The kid standing in front of Ichigo’s desk wasn’t even from Karakura High School. He was making an enthusiastic case, however. Chatting up a storm, his words came out in such a rush that Ichigo figured the kid might pass out from lack of breath. Maybe swimmers could go a long time without oxygen? Ichigo just nodded along as the kid went on and on about how their swim team needed another member, just temporarily, because of some kind of tournament or other.
Truthfully, Ichigo was only half-listening. The tennis club had already put down the best offer by far--ten thousand yen a match and Ichigo didn’t even have to show up for practice.
Ichigo was about to give this little blond chatterbox the big brush off, except out of the blue, the kid blurted, “Plus, you have a girl’s name just like us, so it’s fate!”
“Wait, what?” Since when was Ichigo’s name girly?
The boy rubbed the back of his neck and grinned bashfully, “It’s kind of a thing with us. I mean, there’s Rei and Haruka and Makoto and me, and even Rin--so you’d be a perfect little strawberry topping!”
“Whoa, hold up on the topping stuff,” Ichigo said. “My name means first protector.”
The kid—crap, what was his name? It had been some girlish thing, hadn’t it? Nagimi? —gave Ichigo a pitying kind of look, like maybe he just hadn’t come to terms with something profound about himself. “Ok-ay. But, it’s a sign. When I heard you hired yourself out for any sport, I just knew you’d be perfect! You can swim, can’t you?”
“Of course, but—“
“Great! We’ll see you tomorrow after classes!”
It was late when Nagisa returned with news. Makoto took his coat and put it on the peg. He waited while Nagisa kicked off his shoes. “I’ve found the perfect person,” Nagisa said conspiratorially. He jittered with excitement.
“Do tell,” Makoto said happily.
Nagisa sniffed the air. “Mackerel?” he mouthed.
Makoto nodded with a fond roll of his eyes. “What else?”
The crescent moon was visible though the big bay window and the light reflected on the cold, dark sea. Nagisa plopped down at his favorite seat at Haru’s Western style table. “He’s as tall as Haru-chan. He’s got crazy-colored hair, the brightest orange I’ve ever seen, like a tiger or something. His eyes are intense too.”
From the stove, Haru asked, “Can he swim?”
“He said so!” Nagisa answered cheerfully. “Everyone wanted him for their team. He must be very good. Some people were willing to pay a lot of yen. You’d think he was popular, given all the people there, but, I think he’s sad.”
“Sad? What makes you say that?” Makoto asked, as he dug through Haru’s cabinets looking for plates.
Nagisa leaned into his elbows where they rested on the table. “I don’t know, but maybe we can help him. Maybe we could all be good for each other.”
Looking up from the book he was reading, Rei asked, “How can we trust anyone who hires himself out like a mercenary?”
“It’s a good question, Nagisa,” Makoto agreed. This was a team. They needed to be together in all things.
“His name is Ichigo. It’s a girl’s name.”
Makoto and Haru shared a glance over Nagisa’s head. They knew how Nagisa got when he was on the scent of ‘one of them.’ He could be almost obsessive and single-minded.
However, Nagisa’s instincts were good. Rei had turned out to be a perfect addition.
Nagisa insisted, “Plus, it’s not like we have to become best friends. We only need him for one tournament. Just one.”
Haru brought the fish over and set it on the table. “We haven’t any money to pay him.”
Nagisa got that determined look in his eye and said, “I think he’ll come anyway. It’s fate.”
Ichigo had no idea why he’d just spent his own money to take the train all the way to some tiny little seaside town to meet up with people who weren’t even paying him to play. But, there was that ridiculously cheerful blond kid waving like a moron on the platform.
As he lifted a hand in a half-hearted acknowledgment, Ichigo thought maybe the giant smile the little goofball gave him was part of it.
It’d been far too long since anyone besides Keigo was this happy to see him. And, it was maybe a little weird, but something about this guy totally reminded Ichigo of Rukia. He was tiny and… kind of cute. Something in this kid’s personality that had Ichigo half-expecting him to whip out the markers and notebook and start drawing bunnies swimming.
“I knew you’d come!” he said, thrusting something into Ichigo’s hand.
It was… a creepy wooden bird on a keychain? Ichigo turned it over in his hands. “What even is this?”
“Sure, okay,” Ichigo said, looking wistfully over his shoulder as the train clacked away. Dutifully, he pulled out his cell phone and attached the charm. He realized he should probably say something so he said, “Thanks.”
“Oh, you’re welcome!” The kid—crap, what was his name?—started yakking away as they walked down the street.
Ichigo shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. Despite feeling like he’d probably made a mistake coming out all this way just to disappoint these guys, Ichigo could feel his shoulders relaxing a little. The air smelled of ocean salt, an odor that instantly triggered memories of Mom and a vacation the family had taken when Yuzu and Karin were just babies. There had been sun and swimming and a lot of laughter.
“Did you lose someone to the sea, too?”
The kid touched Ichigo’s elbow briefly. “The way you’re looking out at the water. It reminds me of that look Makoto gets sometimes.”
“Oh, uh, I was just thinking about a trip we took when Mom was still alive. It was a town a lot like this.”
Nagisa—yeah, that was it!—nodded and gave Ichigo another pat and a soft smile. Ichigo liked that Nagisa didn’t press for more details. Instead, they walked silently along the cobblestone streets. Arctic terns circled overhead, calling out their brash song.
They walked up a steep set of stone stairs. A cat that was hiding in the bushes poked its nose out to mew at them. Nagisa stopped to give it a few pats.
Ichigo glanced around, wondering where they were going, exactly. It seemed like they were headed away from the center of town, where he’d expect the high school to be. Still, even if this was some kind of strange ambush, it wasn’t like Ichigo couldn’t take this scrawny little runt in a fight. Ichigo figured he’d have pretty good odds even if the whole team jumped him.
And what the fuck would the point be? The only thing they’d get off him was the return fare home. Ichigo had nothing in his courier bag but a pair of swim trunks and his homework. Oh, and a useless soul reaper badge, but they were welcome to that piece of crap. It didn’t even light up for Hollows any more. He wasn’t even sure why he was still hanging on to it.
Anyway, Nagisa didn’t seem like the type to lure Ichigo all the way out to some seaside town just to have his buddies beat him up for his hair color. Besides, that blond seemed pretty natural. So, unless he was some kind of self-hating hafū, it seemed kind of pot/kettle.
Even so, Ichigo was on high alert when Nagisa stood up. And when he said, “There’s something I should tell you before you meet everyone…” Ichigo felt his fists curl inside his pockets, ready to fight.
“Yeah, spit it out,” Ichigo said, with a wary glance over his shoulder. How many guys in a swim team, anyway? Could be a lot. Plus, stairs were a shit-all place for a scuffle. A guy could take a fall pretty easy.
And it wasn’t like he could fly… any more.
“Thing is, this is a very small club and we’re all of us, uh—that is, we’ve been friends for a long time, except Rei, but he’s... thing is, can you be nice? I know you don’t think your name is girly, but, well, it’s a thing for us and, you know, it’s okay if you’re not exactly like us. Just don’t… don’t be mean.”
It was so not what Ichigo was expecting, all he could do was blink stupidly and mutter, “What?”
Nagisa just smiled that adorable smile and said, “Please? Can’t you just try? I’m asking if you could just be nice.”
Even though Ichigo had no idea what he was agreeing to, he said, “Yeah, of course. I can be nice.”
Makoto tried not to notice that Nagisa had brought them a delinquent.
He tried even harder not to notice the way Haru’s eyes followed Ichigo everywhere.
Ichigo was striking. Only an inch taller than Haru, but there was something about Ichigo that made you think that there was more there, something seething just under the surface, something… dark, deadly, and more than a little dangerous.
That’s what had Makoto worried.
Ichigo was totally Haru’s type—the type that always led Haru astray. The type that always hurt him and left Haru staring blankly at the bathroom wall, hiding in the tub for hours.
And they’d been through all that already.
Makoto didn’t want that again. Not for any of them.
If this was supposed to be some kind of team tryout, it was the weirdest one Ichigo had ever experienced.
He’d left his shoes at the door and had been shown to the couch. Ichigo kind of expected an interview of sorts, a quiz about his knowledge of swimming techniques, which, honestly, was pretty weak. But, these guys seemed far more interested in what kind of animal Ichigo would be than whether or not he could do the backstroke.
“Uh, I dunno,” Ichigo answered stupidly. He sat on a couch, while the other guys on the team fussed around a giant empty house that seemed to belong to the big-eyed, dark-haired kid who hadn’t said a word. “I guess if I’m associated with anything it’d be a black sun or a moon cutter.”
Zangestu. Fuck damn it all; he missed the old man something fierce.
A guy with glasses that reminded Ichigo of Ishida shook his head. “Doesn’t fit.”
Yep. Same sass attitude. Quincy-clone swimmer hates you.
“Says the butterfly,” Nagisa teased. “C’mon, Ichigo, try! There must be some animal you’re like!”
Ichigo shook his head. “I got nothing.”
“A lionfish,” announced the Ishida-twin, “Pretty, but poisonous to the touch.”
This caused a tall brown-haired guy to giggle a little, but admonish, “Rei, be nice.”
Out of the blue, the black-haired boy said, “Can we have two sharks?”
“No!” shouted Rei and the tall brown-haired guy simultaneously.
Right. These guys were seriously weird. Ichigo started to open his mouth to say something to that effect when Nagisa caught his eye and gave him a silent pleading look. Right. He was supposed to try to be nice, whatever that was about.
Maybe they were all… special in some way.
So, Ichigo let out a frustrated grunt and shrugged, “Are we going to swim or what?”
The quiet kid perked up instantly. “I’ll get my towel.”
Makoto sat next to Rei on the bleachers, watching Ichigo swim.
“Not beautiful,” Rei sighed.
Not at all, Makoto thought. But, there was, without doubt, a tremendous amount of raw power. Ichigo tore through the water like a blade through flesh. It was almost horrifying to watch, but there was no denying the strength, the speed, and the… intent.
If they asked Ichigo to win for them, he would. That was very clear.
He wasn’t faster than Haru, though. The water was too much Ichigo’s enemy. He fought it with every stroke. But, he decimated his enemy with sheer strength of will.
“What is this guy?” Makoto wondered aloud.
“A winner!” Nagisa assured them from where his elbows rested on the lip of the pool. “Look at him go. Right, Haru-chan?”
They all turned to see what Haru thought. Haru had stopped just under the starting blocks to watch Ichigo. Haru’s hand rested on the wall, as though needing something to hold him up, which was disturbing since this was Haru in water.
Then, with a little shake of his head, Haru slowly sank under the surface, until his head disappeared entirely.
Makoto was on his feet, off the bleachers, and yelling for Ichigo to stop.
Ichigo pulled himself up hard at the far end of the pool and yanked the goggles from his eyes, “What’s the matter, captain? Am I doing something wrong?”
This close to him, Makoto was struck by the marks on Ichigo’s body. He’d been cut, in some places deep enough to scar lightly. But, more disturbing were the bruises. He had what looked like the impression of a heel on his stomach. The water and the sunlight making it look angry and red.
But, there were others.
So many others.
Someone big hit him regularly.
“Hello?” Ichigo cocked his head at Makoto. “Why’d you ask me to stop?”
“Uh, oh, um… it’s your style. You don’t have to fight the water so much,” Makoto managed to say, tearing his eyes from the marks of abuse on Ichigo’s body.
Ichigo looked deeply confused, and, for a brief moment, a little lost. “But… fighting is what I do.”
Makoto could see that. It was written all over his body, in all the pain and in cords of muscles not at all like the lean sleekness of a swimmer’s. “But the water isn’t trying to hurt you.”
Ichigo frowned at the pool. Then he scratched his damp orange hair that was already trying to stick back up in spikes. “Uh, I don’t mean to be all smartass on my first day, sempai, but well, technically doesn’t it, you know, drown a person if they don’t swim?”
Makoto couldn’t suppress a laugh at that. “Yeah, I guess it does, but… I mean, you can work with it, instead of fighting against it.”
“I don’t get that.”
Crouching at the side of the pool, Makoto wracked his brain trying to come up with a better way to explain. He glanced to the far end of the pool, but Haru was still deep under.
Unconsciously, Ichigo rubbed at one of his bruises, and the movement gave Makoto an idea.
“Have you ever taken a martial art?”
“Yeah, of course. Judo. Like, since forever.”
“You used weapons?”
For some reason this caused Ichigo to laugh a little. “Yeah, you could say I’ve used a weapon a time or two.”
“Okay, the water is more like that. A weapon you use, that your body uses, to fight together, as a… team.” Makoto had no idea if he was making sense, so he just sat back a little on his heels and asks, “Do you understand?”
Ichigo was staring at the water, like he was missing a friend.
“Buddy, you have no idea,” Ichigo’s voice was quiet, almost mournful. When he glanced up at Makoto again, there was a look in Ichigo’s eyes that was almost… hungry. “A weapon as a friend is something I get. On a seriously deep and profound level.”
“Good. Okay, that’s great,” Makoto breathed in relief. “Do you think you can make the water your weapon-friend?”
Makoto noticed the rest of the team listening intently. At the opposite end, Haru’s eyes peeked out over the surface of the water expectantly.
“Huh.” Then, Ichigo’s chestnut brown eyes narrowed with determination. His gaze was so intense Makoto swore he could see amber fire flash in their depths. “Yeah, okay. Maybe? But, I guess you’ll have to teach me.”
At school the next day, Ichigo found himself thinking about something besides how irritated he was when Ishida made an awkward excuse and ran out of the class to chase after a Hollow Ichigo could no longer see.
No, that still pissed him off.
But, somehow the sting didn’t last as long. His eyes still followed Ishida as he dashed across the schoolyard and took the fence in a single leap. But, instead of spending the rest of the class period wondering what he was missing out on, Ichigo’s mind started turning over this whole water puzzle.
This swimming team, they had a really funky philosophical relationship with their sport.
It was kind of cool.
He pulled out his cell and looked at the weird wooden bird-thing. Why a bird? They were so obsessed with funny animals, too. After practice last night, the guys had shared their ‘totem’ animals. The little cute blond kid felt some kind of kinship with penguins, and, the Ishida-clone, Rei, was a butterfly, apparently. It was a dolphin for the quiet kid and an orca for the captain.
Someone bumped Ichigo’s elbow, hard, nearly knocking the bird-thing out of his grip. Ichigo looked up to see the guy from the tennis team. “What’s wrong with you, Kurosaki? Our money isn’t good enough for you?”
Ichigo sighed and tucked his cell back in his pocket. Apparently class had ended and he hadn’t heard the bell. “I got a better offer,” he said, as he gathered up his books and stood up.
Keigo was at Ichigo’s elbow in a second. Chad was two steps behind. Orihime and Tatsuki watched from the door.
Tennis team guy must’ve decided the odds were against him. But, on his way out he belligerently grumbled, “You’re a dirty double-crosser, Kurosaki Ichigo.”
Makoto leaned against the chain link fence, elbow to shoulder with Nagisa. They watched Ichigo and Haru swimming. Makoto smiled down at Nagisa. He couldn’t quite resist ruffling his hair. “You have good instincts. Just like Rei, Ichigo is taking this very seriously.”
Nagisa, however, frowned. “Do you think Haru-chan… likes Ichigo?”
Makoto’s eyes widened. Had the others noticed too? Makoto tried to brush it off, “Ichigo fights the water. You know how Haru feels about water. Haru has to try and help him.”
Nagisa crossed his arms in front of his narrow chest and stuck his lower lip out in a pout. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. I brought Haru a bad boy, Mako-chan. What was I thinking?”
“You were thinking we needed a fifth for this one event,” Makoto said kindly.
“Why hasn’t Rin called?”
Makoto shook his head, wishing he knew. They’d swum the relay. Everything was supposed to be better now. “At least Haru is swimming.”
Nagisa brightened. “Yeah, at least there’s that!” Then, with a wild whoop, Nagisa ran to the pool and cannon-balled in. The humongous splash hit both Makoto by the fence and Rei who’d been trying to finish his homework on the diving board.
“Hey!” Rei shouted in protest.
In an amazing jump, Ichigo leaped up and grabbed the edge of the board, putting his weight on the board with his arm. Then he let go. The shockwave that followed tumbled Rei into the water.
In a minute, everyone was splashing and teasing around. Makoto jumped in to join them when he saw the ghost of a smile flick across Haru’s lips.
At breakfast the next morning, Karin peered into Ichigo’s face and said, “Are you high or something?”
Ichigo pushed his nosy little sister away with a light shove. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You’ve been smiling at your natto like a moron.”
“It’s good natto,” Yuzu said quietly.
“Maybe my boy is finally in love!” Isshin shouted from the other room.
“Fuck off, dad,” Ichigo said automatically, and raised his arm just in time to re-direct the flying kick.
Dummo Dad picked himself up off the floor with a guffaw, “Now that’s more like it! You’ve been slow lately. I’ve been able to land far too many hits. I like this woman! Love has apparently honed your instincts!”
“I’m not in love.” But, since his whole family was giving him a skeptical look, Ichigo felt the need to try to explain, “I think maybe I found a sport. I kind of like swimming.”
Isshin nodded dramatically. He tried to pat Ichigo on the back, but Ichigo deftly dodged it. “What did I tell you? A girl! She’s on this swim team, is she?” Dad made a gross hour glass figure with his hands, “You like the wet swimsuit look, neh?”
“Jesus fuck, Dad,” Ichigo said, putting his bowl in the sink. “You’re putting me off my breakfast. I’m going to school.”
Makoto noticed that Ichigo was getting faster. A lot faster.
Haru saw it, too. In fact, Haru stopped mid-stroke and stood in the middle of the pool to watch Ichigo slide through the water like he was made of it.
Rei put his book down and adjusted his glasses for a better view. “Beautiful,” he said.
But the part that was really beautiful to Makoto was the look on Haru’s face. The passion was back. Haru’s eyes hardened with the desire not to let anyone surpass him.
That was the Haru that Makoto first fell in love with and it killed him, just a little, as it always did, to know that that beautiful fire was directed at another man.
Ichigo found himself really looking forward to seeing the guys and getting the fuck away from Karakura Town for a while. The weekend was coming up. What was he going to do? Hang out with Chad, maybe? But, Ichigo kind of hated the way everyone around home looked at him nowadays, with that all that pity and disappointment in their eyes.
Music blasted away in Ichigo’s ears as he watched the countryside slide by the smudged train window.
It was probably too soon to invite himself to stay at someone’s house.
Nagisa was there on the platform waving just as happily as the first time. Ichigo pulled the earphones off his head and felt himself smiling in return. “Hey, you.”
Going up on tiptoes, Nagisa’s hand reached out toward Ichigo’s face. His smile faded into concern, “What happened to you?”
Ichigo touched the bandage on his cheekbone. “Oh, this? Tennis team.”
“The whole team?”
“Pretty much,” Ichigo said, shouldering his bag and heading towards the pool automatically.
Nagisa clutched Ichigo’s hand suddenly. “Your hand!”
Oh, that. Jesus, it was embarrassing to think back on it, so Ichigo pulled his bandaged hand away sharply. “It’s nothing.”
“Is your hand broken?” Nagisa seemed on the verge of tears.
Ichigo reassured him kindly, “No, nothing like that. It just got stomped on a bunch.” Ichigo’d been trying to save that stupid mascot keychain thing and he’d ended up on the floor with his hand over it. It was a dumb move and had made him vulnerable. Kenpachi would’ve laughed at his stupidity. At least Ichigo’d had the brains not to put out his sword hand.
Not that he needed that any more.
Ichigo sighed, “Look, don’t worry about me, okay? I don’t even feel it and, you know, in the end, I kicked their butts.”
“All seven?” Nagisa asked skeptically.
Dude, Ichigo wanted to say, seven is nothing when you’ve faced an army of shinigami. Instead, he just shrugged.
Nagisa wrung his hands, and his eyes had taken on that look Ichigo just couldn’t stomach.
“Look,” Ichigo said gruffly, “You asked me once for a favor. You asked me to be nice. I’ve been nice. Now I’m asking you: drop it, okay? It was stupid and unimportant and it wouldn’t have happened if I’d been paying attention. And, fuck that, I won. Those guys aren’t going to try it on again, so it’s all cool. Just stop looking at me like that, would you?”
Nagisa flinched. Jesus, Ichigo thought, I’ve just kicked a puppy. Before Ichigo could open his mouth to apologize, Nagisa said, “I’m sorry, Ichigo. This is my fault. You would have gone with the tennis team if you hadn’t picked us, wouldn’t you?”
True. “Yeah, but seriously, those arrogant shitheads don’t deserve me. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m with you guys now. You’re my friends.”
For some reason, this cut through all the argument. Nagisa managed a little smile. “Really? Friends?”
Ichigo gave Nagisa a crooked smile. “Of course, you idiot.”
Makoto knew something was wrong when Nagisa came into the locker room alone. Quickly setting his towel on the bench, Makoto met Nagisa at the door, “What’s happened?”
“It’s Ichigo,” Nagisa said, with a glance over his shoulder out into the hallway. “He doesn’t want us to freak out.”
“Freak out, why?” Rei asked. He been heading to the shower, but came over to see what the commotion was about.
“He’s been hurt,” Makoto guessed. Whoever was always hitting him, must have done it again. Makoto stepped around Nagisa to look out the door.
Ichigo slumped with his shoulders up against the hallway wall. He had a bandage on his cheek and his left hand was wrapped. The courier bag he always carried was there at his feet, and he stared blankly at the opposite wall.
That empty look reminded Makoto of Haru. Makoto couldn’t help but sympathize, to want to make it better. “Are you okay?”
Ichigo glanced up and gave a brave smile. “I’ve been trying to tell Nagisa that this is nothing.”
What did it say about Ichigo’s life that this was minor injury?
Makoto started to open his mouth to say that he thought that Ichigo should probably go home and take it easy, but it occurred to him that maybe home was the problem.
Before Makoto could formulate a better response, Ichigo pushed off the wall. His eyes were hard and intense and he blurted, “I just want to swim. Can’t I just swim with you guys?”
How could Makoto say no to that?
Ichigo figured that was the end of it and they’d all get down to business as usual.
But, when Ichigo’s shirt came off, Makoto hissed. “Your ribs! Are you sure nothing’s broken?”
Ichigo glanced down. Godamn he was embarrassed looking at all that black and blue. How could he have let himself get cornered? He knew better. With a frustrated grunt, Ichigo said, “I’ve had broken ribs. Trust me, this ain’t them.”
Nagisa clutched Makoto’s elbow. “Ichigo said he didn’t want a fuss.”
That’s when Ichigo noticed Makoto had a cell in his hand and he was staring down at the screen.
“Jesus! You’re not calling an ambulance are you?” Ichigo asked.
“I want to,” Makoto admitted. “You should see doctor.”
“My dad is a doctor,” Ichigo said. He ripped the bandage off his cheek to show the stitches. “Who do you think sewed me up?”
“What are you guys yelling about?” Rei asked. He’d been in the shower and water dripped from his nose. He pulled up his prescription goggles in order to see, and once he had them on, he gasped. “Oh! Ichigo! You poor thing!”
This fuss caused Haru to poke his nose in from outside. He’d clearly already been swimming. “What’s happened?”
“The tennis team beat Ichigo up,” Nagisa announced.
“Hey!” Ichigo protested. “I did not get beat up. I won that fight.”
“This is winning?” Rei asked.
“Yes!” Ichigo insisted. He was starting to feel smothered by all this attention. He turned around and started taking off his jeans in order to finish getting changed into his swim trunks. Irritated, he grumbled, “You should’ve seen the other guys.”
“You can’t swim like that,” Rei said. Ichigo ignored him. Rei apparently turned to Makoto and insisted, “He can’t swim like that, can he?”
“He wants to swim,” Makoto said softly. “Shouldn’t we let him swim, if he wants?”
You could have heard a pin drop when Haru said firmly, “No.”
Even though he barely knew these guys, even Ichigo was shocked to hear Haru, of all of them, say that.
Ichigo turned around, curious. Haru stood in the middle of the changing room. His eyes were on the floor, but Ichigo could still feel Haru’s attention on him. It wasn’t pity that radiated from him, though, and Ichigo found he appreciated that. In fact, there was something strong about Haru right now--a quiet power that somehow reminded Ichigo of Byakuya.
“We’ll swim later,” Haru said simply. “Let’s get something to eat first. As a team.”
It was weird, but Ichigo understood.
Haru was giving Ichigo an out. Going out wasn’t exactly accepting help, but it still let the team do something for Ichigo, who they saw as an injured teammate.
Which was kind of nice, honestly.
Nobody fussed over him at home.
No, that wasn’t fair. They would if he asked, Ichigo was sure of it. In fact, he could feel them wanting to. But, of course, he couldn’t let them, could he? Especially not now, when everyone could only look at Ichigo and see all the strength he’d lost--never mind that it had been for them, to protect the living and the dead from that creepaziod Aizen. Never mind, Ichigo would sacrifice it all, again and again, if only he had anything left to give, and knowing that he had nothing, broke him so deeply there wasn’t even pain left.
But, these guys didn’t know any of that history. They just wanted to help a friend, a regular guy, who’d had a shit-all day.
And no one would see Ichigo here. He could, just for a second, let the mask slip.
Fuck, he even missed that dick.
Ichigo’s shoulders slumped and he let the back of his head clunk against the changing room cubbies, briefly. Then he stood up straighter, and pulled his jeans back up.
Anyway, it was just an offer of food. This wasn’t a big deal.
“Yeah, okay,” he said with a sigh. “I mean train station vending machine food sucks. I could use something substantial.”
Makoto should have known that Haru would know how to deal with someone as prickly as Ichigo. Still, Makoto was impressed at how quickly Haru had managed to defuse the situation.
Because, Ichigo had been starting to look a little cornered. Would he have lashed out at them if they’d pushed him the wrong way?
Rin would have.
And, Ichigo was ten times more volatile.
But Ichigo hadn’t, and in some ways, that made him better than Rin. Makoto still didn’t understand what had happened to Rin to make him so distant and angry. Especially now, after everything they’d done together.
Maybe, given enough time….
Makoto sighed. The five of them walked along the wide boulevard that ran along the ocean wall, heading in the direction of the restaurant district. Lanterns had been strung up along the eaves of the shops to attract tourists. Below them, the ocean hissed and spat as it crashed against the jagged rocks.
Ichigo seemed subdued, but a lot less on edge. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his jacket and his hair shadowed his eyes. There was a restlessness in Ichigo’s gaze. He always seemed to be scanning ahead for a threat.
The next threat, Makoto supposed.
The cut on Ichigo’s cheek looked raw and Makoto wondered how he could stand the salt in the breeze. It must have stung, but Ichigo showed no pain.
Well, no physical pain.
Not that Ichigo ever allowed himself to look wounded either, but it had to hurt to always be strung that taut, ready to defend--everyone, always.
At the restaurant, Nagisa went ahead to talk to the maitre d’ about where they wanted to be seated. Makoto took the opportunity of the narrow entryway to sidle up beside Ichigo. “Your dad is a doctor?”
“What? Oh, yeah,” Ichigo said, though he sounded deeply unimpressed.
“That must be nice.” Makoto smiled, though he quietly wondered why Ichigo didn’t dress the part of a prestigious man’s son. He didn’t seem proud of his father’s accomplishments at all. “What kind of medicine does he practice?”
“General. We run a clinic.”
We? Oh, you wouldn’t think Ichigo would have time for sports in a situation like that. “That must keep your family busy. Is your mother in medicine also?”
Makoto knew he’d made a misstep. A darkness covered Ichigo’s eyes and his face became a brittle mask. “No. She’s dead. I killed her.”
“What?” Rei, who’d been standing just behind Makoto, blurted out in horror. “You, what?”
“In childbirth, he means,” Nagisa, who had come back to wait with them, turned to add frantically. “Right, Ichigo? You mean in childbirth.”
Ichigo shook his head miserably. “No, I mean I killed her. I was being stupid and she tried to rescue me and she died. I killed her.”
“Oh,” Makoto said. Impulsively, he put a hand on Ichigo’s shoulder and gave it a strong squeeze. Then, knowing Ichigo wouldn’t tolerate it long, he dropped his hand and said, “I’m so sorry.”
“That’s terrible,” Rei agreed. “My condolences.”
“Oh, Ichigo,” Nagisa said, wrapping Ichigo in an awkward hug for a second. “You shouldn’t blame yourself. I’m sure it was an accident.”
Even Haru nodded.
Ichigo frowned at his shoes for a long time, his mouth working. Then, he seemed to let something go with a breath, and looked up at them. “Yeah, I guess it was, but it still sucks, you know? Thanks, guys.”
Makoto rubbed Ichigo’s back.
Nagisa couldn’t resist and hugged him again. Pretty soon it was a group hug in the entryway with Ichigo starting to laugh and half-heartedly protest, “Guys! Get off me, seriously! I can’t breathe.”
But he could. In fact, Makoto thought maybe Ichigo was breathing easier for the first time.
Awkward group hug was awkward, but Ichigo had to admit he kind of dug how these guys just went for it, no shame.
And you know what? No one had hugged him about losing Mom, ever.
Rukia was super-cool about it, but, yeah, who would’ve thought it’d be a bunch of dudes who’d just snuggle up to him and say how sorry they were?
These guys were fucking awesome.
The restaurant the team took Ichigo to was a little more upscale than he was used to. They sat on the floor, like salarymen or shinigami. A waitress, rather than a conveyer belt, delivered the sushi and sashimi, but it was amazingly delicious, so Ichigo wasn’t going to complain. He only hoped the bill wouldn’t be too high. He hadn’t brought whole lot of cash with him.
Nagisa and Rei had fallen into gossiping about someone on the track team they both knew.
Haru stared at his water glass like he wished he could crawl inside it, which made Ichigo smile.
Meanwhile, beside him, out of the blue, Makoto said, “Do you want to stay at my place this weekend?”
Ichigo had to swallow the huge bite of sushi roll before he could answer.
Makoto seemed to suddenly realize how forward that was and he smiled bashfully. A blush bloomed on his cheeks and he started back pedaling like mad, “I mean, if you’re not doing anything. Of course, it’s crowded at my place, with my whole family, but I’m sure you could have the guest room. Maybe we could go out on a boat or—“
“There’s room at my place,” Haru offered.
Ichigo looked back and forth between these two guys trying to figure out what was happening.
Meanwhile, Nagisa joined in, “Oh, say ‘yes,’ Ichigo! You should come hiking with us in the morning! We could swim in the ocean or maybe go fishing or something.”
Rei said, “There’s a butterfly garden at the arboretum.”
Was this an invite to hang out with all of them?
Given the way everyone was looking at him hopefully, Ichigo shrugged and said, “Sure, I guess. Why not?”
Makoto and Ichigo exchanged information, all of which Ichigo typed into his cell. Makoto had to smile to see the little mascot attached to it along with a number of other charms, but before Ichigo left for the train, Makoto had to ask, “Are you sure you don’t just want to stay now?”
Ichigo had insisted it had been the tennis team. He’d regaled them at dinner with all the gory details, in fact. The story was so detailed and awful that it had to be truth, but…
There were all those other marks.
From all those other times.
Ichigo looked a little stunned by Makoto’s insistence. “Uh, I suppose I could just call, but I don’t even have a change of clothes besides my swimsuit. And, I know Haru probably sleeps in that, but—“
“You could borrow my clothes,” Makoto said. But, then looking at their height difference, offered, “Or Haru’s.”
Ichigo gave Makoto a funny look and then laughed, “Do I want to know why you have Haru’s clothes at your place?”
No. “Okay, well, as long as you’re sure you’ll be okay.”
Ichigo shook his head in bafflement. “Dude, you’re sweet and everything, but I can take care of myself. I’ve been doing it a long time.”
I know, Makoto thought. That’s what makes me so sad.
Ichigo apparently lost his mind because rather than just informing Dummo Dad he’d be away for the weekend, he tried actually explaining it.
“Do boys sleepover at your age?” Dad asked. “I’m not sure I approve. This sounds very perverted.”
“Only to you, you ass,” Ichigo said. At least he’d already packed his bag. It sat under the kitchen table ready to go with him to school. “I’m going to be sleeping over at the hotel with all of the team when we go off to tournament, too, you know. Christ.”
Isshin, however, was being a complete dick about this. He frowned at the dishes he was putting in the washer. “What’s wrong with your friends around here, anyway?”
That’s what I want to know. Ichigo pushed away from the table and grabbed his bags. “See you Sunday night.”
Ichigo ignored the shouts from his dad as he walked out the door.
Keigo was waiting outside in the alley under Ichigo’s window, as usual. Seeing the overnight bag, he asked, “Going somewhere special?”
To be fair, Keigo was the single most loyal friend Ichigo had ever had. He might be a complete dope, but the guy was always there. But even Keigo was a little awkward after Aizen’s defeat. Keigo’d had to put up with Ikkaku and Yumichika staying at his house and even he seemed to see the occasional ghost nowadays, which was the fucking height of ironic frustration.
Goddamn Keigo Asano would make a better substitute shinigami than Ichigo would right now.
And Keigo had shitty boundaries. He always wanted to talk about all that stuff and ask after Rukia.
“Swim team,” was all Ichigo said.
“Tournament already!” That seemed to please Keigo for some reason. “I guess that means you’ll be back with us soon, huh?”
“I guess.” It really was only one more week and then Ichigo would’ve fulfilled his contract. Five was an awkward number for a team that mostly did relays.
“I heard the tennis team’s captain is in the hospital.”
“I heard you put him there.”
How much further to school?
“Chad will be bummed to hear he missed out on some action… I think. I mean, where has Chad been lately? He’s been out a lot.”
“I don’t know, Keigo. Nobody talks to me. Except you.”
They walked all the rest of the way to school in silence. At the front steps Keigo sighed. “I hate that all you guys are fighting. I wish we were all friends again and I hadn’t woken up to see that crazy-scary butterfly guy.”
That touched Ichigo a little and he actually reached out and patted Keigo’s shoulder briefly. “Me, too, man. Me, too.”
Makoto had a plan. He’d even arranged transportation with Mr. Sasabe again. However, this time they’d go to that island on purpose and he would be sure to have everyone pack food, flashlights, and sleeping bags.
Rei was the hardest to convince, perhaps for obvious reasons.
Nagisa, of course, worried about Makoto. They sat with their legs dangling over the sea wall, the wind pushing ocean spray into their faces with every wave crash. An orange sun sank into the horizon, leaving a bright colored streak on the water’s surface. Nagisa’s hand was on Makoto’s thigh, “Are you absolutely sure? I mean Haru said you almost… we almost lost you that night.”
“Everything worked out,” Makoto pointed out, giving Nagisa’s hand a reassuring squeeze and then leaving it there. Nagisa’s smaller hand disappeared under his own. Makoto smiled, “That’s what’s important in the end.”
It felt nice to hold hands again. It’d been a long time.
They thought about that night in silence for a while, and then Makoto added, “Besides, I think Ichigo would appreciate an adventure.”
“Are you worried that our city boy will be bored otherwise?” Nagisa asked.
“A little,” Makoto said. “I want him to have a good time.”
Nagisa’s smile was mischievous. “Do you… like him?”
Makoto couldn’t help but smile a little in return. “A bit,” Makoto admitted. He turned to look out into the sea. “But, I worry about him more.”
Nagisa bumped his shoulder into Makoto’s side. “You worry about everyone.”
Ichigo’d had no idea what to expect, but he really did not think he’d be stuck on a smelly, cramped fishing boat headed off to a deserted island, like some scene in a novel.
He also didn’t expect to be seasick.
Given all the misadventures in his life, including kind of maybe being dead more than once, Ichigo was a little surprised to discover ocean waves could defeat him so soundly.
He’d complain, but all Ichigo could do was hang his head over the side and puke his guts out. Nagisa rubbed his back while Makoto rummaged anxiously through a huge army bag. “I know I packed ginger pills.”
Ginger, Ichigo wanted to laugh, but he was too busy hurling. Ha, ironic!
By the time Ichigo had nothing left in his stomach and they’d fed him ginger pills and peppermints, the boat pulled into a narrow beach. Huge cliff walls rose high into the sky. Ichigo could see the shape of a lighthouse at the very top….
…when he wasn’t hunched over, holding onto his knees, anyway.
The team didn’t seem to mind, however, when Ichigo just groaned and sank to the sand. He held on to his head and tried to will the ground to stop moving. But, everything seemed to still be rising and falling and… ugh. He thought for sure this would have stopped when he got on solid ground.
The guys unpacked the boat around him, talking to the driver-dude, who apparently was their part-time or former coach; Ichigo wasn’t entirely following the conversation.
Then, they all set up a little campfire. Makoto touched Ichigo lightly and said, “We’ll hang out on the beach for awhile until you’re feeling well enough for the hike.”
“Megh,” Ichigo said, though it was supposed to be ‘thank you.’
After a few minutes, the ground seemed to settle down and Ichigo could look around again without feeling sick. The team had just found spots around him. Haru sat to one side, staring, like he always did, out at the water like it was his long lost friend. Makoto was on the other, skewering long black hot dogs on a stick. Ichigo’s stomach did a flip watching it, but he had to ask, “Black?”
“You haven’t had these?” Makoto asked surprised.
Ichigo shook his head. Glancing around told him that everyone was kind of surprised by the news.
“See, I told you just because he lives in the city doesn’t mean he’s tried all the latest fads,” Rei said.
“It’s squid ink,” Nagisa said cheerfully.
“I heard it’s edible bamboo charcoal,” Rei insisted.
“It’s a thing?” Ichigo asked, still watching Makoto skewer the ugly-looking hot dog. “For real? You guys aren’t shitting me, are you? Like, some kind of hazing for the newbie or something?”
“No, these are like black hamburgers!” Nagisa agreed cheerfully. “Remember those?”
Makoto was giving Ichigo a curious look. “You’ve had black hamburgers, right?”
Ichigo shook his head. “Uh, I don’t actually get out much. I’ve been, um…. Busy?” How the hell did he explain Hueco Mundo and Aizen and all that? Ah, fuck, he was just going to have to look like the biggest, un-coolest moron ever.
“It’s okay,” Rei said. He sat on the opposite side of the snapping bonfire. His glasses glinted in the fading light. “Yobiko can take up a lot of time, especially if you’re ronin.”
It was an ironic term, given his past as a substitute shinigami, but in this context it meant someone who’d failed an entrance exam and went to yobiko, cram school, to catch up. Ichigo was tempted to point out that he’d been ranked 23rd in his entire school, but they wouldn’t believe him. No one did once they made up their mind about who they thought you were. Ichigo just shrugged. “Whatever, dude.”
“We don’t know that Ichigo is a bad student, Rei,” Makoto said, poking the fire with a stick. He turned to Ichigo, “Does your father insist on extra classes so that you can go to medical school like he did?”
What was the obsession with Dummo Dad, anyway?
But, Makoto’s question made Ichigo wonder. Isshin never did say what he wanted Ichigo to grow up to be. Ichigo was smart enough to go to medical school, but Dad never said anything about it. In fact, they didn’t talk about the future much at all.
Leaning back on his elbows, Ichigo looked up at the sky. The stars were starting to come out. “I don’t think anyone expects me to live long enough.”
The fire warmed the soles of Ichigo’s Converses. The logs popped, sending sparks up into the air.
It was a beautiful night.
“Look,” Haru said, standing up slowly. “Jellyfish.”
Ichigo lifted his head to see where Haru pointed. All along the shore eerie bluish lights sloshed in the surf. It didn’t seem quite right, like maybe they’d all died, but it was weirdly gorgeous. Ichigo found himself standing up with the others to get a better look. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them and they sparkled like living jewels all along the water’s edge.
The sun had completely set and the entire beach was illuminated in the soft, strange glow. Above them, the stars twinkled, mirroring the jellyfish that danced in and out with the waves.
It was possibly the most magical thing Ichigo had ever seen in his life.
And he’d seen a lot.
But most of it had ended in blood.
Following some unspoken desire, they moved as close as they dared to the shoreline, away from the light of the fire. Then, they just sat, hugging their knees, and looking out at the strange and awesome spectacle.
Ichigo had no idea how long they sat there. No one said a word, as though they were all conscious of how special this moment was.
The world seemed big and beautiful to Ichigo all of a sudden.
And he wanted a future in it.
Makoto considered suggesting they forget the lighthouse and pitch tents on the beach, but Nagisa really wanted the adventure of a hike by flashlight.
They’d sat on the beach until the bonfire was nothing but glowing embers. It was pitch dark. Even though the jellyfish still glowed, they’d faded from their original glory.
Makoto glanced around, checking to see that everyone was ready to climb the cliff side. Nagisa and Rei were already halfway up the stairs, the beams of their flashlights bouncing in the darkness. Haru waited for Makoto patiently, his eyes still on the sea.
Where was Ichigo?
For a frantic moment, Makoto thought maybe he’d done something foolish like Rei on their first night on these islands. Scanning the water and the shore, Makoto let out a relieved breath when he saw Ichigo sitting on the sand.
Picking up Ichigo’s things, Makoto brought them over to him. “We’re headed up. Are you ready to go?”
Ichigo started, as though waking up from a dream. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Haru said suddenly, surprising them both by his silent approach.
Ichigo seemed to know what Haru meant because he looked out over the ocean. “It makes me feel small,” he said. But, then he turned to them and smiled softly, a heartbreaking look. “And, human.”
Makoto laughed lightly, because Ichigo sounded so surprised by that idea.
But Haru nodded seriously.
In fact, Haru looked like he might just reach out for Ichigo’s hand, as though to hold it. Regardless, he moved in closer—it must have been just a little too close because Ichigo jumped back all of a sudden.
“Dude! Were you going in for a kiss?”
It was an accusation and Haru looked shocked and hurt, like he’d been slapped.
No, Makoto wanted to say, please, please, no. It’s not like that. It’s not what you’re afraid of. It’s just closeness.
But, Ichigo stared at them like Rin stared at them, full of a horror, full of… longing.
No words came, however, and Ichigo grabbed his stuff and ran.
Haru looked shattered.
Ichigo made it about a half-mile up the beach before he stopped. What the fuck was he doing?
Was he seriously running away from a dude who had no zanpakuto, whose only ‘weapon’ was a pair of lips?
Ichigo turned around and headed back in the direction he’d come. He could see two figures on the beach, illuminated by the jellyfishes’ dulling blue light. Makoto had wrapped Haru in his arms and they seemed to be just standing there, holding each other.
Seriously, what kind of asshole was he? So what if Haru had wanted to kiss him?
No one else ever had.
Not even Rukia.
Which was really sad when Ichigo thought about it. Plus, these guys were good friends, even if they were kind of… gay?
Was this what Nagisa had been talking about that first day, when he made Ichigo promise to be nice?
Ichigo started jogging back towards them.
He had no idea what he’d say. ‘Sorry, I freaked like some kind of bigoted homophobe,’ sounded awkward, plus was it even fair? Maybe Haru was going to kiss him, but it was just as likely that he just wanted to pat Ichigo on the shoulder or something. These guys were kind of huggy and stuff, it didn’t mean anything, and anyway, even if it did, so what?
Ichigo stopped some distance from the two of them. Makoto was holding on to Haru, like he was gripping a shield—no, more like he was trying to be the shield. Ichigo should know that pose, after all. He should recognize the fire in the gaze that met his, that seemed to shout, ‘if you hurt him, I’ll hurt you worse.’
“Look,” Ichigo said, dropping his bag to the sand. “I broke a promise. I promised Nagisa I’d be nice and I was a jerk. I hate breaking promises, so I’m really sorry.”
Haru pulled himself from Makoto’s embrace, but he didn’t say anything.
He didn’t even turn around.
Ah, shit. Ichigo glanced at Makoto, hoping for some help. Which, no surprise, he got. Makoto took a hold of Haru’s hand, but told Ichigo, “It’s hard. You remind Haru of… someone else. Someone who hurt us, who still hurts us.”
A boyfriend? Ichigo wasn’t sure what to say to that, except, “What do you mean hurts you? Because… I can beat anybody up.”
Makoto laughed a kind of sad/happy laugh. “Oh, Ichigo.”
This had apparently been the right thing to say because Haru turned around and almost smiled.
Makoto noticed the way Ichigo stared at the way Haru’s hand was clasped in his, but Makoto refused to let go.
They’d started toward the cliff wall and the stairs that led to the lighthouse. Haru had switched on his flashlight and Makoto had shouldered both their bags.
Ichigo’s eyes, however, seemed more curious than threatened now though, and he asked, “So, who’s this jerk? The one that I need to kick.”
“You can’t kick him, Ichigo,” Makoto said. “We like Rin. That’s why when he doesn’t call, it hurts.”
“Oh,” Ichigo scratched the top of his head. He stood aside to let Haru and Makoto go up the narrow staircase first. Stomping along behind them, Ichigo seemed to consider this dilemma for a long time. Finally, he asked, “How come he doesn’t call?”
As they climbed, Makoto told Ichigo a shortened version of everything that had happened last year. How Rin had once been very close and then he’d moved away and come back different. Haru filled in here and there about the events of their competition and how it had ended in the relay, just like old times.
They reached the top. Nagisa and Rei were playing some kind of flashlight tag around the outside of the building.
Ichigo sighed. “I don’t get it. I mean, shouldn’t this Rin guy be here if you needed a fifth swimmer?”
Haru sucked in a little breath.
“We asked. He wouldn’t come,” Makoto answered. “His school is competing, too. So, he said he’d meet us there and we’d hang out. I don’t think he meant to seem so cold. It’s just a small thing, and I’m sure it just didn’t seem that important.”
Ichigo glanced up at the moon. “He’s probably not ready.”
Haru perked up. “How do you mean?”
Shoving his hands in his pocket, Ichigo kicked a rock over the cliff’s edge. His eyes were still distant, watching the horizon. “You say he’s like me? So, I’d guess he needs some space to wrap his head around—“ Ichigo stopped and gave them a quick, pointed look. “—how important you guys are to him. If he’s smart, he’ll come around eventually.”
Makoto nodded. That’s what he’d been thinking, too. Something that had happened in Australia had made it difficult for Rin to be close, the way they used to be. It was heartbreaking when it seemed like he was completely lost to them, but last year had proved that he wanted to be part of their team again.
He just didn’t know how.
Not yet anyway.
“I think so, too,” Makoto said, giving Haru’s hand one last squeeze before letting go.
“Besides,” Ichigo said with a smile that was devilish. “If Rei made him jealous, imagine what he’ll think of me.”
Haru’s eyes went very wide and that made everyone laugh.
When Nagisa suggested they play spin the bottle, Ichigo wondered a) if he was going to get kissed after all, and b) how the hell he never guessed these guys were gay before.
The bottle Nagisa had spun ended up pointing at Ichigo. “Truth,” seemed the safest bet, since, though he might be feeling pretty cool about it all at the moment, Ichigo didn’t really want to risk ‘dare’ just yet.
Nagisa tapped his lower lip for a few seconds, as though considering the options. “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?”
Ah, Christ, all the options… Aizen? Gin? Grimmjow? Uliquorra?
No, it wasn’t one of them at all, was it? Ichigo suddenly knew: “That first night, when the Hollow attacked us and I thought Yuzu and Karin were going to die and I didn’t know what to do to save them. That was the scariest moment of my life. Yeah, I’ve never been so terrified.”
“Someone attacked your family?” Rei asked, breathless.
“Was it a break-in?” Nagisa wanted to know.
“Was everyone all right?” Makoto wanted to know.
Haru blinked. “What’s a Hollow?”
“Ah, crap,” Ichigo muttered, “I’m not really supposed to talk about this stuff.”
“But you can’t leave it there,” Nagisa insisted.
Rei handed Ichigo the flashlight. “Tell us the whole story.”
Ichigo couldn’t quite figure out why he’d been given the flashlight, but the fascinated looks in everyone’s eyes clued him in. They wanted a story, a ghost story.
Heh. ‘A Ghost Story’ could almost be the subtitle of Ichigo’s whole life.
But, under the onslaught of their encouragement, Ichigo flicked the switch to ‘on’ and shined it in his face. He couldn’t quite stifle the urge to roll his eyes a little, though. These guys, they had no idea the stuff he’d seen. But, he could tell them about that one night, about how it all started, about meeting Rukia and how they’d defeated the Hollow together.
That story had a good ending at least.
Sure, he wasn’t supposed to talk about any of that, but they wouldn’t really believe him, anyway.
So, Ichigo took a breath, and began, “One night, I woke up to find this crazy samurai cosplayer standing on my dresser talking to herself…”
Ichigo was a good storyteller, Makoto decided. He was funny and dramatic and had an excellent ear for dialogue. If it hadn’t been so outlandish, the story sounded almost plausible and very realistic.
Afterwards, it was late enough that they all decided to unroll their sleeping bags and crawl in. Even though it was warmer than that first night they’d spent here, the night air was still chilly enough that it felt good to snuggle between the folds.
They put Ichigo in the middle, with Nagisa and Rei on one side, and himself and Haru on the other.
“Is your friend Rukia okay?” Nagisa asked. “Did she ever get her sword back?”
Nagisa had clearly decided Ichigo’s tall tale was true, even though it involved death gods, monsters, and magical samurai swords.
Ichigo had tucked his arms under his head and stared up at the ceiling. “You know, I don’t really know. She must have. I mean I’ve seen her using it—maybe after Byakuya sliced my soul chain Sode no Shirayuki returned to her? I should really ask Hat-and-Clogs how that whole thing worked. I really have no idea.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot more to this story,” Rei said. “You should write it all down.”
Ichigo laughed a little at that thought. “Yeah, I could poke my eye with a stick, too.”
“What does that mean?” Makoto wondered.
Ichigo rolled over. “Forget it.”
Makoto exchanged a glance with Haru, who shrugged. Nagisa didn’t seem to know either, when he caught Makoto’s eyes. Rei shook his head. No one understood the problem.
Ichigo had a lot of issues.
They were going to need a lot more weekends like this to get to the bottom of them. Makoto asked, “Will you hang out with us after the tournament is over?”
“Oh, great idea,” Nagisa said. “Say you will, Ichigo!”
“We still need to see the butterflies,” Rei pointed out.
“Huh?” Ichigo turned back over. “I guess I could. But, I’m just the substitute. You know, until you get Rin back.”
“No,” Haru said. “You’re not a substitute friend.”
“That’s right.” Makoto agreed, “You’re our friend.”
“You’re only temporary on the team, not temporary in our lives,” Rei said.
“Yeah,” Nagisa added, “There’s no substitute for friendship!”
Ichigo looked a little overwhelmed for a moment. Then he shook his head. “You guys are great.”
Ichigo woke up early, with the sunrise. The guys were still asleep. Haru and Makoto had rolled into each other, lying almost nose-to-nose. Nagisa had spooned up against Rei’s back, an arm flung around his waist.
Ichigo pulled himself out of his sleeping bag. He started rooting around for provisions. Did they ever eat those strange hotdogs? Ichigo’s stomach didn’t think so. Considering they were heading back by boat this morning, he should probably skip breakfast. But, when he found a few onigiri, Ichigo couldn’t resist grabbing a couple of the plastic wrapped rice balls. One went in his mouth; the other got stuck in his pajama pant’s pocket.
Deciding to let the guys sleep, Ichigo snuck out the door. He checked out the lighthouse in the daylight. There was a big empty kitchen and a couple of dusty rooms, the kind that probably collected ghosts like cobwebs.
Ichigo sat on the window ledge and ate, watching the dust motes dance in the early morning light. Swallows had built a mud nest under the eaves and they darted in and out, bright underbellies flashing in the sun.
Was everything always this beautiful and he’d just never noticed? Or was this island magical?
Maybe… could it be that he’d just never seen this stuff because he was always moving so fast, rushing to the next fight?
So, Ichigo watched the sun come up and the world slowly turn until the guys came trundling down the stairs a half hour later.
“There you are!” Nagisa said happily, almost relieved.
Makoto looked a little pale, too.
“Is something wrong?” Ichigo asked, hopping off the ledge. He could feel himself starting to look for a threat in the shadows, wishing for the familiar weight of Zangetsu at his back. But, then he stopped himself. Even at its worst, there’d be nothing like that here.
“No one likes it when people go missing on these islands,” Rei supplied gloomily.
There was a story there, but Ichigo didn’t need to know it to see how he’d screwed up. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to worry anyone. I thought it’d be nice to let you guys sleep in.”
“What are you doing down here all by yourself?” Makoto asked.
Ichigo shrugged, glancing over his shoulder at the bird’s nest. “Nothing. Just thinking.”
“C’mon, let’s go for a hike!” Nagisa announced.
That sounded great to Ichigo. He wanted to see it all.
Makoto tried to make the boat ride back better for Ichigo. He still needed a lot of ginger and groaned miserably the whole way. At least Mr. Sasabe was a skilled boatman. They avoided the choppiest water.
At the dock, Makoto steered Ichigo toward a bench where he could sit with his head between his knees as they tied the boat down and unpacked the gear.
They’d nearly finished when Makoto heard the sound of screeching tires. Thinking it might be an accident in progress, he looked up. A van pulled up to the curb at the end of the pier. The doors slid open and a giant man jumped out of the back. Broad like an ox, he had black spiky hair and looked in desperate need of a shave. He wore a loud Hawaiian print shirt to reveal a large amount of chest hair. The man barreled toward them like a bullet.
No, not them.
Though they looked nothing alike, Makoto had a sense that this had to be Ichigo’s dad. So, he stepped up, putting himself between the big man and Ichigo.
When the man saw Makoto, Makoto bowed deeply. When he came up he said, “Kurosaki-sensei! Is there something we can help you with, sir?”
Dr. Kurosaki tried to look around Makoto to see Ichigo. Standing this close, Makoto was surprised to discover Ichigo’s dad was only an inch taller than he was, given how gigantic the older man seemed.
“You didn’t tell me when you left Friday night that I’d have concerned parents and police coming around, Ichigo!” he bellowed. “Ryuuken tells me you’re lucky you’re not up for murder. How many times do I have to tell you concussions are serious?”
Though Makoto watched Ichigo’s dad’s face, he could have sworn he heard Ichigo snort and mutter, “Says the guy who’s knocked me out cold twice.”
“Stop hiding behind your friend and face me. You have a lot to answer for.”
“Dr. Kurosaki,” Makoto said. “Ichigo is seasick.”
Ichigo must have pulled himself to his feet, because suddenly he put a hand on Makoto’s shoulder. He was unsteady and clearly needed the support for his wobbling legs, but his voice was firm and hard. “How about you fuck off, Dad? Sorry I caused you all this trouble, but, turns out, no one taught me how to pull my punches. The only way I know how to hit is with everything I got.”
Ichigo’s dad’s face actually softened a little like that, “I know. But, you’re not supposed to go after the civilians, son. You’re too strong for them. You keep going like this and you’re going to end your life in prison.”
“Yeah? What am I supposed to do? You got some other enemy for me?” Ichigo’s voice sounded raw, like his throat had constricted from unshed tears. “Someone my size, maybe. Who’s that even going to be, huh? You got some other ex-shinigami lying around? That’s not even you any more, is it?”
Ichigo’s dad looked at Makoto and said, “My son is clearly delirious. I’ll take him home now.”
Makoto couldn’t believe he’d just said it, but there it was.
His knees were shaking but he felt Rei’s hand on his shoulder. Haru and Nagisa flanked Ichigo. Even Mr. Sasabe seemed willing to step in. Though none of the rest of them looked as sure, they all seemed ready to follow Makoto’s lead.
“No?” This was clearly not a word that a lot of people said to Kurosaki senior.
Makoto didn’t quite know what to say, so he just blurted out the first thing that came to him. “Please, Dr. Kurosaki, couldn’t we all talk this out over lunch?”
Ichigo made a queasy little belch and gripped Makoto’s shoulder harder. He was strong; his grip was like iron.
Ichigo’s dad seemed to have lost his bluster. He scratched his head at the scene and said, “What are we talking over?”
“He can’t leave yet. We still haven’t seen the butterflies,” Rei said out of the blue.
“Yeah, plus there’s the nature walk,” Nagisa added.
“I planned to make mackerel for dinner,” Haru offered.
“My parents are expecting him,” Makoto finished. “I promised my sister we’d show Ichigo the newest Soul Caliber.”
“Soul Caliber? Are you fucking kidding me?” Ichigo said.
“Shh, don’t ruin this,” Nagisa hissed.
Ichigo’s dad gave them each a very hard look. Makoto felt like the older man was staring deeply into his soul.
“You know I never gave permission for this,” Ichigo’s dad said. Then, he did a sudden about-face and beamed at them all, his arms flung wide, “But how can a father not love to see his son so well taken care of!”
And, quite unexpectedly, they were all wrapped in a giant hug.
Awkward group hug was… awesome.
Ichigo closed his eyes and let out the breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. It shuddered out, almost like a sob, taking with it so much weight, so much crap he’d been holding back. He felt Makoto and Nagisa and all the guys, even Dad, supporting him.
He was pretty sure Nagisa had started to giggle a little with relief. Haru and Rei let out huge sighs. Into his ear, Makoto whispered, “Will you be all right? Is this really okay?”
Okay? Ah fuck, this was so much more than okay. These guys had given Ichigo a huge gift. But, he had no words to express the depth of his gratitude at the chance to be human.
Weirdly, it was Dummo Dad who articulated it. Still holding on to all of them lightly, Dad pulled away and boomed, “Such good lads! You should come visit us next! But, Ichigo can come here any time he likes! The sun is good for him! All this fresh air!”
And then they were crushed in Isshin’s arms again. The fucking brute, he was going to break these guys. But… even Dad’s strength was comforting.
God damn it, Ichigo thought with a happy sigh, I love these guys. All of them, even Dummo Dad.