Disclaimer: A denial, disavowal, or renunciation, as of a title, claim, interest, estate, or trust; relinquishment or waiver of an interest or estate. A public disavowal, as of pretensions, claims, opinions, and the like.
Yeah, what the dictionary says.
This chapter is brought to you by a beach, a fucking beach, I say!
The First Guardian
Chapter Eleven – Birds and the, uh, Butterflies
Mizuiro sighed; today had begun as such a good day. He got his final exam results – he didn't think them too impressive, he only needed a few more points to get into the top 50, but they would do, and he was satisfied with them. Keigo hadn't reacted too badly to his own scores, passing grades, and again nothing to write home about, but at least he took solace in the fact that neither of his friends had done too well.
Then the top 50 list came into Keigo's hands, and Mizuiro absently wondered if jumping out the window would be lethal.
Keigo had overreacted, as always, when he saw Ichigo's name in the first place in their year, followed closely by two other students who had tied for second. It was funny in a way, he thought, he could tell how Keigo would react before he actually did.
First, he would stare blankly, then his eyes would widen comically, then he would begin to hyperventilate, his nostrils flaring as the color in his face either drained or became more vibrant – it depended on what had surprised him. Then he would bring his hands to his head and scream to the heavens about how unfair it all was, then he'd direct his screams towards what he figured was a deserving target.
It wasn't a big surprise, not for Mizuiro. It hadn't been the first time it happened, and Keigo knew that as well, but neither had thought Ichigo could pull it off again – not when he had missed more classes and had apparently goofed off more than ever.
They were currently sitting on the rooftop, not long after the latest Keigo freak-out. Everyone was - even the new girl, Rukia. Ichigo, however, was not.
Thinking about his friend – his grades, his attitude, his tendency to pull off crazy stunts, his apparently like for fighting, always made Mizuiro smile.
It was because Mizuiro knew Ichigo, perhaps not more than his other friends, but certainly in a way the others didn't.
Ichigo had once, long ago, been the first person to, as he said, 'Call Mizuiro out on his bullshit', he was also the first person to punch him in the face as he did. Also the first, and so far only, person he had opened up to.
All three events are connected.
To Mizuiro, it came straight out of the left field, Ichigo had seemed irritated by something for some time; and after a few days it only seemed to get worse. Then one day, when Keigo had been sick and they were both walking to his place to check up on him after school, Mizuiro brought it up.
He'd never forget that afternoon.
"Say, Ichigo?" Mizuiro asked the orange-haired student walking next to him. His hair was longer than ever, he noted, it seemed as if he was going to let it grow long, so far it didn't look bad.
A curious grunt was his only answer, Ichigo just kept on looking ahead, his pack slung over his right shoulder and his left hand on his pocket. He was scowling more than usual.
"Are you upset over something? Lately you seem a bit more… aggressive, is the word, I guess."
Ichigo's eyes turned to regard his shorter friend, his eyes off the road ahead and yet not slowing down his pace. He seemed to be considering something.
"Mizuiro." The carrot-top stopped walking and turned to regard his now-surprised friend, he obviously had not expected the serious tone.
"I have a question for you, if you don't mind me asking."
Mizuiro frowned, hadn't he been the one ask a question first? He then put away his cell phone, he had grown accustomed to having it on his hand whenever he wasn't doing anything important, even if only to fiddle with the options or read old messages, it made him look busy to everyone else, and he felt safer when people thought he wasn't paying much attention.
He indulged him, though, "Of course I don't, what is it?"
Ichigo regarded him for a moment, before he asked, "Why do you always go for older women?"
That threw Mizuiro for a loop, of all the things Ichigo could have asked, that was unexpected.
"Well, they're more mature, less likely to start a drama, and they look-" He wouldn't have been able to dodge the fist even if he HAD seen it coming.
He looked up from his position on the ground, the world had spun around for a bit, but it appeared Ichigo hadn't put much of his strength into it, he had seen him knock out larger people with just one punch.
Ichigo looked angry Mizuiro briefly wondered why it was him that was angry, when the one that got unfairly punched was the one lying on the ground.
"W-What was-" He didn't get the time to ask, Ichigo had grabbed his shirt and held him against the side of a house.
"Alright, I'm calling you out on your bullshit. Right. Now." Later on, Mizuiro would identify that tone Ichigo used as his 'leader' tone, rather than his 'really pissed off' one. He didn't see Ichigo really angry until much later, and that wasn't something he'd ever forget.
But that's another story.
"What're you talking about? Where do you get off punching me when I haven't done anything to you?"
Ichigo looked him straight in the eye before answering, "Nothing? I think you just did. See, you lied to me, just now."
And just like that, Mizuiro's surfacing anger was slowly replaced by fear and confusion. "Impossible," he thought, "How could he have-?"
"See," Ichigo continued, "I don't mind it when other people lie to me, not normally. Lies, like people, aren't bad by nature. And if the lie had involved me, it wouldn't have bothered me that much. An apology would do just fine," his grip on Mizuiro's shirt tightened, "But this lie, your own lie, is affecting you, has been for a long time, and watching it is making me want to kill something."
"So that's why?" That was one of the craziest things he had heard come out of Ichigo's mouth. Not because of the wording, or what Ichigo was talking about. No, it was because of the reason, the purpose Ichigo had put behind his words. He had just punched him out of goddamn concern.
It also confirmed his fears, his astonishingly perceptive friend had seen through him and his masks like no one else ever had before.
"I…" What could he say? Sorry? Apologize for worrying him? Try to justify it? The last could only make Ichigo angrier, but Mizuiro figured that if Ichigo already knew it, he might as well understand it.
"Older women," he began, no longer able to look Ichigo to the face, "They know what to do, they don't expect much out of a young guy, they lead you with their experience and don't ever blame you for your mistakes, after all-"
"You're just a kid, their young boy-toy, that doesn't know as much as they do." Ichigo finished it for him, and Mizuiro winced – that wasn't exactly how he would word it. But it rang true so much that it hurt.
"… Yeah…" Mizuiro kept his gaze trained on the ground to his left, and only looked up when Ichigo's grip on his shirt loosened.
"You're insecure, yeah, I gathered that much." Mizuiro's gaze went down again, this time to Ichigo's feet, and his mind tried going elsewhere – as far from this point as it could, perhaps he could just nod to whatever Ichigo said while he focused on his feet and, in the back of his head, justify it by telling himself that he was doing so that he would have a better chance at dodging a kick, if Ichigo were to throw one.
"But Mizuiro," he was brought out of his train of thought by the unmistakably worried tone Ichigo was using now, "In the end, you're just that, a boy-toy. You're always thrown away, unable to so much as form a connection and when you do get the chance to form one, it just makes the separation hurt even more."
Ichigo was probably talking about Miss Miyasaka, a former teacher that had lead him on for a while before telling him that she was married and moving to teach elsewhere. "I… thought no one knew anything about that." He had thought there was a chance for something, even though it had gone just like the relationship before that one.
"I know that, I…" he swallowed, he was starting to feel like shit, "I know how it is, it's how it always is, but I've accepted it, and it's the only way I…" Dear god, he was so pathetic. He was trying to justify the potential hurt by saying he had 'accepted' it? He knew that was the shittiest excuse ever, he knew it was wrong, he knew it was a load of bullshit, and he knew it hurt more and more each time. But until now, he had thought he was the only one to ever know it.
"It's self-destructive, morally wrong, and absolutely fucking retarded." Ichigo told him, his tone firm but gentle.
Mizuiro had no choice but to agree, so he nodded. He knew all that was wrong about it, but he was too damn scared to do anything to change it.
Ichigo ran a hand through his orange top, sighing in half-annoyance, half-sadness, "I could have taken any other reason, you know. Laziness or a fetish I could deal with, but insecurity? That's not something I'm willing to overlook. You see, what happens later? Have you ever thought about that? You're not going to be a boy forever. You'll outgrow that phase, and then you'll aim elsewhere, you'll look for younger women, for the same reasons you look for older women right now, and then you'll hurt them just as much. And worse of all, you'll realize it, because you're not stupid, Mizuiro, and then I don't want to think what you will do to yourself."
Mizuiro's eyes widened at the implications, but Ichigo wasn't done yet, "Think about what I am implying rather than the future I just painted for you, because it's not happening, no matter what," he slung his backpack over his shoulder once again, "As I said, you're not stupid."
And the now-bruised student blinked, "He's… he's saying that…!" His eyes widened "Of course, how did I not see it that way? Those women, they feel the same way, that just because I don't know, I can't tell them they're doing something wrong. They're just as insecure as I am!" Then he frowned a little, "A relationship like that… can't be healthy at all."
"Mizuiro, I'm not speaking from experience, but even I can tell you that no one, absolutely no one, knows how to lead a perfect relationship," He resumed walking, "Every single girl our age at school feels the same way you do, an emotional train wreck, but it'll be a cold day in hell before I'm friends with a guy whose answer to that is to chicken out."
And Mizuiro laughed, leave it to Ichigo to make it seem as if his goal was selfish. It hadn't been too long since he had begun to think of Ichigo as a selfless guy, and today was just further confirmation of that.
"If he's right, then… I really am an idiot."
"Why did you punch me, though? You could have just called me out on it without shaking my brain."
Ichigo just shrugged, "I find that a degree of physical trauma before a life-lesson helps the idea sink in. Also you were the only guy among my friends I hadn't punched; it's been bugging me for months."
Of course, Mizuiro would tell Ichigo later on that he would still chase after older women, this time for the reasons he had been using as an excuse. Ichigo looked him in the eye and realized he wasn't lying, and then told him with a shrug that he that he could see the appeal.
Tatsuki frowned as she chewed on her lunch, she was sitting cross-legged in the circle her friends usually formed, and the reason for her apparent bad mood was currently sitting in front of her, happily eating her own lunch.
Too happy, actually.
Kuchiki Rukia was apparently in the greatest of moods, she had been since she turned up in class, together with Ichigo. It wasn't exactly out of character for her to be a cheery girl, though Tatsuki would be the first one to call her nice-girl act a load of crap. Rukia had… something about her. There was something that bugged Tatsuki about her, and she only grew even more frustrated when she realized that that something most likely involved Ichigo.
"Kuchiki-san, have you seen Ichigo today?" Mizuiro asked.
And Tatsuki had to resist the urge to scoff at that. Of course Rukia had seen him today; they came to school together today as well. They always did.
"I haven't seen him since lunch began, I thought he'd be up here by the time I got here, actually." The Kuchiki girl answered, fiddling with an unopened juice box. She had been doing that for a while now, actually.
"Huh, maybe he decided to get out of school again? He seemed pretty bored in class." Keigo spoke around a mouthful of food.
"Don't speak with your mouth full, Asano-san. You're bothering Inoue-san."
"Don't call me that, Mizuiro!"
Maybe she was just over-thinking things, maybe it was nothing, and Rukia just happened to get along with Ichigo better than with anyone else.
She couldn't see why not, either, Ichigo was a great guy. Smart, physically fit, sensitive, intelligent and pretty darn good-looking. A bit touched in the head at times, maybe, but that was just part of his charisma.
Tatsuki frowned again. What if Rukia already knew all of this? Was this why she was around him so much? Did she know just what a good catch Ichigo was?
She shook her head; it was probably her first theory. After all, it would be too simple if it was the latter, and Kurosaki Ichigo just doesn't do simple. Whatever they were both involved in was probably crazier than whatever she could come up with, if only because Ichigo was in the middle of the whole thing.
"Yeah," she thought, "He has a tendency to-"
"CATCH THAT SHIT!"
"-Catch that sh-" Wait.
Rukia twitched, she had been bracing herself for something stupid, crazy, unexpected or all of the above. The moment she felt the rapidly approaching presence of her- what? Boyfriend? Suitor? The latter implied a deeper compromise, and the former was probably more adequate given the setting and person in question. However, Ichigo was probably as committed to their relationship as anyone could be committed to anything, what with him being… well, him.
But then there was their situation, and this time his words weren't quite enough to put her at ease…
"How exactly does this work?"
They were on their way to school on the morning after their date, and Ichigo had insisted that they hold hands until they got to school. She didn't see anything wrong with that, there was the obvious contact and closeness that the gesture brought, but she had no idea whether or not it was something to be expected.
"I assume you mean this?" Ichigo raised their intertwined hands as he quirked an eyebrow.
"What else could it be, moron?"
"A juice box."
She kicked his shin for that. Ichigo just chuckled and kept on walking as if nothing had happened, even if he had actually felt that kick.
"Holding hands is a normal display of affection between two people that care for each other. Not just couples, you'll sometimes see siblings do the same, the boys until a certain age, and girl get to do it until whatever age they feel like stopping. Girls don't even have to be siblings to hold hands with each other, it's just seen as a cute girl-friend thing."
Rukia was curious, "Why don't boys do it when older, though?"
"I was beginning to wonder, you were too quiet."
"Good question. I suppose it's because it's considered un-manly to hold hands with someone of equal standing with you. Perhaps because they subconsciously don't want anyone to think they need the support the gesture brings. The most likely reason is that it implies a bond deeper than friendship or brotherhood between the two males in question."
Rukia titled her head, close her eyes a moment, thought about what he said, and then, "Eeeew." She scrunched up her nose.
"Oh good, she's not one of those."
"You lucky bastard."
"As for the rest, we'll keep it between ourselves for now. This is a high school we're heading to, and the rumor mill in there goes faster than porn in Keigo's favorite store. And while I don't mind standing on the rooftop and yelling about how I gave you the best night of your life, that would lead to awkward questions, people love getting the juicy details."
"Not to mention the obvious innuendo. You should totally do that."
"Maybe when it's not partly a lie."
"It won't be as funny, though."
"I see…" She turned pensive again, that was it for how they should behave in public. Pretend nothing is happening between them, she could do that.
"But what about when…" She stopped; she had grown too comfortable with the conversation and nearly asked something really embarrassing.
"When we're alone? That's up to you, I guess."
Of course he had caught on to her thoughts.
"But if you want suggestions on what's proper, you should reconsider who you're asking this to."
She put on an amused expression, "A psychopathic, violent, Pureblood Shinigami?"
He faked a hurt expression, "I was going to say 'guy', but it's good to know how badly you think of me. You missed 'brilliant' and 'handsome', by the way."
She laughed and walked a closer to him, now holding his arm.
"Huh, that's also a display of affection."
"I know, you didn't have to tell me about it, you know. I already knew all of it."
He looked down at her with wide eyes, "Then why didn't you stop me?"
She stepped away from him and walked a bit further ahead, he hadn't noticed they were about to arrive, probably because he wasn't used to just walking. Rukia looked at him over her shoulder with an amused expression.
"You look cute when you explain things."
Then she flicked her hair and kept walking, anyone who looked would have seen a prim and proper lady who wouldn't do what she had just done.
"Man, you just got served. I'm glad you kept her."
That was rather bold of her, she thought. She was sure he wasn't offended, but it was the only thing she could think of doing at the moment.
She had resolved to ask some of the other girls for counsel, but asking Orihime or Tatsuki seemed… weird to her, for some reason. In the end, she decided that it would be best to ask someone from outside their usual group. Natsui-san, Ogawa-san or even Honshō-san would do, even if the last one was kind of weird.
She was brought out of her musings by the arrival of the one that had just yelled. The main subject of her thoughts.
Ichigo arrived at the rooftop; he seemed to be out of breath and looking for all intents as if he had run a marathon. He looked around him, searching for something, his eyes went over their group and landed on Rukia's for a moment, but no hidden message was sent, he just resumed his search until his eyes widened once more.
Then he jumped off the rooftop.
Tatsuki gasped along with Mizuiro and Keigo. Chad's only response was to let his eyes widen in surprise before running to the edge of the roof to check on their friend. Tatsuki didn't have to be told even once to follow suit.
Rukia was doing to things inside of her head. The first, hoping that that moron had landed face-first on the ground.
The second, despairing the fact that she had forgotten her memory-modifying device back at home.
Her worries were unfounded, it seems, as unfortunately enough, Ichigo had landed on his feet just fine, and his friends were sighing in relief – to them, Ichigo had just landed on the tree next to the school's central building and quickly climbed down. He was now hurriedly chasing-
Her eyes widened as she turned around and ran back into the school, out of the rooftop and to the ground floor where she could catch up with the psychopath who just happened to be chasing after a Jigokuchō.
"Just- just what the hell did you do this time, Moron?"
Ichigo looked up from his position, an innocent look on his face; he was sitting cross-legged outside of the school's gym.
Oh, and he had a Hell Butterfly on his left hand.
"Why hello there, Princess! How did you like lunch? You look radiant, by the way, all covered in sweat and heaving as if you'd run desperately after some handsome rogue."
Rukia redirected her need to palm her forehead towards a punch aimed at his face, which he dodged, of course. She took great satisfaction in the way his eyes widened when he saw the wall he was sitting against crack.
"Well, what the hell did I do now?"
"I just asked you that, Moron!"
"Seriously? Twice in the same conversation? I'm feeling woefully inadequate."
"I haven't done anything!"
Rukia breathed in, closed her eyes, willed herself to calm down, count to ten, and see this from Ichigo's perspective. To his eyes, he had not done anything out of place, she could understand that, Spirit King bless her but she understood that. But then again, to Ichigo's eyes, a misfit with tattoos on his face could give his father a haircut with a shotgun and that would be just fine.
"You just jumped off your school's rooftop without taking into consideration your friend's reactions-"
"Chasing after what could be a potential danger for us."
Rukia stopped. Okay, so maybe the risks had been worth it. Jigokuchō, much like the one currently resting on Ichigo's open left palm, served two main functions. The first one wasn't what the maniac was referring to, which was guiding Shinigami through the Senkaimon, the dimensional gateways used by Shinigami to go into and out of the Human World, without having to deal with the very unpleasant Dangai. She shuddered at that, she had been through the precipice world a few times during her training, it never stopped being unsettling.
The second function worried her, and made her realize why had done what he did, even though there were a million other ways to-
"As far as I understand it, you're capable of Shunpō when inside of your own body."
She nodded silently, keeping her eyes closed.
"How come you didn't think to use that to catch it before you jumped off a GODDAMN ROOFTOP?" Her tone went from quiet to very annoyed and finally to extremely angry in one sentence and Ichigo felt compelled to put is left hand as far as possible from Rukia to keep the Hell Butterfly safe.
"Funny that you mention it, see, I make it a point to never use Shunpō inside of school grounds. It could become a habit to do it when I think no one can see me, and then there's a risk I'll get caught doing it. You know I don't like taking needless risks."
"And how is jumping off the rooftop a lot less of a risk than using one measly flash-step to catch a butterfly?"
The sound of the wind rustling the leaves could be heard. The mixture of melodies compounded by the air rushing between blades of grass and the small leaves in the bushes made a pleasant melody for anyone who would put some of their heart's care to listen.
A moment passed, the melody of nature walking alongside it.
Then another did, and the melody felt as if it had moved a few steps ahead, as the wind had stopped blowing, and the echo was the only trace it had left behind.
The man with the orange head lifted his gaze from the frail butterfly resting on his hand, directing his eyes towards the increasingly irritated visage of the petite Shinigami girl in front of him.
Neither the wind nor Mother Nature had anything to say to that.
Kuchiki Rukia, however, had never ranted harder than in that moment.
Of course Rukia didn't believe his 'Oops'. Not for half a second. It wasn't that Ichigo couldn't make mistakes; after all, he admitted to those openly and could draw you charts about how wrong he could be on many levels. He had done that once, actually.
No, it was that he had said it with that bedazzling, heart-stopping smirk that just said it all – that he had done all of it just to rile her up, and it had worked so much it irked her.
They were on their way to Urahara's shop, the rest of the school day forgotten the second Ichigo decided the bucket-hat-wearing shopkeeper would be able to explain just how a Jigokuchō happened to be wandering around Karakura, and coincidentally, the High School where the resident Shinigami spent most… well, some of his time.
"It doesn't make sense!" Rukia was getting frustrated, the carrot top either refused to be forthcoming with his information, or that butterfly really didn't have any message to carry. "A Jigokuchō can only do two things, provide safe passage and carry messages. I don't see any Senkaimon around here so the best bet would be a message was being carr-"
"I think I could preserve this thing. Dad has some carbolic acid that I can use."
Ichigo rolled his eyes, "Rukia, if I say it didn't have a message I could decipher, then it didn't. Why would I lie to you like this? You know me better than that."
Her mood switched from puzzled to annoyed in a second, "Oh no, don't try to make me feel bad about this when it's you who-"
"You think it might have a message you just can't receive?"
Ichigo nodded with a smile, "Exactly. There are no Senkaimon around here, as you said, so it pretty much HAS to be carrying a message. These things don't just grow on trees. Like money. I've tried that, the sunburn wasn't worth it."
She made sure to keep them both on the topic, if only for her sake, "But then who could have sent it? I'm assuming it wasn't meant for you, seeing as you can't decipher it and had to actually chase after it to intercept it. I don't like this, not one bit."
Ichigo smirked, "I like the part where you don't even care that I intercepted what could potentially be an official Shinigami message."
Now it was her turn to roll her eyes, "I have priorities, and being crucified and having my soul destroyed is very high on my list of things I want to avoid."
"Well, that's some grim conversation you're having there."
She blinked; they had arrived at the Shōten without her even taking notice.
Ichigo shrugged while looking at the shopkeeper, who was currently lying on his side outside of his shop, donning his usual attire and carelessly fanning his face.
"Rukia's just worrying a little bit too much. It's your fault, by the way."
Urahara looked offended, "I did not, in any manner, train Rukia to overreact in such a manner to my meaningless, simple butterfly."
And now it was Rukia's turn to look affronted, "I wasn't trained to-"
It was one of those days.
That tick in her eye was back.
"You're never going to get to second base at this rate, Ichigo."
"I got to second base the day I met her. Technically."
"You hear that? That's the sound of the imaginary tears shed by the Zanpakutō doomed to sharing its existence with an eternal virgin."
"I'm assuming you sent me this thing for a reason." Ichigo used the time it took Rukia's brain to reboot to sit next to the comfortable-looking shopkeeper, who offered him a fan of his own. He politely rejected it, but Urahara looked as if he knew he would.
"I'm surprised you're questioning any excuse to get out of school early."
"I got my final exam results today; that's more than enough excuse for me to go out and try to freeze things with my sword."
"You have to stop this, stick to fire. You do not possess power over the elements."
Whatever Urahara had to say to that was interrupted by Rukia, who took his fan from his hand and snapped it closed, and then put it under the shopkeeper's chin. The surprised man couldn't help the shudder that overcame his body courtesy of the girl's murderous glare.
"You're going to tell me what's going on, and you're going to tell me right now." Kisuke simply couldn't help but be reminded of a certain Shinigami specialized in healing arts that could tell you anything with the gentlest of faces and still freak the hell out of you.
He went cross-eyed looking down at his fan, "Careful there, Kuchiki-san. That fan has seen more bloodshed than most Zanpakutō ever will."
The fan dropped to the ground in surprise, it was swiftly recovered by the shopkeeper, and everything was alright in the world again. Except for the annoyed woman.
"Hey, I have an idea! How about you guys come into my shop so I can explain just why I thought to send a completely blank Hell Butterfly in Ichigo's general direction?" The man was all smiles as he resumed fanning himself while standing up.
Ichigo put his fist over his hand, "That's a great idea! Why didn't we think about it sooner?"
It disturbed Rukia just how much pride she felt at being able to contain the immensely frustrated scream that threatened to escape directly from the bottom of her soul.
"Alright, so what's the deal, bucket-man?"
Ichigo stared at the shopkeeper with a curious, but guarded expression. He was subconsciously aware of the fuming woman sitting on the opposite side of the table. Her current state of being was most likely the reason he had opted to sit as far from her as possible.
"I'm just saying, she's going to think you're bipolar if you treat her like a princess one day, and then drive her mad the following day."
"I have a voice in my head that never hesitates to point out my inadequacies, has yet to surrender in its quest to get me laid, and is probably just as insane as it claims I am."
Urahara smiled widely, "Oh, yes. You see, remember when your big friend beat up that Hollow in the most fantastic demonstration of the art of wrestling ever recorded?"
Ichigo couldn't help but return the big smile, "Of course I do. It was awesome, wasn't it?"
Urahara sat upright and nodded sagely, "Awesome is an understatement. I've seen bigger, stronger Hollows get taken down by more powerful attacks, yet nothing has ever been as amazing as seeing that Moonsault he did from that pole. I say-"
Both men were suddenly startled from their admiration talk by the power behind the yell that came from Rukia.
Rukia pointed her finger at Ichigo, "You were there? And you didn't do anything? That Hollow could have killed innocent people; it could have killed your best friend! Just… just…!" She deflated when she saw the frowning, perhaps angry? Visage of Ichigo. From the back of her mind, a tiny voice spoke, "I probably went too far."
"Rukia. I hope, I sincerely hope, that you didn't just insinuate that I would let anyone, much less someone I care about, get hurt, and in front of me, no less."
Rukia didn't back down, she would not let him cow her, she was stronger than that. She stopped pointing at him, but her angry scowl didn't go away.
"You like angry women, don't you?"
"… Make me understand."
Ichigo kept his stare, and while he would later admit that an angry Rukia was a hot Rukia, right now, he couldn't help but feel insulted. Insulted because his passionate, perhaps irrational devotion to protect was being called into question. To him, it was as if she had just told him that he didn't exist. That the version of himself he had built ever since his little sister grabbed his finger, a feeling he could still remember if he summoned his memories while looking at his hand, had an existence that could be called into question, had pissed him off. Had it been someone else, he'd probably have teeth imprints all over his knuckles and elbows. But this was Rukia, and in her eyes hid something else that, surprisingly, hurt him more than the aforementioned implications.
Would she understand if he explained? Probably. Would she like it? No, she wouldn't. She had been part of the experiment, even if she wasn't the focus, so she'd be understandably pissed. And he couldn't help but wonder, had she built a version of Kurosaki Ichigo in her own mind that wouldn't go so far to do what he did? Did that template of him embedded in her thoughts fit with what he truly was? And if it didn't, would she be disappointed? Would he have to reshape himself to fit her expectations?
No, Ichigo shook his head at that last thought. That was ridiculous in many ways. Though it scared him that, all of a sudden, a girl who entered his life in the strangest way conceivable, was beginning to gain such power over him.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Ichigo blinked, the familiar voice didn't come from inside of his head, not as usual. Then he noticed his surroundings, he was atop a very familiar skyscraper, surrounded by empty space that was only filled at certain places with several other comically tall buildings.
"It's been a while since you've done this, you know."
He turned around, and there, as expected, stood the form of his sword, coat flapping in the wind.
It was quite windy, actually. Strange.
"What do you mean?"
The spirit of his Zanpakutō walked slowly to stand next to him near the edge of the rooftop; "You don't know this, but back before this place had any sort of shape, before I had any shape, whenever you were troubled an immersed yourself too deeply in your thoughts, you'd end up here, in your mindscape. It's a good thing you're not any more introverted, else I'd have to put up with your hideous shade of orange a lot more."
Ichigo frowned, that was a curious bit of information, "What was that? I didn't know I had a female Zanpakutō, and that she was a jealous little bitch."
The spirit just chuckled, before placing a hand on Ichigo's chest, and pushing him over the edge of the roof.
"Get the hell off my lawn."
Ichigo prided himself in not blinking stupidly at Rukia's still angry visage when he returned. Not much time had passed, maybe not even a second, as usually happened whenever he went into his own mind.
He sighed, "Alright, sit down, I can make you understand, though I can't promise you'll like it."
Rukia nodded and sat down, not once taking her eyes off him. The two doors that led out of the room were located behind herself and Urahara, and Ichigo would have to crash into one of them if he wanted to bolt out of the room, so she didn't bother checking if they were closed. She had a chance to stop him if he tried. The tension permeating the room had eased a bit, but it was still quite easy to cut with a dull knife, as it were.
Urahara had just finished unwrapping a piece of candy he had taken out of his pocket, and ate it happily.
"The thing with Chad and that Hollow was an experiment."
Rukia nodded, she had figured as much in the time it took her to process what she had just learned.
Ichigo took her nod as his cue to continue, "Chad is a strong guy, stronger than any other… 'Normal' human I've ever had the honor to meet. He has a strong will, an even stronger pride, and both of those are backed up by the kindness hidden inside his massive body build," He closed his eyes and considered how he'd word his following words, "But recently, perhaps due to my presence, Chad's presence gained an interesting quality to it, added to the fact that he could somewhat see Hollows, it was sufficient evidence to me that Chad had even greater potential."
Rukia decided to follow his train of thought, just to see if she was right in her deduction, "So you set him up against a Hollow to see if he'd live?" She left out the part about how Ichigo could have let his friend get hurt, she figured he'd explain that later.
"To be blunt, yes," Ichigo looked at Rukia's body language, it hadn't changed, making him realize that she was, in fact, in her element, it was this sort of thing that she was very good at, if her talk about being raised as a Kuchiki noble was truthful, "however, the experiment took place in what was practically a controlled environment. As previously mentioned, I was there. I was ready to intervene if that Hollow got too close to hurting him or anyone else, I was nearby and I am faster, way faster than a Hollow of that level."
Rukia nodded, that was one point she could concede. She knew Ichigo did not take risks he deemed unnecessary, and she could see that to him, in that situation, there had been absolutely no risks whatsoever, and she knew him enough to understand that that wasn't overconfidence on his part.
"There were two purposes to this test, I believe."
Rukia turned to look at the shopkeeper, who had just finished up his candy.
"I assume you know what they were?"
"Maybe," he turned towards Ichigo, "do correct me if I'm wrong here, Ichigo. The first purpose was to bring out Sado-san's already obvious potential, I approve of the methods used, and I agree that there really weren't any risks involved."
He covered his face with his fan, and lowered his head so that what was visible of his expression became shadowed by his hat, "The second purpose… well, I believe Ichigo was just covering all his bases."
Rukia raised a curious eyebrow, and turned towards Ichigo, whose face had adopted a solemn expression.
"As grim as it may sound, I was making sure that if I were to die, someone else would still be around to protect what I no longer will be able to."
Rukia's eyes widened at that. Her thoughts crashed so hard that it gave her a headache, but the new thoughts surfacing were enough to distract her from that.
Kurosaki Ichigo was strong, perhaps ridiculously so. The factor of ridicule here being just how fast he acquired the power he had. He was stronger than any being his age had any right to be. She knew there were plenty Shinigami that could beat him, she just never gave the thought any importance, blinded as she was. Ichigo gave the impression of someone stronger than life itself. Perhaps if his power measured up to his will, he'd be an unstoppable being.
But it was not so, even if the thought of Ichigo made her think of an insurmountable wall, common sense brought her back to earth, and worse, to the thought that he could be defeated.
Shinigami were strong, very hard to kill, Kurosaki Ichigo even more so, but he was also still alive.
Still very much mortal.
"Oh jeez, did somebody fart in here, boss? You all look like someone did."
Everyone turned their heads towards one of the entrances to the small dining room. A frowning face with topped with red hair was poking through a small opening in the door.
Then everyone just started laughing.
"That's a way to relief the tension, I guess."
"Kid's got a funny timing, but it helped, I guess."
"I meant farting."
The sun was setting now, and Ichigo and Rukia were finally on their way back home, the path along the river before they entered the familiar area surrounding the Kurosaki Clinic was desolate as usual.
Which was fine, Ichigo figured. He loved this path exactly because it provided a distinct lack of distractions. He could easily tune out the river's flow regardless of how strong it was. The wind rustling the leaves of the occasional tree was even easier to forget about. The only obstacle his wandering mind could find now and then was the occasional… 'Melody' produced by the avian creatures he had a… deeply ingrained hatred for. None were present today, fortunately.
Having Rukia with him didn't change things much; she was pretty quiet, her light build and graceful gait made her steps nearly unnoticeable.
Yet there was that goddamn feeling he had been having since they left the shop. Like someone was out to get him, but he knew, just knew, that they weren't being followed. Something was up, something was going to-
"I suppose I owe you an apology?"
The girl watching next to him got a little closer, their arms brushing each other's, "For insinuating what I did back there, you know."
"Don't see why you should apologize, really. I was a bit of an ass."
Rukia quirked an eyebrow, "Just a bit?"
She chuckled, "So you're not mad?"
Ichigo shrugged, "I may be a vindictive asshole, but all it takes is a pretty girl to make me forget why I was angry in the first place."
Rukia didn't blush this time, she was getting used to Ichigo's brand of compliments. He'd say a few nice words off-handedly without giving them any importance while sound brutally honest.
"Hey, Ichigo, do you mind if-"
Her words were cut off by Ichigo's arm in front of her body.
"Goddamn, I hate being right about stuff like this."
Ichigo glared in front of him, all while stepping closer to the Shinigami girl.
A few yards ahead of them, and moving closer at a sedate pace, was the bespectacled Quincy.
"About time you showed up."
Ichigo twitched a bit at that, it wasn't so much the words or the tone that bothered him, it was the fact that the Quincy pushed his glasses up his nose and the sun reflected off them just right – enough to make his eyes invisible due to the glare.
"Give the guy some credit – he's good with the asshole act."
"You weren't following me." It wasn't a question, of course. Ichigo's unspoken question was clear to Ishida, "How did you know I'd be here now?"
"I have my ways of finding what I'm looking for." He was now close enough to make his voice heard without raising it.
Rukia had had enough of the boys' banter and pushed Ichigo's arm away with a huff, "What do you want?"
The smile in Ishida's face almost made Ichigo put his arm in front of Rukia again, but she'd probably bite him for making her look like she needed protection. She had done that before.
"Well, Kuchiki-san, I just wanted to see if Kurosaki was interested in playing with me."
"I haven't heard anything nearly as suggestive as that said with a straight face before, I have to-!"
"Shut the hell up."
"My mommy always said to not go playing with strangers even if they offered candy. You don't even have candy. You're pretty bad at this."
To Ishida's credit, he managed to keep his 'I am going to make your day suck' façade. For all of half a second afterwards.
"You broke into my apartment!"
Ichigo crossed his arms, "You let me in!"
"Not the second and third times!"
Ichigo looked confused, "I did what now?"
Ishida's eyes narrowed, was this just another one of his juvenile denials? Ichigo had been brutally honest so far – he apparently thought that was humorous. What motive would he have to deny this? Nothing was taken, but the place seemed like someone had fired a tornado-gun in his closet after the third time.
It… really wasn't Kurosaki's style. The high-functioning sociopath hanging from his window that night would have probably chosen to break in while he was still home on mere principle.
Uryū sighed, "It doesn't matter, not now. I'm here because of this." He reached into his pocket, and he noticed the slight shift in Kurosaki's not-so-relaxed stance, "Good. Take me seriously for once."
Ichigo stared at the coin-shaped… tablet? Medicine?
"I don't do drugs."
Ishida smirked, "Good for you. This is Hollow Bait. It's an old lure we Quincy use to lure in Hollows in the vicinity."
Ichigo blinked at that, a hundred possibilities ran through his mind, and he wasn't quite sure if the one he voiced was the best one, "So you're setting up some kind of Hollow Circus and want me to catch them?"
"I'm all for being inside the pretty lady, but I'm not sure if having Orihime in you is such a good thing."
The Quincy scoffed, "Don't be ridiculous, we're doing a competition."
Ichigo's blood started pumping, a challenge sounded real promising.
Ishida had to resist the return of his smirk, "Took the bait, so to speak."
"It's simple, I use this to lure in all the Hollows in and around Karakura, and we both starts hunting them down, whoever kills the most within the next 24 hours wins. Simple as that."
Ichigo loved a challenge, and this one sounded… pretty darn stupid.
"You'd have a bunch of Hollows come into a highly populated area? That's the most retarded thing I've heard all month. And have you seen the mentally challenged chimp I hang out with? I don't think Keigo could come up with something this… Okay, maybe."
"Don't insult my intelligence, Kurosaki. This is bigger than whoever might get harmed by this, I don't really care about them."
"My jimmies, they have been rustled."
"Besides, if you're confident about your strength, then you should be able to keep anyone from harm."
Ichigo… was actually considering it. Right now, more than anything, he wanted to shove the Quincy's pride so far up his ass it'd reach Betelgeuse.
He wasn't given much time to think about, as the Quincy crushed the bait.
Ichigo's eyes widened, "Rukia-"
"On it!" And the girl pulled Ichigo's Shinigami form out of his body. She had prepared the glove the moment she saw the bait.
Ichigo ran past the smirking Quincy, "You better not die to some Hollow, you four-eyed arrogant asshole, because I'm going to kill you when I'm done." With that, he slapped the Quincy's back hard enough to make him stumble.
Ishida regained his balance and took off in the direction opposite from Ichigo's, heading for the closest Hollow – Ichigo had already gone after one that was even closer, but Ishida figured the carrot-top's head start wouldn't matter much, the Quincy was a ranged fighter, after all.
"Let the hunt begin."
Rukia was left alone in the street; she didn't really worry about a Hollow coming after her; her senses were sharp enough for her to get away before any low-level Hollow could detect her.
She was just slightly miffed at what had happened just now.
"Boys." She rolled her eyes.
In Yokohama, south of Karakura town, a man dressed in the most ridiculous getup imaginable, shuddered.
"Is something wrong, Don Kanonji?"
The man with the mustache looked at his assistant, "Oh, sorry, just…" He fixed his sunglasses; they had dropped rather low on his nose.
"… Just my imagination."
Ichigo jumped over the a dinosaur-looking Hollow charging at him from behind, thrusting his sword upwards just in time to impale a flying Hollow attempting to get him while he was distracted.
He floated about for a moment; he could see cracks in the air forming all over the place.
He turned his gaze down before diving towards the Hollow that had initially charged towards him.
"A hundred or so to go."
An arrow flew through a crack in the sky, and whatever entity had been trying to use it as an entrance let out a wail of pain before dying.
Ishida vanished from his position on the street and appeared on top of a rooftop just in time to see a Hollow smash the ground where he had been standing.
A carefully notched arrow soared towards the new target.
He turned around; three arrows flew from him in the span it would take a normal man to even realize he had been holding a bow. Three simultaneous cries of pain came from the destination of glowing projectiles.
No. One of them didn't disappear; it had just had half its body blasted off.
Ishida nodded to himself inwardly, "Ten."
Ichigo felt slightly guilty to be having fun.
He used the wall of a 3-story building to propel himself towards a group of Hollows that decided it wasn't exactly smart to go solo against a guy who had just murdered a dozen of their numbers all by himself.
He reached the two of them, and spun in mid-air, never losing his momentum, and the wind made visible by the way his blade cut it made it look like a drill had just destroyed the seven Hollows attacking him.
He landed on top of a utility pole, and watched as the blood of the slain Hollows splattered under and in front of him, carried by his own momentum and the wind.
He turned his gaze towards a new ripple in the sky, too damn close to an elementary school for his comfort, and jumped.
Rukia did her best to follow Ichigo from a safe distance; she'd had to take a few detours around some alleys in order to keep the Shinigami with the big sword between herself and the Hollows.
She didn't bother keeping count, though she figured Ichigo probably did. It really wasn't a matter of who killed the most Hollows; after all, without a neutral party to keep count for the both of them, it was truly impossible to keep a real count of their kills. Either of them could lie about it to win.
The Quincy just wanted to test himself, more than he wanted to test Ichigo. They would both see the results of their handiwork, check which one was the most tired of the two, and depending on how they felt about it in the end, they would determine a winner.
"Regardless of the risks and how stupid the whole situation is, it's probably best for them both to bond in some way."
She rolled her eyes, and once again, "Boys."
Ishida frowned at the dissolving particles of his latest target, that last arrow confirmed it for him, something was definitely off.
The number of Hollows was… strange, to say the least. He had said Twenty-four hours only to make Kurosaki more nervous about the oncoming Hollow assault, but he knew that the bait wouldn't attract more than a little under a hundred Hollows. That had been Hollow number seventy, and unless Kurosaki had left town, which he knew was false, given the fighting he could sense, or was lousy enough to only kill a couple dozen Hollows - which he also knew wasn't true, he could feel they were both pretty even – then that bait had been a bit stronger than it should have.
The Hollows coming were getting stronger with time, which meant… he wasn't quite sure, actually.
But that wasn't all, his last shot felt… exactly how they all felt since the contest started. Which wasn't good, they had been feeling weird.
His aim wasn't off – the mere thought made him shake his head. They just felt… different. It's not like he cared much for the arrows, as mere spirit energy constructs, they were only around for as long as it took to form them and destroy a target, so there wasn't any time for him to feel any sort of attachment to them.
But the way the spirit particles formed around them… it just felt off. As if something made them… heavier? Without slowing them down? He didn't know. And that really bothered him.
"Rukia, are there supposed to be this many?"
Ichigo landed next to the slightly-winded girl, he was aware she had been running around, and it was amusing to see the paths she'd take to reach him while avoiding the Hollows.
"She'd make a fine free-runner."
Rukia shook her head, and took a moment to catch her breath, "I don't know, really. I know about the bait, yes. Quincy History may be an obscure subject, but I knew what the bait was the moment I saw it. However I can't be sure if they've been improved or changed ever since the documentation about them was written. The ones I read about, however, weren't strong enough to attract this many Hollows."
Ichigo nodded, "So either the Quincy likes high stakes, or something's wrong."
"You should go ask, but I'm betting he'd rather wear women's underwear than admit he made a mistake."
"Bad image - real bad image, you bastard."
"I guess I'll just have to keep-"
And he had his breath evacuate his lungs alarmingly fast. That spike of energy just now – it… it felt an awful lot like…
Tatsuki had been having a shitty day. First, although the Karate team had been celebrating the end of exams, as well as the inclusion of a couple promising members, she hadn't been able to really get into the festivities. She'd been in a lethargic mood all week, and her energy drink really wasn't doing much to help that.
And as if to mock her for having a crappy day, there was this couple of ghosts that seemed one step away from engaging in raunchy sex floating in front of the baseball field.
"Get a ghost-hotel or something, you couple of perverts."
It hadn't been too long since she started seeing ghosts. Actually, she'd been able to see them for a long time, but they were blurry and… distorted enough to pass off as either a trick of light, or her own imagination.
That all changed since the beginning of the year. She started seeing features, clothes, faces. Muffled words became clear sentences spoken by floating human figures.
Of course she didn't dare telling anyone about it. That'd be dumb, she was already getting enough flaming from being the way she was and hanging out with a bunch of dudes most of the time – she didn't need to add 'Crazy' to the list of things people would say behind her back.
Besides, Orihime did the same, and no one gave Chizuru hell for being such a blatant lesbian.
Ichigo told her it was probably because she was intimidating and desirable at the same time, and some guy just didn't like that combination.
When she asked him if he thought her attractive he just shrugged and said 'Well, duh.' And stole her last dango.
She never quite forgave him for that.
The tomboy shook her head.
"What is it?"
Ichigo stood among the bushes, looking at the soccer field.
He didn't think he had ever felt such immense relief ever in his life.
Karin had decided to stay later than usual to play today, the unusual schedule was the main reason he hadn't bothered to check on her first. When he felt her panicked presence it had been as if a train had grown legs and kicked him in the balls.
But then he came upon the funny sight of his sister sitting on the shoulder of one Yasutora Sado, whose arm had taken on the same appearance it had previously. And if the vanishing remains of the bunch of Hollows around him were any indication, he had been doing just fine.
The tan giant's head turned in Ichigo's direction, and the latter had been too distracted to hide in the bushes he had often used to check on his sister as she played.
The gentle giant merely smiled and gave him a thumb up behind his back, so that the raven-haired girl sitting upon his shoulders wouldn't notice.
Ichigo couldn't help but smile back, before nodding and taking off.
This area was covered.
Rukia fiddled with her phone, she knew there had to be a 'Silent' option somewhere, it had been going off like mad ever since the whole thing started, and it was starting to get annoying.
"Hurry up and finish this already.
"GAH! Mizuiro, hurry the hell up!"
"Nothing good is ever done in a hurry, Asano-san."
"Don't call me that! And dinner is beyond good!"
Keigo grabbed Mizuiro in a headlock and started leading the latter at a brisk pace towards the first fast-food join he could see. Mizuiro's protests were stopped by a shiver running down his spine.
When Keigo let go of him, they looked at each other to confirm that yes, they had both felt that.
"… I don't think I'm hungry anymore."
Keigo smacked the shorter guy's head, "Like hell you aren't! We're eating, and we're eating now!"
"How did it go again?"
That old memory, it only came up whenever he fought, and as he balanced a pre-teen girl on his shoulders at the same time as he punched a black-and-white dog monster into oblivion, Chad felt it come to the front of his mind once again.
He moved the left, dodging a swipe, doing his best to keep his upper body moving, if only to keep his charge safe. It threw off his balance a bit, but the beasts were slowing down. Or perhaps he was just getting faster?
He kicked the creature in the lower half of its body, making it bend over before using his giant right arm to finish it off. His kicks and punches with his left arm were strangely getting more effective.
He turned around and punched the air in front of him; a beam of reddish power flew from his right arm and straight into the mask of yet another monster.
"… Be kind."
He moved his shoulders to better accommodate the girl, so far she had actually been useful. Ichigo's little sister seemed to have better senses than he did, and kept calling out targets before Chad could detect them.
He felt her slap the side of his head, "To our right, mister!" Chad turned in time to destroy yet another mask with a punch of his mighty arm.
Tatsuki cursed, loudly. It was probably the first time she used a word that strong in front of Orihime.
The day just kept getting shittier and shittier, Chizuru had caught up to the two of them when leaving school, and there just had been no way to shake her off. She went off about how seeing two girls leaving school hand in hand gave her an erection.
That would have been humorous if it hadn't been so disgusting.
Then she went on about how hard nipples counted as an erection, and Tatsuki punched her hard enough to knock her unconscious.
That seemed so small and far away, even though it was really annoying and had happened literally half a minute ago.
She stood next to Orihime, Chizuru propped up against a wall behind them, looking up at a…
That could only be a monster.
It was an octopus-like being, except with more tentacles than she had ever seen on anything – even in the freakiest erotic manga she had caught Keigo reading. The tentacles seemed to be joined to a body hidden by a massive white mask.
Tatsuki looked at Orihime.
"I really wish I couldn't see it."
And Tatsuki's heart went out to her friend. That really made two of them.
But right now, seeing it would be useful in that it would aid in their escape, so she was thankful for it, for once.
The thing started talking, talking.
"You can see me, can't you?"
Neither of them answered, they just couldn't.
The thing let out a deep, horrible chuckle, "Well, it's not like it'll make any difference."
Tatsuki would later compare the sound and effect that came next to that of a shotgun.
The creature, now that it was seen up close, had several holes on its mask, and each one of them fired unusually large projectiles in several directions, none were particularly aimed, but there were enough to ensure that at least one would hit their mark.
Next Tatsuki tasted the floor, it came at her face too fast to react, and she quickly reached to her right to see if Orihime had dropped down as well.
What she found wasn't quite Orihime.
Orihime was there, yes. But not directly next to her, between herself and Orihime – actually slightly over the two – lay Chizuru, who had apparently managed to wake and shoved the two of them down.
And if the blood pouring from her back was any indication, she had also covered the two of them.
Tatsuki's blood ran cold.
She did her best to stand up and survey the damage, not even bothering to check her own body for injuries first.
Chizuru had apparently taken two shots, one to the left shoulder and another to her lower back. The latter worried her, but it wasn't close to the spine and it hadn't penetrated deep enough to rupture any organs. The first one looked as if it had been stopped by her scapula, but the fact that it was firmly lodged in her body meant that it had probably penetrated the bone and gotten stuck.
Orihime was now kneeling next to her and the beast's rumbling voice brought them back to reality.
"Don't worry about… Actually, yes, she'll be the first of your worries now."
Before Tatsuki could process any of its words she felt a hand crushing her windpipe. She looked down to see that the arm the hand was attached to belonged to none other than Chizuru.
The red-headed girl stood up, still choking Tatsuki, with a surprised look on her face.
"I- I don't know! I'm not doing any of this." Her glasses were ruined, and tears were starting to cascade down her face.
Tatsuki kicked the girl away, and grit her teeth when she heard her scream in pain. She rounded up on the monster.
"What did you do?"
The creature had landed not too far away, and the face behind the made seemed to be smirking in amusement, "That's just my special ability, of course."
"Stop it! Don't send her after me! Fight me like a man or whatever it is you are!"
Tatsuki stood her usual Karate stance, a lot tenser than she should be, given her training, but she truly couldn't be blamed for it.
"That's quite alright; she won't be your only problem for too long."
Then Tatsuki heard Orihime shriek. She turned around once again to see her being pulled by the arm by a guy wearing their school uniform – a senior she knew in passing, actually. She ran at her friend and jump-kicked the man's face, effectively sending him down to the ground and freeing Orihime's arm.
"Are you okay?"
The girl looked pretty shaken up, as if she hadn't been scared before, but nodded nonetheless.
"Now it begins."
Tatsuki looked in the direction the creature seemed to be centering its attention on, and her face paled.
Students, at least a dozen of them, just… shambling towards them, all sporting wounds caused by the same projectiles Chizuru had been harmed with, the only difference between them and her was that they were all hit more than just a couple of times, and the dead looks on their faces revealed that they were totally unconscious and had no control of their bodies.
Tatsuki did her best, she did her damned best. But no matter how much she hurt them, the zombie-like students just kept getting up, and soon she was overwhelmed.
They held her arms behind her back and her feet slightly above ground, it took four guys to do that, and even then they seemed to be struggling. She looked to her left, where another four guys held down Orihime, who was on her knees.
"Well, that was quicker than I thought it would be."
The beast had her attention once more, and had her mouth not been covered by an arm she had been desperately biting on – but stopped after she tasted blood, she didn't want to eat anyone – she would have cursed at it even louder.
"Now let's see," a long, snaky tongue came from the mouth underneath the monster's mask, yet the creature still spoke perfectly despite the appendage's roaming, "Number one, suicide by hanging from the school roof after your schoolmates take turns in raping you both…" Tatsuki's body nearly lost all the fight at the idea, but only for a moment, "Number two, Suicide by dropping you off the school roof after being raped by your schoolmates…" Tatsuki began struggling harder.
The creature seemed to be pondering something, but Tatsuki honestly didn't care what it would come up with next, "Hmm… well, it seems my chaste mind can't come up with anything else!" It looked at Orihime, who was screaming around the hand that held her mouth shut, "Shut it, you." The guy holding her head up slammed her face against the floor hard enough to break the girl's nose.
"I just had an idea."
The creature approached Tatsuki, and its tongue seemed to grab at something beneath the mass of tentacles covering its body.
"I'll make you kill your friend first."
And with that, it stabbed Tatsuki with one of the bullets used to control people. Tatsuki screamed in pain for a moment, before the pain disappeared, it seemed to have a sedative effect, though she couldn't help but wonder how the hell she was still conscious with that thing coming out of the side of her skull.
"Oh yes," The masked monster's tongue licked at Tatsuki's face, "That will be just perfect to-"
And Tatsuki bit it, and bit it hard.
The monster howled in pain, and the distraction seemed to be enough to make the guys holding both Tatsuki and Orihime let go of them both.
"Let go! Let go!"
Tatsuki did, that was the most disgusting thing she had ever done, but she didn't have time to retch, so she ran at the creature and threw a punch.
It didn't quite reach its destination, though.
"There we go; you're under my control now."
Tatsuki struggled, but nothing she told her body to do worked. Then she unwillingly turned towards the kneeling Orihime. And walked slowly towards her.
"This will be fun to watch."
Tatsuki wanted to scream; she wanted to yell at Orihime to run, more than anything in the world she wanted something or someone to kill her so she wouldn't hurt her best friend.
Orihime didn't need to hear her friend say anything, Tatsuki's eyes were horrified, and just expressive enough to tell her what Tatsuki wanted her to do.
Her friend shambled towards her, every step making her movements more firm and decided – the monster's control was getting stronger.
She felt Tatsuki kick the side of her head, hard enough to make her not notice how much harder her face hit the ground. Everything was a bit of a daze, she could see Tatsuki's feet kicking her in the side, she could feel herself rising and falling with every kick, but the pain was rather number unless she tried to move.
"I won't run away."
The kicks stopped long enough for Orihime to try standing, she only managed to kneel for a moment, and her hands reached towards Tatsuki's face.
"… Just this once."
She put her hands on her best friend's cheeks, and smiled.
"Let me be the one to protect you, just this once."
Ichigo arrived at the school to see… not much, really. He had been blinded by light the moment he got there and had only just begun blinking the spots left behind away.
"Santen Kesshun! I reject!"
His eyes focused, and he could now see the buxom figure of Orihime standing over a seemingly unconscious Tatsuki. He was curious about that, but what got his attention even more than the blood and the ugly-ass, porno magazine-born Hollow was the bright triangle of light that had formed between Orihime and the Hollow.
"You shall not pass! Anyone?"
It disappeared as soon as the creature stopped pushing against it with its tentacles, Ichigo reached for the sword behind his back and-
"Koten Zanshun! I reject!"
"That sounds pretty badass."
Ichigo then saw what looked like… a bird? No, it was a tiny…
It was a tiny guy screaming with a manly-ass voice and flying in a seemingly kamikaze flight towards the Hollow, who split in half upon impact.
"I missed something, I missed something real good."
"Sure sucks when that happens."
The Hollow destroyed, Ichigo contemplated running at his friends – his cover be damned – and heal them with what healing Kidō he knew. Then he saw Orihime talking with six little…
"I'm not saying they're fairies, Ichigo, but… they're goddamn fairies."
Fairies, who floated around her, he couldn't quite tell what she was being told, but then Orihime nodded decisively – something real weird o n her – before directing both her hands, palms open, at her fallen friend.
Then the downed tomboy was surrounded by a shield of light, and Ichigo took a moment to get a feel for the power.
It… it was more familiar than he was comfortable with.
He saw Tatsuki's head wound disappear, the blood spilled vanish, and… her clothes get fixed?
"I tuned out a lot of your healing Kidō training, but I'm know enough to know that that's not quite how healing works."
"Something else is going on here."
Ichigo saw Tatsuki and Orihime stand and embrace each other, crying in joy, before they turned towards the form of Chizuru and their other classmates.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to look at the serious face of one Urahara Kisuke.
"I'll deal with this, don't worry about them, there are still other things to worry about."
Ichigo fought back a negative; he thought he knew the shopkeeper enough to know that he would indeed protect his friends. But he was also curious as to what just had happened.
"No time to ponder. There's still more Hollows."
Kisuke fixed his slightly-tipped hat, "I already got your sister home and brought Sado-san to the shop, he was pretty tired." He fixed Ichigo with a look, "Go."
"Trust the bucket-man, he seems serious."
"I'm going to make Ishida eat his glasses."
Rukia was considering shattering her phone against the sidewalk, and then she heard someone walking up to her.
It was the Quincy, strangely enough, and he had a frown on his face.
Rukia's eyes narrowed, "Ishida-san."
The Quincy kept walking as he spoke, "This is the first time I address you directly, I believe."
Rukia crossed her arms, doing her best to ignore her beeping device, "Are you proud of yourself? You've put a lot of people in danger."
"It is of no matter," He looked her in the eyes, "I won't let any innocent person get hurt, if that's what you're wondering. I've been going out of my way to help, too. If I fail to protect the people of this town, then I have no vocation as a Quincy."
"And I'd have failed the one person to ever believe in me."
Rukia looked at the Ishida for a moment, and then something on his hand got her attention.
His fingers were bleeding.
Uryū stopped walking before getting too close, "It hurts to admit, but I think something's wrong-" Then his glasses smashed against face thanks to the force of the punch delivered by one irate Kurosaki Shinigami.
"No shit! What gave you that impression?"
Ishida looked over his broken glasses at the pissed off Ichigo.
"The bait wasn't the problem."
He disappeared from where he was sitting on the ground just in time to dodge a kick from Ichigo, though not quite fast enough to avoid being lifted by the front of his shirt.
"That's no excuse! I could have lost nearly everything with this stunt of yours; they attacked the school, my friends! My goddamned sister!"
The still-held Ishida pulled his glasses up his nose.
"When did he put on new ones?"
"I apologize, is that enough? Because I believe we have enough in our hands without worrying about what could have happened."
Then Ichigo followed the Quincy's gaze, it was directed above his own head at the sky. His eyes widened at what he saw.
"Finally, managed to mute it!"
Rukia's relief at shutting up her phone was short-lived as she saw what had made Ichigo let go of the Quincy's shirt.
"I know for a fact, Ichigo, that the sky does not have a gaping anus."
"Tell that to the freaking hole."
He wasn't given much time to wonder just what the hell he was looking at, because the hole itself expanded even more before the edged began to seemingly break and expand, forming a huge crack in the sky.
Ichigo turned to Rukia, "What is that?"
Rukia turned looked at Ichigo with a haunted look, "Menos Grande."
Ichigo's eyes widened and he turned back just in time to see a massive pointy-nodes mask peek through the newly formed-hole in the sky.
"What the fuck is up with the gratuitous Spanish?"
His attention was taken away by a massive platoon of Hollows seemingly fleeing from the Menos Grande. Yet before Ichigo could busy himself with the, he heard what sounded a lot like a bazooka and a missile flying.
Probably because someone actually fired a bazooka that sent a bunch of missiles at the Hollows.
He heard Ishida's surprised voice, "What was that?"
"Just in time, aren't I awesome?"
The stunned trio turned to look at Urahara, who was standing next to a blank-faced Ururu and an angry-looking Jinta, who carried his massive steel bat, as usual.
Ururu's Ofuda-covered, huge-ass rocket launcher was new, though.
"Oh, it's the Urahara torture squad."
"That's pretty mean, Ichigo."
The shopkeeper raised his cane while smiling, "Let us take care of the little fellas, you guys take care of the big one."
Ichigo nodded, "Okay."
"Wait, what?" Ishida was really losing his composure, "How do you think we're going to do that? Who the hell are you, for that matter?"
"I'm a shopkeeper," he ran towards the startled Quincy, "and these," he handed him something, "are discount coupons for the awesome Urahara-Shōten!"
"Hey, I never got any of those!"
"You keep getting free stuff all the time, Ichigo."
Ishida crushed the paper coupon in his hand, not before memorizing the location, though, "That doesn't answer my question at all!"
Urahara blinked and stopped fanning himself, "I just told you who I am."
"Well, yeah, but you, what about- Gah!" He massaged the bridge of his nose, now he knew who he was; this guy was probably the one who taught Ichigo how to be a pain the ass.
They were interrupted by a massive, bony foot stepping not too far away were they stood.
Ichigo looked at the thing's face, craning his neck up, and up, and up, and-
"Well, uh, what now?"
"Now you ask, as kindly and nicely humanly as possible, if they've got a syndicate."
"I don't think that matters by this point."
"Nah, I think it's my time to shine."
Ichigo's outward smirk couldn't be hidden by any effort he could have mustered.
"Ah, Ichigo just remembered he's a Shinigami, I believe."
Rukia got that message, could it be, that finally-
"Yeah, I still have my Shikai; it's time for a test in an uncontrolled environment."
Ichigo's attention was drawn by another tremble of the ground, and the Menos' massive six feet-
Out of the hole in the sky came yet another two massive Hollows with similar masks.
"Well, it seems he's brought some amigos."
"Who's giving the gratuitous Spanish now?"
"What the hell is up with the name 'Menos Grande', That's Spanish for 'Big Minus' or 'Less Big', this is the least appropriate name ever given to anything."
"Alright, Rukia, stay back with Kisuke and the asshole. I'm gonna deal with this."
Rukia would have punched him if she had been close enough to, "That's three Menos you're dealing with here! If it had been one, maybe with-"
Ichigo gave her a look between reassuring and amused. And she sighed.
"Look, just… don't die, alright?"
Ichigo nodded, before leaping up to the skies.
Rukia's phone started beeping again.
The three giants didn't pay him any heed, content with grabbing at the Hollows running away and eating them.
"Let's do this."
Ichigo closed his eyes, held his sword in his right hand above his head in a vertical position, pointing skyward.
"Bathe everything under your protective light, Shugoshin no Zangetsu."
The resulting explosion of Reiatsu made the world shake.
Rukia could hear everything Ichigo said, and of course that would be the name of his blade, if someone had asked her who would have a blade with the words 'Guardian Deity', in its name, it would be Kurosaki Ichigo.
That didn't make her anymore prepared for the sudden increase of power she felt, and had it not been for Urahara holding her by the neck of her shirt, she would have fallen to her knees.
Ishida felt a bit annoyed, to think that all this time Ichigo had been capable of Shikai, and he had not even once attempted to use more power against him or the Hollows in their competition – well, that was a kick in the sack, so to speak.
"I'll be stronger, much stronger."
Urahara's grin at finally having his curiosity fed was nearly face-splitting.
"Let's see what you can do."
Ichigo smiled as felt the rush of power, and held his blade parallel to the ground.
His sword had actually gained a bit more size; it was wider and longer, it had several lines running from its guard to the tip, beginning in crisscrossing wave-like shapes at its widest point, then extending and parting from each other along the blade's side, before joining at a single point at the blade's tip.
It had become darker, in contrast with its edges, which had become a much brighter shade of silver. It still had no guard to speak of, but the handle was connected to the blade by a thick black ring patterned in the same way as the blade itself.
Ichigo spun the blade around by its apparently-bandaged handle, the balance felt right.
"Alright then you ugly bastards."
And he vanished.
He reappeared to the side of the one who had come in first, which now had its focus shifted to the cluster of power Ichigo had become. It didn't have time to turn and see what he was doing there before Ichigo flew in with a slash, effectively cutting off the thing's arm.
It let out a massive how of pain, and Ichigo could see the thing growing back almost instantly.
"That's some pretty fast regeneration."
"Not fast enough!" The Shinigami flew towards the Menos' massive mask and cut it in half horizontally.
Or well, tried to do that.
The Hollow just put its remaining hand up to its bloody mask; the cut had been pretty close to killing it.
"My Reiatsu is fluctuating too damn much."
"Well, stop grinning like an idiot and focus."
Having a lot of power was near useless in a fight against anything stronger than a basic Hollow if you couldn't make it steady – if the power output fluctuated too much it resulted in a massive leak. Not exactly something you'd want to happen to your energy.
Especially when you kind of, you know, need it.
The Hollows cut arm had grown back. The other two seemed to be contemplating either attacking Ichigo, or eating the wounded Menos.
"Screw this, stick with what works best, I say."
He took his stance, his blade in a reverse grip behind his back, and swung.
The resulting blast of slicing energy was a lot bigger than any previous ones, and it effectively cut off the Hollow's right hand, as well as the mask it had been covering.
"Does that count as one Hollow?"
"Doesn't matter, lost count."
The other two Hollows apparently understood from the sudden death of their partner that this Shinigami wasn't one to take lightly, if their apparent teamwork as they moved as one towards Ichigo was any indication.
"Let's try something new."
And Ichigo vanished again, only to reappear just a few feet away from the Hollow that had been standing to the right. His sword was held horizontally across his body, which was tilted upwards so that the tip was aiming at the Menos' mask.
One hand held the sword by the handle, as usual; the other hand had its palm against the sword's flat side, slightly caressing the engravings.
The sword started to glow, and the markings started to look as if they were being filled with liquid energy fed from the sword's guard, quickly moving across the blade following the engraved patterns, until they reached the tip.
Ichigo simply whispered, "Getsuei. (Moonbeam)"
And the energy flew from the sword's tip, neither slowly nor quietly, it was something akin to a laser cannon in both potency and noise. A blue beam as thick as his sword twice over hit the Hollow, drilling through its mask and everything behind it, until it was visible from the other side of the Menos, soaring a hundred feet in the sky before vanishing.
The Menos had a clean hole in its mask, and only stood a heartbeat longer before it crumpled and disintegrated.
"That one definitely counts as something."
Ichigo didn't have an extra second to spare as he felt a massive surge of power from the last Hollow, which had its mouth wide open and had begun howling in what appeared to be a warning.
"I think that's what they call 'Cero'."
Ichigo couldn't dodge, the fact that he had been flying lower than the creature's head, which meant the cero would be fired at an angle where it WOULD hit the ground, causing immeasurable damage to Karakura.
"Plan B, then."
Ichigo just put his sword in front of himself, tip aimed at the Menos.
"Ichigo's doing fantastically, beyond expectations, I'd say." Kisuke chirped in from the fence he was sitting on.
Rukia started, "Why isn't he moving? If that Cero hits him, then-"
She turned her gaze back towards the flying maniac's form in the sky. She heard the red beam of destruction being fired, hitting its mark, and then…
Ichigo held his ground, at first he thought it would be too much power to handle, but his sword held firm, and as long as he kept the tip of his sword at the centre of the energy blast, he wouldn't be harmed.
Finally the world's colors returned – all he had been able to since the beam reached him see was a dark red tint on everything, including himself.
Had the Menos been capable of emotion, it would have begun feeling fear about now.
Ichigo spared a look at his blade, the lines running along it where sparking with red and black energy, he knew what to do now.
"Hey ugly! He's your stupid crap!"
This time he held the sword flat-side first against the enemy, one hand to the handle and another forming a fist.
He punched the flat side of sword on his side, and from the other dozens of tendrils of dark energy shot towards the Hollow, some seemed to have veered off-course but immediately curved to reach the Menos.
The massive monster roared in pain as they tore him apart, holes appearing all over its form, before what little hadn't been disintegrated by the initial onslaught exploded in a cloud of black energy.
"I really love being me."
"There is not a single person that knows you that is unaware of that fact."
Ichigo walked at a sedate pace towards the last place he had seen Rukia and company. He felt a lot more tired than he thought he would.
"Ichigo!" Speak of the devil, and the pretty Shinigami will appear.
"That- that was-!"
"Hell no! Are you insane? Letting that attack just hit you head on? I know what you were thinking, but don't you think the Hollow would have aimed UP if you, oh, I don't know MOVED THERE?"
"… Didn't quite occur to me at the time. I blame the power high."
"Besides, Kuchiki-san, it wouldn't have been nearly as awesome if he hadn't done that."
"Don't encourage him, you lousy salesman."
Ichigo shook his head, but then remembered something, "Where the hell is Ishida?"
Ichigo turned to see the Quincy leaning against a utility pole, looking at him intently. The Shinigami glared, "Listen up, you horrible moron, I don't give a single damn about what the Quincy did, what the Shinigami did, or what you think we should do about it. You put everyone in a lot of danger, if you have a problem with me, take it up with me. Next time, man up and aim your bow at me instead of putting the whole town in this situation."
"Damn straight you do, now give me back my goddamn card."
There was a strange silence; it would have gone on for quite a bit longer than it did had it not been for Urahara laughing all of a sudden.
"Your what now?"
"My card, you know. Made out of metal as of now unrecognizable? Has the words 'Torn' and 'Card' on either side? Real shiny, sharp edges though, be careful with the edges."
Urahara's laughter raised in volume.
"That thing? Why do you think I have it?"
"I taped it to your back, duh."
"You- you what?" Ishida reached behind his back, and sure enough, between his shoulder blades he found the object the carrot-top was demanding be returned.
"This thing! This is why my powers felt off earlier! It's been making it feel weird whenever I take in spirit particles, you- you cheated!"
"Yes you did!"
And there went the maturity in this conversation. The raucous laughter from the shopkeeper really didn't help things.
"I just put it there so that you wouldn't destroy any souls."
Ishida started at that, and looked at the thing held in his hand closer.
Ichigo nodded, "That thing, the Torn Card, it began as just a medium to channel my then-inexistent Zanpakutō's power to purify Hollows. Somewhere along the way, it became something else, something I honestly can't quite explain, but I didn't notice it until I stopped depending on it."
He took a deep breath, "There's no way I would have let you kill a single Hollow without making sure their souls wouldn't be destroyed. So I put that on you when I slapped you in the back when this whole thing began."
Ishida stared at the Shinigami, then at the card held between his fingers, "I see…" He threw it back at Ichigo, who expertly caught it.
The Quincy simply turned its back and began walking away, "Next time, then."
Ichigo grinned, "Next time."
Ichigo walked out of the shower, fully clothed, as had become the norm at some point since Rukia's stay, and entered his room.
He saw Rukia on the floor distracted with her new box of crayons, there was no way she'd react to anything short of another Menos right now.
He lay on his bed; he had repeated to Rukia what he did a long time ago – to let him do the worrying. But now there was a lot more to worry about. There was absolutely no way that the guys up in Seireitei didn't detect what had happened that evening. What had previously been 'We still have a month or so' became 'a couple of days at most.'
Despite all his training, he didn't feel ready for whatever would come, he felt as if he had been procrastinating the whole time, and by Zeus that made him-
Ichigo turned his head to the side; Rukia had stood up from the floor, and seemed to be trying to show him her drawing.
He took it from her hands and examined it.
It was Ichigo.
Correction, it was an anthropomorphic bunny with Orange hair, a Shinigami uniform, and a massive sword.
"Do you like it?"
Ichigo fucking loved it.
"It's nice, you're getting better."
With that, Rukia walked towards her closet, turning the lights off before opening it up, "Good night, Ichigo."
"See you come the morn, Princess."
Ichigo turned to his side, his back to the closet, and stared at the wall, deep in thought.
"We have an early day tomorrow."
"What do you have in mind?"
"I'm framing the fuck out of that drawing."
Aaaaaand that's a wrap, ladies and gentlemen.
So I've been gone for a while, anything I say will come off as an excuse, but I'll say it anyways because I know at least someone is going to be curious about it (I know I would).
Since I know some will be curious, the story is basically: Went through a period of nearly-crippling depression, got mad at my own weakness, then sad again because of my own weakness, then a lot more mad at how easily affected I was.
However, I lived through that. Then I had a bit of a vacation, I can't get more tan than I am, and I never really burn. I could tell you that I had a lot of fun with that…
Or I could tell you the truth: I hate beaches, dear god I've lived at the beach for my whole life. My idea of vacation isn't going to a resort with even more beaches.
Little bit after that, I came back to writing, only to look at my notes, scratch my head and go "What the fuck was I trying to do here?" I'm serious, I lost track of everything I had planned for this chapter (not the future ones, those are much more carefully planned). So I had to map the whole damn thing over, I covered half a wall in my room with scraps of paper with drawings/writings and post-it noted filled with ideas that didn't make much sense anymore.
Ergo, this chapter took a lot longer to write than any other, but fear not, this shan't happen again, not while I still draw breath. Hey, it's longer than usual, longer than the prologue, even!
So… there you go, not much more to say at this point other than I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, it was real fun. Oh yeah, someone pointed out I put 12/16/12 as the date I edited some chapters, not much to say other than GODDAMN! I must have been sleepy. Or I'm an amnesiac time traveler. I'll leave it as it is, though, it amuses me. On another note, I have a funny message for those of you who have lost faith in me and this story: Read the first letter of every paragraph in this Author's Note.
- Flameal out.