Ichigo couldn't take his eyes off Naoto.
It made him feel weird, but he couldn't help it. Staring at him brought a strange conflict of emotions rushing through Ichigo. He didn't quite know what to make of it. Just remembering how Naoto's eyes had burned gold during the fight made Ichigo shiver with a strange mixture of fear, excitement, and jealousy.
"How are you feeling?" Ichigo shifted his gaze to Urahara, who was standing on the other end of the room.
"Better. What the hell did you do?" He flexed his muscles, feeling good as new.
"I got permission from Soul Society to use a… special medicine on you. They've been very keen on keeping you healthy, since you saved the world. I suppose it's an attempt to repay the debt they owe you." Urahara fluttered his fan, which hid his mouth. Ichigo hated when he did that. It made the already enigmatic man that much harder to read.
"Not like my health makes much of a difference anymore," Ichigo said with a sigh, running his fingers through his hair. Urahara didn't deign that response with a reply. They both then returned their attention to the slumbering Naoto, who had fainted soon after the fight.
I wonder… he's a human who couldn't see the Hollows, same as me. But then he did something, and suddenly he could see them and fight them. Protecting me, this time around. Ichigo hated the realization. But still… could I maybe pick up whatever he did? It was a tantalizing thought with exciting possibilities. Sure, Ichigo wouldn't be a shinigami, but he would be able to protect his friends and family from Hollows and the like. Hell, he would be able to see his Soul Society friends.
"Don't get ahead of yourself, Ichigo," Urahara said. He blinked and glanced back at the other man.
"Shut up, weirdo." Ichigo looked away, scowl back in place. As per usual, Urahara had burst his optimistic bubble and put him in a bad mood. Naoto groaned and shifted, instantly commanding their attention. The detective slowly opened his eyes, blue once more, blinking blearily.
"Where am I?" Naoto asked groggily.
"My shop." Urahara fluttered his fan in that annoying way of his. "No need to thank me for helping you out, I'm just your average entrepreneur." Naoto stared at him blankly for a moment. Then his eyes widened and he sat bolt upright.
"T-the monsters!" he yelped, voice becoming incredibly high pitched.
Did this kid never hit puberty, or something? Ichigo thought. Then again, he supposed he was being rather harsh; the Hollows would shake up any normal person who'd never seen them before. But Ichigo knew instinctively that Naoto was not normal. Far from it, in fact.
"Don't worry about them, they're quite… dead." Urahara smiled. "You handled that rather nicely, if you can recall it at all." Naoto said nothing for a moment, before nodding slowly.
"They were invisible… and then I –" He stopped himself. Ichigo narrowed his eyes. Naoto shook his head, running a finger through his fine, dark blue hair. "Never mind. Where's my hat?"
Has anyone ever been so obsessed over an article of clothing? Ichigo silently watched as Urahara said he'd retrieve it before walking out. Then he cleared his throat. Naoto jumped, seeming to notice Ichigo for the first time, much to the ginger's annoyance.
"Oh! Ichigo… or would you rather I call you Kurosaki?" Naoto said, automatically assuming a solemn air.
"Ichigo's fine. You have a lot of explaining to do." Ichigo glowered at him.
"As do you. What were those things?"
"Hollows. They're dead souls that weren't sent to Soul Society and lost their Chain of Fate. They devour people and spirits with high reiatsu to try and fill the hole in their heart." Ichigo was matter-of-fact, taking delight in Naoto's shock. The other young man went rigid, completely frozen. Then he recovered and took a deep breath.
"Please explain in greater detail." He gazed at Ichigo intently, so intently it made Ichigo somewhat uncomfortably. Naoto could drill a hole through an iron board with that stare. However, Ichigo began to talk, explaining Soul Society, Hell, and Hueco Mundo to Naoto, as well as shinigami and Hollows and reiatsu. Once he started, he found it difficult to stop. It was strangely relieving to discuss these things. Sure, it was vaguely mentioned around his friends, but they never really talked about it. It was as though everyone was afraid that discussing Ichigo's past would somehow set him off.
Like they thought I'd just snap and… kill myself or something.
"… So yeah, that's the whole life-after-death thing in a nutshell," Ichigo finished lamely, not quite sure how to end the explanation. Naoto didn't respond for a second, allowing it all to sink in.
"How do you know this?" It was so sudden that Ichigo did a double take.
"How do you know… all of these things? You couldn't see those Hollows, so how could you possibly be aware of them?" Naoto's gaze became even more searching, if possible. Ichigo broke contact.
"I could. Once. I was a… a shinigami at one point." Ichigo thought he could detect a strange sense of understanding in Naoto's gaze. "That was my… my power, as you put it."
"How did you gain this power? It is rational to assume that you'd have to be dead to be a death god, and yet you seem quite corporeal." Naoto never sounded more like an old man than at that moment. Ichigo snorted cynically.
"I was special. They call it a substitute shinigami. I could separate myself from my body, and fight Hollows in a spirit form. I'm a human with a high reiatsu, or at least I was, which is why it was possible. It started with me being able to see ghosts, and then transgressed to something… more." For the first time, Naoto seemed confused.
"I don't understand… how can a human be privy to such powers?" Ichigo thought of his father, but knew he wouldn't tell Naoto. That was a strangely private matter that he didn't like to discuss with anyone.
"It's complicated. Look, the important thing is, I had the ability to become a shinigami, and then I lost it. Seventeen months ago, when I saved the world from a crazy butterfly freak." He met Naoto's gaze, and they both understood the significance of the seventeen months. "Now it's your turn. How did you do… whatever you did?"
"I'm not quite sure." Naoto seemed troubled. "I know my gun… my gun!" He straightened, looking around wildly.
"Not to worry, I have it, Naoto-san~" They both turned to see Urahara had re-entered the room. Ichigo stifled his irritation to the best of his ability. The blonde casually tossed Naoto's hat to the young man, who caught it somewhat lethargically. His sharp blue laser vision was now directed at Urahara.
"I would like my gun returned to me." There was an icy undertone to Naoto's polite request. For a moment Ichigo thought Urahara was going to refuse her. However, he simply smiled.
"Of course. For you, anything, Naoto-san, considering the fact that you saved our precious friend." Ichigo bristled at the perceived insult.
"Now… please," Naoto said solemnly. Urahara paused, his expression seeming to change infinitesimally. A sudden sharp tension filled the room, thick and stifling. The duo was locked in a staring contest that annoyed Ichigo, who felt somewhat antsy and left out. Urahara seemed to relent, a bright smile curving across his sly features.
"Right away. As you wish." He bowed slightly, somehow making the respectful act incredibly mocking, before leaving once more. Naoto exhaled, jamming his hat back on his head.
"What do you think of that man?" he asked. Ichigo blinked.
"No, the other enigmatic blonde," Naoto said dryly. Scowling, Ichigo crossed his arms.
"He means well. Urahara is a good man." They stared at each other wordlessly for a moment.
"But do you trust him?" Naoto's question surprised Ichigo. He blinked.
Do I trust him? Ichigo honestly didn't know. It felt like Urahara was always hiding something from him, from the Hogyoku within Rukia to the ramifications of his Hollowification to his father's true identity. Mouth suddenly dry, Ichigo swallowed.
"Here we go! One magical gun coming up!" Urahara flounced back in, waving the weapon about like a flamboyant child. Naoto gazed at Ichigo for a moment before directing his attention back to the shop owner.
"Thank you." He gingerly took it from Urahara, expression oddly tender. Ichigo saw Urahara catch the look as well, which ticked him off for some reason.
"Do you want something?" Ichigo asked aggressively. Urahara flopped on the ground, flashing the ex-shinigami a smirk.
"Only an explanation. I'd like to know what happened to you both. You can skip the ending, though, I was there for that."
"We were attacked by several Hollows. I used the gun to defeat them," Naoto said simply. Ichigo glanced at him briefly. If he didn't want to elaborate, Ichigo wasn't going to say anything either. However, something suddenly occurred to him.
"Wait a minute… where were you while we were getting mauled? And Ishida, Chad, or even Orihime?" As much as Ichigo hated the idea of being rescued by any of them (especially Ishida), he abruptly realized that it was strange that none of them ever showed up. Urahara hesitated, a shadow crossing his face, and Ichigo felt his stomach clench in foreboding.
"Something blocked the Hollows' energy. It was only after it receded that I perceived your danger." Naoto seemed confused again.
"Wait a minute… how is Ishida and Orihime involved?" he asked.
"They aren't shinigami, but they have the ability to see and fight Hollows," Urahara said softly. Naoto furrowed his brow as he contemplated this.
"So then –?"
"What happened, Urahara?" Ichigo spoke softly. There was a moment of utter stillness. Urahara lost all pretentions of his carefree attitude. Sighing deeply, he took off his hat, seeming to look at everything but Ichigo.
"You won't like it."
The slow beep of the monitors filled the deathly silence of the room. Thin white blankets covered Ishida's bloody wounds. The bespectacled teen's expression was peaceful. By all appearances, he seemed to be asleep.
Ichigo decided, in that moment, that he hated hospitals. There was a lack of safety in the whitewashed walls that he'd never experienced at the clinic. It was all so impartial and sterile… it reminded him of Soul Society.
"You're bleeding." Naoto. He glanced up. The detective had a strange, closed-off expression. He looked utterly blank and emotionless. In that moment, Ichigo almost despised him. Slowly glancing down at his fists, Ichigo realized he'd clenched them so tightly he'd broken skin. Somehow, he didn't really care. Ichigo thought of Chad and Orihime, in their own respective wards, also clinging to life by a thread. He thought of whatever had done this and felt a surge of hatred.
"I'll kill whoever did this." His voice was low and deadly serious.
"Don't be foolish," Naoto sounded like Rukia in that moment, "if your friends, with their… abilities… couldn't do anything, why would you be any different?" Ichigo knew she was right.
I'm absolutely worthless. Ichigo had never felt so pathetic in his life, not even after his mother died. He felt a sudden, irrational anger toward Soul Society. Where were they in all this? Urahara said they owed me a debt… gave me medicine… if they really cared about what I wanted, they would've protected my friends… His mouth twisted into a bitter, sardonic smirk.
"Ichigo… are you okay?" Naoto said softly.
"Yeah. Fine and dandy. My friends are on the brink of death, and it's probably my fault."
"That's not true –"
"Yes it is! Everything comes back to me! It always does! I… I'm…" I'm special, don't you understand? "I'm supposed to protect them." Ichigo looked down at the ground, feeling vulnerable. Naoto had the grace to look away.
"They were my friends too." If Naoto thought that would make him feel better, the detective was terrible at comforting people. However, maybe there was another way he could help… Ichigo slowly looked back up at him, realization dawning on his face.
"Could you… get me to do… whatever it was you did against the Hollows?" Ichigo asked. Naoto's eyes widened.
"I… I don't…" The detective floundered, not expecting the abrupt request. Ichigo fell to his feet, grabbing Naoto's coat.
"Please. I need to protect them. Somehow… someway… I need to keep them safe." Ichigo's amber eyes met Naoto's sapphire orbs. He seemed fidgety and nervous. Ichigo didn't care.
"It's not… it's not that simple…"
"I don't care! I went to fucking Hueco Mundo and back for Orihime! I'll do anything… anything… for them." Naoto gazed at Ichigo helplessly. "Please."
This had the strangest effect on Naoto. His expression clouded over. For a long moment he stood there, looking at Ichigo but not actually seeing him. Just as the orange haired teen was about to give up in despair, Naoto nodded curtly.
"Very well. We'll leave for Inaba tomorrow."
To be continued...