Chapter 38:

The danger was over and things were finally getting back to normal. Ichigo called Orihime to check up on her. She was doing fine. Nothing had happened to her or Tatsuki. They stayed inside the whole time. Orihime said that she tried to prevent people from coming towards the building using her abilities when Tatsuki wasn't looking. Other than that, things were pretty uneventful. Chad was called shortly afterward and he told Ichigo that he couldn't remember anything after he had gone home the night be became a victim of the virus. So far, things were fine. He hadn't noticed any lasting side effects or changes to himself or others.

The hospitals checked out all the people who were admitted to them with a clean bill of health. Though they could not pinpoint exactly what this was, they decided to avoid massive panic that this would be ruled as an elaborate prank gone awry. As quickly as it happened, it ended. They couldn't find evidence of any sort of virus that their human technology could pick up. The only logical conclusion they could come up with was that this was brought on by drugs which caused hallucinations and increased agitation. These were reported all over the news to explain what had happened. Either people were just that gullible or were willing to believe anything just to have some comfort in that this could be explained.

Now that the threat was over and everyone was back to normal with no lasting side effects or changes other than some memory loss, everyone returned to their normal lives without fear or worry. School was scheduled to re-open that following day and all after school activities the next afternoon. Students were expected to have their homework and projects completed and brought in for grading. However, all tests were postponed until the next week, something which Ichigo was very thankful for. With everything that was going on, he had forgotten what they were learning about in class last week. Most students were the same way.

After staying in bed longer than anyone else, sulking, Uryu got up and decided to return home now that he was feeling better. He thanked Kisuke for taking care of him and started to leave. He found the front door was blocked by a large van which was usually parked around the side of the building. "Kisuke, can you move your car, please? I can't get out." It was parked too close to the building. He would have to climb onto the hood if he wanted to leave.

"Ok, sorry." Kisuke looked around. "Cedric, do you think you can move my van, please?"

Cedric, who was outside, nodded, reached under the front bumper and lifted the van up on its back wheels and dragged it out of the way, clearing a path for Uryu.

Kisuke blinked, watching Cedric carry the car one-handed to the side of the building where it belonged. "That's… not quite what I meant by move it but ok. Thanks." He chuckled. "Don't you know how to drive?"

"Yes." Cedric set the vehicle down. It bounced on its wheels as if nodding to what Cedric had said. "But this was faster. And I don't have the keys."

"Oh. Alright then." He waved to Uryu. "There you go."

Uryu kept his gaze down as he left, glancing at Cedric and murmuring a 'thank you' to him as he passed. Cedric nodded his way and watched him leave.

Ichigo heard squealing and turned around. Victor was carrying Linnette over his head, her arms spread out like wings. He ran down the hall, making her fly. He started staggering on purpose and started to buck her up and down. "Engine trouble! We're going down!"

"No, we're not! No, we're not!" she laughed.

He bent his knees and started making sputtering noises. "Oh, no! Deploy back-up chutes!"

She squealed and grabbed the sides of his head as he started to lean forward. "We have a rocket! A rocket!"

"Oh, yes! We do!" He sprang up, throwing her into the air making an explosion sound. Linnette flipped through the air and Victor caught her by her ankles before she hit the floor, holding her up. "Gotcha!"

"Again! Again! Again! Again!" She cheered.

"No, no, I think that's enough for now." Victor, still holding her legs, walked forward. Linnette walked on her hands, keeping up with his movements, giggling. He stopped in front of the shop owner's desk and nodded towards him. "We'll be leaving shortly."

"I thought so." Kisuke reached under the desk for something. "You've got a plane to catch, correct?"

"Yes, we do."

"How are you flying? First class, I bet."

"Coach."

"Really?" Kisuke sounded surprised. "I thought you would have picked something a little more comfortable when it comes to such a long travel."

"We got three seats together. Linnette will be right between us on the flight. First class only has two seats side by side."

"Oh, so that's your reason."

"I have others. We can always exchange our tickets if it doesn't work out."

"Not mid-flight, you can't."

Linnette twisted around, still hanging by her ankles, looking around at the shop. Victor hoisted her up and held her in his arms as if she were the most precious thing in the world to him. He playfully nuzzled her neck and pretended to bite her ears as she squirmed and laughed.

Kisuke handed Victor a bag. "For the trip. I figured one of you would get hungry."

Victor passed the bag to Linnette who held it in her lap in both hands. "What's in it?"

"Some candy from the shop. A bag of chips and a sandwich. I thought you'd like a snack."

"Thank you." She smiled happily and started to open the bag.

Victor shook his head. "Ah-ah-ah. Wait until you're on the plane. Don't eat all the candy in one sitting or you'll get sick."

"I won't."

Victor set Linnette on the ground and faced Kisuke. "Thank you very much."

"Hey, it's no problem. I'm the one who called you guys out here in the first place and got you into a huge mess. I had a gut feeling we'd need your help. It's a small way of me saying thanks." Kisuke looked over at Linnette who was staring at the bag as if she expected it to suddenly fall open so she could eat what was inside. "Are you all packed?"

"Pretty much. One of her bags was moved to another room. Do you know anything about that?"

He smiled. "I left her something in there you might find useful."

"Oh?"

Kisuke moved closer to whisper to him. "Just in case you guys ever need to contact me or visa versa, there's a device in the outer pocket of her bag that will allow us to stay in touch. You don't have to worry. It works the same as Ichigo's Soul Badge. No one without Spirit Pressure can see it and it doesn't show up on cameras at the airport so it shouldn't be a problem."

"I see."

While they talked, Linnette wandered over to Ichigo and stood in front of him. "So…" she said slowly. "I guess this means good-bye, right? I'm going home today."

Ichigo patted her head. "We're still pen pals, right? And you guys go on trips all the time, right?"

"Not as much as we used to. But yeah."

"So you can visit me. I'm always going to be here. And if I'm not, I'm sure Kisuke will help you find me. He knows everything."

She smiled. She held the bag to her chest. "I'll write you as soon as I get back home, ok?"

"And I'll write back to let you know I got it."

She nodded.

He took his hand off her head, letting it fall to her shoulder instead. "Thanks for your help. You did great, Linnette. All the Soul Reapers are very happy and proud of you. I'm glad you were there with me."

Linnette set the bag down by her feet and threw her arms around Ichigo in a tight hug. The force of her embrace knocked Ichigo back a couple of steps. "I'll miss you," she said into his chest. "Come visit me, ok? And I'll visit you."

Ichigo drew his arms around Linnette's tiny frame, hugging her back. "I'll do my best."

It did feel sad saying good-bye to her. He had grown fond of this girl. They had become good friends. All of them.

Victor tapped Linnette on her shoulder. "Sweetie. It's time to go."

She pulled away slowly, looking sad. "Oh." She turned around. "Victor, where's my bag?"

"This one?" Victor held up a small shoulder bag. "Cedric has the others with him."

"Yeah, that one." She reached inside and took something out. She grabbed Ichigo's hand and placed something into his palm. "Here, take this."

Ichigo looked down at the object warm in his hand. It was a bracelet. Out of everything she had on her person, this must have been the least feminine thing she could have given to him. He looked at her not knowing what to say. He didn't need anything from her nor did he want it. She must have thought this would be a good way for them to part ways, giving him a token to remember her by. It would be rude to try to give it back or turn it down. Smiling, he told her 'thank you' and accepted the gift.

She smiled at him, cheered up by his acceptance of her last minute gift. Then she gave him one final hug and waved her good-byes to Kisuke, making her way slowly toward Cedric who was waiting for her by the front entrance.

As Ichigo held the bracelet in his hand, Victor bent close to him. "That's a very special gift you have there, Ichigo. Treasure it, please."

"Why?" he asked quietly so no one else would hear. "It's just a bracelet from her bag. You can get this at just about any store that sells jewelry. Are you just saying that because it was a gift from her or something like that?"

Victor moved closer and reached down, stroking the thin chain with his finger. "I polished it well. You can barely make out any scratches or dirt." He sounded like a parent reminiscing about the early years with their child. "Ichigo… Do you remember when Linnette was a rising star and you were forced to come along?"

"How can I forget that?" Ichigo asked bitterly, not wanting to remember such things.

"Well…" Victor took his hand away. "Remember when we were getting into that limo to our next appointment and Linnette dropped her bracelet and you picked it up and gave it back to her?"

Ichigo's eyes widened. This was that bracelet. He had picked it up to give it back to her, showing his first act of kindness towards her. After that, Linnette started to get closer to him. It was part of a more elaborate plan at first, but that was the spark that started their relationship. He wasn't told to do it. He just did it. Which must have made Linnette rethink how people were. That people could be kind and do things for her without needing to be threatened.

Ichigo wrapped his fingers around the bracelet, now finding it more meaningful than he did before. This held something very important. Linnette grew closer to him and was willing to listen and change herself for the better. Ichigo was her first real friend. They had a bond.

"She kept it all this time?" he asked softly. "And now she's giving it to me?"

Victor nodded and started to move away from him. "She always looked at that bracelet with hope. A first act of kindness. Free will. Friendship." Victor moved in front of Ichigo and stood facing him. "It held much meaning to her. The clasp may have broken that day but…" he looked down at the bracelet. "I don't know. Maybe she found meaning in a broken clasp bonding two people together."

Ichigo swallowed.

Victor extended his hand in front of Ichigo. "We'll be in touch, Ichigo. Farewell for now."

Ichigo took his hand and shook it. It was strange that a hand so sharp in battle could be so soft and gentle in another's palm. His warm, soft hand was so different now than in battle when it functioned like a razor. Or a sword.

Blinking, Ichigo remembered what Mayuri had said before about them possibly being Zanpakuto. Their arms became sharp and were used as swords in battle, they were strong and durable, always there for Linnette and were created by her. They were bonded together. A relationship unlike any other. They might have been Zanpakuto after all.

As Victor pulled away and started to leave, Ichigo grabbed his sleeve without thinking, trying to kept him back. "Wait."

Victor turned. "Yes?"

"Uh…" Should he tell them? It was only a theory. But they always wanted to know. All those sleepless nights wondering what they were. Now they had an idea. A theory which may have been true. "Mayuri… About what he was doing to you… the data he had collected…"

"You mean he completed his analysis of me and may have figured out what Cedric and I are?"

Ichigo released Victor's sleeve. "You mean you knew what he was doing all along?"

"I figured as much." Victor adjusted his tie, smoothing it down with his hand now freed. "So… he discovered something?"

"Well… maybe." Ichigo knew they wanted this information. "Out of everything he came up with, he thinks he may know what you are. Both of you."

"So you want to tell us the results?"

Ichigo was silent. He wanted to tell them. They always wanted to know this kind of information. What would they do now that they were about to find out? Was this the right thing to do? Knowing would end their curiosity. Maybe this was the right thing to do.

"You don't have to tell us."

"Huh?" Ichigo's head jerked up.

Victor was smiling at him in his usual manner, though something felt different about this smile. It was like a smile of resolve. "I know we've spent a long time, Cedric and I, trying to figure out where we stand as whatever we are. We've always wanted to know. I always knew we were different. Even in the things that are very human-like about us, the way we work and feel and think and perform. The little things we do, how we behave and so much else. There's always something about us that's… incongruous about us I guess you would say. So we always wanted to know just what we were. Just to have some closure and put our minds at ease."

For so long they've wondered and thought and feared. Now that there may have been an answer to all these questions, he was turning it down.

"It doesn't matter anymore."

Ichigo didn't know what to say. "So… you're fine with that? Not knowing? Are you sure you're ok with that?"

"Yes. I know I am." Victor looked like he was at peace with everything in his life. He looked pleased. Ignorance must be bliss. Maybe knowing the answer would change things between them. All of them. It may have been worse knowing the theory than not knowing. "It's ok if I don't know exactly what I am. I know who I am and that's what matters."

He looked out the door where Linnette was hanging from Cedric's arm as he lifted up one of her bags in the other. There was a car waiting for them outside the shop and they were starting to load things inside the trunk. Cedric let her dangle, then pretended to load her into the trunk as well. She sat on one of her bags and told him to close the top but he refused and told her to come out. When she wouldn't, he reached inside and picked her up around the waist and hoisted her out. He closed the trunk with his other hand and carried her to the sidewalk, spinning around, taking her for a ride. She laughed and held on as her hair flew over her face. He set her down and helped her brush the hair out of her mouth and off her face.

Victor smiled at them fondly. "I have her. As long as I'm with her, nothing else matters." Such information was no longer integral to them. What would knowing change? They were here for Linnette. They lived for her. They loved her. They were a family. Putting a label on it didn't change what it was. He was content with things as they were. Victor turned his head and gave Ichigo a nod. "Good bye, Ichigo. Take care of yourself."

Caught off by his sudden good-bye, Ichigo was left stuttering in the doorway. It was only after Victor had reached the middle of the front yard that he was able to move his body and speak. He chased them to the sidewalk and watched them all pile into the car, one after the other. "Good-bye," he said, standing on the sidewalk. "I'll see you guys."

The window rolled down and Linnette waved, sitting between Victor and Cedric in the back of the car. "Bye, Ichigo! I'll miss you! Good-bye!" Victor and Cedric nodded their farewells and the car pulled away from the curb.

He watched the car drive to the end of the street then around a corner. Ichigo never thought that he would actually miss them as much as he did. It felt sad watching them leave. At one time he wanted nothing more than to get away from them. But now he found himself standing by the side of the road watching them leave and waving good-bye as if they were family.

He was family. To Linnette. To a lot of people. And many others were a family to her. That's how friendship was. It was a bond that could not be explained, but rather felt. Something that made you want to risk your life again and again to protect those you care about. Love was stronger than anything else he knew.

"Ichigo!"

"Wah!" Ichigo lurched forward, something slamming into him from behind. He felt two thin arms wrap around his shoulders, puling him down. He looked over his shoulder and saw Keigo smiling at him, full of life and back to his usual self. He kept one arm around Ichigo's shoulder and the other one messing up his hair.

"How are you doing, crazy?" he laughed.

"Hey, Keigo. You're in a good mood."

"Who wouldn't be? I feel great! Plus with school being closed until tomorrow, I've got nothing to do. The only thing is, my sister's home using the TV, so I can't go home… Other than that, I'm great!" He took his arm off from around Ichigo and folded them both behind his head. "So, what have you been doing?"

"Nothing much," he said.

Keigo drew closer to Ichigo. "Why are you watching traffic, then?"

"I'm not. I was just…" He ran his thumb over the chain bracelet in his left hand. "…saying good-bye to some friends. They're going home today and they live far away from here."

"Oh." Keigo spotted the bracelet. "Ooh! What's that? Gift from a girlfriend or something?"

Ichigo moved the bracelet closer to his body and away from Keigo. "No. Just a souvenir. That's all."

Keigo moved closer, pressing his shoulder into Ichigo's rib to get a better look at it. He wrinkled his nose at it. "Hm. Nothing better? It's just a chain. I guess you can make a keychain out of it, but still. Couldn't you have gotten something better?"

Ichigo shoved him away with his elbow. "Nah. It's fine like this." He tucked the bracelet into his pocket but kept his hand on it as if it would disappear. "I wouldn't change anything about it."

Things were fine as they were. He wouldn't change anything about it. Not his life or his friends or anything. It wasn't perfect and it wasn't glamorous, but he was content with it. The same way Victor was content with his. There was nothing normal about either of them or their lives or anything in it. But that only made it more precious.


The late afternoon sun hung hot over the Seireitei. Many of the Soul Reapers had gone back to their usual busy lives without a fuss. Most of the clean up had been taken care of but much still needed to be repaired. Some buildings were still in piles of rubble by the side of the street. Everyone had been accounted for and had received treatment from Squad 4. Now they were released and, while expected to take it easy for a while, were still expected to help with repairs, ironically enough. Unohana insisted that they take breaks whenever they felt the need to do so. Many of the men working were missing the inhuman strength of those two men already. Thanks to them, the Soul Reapers only had to rebuild the buildings that were destroyed and whatever else needed to get done. Most of the heavy-lifting was taken care of. Large pieces of stone and walls were carried away by Cedric, giving them plenty of room to work. Parts that were leaning precariously were taken down and cleared away by those men as well. The Soul Reapers helping with the rebuilding were told not to complain considering what little they had to do compared to what it would have been without their help. Victor and Cedric would be missed.

In addition to the manual labor, the paperwork also needed to be taken care of as well. Hitsugaya, who was advised to stay off his feet, could be found solemnly working on a huge stack of papers at his desk. Naturally, Rangiku was nowhere in sight. Byakuya was also advised not to move around too much and to rest. He took the morning off, only to return in the afternoon to do some of the paperwork. He explained that it didn't require him to stand or walk in order to sign a few forms and file papers into different folders. He was able to sit down, which was all he was doing at home, so why not get some work done in the meantime? In addition to his staff at the Kuchiki manor, Rukia was also taking very good care of her brother. Whenever she wasn't checking in on her Captain who was back home, resting for the remainder of the day, she was checking in on him, making sure he was doing well and offering to bring him anything he may need. Though Renji had been doing much better the past days, at the mention of Rukia catering to Byakuya's every whim, he was suddenly rendered immobilized, requesting that she bring him his lunch while he lay on the couch in the office. Byakuya advised her not to and to return to her own Division.

"Captain, why'd you do that?"

"You are not crippled, Renji. Now get off your bum and do your work."

"But I was a Hollow Reaper! I need careful love and attention. I'm still recovering. I need someone to nurse me back to health."

Byakuya set one of his files aside. "As I recall, I was a Hollow Reaper longer than you were. In fact, I was one of the first to contract it. So shouldn't I be in more need of attention than you?"

Renji faced away. Then something occurred to him. "Hey, wait a minute… Then you're actually enjoying the fact that Rukia's giving you all this attention, aren't you?"

Byakuya continued to sign, never looking up.

There was much working being done everywhere that day. Even work that could not be seen. Far below the surface, Mayuri was hard at work in one of his labs. He hadn't left for the past two days. Not since Victor and Cedric left with Linnette and Ichigo back to the World of the Living. He had no interest in walking into daylight. Not when he was working on something that had been on his mind for a while.

Nemu walked behind him, carrying a flask filled with green liquid. "Captain, sir?"

"What is it, Nemu?" he asked without turning.

"Is everything alright?"

He turned around, still tinkering with something on the table in front of him. "Oh, just dandy. What do you think?" He turned back around in an angry huff. "I've already explained it to you, Nemu. I hate using these other labs. I prefer my own. But no… I have to wait until the damages are repaired. Why those men had to engage in battle within my lab is beyond me. With their kind of strength, going up against an Arrancar of all things… they should have done it elsewhere. I'm not allowed to go near it until everything's fixed." He slammed a beaker down on the table in his anger. "Those two should have seen to my lab first. Not those other areas. Living quarters… the other buildings we have around here… Those things can wait!"

Nemu set the flask down beside the beaker and stepped back. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Yeah, yeah…" He took the flask and mixed the contents with what he had in the beaker. "It's a good thing I have a back-up of everything I make. This is why. This is why we have extra labs, Nemu. People don't think. I can't lose the data I have. Not when it's so valuable."

Nemu looked over at the computer facing them. Beside it were large containers. Flasks large enough to fit a human being inside. Jars lined the table in front of one of the containers, each filled with different colored liquid. "Sir?"

"Yes, what is it now?"

"If you don't mind my asking," she said quietly. "But the Arrancar you took samples from… where are they?"

Mayuri pointed to the computer, then to the table. "I extracted them from the body before he faded away." He looked over the containers slowly. "Now that I think of it… perhaps his body would have lingered unless I took those samples. Perhaps he would have left a body behind after all."

"But he is gone, now, correct? The body at least."

"The body is, yes."

Nemu looked at the large container reflecting her image in its smooth surface. "And Ichigo Kurosaki. He was asking about the Arrancar." She looked back at her captain. "Did you tell him?"

"Well… not all of it." He moved from behind the table and over to the other beside the computer. "I didn't think it was any of his business knowing."

Nemu didn't move from where she stood. She stared at her captain's back, understanding what he was referring to.

Mayuri looked over at another table which was now empty. At one time, it held the body of the Arrancar, Veneno. "After I extracted the samples, he vanished. I took his blood, his hair, skin, saliva, tissue… I took his DNA. I also took his mind as well. His memories, personality, emotions, thoughts, history, the way he did what he did, everything about him. Everything that made him who and what he was…" He looked at the computer. "… I have there." He looked at the table piled high with jars and beakers and tubes. "And there."

"So you did not tell Ichigo that-"

"Why would I tell him that kind of information? That Arrancar is still my property. I can do as I please." He moved closer to the table and the computer. "After all, I still have much to figure out. Was what died on that table and faded away the real Veneno or… is he in one of these jars?"

"The body was not a clone. We confirmed that."

"That's not what I'm talking about. I know the difference between a clone and the real thing. I'm no fool." He picked up one of the jars, holding it to his face as if it were a precious stone. "I just find it strange that the body would only vanish after I took those samples and not before. It is possible, in theory, that Veneno is still alive. He was an experiment. Who knows what I did to him? I mean, if I could make him an Arrancar within such a short amount of time, who's to say that I couldn't have done something else as well?"

Mayuri had theories, but with the information he had, he understood one thing for certain: He still had Veneno trapped within his lap. It may have only been his DNA and his mind, but he was here. It was strange that his body would remain for so long. Only after he removed everything did Veneno's body disappear. Which could only mean one thing to Mayuri: Veneno's soul was still intact. In some way, he may still be alive. He had no way of knowing for sure without further testing. Right now, all he had were samples and data. His body may be gone but a part of him remained.

Nemu looked at the jars which contained parts of the Arrancar. "Everyone believes him to be dead and gone, sir."

"He may be. Maybe not. I have yet to figure that out." He brought the jar closer to his face, smiling at the contents sloshing around inside. "I just may be able to revive him." He suddenly turned to Nemu with an angry look on his face. "And I'll trust you not to breathe a word of this to anyone. If the Head Captain were to find out about this…"

"No, sir. I won't."

"Make sure of that." He looked back at the jar, smiling fondly at it. "If he is in fact dead, perhaps I can find a way to bring him back."

Mayuri set the jar down on the table and looked at the large container standing in front of him like a glass tower connected to the floor and computer by thick wires.

"Perhaps he's still alive somehow. Just dormant. Who knows?" He looked over all the jars and beakers on the table with a large smile, full of excitement. "Perhaps I can bring him back. Perhaps I can make a few changes to him. I could simply make a duplicate of him. A clone, if you will. I may be able to make a Mod Soul out of him. Or perhaps I can combine what I did with you and apply it to him. I could do so much. The possibilities are endless."

"But…" Nemu hesitated. "You could do that, sir? You could… make Veneno come back? Revive him? Rebuild him? Make another one?"

Mayuri chuckled, a hundred ideas flowing into his mind at once. "Ah, Nemu… I can't say for sure any of that. He started out as a mere Hollow and look what he became as a result of experimentation. There's no guarantee of anything." He looked back at the large container, visualizing another Arrancar floating inside. His smile spread. "Isn't that the whole point of an experiment? Just to see if you could?"


The End!

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