted. You better damn well carry through on your promise."
"You aren't dying anytime soon, I hope," muttered Urahara.
The thinner man smirked. "Not that one. The other promise."
"What other promise?"
"The part where you're gonna protect him with your new arm. The part where he doesn't fuckin' die before his time." Shinji let go. "The others, they're just sore. Ichigo is their purpose, man. The fact that the boy exists gives them hope and a direction. Gives them something to protect. You took that away. That's why they're angry. Me? I see this as an internship he's having with ya on the Hellmouth."
Urahara picked up his luggage. It was lighter than he anticipated. "You're not angry."
"Don't be fooled. I'm spittin' with rage, man," remarked Shinji, his grin wide. He softened and stuck his hands in his pockets. "You're a traitor, but you aren't stupid. Teach the kid. Someday Ichigo will have to come back, and he will have to lead them."
Anne looked up from the counter she was wiping. It was the blonde girl who had got her arm tattooed with her boyfriend's name, Rose or some flower... Lily. That was her name. Anne returned to cleaning the counter. "Hey."
"You're Buffy, right? You were the one who saved us from the vampires the last time?"
"That was a long time ago," said Anne, resolutely refusing to acknowledge her name. It had been less than a year, to be honest, but Anne remembered how her former friend, Billy Fordham, had tried to trap her in a bomb shelter with vampire wannabes, waiting for actual vampires to arrive and slaughter them all. If not for some quick thinking and a stroke of luck, she would have died.
Lily had been one of the vampire worshipers. It took her only one encounter with a real bloodsucker to change her views entirely, it seemed, but she was still as pale as before. She was wringing her hands now.
She waited until Anne paused in her wiping. "Did you see Ricky?" she asked, a tone of fear entering her voice.
"No. He hasn't come by."
"He's never left me alone for this long before," Lily said worriedly. "Can you – can you help me to find him? That's what you do, right? You help people?"
Anne wanted to tell the other girl to leave, to go find other people for help, but she sighed and said, "I can't leave until the end of my shift. If you can wait until eleven..."
"I'll wait," answered Lily eagerly. She found herself a seat in a corner and curled up, defensive and vulnerable all at once.
Anne shook her head. This was going to be more troublesome than she had wanted, but she could not just leave the obviously distressed girl all by herself.
Cordelia's complaints would only attract the stupid vamps, thought Xander irritatedly. Still one vamp staked was one vamp gone, so that could be an upside. He rolled his shoulders and felt the bones creak; he hadn't been sleeping well at all since he got back to his real body, and he knew he kept waking up at the slightest disturbance in fear of what might have come for him.
That scream shook Ichigo out of his musings. The redhead ran out of his hiding spot and found a vampire trying to snack on Willow, while Oz tried to drag the monster off his girlfriend. Xander managed to get in a good kick before he was smacked away, while Cordelia attempts to pull the vampire aside got her thrown aside onto Xander.
"Oz, stake!" yelled Ichigo. The vampire was too close to Willow's neck for Ichigo to use Benihime.
The werewolf tossed a stake to Ichigo and the redhead staked the bloodsucker. Oz hauled Willow to her feet.
"You all right?" asked Oz. Willow nodded, eyes wide and almost tearful.
Ichigo pocketed the stake and breathed out. "That was a little close."
"Yeah," agreed Oz, still holding the red-haired girl. "I vote heading home."
"Agreed." Ichigo looked around and then rolled his eyes. "Cordy, Xander, we're still here."
The two broke apart for air, lips pink from their kiss. Cordelia blushed lightly and pushed herself off Xander, and then the dark-haired boy got to his feet. The two linked hands and smiled in embarrassment.
"Sorry," said Xander, though everyone could tell he was not sorry at all.
Oz tucked Willow closer to himself. "Let's go. I'll drive."
Anne drifted out of unconsciousness. She almost wished she had not followed Lily, but if there were demons then maybe she should be here. Lily was in the same room – same cell – dressed in that drab sack and her face hollow.
Empty of hope.
"I always knew I'd come here," she whispered. Her thousand-yard-stare was beginning to unnerve Anne.
"Come here?" the other blonde girl repeated, gingerly rubbing the spot where she was hit.
Lily looked at Anne. "Hell."
They had been looking for Lily when that guy from the shelter – Ken – told them that Ricky was with him. He had seemed nice enough but there was something off about him. The two girls only found out how off he was when they came to the 'cleansing pool', an inter-dimensional gateway to a demonic world. Ken's face came off and showed the true demon beneath. Anne had been taken by surprise when Ken hit her across the head with a heavy iron something.
Now they were in a cell. Anne glanced about her. There was a skeleton on the bunk beside her and the space was half the size of her tiny apartment kitchen. She straightened and then climbed to her feet and said, "This isn't hell."
"No?" Ken emerged and grinned at them. His fangs glistened in the firelight. "What is hell, but an absence of hope?"
"You did this," said Anne. "You took kids and threw them in here. What did you do to them, huh, Ken? Sucked the youth outta kids?"
"I gave them purpose," said Ken. "They come and work for years until there's no strength left in them. That's a better use of their lives than whatever they were doing with it."
Lily shrank back. "Years?"
"Yeah, years." Ken looked smug.
The demon tapped his chin. "Oh right, Ricky... yeah. You're Lily, right? He remembered your name far longer than he did his own. But we got it outta him in the end. Down here, you're no one."
"We have names," snapped Anne.
"Right," Ken drawled. "As if they're real names. Anne. I know you and your type. So anxious to run away from whatever problems you faced. Trying to disappear. Well guess what? You got your wish. You've disappeared – and no one's gonna miss you."
Ulquiorra set himself down carefully on the roof. Every night he came, wanting to go in, knowing that Shirosaki had yet to recover from the shock of being shot. He could hear the young redhead who held Shirosaki in him moving about the house; he could not breach the wards put about it by the mage and his friends, but he was able to stay here.
Aizen had told him to wait. And since Ulquiorra's loyalty belonged to that vampire, he would wait.
But only until he could bring Shirosaki forth again. By that time, all bets were off.
Ulquiorra listened, his eyes closed, remembering.
Anne was still breathing heavily as she recovered from the head trauma. The guards, all demons like Ken, had thick body armor but there were a few weak points. Also, she had seen a number of sharp, pointy things.
She knew how to use sharp, pointy things.
There were about a dozen young people with her, all dressed in drab tunics. Lily was beside her, shaking with fear, and there was one guard pacing in front of the dozen. Anne seethed but kept a tight lid on her temper.
"In this place, you will work. You will not speak, you will not think, you will not rest. You exist to work. Down here, you are no one. You are merely workers." He paused in front of the first boy in the line. "What's your name?"
The blow came so fast Anne doubted Andrew even saw it coming. The demon had smashed in the boy's head and the body crumpled to the floor in a mess of blood. The others were taken aback, but they took the lesson. When the guard came to the second person in line and asked again, the girl replied softly, "I'm no one."
"What's your name?" the guard asked again, and Lily had to gasp a breath before she repeated the correct answer.
The demon stood before Anne, who was looking at her feet. He growled, a low threatening note in the back of his throat. "What's your name?"
The blonde girl took a breath. Then she looked up and smiled brightly. "Hi! I'm Buffy, the vampire slayer and you are?"
Roaring, the demon guard swung the club it had used to beat in Andrew's brains but Buffy ducked into his swing and punched him up the jaw, breaking it. The demon screamed and Buffy snapped his neck. She caught hold of the club before it fell to the floor.
"Anyone who's not having fun," she said, glancing about her, "follow me."
Ichigo could sense the half-demon perched on top of the roof. More than anything he wanted to kill it for having torn off Urahara's arm, but inside him Shirosaki was tearing to get out of the house to get to the half-breed.
Thank God Urahara placed wards about the entire complex. All Ulquiorra could do was stay atop the apartment block like some demented, homicidal gargoyle. Every morning, Giles picked Ichigo up and while Ichigo knew they could not defeat Ulquiorra in battle, having to deal with more than one foe was enough deterrent. Or so the redheaded teen told himself.
It was difficult to get to sleep. Now that Shirosaki and he were enemies and the demon within was no longer upholding his side of the bargain, the full memories of Kyoto flooded Ichigo's mind. Ichigo knew that, had he been a year younger, had he not witnessed Theo being eaten alive, the horrors of what he did when he was under Ichimaru's control would kill him or drive him mad.
"As if that's not happening now," Ichigo muttered when he saw himself in the mirror. Dark circles ringed his eyes and he was much thinner than before. He could even see his collarbones protruding.
Urahara would be worried, and the blond teacher would fret.
Ichigo took a deep breath and tried to smile at his reflection. It did nothing to help him look healthier. Slowly tipping his head forward until his brow touched the mirror's cool surface, Ichigo wondered how long it would take before he totally and utterly lost it.
Buffy ran, ducking and dodging the various pillars and trolleys. The humans who were there barely paid her any attention; they had been there too long, their spirit beaten out of them for months, perhaps even years.
The Slayer leaped onto a platform in the middle of the enormous construct. A couple of demon guards tried to fight her but she took them down, ripping their weapons from them and using them to kill the guards.
Ken was apoplectic with rage. "KILL HER!" he kept bellowing, as if the demons were not trying already.
Suddenly the guards fell back, wary. Buffy followed their gaze and saw Ken gripping Lily by the neck.
"Drop your weapon," he hissed. Buffy snarled, but did so anyway. Ken released Lily and pointed to Buffy. "You have guts. I'm gonna rip you open and play with them. How dare you fight back? You're not supposed to fight back!"
"Yeah, but it was fun," quipped Buffy. She could feel her old confidence brimming wildly and it surged when Lily – very timidly – shoved Ken off his pompous ranting ledge. The demons that had flanked her were caught off guard and Buffy didn't waste time fleeing. Clambering up to the ledge, she caught up with the other ten who had got to the iron gates that separated them from their freedom.
It was far too heavy for them to lift. Buffy grappled with the cold metal and started lifting them. "Okay," she grunted as the teens scrambled through the opening below, "this works the glutes, the back, the bi-biceps..."
Lily was the last one to go across and once the blonde girl was clear, Buffy herself navigated her way under the gate very carefully, keeping the weight up.
"Watch out!" Lily screamed.
Buffy barely had time to react as Ken barreled into her and shoved her from the gate. Then he shrieked.
The Slayer edged back, breathing heavily, and stood up. She saw what had happened: Ken's calves were pinned by the spiky iron gate. She licked her dry lips and smiled. "Hey Ken. Wanna see my impression of Gandhi?"
Ken looked up. "You-you've ruined..."
Buffy grabbed the club Ken had been holding and swung it flat onto his skull, shutting him up once and for all.
Lily came up. "Gandhi?" she asked weakly.
Buffy tossed the club down. "You know, if he was really pissed off."
"I need to talk," Ichigo said into the phone. "I need... I need someone who's not Urahara to listen. And – I understand if you don't want to – I think I trust you the most."
"Should I come over?" Giles asked, cradling the receiver with his shoulder and putting the teacup down. He had seldom, if ever, heard such a vulnerable tone from the redheaded teen.
"Um, that'll be nice. But be careful. That thing's still up there on the roof."
The Watcher chuckled drily. "If he hasn't made a move I doubt he'll start now. I will be there as soon as I can."
Urahara leaned his head against the window. Outside it was dark; he could see moonlight reflected off the wing but the narrow aperture made it impossible for him to see the moon itself. He hoped Ichigo was fine.
Ichigo held the mug between his hands and let its warmth seep into his skin. "I haven't been completely honest with everyone."
Giles sipped his tea. He knew the boy was taking a lot on himself to open up now and as the mature adult he would respect that openness.
"I haven't been honest because I don't know what the repercussions would be," continued the teenager. "When I came, I thought I would alone with Urahara but... but I found friends again. And over the past couple of years I realize how much you all mean to me."
"I'm sure they'll say the same of you too, Ichigo," reassured Giles.
"Not if they knew what I did in Kyoto." The dark gaze that met Giles' eyes was haunted and hollow. "Giles, I remember everything now. And I think you'll be the better judge out of the two of us whether I ought to remain in contact with Willow and Xander and the rest."
Giles frowned slightly and settled in his chair.
"When I was in Kyoto, I did a lot of horrible things," said Ichigo quietly. He swallowed. "I was... I thought that as the avatar of Tsukiyomi I could defeat the most powerful vamps Japan had ever known and I recklessly entered the town they held in their sway. They caught me and put me under a spell. They could control my motions, made me do whatever they wanted me to do."
"They made you a puppet."
"Yes. They made me..." Ichigo was looking at his hands now, his breath shallow and somehow hoarse, "they made me watch my sisters kill our parents. They turned my beautiful little sisters into vamps and their first meal was my parents."
Giles covered his mouth. This was torture that sounded a lot like Angelus's style. He made no other motion as Ichigo struggled to continue.
"I not only watched them... I applauded them and..." the young man stuttered and when he glanced up Giles was not surprised to see tears streaking his cheeks. "Later, they made me torture some of my best friends from school."
"Oh dear lord," murmured the librarian, feeling a little sick and full of pity for the Japanese teen. "But that was under a spell, right? It wasn't your own free will."
Ichigo took a shuddering breath. "Giles, that's not all I did."
Giles reached over and patted Ichigo's hands. "You already started telling me. That is part of the healing process. Tell me everything."
"...They then took the spell off and gave me a dagger," Ichigo said. "And they left me there in the room with all my friends whom I tortured. And I... I-I didn't even attack the vamp who had made me do all those horrible..."
"What did you do?"
"I... I went back to my friends, and all of them were way beyond any help, they were barely alive, really, and I..." Ichigo was crying now, burying his face in his hands, the hot drink forgotten on the table. The words were initially so muffled that Giles had to take a moment to decipher in his head, and when he did the librarian had to stand up and look away from the weeping teenager.
I slit their throats, all five of them.
"Oh God," Giles muttered again, removing his glasses and wiping them. How old had Ichigo been then? Fifteen? Fourteen, even? To have forced a child to do all that – to have forced a mere child to witness and participate... Giles caught himself clenching his fists. No wonder Urahara was so protective. He was not going to let Ichigo go through such trauma again. The boy was sobbing so hard it sounded like he was about to throw up, and it took all of Giles' iron will not to go over and comfort him. It was something Ichigo had to work through, and by the sound of it Ichigo really needed to let out his frustration and sorrow and terror.
Suddenly a question struck the Watcher.
"After you... after your friends died, what did you do?"
Ichigo sniffed, his emotions slowly coming back under control. His voice was eerily calm. "I took the dagger and stuck it in my chest."
When Giles met his eyes Ichigo merely looked weary, not afraid. Giles did not know if that was good or bad.
"You should have died then," said the Watcher. "But you didn't."
"Because Urahara put a demon in me to keep my heart going," explained the teen. "He's been in me ever since. I think... I think my heart has repaired itself already but I can't get the demon out of me now."
"He put-" Giles had difficulty framing the words. "He put a demon in you to-"
"To keep me alive," answered Ichigo quietly. "He freaked, I think, and that was all he could think of at the moment. So... so I have a demon in me now, and it really hates me, and even I hate myself for what I've done and I'm terrified at, at what I might end up doing and..."
Giles let the young man trail off. Ichigo peered up at him, his eyes large and lost. The teenager's gaze, gaunt and sickly in the pale light of the table lamp, seemed hauntingly familiar to that of Jenny's the last time Giles saw her alive.
Ichigo shut his eyes. "Giles, what if they use my friends again? What if... what if the spell was never lifted and... what if I have to cut my friends' throats again?"
"The vampires you speak of are still alive?" asked Giles.
Startled by the query, Ichigo looked up at the librarian. "They are here in Sunnydale. The demon on the roof works for them and... I don't know what they want with me or Shirosaki, but they want me around, and they've been here since I got here."
"Hold it a second," said Giles. "The vampires that – that did all those things to you – are here in Sunnydale? And neither you nor Urahara thought to inform us?"
"I didn't remember everything," Ichigo protested. "We did tell you about the very old vampires. Aizen and Ichimaru?"
"Right, you did." Giles sighed. "But knowledge of how brutal they can be puts them on a scale completely different from before. We will have to think of a strategy to deal with them sooner rather than later."
"But... what about the rest of the gang?" asked Ichigo, his voice small. "Can I... should I still work with all of you? It may put everybody in danger..."
"We've all been put in danger by association with the Slayer alone," said Giles, though he understood what Ichigo was actually saying.
The boy stood up. "I might put everybody in danger, Giles. I might just- I might be the one you guys put down the next time."
"Now that we know," said Giles, facing the child – for Ichigo was a child, regardless of his emotional age – and folding his arms, "we are better prepared. While I don't think any benefit could come of you telling Willow and Xander, rest assured that should there be a need, I will take on the responsibility."
"Can you?" Ichigo's voice was small. "If you need to, can you kill me?"
Giles nodded. "I will do anything to make sure that the world is kept safe."
The redheaded boy smiled and reached out a hand. "Shake on it."
The Watcher shook.
The door opened and Urahara entered. He stared at the two whose hands were still joined and narrowed his gaze. "This ought to be good."
After Giles had gone, Urahara and Ichigo went to the older man's bedroom and unpacked his luggage. Since neither were in the mood to sleep, Ichigo caught Urahara up on what he had shared with the British.
Urahara was silent for a very long time after they had put away the last of his socks and tossed the dirty laundry into the basket. "I think you made a wise decision telling him," he said at last. "But why didn't you wait for me to return before you told him?"
"I thought that perhaps you wouldn't want me to tell him." Ichigo plucked at his sweatpants. "I thought... I thought you might've wanted me to keep it secret."
"I would support you in everything you do, Ichigo," said Urahara, touching Ichigo's right cheek tenderly.
The younger male smiled and leaned into the contact. It was wonderful having Urahara back with him. Perhaps he was sappy for even thinking it, but Ichigo felt better and safer with the older man about the house.
The blond man sighed and said, "I've news from Japan too."
"Oh? They did the upgrades?"
"Yeah," answered Urahara. "Check this out."
He straightened his prosthetic right arm and the mechanical gears clicked into place. Ichigo still had to swallow every time he saw it; it felt alive though it obviously was not.
Urahara said, "Tessai put in the necessary upgrades. Right now I still have to think into the various actions for the arm to operate, but he promises that after a couple months it should be as natural as breathing."
"Think into the actions?" asked Ichigo. "What do you mean?"
"Well, if I wanna unbutton this shirt, I have to figure out which finger does the pushing and the sliding..." The physics teacher scowled in concentration until his new hand ripped a hole in the shirt. "Damn. Not my best demonstration."
"No, it's not," agreed Ichigo with a small smile. "You're tired from a very long flight. Your left arm is tired from lugging your luggage. Let me do it."
Urahara felt a small blush crawl up the back of his neck as the teenager began undoing the rest of the buttons. "Um..."
"It's just one of the many things I'm willing and able to help you out with until your right arm is operable," said Ichigo softly. His warm gaze met Urahara's. "We'll head to the physiotherapist's tomorrow and reschedule your sessions now that you're back. Even if you can use your mind to control this arm, you'll still need to build up the muscles there to not-"
"-not feel the strain from having to use a prosthetic," Urahara completed, as quietly as Ichigo. He leaned forward until his lips brushed against the younger man's cheek. "Thank you."
"Here. Ready?" Ichigo grunted as the prosthetic slid away from Urahara's shoulder. The stump was red where straps and cushions had pressed into the skin. Ichigo skated his fingers over the mildly tender spots and then drew his hand back, as if stung. "I'll... put this by the nightstand. And wake me up if you need anything."
Urahara smiled and restrained himself from quipping the corny statement that popped into his head. Only after the door was closed then did he utter under his breath, "All I need is you."
The day dawned clear. Joyce Summers scrubbed irritatedly at the back of the dishwasher, wishing that there was some magic that could scour the gunk from the outlet. Suddenly she drew back from the machine.
Could it be...
She paused. On a whim she put down the scrubbing brush and pulled off her rubber gloves, before she headed towards the front door. Then she caught her own hopes rising.
No, Joyce. That always leads to the bad feeling of disappointment. You don't wanna go there. Having reminded herself, she turned to go back to the kitchen, but then there was a soft scuffing noise outside the front door. And a shadow.
Joyce held her breath. Let it out. Took another one.
She then went to the door and opened it.
In the sunlight, on the doorstep, Buffy Anne Summers looked at her mother, guilt and love in her large eyes. She glanced at her feet again, unable to hold eye contact for long.
Joyce never felt happier in her whole life.