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Rebirth: Sternenprinz

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Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner thoughts/speech

Prologue: Of Cleaning and Blackmail

-x-

Ichigo Godebert

Ichigo sighed. He wished he could stay here forever, watching the lazy water flow beneath him from his spot on the bridge as the sun started to sink behind the horizon to leave the sky washed with an orange as bright as his hair. He usually paid more attention to the river, but today the sunset was especially pretty. Something about sunsets just made him feel calmer, like he was finally getting to rest after a long and exhausting battle. In a way, he was resting after a long battle - his entire day was nothing but fighting. Fighting to get out of the house, fighting through school, fighting through work, and actual fighting. Ichigo sighed again. He was not looking forward to having to walk home after his last shift. He could do without a fight from one of the wannabe punks that waited for him at this bridge before work every night, it just made working so much more difficult. He supposed it was a convenient excuse for what he was already dealing with, but still. It didn't make him any happier about it.

If I don't get myself moving soon, I'm gonna get yelled at again for being late. Let's just get this over with...

Ichigo pushed off from the railing where he'd been leaning and took a deep breath before heading to the end of the bridge at a brisk pace. Sure enough, when he reached the end, a group of thuggish looking young men stepped out from behind the same concrete bridge marker that gangs wanting a fight always waited for him at.

"Where do you think you're going, punk? My boys and I have been waitin' all damn day just to catch your sorry ass for a little conversation..." The leader sporting a deep purple jumpsuit and balding greasy black slicked back hair said with a malicious grin.

If it wasn't for how tired he was, Ichgio would have rolled his eyes. This guy looked a few pounds short of a street lamp, no way was a string bean like him gonna beat him. The five guys behind him seemed a lot more fit, so Ichigo was guessing that this guy was leader because he had some sort of monetary hold over the others. A seedy rich guy like him was bound to attract some low-lives looking for a fight and some good pay, so Ichigo figured all he had to do was take out Greasy Toothpick and maybe one other guy and the others would cut and run. You can't buy loyalty.

"Which one are you, you're brothers or cousins or something with one of the guys I beat up yesterday and want revenge, you're hear to test my reputation, you're here to teach me some respect for you low-lives, or what?" Ichigo asked with arms crossed and eyes half-lidded. The leader twitched.

"What, you don't know who we are and what we're here for after what you did?!" The leader exclaimed and pulled out a wooden sword.

"Uh, post-liposuction teletubby looking for the rest of his hair?" Ichigo deadpanned. He didn't really need to egg him on, but Ichigo had been doing that a lot lately.

"Why you snotnosed ass-wipe! Don't just stand there, GET HIM!" The leader motioned wildly at Ichigo, face beet red and furious.

Ichigo just sighed and dodged a punch from a tattooed behemoth before using his momentum to drive his knee into his gut, ducking just in time to feel the swish of a wooden sword above his head. Quickly jumping back up, Ichigo moved out of the way from another sword strike to plant his foot in the nearest goon's face, a red-haired man with thick side burns. Feeling his foot connect, Ichigo bit back a cry of pain from antagonizing the twisted ankle he had gained from yesterday's late return home. Pushing through the pain from his ankle and various other places of soreness, Ichigo whipped around as fast as he could to sucker punch a man with blue shades into the ground.

Ignoring the panicked cries of the henchmen, Ichigo let the lunging leader's sword slide past him as he grabbed his stunned face to force his legs and sword to fly forwards while his face remained in Ichigo's hand. Crying out from the pain of having had Ichigo's hand mashed into his face, the leader didn't yet register the foot flying straight for his greasy, balding head.

Hissing in pain, Ichigo resisted the urge to reach down and rub his ankle as he stood over the unconscious man, opting instead to glare ominously at the remaining thugs trying to drag their wounded friends away.

"SHIT! This freak's crazy - RUN!"

Forgetting their supposed boss, the five goons turned tail and ran. Guess I was right about their loyalty... As soon as they were out of sight, Ichigo stumbled back and leaned down to gingerly massage his throbbing ankle. Shit, this really hurts... No time to stop and check it out though, gotta keep moving. Stepping over the unconscious man, Ichigo started jogging down the concrete path ignoring his ankle's painful protesting. He had a long way to go if he wanted to make it across town in time, even if this fight had been fairly quick. It didn't help that he had a slight cough that he couldn't shake. He just hoped for once no one would notice his tardiness...

x

"Can anyone tell me what time it is?"

Silence.

"Ichigo, do you know what time it is?"

Ichigo swallowed.

"Sir, I'm sorr-"

"What. Time. Is. It."

Ichigo kept his head down with his arms stiff at his side.

"It's 7:28 pm, sir." Ichigo muttered just loud enough for his boss to hear.

"Louder."

Ichigo cleared his throat and clenched his fists. He wanted to fight, to run, to do something, but he needed this job more than anything.

"It is 7:28 pm, sir." Ichigo said, louder. His coworker Kaiya snickered behind him.

"Since Ichigo obviously doesn't know when his night shift starts, who else can tell me?" His boss, Daimo, asked the ring of workers gathered around Ichigo for his punishment. Ichigo shut his eyes when he heard Kaiya speak up from behind him.

"7:20 pm, Daimo-sama, after Yumi's night shift ends and I take on the cash register right on time." Kaiya gave a sickly sweet smile to her boss.

"Very good, Kaiya, maybe a wonderful employee like you should take Ichigo's job." Daimo said as Kaiya beamed. Kaiya, raven haired, venomous, squeaky clean Kaiya. She absolutely hated Ichigo for some reason, and had been pining after his job ever since he got it. Anytime she could make Ichgio miserable or her fellow workers laugh at his expense, she would. It was like some low budget high school movie, complete with oblivious higher-ups and social cliques.

"Wait, please, sir I can explain. I was on my way here when -" Daimo held up a hand to silence Ichigo.

"No one cares why you were late. I've heard more excuses from you than I can count, so you can stop pretending to limp and just own up to your tardiness." Daimo said. Ichigo's heart dropped. He normally didn't try to hide his injuries or weak coughing since no one really said anything or seemed to care, but it seemed that this time he should have. Now his boss thought he was trying to trick him or something - did no one really trust him?

"Yes sir. I promise it won't happen again." Ichigo said dejectedly. Daimo glared at him.

"You had better. The only reason I let a delinquent like you work at my store is thanks to my incredible generosity. I should have fired your worthless ass a long time ago." Turning to his employees, Daimo waved his hand in dismissal. "Show's over, get back to work!"

As his coworkers dispersed, Ichigo thanked his lucky stars that the convenience store was empty at this time of night. Pulling his dark green beany lower on his head to further cover his "unprofessional" hair, Ichigo quickly slipped on his night janitor vest and grabbed a mop to start cleaning.

He'd been working here since he was 12 (having lied about his age at the time), as opposed to the other workers who had only been there a year, but had never been offered a promotion because of a couple reasons. Daimo was not an idiot and could recognize a preteen when he saw one, but had a reputation for hiring underage workers off the record in exchange for personal errands. That was the whole reason Ichigo was working at this particular convenience store over half an hour away from where he lived - it was one of the only places that would hire him. But now that Ichigo was 15 and he was legal to work and receive better pay if he was to include his records and time of work, doing so would reveal that he was clearly underage when he had begun working. Another more obvious reason that he wasn't getting promoted was that Daimo seemed to hate him as much as his coworkers. They always acted like it was because of his weary, dismal attitude, but Ichigo was pretty sure it was because they didn't have to treat him like a normal employee and he was easy to blame. "Daimo sir, I wouldn't have spilled if Ichgio hadn't been distracting me" "Daimo-sama, I didn't work on this yet because I was waiting for Ichigo to arrive" "I thought Ichigo was taking care of this, sir" No one ever questioned if it was really his fault or not, it just was. He was a screw-up, a delinquent. He was always showing up late and covered in bruises, winded from having to run just to make it across town for work, exhausted from his morning shift and school, and scruffy from his dirty old, worn out clothes. In short, he looked almost as much of a mess as he felt.

"Missed a spot, hobo-boy." Kaiya said without looking up from her magazine at the cash register.

Ichigo tried to growl but it came out as shaky bout of coughing instead. Hobo-boy, how original. It wasn't like he wanted to look like this, he just couldn't afford anything else with his mother Lena constantly confiscating all his money. It had cost him nearly an arm and a leg just to get himself a school uniform with his spending money (whatever he could stash without Lena finding it). The rest he spent on textbooks and crappy fast food since he wasn't allowed to eat at home (not that there was really anything there for him to eat).

Oh, food. He was pretty skilled at ignoring his hunger, and most days he didn't even notice it anymore, but today his stomach protested. He'd managed to eat something he found that some wasteful bastard just left on a bench, an entire sandwich. He'd scarfed it down, not caring that he was getting stares and weird looks. He was hungry, and he'd take anything he could get. His money stash he hid from Lena was too small to steadily feed him, so he had to consistently save up money and space out all his meals.

Hearing the tell-tale jingle of a customer coming through the door, Ichigo looked up to see a group of high school age students walk in, too engrossed with their conversation to notice him.

"No way! Why would they be sending another scout to our school so soon? You don't think they're finally gonna take one of those part-time students into their program, are they?" A boy with medium brown hair asked his raven-haired companion. Ichigo frowned, he knew these two boys from school. Keigo and Mizuiro were their names, if he was recalling correctly.

"Well, they are kind of unpredictable when it comes to the time they take in students, so maybe they got a new recommendation they're looking into from the school. Or they found out a student is related to one of the school clans." Mizuiro answered. Ichigo frowned again.

They must be talking about one of the private schools for gifted students. Every year they sent out scouts to different schools to see if any students applied to any of their programs. What the criteria was for these programs, no one seemed to know. Some said it was for secret prodigies and generally unique academics, and others said it was for students with a special heritage and lineage to the school clans. If Ichigo remembered right, the father of a classmate of his was of direct lineage to one of the Echt Quincy Academy's family clans. For some reason, anyone related to certain families only attended that school and studied their heritage and other unknown topics along with the standard school curriculum. Despite being exclusively for those of "pure" heritage, the school was widely considered the best of the best. Apparently it was a hot topic at school as to why this classmate chose to attend Karakura High instead of the prestigious Echt Quincy Academy. Rumor was that his mother wasn't of pure lineage. Ichigo himself was indifferent to that rumor as he'd had many a rumor spun about him, though his were a lot more negative.

"It can't be the Gemischt Quincy Academy again?" A third student with long black hair asked. The Gemischt Quincy Academy was the sister school to the Echt Quincy Academy and was a bit looser with it's heritage policy, almost exclusively taking in students only partially or distantly related to their school clans if they matched the rest of the criteria. Ichigo remembered Lena telling him to stay away from that school and it's scouts for some reason, but he hadn't paid too much attention since Lena seemed to hate all Quincy families.

"Probably not, I mean do you know anybody left at our school with any German names?" Mizuiro asked. It was well known that the two quincy academies were founded and run by their German and German-Japanese family clans, and that their head school was even in Germany. There were only a couple of family clans that held Japanese names that were still related to the schools.

"Well, other than Ichigo, no. But it's pretty obvious from his records that not even Shin'ō Outreach will accept him." The long haired girl said.

Shin'ō Outreach was a global outreach program for students with centers all around the world, unlike the quincy academies that only placed schools in areas with the proper families. For some reason, they dealt more in foreign exchange programs from schools no one had heard of, like their mother school, Shin'ō Academy. No one even knew where it was located, just that it supported Shin'ō Outreach in partnership with a small group of unknown aristocrats. Karakura town was lucky enough to have both quincy academies and a Shin'ō Outreach Center.

The only complaint about having a center in Karakura was the strange foreign students that it brought with it. Many of the students looked far too old to be in school and spent most of their time exploring the town stumbling around like they didn't understand how the modern world worked, marveling at street lights and nearly getting run over by cars. There were even rumors that students were sometimes found unconscious and unresponsive in the strangest locations only to miraculously wake up again. Ichigo had never personally seen these occurrences, so he wrote it off as just another rumor started by somebody with too much time on their hands.

"Maybe not - I heard he gets pretty good grades 'cause he cheats, but nobody can prove it or put it on his record. Scouts wouldn't know about it unless they asked his teachers." Keigo said.

Ichigo gripped his mop handle tightly. He wasn't cheating. Everyone thought that he was just some stupid delinquent, that he didn't care about school because he arrived late every day and often stepped out of class. They never knew just how hard he worked, busting his ass day and night to study and keep up with work. That was the reason he was late to school every day, he had a morning shift here and no matter how short it was, it always caused him to miss his first period class, P.E. Despite all of this, he worked hard to keep his grades up by studying and doing extra credit every second he wasn't at home.

He even skipped lunch to work on homework in the library where no one would bother him. Sure, he wasn't the best in school, he wasn't even the best in his class, but he could only do so much. It was a struggle just to get average marks.

To be truthful, Ichigo wasn't actually all that angry. He had given up on being angry a long time ago. He had given up in general. He couldn't control what people thought of him, but he could control what he did. So he kept his head down and tried to ignore the whispers, the stares, and the distrust. If they wanted to gawk at him and keep their distance, fine. He didn't need friends, all he needed was his job and his education. At one point when he was much younger, he'd had a plan to work hard and make his way into a good college so he could get a good job and buy a good house to live in with his mother, but that dream had been abruptly stolen from him. Now it was a struggle just to get through each day. He didn't see a direction anymore, just an endless expanse of struggling and school and work. The most he hoped for now was to make it through the week, maybe even high school if he was lucky.

"I really don't think scouts are going to pick him - hey, Tatsuki, didn't you say that Orihime's new neighbor had a scout come see him?" Mizuiro asked.

"I didn't say that, but Orihime thinks she saw a scout knocking on his apartment door once. She's talked with him a couple times and found out that he's transferring from another school to Karakura High in the middle of the year. She freaked out and insisted that he have dinner with her so she can tell him all about the school and catch him up on what we've been learning." The girl Mizuiro had called Tatsuki rolled her eyes.

"I told her there was no way she should be inviting some stranger to have dinner with her, but she insisted that 'he's really sweet once you look past the super-macho silent intimidation-ess.' She thinks that the reason he moved to her apartments is because it's right next to the Gemischt Quincy Academy, and if she just talks up our school to him for long enough he'll ignore that scout and stay with us." She said, shaking her head.

"Is that why you're picking up snacks for Orihime?" Mizuiro asked. Tatsuki nodded.

"I haven't met him yet, so I made Orihime promise to let me bring her some snacks as an excuse to meet him halfway through their evening. I can't believe she's spent so long with him, though. It's already way past dinner." Tatsuki said. Keigo let out a wail, causing his two friends to look at him.

"That stupid transfer student's gone and stolen Orihime from me! He's probably making out with her right no - OW!" Keigo was interrupted by Tatsuki smacking him.

"Orihime was never yours to begin with, and she's not making out with him! They're just talking about school, dumbass!" Tatasuki yelled before checking her volume.

Keigo continued to cry dramatically on the floor as the other two pretended like they didn't know him and finished picking out snacks.

"Well, if this mystery man is going to be going to our school, why don't Keigo and I stop by with you to say hi?" Mizuiro asked. Keigo shot up from the ground.

"Yes! Show him Orihime already has a man looking after her!" Keigo cried. Tatsuki hit him again.

"You aren't going to say anything to him! If you guys wanna come, that's fine, but you have to behave yourselves." She said with a pointed look at Keigo.

Having reached an agreement, the three paid for their snacks and left.

Ducking out of his classmates' way, Ichigo continued to mop and hide his face as he masked his coughing. Just because he worked hard didn't mean his classmates had to know, no matter how nice that would be. Someone might start to ask him questions he couldn't answer if they knew that he was working, and he couldn't have anyone meddling in his personal life. It only ever made things worse.

-x-

Karakura Town - 7:30 pm

A cool breeze wafted across the darkened streets of Karakura town as the moon glowed in the dark night sky. Freckled specks of light decorating the night briefly disappeared as a dark blur flashed into sight before quickly disappearing again. A second blur followed close behind as the pair silently made their way across town, unnoticeable to even the most alert agent of stealth.

Barely a whisper of wind was heard as the two blurs leaped across rooftops before coming to a stop at the edge of a park. Silently sliding down the side of the house, the two quickly disappeared into the trees. Not even the bushes gave hint of their movements as they made their way towards a certain spot. Once arriving, the two stopped.

"Are you sure it needs repairing?" A deep, masculine voice asked.

"Maa~ You wound my pride." The other said.

"I'm going to wound a lot more of you if you brought me out here for nothing." The first warned with a growl. A yelp from the second was heard as the first further affirmed their threat.

"Alright, alright. You can scratch me all you want if I am wrong, but can you please just undo the Kido already?" The second said, whining slightly.

"Why do I even put up with you…" The first muttered.

Muted chanting was heard right before a small flash of light briefly illuminated an object the size of an apple. A little bit of scuffling commenced as the second figure bent down and began fiddling with the device, occasionally muttering to himself.

"Well?" The first said as they paced around impatiently.

"I was right - it was damaged. But it doesn't appear to be intentional as I've already fixed it, so I think it's more than likely some child playing hide and seek had the misfortune of stumbling into it." The crouching figure replied.

"Or playing soccer."

Still crouching, he turned to his companion curiously to see them standing in front of a busted soccer ball. Taking a closer look at the ball, he picked it up to see that it had writing scrawled in sharpie on it. Grinning, he turned the ball for both of them to see.

"My my, it seems we know the owner of this here sensor-wrecker. I shall just have to return it to them." He said in a sing-song voice. The other snorted.

"Oh I'm sure they'll be glad to see you again so soon." They said.

"Maa~ Are you saying they don't enjoy my visits?" Whined the second.

"Two thirds of the time you visit them, it's to tell them someone is conspiring to kill them." Said the first.

Just as the other was about to argue that point, the sensor in his hand began beeping and whirring. Sharing a look, the two quickly reapplied the sensor to the ground, muttered another chant and sped off back over the rooftops of their town.

-xx-

Kurosaki Godebert - Convenience Store Restroom

1... 2... 3... breathe in...

1... 2... 3... breathe out...

Shaky breathes filled the small bathroom as Ichigo screwed his eyes shut and rocked himself slowly back and forth atop the toilet seat he was perched on. He was trying to slow his breathing down, but it wasn't really working.

Shallow breathes escaped him faster than he could suck them back in, making his chest heave quickly as his shaking hands clawed at his shoulders, raking down his upper arms over his sweatshirt hard enough to wear down the fabric where similar marks existed. He could feel his chest spasming slightly as his rapid breathing interfered with his usual slight coughing. His chest felt tight and like it was collapsing, but he paid it no mind as he opened his eyes again. They watered, but he wouldn't cry. He wouldn't cry, he wouldn't cry, he wouldn't cry, he'd never cry, they'd never make him cry again, he'd never cry for them again. They didn't deserve his tears. He'd already used them all up for the ones that did deserve them, and now he didn't have any left.

Terrible images assaulted him as he felt hands touching from everywhere, voices whispering all the terrible things they were going to do to him, and oh god the blood. He didn't know what was his or what wasn't, but he knew he was dying. Over and over and over again they'd kill him, each time a new way until there was nothing left. Each time he'd despair, and then he'd fight inside himself to be again, and he would. He'd be. He'd be him. He wouldn't be theirs' and he wouldn't let them do this to him again. And then they would. And he'd be so broken. And then they'd start all over again.

Ichigo let out a soundless sob. The hands were running over his body over and over again, they were everywhere and he wanted to vomit. He was being sliced, diced, dissected, bisected and he couldn't stop it, they wouldn't stop god why won't they stop.

He had to stop thinking, stop remembering but he couldn't. His glassy eyes could only see blood and death and them smiling at him, and his body could only feel those damned hands and horrible agony and their breath on his skin and oh god he wished he could stop. He didn't even know what had set it off anymore and he didn't care.

It was always something little, like a certain phrase or the way someone looks at him and oh is he gone, gone into his head of horrors. Back into a place where there's nothing but death and pain, and it goes on and on because he hops from the one specific memory that came loose to all of them.

Ichigo's hands were tearing at himself now, but he was too engrossed in his nightmare to notice. He needed to distract himself, but it was too late now to remember the relief he carried in his pocket, so instead he found his hands in his hair, beany knocked to the ground as he yanked and tore and scratched and gouged at the angry bees in his brain until something bled. He continued to rock and yank his hair, resisting the urge to start banging his head like he did when he was alone and it was really bad. He continued like this for what felt like forever.

Seconds ticked by and still he rocked, breathing heavy and eyes far away.

Slowly the physical pain grounded him, scalp burning and fingers red from his scratches. Bit by agonizing bit, his breathing slowed down and his chest loosened. Once his breathing was mostly normal and his memories were safely shoved back into the deepest part of him, Ichigo let his knees drop. Panic finally receding, he loosened his hold on his hair and slowly brought his hands down, small clumps of hair stuck to the blood and sweat on his hands.

Feeling a bit of blood creep down his forehead, Ichigo got up and looked in the dingy mirror above the sink. He wasn't bleeding too badly, but it was a bit obvious what he'd been doing to himself from his hair (or random lack of it in places).

Turning on the sink, Ichigo wet some paper towels and wiped away the blood in his hair and on his hands. He'd put his head in the sink, but that was far too similar to something he had experienced before and would bring him right back to where he'd just been. He could put his hands under the water though, so long as he focused on washing them. Ichigo looked away as he did just that, knowing the sight of his blood swirling down the drain would upset him.

Taking a deep breath, Ichigo found his beany and put it on his head again to hide what he'd done to his hair. He hadn't slipped and hurt himself in that way in a long time. He let himself scratch at his arms since no one would see those marks, but ripping at his hair was pretty obvious, so he tried not to do it. That and he'd rather not go bald after he just turned 15.

Looking around, Ichigo found his mop and bucket by the toilet. He'd taken them in here on habit when he'd started panicking to make it look like he was in here cleaning instead of trying to calm himself down. If any of his coworkers discovered that he was freaking out like this, he'd end up fired.

God, of all nights to freak out...

After doing a hasty cleaning and quickly checking the paper towels and toilet paper, Ichigo slipped out of the bathroom to look at the time. He'd been in there for a good twenty minutes, fairly long for what he was used to. Ichigo just hoped that meant he wouldn't have any freak outs later.

Looking around, Ichigo sighed when he saw that Daimo was gone. If Daimo had been here, he surely would have noticed Ichigo's absence.

Ichigo suddenly tensed and turned around to see Kaiya a good ways behind him. Freezing mid-step, she schooled her shocked expression and crossed her arms.

"Never can sneak up on you, huh." She said. It was true. Ichigo had tried to convince himself that he wasn't doing what he thought he was doing, but it really was as if he could sense people. Kaiya had tried many times to scare him, but he always sensed where she was.

"No... Do you ne-" Ichigo was interrupted by Kaiya.

"Sure took your time cleaning that bathroom."

Ichigo sweated, but didn't let his fear show. He was unbelievably good at hiding his emotions.

"Yeah, looked like a warzone in there. I'd suggest giving it a couple minutes before going in." Ichigo said casually.

"Oh it did, did it?" Kaiya moved closer to Ichigo. She knew he hated people being too close to him. "'Cause I was the last one in there to restock the paper towels, and I don't recall anything being dirty in that bathroom." She said in a low voice, eyes narrowed. Ichigo mentally cursed.

"Somebody must have gone in when you didn't notice." Ichigo said quickly.

"No one's been in this store since before I went in there. We all would have heard the door jingle." Kaiya said. She took a step closer and Ichigo backed away.

"See, I've got this theory that you go in there so often to keep up with those delinquent activities that have you working here in the first place..." Kaiya leaned in to whisper to Ichigo. "It'd be awfully tragic if somebody were to mention to their beloved boss how terribly concerned they are about their dear coworker struggling with certain... substances."

Ichigo nearly choked. Was she blackmailing him?! Surely Daimo would have to have more evidence of him possibly using drugs than the word of just one employee? One employee he'd known for years and was liked by everyone...

"What do you want." Ichigo growled.

"Oh I don't want anything... much. Just a small favor, really. You see, I had a boyfriend who was real sweet, but then I found out that he went and cheated on me. Things turned sour real quick and he took some stuff of mine. I've been trying to get it back ever since, even went to his house to try and get it. Turns out he knew I'd come looking for my stuff and started keeping it at his stupid private school, the Gemischt Quincy Academy. I need you to break in there after your shift tonight and get my stuff back for me, or else the only thing you'll be addicted to is unemployment." Kaiya said. Ichigo blanched. He knew Kaiya was manipulative and sneaky, but he never took her to be this sort of person.

He'd had this job for three years, if he lost it now, Lena would kill him. He needed this job as much as he needed food and water.

"Just what kind of stuff am I looking for?" Ichigo asked.

Kaiya gave him a smug smile.

-x-

Sōgen Apartments

"-And that's why I think even though Karakura High isn't a private school, it's still one of the best!" A girl with burnt orange hair finished.

Next to her sat Tatsuki and Mizuiro on one side and Keigo on the other. Across from her sat a rather large dark-skinned teenager with wavy brown hair nervously shifting in his seat. Tatsuki didn't blame him - she hadn't been here for the full speech, but she had an idea of how it had went.

"Um, sounds great..." The teenager said in a surprisingly deep voice. He hadn't said a single word since Orihime had started her speech other than to grunt or hum in response to whatever Orihime was saying. Tatsuki hadn't quite believed Orihime's description of him at first, but now she saw that he was indeed "super-macho silent intimidating." That was what was keeping Keigo from causing any trouble so far. He had actually looked a little ill when he first saw Orihime's new neighbor.

"..." Orihime fiddled with her hands, suddenly looking a little nervous.

"... It's okay if you still don't want to stay at Karakura High, Chad. I understand how great of an opportunity going to one of the private schools is - I was just at the Gemischt Quincy Academy today looking at their programs." Orihime said with a sad smile. Chad looked slightly panicked.

"Oh, um - please don't feel bad Orihime, you misunderstand. I don't have any reason to go to one of Karakura's private schools..." Chad explained uncomfortably. It was obvious that he wasn't used to having to talk this much.

"But I thought I saw one of their scouts go to your apartment." Orihime said. Chad shook his head.

"That was a school counselor dropping off some transfer forms." Chad said. Orihime turned beat red. She'd just spent all this time trying to convince her neighbor to go to a school he was already planning on going to!? Seeing Orihime's embarrassment, Chad tried to make her feel better.

"It was really nice of you to invite me over and tell me about everything - now I'll know what to expect in school." Chad said. Orihime brightened a little, but was still a little red. She really hoped Chad didn't think she was silly for going through all this - she knew all her schoolmates already thought she was a bit ditzy.

Tatsuki cleared her throat a little to diffuse some of the awkwardness.

"What programs were you checking out at the Academy today?" She asked. Orihime smiled at her, grateful for the change in subject.

"Oh, well I'd heard that they had a study group that met after school, but it turns out it's for academy members only. I was really hoping to get some help with my English from one of their professors - Mrs. Yamori keeps saying she'll help me, but she never does." Orihime said with a frown.

"Were there any programs that weren't exclusive to academy students?" Mizuiro asked. Orihime thought for a minute.

"The only thing I saw there was this weird flyer advertising special merchandise at some sort of convenience store. It said that it had special student discounts, but it looked like it had been torn down several times. It was actually stapled to the wall when I last saw it." Orihime said. Tatsuki pulled a face. That was certainly weird.

"Well that seems str - wait what happened to your hair?" Keigo asked suddenly. Orihime immediately felt her hair as Tatsukis smacked Keigo.

"What? What's wrong with my hair?" Orihime asked, patting at her head. Before anyone could answer, Orihime suddenly squeaked.

"My hairclip! One of my hairclips is missing!" Orihime said in a panicked voice. Keigo sniffed as he rubbed his shoulder.

"See - I wasn't being rude! I was just trying to help." He said with a pout.

"Oh no, I can't believe I lost them! I've never lost them before!" Orihime panicked. Patting the floor beside her and looking frantically around, Orihime got on her knees and started looking around the apartment.

"Don't worry Orihime, they've got to be here somewhere - I'm sure they just fell out." Mizuiro said as he knelt down to help Orihime search. Eventually they were all on their knees to help Orihime look. The longer they went without finding them, the more upset Orihime became.

"Are you sure you didn't take them off somewhere and forget?" Tatsuki asked. Orihime shook her head as she checked under the table for the thousandth time.

"No, and we've checked all over the apartment. I had them on after school and the only place I went today was- " Orihime paled.

"What is it?" Mizuiro asked.

"I-I went to the academy today... I accidentally ran into somebody and my hair got caught in this weird cross-thingy they were wearing. I didn't think anything of it then, but what if my hairpin came out because of it?" Orihime said. Orihime dropped her face into her hands and shook her head in worry.

"Don't worry Orihime, we'll get it back - it's not like the janitor's gonna accidentally sweep it up and throw it away." Keigo said.

"I hadn't even thought of that!" Orihime exclaimed before breaking down and crying. Tatsuki went to punch Keigo, but was stopped by Chad.

"I'm sure that won't happen, Orihime. Even if you can't find it, maybe you can just buy another one?" Chad asked. Orihime vigorously shook her head, crying harder.

"My brother gave those to me the day he died - I've worn them ever since." She said. Chad stopped restraining Tatsuki.

"Maybe somebody's still at the school and can let us in..." Mizuiro said.

"I don't think we're getting in unless we break in..." Orihime said miserably. Keigo shot up from where he'd been hiding from Tatsuki.

"Then break in we shall! I'll save your hairclip!" Keigo yelled dramatically before sprinting to the door.

"That's not a good -" Chad was interrupted by by Keigo dashing through the door. Sighing, Chad ran out the door with the other three shouting Keigo's name, but it was too late. Once outside, Keigo had already scrambled over the fence and was running towards the academy.

This was not how Chad imagined his evening going.

-xxx-

Ichigo Godebert

Ichigo slid down against the front of a freezer to sit on the floor. He'd finally finished stocking the entire thing. Technically he wasn't supposed to be doing that right now, but the new freezer had come in early, and he wanted a distraction from his newest problem. Said problem was staring at him now.

Kaiya looked like she was trying to burn holes into him with her eyes. She'd been watching him like that ever since the last hour of his shift.

Probably making sure I don't try and escape.

Sighing, Ichigo looked at the clock and groaned. He only had five more minutes left until he had to go do something very illegal.

Despite what everyone thought, Ichigo had never broken the law before, at least not seriously. Sure he had jaywalked and trespassed when he thought no one would care, but he'd never broken into anywhere, especially a prestigious school.

Why couldn't her ex just be a normal student going to a normal school?

If it was a matter of breaking into Karakura High, Ichigo probably could have done it fairly easily, but Gemischt Quincy Academy was a private school. Apparently others had tried before to get into the school, but security was surprisingly tight. That and the teachers were scary accurate and finding those that weren't meant to be there.

Glancing at the clock again, Ichigo winced. He couldn't delay it anymore.

"I'll see you tomorrow Kaiya..." Ichigo said as he passed the cash register.

He would need to be quick to get in and out unnoticed, but at least nobody else was going to the school.

-x-

Gemischt Quincy Academy

Dim lights flickered eerily in the corridor, empty halls silent.

This part of the school was usually empty at this time of night, but if you had the mind to listen closely, you could hear shallow breathing coming from one of the darkened classrooms beneath the teacher's desk.

Ears straining to hear movement and eyes wide open in fear, the woman beneath her desk desperately fumbled around with a strange small device, hands shaking. Pressing the small device like a sticker onto the small hollow right behind her ear and jaw, she started whispering into it.

"This is Mrs. Baar, requesting help and the immediate evacuation of -" A skittering noise cut her off. Words caught in her throat, Mrs. Baar at least had the good sense to cover her mouth to mask her breathing and slowly reach into her pocket. Pulling out a strange cross, she held it directly in front of her and gripped it tight enough to leave marks.

Not yet not yet not yet not yet. Something scratching against tile made her jump.

Not yet not yet not yet not yet. Not yet? Heavy silence made her heart beat loud in her ears.

Was it gone? It had to still be there - just because she couldn't sense it didn't mean it wasn't there.

Something knocked into the wastebasket with a metallic ping. She clamped her hand over her mouth - it was looking for her.

Something skittered to her left, then back to her right. If she ran now, it would just run her down and kill her. Speed wasn't even her class subject - history was.

Listening intently, Mrs. Baar considered her options. Running was certain death, but staying didn't seem any better. She could try and warn the school again, but that would alert the creature to where she was. So far, it didn't seem to know where she was as it hadn't killed her yet. Alerting it would be a truly terrible idea, so maybe she could try and take it by surprise?

"Mrs. Baar?"

Mrs. Baar felt cold sweat run down her back as she heard the voice call out from the doorway. Oh god, it was a student. What was a student doing here so late at night?! She was only here this late because she'd forgotten something in her class.

She had to do something, and now.

Rushing out from under her desk ready to defend the student, Mrs. Baar didn't find anyone.

But something had found her.

-xxxx-

Ichigo Godebert - Gemischt Quincy Academy

This wasn't even the most dangerous thing Ichigo had done, but that wasn't saying much considering some of the experiences he'd had. Even so, his task was more than a little daunting.

Crouching at the edge of the academy fence, Ichigo checked that none of his hair peeked out from beneath his beany. His hair was a dead give-away if anyone saw him, and he could not get caught.

Something like breaking into a private school would definitely go down on his permanent record and solidify his reputation as a delinquent, getting him fired and consequently screwed. That was why he was so unbelievably glad that he was already wearing dark colors and had practice from years of trying to make himself small and unnoticeable.

Feeling his way along the fence, Ichigo made sure to hide himself in the already deep shadows of the night as he searched for any openings or angles to climb over the fence. Supposedly the fence was electrical, but Ichigo had already been touching the fence and found nothing wrong with it.

Shifting in the darkness, Ichigo slithered along the outskirts of the fence, peering at the school as he did so. For a moment he thought he saw movement over by the apartment complexes, but it was gone when he blinked. Nevertheless, it put him on edge and made him extra cautious. He tried his best to stop himself from coughing just in case anybody came along.

Ichigo pulled back his hand suddenly as he felt the fence become rough and sharp. Gingerly feeling along, he found that the fence had been torn and bent apart like something had ripped it's way in. Frowning, Ichigo moved further and saw something glittering in the dark. Taking a closer look, Ichigo was glad that he was used to having to see in darkness.

Part of an electrical box had been torn apart and lay next to the fence, wires sticking out and metal glinting in the moonlight. One of the wires led Ichigo to a part of the fence where it had once been attached.

So this thing was electrical...

Why wasn't it now? Who had torn it like this? Was someone else trying to get into the school?

Ichigo shook his head. As much as this worried him, he was running out of time to get in and take Kaiya's stuff. He didn't have any time to go tomorrow (which would be even worse considering the school would be full), and Kaiya had insisted she get her things back by tomorrow. He'd just have to hope he wouldn't run into whoever had gotten through this fence. Or more accurately "what" from the looks of the tearing...

Slipping through the jagged hole, Ichigo quickly looked around before sprinting to the school. Running his hands along each window that he came across, Ichigo fervently hoped that somebody had left at least one of them open. He couldn't very well go through the front as it was probably locked, but he didn't want to smash any windows in either.

It took him a good eight minutes before he finally found something. One of the windows had been pried open from the outside, old fashioned window crank snapped from the exertion of forcing the window open. How the hell did somebody manage to do this - this window looked like it had been locked. Even Ichigo wasn't quite that strong... It was almost as if something inhuman had opened this... Something like...

Ichigo shook his head. He was being paranoid. It wasn't real and he knew it. Those things weren't real and he'd never been though that. Somebody had probably gotten a crowbar or something, that was why the window was like this.

Climbing through the window, Ichigo let himself silently drop to the ground. Looking around, Ichigo found a strand of burnt orange hair hanging from the window, like somebody had gotten caught halfway through. Ichigo sighed in relief. So it was a person that had opened this window. Why else was this here? He should probably be worried about the fact that somebody else was in the school, but Ichigo didn't really care. He knew he should, but he'd picked up a strange habit of ignoring self-preservation. He tended to push his luck a lot more than was good for his health. A small part of him realized that his strong instincts were the only thing making sure he wasn't dead yet...

Moving around desks, Ichigo opened the classroom door to peek around. Seeing no one, Ichigo slipped out of the classroom into the dimly lit hallway. He was looking for locker 37 on the first floor...

Checking the lockers in front of him, Ichigo followed the numbers past closed doors until he finally found the right one. Taking out a paperclip, Ichigo gave a silent prayer that this trick would actually work. He'd never picked locks before, but he heard this was the way to do it.

Fiddling around with the lock, Ichigo nearly missed the creak of a door opening in the distance. He did however, miss the dark blur that disappeared around a corner. Whirling around, Ichigo saw a classroom door open a good ways away from him. What if it was the other B and E - or worse, a teacher?!

Ichigo frantically jammed the paperclip into the lock, wiggling it around until he finally heard it click. It wasn't opening all the way since he hadn't done it quite right, but that was good enough. He ripped the lock off and swung the locker open, locating a dark blue bag amongst some textbooks. Bingo.

Snatching it, Ichigo turned to get the hell out of dodge, but froze when he heard a shrill scream. Whoever had screamed sounded terrified.

He had the stuff he needed, he could just leave now... But what if someone was in real trouble? What if whoever else had broken into the school had come here to do something far more sinister than just steal a bag? Ichigo stood stiff in indecision. If he tried to help there was a good chance that he'd be recognized and caught, but if he left, then there was the potential that somebody would get seriously hurt, or worse.

Ichigo's mind was made up for him when he heard another bone-chilling scream, this time louder and edged with pain.

Looping the bag's handle over his shoulder, Ichigo ran off in the direction of the scream, past the open door and around a corner into a completely dark hallway. Slowing down to make sure he didn't run into anything, Ichigo felt glass crunching beneath his feet and realized the lights in this hallway had been blown out. A different scream made Ichigo forget caution as he reached the end of the hallway, nearly running into a rather large teenager barreling past him.

"Hey! What's going on?!" Ichigo called, but was ignored. Growling, Ichigo ran after through another dark hallway, crunching on glass and straining to see. All he could hear was frantic screaming, yelling and crashing.

Skidding into a brighter hallway, Ichigo nearly screamed himself. Blood smeared the walls and floor, bloody drag marks leading into a classroom near the end of the hall where all the screaming was coming from. Oh god, this felt so familiar... He felt so sick and stiff, trapped in a twisted deja vu.

Ichigo forced himself to start breathing again, adrenaline kicking in.

Legs finally working again, he bolted towards the classroom, barely stopping in time as someone was flung out of the classroom to crash into the wall. Ichigo had no time to check if they were okay as he finally saw what was in the classroom.

Dark twisted limbs too long for it's own body, skeletal spine skewed impossibly to the right, the thing that crouched inches from him stained in blood was stalking a girl and one of the boys Ichigo had seen at the convenience store.

Ichigo felt like time had slowed, frozen in terrible recognition. Cold familiarity crept up with his rising horror and he found he couldn't move or even scream. Oh how familiar... Everything had become so slow and muted, making Ichigo forget that he'd come here to help. His chest felt unbelievably tight as he struggled to breathe.

Blood pounding in his ears, Ichigo nearly missed a fourth figure moving from the shadows to attack the prowling creature, but he knew it wouldn't work. He watched from behind glass as the girl swung a chair at it's head, briefly making contact before it dodged, letting loose a warbled human scream that was piercing even through his shock. The sheer volume of it's scream made everyone but Ichigo cover their ears as it finally noticed him, shooting towards him to sink it's teeth in his shoulder and throw him into the hallway.

Ichigo didn't get a chance to scream as he crashed to the ground with the creature savagely digging into his flesh. The two girls and boy rushed out of the classroom in slow motion to scream as they saw the creature unlatch it's jaw from Ichigo to pull back and raise it's arm to strike. Ichigo's heart beat loudly as time stopped and for a moment the aching in his chest outranked the terror of certain death.

He watched as the creature's arm swung slowly down at him, bloody claws glinting wickedly.

He felt something in him break and he shuddered, the oppressive tightness releasing into a scream that tore itself up from his chest to his throat out his open mouth, drowning out the creature above him as the dim lights wildly flickered. One by one the lights burst throughout the hallway, unseen force rippling like a shockwave to throw the creature back from Ichigo to crash into the end of the hallway with a sickening crack.

Ichigo continued to scream as the others around him collapsed and the world went dark.

.

.

.

-x-

Karakura Town

Beeping and whirring filled the small room as a man with a green and white striped bucket hat moved around, quickly checking the various machines outputting information.

"My, my my..." He muttered to himself in a deceptively calm voice.

While he was calmly and efficiently checking his instruments, on the inside it was a whirlwind of excitement and curiosity. Rarely had his machines been thrown into such a tizzy before, and he was loving it. He'd been waiting a long time to get reactions and recordings like this, so he was hoping that whatever was happening would continue to happen so he could get some proper readings.

The other figure in the room watched from a distance in a dark corner as the scientist conducted scientific readings and functions in a flurry of motion and computing. Watching him work, the other couldn't help but smile a little. They knew very well just how excited their friend was and that this was the most fun he'd had in weeks. It almost made them forget that a potentially massive disaster was under way.

Snatching a piece of paper that just finished printing from one of the machines, the scientists eyes glinted as he hid a dark smile with a fan.

"It seems like we finally have a location..." He said.

The other perked up. A location? For all the man's prowess and scientific genius, he hadn't ever been able to get a location of the events that he'd been chasing after for so long.

"Do you think we'll actually find the source?" They asked. The other shook his head sadly, but nonetheless looked absolutely delighted.

"Maa~ I'm flattered, but even my abilities won't lead us directly to the source, especially considering the amount of special souls in the area. We will however, be finally taking the first step to finding it; narrowing down suspects." The man said. The other was shocked. No progress for years, and suddenly they're on the way to closing in on the source?

"You said the area was full of special souls, what is the location?" They asked.

"The Gemischt Quincy Academy." The man said. The other stiffened. They could guess what their part was going to be in this, that manipulative bastard.

"Oh no, don't think I can just waltz in there because I have an official status - those quincies already suspect I have some less than honorable dealings." They said.

"Maaaaa~ You don't think I'm honorable?" The man pouted with a whine. The other snorted and resisted the urge to scratch him.

"I doubt an exiled and highly wanted criminal could be considered honorable." They said. The man sniffed in mock hurt and continued.

"While I have no doubt the quincies are suspicious of such an auspicious shinigami instructor, I doubt they'll look twice at this form..." The man said. The other growled slightly. He was right of course, but that didn't make it any better.

"You owe me..." The other said before slipping silently out of the room.

"Always..." The man said with a mischievous smile.


Echt - pure

Gemischt - mixed

Lichtreich - light empire

Schutzstaffel - protective echelon


National Alliance on Mental Health I tried to put links in for everything, but I don't think I'm allowed to put links in since they always get deleted...
- 1-800-950-6264
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- 1-800-826-3632
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- 1-877-SAMHSA-7
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line
- Text "Start" 741-741
S.A.F.E. Alternatives
- 1-800-DONTCUT
The Trevor Project
- 1-866-488-7386 (24/7)
- Text "Trevor" 1-202-304-1200 (F 4pm - 8pm EST)
Disaster Distress Helpline
- 1-800-985-5990
- Text "TalkWithUs" 66746
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- 1-877-739-3895
RAINN- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- 1-800-656-4673
National Sexual Assault Hotline
- 1-800-656-4673
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- 303-839-1852
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- 1-800-799-SAFE
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- 1-800-537-2238
USA National Child Abuse Hotline
- 1-800-422-4453 (24/7)
National Safe Place
- Text SAFE and your current location to the number 69866 (24/7)

 

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.

Inner thoughts/speech

Chapter 1: Tipping Point

-x-

Ichigo Godebert

Blood smeared the walls and floor, bloody drag marks leading into a classroom near the end of the hall where all the screaming was coming from.  He felt so sick and stiff, trapped in a twisted deja vu.

Legs finally working again, he bolted towards the classroom, barely stopping in time as someone was flung out of the classroom to crash into the wall.

Dark twisted limbs too long for it's own body, skeletal spine skewed impossibly to the right, the thing crouched inches from him stained in blood.  Time had slowed, frozen in terrible recognition.

Cold familiarity crept up with his rising horror and he found he couldn't move or even scream.  His chest felt unbelievably tight as he struggled to breathe. Everything was so slow.

It let loose a warbled human scream.  It shot towards him to sink it's teeth in his shoulder and throw him into the hallway.  He couldn't scream as he crashed to the ground with the creature savagely digging into his flesh.

He watched as the creature's arm swung slowly down at him, bloody claws glinting wickedly.

"ICHIGO!"

Ichigo broke out of his silent reverie just in time to feel his head slammed down into the table. Ichigo resisted the urge to move as he let the hand gripping his head grind his face into the table painfully. He had to stay still or risk this lasting longer, making him even later for his morning shift.

"I told you to pick your shit up - so what the fuck is this!?" Lena screamed, words slightly slurred. Yanking his head up to face her, Ichigo winced at her breath. She'd been drinking again. Ichigo swallowed nervously.

"I'm sorry Lena, I had to work late last night an-" Ichigo was interrupted by Lena slapping him across the face hard enough to almost knock him off the table. Ichigo clung to the table and tried not to react. Crying made her scream at him, and trying to soothe his injuries made her add more.

"I don' wanna hear it from you today, I work hard to make this rattennest a livable place and YOu *hic* waltz in here an- and plop yur lazy ass down and fukin' RUIN everything, you worthless *hic* piece of shIT." Lena said as she wobbled a little. Ichigo stayed in the same position he was in and tried to ignore the burning pain in his cheek. He tried to look at her without making eye contact to see just how bad she was.

She was breathing heavily and glaring at him, but she wasn't as bad as he'd seen her before. Right now she was too drunk to do too much damage.

Lena slammed her hands on the table, making Ichigo flinch.

"I gave you everything, and all you do is whine and complain..." She said. Ichigo just swallowed and tried to stop shaking.

"See?! You just said it!" She screamed at Ichigo who hadn't said anything. Lena suddenly darted her hand out to grab Ichigo's face, still red from where she'd slapped him.

"You think I'm not doing enough, that I'm not good enough for you, undankbar gör?!" Lena was spitting into Ichigo's face now. Her breath smelled just like the rest of their apartment; alcohol and smoke (minus the cat piss).

"No, bitte, I never said -" Ichigo immediately knew he'd said the wrong thing when Lena's eyes flashed.

"Du denkst ich höre dich nicht? You think I don't hear you?! You're saying it right now - there! Right there!" Lena said. She was jabbing her finger so close to Ichigo's face he was beginning to fear that she'd poke his eye out or something. She was forcing his terrified eyes to meet her bloodshot ones now.

"All you do is complain and sit there and daydream while I bust my ass for you!" Lena screamed. Ichigo knew he shouldn't have let himself slip into the past events at the Gemischt Quincy Academy last night when he was in the middle of getting ready for work. He couldn't help it though, like all his unpleasant memories, they forced themselves to the front of his mind without his consent, forcing him to relive those terrible things. He hadn't even bothered to try and sleep when he stumbled home, bruised and bleeding. He'd just sat there and tried to forget while he tended to his wound. So many terrible memories had been brought back to him by that encounter, and it had left him a mess. He'd barely managed to hide his shoulder from Lena when she came home from the bar.

If only Lena had stayed passed out, but he was never that lucky. Now he was having to deal with her when she was hysterical. Ichigo knew that she had issues, but he wasn't sure if they were caused or aggravated by her excessive drinking. He personally thought it was both.

She'd get unbelievably worked up, paranoid, and angry, taking it out on Ichigo for whatever she felt he'd done that day. She was convinced that he was saying things about her, talking behind her back and complaining. This coupled with her mood swings made her unpredictable.

"Why do you have to say such terrible things...?" Lena sobbed, letting go to sink into the chair beside him. Ichigo immediately felt terrible for making her like this. It was his fault that she did this to herself, it had to have been. She'd never shied away from telling him what her life would have been like if she didn't have the burden of having him, but she'd never told him what things had been like before him.

A long time ago, when he was cleaning her room, he found an old box filled with mementos and an old uniform with ornamental crosses on it. He saw his mother laughing and smiling in the pictures, out with her friends or hanging about her family. Medals, expensive jewelry and ornate books occupied the box, showing Ichigo just how wealthy his mother had been before her family had basically exiled her. Supposedly she'd fallen in with the wrong crowd when she was younger despite their being just as wealthy and respectable as her own family. They set her up with someone in order to gain something Lena refused to tell him about, and Ichigo had been the result.

Once Ichigo had been born, his father had immediately left them. Lena told him how when he saw him in her arms, he'd turned his head away and walked out of her house, leaving them to disappear to god knows where. After that things got kind of confusing. Lena would ramble on about how he was just a surrogate for the real thing, a means to an end for power that he was too weak to take hold of. She always referred to him in german insults, calling him things associated with death and reaping. The only name Ichigo could ever get out of her was "Yhwach." That's what she said his father's name was ("your real father, THE father"). Ichigo had tried to find him based on that name, but he didn't find anything, just biblical stuff and fairy tales.

At that point Ichigo was pretty sure that Lena had somehow gotten mixed up in a cult of sorts. Her parents never knew about the involvement of her friends, and erased her from their life and everyone else's, leaving her alone with her child. When she tried to go back to her friends, they refused her because of Ichigo. He'd ruined her life and he hadn't even learned to talk yet.

It had taken years to learn all this through her ramblings and contradictions, but once he'd put it all together, Ichigo understood. If it wasn't for him, she'd have everything. Friends, family, money, status. But he'd ruined it for her. She said that she'd always wanted a little boy of her own, but instead she got him. He'd stolen her little boy from her, and now she'd never have him.

A small part of him recognized that it wasn't exactly right to think about things like that, but a much larger part of himself believed every word she told him. He tried so hard to make her happy, to do what she wanted and needed, but he never got it right. He wanted to protect her from the terrible life he'd given her, but she just sank deeper and deeper.

She'd come home wasted and upset, barely able to walk or function and there he'd be. Useless and unable to live without her. Some nights the only thing he could do for her was to help her into bed and tell her happy lies about all the things he would do to try and help her to lull her to sleep. He wanted to do that now, wanted to comfort her.

"Das tut mir leid... I know you work hard, you work so hard for me, and I'm grateful - really, I am." Ichigo croaked pathetically. He scooted closer and gently put an arm around his mother, testing to make sure she wouldn't try and hit him again. Too distracted with her own sobbing, Lena let him.

"I know you deserve better, so I'll try my best - I'll clean up and make dinner and help you with whatever you want, just please don't blame yourself, it's my fault mom-" Ichigo's control slipped and he cried out when Lena shoved him to the floor.

"Mom?! MOM?!" Lena screamed, eyes wide and arms shaking. Ichigo wanted to throw up - he wasn't allowed to call her that.

"YOU ARE NOT MY SON! GET OUT!" Lena screeched at the top of her lungs before devolving into incomprehensible German. Ichigo grabbed his things and ran out of the door as fast as he could, refusing to cry but unable to stop the tears gathering at the corners of his eyes.

It was useless to try and help her. He just wasn't enough. She was better off without him.

-x-

Kaiya - Convenience Store

Well this was boring.

Kaiya sighed and played with her keys at the cash register absent-mindedly. She was waiting for Ichigo to show up so she could get her stuff back, but as usual, he wasn't here yet. Kaiya made a point of coming in earlier than she was supposed to to accentuate just how late Ichigo was. It didn't matter that he was only ever five or so minutes late, it was enough for her to latch onto and complain to Daimo about.

God did she want his job. It wasn't fair that a stupid delinquent like him had a job here - this was a respectable establishment! Good, honest people came here to work and earn a living, and she was one of them. Sure, she was the same age as him, but at least she knew how to schedule her shifts. Hers ended right before school started, so she had plenty of time to go to Shin'ō Outreach unlike Ichigo who's shift ran into the beginning of school. Punks like him didn't care about school, so it was no wonder.

Kaiya sniffed. This was why she'd been approached by Shin'ō Outreach and not him. They had told her that she had promise, that they would be honored if she attended their school and special programs. She had been ecstatic when they had contacted her, but then she found out that one of her programs collided with her evening shift. If she could have just gotten Ichigo's job, she would be able to choose whatever hours she wanted to work (Ichigo couldn't because he'd have to send forms to the higher-ups who'd inevitably look at his work records). Why did he even work here? Did he really need a job if he was just gonna end up some drug dealer or gangster anyways?

She'd tried to be friendly with him and find out if he couldn't just take another job, but he'd gotten all weird and defensive. She'd tried to ignore all the rumors about him, but seeing him in person seemed to confirm them more than anything.

Every time she tried to talk to him, he'd just mumble and nod or straight up ignore her. Sometimes it was like he wasn't even there, eyes glazed over as he seemingly spaced out for no reason. For a while she had wondered if he was on something, but it was completely random, and he didn't really seem to have any drug-like symptoms. At least that's what she thought... He just seemed really distracted to her, but that wasn't all that strange to her considering how weird he was in general.

Besides randomly spacing out, Ichigo never looked people in the eye or let them into his personal space. He always moved away when somebody tried to move closer, he was jumpy and skittish, and sometimes he flinched for no reason. He also reeked of smoke and had a weird cough he just couldn't seem to shake. He kept his head down and never tried to make friends with anyone, rarely speaking to anyone or participating in birthdays or holidays in the break room. It was clear that he was only here for the money, nothing else. Did he really think they were so unworth his time?

He was always so dismal and tired looking, and it made him seem shifty. It was scaring off customers and making it harder for them to work. He'd actually growled at people before. At this point, Kaiya almost felt it was fair to blame him the way they did. He was such an off-putting person, all he had to do was at least pretend to be nice to them like any other normal person.

Kaiya turned as she hear the telltale jingle of someone entering the store.

Well speak of the devil...

Ichigo walked into the store like he always did, panting and mildly disheveled. Taking a moment to catch his breath and cough a little, Ichigo walked jerkily up to Kaiya, red bag held out to her. Kaiya grinned.

"Well now, that wasn't so hard, now was it?" She said, snatching her bag from his hand. Ichigo's face twisted for a moment, but immediately shifted back to his usual scowl.

"What did you even need in there that warranted me breaking into a school?" Ichigo asked stiffly. Kaiya rolled her eyes.

"Like you haven't broken into other places. It shouldn't matter to you since you're not the one who got caught in the academy." Kaiya said.

When she'd first heard about the break in, she'd gotten worried that Ichigo had been caught and her stuff would be confiscated, but then it turned out he wasn't even in the school when police arrived. Rumor was that a group of students had chased their friend into the school after he had decided to go looking for a lost hair clip where they found the corpse of a teacher who'd been killed. No one knew who the killer was or what else had happened since the incident was so recent. The only thing known for sure was that the students were alright and the police were working on it.

"Someone else was caught there?" Ichigo asked in surprise. It seemed a little fake to Kaiya, but he didn't have the connections that she did, so it made sense that he wouldn't know.

"Yeah, a group of students looking for a lost hair pin found a dead teacher in the school and flipped out, but other than that they were fine." Kaiya said. Ichigo looked confused.

"They were fine? None of them were injured?" He asked. Kaiya frowned at him.

"No, weirdo." Kaiya said. An unreadable expression flashed across Ichigo's face before he scowled again.

"Lemme guess; they didn't find the killer." Ichigo said quietly. Kaiya frowned again.

"No..." Kaiya said. That was odd, Ichigo actually looked a little upset. Well, it would be weirder if he didn't, and maybe he was a little shaken after finding out there'd been a killer in the same place as him.

"Guess I'll have to be careful walking home at night... You should watch out too, Kaiya. Your evening shift ends around the same time mine does, so please be careful when you leave." Ichigo said suddenly in a serious voice as he looked directly into her eyes.

"O-oh, uh, yeah, I will. You be careful too..." Kaiya said. Sheesh, intense. She wouldn't have figured that Ichigo would worry about her like that, but then again, this was the longest conversation she'd ever had with the guy. Ichigo nodded, seemingly satisfied and left to go get his cleaning supplies, coughing weakly as he left. That was certainly strange, but it wasn't all that bad either.

Either way, she wasn't changing her mind now - sympathy would only ruin what she'd carefully put in place.

-xx-

Ichigo Godebert - Convenience Store

Oh thank god, they were okay. He wasn't sure just how bad their injuries were since he'd had to cut and run so soon.

Ichigo had no idea how long he'd been out for, but when he woke up, he could hear police sirens in the distance and an alarm ringing in the school to warn those in the dorms to stay inside. All of the other teenagers were still unconscious, but the larger one looked like he was starting to wake up. Ichigo had tried to check them for injuries, but the sound of footsteps coming down the hall had made him pause. He could tell that none of them were in immediate danger from their injuries, so he decided to leave. The paramedics would do a far better job of taking care of them than him.

He'd left the school right as the police arrived, cradling his no longer bleeding shoulder in the bushes. Lucky for him, his sweatshirt had soaked up most of the blood, so whatever was left would end up mixed with the other blood even if they did have the mind to try and check for a third party's DNA. Even so, he'd expected some sort of testing to be done, so he made sure no one saw him as he stumbled back home in the night. If he hadn't been used to having to ignore injuries and fight with them, he might never have made the long journey home. He'd been so tempted to let go of his shoulder and lay down... let sleep take him... No more of this struggling... But he had to take care of his mother, right? She depended on him...

Even if he didn't want to keep going, he did. He always did and it was so tiring. He wished he could sleep all day, but real sleep never came to him. Only nightmares and the impossible place. For that he was almost grateful, if he actually was able to sleep, it would be irresistible for him to just stay in his room all day sleeping. Man that sounded nice... No worries, no cares. No school, no fights, no stares, no whispers, no work, no Lena, no pain... But that would never happen. He'd been through too much to give up now. Except he hadn't... The place he was trapped in in his dreams wasn't real, and Lena had told him over and over again that he'd always been here in the real world. They'd all thought he was lying when he told them about the monsters he'd seen and the things those awful people had done to him, and eventually he realized they must have been right.

Now when he saw things out and about similar to his nightmares, he ignored them. Or at least he tried, he always seemed to see things that others didn't no matter where he was. He could handle the odd man standing on air, child with a chain on their chest, or strange monster prowling around, because they weren't anything compared to his nightmares. He could pretend he was normal even in those times and convince himself that there wasn't anything wrong with him. Of course he had wondered if he had some sort of disorder or mental illness, but every time he did it just made him feel worse. He'd heard horror stories about the places people who saw and heard things that weren't there went to. Or the things they did because of it. He'd consoled himself in the fact that he didn't hear voices telling him to do things, but even if he did, what could be done about it? He couldn't possibly tell anyone about it, and he couldn't afford to get help on his own. So he didn't think about it. Until now.

What he'd seen last night had felt so real, and it was straight out of his nightmares. He'd felt it's teeth in his shoulder, bore the marks from it and had seen it tearing apart those teenagers. He didn't know what he wanted more; for it to be real so that he wasn't crazy, or for it to be fake and him be crazy so such terrible things didn't exist. Both were pretty horrible, but he at least knew what he was going to do if he really was crazy. Nothing. He couldn't, and yeah it scared the hell out of him, but he didn't know what to do. It made him all kinds of nervous and sick, but it was useless. He felt so helpless.

Ichigo rubbed his face. Why me? Why do I have to go through this? I just wish this would all stop...

God he was tired, and his shoulder ached. He'd already checked it to make sure it wasn't infected, but he knew it would take a while to heal. He'd been tending to his own injuries for so long that he actually had some pretty decent medical skills. That and he'd made sure to read up about how to properly take care of wounds on your own since he couldn't ever go to the hospital. The few times that he did had been awful, he'd spent the entire time lying to everyone before sneaking out.

The bite on his shoulder couldn't be fake, so when he'd been trying to figure out if everything that had happened was real, he'd considered the possibility that he'd hallucinated the whole monster thing and really been bitten by a guard dog. That was the most logical thing to him.

Ichigo shook his head, dislodging all the whirling thoughts swirling around. It wasn't any good to think about it now. That would wait until he got to school to see if those teenagers were actually alright. They were the only other ones there, so they'd surely remember him and trust him with their story when they saw him. If what he saw wasn't real, then they could at least explain to him what had really happened and who had hurt them. For now he'd need to work.

Checking the clock, Ichigo was very glad that Daimo wasn't here and Kaiya was the only one who'd seen him come in late today. He still couldn't believe she'd blackmailed him. Did she really hate him that much? I mean, sure he wasn't exactly friendly to other people, but it was all he could do to not freak out while they were around. He'd tried to be nice to Kaiya when she started working here, he really had, but she just didn't like him. None of them did here.

Ichigo picked up his mop to start cleaning again. He got that he was pretty distant, but he always tried to be polite and not cause them any problems. He'd even stopped growling at those punks that came in here to try and buy alcohol. Sure, he was pretty scowly and serious looking, but he didn't have time to be anything else. He had to be responsible and mature, hard working and trustworthy. He didn't have time to celebrate holidays and birthdays with the rest of them, and besides, he didn't really feel welcome doing that. He'd probably just dampen the mood.

Ichigo glanced up at Kaiya. She was texting on her phone at the cash register while he cleaned up around the store. Kaiya and the others just wouldn't understand that this job was his living. He literally worked to eat. If he could, he'd make them pay him in food instead of cash. That might actually make things worse though.

Lena drank far too much to hold a steady job, so she mostly just floated around her favorite haunts taking odd jobs now and again. Ichigo was really the only steady source of income, and Lena reminded him of that constantly. He had to work hard, he was responsible for them. Every night he'd come home and hide money in his two stashes; one for rent and one for food. The rest Lena would snatch from him and carefully count, making absolutely sure that it was the right amount he told her he got. He'd of course lied to her about what he got paid so that she wouldn't notice him squirreling away money to pay for their dump of an apartment, and she wasn't exactly coherent enough to figure out that he was paying rent without taking money from her, so it worked. As much as he wanted his food money to be in the safest place in the apartment, that place was reserved for rent. Lena had found his stashes before and would immediately take all the money and punish him for hiding it, so he couldn't risk her finding that stash and drinking away the rent. Besides, it was normal for him to skip meals. And it made sure that he rarely had to get new uniforms since he was only growing up instead of out (yeah it looked a little weird to have shorter sleeves and pants, but he hadn't gotten to that stage yet).

He honestly didn't notice when he was hungry anymore, but he wasn't really sure if that was good or bad. He figured so long as he ate at some point, it was alright. It didn't really matter to him that he was so thin anymore, he'd learned a long time ago how to fight without muscle or strength, so he wasn't lacking in the fighting department. It just made heavy lifting at work a little difficult... like right now.

Ichigo needed to clean every inch of the floor if Daimo was to be satisfied, but there was one spot where he had to move a large ice cream cooler to get to. It had a bad habit of leaking, so he had to clean up underneath every single day by dragging the stupid thing out from its corner while he cleaned.

While he was trying to figure out the best angle to start dragging it out, Daimo walked in and looked around the store as the jingle went off. Setting eyes on him, Daimo walked to him, arms crossed. Ichigo swallowed, he didn't look very happy.

"Uh, hello Daimo... Any errands you need me to run today?" Ichigo asked with a small cough, wiping his hands on his pants. Daimo shook his head and gave him a hard look.

"You and I need to talk. Come with me into my office." Daimo said before walking to the back of the store. Ichigo followed close behind, stomach twisting when he saw Kaiya smile at him.

Daimo opened the door and motioned for Ichigo to sit in the chair across from his desk in the small room. Ichigo nervously sat down as Daimo closed the door and took his seat.

"Ichigo, I have thought long and hard about this, and I'm sorry to say that I no longer find you to be a valuable employee. I have given you so many chances to prove yourself, and yet you consistently fail me." Daimo said. Ichigo paled. No, this couldn't be happening...

"You arrive late to work every day despite my constant warnings and all your promises. My employees complain about you all the time and your abysmal attitude - even I find your lack of energy and friendliness off-putting." Daimo shook his head. "You don't even bother to smile at customers."

Ichigo's breathing became shallow. No, no, no no no no no. He'd done what Kaiya wanted, he'd made it to work today, he'd done so much to stay here.

"B-but, I always clean just the way you want and stock exactly how you tell me to - I make sure this store is neat and spotless! I run blocks to get you coffee and snacks and anything else you need - I drop off your paperwork and take calls for you when you're out." Ichigo stuttered. His heart was racing and he was shaking.

"Ichigo, you're late every day -" Daimo was interrupted by Ichigo's frantic stammering.

"But I work hard! I live all the way across Karakura town and I don't have a car so I have to run all the way here - that's why I'm late! I'm not even the only one! Yumi's gotten here way later than me loads of times! Juba calls in sick every single Friday an - and," Ichigo's words dried up in his throat as Daimo held up his hand.

"Yes but they're not the ones getting fired, now are they?" Daimo asked with an annoyed look. Ichigo was stunned.

"I should have fired you years ago, but I didn't, so instead of sitting here spitting out excuses, you should be thanking me for everything I've given you." Daimo said with a slight sniff. Ichigo opened and closed his mouth, but nothing came out.

"I really shouldn't be doing so much for a brat like you, but I'll be giving you your last paycheck. I was going to give you this talk last night and send you off, but Kaiya told me I should wait until this morning to give you a chance to get some sleep before you were fired." Daimo said. Ichigo let out a strangled choke.

"Kaiya knew I was getting fired last night?!" Ichigo asked, horrified. Daimo nodded and smiled.

"Kaiya's so thoughtful, she's been watching you closely and telling me about you - she has so much concern for you despite how little you show for her. In return I let her know a couple of days ago that I was going to fire you. You should really be thanking her, if she hadn't have stepped in so quickly to take over you job and let Yumi take her shift, I would have had to make you work without pay until I found a replacement. Kaiya really is such a thoughtful young girl." Daimo said.

Ichigo barely heard the last part as the information sank in. Kaiya had known all along and used him anyways... She'd been pretending to worry about him so she could tell Daimo about his every mistake while still looking innocent and caring. She prolonged his firing just long enough to get him to do whatever she wanted. Ichigo was shaking in anger, fear, shock at this point, but Daimo didn't notice.

"I can't say a recommendation from me will be all that useful since you legally don't have any work experience or credibility, but who knows, maybe some establishment hasn't heard of you before or your reputation." Daimo said as he handed an envelope to Ichigo. That was the whole reason Ichigo hadn't ever bothered to find a second job, no one would take him. He'd started looking since he'd turned 15, but there were only so many places he could go, and half the people wouldn't even let him through the door. This was his last resort, his only way to make money, and now it was gone.

Lena was going to kill him. She was honest to god going to kill him. She'd beat him until he couldn't breathe, until he couldn't feel or move. Even if she didn't kill him with her anger, he'd probably starve to death first.

Ichigo just sat there, thoughts looping over and over again to the same place. This was it. He was finished, done, kapoot. Numbness mixed with panic.

What the hell was he going to do?! How was he going to face Lena today? He couldn't pretend that he still had a job, there wouldn't be any money coming in. What was he going to do? All he could think about was having to face Lena when he came home. He had failed.

He had failed.

He had utterly failed.

"Ichigo?" Daimo asked. Ichigo barely even responded. He'd been sitting there for so long that he'd actually gotten sore. Daimo just stared at him uncomfortably. Most people either broke down and cried or left at this point. He was just sitting there, pale and silent.

"Um, leave?" Daimo gestured to the door. Ichigo slowly got up and opened the door, quietly closing it behind him. Turning around, he managed to catch the group of coworkers that had been listening in running away to the front of the store. Ichigo's legs felt stiff and heavy as he walked slowly out towards the door, final paycheck in hand. His mind had finally stuttered to a stop, shock and dread fading away to leave an empty, hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. His coworkers tried their best to look casual, but weren't doing a very good job of hiding their grins and giggling. Kaiya just crossed her arms and smiled at him as he walked by as if in a dream.

Ichigo stopped and faced them, not saying anything for a long while, just staring at them with a numb expression. He wouldn't have known it, but when he looked at them, he looked even more beyond his years than he already did. Dark circles stood out under his empty brown eyes, accentuated by the bony frame of his pale face where a youthful glow should have been. Now the only glow on his face was an angry red mark slowly turning into a bruise. They couldn't help but notice something like that now, even if they thought it was from fighting. He'd always been frightfully thin, but it wasn't as noticeable thanks to the baggy clothes and sweatshirts he constantly wore. Now they saw it in the loose and unsteady way he stood, limbs carefully covered to hide bruises they never saw in ratty old clothing that looked like he'd had it for years.

It was deeply unsettling to look at him right now, but their eyes were glued to him, laughter gone to leave uneasy silence as Ichigo just looked right through them. He raised his eyes to Kaiya, then to the rest.

"What did I ever do to you for you to hate me so much?" Ichigo asked in a faint voice. Kaiya didn't know what to say. She'd felt so smug for finally getting back at him as well as getting his job before, but now she was uncomfortable.

No one had any words for that, so the silence continued before Ichigo turned away and left.

x

-x-

Karakura High School

Ichigo stared silently at the clouds passing outside his window from his desk. Everything looked so peaceful from where he was at, blue sky and radiant sun making for a surprisingly pretty day. It didn't feel right for the kind of day he was having. Things had started off so terrible, his mother having another fit of hysterics before work, having to run away from her yet again, and then getting fired. Maybe that wasn't fair though, last night had been just as terrible. All his days started off this terrible whether or not his mother was in a mood.

All his days were like this. Terrible.

Looking back, that's all he saw. Bad, bad, and more bad. Was there anything that he really looked forward to anymore? It had been so long since he'd last been happy, and not being sad just didn't cut it either. Being numb meant he didn't feel sad, but it also meant he didn't feel happy, so that wasn't good either. It just made him feel more apathetic about life. It made him feel like nothing really mattered. That made it a struggle to concentrate on school, but today he didn't even try to listen.

He knew his teacher wouldn't care - she didn't think he listened to her half of the time anyways. So instead he stared out the window and imagined what it was like to be a cloud, light and free. He knew that a cloud wouldn't feel like that since clouds obviously can't feel, but they wouldn't feel the monotony of life either. They wouldn't feel how each day just dragged on, over and over and over again with no end in sight. It was odd to feel that this was never ending while being unable to see a future at the same time...

Ichigo wondered briefly if it was normal to feel like this. He'd never really thought about it before since it wasn't that strange for him to have moments like this, but now he had no reason not to. School didn't matter to him right now. Nothing did.

He'd heard somewhere that feeling like nothing mattered was a sign of depression, but he wasn't depressed. Depressed people were sad, right? He didn't feel sad right now, he just felt numb and distant. He knew what sad felt like, and he didn't feel sad for super long periods of time, just heavy. He felt tired and heavy all the time, like he had no energy. The only time that stopped was when he was hurting himself or freaking out. Then he was panicked, jittery and scared and so full of emotion he thought he was going to burst. Angry, scared, shameful, sick, desperate, hopeless, sad and then all of a sudden back to nothing. It was a terrible roller coaster that left him wishing everything would just stop.

Sighing, Ichigo glanced back at the class to find that it was almost empty. Ichigo blinked. He'd been so busy thinking that he hadn't even heard the bell for lunch ring. Ichigo got up to leave, but paused. Where was he even going to go? Normally he went to the library to study and work on homework, but now he found he just didn't care to do that. He couldn't really go outside either to eat, since he didn't have anything to eat. He didn't really feel like staying in class since there were so many students still milling around, so Ichigo made up his mind to go somewhere secluded. So far he could only think of one place besides the bathroom that would maybe be solitary enough for him, and that was the roof. Even if someone was up there, it was a large roof, so he could always just choose a spot far away and pretend to be doing something.

Opening the door, Ichigo ran smack first into a student trying to enter the class. The other stumbled backwards to land flat on his ass while Ichigo fell forward onto his hands and knees. Ichigo was going to apologize but stopped when he saw the student patting the ground and crawling on his knees.

"My glasses!" He said.

Oh, that's why he was doing that.

"Shit, sorry about that - let me help you find them." Ichigo said as he too started crawling around to look for them among the textbooks and scattered paper. After shuffling around some of the papers, Ichigo found the glasses, but winced when he realized their was a small crack in the glass. Handing them to the student, Ichigo grimaced.

"Sorry..." Ichigo said. With his glasses on, Ichigo recognized the student now as Uryu. Everybody considered him to be the smartest kid in school, and it seemed to Ichigo that he did too.

"What did you do - sit on them?!" Uryu exclaimed as he ran his fingers along the crack. Ichigo growled a little. It wasn't his fault that his glasses had a tiny crack in them - it was an accident.

"No, I purposefully knocked you down so I could dance on them until they broke." Ichigo said dryly. Uryu huffed and glared at him. Ichigo just sighed tiredly and started gathering Uryu's papers for him. He just wanted to get up to the roof so he could have some peace and quiet. Shifting some of the papers, Ichigo frowned when he saw that one of them was a study sheet.

"We don't have another test coming up, do we" Ichigo asked. Uryu rolled his eyes and snatched the paper from Ichigo's hands.

"We do, but I don't really think it should matter to you." Uryu said. Ichigo stiffened.

"Believe it or not, I do actually try to get good grades - or did you forget that I'm taking all normal classes now?" Ichigo said with a glare.

It was actually something that he was pretty proud of, not having to take special classes for students behind in school. He'd absolutely hated those classes because none of the teachers there seemed to get that he was having trouble with school not because he was stupid or didn't care, but because he couldn't concentrate and had to step out so often. The other students there hadn't liked him either because they all either had learning disabilities or legitimate excuses for why they were behind in school and needed the extra help while Ichigo looked like he just didn't want to learn. All throughout that time student tutors like Uryu would help out with the students and prepare them for normal classes. Uryu himself had told Ichigo his first day in the high school's special classes that there was no point in him wasting his time trying to help Ichigo because a delinquent like him would never put the time and effort into learning like all the other students there. Ichigo would have yelled at him when he was in middle school, but instead he had just glared at him and told him by the end of the year he'd be out of the special classes and learning with everyone else. Uryu had smirked at him and told him that would never happen.

Ichigo had savored the look of shock on Uryu's face when their teacher had announced that Ichigo would be joining his class permanently not even halfway through the year. Uryu had never bothered to look at the marks Ichigo had been getting both in the special classes and his normal classes. If he had, he would have seen that each year Ichigo drastically improved on a steady curve from F's to D's to C's all the way up to B's and A's in his special classes up until 8th grade. Once in high school, Ichigo managed to ace his special classes and pass all of his normal classes, so he was allowed to go full time into the regular classes.

"You do actually realize you have to earn something for it to be an accomplishment, right?" Uryu said condescendingly.

Ichigo didn't bother to reply. As sweet as his progress was, it had soon turned bitter. Not only did no one believe that he'd fairly made it back into normal classes, but they also seemed to hate him more. Rumors and lies circulated about what he'd done to get back into normal classes as well as other generally negative rumors increased. Teachers always double checked his work or immediately gave him lower marks because they assumed they didn't need to look at it to know what he deserved. He'd constantly had to bring his work back up to the teacher to ask what he did wrong just so he could have it regraded to something better. It made all his hard work feel so pointless and degrading.

"Pricks like you never get it. I could drop dead and you'd glare and say I cheated." Ichigo said in a voice suddenly devoid of emotion. His blank eyes and emotionless voice startled Uru. Shoving Uryu's papers and books into his arms, Ichigo stood up and left.

This is why Ichigo never bothered to talk to anybody, it was all the same.

x

Reaching the roof, Ichigo looked around and saw a group of students eating lunch together and talking. Ichigo froze, those were the students he'd seen in the academy that night, the ones he'd seen covered in scratches and blood. Seeing them now, it was clear that none of them had any such injuries, not a scratch. It was almost as if somebody had completely erased every cut and blemish from them.

Swallowing thickly, Ichigo turned away and headed to the opposite end of the roof. He'd originally meant to try and talk to them to find out just what had happened, but everything had fallen apart so quickly that now he abandoned that thought. Maybe he really had imagined it, maybe he was crazy. It didn't really matter. No one cared to find out and even if they did, he didn't have much to lose now. With no job, he was as good as dead to Lena.

Ichigo reached the railing and leaned out to look out over the trees surrounding the back of the school. Feeling the sun on him, Ichigo looked around carefully before taking off his school coat. He never took off his coat no matter how hot it was to hide both his bruises and his scars. Most of the random scars on his body were only noticeable to him as he recognized where they were after carrying them for so many years, but the scars on his wrists and scratches on his upper arms stood out more against his skin.

Ichigo sighed and rubbed his arms, a littler colder than he expected to be without his coat. Feeling the slightly raised skin where his cuts had healed over with scar tissue, Ichigo supposed he should have felt a little guilty, or maybe even ashamed. Sick? No, he didn't feel any of those things anymore when he did it. When he'd first hurt himself, it wasn't on purpose. It was one of the first times that he freaked out. Someone had touched him when he was 11, and it was like a switch flipped. All of a sudden he was back in a nightmare, and he was terrified. He'd flipped out and ran to the bathroom where he sat for hours hyperventilating and rocking back and forth. He didn't realize until after it had passed that he'd been scratching himself and banging his head against the wall. It was like he wasn't even there, like he was in a trance. He'd felt sick and scared, but not ashamed because he hadn't done it on purpose. He just knew that when he was freaking out, physical pain grounded him and helped him get through it, so when he started having episodes more and more, he used it.

People tended to think you were insane if all of a sudden you started rocking back and forth while scratching yourself and banging your head. So when he felt panicky, he tried to find a quiet place where no one would see him, and he slowly scratched his arms while he rocked. While he was doing it, he felt better in some twisted way, but when it was over, he just felt nauseous and guilty.

Some part of him knew that he wasn't really supposed to be doing this and it made him nervous, but it was the only thing that helped. As time went on, he found that just scratching wasn't really enough to make him feel good anymore. He found that he'd have to scratch harder and actually draw blood. He'd even started doing it when he wasn't immediately panicking because it made him feel... better. It took the numbness away when he couldn't feel anything. From there it was a slippery slope.

He didn't know how he'd gotten the idea, but one day he snuck an old pocket knife of Lena's to school with him to see if it would help. He'd gone into the bathroom when he was starting to freak out and done it. He'd actually had to bind his arm with a sock after he accidentally cut too deep (later he read that that was actually how a good amount of people died on accident when they cut just a little too deep or hit a vein), but it had helped.

He'd immediately felt so ashamed that he'd done it, but it was helping him control his freak outs and apathy better. It made him feel like he was sort of sick for getting pleasure out of doing it, but once he started it was so hard to stop. He had tried once, but he was so used to cutting himself to keep his freak outs and panic away that when he didn't, he wouldn't be able to control himself as well. It was harder to hide the signs in public because he needed some sort of release, and when he wasn't cutting, he'd scratch himself or try to hit his head during his freak outs. He'd even throw up if it was a certain kind of memory. So he'd gone back to doing it to take the edge off his episodes, make them milder and more tolerable, easier to hide and less frequent. If he could figure out when he was starting to panic, then he'd step out and do it before he had a chance to freak out, and it helped.

It helped prevent things. It calmed him down and in that way helped him deal.

It still kind of scared him that he'd become dependent on it, but he really felt his hands were tied. He got shaky and sweaty when he didn't have his pocket knife with him. Ichigo had a feeling that if he went too long without doing it, he'd get the same way, but he never got the chance to find that out thanks to how constantly stressed and scared he was. Everything seemed to set him off, and he didn't know how to stop it.

That was why he missed seemingly random bits of class, he was going into the bathroom to calm himself down. He chose the bathroom because it was isolated, mostly private, and if he got sick and threw up, he wouldn't make a mess. It also had plenty of toilet paper to clean himself off with and hide any evidence. It still felt like some horrible dirty secret, so he made sure to never show his arms or legs even if he didn't have any bruises there.

Absently running his thumb along the scars, Ichigo wondered why he was like this. Part of him almost hoped somebody saw his arms so they could ask him if he was alright, or at least know that something wasn't right. But the fear of judgement and being found out made sure he rarely entertained that thought. Any time his teachers had called home to try and talk to Lena about his behavior, Lena would put on her mom-act and charm the pants off his teachers (not when she was drunk of course - even she wouldn't attempt that), telling them how sorry she was and how she was going to instill change him in. Then she would punish him.

She would do the same if she found out about what he was doing.

Staring down from the railing, Ichigo felt that familiar instinct everyone feels when standing somewhere high up over a drop. Would he die if he fell? What would it be like? Would they even find him at the back of the school? Ichigo had always wondered what it would be like to die, even at a young age, but it was only in recent years that he'd entertained thoughts like this. Would it be painful, hitting the ground like that? Would he even have time to feel pain before he died?

Ichigo's thoughts were interrupted as he sensed movement behind him. Turning around, Ichigo caught the surprised expression of the almost red-haired girl he'd seen at the academy.

"O-oh, Ichigo... I didn't really expect you to hear me, but I just came over here to say hi and offer you some of my lunch." She said with a nervous smile. Ichigo couldn't help but frown a little, she was in his class, but she'd never really talked to him before. He was pretty sure her name was Orihime.

"Sorry, I hope I'm not being rude or anything, I just noticed that you came up here, but you don't have anything to eat. So I thought 'man, I'd be hungry if I didn't get to eat lunch today, I know! I have an extra sandwich he can eat!'" Orihime said with a finger to her head and a mock thoughtful expression on her face. Ichigo blinked. She'd really seen him and thought to give him some of her food?

"Thank you, but shouldn't you be eating that sandwich? I'd really hate to take your food from you..." Ichigo said. It didn't matter that he was starving, this girl had actually thought about him and cared that he might be hungry, so goddammit, he was going to be nice back. Orihime shook her head with a determined expression.

"Mm-mm. I already ate enough today, and Keigo says I have to watch what I eat since I'm already kind of thick and curves can turn to fat really quick." Orihime said, though she blushed slightly at the last part. Ichigo did too, that was an awfully rude thing for Keigo to say. Looking at Orihime, she wasn't exactly thin, but that was no excuse. He really didn't think that was a bad thing or that it meant she wasn't pretty, she was still attractive and surprisingly nice. Describing her as "thick" still felt negative though, so he settled for... shapely. He'd heard plenty of classmates whispering enviously about her *ahem* curves.

"Well I think Keigo's a jerk, and he doesn't have any right to tell you how much to eat since you're perfectly fine the way you are. Thick doesn't mean ugly, just that you have more shape to you." Ichigo said with a sniff, arms crossed. He'd managed not to blush when saying that, but the same couldn't be said for Orihime. She looked an odd combination of surprised, embarrassed, and complimented.

"T-thank you." Orihime squeaked. Ichigo just nodded causually despite the light dusting on his cheeks.

"Well, um, this is for you. I hope you like it." Orihime said as she held out a small bundle wrapped in a checkered handkerchief. Ichigo took it and Orihime brightened.

"I know! Why don't you eat with my friends and I? You can also meet the new transfer student, Chad." Orihime said. That was not what Ichigo wanted, he'd come up here to be alone.

"Oh, um, I don't know..." Ichigo said, raising an arm to scratch the back of his head. Orihime gave him a pouty look, changing into confusion as her eyes wandered. Following her gaze, Ichigo realized she was looking at the arm he was holding up. His bare, uncovered arm...

Ichigo immediately snapped his arm back down to his side, hiding his other arm behind his stiff body. Orihime opened her mouth to ask him about it, but stopped when she saw the guarded look on his face. Ichigo locked eyes with her, jaw set and gaze hard as if challenging her to say something. Orihime shifted uncomfortably in the suddenly tense atmosphere.

"Oh, well that's okay... I'm just going to... go. I hope you like it." Orihime said awkwardly. Ichigo didn't say anything as she hesitated before leaving. As soon as she was gone, Ichigo let out heavy breathe of panic and quickly shoved his arms into his coat. Oh god, she saw. How could he have let somebody see his scars?! He never showed his arms or legs, never. She was just being so nice to him that it had thrown him off.

Sliding down against the railing, Ichigo ran a shaky hand over his face. His heart was wildly beating and he felt sick, but that wouldn't stop him from eating. he hadn't eaten anything today, or last night. Carefully unwrapping the handkerchief and stuffing them in his pocket, Ichigo took a bite of the sandwich.

It was delicious. It was all Ichigo could do to stop himself from inhaling the entire thing. It was good enough that he really wanted to savor it. It was crunchy and had fresh lettuce, and it somehow tasted both spicy and creamy. There was also a slightly meaty, nutty aftertaste. Looking at the sandwich, Ichigo took the bread off and nearly choked. Salmon and lettuce were topped with what looked like hot sauce mixed with mayonnaise and peanuts. If Ichigo hadn't just tasted it, he would have thought the combination sounded disgusting, but it tasted unbelievably good.

It wasn't like any of the other crappy junk food he'd eaten, and it was obvious she'd put a lot of time into making this. Now Ichigo felt bad for scaring her off, but he couldn't help it. That was his natural reaction to get aggressive like that, if he didn't he'd end up really hurt in a lot of situations. It was challenge and get aggresseve before somebody else had the chance to do it and hurt him.

Swallowing the rest of the sandwich, Ichigo covered his eyes with a hand. He hadn't even said anything, and yet he'd still lashed out at her in a way. That's why he didn't have any friends, not because he got into fights or acted weird, but because he'd lash out. It had been much worse when he was younger and started going back to school after the ...fake nightmare... when he couldn't control his reactions or properly isolate himself. He was much better than he had been, but that wasn't saying much. It was touching that Orihime had thought of him and even came over to give him some food, but now Ichigo just wanted this all to be over.

-x-

Orihime Inoue - School Roof

Orihime walked back to her group of friends with a frown on her normally cheery face. Seeing Orihime's frown, Tatsuki got up from where she was sitting.

"What's wrong, didn't he like your sandwich?" Tatsuki asked. Keigo and Mizuiro looked at each other. They themselves had tasted some of Orihime's creations before, and some of them had been... interesting. Orihime shook her head.

"I never really got the chance to find out..." Orihime said. Tatsuki glared in Ichigo's direction.

"Did he say something to you? I told you it was a bad idea to go over there to talk to him - everyone knows Ichigo's an ass." Tatsuki said with balled fists. Orihime quickly threw her hands up to ward off her friend from going over there and beating him up on the spot.

"No! No, he was actually really nice when I talked to him. He seemed really surprised that I was even talking to him, and he was really polite. He almost didn't take my sandwich when he heard what Keigo had said about me - he says Keigo's a jerk and I should eat however much I want." Orihime said quickly. Keigo blanched.

"You told him what I said?!" Keigo cried. Tatsuki had already slapped his arm and chewed him out after his little comment. Orihime sheepishly scratched the back of her head.

"Sorry, I was just trying really hard to get him to take the sandwich. I've never seen Kurosaki-kun without his jacket before, and he looked really thin. Come to think of it, I've never really seen him eat before either..." Orihime said thoughtfully. Tatsuki frowned a little. She hadn't really ever seen Ichigo without his coat either, and she would have assumed Ichigo would be well-muscled from the amount of fights he won. Chad spoke up from his place beside the group.

"If he was so polite, then why are you upset?" Chad asked quietly. Chad had heard plenty of things about Ichigo, but he'd never met him before so he didn't know what he was like.

"Oh I'm not really upset, it's just that while I was inviting him over to eat lunch with us, I started looking at his arm and he got all weird all of a sudden." Orihime said.

"What do you mean, 'weird'?" Tatsuki asked.

"He was being really nice before, but suddenly he got all stiff and kind of defensive. He wouldn't talk to me or look at me anymore, so I left." Orihime said. Ichigo had put his arm down before she could really get a good look at it, so she wasn't really sure of what she'd seen. It looked like he had cuts or something on his arm.

"Hmph. Well that's not all that surprising considering it's Ichigo." Tatsuki said with a slight growl. Feeling a little out of the loop, Chad spoke to Tatsuki.

"Do you know Ichigo that well?" Chad asked. Tatsuki shrugged.

"I've known Ichigo since elementary school, he even used to sit in on martial arts lessons at my old dojo since he couldn't afford any actual lessons. He was always such a crybaby back then, freaking out and crying over the smallest things. He used to steal from the other kid's lunches back then too, but I actually kind of thought it was funny since he mostly stole from jerks. I think that's when he first started getting into so many fights since he was always showing up with bruises. But after he left town when he was eight and came back about three years later, he was completely different. No one ever saw him cry again, and for about a year or so he was practically mute. He'd freak out randomly and lash out for no reason. He was constantly getting into fights and getting in trouble with everyone, especially teachers because of his random outbursts. He nearly had to repeat a grade he was doing so bad in school, but his mother always told the school the same thing; Ichigo had anger issues and she was helping him work through them at home as well as teaching him to concentrate in class." Tatsuki paused as she thought back.

"I feel pretty bad for his mom, when I met her she was really patient and kind, I don't think I ever saw her yell at him once. It's too bad she's always too sick to go out anymore. I only ever saw her when she came to school for parent-teacher conferences, everybody loved her." Tatsuki shook her head to clear her mind a little.

"Either way, Ichigo stopped having as many outbursts in school, so people mostly just ignored him. His teachers were still really pushing for him to go back a couple grades, but his mom convinced them not to as long as he at least got C's and took special classes. This is actually the first year that he doesn't get C's anymore or have to take special classes. He still gets into tons of fights and skips out on class, but no one really cares anymore. As far as I'm concerned, Ichigo's just a jerk. He's never wanted anything to do with people from the very beginning." Tatsuki said with a sniff. Chad frowned. Why had Ichigo changed so much? That sounded like a pretty drastic shift in personality.

"Where did Ichigo go when he was eight?" Chad asked. Tatsuki shrugged again.

"Don't really know. There are a bunch of rumors about where he went and what he did, but the official story is that he went to live with his dad for a while in Tokyo. A bunch of people think he went to a correctional school where he learned to toughen up from all the other delinquents, but I don't believe it. He disappeared before school had completely ended and actually made the school freak out because they had no warning or records that he was transferring out. His mom claims the records were lost, but it was still a little weird since even Ichigo didn't seem to know he was leaving. Little weirdo told everybody when he came back that monsters had taken him away, but nobody believed him. He completely shut up about that after a month or so, so I guess he figured out that he wasn't fooling anybody." Tatsuki said.

It sounded to Chad like Tatsuki might be slightly biased, but none of the others said anything to contradict her, so maybe her description of Ichigo was accurate from their standpoint at least. Orihime had remained quiet through all of this. Even if Ichigo really was the way other people saw him, did that mean everybody should give up on him? She hadn't told her friends this, but when she'd been there before Ichigo had noticed her, he'd looked so sad and tired. She only got to see it for a split second on his face before he buried it with a scowl.

-xxx-

Ichigo Godebert

Ignoring the stares and whispers that followed him, Ichigo left school and started his walk home. Normally Ichigo would take the shortest route home, but today he chose the route he usually took from work to school so he would have some more time to think. He'd had plenty of days like this where dangerous thoughts bounced around his head, but it was always to the same conclusions and questions. If he was gone nobody at school would care, but who would take care of Lena? What would happen to her if he suddenly disappeared? He had a sickly hopeful feeling it would turn out like last time.

The first time he had left, Lena had already been an alcoholic, but she still went out and worked then. Without Ichigo to feed (sort of) and take care of (deal with), Lena ended up with a bit more freedom and moved into a small apartment after one of her work friends offered to give Lena a place to stay with her and her roommates. Eventually Lena's toxic habits and shameless mooching led her roommates to hold an intervention and semi-force Lena to get sober or else kick her out. Apparently she even started attending an online AA meeting.

Turns out whatever terrible memories and things Ichigo had constantly reminded her of were much easier to bury and move on from if he wasn't there.

But when Ichigo had come back and looked for her, Lena had been forced to take him back. He knew immediately that she was putting on an act for her "friends" so she wouldn't end up out on the streets when she quickly came up with a story about where Ichigo had been and why she'd never told them about him even when he was in Karakura town. She'd run into hard times and couldn't keep up with Ichigo's terrible attitude, so her divorced husband had taken Ichigo to live with him while he put him through a school to help Ichigo curb his anger issues. They'd been falling for her blubbery tears and fake apologies for years, so they bought it. They'd even pitched together to give her a whole bunch of money to help her buy a house for Ichigo and her to live in again. But Lena hadn't been truthful about her progress with them, and she was still struggling to get over her addiction. She'd only tried to stop so she could live with them, but now she had no reason not to give in to her even stronger temptations.

It had only taken a month for Lena to go right back to the toxic life she'd just escaped, squandering the money they'd given her on drinks before she had a chance to follow through on her mortgage. She ended up losing the house, but she knew she couldn't tell her old roommates about it because they'd catch on. So she hauled Ichigo to some shit hole apartment on the worst side of town because it was the only place they could afford. They had checked up on her constantly and Ichigo'd been forced to listen as Lena spun perfect lies about her life and the random but believable disasters and chronic illnesses that left her friends cooing their apologies and sending her money to help her out. Life had been hell for Ichigo back then, but no one knew or cared to ask.

Since her friends still called occasionally to check up on her "I'm sorry, but mom's too sick today to talk, I know, we all hope she'll make it through this," Ichigo was pretty sure if something happened to him and he wasn't there to bring home rent, Lena would turn to them. The only problem was that Lena was as bad as she'd ever been, and not just when she was drinking. She had some serious issues that had existed long before her addiction, but only Ichigo had seen them. If she went to live with them now, there was a good chance they'd see through her and dump her. That was what had been Ichigo's driving factor for not doing what he was scared to want to do... until now.

The past couple of months Ichigo had been thinking and fantasizing more and more about things he knew he shouldn't really be thinking about, but it was hard to stop. All these dark thoughts would just pop up out of nowhere even if he wasn't even thinking about something remotely related. They were just so... invasive. It used to be just wondering what it was like, dying. Then it would be how, then what would happen if he suddenly got terminally ill, or somebody pulled a gun on him in one of his fights, or there was a drunk driver when he was crossing the street, or... It had gotten worse after that, more purposeful.

He hadn't really realized it at first, but he'd started subconsciously acting out on those thoughts. He was more reckless, less caring. He'd cross the street without looking, skip meals even if he'd finally gotten food, egg on his opponents during fights. Once he realized it though, he didn't really care...

It was even less obvious when he stopped taking care of himself thanks to the fact that he already didn't. It was little things like not bothering to brush his hair or change his clothes, or wash his hair. The only reason he noticed was because Daimo had to actually take him aside and read him the store policy on hygiene and personal appearance. Apparently people were complaining about his coughing and the fact that he always smelt of smoke (he had gotten used to it by now from Lena). As embarrassing as that was, it just felt like it was too much effort to keep up with all those things. He was just so tired, it was all he could do to get through school and work. Well, not work anymore at least.

I guess I don't have to worry about that anymore... Ichigo thought darkly.

If he couldn't work, then having Lena live with her old roommates became his best option of helping her. He'd been thinking for a while now of ways to make it so her old roommates would either accept her issues and manipulation or see it as something else, but without success. But eventually he'd picked up one or two things from Lena, and now he had an idea on how to lie to them to get them to do a little bit of both. After doing a little research on how medications, illnesses, and alcohol affected a person's mental state and personality, Ichigo was pretty sure he could convince them that the medication Lena had to take for her "chronic illness" (at this point he'd forgotten what she'd told people) had had some nasty permanent side affects on her personality and mood. To top it off, he could say that the disease triggered permanent damage from her past alcoholism and made her particularly susceptible to substances. If they found that suspicious, than he could always say she had issues from the past relationship with his father (who conveniently fell out of communication with them).

But what would seal her new life with them was all up to Ichigo. This part of his plan had been in the back of his mind for a long time, but he'd done his best to ignore it. But thinking about maybe actually doing it, he realized that this was something that he wanted. Thinking about it made him nervous, but also lighter when he thought about going through with it. He could admit that he was doing it on a selfish level because he wanted it, but it would also set his mother up perfectly in her new life. After all, what kind of friend would turn away a grieving mother?

"KISUKE!"

Ichigo's disturbing thoughts were interrupted by the cry succeeded by a soccer ball flying straight at his head. Ichigo doubled over backwards just in time to avoid what would probably be a concussion. Snapping back up, Ichigo looked to his right just in time to see the ball slam into a trash bin, crushing it. An expression of horror on his face, Ichigo whipped his head around to see where the death ball had come from.

Two girls Ichigo had seen playing soccer in this park many times before were standing in the middle with a strange man wearing a green and white striped bucket hat. Bucket head had a sheepish look on his face as the black haired girl glared at him. The other concerned looking girl was running in Ichigo's direction. Seeing her closer, Ichigo recognized her as the one who waved at him when he used to take this route. He'd met them a couple times before when breaking up fights between high schoolers picking on the middle schoolers and knew the light haired one as Yuzu and the other as Karin. He assumed the man was "Kisuke."

"Oh my gosh, are you alright?" Yuzu asked, puffing a little. Yuzu wasn't really athletic, but Karin was, so he often found them in the park playing soccer and pissing off high schoolers (Karin primarily).

"Don't worry Yuzu, I'm alright, but how did that happen?" Ichigo asked.

"You can ask this madman." Karin said as she joined the conversation, dragging along the man with the ridiculous hat and outfit.

"How is this my fault?!" Kisuke whined. Karin glared at him.

"You're the one who dodged!" Karin snapped. Ichigo felt his mouth twitch in what would have been a smile on a much happier person. It seemed that she had used one of the kicks he'd taught her to try and punish this Kisuke man. He was a little surprised since he'd had to leave before he could finish teaching her the trick. Since then he hadn't tried again or even stopped to say hi in almost a year because it made him home late... Lena hated it when he was late.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Yuzu asked, breaking Ichigo out of his thoughts. Ichigo nodded quickly. His face must of showed what he was thinking about since she looked concerned. Ichigo had always felt guilty that he'd basically ignored them like that, but he hadn't thought about it since he hadn't seen them in almost a year. The one time he had, Karin had glared at him before ignoring him. It had made him feel terrible because it felt like yet another bridge he'd accidentally burned, like Orihime...

"Erm, well since I'm alright, I kinda need to go..." Ichigo said quietly with a few weak coughs. The three of them looked at him curiously. They didn't know about the dark plan he was completing and what he had in mind. He felt nervous and anxious contemplating, especially around others, so he wanted some time alone to make the decision.

"Got somebody you need to go beat up?" Karin asked gruffly. Ichigo didn't bother to smother the look of hurt on his face immediately. Yuzu elbowed Karin in the ribs.

"What? Everybody knows what he's like." Karin said with a glare. Yuzu gasped at her sister.

"Karin!" Yuzu said. Kisuke looked like he was going to say something too, but Ichigo just held up a hand.

"It's alright. I'm beyond aware of what people say and think about me - I have ears." Ichigo said with a bitter smile pulling up the corners of his mouth. It looked a little too obvious that he wasn't used to smiling, even bitterly. Deciding he'd had enough of pretending to socialize, Ichigo started walking away, one hand raised in a wave.

"I wasn't kidding about needing to leave though. If I don't get home soon, Lena's really gonna give it to me." Ichigo said over his shoulder. They had no idea how true that would normally be, and he'd never give them a chance. Sucking in a breath, Ichigo let himself wander to the loneliest parts of Karakura town to think. He had a feeling he already knew what his decision was going to be, but he at least wanted time to call Lena's new roommates before he came home and went to bed.


Rattennest - rat's nest

Undankbar gör - ungrateful brat

Bitte - please

Du denkst ich höre dich nicht - you think I don't hear you

Das tut mir leid - I am sorry/ this brings me sorrow


National Alliance on Mental Health
- 1-800-950-6264
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- 1-800-826-3632
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- 1-877-SAMHSA-7
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line
- Text "Start" 741-741
S.A.F.E. Alternatives
- 1-800-DONTCUT
The Trevor Project
- 1-866-488-7386 (24/7)
- Text "Trevor" 1-202-304-1200 (F 4pm - 8pm EST)
Disaster Distress Helpline
- 1-800-985-5990
- Text "TalkWithUs" 66746
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- 1-877-739-3895
RAINN- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- 1-800-656-4673
National Sexual Assault Hotline
- 1-800-656-4673
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- 303-839-1852
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- 1-800-799-SAFE
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- 1-800-537-2238
USA National Child Abuse Hotline
- 1-800-422-4453 (24/7)
National Safe Place
- Text SAFE and your current location to the number 69866 (24/7)


 

I put a lot of thought into having Ichigo self harm since it's a very serious subject that I don't take lightly, but decided it would make sense in the situation considering Ichigo's own situation and his personality. Even in canon, I've always kinda felt that Ichigo's pretty self-destructive, this was just a physical manifestation of that. Even without that, unfortunately a lot of people turn to self harm to dealing with pain, especially after experiencing severe abuse and trauma. Without friends or anyone that Ichigo can really rely on, he has no guidance as far as learning how to deal with his pain and trauma in a healthy way, so he turns to what he's used to; physical pain.

Just a quick note, Orihime isn't stupid, she'd understand the implications of somebody having fresh cuts all over their wrists, she just didn't see Ichigo's as well as he thought she did. I'm gonna make sure Orihime's not as much of an airhead as she is in Bleach, especially now that I can add some more substance to her character and let her develop without completely revolving around Ichigo or only ever saying she'll develope to help him. (don't get me wrong, I like Orihime, I was just disappointed they didn't let her really shine and only ever used her as damsel in distress).
*cough* almost like her character only existed to be a sexy lamp/love interest and deserves better *cough* Chad too *cough* deserves better not is a sexy lamp Chad is not a sexy lamp *cough* Sorry I have a cold.

Ichigo was right by the way, Orihime isn't thick. She's thicc, because no one can have that size of honkers, badonkers, real dobanhonkeros, serious bonkhonagahoogs, massive honongalamongalonous while still having that tiny waist and everything else. It just made sense to me and fit my whole "trying to make everything a bit more realistic." It totally wasn't also because I wanted to make thicc jokes...

I wrote in a couple of character's perspectives on Ichigo to give you guys a better understanding of why Ichigo is ostracized and treated poorly by others. It may seem obvious to us that Ichigo is a good person and needs help, but just like in real life, it isn't to others. The signs are always there, but they're often misinterpreted or missed completely. Ichigo's seen as an unruly punk lashing out at others and just generally being disruptive, not a victim crying out for help. Most people think of victims as passive and docile, but a lot aren't as they use aggression as a defense - usually ending up being seen as antagonistic and unfriendly. Ichigo's rarely passive outside of work and doesn't just sit back and let people hurt him. He fights back against bullies and gangs in fights all the time, so nobody would guess that he himself was getting hurt at home - you don't usually look at a strong, independent person and think "victim."

Also, yay, Yuzu and Karin made an appearance! Yeah, Karin's hecca salty, but that's because she's the tinsiest itsiest bit of a brat without Ichigo as a big brother.

Uryu's kind of a brat b/c while he isn't bitter about shinigami since they never wiped out the quincys, he's pretty stuck up because they pretty much own the World of the Living and he's a little upset that he can't go to the Echt academy since he's not "pure." It doesn't help that he's just like in the beginning of Bleach - holier than thou to normal souls and non quincys. Don't worry, everyone has a chance to change.

As always, let me know what you think.

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach


Chapter 2: Joyous End or Sorrowful Beginning?

-x-

Karakura High School

Students milled around aimlessly in the classroom as they waited for class to start, chatting in groups about anything and nothing. Quite a few were whispering and glancing at the new transfer student, Chad. Most of the girls seemed to like him as he was quite handsome and polite, but they rarely went up to him as he was still really intimidating. There were a couple of rumors that Chad used to get into some serious fights when he was younger, but had stopped after his abuela died and started getting beat up by bullies. Most everyone thought that's why he'd transferred to Karakura, to get a fresh start away from the middle school bullies. It was pretty surprising to think that Chad had trouble with bullies since he looked so strong, but nobody had the nerve to go up and ask him about it, especially after the latest strangeness he'd been a part of.

Nearly a week ago, Chad, Tatsuki, Orihime, Mizuiro, and Keigo had broken into the Gemischt Quincy Academy in the search of a lost hairclip, but had found something far worse. Police arrived to find that the students had stumbled upon the corpse of a teacher, but had been unhurt and were being taken care of by several teachers not long after being found. After that some lady from Shino Outreach had visited all of them to check up and offer Chad and Orihime a place in their programs. The others were asked to keep Shino Outreach in sight and invited to visit anytime they liked. Keigo had gone berzerk and come up with a ridiculous conspiracy theory about how they were gathering pyschics or something because the offers had come directly after Chad and Orihime had been talking about seeing shimmery figures where there were none. The Outreach lady had just laughed and told him that it wasn't uncommon for people to see and hear things that weren't there, and that if he began to see strange people or creatures, he should talk to the councilors the Academy had provided after the incident.

Because of said incident, Chad's new classmates weren't very surprised to find out that Chad had already made quite a few friends despite his quiet and reserved nature. It was still a little weird considering one of those friends was Orihime. Everyone knew how normally shy Orihime was and that she was easily intimidated, so it was almost funny to see the two getting along so well, gentle giant Chad towering over friendly Orihime as she chatted excitedly about the next lesson.

No one but Orihime's friends knew that Orihime was actually really smart and did well in school. Orihime herself admitted that you wouldn't expect her to do so well, but it made sense when you knew how much Orihime enjoyed school and worked hard. Keigo personally found it disgusting that Orihime would find something so vile interesting, and he always made a point of voicing that opinion when Orihime talked about school.

"How could anyone like this hellhole Orihime? I say the only thing this place is good for is picking up chicks." Keigo said with a sniff. Tatsuki rolled her eyes.

"But high school is the path to your future Keigo! Isn't there some subject you like in school?" Orihime asked. Keigo groaned.

"You sound like a guidance councilor, Orihime. What in the world is there to like about the subjects in school?!" Keigo complained. Orihime smiled and put her hands together, a sure sign that they were in for a long chat.

"Keigo, there are so many different subjects to enjoy in school. Language arts is fascinating because you can do so much with it, you can make whole new worlds or fall into ones that somebody else made just by reading! You get to learn how to use speech and writing in so many different ways to get all kinds of information and messages across in any way you want. There are a million different ways to say just one thing - isn't that amazing?" Orihime gushed. Keigo shook his head. Orihime smiled.

"Well, maybe you like science! Science is interesting because you get to learn and discover so many different things about our world and how everything works. You can make predictions and experiments endlessly as you learn about our ever-expanding world. You can learn about everything from life to space to how movement works with just one subject - isn't that incredible?" Orihime said. Keigo shrugged.

"The only science I like is when you get to set stuff on fire in class. Ooh, or make stuff melt with acid!" Keigo said. Orihime laughed nervously. It figured that keigo would only be interested in the more destructive side of science. The group of friends shared a look. They all hoped Keigo would never become a scientist.

"Urr, yes, that is a part of science, but you don't have to like just one subject. I myself have two favorite subjects - art and math!" Orihime said. Keigo choked and dramatically began heaving.

"You like math?! How?! I've become friends with a demon - sweet, innocent Orihime is an abomination! Oh god, where did it all go wrong?!" Keigo cried out. Only a few students turned their heads before ignoring him again. This was pretty regular for Keigo. Tatsuki kicked and chewed out Keigo as Orihime pouted, slightly embarrassed.

"What's so wrong about liking math?" Orihime asked with a huff. Chad answered since Tatsuki and Mizuiro were busy trying to stop Keigo from making a cross out of pencils.

"Most people don't like math because of how difficult and complicated it is. No offense Orihime, but I wouldn't have thought you enjoyed math..." Chad said. Orihime waved off Chad's hesitance, but looked a little confused.

"I get that, but isn't that why math is so great? It's like a big puzzley board game full of twists and turns and different challenges. All you have to do is follow the instructions on the back of the box to get to the end. I thought people liked stuff like that." Orihime said. All four of her friends looked at her, confused. It figured someone as confusing and strange as Orihime would use an equally odd analogy like that.

"It's because most people don't have the finesse to even figure out the instructions right." A voice said from behind Orihime. Orihime turned around to see Uryu standing impatiently behind her.

"Oh, Uryu! Let me get out of your way." Orihime said and moved so Uryu could get to his seat. Chad frowned inwardly. It sounded a little like Uryu was implying most people were too stupid to figure out how math even worked.

"Even fewer people even take the time to put in the effort of playing the game. You can usually tell if someone will do well in such a game based on their general attitude." Uryu said with a pointed look at a notoriously empty seat. Keigo got up from where he'd been wailing, catching on faster than the others to what Uryu was implying.

"Still mad about Ichigo calling you a prick last week, huh?" Keigo grinned. He'd been there and while he wasn't exactly rooting for Ichigo, it had been pretty funny to see the look on Uryu's face when Ichigo suddenly called him that. Usually Ichigo was pretty reserved in their fights, but Keigo was glad he decided not to be for that spat. Uryu turned red and opened his mouth to say something, but the bell cut him off.

As all the students settled into their seats, the door flew open like always as Ichigo came jogging into class. Uryu tried to give Ichigo a glare, but he didn't seem to be paying attention. Ichigo had been like that all week, and it was a bit strange. Uryu and the others hadn't immediately noticed the difference in Ichigo, but after a day or so everyone agreed he was different.

For one thing, Ichigo started looking cleaner, neater. Ichigo's hair looked like he was actually brushing it and his uniform was clean. Bruises still occasionally showed up on his pale face, but they no longer matched missing dark circles under Ichigo's eyes. He didn't look exhausted anymore as he sat up straighter in his chair and watched lesson plans intently. His eyes were clearer, brighter and less shifty. He looked lighter, freer. But the most shocking think about him was that he actually seemed to smile. It looked strange and foreign on his face, but it matched his newly relaxed posture and behavior. He still missed bits of class and got into fights, but for some reason he'd started avoiding them more and more. People saw him out and about town walking and standing on the bridge, looking out over the water.

Despite seeming happier, something just seemed a little off about him. It was a nagging feeling that only Orihime and Uryu seemed to feel, but they didn't really have any reason to, so they stopped thinking about it.

Watching Ichigo energetically scribbling down notes, Orihime hoped the change stuck. She had no idea what was making him so much calmer and happy since nothing had seemed to change in his life, but she was happy for him nonetheless. Other than that, not many people spent that much time reflecting on Ichigo and he spent the majority of his time unnoticed and ignored.

-x-

Convenience Store

Kaiya watched as Ichigo wandered around the store, taking his time picking out various different snacks and drinks. Ichigo's old coworkers subtly watched him from around corners and stands as they looked at each other. None of them had expected Ichigo to start showing up here and hanging around, but the day after he'd been fired he'd showed up after school and bought a bunch of snacks after wandering around. It had been so weird to see him show up like that, and even weirder when he'd looked cleaner and happier. He even smiled at them.

No one had gotten the nerve to talk to him, so they settled on just watching him. Even Daimo would peek out every now and again to stare at him curiously. It wasn't like he was causing trouble or anything, so they couldn't exactly ask him to leave. He was giving them good business too, what with all the food he was buying.

Candy, pastries, chips, crackers, soda, sandwiches, even cold packed sushi. They never saw him eat any of it, but he only seemed to buy things that would store well or last a long time. Today however, he'd actually opened up a pack of chips after buying his hoard of food. Kaiya watched as he ate one and closed his eyes, sighing. Turning around, movement caught Kaiya's eye. Her coworkers were hiding behind a stand and furiously gesturing at her and Ichigo. Kaiya shook her head vigorously. No way was she going to talk to him - if they wanted to find out what was going on, they'd have to talk to him themselves. One of her coworkers held up a box of pastry puffs, smiling at her and mimicking giving it to her. Kaiya snorted. They were going to have to do much better.

Next her coworker held up the pastry puffs and a box of mochi. Kaiya smiled. Now they were talking. Walking up to Ichigo, Kaiya pointed at the pile of bags beside him.

"What's all that?" Kaiya asked. Ichigo stopped chewing to reply.

"My mom. She's going to be moving to a new place soon, so I'm making sure she doesn't leave empty-handed." Ichigo said before going back to eating. He looked like he was really savoring his snack.

"And the chips? I've never seen you buy so much, let alone actually eat anything." Kaiya said as she shifted nervously. Ichigo was notorious for being stingy about money.

"Oh, this is just a treat. I've never actually had chips before..." Ichigo said absently. Kaiya was surprised. She knew Ichigo wasn't really the type of person to indulge in treats, but he'd seriously never had chips before? To be honest she'd only really seen him buy the same thing he always bought - dirt cheap rice bowls from the clearance section. She personally thought those things were disgusting.

"Erm, okay. Have fun with your... chips." Kaiya said awkwardly as she let him be. Ichigo just continued to eat. Once he had finished, Ichigo threw away the bag and left the store.

-x-

Karakura Town - Park

The sound of children playing and shrieking filled the park as children relished their freedom from school for the weekend. It had been raining all throughout the middle of the week, so now that the sky was clear and sunny, the park was filled with rambunctious children who had been cooped up for far too long. The soccer field was particularly busy today as several disorderly games were being played. A soccer ball sailed from the field into the street as two girls chased after.

"Wait Yuzu - look for cars first!" Karin called out to her sister as she reached the sidewalk, but Yuzu didn't hear and continued forward. Car horns blared as Yuzu screamed, but there was no crash. The person who had pulled Yuzu out of the street spun her around to look at him.

"Don't you know better than to run out into the street?!" Uryu exclaimed. Karin pulled Yuzu away from Uryu and checked her over to see that she was fine. A couple of people had come running over at Yuzu's scream, but now most dispersed as they realized nothing serious had happened. Yuzu began to cry as the shock wore off.

"I'm sorry, I didn't see any cars coming so I thought it was fine." Yuzu said between tears.

"That doesn't mean you can just run out like that!" Uryu exclaimed. Yuzu cried harder and Karin glared at Uryu, ready to give him a verbal smack down, but someone else beat her to it.

"Jesus, glasses. Go easy on her, she just nearly got ran over and now you're yelling at her." Ichigo said from the remaining onlookers. Uryu bristled.

"I wasn't yelling at her - " Uryu adjusted his volume as Ichigo raised his eyebrows. "I wasn't yelling, just explaining proper safety." Uryu huffed. Ichigo walked over and took a look at Yuzu.

"You alright?" Ichigo asked. Yuzu nodded as Karin kept a protective arm around her sister.

"Yeah, I don't know if you saw, but Uryu pulled me out of the street in time - he saved me." Yuzu said with a smile to Uryu. Uryu looked extremely uncomfortable as he adjusted his glasses to hide his blush.

"Well, it's not like anyone else was close enough to do it, even Ichigo was preoccupied with ... collecting rocks?" Uryu questioned as he noticed that Ichigo had a fistful of pebbles. Yuzu and Karin also noticed and were staring at him.

"Er, yeah, I just found a couple rocks that looked pretty cool, so I was gathering them..." Icigo trailed off awkwardly. Now it was Uryu's turn to raise an eyebrow.

"Is that why your pockets are filled with rocks?" Uryu asked. It felt like he was missing something here, but Ichigo often made him feel that way. Ichigo shifted and gave a non-committal shrug.

"Okay weirdo, have fun with your rocks, Yuzu and I have a game to get back to and a ball to retrieve." Karin said before crossing the street with Yuzu - safely. Stuffing the fistful of rocks into his sweatshirt pockets since his pants pockets were full, Ichigo left Uryu to go back to where he was collecting rocks. Picking out the heavier ones, Ichigo was so engrossed in his activity that he almost didn't hear meowing from the bushes near him. Pausing, Ichigo looked around before following the sound through the bushes and trees. Crunching and tripping on sticks, Ichigo made his way through the foliage as the meowing became more insistent. Reaching a small clearing, Ichigo followed the meowing to a tall tree to see a black cat clinging to a branch and making an awful racket.

"That's quite the perch you've got yourself stuck on." Ichigo said as he looked up at the cat. Not very happy with its predicament, the cat began to yowl.

"Okay okay, Give me a minute." Ichigo said as he circled the tree. Finding the lowest branch, Ichigo pulled himself up and slowly made his way to the cat. Seeing him, the cat hissed and backed away from him. Ichigo stopped moving and waited for the cat to stop hissing.

"That's it, I'm just here to help you..." Ichigo said in a soothing voice. The cat was watching him with sharp eyes that seemed just a little too intelligent, but didn't budge, opting to growl instead. Ichigo sighed in annoyance, it felt almost like it was testing him. Inching forward onto the branch, Ichigo slowly held out his hand for the feline to sniff. Smelling him, the cat looked like it had decided something and immediately stopped growling. Ichigo tentatively scratched around its ears and when that didn't antagonize the cat, he began to move forward again. Reaching it, Ichigo continued to pet it, murmuring to it in a soothing voice as he picked it up and held it to his chest. The rest of the climb down was relatively painless until Ichigo slipped and fell to the ground a little early, causing the cat to yowl and scratch at him for the slightly jarring landing. Wriggling in his arms, the cat managed to worm its way out as Ichigo held at his shoulder where it had scratched him, bolting into the bushes as soon as it was free.

"Your welcome..." Ichigo muttered as he rubbed his shoulder. Sighing, Ichigo left to go find his way back to the park. Once he was gone, the same cat that had supposedly just run away came back into the small clearing.

"You can stop hiding now, Kisuke." It said in a deep voice. Coming out from his hiding place in the bushes, Kisuke flicked open his fan and smiled.

"Well?" The cat asked.

"He certainly appears normal from all aspects despite some seemingly bad lungs, but there was one thing off about him. Even when you scratched him, his reiatsu didn't fluctuate in the slightest." Kisuke said.

"You're right, but I didn't even notice that immediately. Could it just be that he has a high pain tolerance or something? I don't see why you're suddenly so interested in him." The cat said. Kisuke shrugged.

"It very well could be that he has a high pain tolerance, but then again, it could be something else. I've never sensed this boy around town before, yet we know that he lives here and even worked at a convenience store not far from mine. When I met him at the park with the twins, there was something off about him. Seeing him again, I get the same feeling, but I can't quite put my finger on it. A nagging instinct..." Kisuke said. The cat frowned at him.

"That seems like something awfully little for me to follow him around all day for." They said.

"Have my instincts been wrong before?" Kisuke asked. The cat hissed.

"Dammit Kisuke, just how many teenagers are you going to have me spy on this week?!" They said. Kisuke pouted a little.

"I thought you said you wanted to help me..." Kisuke said.

"Just how long should I follow this kid for - I do have other things to do you know." They growled. Kisuke fanned himself a little.

"Maa~ is it so hard to help out an old friend? I suppose it's a bit more pressing that you check up on those high school students than this latest case, so why don't you follow them around for the rest of the day." Kisuke said. While the bright haired boy was interesting to him, Kisuke still had the teenagers from the academy incident to watch over. Upon checking their reiatsu and the reishi at the school, Kisuke immediately matched the reishi displacement and signature left at the school and on the teenagers to the mystery he'd been tracking for so long. Whatever had happened at the school remained lost to Kisuke as the teenager's memories were wiped before he could get there, and none of the quincies seemed to know what had happened. He did know for sure though that immediately after the event, all of the teenagers had elevated levels of reiatsu as well as a foreign signature. Something had been powerful enough to increase their reiatsu and spiritual awareness just by being in the same vicinity as them. Kisuke personally suspected that a seal of some sort had been broken or warped there for the amount of spiritual growth that the group of teens were going through. Three of them had not reached spiritual awareness to the point where they could see souls, but they looked well on their way. The two that had looked like they might actually become Fullbringers in this life, though the one girl seemed to be a little different than a Fullbringer. Before the cat could leave, Kisuke mentioned something he'd nearly forgotten.

"Make sure not to let the new local shinigami see you - I've heard she's much more efficient at her job than the last one." Kisuke said. The cat gave Kisuke a curious look.

"You don't think she'd possibly know about me?" They asked. Kisuke tilted his head.

"I don't think she'd immediately guess who you are, but given a reason to suspect you, she might put a few things together. It would be rather unfortunate if she discovered you were not only an Outreach teacher, but the Tenshiheisoban princess Yoruichi Shihoin, especially considering she herself is a noble..." Kisuke said. Yoruichi silently cursed. She'd have to be more careful running around Karakura unless the noble was a Shiba.

"If that's all you had to tell me, I have some young teenagers to stalk for you." Yoruichi said. Kisuke winced. Saying it like that did make him sound a little bad. Slipping off into the bushes, Yoruichi left Kisuke to contemplate his methods.

-x-

Ichigo Godebert

Wandering around empty streets, Ichigo held a hand to shield his eyes as he looked up at the sun. Sunset would be approaching soon and with it, relief. He'd been using all his best excuses that he normally saved up for Lena's worst nights to go shopping all week and stock up for when Lena leaves their apartment. After that he'd usually wander in and out of stores since it was raining and he didn't want to be at home. He hadn't planned on it raining so much, but if anything it helped his plan. It felt somehow right that the rain had stopped for today, a good omen of sorts.

Taking a deep breath of the clean evening air, Ichigo sighed. For so long he'd felt so heavy and hopeless, but all this past week he'd felt nothing but light and free. There were still instances where he'd freak out, but Ichigo had been cutting a lot more than he normally did this week to preserve this wonderful feeling of calm and peace, so he had a lot less episodes. He'd never felt this happy before, this free and calm, and it was amazing. There was still a very somber, dark edge to it, but he vastly preferred it to anything else. He had honestly thought that he'd be a lot more impatient, but he found that he wasn't in any rush. Things still felt slow, but not in the kind of endless monotony that had plagued him before. This was different, like slowing down your chewing so you could savor food before finishing it.

He'd been sorely tempted to never go home through this week so he wouldn't have to face Lena, but he didn't have any place to sleep. That was another thing, sleep. He still had terrible nightmares, but now they were less intense for some reason. Most of the time in his nightmares he'd wake up in darkness - the empty he called it - and would feel the darkness crawling over his skin, wanting to consume him so he would be nothing too. It was still unbelievably scary, but it was still relatively peaceful, so he endured it and considered himself lucky.

Turning down a street corner, Ichigo looked at all the tidy little houses around him. He used to imagine what it was like to live in such a nice place when he was younger, but he'd eventually stopped. It was useless to imagine and hope for things like that. He'd never be able to live somewhere so nice, and thinking about it just made the poverty he lived in that much more bitter. Even before they had moved to their shithole apartment, the house they'd been living in was a moldy shack that constantly smelled like smoke and cat piss. Their new apartment smelled like smoke, alcohol, and cat piss. It unfortunately was worse in the smoke department because the apartment was small and had a tendency to trap it all. That was probably why Ichigo had developed a slight cough, but it wasn't like he could go see a doctor or anything.

Looking at the perfectly manicured lawns and cheery houses, Ichigo wondered how they could all look so nice. Well, most of them. One of the houses he was passing looked a little wilder than the others, bushes trimmed into weird shapes and a single bright pink lawn chair sitting out in the yard. Looking closer, Ichigo saw a small sign saying that it was the Kurosaki Clinic. Something about that name seemed familiar to him...

Turning away from the house, Ichigo was surprised to see that the sun was starting to set. It was about time now that he had everything he needed from the park and had dropped off his groceries at home.

Ichigo took his time walking to the bridge, the weight of all the stones and rocks in his pockets making him feel heavier. Looking down at the river, Ichigo could see just how swollen the rain had made it, sluggish surface hiding the killer currents this river was known for. He often stopped at this bridge to think and watch the water. So many times he'd wondered what it would be like...

Eyes glued on the water, Ichigo waited as a car passed behind him. Climbing over the safety railing, Ichigo took himself to the very edge to stand precariously atop the second railing. Wind tugging at his hair, Ichigo closed his eyes and slowly raised his arms out to the sides to feel the last rays of sun on him. Taking a deep breath, Ichigo stepped off the bridge.

.

.

.

-x-

Panic filled him as quickly as the water in his nose and mouth. The force of hitting the water from so high up had killed him, he was sure of it!

Gagging, coughing, treading water all around him dragging him down through the stones in his pockets. Currents impossible to struggle against swept him deeper as darkness crashed down on Ichigo, weak movements slowing. Everything went dark and he felt himself leaving, the world quiet.

Suddenly he's struggling again. Water in his nose and down his throat he scrapes the bottom of the riverbed, oh this is so wrong. He keeps dying and leaving only to be pulled back into his body. Things have gone so terribly wrong, why won't he die?

Ichigo soundlessly screams in the inky abyss as he lives and dies again, weak limbs unable to fight his watery tomb.

Water, darkness, death, life.

He didn't want to die, he never did. Everything had just hurt so much and he didn't know what to do.

Water, darkness,  death,  life.

He was so scared, he didn't want to die. He'd wanted to kill the pain, not himself.

Water,  darkness,  death,  life.

Water.

Darkness.

Death.

Life.

Water.

Handkerchief.

Handkerchief?

Maybe Ichigo is hallucinating, but suddenly he thinks he sees a checkered handkerchief in the gloom of the murky water. He realizes it's the one Orihime had given him with her sandwich, it must have come out of his pocket when he was struggling. He'd kept it in there because he didn't have the heart to talk to her again.

Ichigo watches the current steal it from him as his struggling grows weaker, and this time the darkness sticks.


National Alliance on Mental Health

- 1-800-950-6264
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- 1-800-826-3632
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- 1-877-SAMHSA-7
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line
- Text "Start" 741-741
S.A.F.E. Alternatives
- 1-800-DONTCUT
The Trevor Project
- 1-866-488-7386 (24/7)
- Text "Trevor" 1-202-304-1200 (F 4pm - 8pm EST)
Disaster Distress Helpline
- 1-800-985-5990
- Text "TalkWithUs" 66746
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- 1-877-739-3895
RAINN- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- 1-800-656-4673
National Sexual Assault Hotline
- 1-800-656-4673
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- 303-839-1852
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- 1-800-799-SAFE
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- 1-800-537-2238
USA National Child Abuse Hotline
- 1-800-422-4453 (24/7)
National Safe Place
- Text SAFE and your current location to the number 69866 (24/7)

 

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner thoughts/speech

Chapter 3: Awakening

-x-

Orihime Inoue

Orihime yelped and sat bolt upright as her alarm went off to fill the apartment with beeping. Stumbling out of bed as blankets tangled her legs, Orihime tripped and nearly hit the dresser with a squeak of panic. Untangling herself, Orihime slammed her hand down on the noisy alarm to cancel the incessant beeping. Sighing, Orihime flopped backwards onto her bed. As much as Orihime enjoyed going to school, she really didn't want to get out of bed today. For some reason she'd had a terrible nights sleep, tossing and turning with strange nightmares. She had dreamed that something was watching her from the darkness, but she couldn't see what it was or where it was. For the first time in a long time, Orihime wished her brother was here with her. She still remembered how he used to hold her and soothe her when she had nightmares. She didn't remember them now since she had been so young when the cause of her nightmares still plagued her, but she did remember how badly they had scared her. As time went on, they faded until she no longer even remembered, so she had no idea why she was having such nightmares now. Being here all alone while thinking about Sora made her apartment feel so much bigger and emptier, so Orihime resolved to get ready quickly today.

Getting up again, Orihime took a quick shower before making herself some breakfast, fried eggs dipped in oyster sauce. She still had no idea why Chad never ate breakfast with her after she'd first served him her usual meal... Finishing with her breakfast, Orihime slipped on her bedazzled briefcase. She'd never used one of these before until she'd seen Ichigo using one. After seeing him carrying so many books and assignments home with him, Orihime decided it was a much more efficient practice than just carrying her books with her, so she got herself one from the student store and bedazzled it with the help of Tatsuki and Chizuru. Various glittery designs covered her bag, mostly food and cute chibi animals.

The first time she'd worn it around Chad she had worried that he might find it silly like most of her classmates, but it turns out Chad actually quite liked it, especially all the cute animals. Orihime had been delighted to find out that Chad secretly liked cute animals as much as Orihime, so she later invited him over to put some new animal designs on her bag. It had ended up being so much fun that Orihime started inviting Chad over to her apartment more often to hang out or study. Occasionally Chizuru and Tatsuki would show up for girls night and Chad would go hang out with Mizuiro and Keigo, but other than that Orihime saw him quite frequently. While her friends joked that she liked Chad, Orihime never told them the real reason why she enjoyed his company so much.

As much as her friends visited her, Orihime still lived all alone, and it sometimes got to her. She never told her friends of course because she didn't want them to worry, but now that she had a friend living in the same complex as her, she didn't feel quite so lonely. It was fun to hang out with Chad, even if their first time had ended so disastrously. She still couldn't believe that there'd been a murder not long before she was in the school, and that she'd actually seen the corpse. It was even scarier when she had started seeing shimmery, translucent people not long after. The only other one to experience it was Chad, and he could see them even clearer than Orihime.

Luckily, the councilor from the Gemischt academy had kept his promise about checking up on them and had had a long talk with both about what was going on and how such trauma would take a while to recede. While Orihime wanted to believe him, she also couldn't help but feel like things were getting... stronger. Now she didn't see shimmery shapes, but full on people and creatures, and it scared her. She had been too afraid at first to tell the councilor, but Chad had told her that she really should. He'd made a deal with her that they would go to the councilor after school on Monday together, that way Orihime would have the whole weekend to try and relax. Now that it was Monday, Orihime was a little nervous.

Saying a quick prayer in front of her brother's shrine, Orihime checked her hairpins and stepped outside her apartment. Knocking on Chad's door, Orihime waited a moment before it opened. Chad was in his uniform and greeted her as always with a friendly grunt before stepping out and closing his door. Since they went to the same school, Orihime and Chad had taken to walking together. Orihime would chat and tell him about this and that while Chad would hum and grunt occasionally, deterring the lewd men who sometimes cat-called Orihime when she walked to school. That was another bonus of walking with Chad, while she knew that Chad was mostly a pacifist like her, others didn't. It had been extremely embarrassing the first time Chad had been witness to some of the comments people made to Orihime, but instead of choosing to ignore Orihime to get rid of the attention or let her take the comments, Chad had assured her that it wasn't her fault that she was getting this kind of attention and had squared himself up to tower over the first harasser he saw.

After that people mostly left her alone, even when Chad wasn't walking with her. Chad had told her that while he didn't fight unless he absolutely had to, something told him fighting back was right if it was defending someone else, so if she was ever in trouble to come to him and he would help her. That had really touched Orihime, so she'd told him that she too would try and fight if it came to it, though deep down she knew that she wouldn't really be that much of a help as she was now. Still, it was quite nice, actually, to be able to walk around without being scared somebody was going to say something or try and follow her. Today as they walked however, she still got the distinct feeling that something was following her.

Looking behind her every now and again, Orihime nearly bumped into Chad as he stopped.

"What's up Chad?" Orihime asked distractedly.

"You feel it too, huh." Chad rumbled as he looked around with Orihime too. Orihime stiffened.

"What do you mean...?" Orihime asked, playing dumb.

"Being watched, like something's following us." Chad replied. Orihime looked at him then, twisting her hands worriedly.

"I was hoping that was just me..." Orihime said. Chad nodded and prompted Orihime to keep walking, keeping an eye out just in case. The rest of their walk didn't hold any action though, and they reached the school with no incident. Entering the class, Orihime was surprised to see that the class was even chattier than they normally were. Everyone was talking and whispering to each other in hushed voices, drifting from group to group to pass on whatever it was they were talking about. Chizuru rushed up to Orihime with Tatsuki hot on her trail.

"Oh my god Orihime, did you hear what happened?" Chizuru asked. Orihime gave her a blank look. Tatsuki cut off Chizuru.

"Ichigo's dead - he killed himself last Friday." Tatsuki said. Orihime choked.

"What?!" Orihime exclaimed. Chad looked a little ill beside Orihime. Chizuru ushered the two over to where Keigo and Mizuiro were whispering near Uryu and another group of students.

"Everyone's been talking about it - the police found his body in the river." Chizuru explained. Keigo turned to them.

"Yeah - and they know it was suicide because he had a whole bunch of rocks and stuff in his pockets." Keigo said. Uryu stiffened, but no one noticed. Orihime suddenly felt light headed and plopped down into her seat. Chad put a concerned hand on her shoulder, though he didn't look any better himself.

How did this happen? Ichigo had looked so happy all of last week, he was smiling and so calm...

Orihime swallowed. Had Ichigo only been pretending to be happy, or was he actually happy? Why would somebody kill them self if they were happy? It didn't make any sense. Seeing that Orihime was a little too shocked to find out anything more, Chad spoke up.

"But Ichigo had seemed so happy the last time we saw him, why would he kill him self?" Chad asked. Tatsuki shook her head.

"We don't know for sure, but Hanama's friend is the daughter of a police man, and she says that they're actually investigating Ichigo's mother, Lena, for child endangerment because they visited where she used to live and found the whole place covered in bottles and booze. They even found prescription medications and stuff, but only in her room. Apparently there wasn't even a couch in there, just an old pile of blankets in a corner where they think Ichigo used to sleep." Tatsuki said. Chizuru piped up.

"Ichigo actually lived in those shitthole apartments, you know, the ones that all the good tenants left after the fire? I've seen them before and the only people who live around there are squatters and druggies. No wonder he looked so dirty and smelled like smoke all the time - he was dirt poor." Chizuru said.

Ichigo lived in that kind of poverty? But he'd told everyone he lived in a house on the other side of town... Because he really lived somewhere he'd be ashamed for others to know. It made more sense than Orihime wanted to admit. That was why she never saw him eat, he probably couldn't afford any food. Orihime thought back to how thin and hungry he'd looked when she gave him one of her sandwiches. Now she wished she'd given him her whole lunch.

"But how did nobody know about the conditions he was living in? Has no one ever been to where he lived before?" Orihime asked. Keigo shared a look with Mizuiro.

"Well, it's not like he had any friends or anything... I'm pretty sure the closest he got was when you gave him one of your sandwiches." Keigo said. Orihime paled. Was that what it would have took to prevent Ichigo from doing this? A friend?

"But that's not why the police are questioning all his teachers - it's the stuff the autopsy brought up." Chizuru said conspiratorially. Orihime frowned. There was more?

"You mean the stuff Hanama says she heard from her friend who heard it from her father? Just how trustworthy is that information?" Tatsuki asked with a raised eyebrow. Chizuru huffed.

"I'll have you know that even Uryu says what Hanama's been telling everybody is accurate - his father's a doctor too you know. I bet he's even apart of the autopsy team or something." Chizuru said with a sniff. They all turned to Uryu who had been trying his best not to listen, but had failed. Turning to them, Uryu fixed them with an angry look.

"A student has killed himself and all you want to do is gossip about him and trade theories about why he's dead!" Uryu snapped loudly. The whole class paused at that and looked at Uryu who was still bristling. Tatsuki stomped up to him and planted herself in front of him.

"We're not just spreading rumors and gossiping about him - we're trying to find out what happened! It's not like we're sitting here laughing about it and chatting about the weather! None of us understand how this happened, even me. I've known Ichigo for years and was even somewhat of a friend of his at one point, but I had no idea what his life was like. None of us knew that Ichigo was in so much pain that he felt like he had to kill himself to make it go away, so forgive us if we're confused and want to find out what could have been causing him so much pain when he'd been so happy last week!" Tatsuki exclaimed. Sensing the tension, the other students went back to whispering while secretly listening in. Uryu looked away.

"Fine, I'm sorry, but your'e not the only one thinking about him. None of you seem to get the implications of the information you're passing around, however respectful some of you are about it. Ichigo lived in a terrible apartment littered with bottles and booze that only had a bed for his mother? His mother isn't the perfect angel so many people think she is - she's a struggling alcoholic without a steady job. Why else would they live somewhere so terrible? Ichigo's late to school everyday and looks exhausted? He's the one paying for rent and food while struggling to keep up with school. Somebody came forward from that convenience store near Sogen Apartments saying that Ichigo had been illegally working there since he was 12. If he was working there for so long, they would have had at least enough money to buy a bed or some food, but they didn't. That means his mother must have been using the money he brought home on alcohol." Uryu said. Keigo frowned and interrupted Uryu's speech.

"But Ichigo's mother has come to school in the past and never acted like the kind of person you'remaking her out to be. I've only ever seen her smiling and she just isn't that kind of person." Keigo said. Uryu gave him a withering look.

"And do you also believe that she never comes to parent teacher conferences or leaves her house because she's sick? That's a pretty common lie alcoholics give, and it's not like Ichigo would have said anything, especially considering the rest of what the autopsy showed." Uryu said. Orihime looked at the others in confusion.

"I'm sorry, but no one's told me what's going on with the autopsy or what they found." Orihime said. When Uryu didn't say anything, Tatsuki turned to Orihime.

"Apparently he was covered in bruises and had a whole bunch of weird scars. He had a disturbing number of old breaks and injuries, but only a few records of ever going to the hospital. Even then things didn't add up because he'd show up with broken ribs or a twisted ankle saying he just fell down the stairs or got into a fight." Tatsuki said. Now Uryu chose to speak.

"He was obviously lying. The injuries he had were way too deliberate and serious for him to have gotten them in a fight. The police aren't just investigating his mother for child endangerment - they're investigating her for child abuse." Uryu said. Orihime was shocked.

Uryu was going to say more, but the bell rang. The students reluctantly went to their seats trying not to look at Ichigo's empty desk. The class was unnaturally silent as their teacher, Misato Ochi, entered the class with a stricken look on her face. She had just been debriefed about what had happened and could see that her class knew as well. Nonetheless, she still had a job to do, so she cleared her throat.

"I'm sure you've all heard what happened and have lots of questions, but I can't answer all of them right now. The police are here to investigate and will be pulling you aside in groups to ask questions. If anyone has any information they might think is useful about Ichigo or his mother, don't hesitate to go to the police here or after school. As much of a tragedy as this is, we do need to continue with your education... If any of you need to talk, the councilors are available for you to step outside of class and speak with, or you can talk to me after school." Misato said.

None of the students said anything, so she began her lesson, trying to ignore the now heavy silence. She had been the last teacher to find out, but the first to be questioned about Ichigo because she was his teacher. The more they had asked about him, the more she had realized that she didn't really know him. She only knew that he got into fights, had left Karakura for three years, struggled in school until recently, and that his mother was too sick to attend parent-teacher conferences. Other than that, she found that she had no idea what his life was like. All of the staff had begun to realize that Ichigo was more of a mystery than they wanted to admit, and it left terrible guilt. They'd pulled his records for the police only to find that half of them had been falsified by his mother and the rest barely had any information on him. There was only one record of a fight before the rest was marked down automatically, no investigation or anything. Even in the special classes where they kept meticulous records of student progress, the only thing they had was grades. No student tutors had worked with him and none of the teachers had given him one-on-one lessons after school like they were supposed to. It was as if they'd just given up on him.

What made it so much worse was that Ichigo had tried to reach out to somebody for help when he was younger, but nothing had happened. The middle school councilor had been shocked that he was under heat for not checking into Ichigo's claims more under the defense that it had seemed like an over-active imagination at the time. Ichigo had claimed that he never went to his father during those three years, that monsters had kidnapped him and done terrible things to him. As childish as it had sounded at the time, now it was deadly serious. Something had happened to Ichigo in those three years, but no one knew what.

As class continued, police would open the door and call out the names of different students to come in groups for questioning. Orihime tried her best to pay attention to the lesson, but her mind kept wandering back to the few interactions she'd had with Ichigo before he died. Sure, everyone knew that Ichigo wasn't exactly a happy person, but no one thought he would do something like this in a million years. What had happened to cause Ichigo to want to end his life? Orihime thought back to the last time she'd talked to him, Monday. She'd seen slight bruising on his arms, but she'd assumed they were from fights. What else had she seen that was a sign of something else going on?

Thinking hard, Orihime realized that she had seen marks on Ichigo, specifically on his arms, but something told her they weren't the ones that Tatsuki had mentioned. She hadn't gotten a close look at them, but they looked kind of like cuts... Now she understood why they were nagging at her consciousness, they were deliberate and layered on top of older scars all along his arm. Orihime felt sick once she realized the implications of those marks. Ichigo had been hurting himself, and she had seen but hadn't looked closely enough. That was why Ichigo had freaked out, he thought she saw the cuts.

x

Orihime walked, legs automatically taking her back to the apartments as she did every day after school. So engrossed in her thoughts was Orihime that she barely noticed Chad walking beside her. School had been nothing but a painful whirlwind of whispering, questions, and guilt. Not only did everyone find out that so few knew anything about Ichigo, but now Ichigo had been missing for three years? Ichigo had never gone to Tokyo to live with his father, and apparently he didn't even have a father either, having been abandoned when he was born. The police had no idea where he'd gone or what had happened to him, but neither did anyone else. It seemed like his mother wouldn't be of much help either as she consistently lied to the police about every little thing.

Orihime didn't understand how something like this could happen. Everything had started off so normal, but now millions of burning questions held her captive.

Everyone had been off today after the news, so Orihime and Chad had decided to forgo going to the academy councilors in favor of trying to calm down and process everything. Orihime wasn't doing a very good job of it though and nearly walked out into the street before Chad stopped her.

"Careful." He rumbled quietly. Orihime gave him a small smile and thanked him, but returned to her thoughts. It seemed Chad was also preoccupied with his thoughts as well, because he didn't notice the same feeling of being watched that had been there in the morning. They walked for several minutes without incident, but at the next crosswalk, Chad felt an odd sensation that caused him to pause. For a moment, he felt the strong urge to turn around, but when he did he found nothing but the empty street behind him. Orihime glanced at him curiously, but Chad just shrugged. He didn't know why, but something more felt off today.

As the feeling grew, Orihime began to catch on as well. They started walking a little faster, Chad hovering protectively around Orihime as they neared the apartments. Hearing a small noise behind them, Chad finally stopped. Enough was enough.

"Who's there? We know you're following us." Chad called out. Silence followed, but a heart beat later a petite girl wandered out of the shadows beside a building with her hands up. Orihime thought she recognized the raven-haired stalker from the meetings she'd had at Shino Outreach, but it was strange to see her here.

"Ah, I'm awfully sorry for following you like that, I wasn't actually trying to follow you specifically..." She said sheepishly. Orihime was about to ask her what she meant, but Chad beat her to it.

"Then what were you trying to follow? There's no one here but us." Chad said. The girl plastered an innocent look on her face as she walked toward them in a decidedly friendly manner.

"I see that now, but at the time I thought that I'd seen something strange, so I was trying to follow it. It just so happened that you two were walking this way too." She explained. Orihime blinked. She sounded sincere, but what else had she seen here besides them?

"You two haven't seen or felt anything strange around here, have you?" She asked, voice suddenly serious as she intently studied them. Chad shook his head and Orihime shrugged.

"I did feel like something was watching me this morning, but I also got that feeling when you were following us, so I think it was just my imagination. Unless you were stalking us this morning too." Orihime said with what she thought was an accusatory look. It looked more like she was about to sneeze. The girl laughed nervously, but quickly covered.

"Ah, no. I guess I'm just a little paranoid what with all the weird stuff happening at the academy." She said. Orihime had almost completely forgotten about the academy incident what with everything that had happened to today. Seeing how the girl watched them for their reaction, Orihime thought it was an odd coincidence that she would mention something that involved the tow of them like that. Weird.

"Yeah..." Chad said slowly. Feeling the silence grow a little awkward, the girl suddenly bowed.

"Ah, I'm so sorry, I realized I've forgotten my manners. Rukia Kuchiki, transfer student at Shino Outreach." Rukia said. Orihime and Chad bowed back, introducing themselves.

"Oh, you two go to Karakura High, don't you? How's school been going?" Rukia asked politely. Orihime paled and they both looked at each other. Rukia looked a little confused at their reaction. It wasn't Rukia's fault that she'd brought up a sore subject, she didn't know what had happened. Shifting nervously, Orihime decided to enlighten Rukia a little.

"Normally school is fine, it's just today everyone found out that a classmate of ours killed himself last Friday..." Orihime said. Rukia immediately sobered and gave them a sympathetic nod.

"I see. I'm so sorry for your loss." Rukia said. Orihime nodded back and Chad grunted. Deciding to change the subject, Orihime took a look at Rukia's school uniform.

"So you go to Shino Outreach... What's it like there?" Orihime asked. Rukia smiled, silently grateful for the lighter topic.

"It's pretty fun being at Shino Outreach, especially since I'm so new to everything in the Wor- in Karakura town." Rukia mildly stumbled before picking up again.

"My time here has been extremely educational, and I'm glad to say that I've become a permanent resident at Karakura to keep up with my... local duties."Rukia said. Orihime brightened a little.

"Local duties? Are you one of the students involved in assisting the exchange programs?" Orihime asked. Rukia gave a strangely secretive smile and answered.

"I do occasionally assist if I'm needed, but my job is to watch over the school's activities in Karakura town while I take care of ... academic threats to the students and residents in this town." Rukia said. Orihime gasped.

"So you're like an education power ranger, beating up evil school loans and school board budget cuts!" Orihime exclaimed as she jumped into a mock fighters stance. Rukia looked extremely confused as she grimaced slightly.

"Erm, yes, exactly whatever that was." Rukia said quickly. Chad shook off Orihime's strange analogy and questioned Rukia.

"I've never heard of that position before." Chad said, eyeing Rukia from beneath his shaggy bangs. Snorting, Rukia put a hand on her hip.

"That's because the last person in my position was an incompetent disgrace. Originally I was just going to be here for a short while until I completed my missio- er assignment, but I ended up being a replacement after the higher ups discovered just how lazy that man was." Rukia huffed.

"Wow, your school's really serious about that stuff." Orihime said. Rukia crossed her arms and nodded seriously.

"Of course we are! It's our duty to protect the souls of this town from any danger - academic danger." Rukia quickly added on. Chad looked at her closely. While her reasons for following them seemed a little questionable, she herself seemed on the most part to be a good person, even if a little strange. Nodding to himself, Chad decided he wouldn't question Rukia any further.

"It was nice meeting you, Rukia, but we do need to go." Chad said. Rukia nodded and Orihime gave her a smile.

"We'd stay and chat longer, but we have homework." Orihime said, holding up her bedazzled briefcase. Rukia's smile immediately dropped into an expression akin to wonder.

"That one looks just like the Wakame Ambassador!" Rukia exclaimed as she pointed to one of the sparkly figures. Orihime frowned as she inspected her bag.

"Oh, I have no idea who that is, but I was just coming up with designs when this one sort of stuck. It seemed familiar, and I thought it was cute, so I kept it." Orihime said. Rukia gasped and pointed to a rabbit on her bag.

"That one looks like Chappy! How did you get that snake to look so cute? Wait, is that a red panda?" Rukia chattered on, eyes sparkling as she inspected Orihime's bag. Orihime just laughed and answered all her questions. It seemed she liked cute things even more than Orihime.

"-and that's one of the ones Chad did. You really like all the designs? I thought people would think they were silly..." Orihime said. Rukia shook her head vigorously, face a little flushed from trying to hide just how infatuated she was with the creatures she obviously found adorable.

"No way! I'd be surprised it the Shinigami Women's Association didn't commission you directly." Rukia said, muttering the last part to herself with a thoughtful look.

"What's the Shinigami Women's Association?" Orihime asked. Rukia stiffened immediately before quickly answering.

"Ah! Just one of the associations tied with our mother school, Shino Academy. It's nothing." Rukia said with a flippant wave. Orihime shrugged and Chad said nothing. As strange as their initial meeting had been, Rukia did seem like a nice person, and they both liked her.

"We hope you enjoy your time in Karakura town, Rukia. Hopefully we'll see you soon." Chad said. Orihime nodded and gave Rukia a smile.

"Chad and I have been having meetings at the Outreach, so the next time we're there, we hope to see you!" Orihime said. Rukia's own smile faltered a little before coming back.

"Ah, I didn't know that. I have a feeling I will be seeing you two around a lot more if that's the case." Rukia said quietly. Orihime waved goodbye and ran to catch up with Chad.

"Well, that was weird, but she seemed nice." Orihime said. Chad hummed in response and continued to walk. Reaching the apartments, Orihime went to open the front door when she heard something rustling in the bushes to the side. Seeing that Chad had heard it to, Orihime gave him a look before opening the door quickly. Stepping inside, they both missed the sound of heavy breathing, warbled and inhuman, from the bushes.

Climbing up the stairs to her apartment, Orihime turned to Chad.

"I know we both said at school that we wanted some time to think, but would you maybe want to come to dinner at my apartment?" Orihime asked. She did still want some time alone, but it wasn't like she wanted to spend the entire rest of her day alone. She enjoyed Chad's company, and it was fairly normal for him to share dinner with her now. Chad nodded.

"That sounds like a good idea. It probably isn't best for anybody to be alone tonight." Chad said before surprising Orihime with a hug. She didn't realize just how badly she needed it until Chad was reassuring her, so she hugged back and resolved not to cry. Orihime pulled back.

"Okay, well, see you at dinner." Orihime said with a strained smile. Chad nodded and they both went into their apartments.

Orihime had planned on studying when she got home, but she didn't know if she could stand to tonight. She really wished that Tatsuki or even Keigo could have come over today, but they were with a group of students who were going to be questioned after school since they'd run out of time in class. Sighing, Orihime opened her textbooks. Even if she was feeling bad, she didn't want to slip behind in her studies. That was the deal, she got good grades and her relatives made sure to pay for the apartment and put her through school. It was a good deal and part of the reason Orihime worked so hard. She would just have to try her best to focus on her studies right now and not let herself become distracted.

Going through her textbooks one by one, Orihime studied for an hour or so before deciding to get a quick snack. Opening her fridge, Orihime went to pick something out before she heard a strange thump outside her window. Frowning, Orihime closed the door and went over to her window. Opening it, Orihime looked around, but only saw the empty blue sky and buildings beside hers. Nonetheless, she heard another noise from outside, a strange sort of growling. Leaning out to try and find the source of the noise, Orihime turned her head to the side only to come face to face with a pair of glowing red eyes.

Screaming, Orihime stumbled back into her apartment as the thing outside her window slithered in with her to tower over her. The creature looked humanoid from the waist up except for it's mask covered face, but the rest was like a snake where it's legs should have been. A large hole stood out from it's chest as it opened it's bone white jaws to speak.

"Orihime!" It screeched. Orihime screamed in return and ran for the door only for it to be blocked by the creature. Scrambling back, Orihime sobbed.

"What's the matter; don't you recognize me?!" It asked as it slithered towards her. Orihime ran to the window, but realized there was no way she was going to make it down without seriously hurting herself.

"How do you know my name?!" Orihime exclaimed, eyes wide as she clung to the window sill. The creature howled and smashed her table, prompting Orihime to flinch and scream again.

"I would ask you how you don't recognize me! have you truly given up on any thought of me?! Do you no longer care?!" It screeched at her. Orihime was shaking as she looked desperately around for something she could use to defend herself with. Seeing nothing within reach that could do any real damage, Orihime made to dash from the window, but the creature intercepted her impossibly fast. Orihime screamed again as it shot out to grab her with one of it's massive clawed hands, crushing her in it's vice-like grip. Shoving it's face close to hers, Orihime could feel it's hot breath on her face.

Just then, the door to Orihime's apartment burst open as Chad rushed in. Seeing the creature, Chad froze and stared up at it before seeing Orihime.

"Orihime!" Chad yelled. The creature holding her howled and gathered itself up like a snake about to strike.

"STAY AWAY! I'LL KILL YOU! I'LL KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU AND THE REST OF HER FRIENDS HAVE TAKEN FROM ME!" It screamed manically. Orihime struggled to breath as it's grip on her tightened.

"P-please, don't hurt him." Orihime gasped. She cried out as it's grip tightened even more, cutting off her breath.

"DON'T HURT HIM?! But what about me - how many times have you let him and the rest of your friends hurt me?! You care more about them than your own brother!" It screeched, panting in rage. Orihime's eyes widened further, but she couldn't speak.

"Let her go!" Chad bellowed. He tried to run forward to save Orihime, but the creature moved suddenly, whipping him with it's tail to send Chad flying back into the wall. He landed with a crash, head snapping back to hit the wall. But it would take a lot more than that to stop him. Chad had tough skin, and it was now that he recalled it was this very trait that allowed him to fight so vehemently. He had promised to protect Orihime, so he'd use his tough skin for more than just defending himself. He used his fists to protect others.

These thoughts burning in Chad's mind, he got back up and clenched his fist. He needed to end this fight quickly before Orihime got hurt, so he planned on taking this creature out in one hit. Pouring all of his will into fist through his arm, Chad rushed the creature, swinging his fist faster than it could dodge. Feeling his fist connect with it's face, Chad felt something surge out of him to throw the creature back to slam into the wall hard enough to leave shudders. Orihime fell to the ground as the creature released it's grip on her. Briefly stunned, the creature remained immobile as Chad rushed to Orihime to see that she was mostly fine, even with a few scrapes and maybe some bruised ribs.

"Chad! How did you do that?" Orihime coughed out. Chad looked down at his arm and felt it tingling oddly. He had felt something when he'd punched that thing, his pride in his tough skin and desire to protect Orihime combined in some sort of power... No... something that drew power out from him. He felt it more clearly now, something in him that grew when felt the need to fight. It was right there, roiling under his skin in an unseen force. Jumping back with Orihime, Chad watched the creature draw itself up again. He knew now if he fought that thing again, something more would come of his attacks than just a simple punch. He steadied himself again, focusing on the feeling of power he had. He had promised to protect Orihime, and he wasn't one to break promises.

"Uhnnnn, Why don't you see it, dear Orihime? Your friends are hurting me, they're hurting the only family you have left!" It screeched in rage, swaying slightly. Orihime looked closer at it, suddenly seeing the small sliver of mask where Chad had broken it. Orihime covered a sob with her hands when she saw the bit of face peeking out behind it.

'S-sora? But, but you're dead!" Orihime cried. Chad looked at her curiously. Orihime had briefly told her about Sora before, but he knew that Sora was long dead, let alone human. The creature snarled at her.

"Of course I'm dead! The only reason I haven't moved on is because I had to look after you from beyond! I heard your prayers from death, heard the stories and tears you gave to me as you lamented my loss. I just wanted you to be happy, but then you started going out again. You made friends, and you began to tell me about them. Soon they were the only thing you talked about - you hardly even prayed to me anymore! Your friends stole you away from me!" Sora screamed. Panting, it slithered closer.

"Now look at me! You did this to me! You abandoned me for your friends, and in loneliness I grew into what I am now - A MONSTER!" Sora screamed the last part as it bore down on them. Orihime screamed as Chad threw up his arm in defense, expecting to be thrown back as her friend crumpled. But instead a loud thump was heard while Chad remained exactly where he was. Dust clearing, Orihime was shocked to see that her brother was hissing in pain, cradling one of his monstrous arms while Chad's own had transformed into some sort of strange armor-shield. Standing up, Chad looked at his arm in fascination. He could feel the power in it as he experimentally clenched and unclenched his fist. Turning to Orihime, Chad gave her a thumbs up with his new arm. Orihime gave a nervous laugh before nearly passing out. Holding her steady, Chad faced Sora.

"You claim to be her brother, but you'r trying to kill Orihime. How is it that someone who had shown his sister such love could now want to kill her?" Chad asked. Sora growled.

"Didn't you hear a word I said?!" Sora screeched.

"No, but I did."

Sora whipped around in time to see a sword swinging down above his head. He barely managed to dodge as the owner leaped over him to stand next to Chad.

"Rukia?! What happened? Why are you here?" Orihime blanched at Rukia, completely different from when she had seen her outside. Rukia was now clad in a black kimono holding a katana, all traces of friendliness gone.

"Get behind me Orihime. You too, Chad." Rukia said. Chad shook his head.

"I'm sorry, but I promised to protect Orihime. I'm not going to let you fight her brother alone." Chad said. Rukia frowned as she looked from Chad's arm to Sora.

"This was your brother Orihime?" Rukia asked. Orihime nodded.

"Yes, Sora died in a car accident when I was younger. Please, i know he wants to hurt me, but you can't kill him. I don't think he's in his right mind." Orihime pleaded. Sora howled as if to confirm Orihime's words. Rukia shook her head.

"I'm sorry Orihime, but that isn't Sora anymore. He's what us shinigami refer to as a hollow. When souls die, they go to a place called the soul society, but occasionally souls in distress or pain become corrupted and turn into hollows. Hollows prey on innocent souls - that hollow is not your brother anymore. There's nothing you can do to stop him from trying to kill you." Rukia said. Orihime didn't know how to respond. It was just too much information. Surely what Rukia was saying didn't apply to her brother - Sora would never turn into something like this. But looking at him now and the way he coiled himself up to attack, Orihime realized that Rukia was at least right about one thing. Sora had said how he was in pain after he died, and when he came to her now she could feel how twisted and obsessive he was. Orihime couldn't help but feel guilty. He had become this because he felt that she had abandoned him.

"I don't care. If he is the way you say he is, then I need to explain to him what I feel so that I can ease his pain. It'snot his fault that he became like this - I should at least try, and I can't just let you kill him!" Orihime explained. Rukia grit her teeth.

"You can't - he'll kill you before you get the chance. When I slice him with this blade, it won't be killing him. It will purify his soul so that him and any other souls he's eaten will be freed to go to the soul society or rejoin the cycle of rebirth. It will free him from his own corruption." Rukia said.

Orihime hesitated, but in that moment Sora rushed at Rukia with a scream. Blocking a swing from Sora's arm, Rukia leapt high above his head to aim a downward sword strike. Sora hissed and blocked Rukia's blade with a whip of his tail, throwing Rukia to the left to land in a crouch. Before Sora had the chance to go after her, Chad punched Sora from behind, causing him to fly forward. Hissing, Sora wriggled out from under some of the rubble that had come crashing down. Gathering himself up, Sora began to wildly thrash and weave about, taking advantage of his serpentine body to throw everyone away from him with his coils. However, he wasn't large enough to fill the whole room and succeeded in only pinning Chad.

Rukia put both her hands out before her and started muttering some sort of incantation, a red dot of glowing power gathering itself in her hand. Seeing what she was attempting to do, Sora spit a stream of some sort of substance from his mouth at Rukia. Rukia cried out as it hit her hands, severely burning her flesh and stopping her from finishing the spell. Sora was preparing to spit more acid at Rukia when Chad finally managed to push himself out of Sora's pin. Seeing that things were getting serious, Chad called out to Orihime.

"Run Orihime!" Chad called. Orihime hesitated, but she knew that staying meant she would only get in the way. Throwing open the door and running downstairs, Orihime tried not to listen to the strangled cries of her brother as he continued to fight. Panting with fear, Orihime flew down the stairs past the floors into the last hallway. She could still hear screaming and crashing, but one particular blood-curdling scream made her pause. She hated this, being unable to help fight. Even if it was her brother, she still could have done something! Orihime didn't get the chance to struggle with any ideas of running back upstairs when she heard Sora's howling getting louder and louder. Orihime paled and began to run. Sora was coming for her.

She could hear him screeching her name as he shot forward, hot on her heels. Orihime felt herself running faster than she'd ever run before as she neared the front door. Freedom was minutes away, but so was Sora. Grabbing the handle, Orihime was slammed into the door before she could open it with so much force that it came off it's hinges as she was thrown out onto the street. That time Orihime definitely heard something break, but she was too busy trying to stay conscious to think about it.

"ORIHIME!" Sora screamed. He was bleeding heavily and more of his mask was missing, but he was still going strong.

Orihime didn't want this. She was scared, but she never wanted to fight against her own brother. Slowly getting up, Orihime bowed deeply, stunning Sora for a moment.

"I'm so sorry Sora, I never meant to cause you this pain. Please know that I still love you, and I miss you everyday whether or not I pray to you." Orihime said. She stepped forward and Sora slithered backwards. Seeing Orihime walking towards him, arms outstretched and that serious look on her face she wore when she was telling him to take care of himself when she was younger wildly confused him. So many memories were assaulting him and it was just too much. Screaming at the unwanted feelings Orihime was bringing him, Sora came at Orihime. Screaming and throwing her arms out, Orihime felt only air on her arms as something new howled. Lowering her hands slowly, Orihime felt her heart stop as she saw another creature attacking Sora. All she could see was a blur of orange, black, and white as Sora desperately tried to shake the other creature from him, writhing around and screeching.

Stumbling out of the way to avoid Sora's thrashing, Orihime saw Chad come running out of the apartments. He was bleeding heavily and panting, but he was still standing. Not far behind was Rukia, but she was nearly doubled over, cradling a severely acid-burned side. Stumbling into Chad, Rukia let him put an arm around her as they ran to Orihime.

"What's going on?" Rukia coughed. Orihime tried to say something, but couldn't. Everything was happening so fast, it was hard to keep up. Watching Sora thrash, whatever was stubbornly holding onto him finally lost it's grip and was flung off to the side to painfully crash out of sight. Turning his attention back to Orihime, Sora screamed. Leaving Rukia to hold onto Orihime, Chad ran forward to block Sora with his arm. It was less effective this time, and Sora managed to bowl him over. Orihime felt time still as Sora prepared to kill the now defenseless Chad, jaws unnaturally wide as he went in for the kill. But Orihime had made a promise to Chad too.

Sora choked as he realized that he was sinking his teeth into Orihime, not Chad. Orihime had intercepted Sora despite Rukia's cries and now felt blood welling up from where Sora was biting her. Instead of screaming or crying, Orihime wrapped her arms around Sora's head in a warm embrace. Sora let out a strangled noise.

"I wasn't lying when I said how sorry I was. I may not have prayed to you as often as I used to, but it's not because I stopped caring about you. Really, it's the opposite. I didn't want to burden you with my grief and worries, so I resolved to tell you happy things, and my friends made me happy, so I told you about them. I thought it would make you happy, hearing about all of them and all the wonderful things in life. I will always love you Sora." Orihime said. Sora slowly opened his jaw, releasing Orihime. He was shaking.

"I knew that deep down, but hearing your prayers made me feel less lonely. It still felt like you abandoned me..." Sora whispered. Orihime gave Sora a kiss on the place where his face was peeking out from his mask. Sora shuddered and began to sob.

"Why is this so hard? I don't know what to feel!" Sora cried. Chad heaved himself up from the ground to speak.

"Loved. Orihime keeps your picture up in her home despite how sad it used to make her - you're not the only one who was in pain. Orihime grieved you for a long time, she still wears the hair pins you gave her so long ago as a sign of her love and remembrance. You protected Orihime once before, there's nothing stopping you from doing so again." Chad said. Sora placed his arms around Orihime, hugging her close to him.

"I, I don't want to be this anymore. I feel like... like I need to move on." Sora said. Rukia had managed to hobble to them, albeit leaning heavily on her sword and looking seconds away from passing out. She fell to her knees heavily, holding up her sword to Sora with one hand.

"Then use this. It will purify your soul and allow you to move on like you wish. If you don't, you will remain a hollow forever and almost certainly kill Orihime." Rukia said. Releasing Orihime, Sora tentatively took the blade in his clawed hands. Before he used it on himself, Sora used the sword to break away the rest of his mask to reveal his face. Turning back to Orihime, Sora reached out and held her one last time.

"I'd say to remember me, but I know you will. You've found some good friends, take care of each other. Goodbye..." Sora said quietly. Orihime did her best not to look away as Sora plunged the sword into his chest. Closing his eyes, Sora looked peaceful as his soul began to glow before fading away. Having done her duty, Rukia promptly passed out on the spot. Watching the last of her brother gently fade away, Orihime turned to her two friends. Rukia was already long gone, and Chad looked like he would soon follow. Rushing to him, Orihime tried to support him with her shoulder, but Chad's massive form ended up dragging her down.

"Wait, Chad, you've got to stay awake!" Orihime cried. Chad blinked lazily as Orihime held onto him, shaking him slightly.

"Sorry... so tired all of a sudden... guess my arm really used up my energy..." Chad said as he faltered. Panicking, Orihime watched helplessly as Chad closed his eyes and let his head fall back. Ignoring her own bleeding, Orihime took off her school coat and tried to staunch the bleeding but found that it was much worse than she had previously thought. She'd just lost her brother all over again, she couldn't loose her friends too! The last thing Sora had told her was to take care of each other, but Orihime didn't know how. She wished he was still here to help her, or that she had powers like Chad. Sobbing and holding onto her hair pins, Orihime remembered everything about the kindness her brother and friends had shown her and desperately wished she could do something to save them. A light tinkle made Orihime snap her head up. Was she imagining it, or did she feel... different? She could feel something stirring in her, and it felt immensely important. Silently reaching out, Orihime brushed up against something powerful, but she did not flinch. A warm tingly feeling enveloped her, and she suddenly realized her wounds were healing.

"What's happening?" Orihime asked aloud.

"We're healing you, silly!" A tiny voice said. Orihime shrieked and swatted something away from her head.

"Jesus! Don't hit Shuno!" Another voice cried. Orihime whipped around and shrieked again when she saw five tiny fairy-like creatures flying around trying to help the one she'd hit.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry! Who are all of you?" Orihime exclaimed. The one that was apparently Shuno waved her off as the rest helped him. A male fairy with black hair and a bandanna flew up to Orihime.

"We're Shun Shun Rikka - we each represent different parts of your powers, but right now we're focusing on healing you. Or we were until you bitch slapped Shuno." He added with a glare. Orihime blinked. So she did have powers like Chad... How had that happened?

"Again, I'm sorry, but if you really are capable of healing, then can you heal my friends?" Orihime asked hurriedly. The male fairy snorted and crossed his arms.

"No time for introductions, huh?" He asked, looking somewhat annoyed. A female spirit sporting futuristic attire smacked the other.

"Rude! I thought you would have been eager for her to use her powers, Tsubaki!" She said before turning to Orihime.

"We can certainly do that, but first you need to know how to use us. We combine to conduct different abilities, but the two that you need for healing are Shuno and Ayame." She said, pointing to Shuno and a fairy girl that looked like she was wearing some sort of red origami dress much larger than her body. Shuno flew forward with Ayame.

"All you need to do is position us and say our names before saying the name of our ability, Soten Kisshun. After that, say 'I reject!' and we'll begin healing." Shuno said. Orihime nodded and looked over both her friends, choosing Rukia since she seemed to be in worse shape.

"Okay, Shuno, go by her head and Ayame go by her feet." Orihime said. They both did and Orihime began her kotodama.

"Shuno Ayame Soten Kisshun, I reject!" Orihime cried as she held her hands out on instinct. A pale yellow glow began emanating from the two to wash over Rukia, covering her in a healing light. Watching as Rukia began to heal, Orihime turned to the other fairies and listened closely as they explained who they were and what they all did, concluding that they manifested from Orihime's hairpins. Once Shuno and Ayame were done healing Rukia, Orihime used them to heal Chad as well. Watching her friends heal, Orihime sat back and let the full weight of the events of the day hit her. She'd gone from grieving for Ichigo to fighting her dead brother to gaining magical powers... Was this even real? Watching Chad's breathing becoming steadier as his wounds closed themselves, Orihime dropped her head into her hands, Orihime began to cry. As much as she wanted to banish these tears, she knew they were necessary. There had been plenty of times where the only thing she could do was to let the events of her day out with tears just so she could process everything. Shun Shun Rikka seemed to understand that this was something she needed to process on her own, so they turned away and let Orihime sort her heart out. But something else didn't know any better.

Orihime almost didn't hear the rustling behind her in her thinking, but when she did she whipped around. Tsubaki looked at her curiously and ushered over the fairies not healing to hover around Orihime's head. Peering into the bushes, Orihime could just barely make out a crouched figure. With a jolt, Orihime realized it must have been whatever had attacked Sora at the last minute. She'd completely forgotten about it what with Sora dying and her friends bleeding out. Maybe it was friendly?

"Hello? I know you're there... are you hurt? I can heal you..." Orihime offered, one hand held out in a friendly gesture as she tried her best to look nonthreatening. The creature in the bushes seemed undecided, pacing about the bushes slowly as it came forward only to skitter back in. Orihime could tell it was limping from the way it moved, but she didn't know if she could coax it out. Scooting closer, Orihime tried again.

"It's okay - I'm not going to hurt you. If you just come out, I can take a look at your injuries and heal you." Orihime said. Slowly, the creature began inching it's way forward, leaving the shadows. Orihime squinted as she tried to see it's face, but it was crawling on all fours to her, bone white limbs tentatively coming into the light. Orihime widened her eyes when she saw that it's hands were clawed despite the mostly humanoid shape. Was it another hollow? Why in the world would a hollow attack her brother? Orihime had no more time to question herself when she heard a loud groan behind her. The noise startled the creature and it hissed before dashing away.

"Wait!" Orihime called, but it was too late. Turning to her friends, Orihime saw that Chad was beginning to wake up. It looked like it might be a while before Rukia woke up. Taking one last look at where the hollow had been, Orihime began carrying her friends back into the apartments. She never saw the golden eyes watching her, nor the sunset mane of hair bristling as it reluctantly left the scene.


National Alliance on Mental Health
- 1-800-950-6264
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- 1-800-826-3632
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- 1-877-SAMHSA-7
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line
- Text "Start" 741-741
S.A.F.E. Alternatives
- 1-800-DONTCUT
The Trevor Project
- 1-866-488-7386 (24/7)
- Text "Trevor" 1-202-304-1200 (F 4pm - 8pm EST)
Disaster Distress Helpline
- 1-800-985-5990
- Text "TalkWithUs" 66746
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- 1-877-739-3895
RAINN- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- 1-800-656-4673
National Sexual Assault Hotline
- 1-800-656-4673
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- 303-839-1852
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- 1-800-799-SAFE
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- 1-800-537-2238
USA National Child Abuse Hotline
- 1-800-422-4453 (24/7)
National Safe Place
- Text SAFE and your current location to the number 69866 (24/7)


 

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner Speech/thoughts

Chapter 4: A State of Confusion

-x-

Ichigo .?.?.?

Where was he?

What was this feeling?

Checkered handkerchiefs and smoky apartments, screaming drowning swimming. Rocks, pockets, choking, bruises.

Who was he?

Nightmares, hands, water, eyes, crosses, a sword. Dark creatures, dim lights, school hallways, twisted limbs, claws.

Is someone screaming?

Steel on steel, pain, fighting, death.

The past was the present and the future flew by without his knowledge and now he couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe and he felt heavy, movements sluggish.

Everything was dark and he could feel something pulling him along, pulling him down as he struggled to fight.

Water erupted with splashing as he desperately fought the current dragging him down. Luckily he was near the bank, so he managed to drag himself back onto land where he lay heaving. As water finally left his system, he curled up into a ball and closed his glowing gold eyes.

Hungry.

He was unbelievably hungry, the primal urge to fill that void overtaking the rest of the foggy thoughts trying to form in his head. He was hungry, but he didn't know what to do. Looking up at the sky, he dully noted in the back of his mind that it was night. A chill breeze began to dry him and he curled up tighter, trying to conserve some semblance of warmth. Sentient thoughts rarely pierced his strangely muddled mind, but feelings and instincts clearly stood out. He was scared, cold, and hungry.

Curling up tighter, he began rubbing himself, suddenly realizing that his hands were pale white and ended in wicked claws. But he wasn't phased. This was his body, so it was natural, if a bit confusing. Chewing at his claws anxiously, he spent several minutes just laying there until his hunger and cold became too much to ignore. Slowly uncurling and pushing himself up, he crouched with somewhat animalistic legs, the claws on his slightly-longer-than-human feet scraping the ground. Hugging himself, he barely noticed the hole in his bare chest, nor the strange black robes covering his legs from the bandages wrapped around his lower waist like a make-shift obi. Sniffing the air, he began to salivate as his bony jaws parted slightly to take in the aroma. It wasn't so much of a smell as it was a feeling that something edible was close.

Pacing on all fours, he began to head in the direction of the smell, pausing every know and again to sniff the air. Eventually he didn't need to do that nymore as he became used to using his instincts to track down his prey. Hunger growing, he began to crawl faster, eventually breaking into a run back in the direction the river had taken him from. Slowing down, he began to make out lights in the distance different from the sparce dots of light coming from the random buildings and houses spread out across the landscape. Coming closer, the buildings and houses surrounding the river became more frequent as well as larger, far less fields and forests interrupting the pattern of civilization. Turning around in a circle, he realized that he was close to the source of the smell, but didn't see anything.

He didn't want to leave the river, but he needed to eat, and soon. Again, instinct won out and he cautiously crept past houses to wherever the smell and feeling seemed strongest. Finding himself in a dark street, he traveled along it until it became lit up in patches by streetlamps. Sticking to the shadows, his senses told him something was waiting up ahead. Peering out past several patches of light, he could just make out a small figure under one of the lights. Scuttling quickly into some bushes, he silently approached the figure while making sure not to make so much as a whisper of noise.

He stopped when he realized what the figure was. It was a little girl with long black hair braided thickly down her back. She was wearing a bright yellow sundress, but it was offset by splatters of blood as she hummed a nursery rhyme. Adjusting a little so her back was no longer completely to him, he could see that she had a chain coming from her chest to drag at the ground by her bare feet. He subconsciously reached to touch his own chest at the suddenly empty feeling that washed over him.

He was confused, this little girl did smell somewhat good to him, but it was nothing like the smell he'd gotten earlier. She felt... weaker. Even so, any food was better than nothing, so he should eat her, right? But again, feelings stood out. This time he didn't choose instinct as he watched the little girl swing her arms and hum into the night. Looking at her, something stirred in him, a feeling of familiarity or nostalgia, but something else immediately squashed that feeling tingling at the back of his mind. Dark and oppressive, it made him clutch his head and shake it, throwing spiky locks of long orange hair around.

The sound of movement didn't go unnoticed by the little girl and she stopped humming to turn around.

"Hello? Is someone there?" She called out. He held his breath. Some ancient fear in him made his hair stand on end and his chest tighten as he resisted the urge to run away. Another feeling was there, and it made him want to go to that little girl.

He was lonely.

Shuffling in the bushes a little, he slowly made his way out of the foliage. The little girl squinted, unused to the dark as she peered at his pitch-black silhouette. He continued to move forward slowly, taking his hands up off the ground so he could walk normally. The little girl backed away as she saw him growing taller, revealing his true height. Coming into the light, he took a step towards the little girl who was frozen. Whatever spell holding her there broke when she looked into his glowing eyes and screamed.

Frightened, he matched her scream in a double-toned warble as he flinched and shot back into the darkness. He watched helplessly as she ran away from him down the street, loud shrieking making him cover his ears as he keened in pathetically. No questions formed in his mind, but he was confused. He briefly got the idea that he looked scary, but it was shoved back by heavy sadness as his hope of companionship with another creature fled. He didn't want this terrible feeling, he just wanted to be near somebody, anybody. Clawing at himself, he began to rock back and forth, letting the pain from his claws raking down his back and shoulders soothe him. It felt like an old habit, familiar and practiced. This time he didn't chase after that feeling of familiarity, letting it fade away with the rest of his rationality.

He was nothing but a tightly wound bundle of feelings and instinct, and it was a tossup over which one would win half the time.

Finally ceasing his miserable keening and rocking, he looked at his blood stained hands with wide eyes. Terrible sickness washed over him, but no memories came. He was incapable of such things anymore, and it made him feel like something was missing, even if that something was painful to him. He wanted it nonetheless, but something else held him back, kept him in this state.

Hungry.

It was becoming a mantra for him as he searched around. The previous feeling of prey had faded a little, but he still knew where to look. Snuffling around the street, he barely noticed as the wounds he'd caused slowly closed themselves. Circling around, he finally picked up the scent again and leapt off in it's direction. Flying through the air, he climbed over houses and buildings, pushing himself off anything he could grab as the wind howled in his ears. It was thrilling to be able to move this fast as this too felt practiced, familiar. He was unnaturally used to this body, but he didn't question it. Lighting atop a street lamp in a crouch, he huffed slightly as he looked around. It was clear that this was a city, but what city he didn't know what. That wasn't all that concerning since he didn't really seem to know anything anyways, so he just gazed at all the different houses and buildings, searching for something to eat.

Movement to the side of him caught his attention and he turned to see a door opening on one of the houses. Hissing slightly, he drew himself up on the street lamp, ready to attack, but he was completely ignored. A man carrying a trash bag didn't even look up at him as he walked down to the street, muttering to himself.

"Take out the trash, Saalzui. Wash the dishes, Saalzui. Wash the dishes yourself, Kari..." He muttered. Lifting up the lid to a garbage bin, he dumped his garbage bag inside and closed the lid.

Shifting atop the street lamp, the curious spectator lowered himself to the ground. Cautiously coming forward, he was surprised when the man didn't react. Giving a short bark, he scuttled back as he watched the man for a reaction. When none came and the man continued to walk back to his house, his new stalker began wildly waving his arms about directly in his path. The man just continued to walk, staring ahead as if no one was there. Sighing, the man closed the door, shutting down his stalker's attempts at getting his attention. Somewhat confused that the man hadn't even acknowledged his existence, he growled to himself. It was becoming somewhat clear that people would have very different reactions to him. Shaking his head, he went to sniff the garbage bin when he heard a scream in the distance. Stiffening, he recognized that scream. It was the little girl who could see him.

Jumping off in the direction of the scream, he tasted the air and realized he was also heading in the direction of the smell he'd been chasing. Whizzing past the different houses and streets, a shrill howl not unlike his own nearly stopped him in his tracks. Loud and malicious, it riled something up inside him and he ran faster.

Coming to a darkened street, he came across a hulking creature standing on two legs as two sets of arms swung wildly at the little girl desperately trying to dodge them. She shrieked in terror as one arm swung down at her, but it never hit her.

The creature screamed as his assailant sank his teeth into it's arm, realizing this was the prey that would sate his hunger. Blood welling around his teeth, he growled and viciously tore at flesh until he was pulled off by one of the giant's other arms. Twisting around in it's grip, he raked one of his hands down it's arm, claws slicing open it's arm with deadly intent. It screamed again and dropped him, stumbling back. It's large white mask was contorted in rage as it spit at him.

"Agh! Why you little - !" It was stopped mid sentence as he threw himself at it again, swiping at the creature's mask to tear away a large chunk. It screeched in pain and held it's bleeding face as he jumped back to the ground, orange hair puffed up where it made a faux mane trailing down his neck. Wailing, the creature suddenly seemed to realize it might not be completely prepared for this fight.

"Renny! Reeeeeeeennnny!" It wailed into the night until a heavy presence crashed down on the three figures. Sniffing the air again, the orange puff ball realized that was why this area smelled so strong. There was more than one creature here.

"What is it now, Jenja?! You can't handle one stinking plus?!" The one called Renny hissed. Unlike the other, Renny was smaller and more humanoid. Renny was still much taller than even the tallest human, but he wasn't a monster like Jenja. Dark blue markings stained his mask, running down his jaw to disappear into the hole in his neck.

"That little bastard attacked me - look what he did!" Jenja wailed as he showed his mutilated face. Renny winced. It was pretty serious to rip off part of a hollow mask. Snarling and turning to Jenja's attacker, Renny inspected him.

"You're gonna pay for what you did to Jenja, and ruining our hunt. Just who the hell do you think you are?!" Renny exclaimed as the smallest hollow hissed.

The sound of human speech stirred something in him, but again he couldn't make the right connection. He knew what the words meant and what Renny was saying, but it was still like they were hitting a wall. It made his head hurt, but something about what Renny had said felt extremely important, so he focused on those words.

Just who the hell do you think you are?!

Who are you?!

Who...

He knew that these thoughts were not welcome in his head as something pushed harder to squash them, but he rebelled even more. He needed this, needed something to ease this horrible nagging confusion. He had to know at least some part of himself, even if it was something as simple as just a name. Something other than the vague feelings and instincts that barely gave him an impression of who he was. He felt something in him twist a little, shift as his desperation grew. Finally, it gave.

Orange hair.

Fighting.

Protecting.

Steely eyes.

These were all things that belonged to something... To some person...

But he was that person. He was...

"I...chi...GO!" He ground out, howling at the last part. With a scream to match, Renny and Jenja attacked him. Jenja used his massive arms to keep Ichigo moving while Renny stopped him from escaping. Dodging a swing from Jenja, Ichigo leapt at Renny to try and strike him. Dodging, Renny tried to kick Ichigo in the face, but he was too fast and dropped down into a crouch to shoot out from under Renny's legs. Howling in frustration, Jenja tried to stomp on Ichigo only to nearly crush Renny.

"Watch it Jenja! Attack him, not me!" Renny snarled. Jenja just howled again and swung at Ichigo with one of his massive arms. Dodging easily, Ichigo jumped back to distance himself from the two. It was obvious even in his highly instinctual state that the two didn't work together very well, so Ichigo jumped up to bite one of Jenja's flailing limbs.

"Aaaagh!" Jenja screamed. Wildly stomping around in pain, Jenja tried to dislodge Ichigo from his arm by throwing his limbs around. Renny frantically tried to dodge Jenja's flailing as Ichigo stubbornly held on. Tripping on his own partner, Jenja fell backwards to crash into the street with a loud boom. Seeing Jenja vulnerable, Ichigo let go of his arm and shot towards his neck, sinking his teeth in deep to jerk his head to the right, ripping open his neck to spurt blood on him. Jenja screamed as Ichigo dug into his massive neck, ripping and tearing with everything he had.

Jumping back to let Jenja bleed out and thrash, Ichigo made it just in time to dodge a strike from Renny. It was obvious that Renny was stronger than Jenja, but it was becoming clear that he was no match for Ichigo. Dodging another attack from Renny, Ichigo jumped up to kick out at Renny's face. He was too fast for Renny to dodge, but he did manage to get his arms up to block Ichigo's foot from connecting as he was thrown back. Rushing in again, Ichigo managed to land a swipe on Renny's side as he screamed in frustration. Renny didn't leave Ichigo room to strike again as he struck out with a strange attack.

Ichigo jumped back, surprised. Renny had gathered some sort of energy in his hand and used it as he swiped to cover his hand, most likely burning whatever he touched or at least severely damaging it. Something tickled at the back of Ichigo's mind, but he didn't have any time to dwell on it as Renny attacked again. Leaning right to avoid an uppercut strike, Ichigo grabbed Renny's arm and brought him over his shoulder to slam him into the ground. Howling, Ichigo tried to rip open Renny's stomach, but he rolled out of the way. Giving a back hand strike that cracked Renny's mask, Ichigo dully recognized that he was getting faster.

Renny stumbled back with a cry of pain as Ichigo jumped on his back to bite down on his neck savagely. Renny screamed and frantically tried to remove Ichigo, but he wouldn't budge no matter how Renny scratched at him or burned him with energy. Swiftly jerking his head, Ichigo felt a loud crack from Renny's neck as he crumpled to the ground.

Releasing Renny, Ichigo stood up tall and placed a clawed foot atop his corpse. Leaning his head back, Ichigo released an ear-shattering howl that carried loong and loud into the night.

Victory.

The sudden silence was broken only by Ichigo's own heavy breathing and quiet crying from behind him. Remembering the girl that the two hollows had been attacking, Ichigo turned around to see the little girl backed up against a picket fence at the side of the road. She was shaking badly as tears streamed down her face, watching Ichigo with wide, terrified eyes. He felt empathy stir in him as she cried, so he crouched low and tried to crawl to her to maybe try and comfort the little girl, but instead she screamed.

Flinching back, Ichigo hissed slightly and backed away from her. Sobbing, she finally screwed up the courage to pick herself up and run. Ichigo felt the instinctual urge to chase after her thanks to the adrenaline of his fight, but refrained. He felt... upset. And angry. He wanted to go to that girl, but he could tell she was scared of him, so instead he paced around irritably, blood dripping off of him.

Hungry.

Growling, Ichigo turned to the two hollows he had killed. Feeling their energy draining, he quickly hopped over to their corpses, mouth watering. Starting with Jenja, Ichigo made quick work of devouring the two hollows, hungrily tearing them apart to consume their souls and free all the other's they had eaten before. Feeling their energy filling him, Ichigo drew himself up to his full height and closed his eyes. He could feel strength returning to him that he'd never even realized was missing. Letting out a long sigh, he could still feel hunger gnawing at him and knew he would have to eat more. Thoughts turning back to hunger and hunting, all the feelings and thoughts that had come with the revelation of his name left him.

He was Ichigo, but he didn't really know what that meant. He couldn't remember himself or even what it was to be human, but his soul wasn't meant to be a mindless beast. He still had one thing all other hollows lacked; heart.

x

Ichigo growled. It had been nearly a day since he had found any hollows as strong as the first two he had encountered, weak appetizers being the only thing he had eaten. It was completely unsatisfying, and now to top it off someone was trying to catch him.

He had been innocently tearing apart his screaming prey when he felt someone approaching. Quickly devouring the hollow, Ichigo had hid himself in a tree, watching curiously as a petite girl wearing black robes not all that dissimilar to his (though wearing a top, unlike him) landed in the place he had just been. Pacing around, she looked at his bloody work and pulled something out of her robes to take a swab of the blood in various places. She then pulled out a phone and took a picture before looking around. Ichigo had held his breath then and stayed stock still, hoping she would leave soon.

He'd figured out a while ago that normal humans couldn't see him, but hollows and people with chains in their chests or strange abilities could. After the rather unpleasant meeting with the little girl, Ichigo had avoided anybody that he thought had a chance of seeing him and subconsciously began hiding his signature. He sort of knew that he was preventing others from sensing him the same way he sensed them because it made him slightly sick when he did it for too long, but he didn't really understand how to control it properly. It was practiced and habitual to him, but he didn't have any memories of making it into a habit, All he knew was when he was scared, he could make it so that others didn't find him. And he was always scared.

He'd watched her walking around, muscles stiff and ready to run at any moment, but she never found him. After a while, she just left and he could breathe a little freer. It was deeply unsettling to have to hide from everyone just so he could eat, but Ichigo instinctively knew he'd hide even if he didn't need to. Everything scared him, small noises, movement, people. He was twitchy and on edge all the time. That's why he kept moving all the time, never staying in one place for too long or hunting in the same pattern.

Pacing around, Ichigo could feel his hunger sharply. It was different than normal human hunger, but it also didn't feel like the hunger he got from other hollows. It wasn't like satisfying a constant itch, it was like trying to fill up a tank that had long been empty. He wasn't eating just because he was hungry, he was eating because it was healing him. He knew that he wasn't normally this weak, but he couldn't figure out why he was like this either.

He could feel thousands of scars layering his body, but those had healed. It was something inside, an emptiness that spoke of a different kind of wound, one that had been antagonized for years. It made his soul hurt in an unnatural way...

Hearing a hollow scream in the distance, Ichigo snapped to attention.

Ichigo would have grinned if his mask allowed it. The hollow he was sensing smelled absolutely delicious - it was powerful. Leaping off towards the sound, Ichigo landed in a parking lot to see a large hollow prowling around. What interested him the most though was a strange rip that was opening up in the sky. While the other hollow remained unaware of his presence, Ichigo crept closer to get a better look at it. He could sense something else beyond it, a place that called to him and drew him nearer. Dull memories flickered in his mind, but they never registered.

The hollow that had been prowling around seemed to be waiting for it to open up all the way (it was pretty massive), but now that it was big enough for the hollow, it stepped through the rip to disappear. Now Ichigo was faced with an important decision. He could follow the hollow through so he could kill and eat it, or he could stay here in the place he was familiar with.

Deciding with a growl, Ichigo took a running leap and sailed through the rip before it had the chance to close on him.

He was more than a little surprised when he landed on sand, slowly sinking into it as he looked around at the desert surrounding him. It was night here, glowing moon piercing the inky sky. The feeling he got here was strange, homey and familiar as the soft sand shifted around him in a strangely life-like way despite the desolate surroundings. At the same time, fuzzy pin-pricks of fear scratched at the back of his mind like a bad memory, giving him the distinct feeling that something dreadful had happened here and he just couldn't recall what. Even if it stirred up old fears and a great deal of caution, he could sense billions of hollows spread out all over this world ranging from weaklings to beings far above what he felt he could consider prey. In other words, a buffet.

Tracking down the hollow he'd followed, Ichigo watched it for a few moments, careful stalking a safe distance away from it. This one didn't seem to be sentient like the first hollows he had encountered, but it still held just as much power. After making sure nothing else was around, Ichigo swiftly cuffed the hollow over it's mask hard enough to crack it and stun the unsuspecting hollow before biting down on it's neck viciously, snapping it with a jerk of his head. He'd been using the same set of attacks for a while now to kill his prey as it was pretty effective for a wide range of hollows. Devouring the fallen hollow, Ichigo realized if he wanted to make more kills like this, this world was the ideal place to do it. This world would serve as his hunting grounds while he regained whatever amount of strength he had lost, and any other hunter that wanted to share this territory would have to fight him for his kills.

Giving a low growl, Ichigo cast out his senses all around him. It wasn't in his nature to brazenly claim so much land, but he would make his prey his. If he chose a hollow, it would be his kill, and in that way this territory would be his. He really didn't care if other hollows hunted in it, this world seemed far too big for him to rule over all of it and control every hollow, so he wouldn't. Weaklings could hunt each other as much as they pleased, so long as they didn't interfere with his hunting, he was fine. He only needed this place for as long as he was wounded inside, eventually he would satisfy his hunger and...? And what? His lizard brain was perfectly capable of being a cunning hunter, but complex thoughts about his future and what would happen when he no longer needed to hunt were muted and deemed unimportant by his instincts. He got a vague feeling that something would change at that point, but it wasn't exactly a major concern of his.

Hungry.

That was a major concern of his. Sniffing around, Ichigo picked out the different signatures in his vicinity, cocking his head curiously to the side when he felt a cluster of stronger signatures chasing another. What they were chasing felt much more powerful than all of them, but looser and more... simplistic. Deciding it was worth his time, Ichigo tracked down the signatures, hearing them before he got a chance to see them. Several hollows of varying size were attacking a hollow Ichigo had never seen before. As tall as a skyscraper, the hollow they were chasing stumbled around with no discernible limbs under it's long black cloak-like body as it let loose several screams from it's white mask sporting a uniquely elongated nose. A couple of the spikes adorning the place where it's shoulders would have been were missing, but other than that it appeared to be unscathed. As their fight continued, Ichigo began to see why.

Even though the regular hollows seemed to be coordinating their attacks as well as using their superior speed and numbers to try and wound their prey, the it had an attack of it's own. Opening it's mouth, a red dot of light would form and expand before shooting out in a powerful laser. One such laser managed to catch one of the normal hollows, shearing off half of it's body to leave a gaping hole. The others cried out, but had no intention of helping their fellow hunter. It was kill or be killed here.

A large purple skinned hollow appearing to be the group's leader called out to the others.

"Kuichi, go take Mungers' spot! When I give the signal, we flank 'im!" He called. The one called Kuichi quickly took up his position while the others continued to chase the taller hollow.

"This is crazy, Gendba! Gillians are still too strong for us to kill, even if we draw one out and isolate it! We shoulda never lis - " The complaining hollow was cut off as the gillian caught him in a swipe, bony hands revealed from underneath it's cloak as it tore him apart.

"Anyone else gonna complain, or are we gonna focus?!" Gendba called out. The others swallowed and continued to try and flank the gillian without getting caught in it's attacks.

"Alright! This is it, atta - !"Gendba never got to finish his signal as Ichigo flew straight into the gillian, bringing it to the ground as he ripped chunks of flesh from it.

Shocked, the other hollows could only watch as Ichigo dodged another beam of red light to rip at the gillian. Since it was far too big to kill the way he had with other hollows, Ichigo began devouring large chunks of it whole as it struggled beneath him, focusing on the neck and mask in an effort to kill it. When it's bony hands came up to try and drag Ichigo off, he ate those too. It's struggling quickly faltered as Ichigo sapped it's strength, energy filling him with every bite. Finally, the monstrous gillian stopped fighting all, completely still as Ichigo continued to feast. This hollow was indeed filling as it was made up of billions of other hollow souls.

Barely even panting, Ichigo stood up as he tried to figure out the best way to continue eating. While he had started eating it's mask in an effort to kill it, continuing to do that now seemed somewhat... wrong.

"What... the fuck."

Ichigo turned to look at his audience, hollows staring at him in a dumbfounded silence. It had taken them months to be able to lure a gillian from the Forest of Menos, and when they had it had been one hell of a fight. They had arrogantly thought that if they fought in a large enough group, they could take one down and consume it, further evolving. Instead of quickly dispatching it like they had thought, they instead ended up losing half their numbers and having to chase the gillian far away from their hiding spot in Hueco Mundo. They had thought for sure they were going to die, but then this hollow shows up out of nowhere and starts eating it alive. This newcomer hadn't even been phased by the gillian's attacks, quickly killing it by way of devouring and standing up to show that he was completely unhurt.

It was absolutely shocking to them. This hollow didn't even look all that threatening, even a little cute when his orange hair got all puffed up and you forgot that he'd just eaten a gillian to death. He was much smaller than them, about as tall as a young human, and his proportions were completely humanoid despite his slightly longer legs and almost canine feet slipping out from his robes. Looking closer though, they could see scars covering his body in various shapes and sizes speaking of many battles and even something slightly... surgical. Angry red markings covered the right side of his mask, somewhat covering up the spidery cracks in his mask coming from various scars. It was actually pretty disturbing to see a hollow with scars on it's mask because it meant someone else had been tampering with that hollow, breaking and cutting apart pieces in a truly cruel level of torture. They'd heard rumors of hollows leaving the Forest of Menos into the deserts of Hueco Mundo only to be kidnapped and experimented on by the ruling class, but they hadn't believed them until now.

"Uh, you feel like sharing...?" One of the hollows called out meekly. Ichigo snarled at them in a clear indication of his answer.

Mine.

Gendba cursed to himself. This hollow in front of them was obviously too powerful for them to try and defeat, so they had no choice but to let him devour the gillian. They could only hope that this hollow got full before he finished and would leave them some scraps. Ichigo finally decided he'd just start from the bottom and work his way up when an enormous pressure fell on the group of hollows, forcing all but him to the ground. It made him sweat a little, but that feeling left him as he rose his own energy to pad the air around him so he could breathe freely. Releasing his own energy made the feeling of sickness he'd gotten quite used to fade a little as he struggled to keep himself from releasing more. It was easy to just clamp down on everything and force every little bit inside him since it was habit (albeit a sickening, somewhat painful habit that left him achy), but trying to control how much he let out was extremely difficult.

It took few moments to release enough to make it easier to withstand the pressure, but he did it. Ichigo didn't actively know that he could do that, but he was at least a little aware that he had power he was desperately storing away. Why else would it hurt him to try and keep his energy at bay? It had slowly been getting harder as Ichigo ate more and more hollows, leading him to instinctively feel that the energy he currently had was massively depleted.

Turning to defensively crouch by the gillian, Ichigo watched as a group of people suddenly appeared in a flash. The group mostly consisted of identical white soldiers masked like a hollow, but appearing human. Two figures stood in front of the group, a man clad similarly to the soldiers but sporting a bull-like mask and a strange blue haired man looking rather bored. Stepping forward, the bull masked one began addressing the hollows and Ichigo.

"As is known by all who enter Hueco Mundo, we are the Exequias and represent the Las Noches Imperio in our actions. I am Rudbornn Chelute, leader of the Exequias. You have illegally killed a foot soldier of the menos, who if you recall, make up Hueco Mundo's hollow army. Such an act - " The blue haired man with a mask fragment on his jaw interrupted.

"Ugh, they know all that already! When the hell am I gonna get to kill somebody?!" He complained with a growl. Rudbornn turned to him with a glare.

"While you may not care about the doings of lower-level hollows, Espada, it is my job to ensure that crimes such as these are properly taken care of. Or did you forget it was Reina Tier Harribel's orders that no hollow hunt or kill a gillian while in the deserts of Hueco Mundo?" Rudbornn asked contemptuously. The other simply growled and waited as Rudbornn continued his speech.

"Luring and hunting a gillian in Hueco Mundo is illegal as it threatens the arrancar residing here as well as the various emissaries visiting Hueco Mundo's courts. The punishment for such a crime without sufficient reason is death. All of you have already been confirmed to be guilty of this crime. Which of you killed the gillian?" Rudbornn asked. Several fingers shot up to point at Ichigo. Ichigo hissed menacingly and put a clawed foot on top of the gillian.

Mine. My food.

"It was him, we just, er, found them like this after you know, all the noise and stuff." One of the hollows in the back said. Gendba smacked his forehead. Rudbornn huffed.

"This hollow is clearly not working with the lot of you otherwise he would be sharing his kill. It looks like to me, you lured a gillian illegally into Hueco Mundo where a stronger, less sentient hollow managed to kill this gillian while it was suffering the wounds you gave it. Hollows incapable of human intelligence cannot be faulted for simply taking advantage of a situation, no matter the crime. You, on the other hand, can just as well be blamed." Rudbornn said. The group of hollows began to protest before Gendba shut them up.

"With all due respect, we weren't purposefully trying to lure the gillian into Hueco Mundo's deserts, we were trying to isolate it from the rest of the Menos. It happened to escape into the desert, so we followed. We really didn't kill this gillian, it was actually about to probably kill us when this orange freak came out of nowhere and ate it to death." Gendba said.

Rudbornn glanced at the blue haired man. He in turn was inspecting Ichigo as Ichigo not-so-subtly was slurping up the rest of the gillian. Feeling their eyes on him, Ichigo stopped to turn and look at them. Seeing the strange marks and scars on his mask, the blue haired man suddenly grew curious.

"You say this hollow came out of nowhere?" He asked. Gendba nodded. The blue haired man turned to Rudbornn.

"Looks like one of pinkie's experiments escaped. Go bring orange sherbet to the palace so we can take a look at 'im. Seems one of the subjects finally stabilized." He said. Rudbornn nodded and gave an order to his soldiers.

Seeing the soldiers moving in on him, Ichigo quickly finished his meal before leaping back to howl at them. Deciding they weren't very good prey, Ichigo turned and began to run. Unfortunately, the soldiers also seemed to posses a good amount of speed and ended up flashing directly into his path. Growling, Ichigo pushed off the air with a loud boom to shoot high above the soldiers heads, passing them in a blur as they gave chase. Looking behind, Ichigo could see that the blue haired man had already killed the group of hollows left behind and was now trailing behind Rudbornn. Seeing a soldier catch up to him, Ichigo dropped down suddenly, surprising the other by dragging him down with. While the soldier struggled in his grip as they fell, Ichigo's strength won out quickly and he snapped the soldier's neck. Letting his corpse hit the ground, Ichigo dodged another soldier who wisely had his sword drawn. Rolling away, Ichigo changed tactics, jumping up directly into the middle of the soldiers. Kicking out and biting anything that moved, Ichigo used his claws to block their blades as he fought in a blur. He didn't realize it at the time, but he was getting much faster as the energy regained from the gillian served him well.

Eventually he had wounded and killed enough soldiers that he felt it was safe to leave. Howling in warning, Ichigo bounded away from the fight in an orange streak ordinary hollows wouldn't be able to track.

"Heh, slippery little bastard. Maybe this stupid mission'll actually turn out to be fun!' The blue haired man exclaimed before bounding after Ichigo.

"Refrain from killing him, Grimmjow! He has proven worthy of testing and inspection by the Exequias!" Rudbornn called. Grimmjow paid no mind as he caught up with Ichigo, sword still in it's sheath to prolong their fight.

"Gotcha ya little bastard!" Grimmjow grinned as he struck out at Ichigo in an attempt to grab his arm.

Twisting, Ichigo flashed away in a move slightly different than Grimmjow's. Grimmjow flashed after, swinging his blade at Ichigo in an attempt to test him. Ichigo dodged the sword, leaning out to aim a kick at Grimmjow's stomach. Grimmjow dodged lazily and grinned. Ichigo hissed. As much as he was itching to follow his instincts and fight this man, he knew he should be hunting down hollows and eating them to regain his strength until he was back to full power. Staying here would only prolong that, he needed to escape. So Ichigo decided to try something that had been nagging at him ever since he'd seen that hollow open up a tear in the sky. Growling, Ichigo drew himself up to his full height and faced Grimmjow. Thinking Ichigo was going to start fighting him more seriously, Grimmjow's smile grew and he threw his head back to laugh manically.

"Alright, now we're getting somewhere! Let's see if you prove as interesting as pinkie's other su - " Grimmjow was interrupted by a swipe from Ichigo, claws raking the air to tear apart reality. It wasn't quite like the other hollow's portal, much smoother as the sky rippled around it. A strange empty wind blew from the opening rift to wildly play with Ichigo's orange locks. Grimmjow hopped back from the wind, shielding his face with both arms as he cursed.

Sensing that the portal was extremely unstable and would be closing soon, Ichigo jumped, sailing through to leave the safe sandy dunes of Hueco Mundo behind for inky emptiness.

x

He couldn't breathe.

Darkness pressed in on him from all sides as he struggled to move in the oppressive emptiness.

This wasn't what he wanted, this was nothing like the portal the other hollow had opened up. This wasn't where he was trying to go, this was a mistake and now he was trapped.

Ichigo tried to scream, but nothing came out. Sound didn't exist in this empty void.

He could see his limbs flailing around him as he tried to get purchase on something, but there was nothing to hold onto. This place was absolutely nothing, and he would become the same if he stayed for too long.

Panic filled his chest as the tickly pricks of familiarity in the back of his head rattled around, coming loose thanks to the overwhelming feeling he had been here before. He could feel them trying to escape as the screaming in his head told them to get back into their box, but they wouldn't. It was just too much. One moment he was tiny and scared in this terrible empty, the next he was large and powerful as he displaced the emptiness to let something else through. He was being thrown into a billion different places and times as memories slipped from the back of his mind to dance before his eyes. Terrible and beautiful images flowed through him only to be shoved back down before the next began.

Checkered handkerchiefs and smoky apartments, screaming, drowning, swimming.

Rocks, pockets, choking, bruises.

Nightmares, hands, water, eyes, crosses, a sword.

Dark creatures, dim lights, school hallways, twisted limbs, claws.

Steel on steel, pain, fighting, death.

He could feel the screaming pulling all these things back into him as it clawed at Ichigo's name, but Ichigo refused to relent. That was his, and he had earned it. Pulling and pushing back, Ichigo fought and clung to what little portion of himself he could from his unraveling mind.

Checkered handkerchiefs and smoky apartments.

His name was Ichigo.

Everything else was being stuffed down in a losing battle, but that wasn't the only thing Ichigo was losing. He needed to get out of here, but he didn't know how. The small images and smells he was holding onto tugged at him and he followed, desperate for anything to take him from this place.

Immersing himself in the blue pattern and smoky smell, Ichigo reached his hands out to try and catch them. Like an anchor, they dragged him away from the emptiness, sunlight filtering through the darkness to reach him. Touching it, Ichigo realized where he was going and latched onto that place as well.

The pull became much stronger, and suddenly Ichigo was flying out of the darkness.

x

Ichigo screamed into the sky as he fell, wind tugging at him. Clawing at air, Ichigo managed to slow himself down a little before he crashed to the ground. Bouncing a little, Ichigo finally rolled to a stop. He panted as he lay there on his back, chest heaving.

Checkered handkerchiefs and smoky apartments.

He still remembered them from his time in the empty, but he had no idea what they meant now. Feeling the sun on him, Ichigo lay there panting for some time as he calmed down. He could still feel the horrible emptiness trying to drag him down, so instead he focused on the burning pain in his ankle. He had fallen from a long ways up and landed wrong, rolling his ankle. He could feel it healing, but he knew it would take a while to fix itself until he was at full strength.

Eventually the sound of children playing and birds chirping lulled him, softening his fear and slowing his breathing. Slowly sitting up, Ichigo looked around him.

He'd landed in a small park not far from where he had killed his first hollows. Seeing children playing around him, Ichigo felt strangely glad that he had landed here. Watching the tiny humans play, Ichigo curiously sniffed at a couple of them. He couldn't decide if he liked them or not as they shrieked and chased after each other energetically. On the one hand he thought they were rather cute and felt the strong urge to protect the vulnerable little creatures, but on the other hand, they were loud and noisy. Their quick movements and playful demeanor left him flinching every time they came to close to him or shrieked. Their screams of delight were reminding him of far more sinister situations, but it wasn't like he could actually remember anything. Vague feelings and instinctive reactions were the only thing he had to go on, and his mind was far too muddled with instinct and fog to put the pieces together.

Moving back so none of the squishy little monsters could trip on what they couldn't see, Ichigo watched from the sidelines as they continued to play. After observing for a couple minutes, Ichigo decided that he liked these mini humans however much they made him flinch. Most things set him off to be fair.

Seeing a pink ball come bouncing over to him, Ichigo stood up. A little boy with black hair came running over and scooped up the ball before running back to his friends. Ichigo was glad that they couldn't see him, he didn't want to scare them like he had that little girl.

Looking around, Ichigo decided this would be a nice spot to visit after hunts, but for right now he'd have to leave. He was still hungry and wanted to go find less challenging hollows to eat before he attempted to go back to Hueco Mundo. Shaking himself a little, Ichigo leapt into the sky to get a better vantage point. Sniffing around, he sensed a few hollows he could try and hunt and decided to go after them in a circle.

Hunting weaker hollows like this wasn't very fulfilling, but they were better than nothing. The first few he encountered were fairly easy kills, but the last two took forever to show up. He'd been left pacing around in the shadows trying to avoid anything and everything. Ichigo was generally anxious and high-strung, so the wait had made him jump and flinch at every little sound in a rather annoying way. He might've been overly paranoid, but this town was crawling with spiritually aware beings from black-robed to cross bearing people running around unseen half the time. None of them sensed him of course, but it still hurt to have to restrain his power this much. It was understandable considering how much power he had and even then it should have been nearly impossible to squash it down like he did. But Ichigo was constantly on edge, trying to make himself smaller and unnoticeable a well-practiced struggle that was pretty much second nature. Fear and bad experience greatly fueled his ability to hide himself even if he didn't remember where or how he had come to be so familiar with clamping down on his power.

Prowling around, Ichigo perked up when he finally felt a prick of energy in his senses. Following it closely, Ichigo's stomach growled when he realized this signature was stronger than his previous meals. Licking his teeth in anticipation, Ichigo tracked the hollow down to an apartment complex. Sniffing around, he realized he could also feel abnormal signatures coming from the apartments, three of them to be precise. They weren't like a hollow's, nor were they like any of the other beings Ichigo had encountered that could sense him. His thoughts were interrupted however, as he came closer and became aware of screaming.

Surprised, Ichigo realized this hollow had been here longer than when he had first sensed it, so not only was it able to hid itself, but it was probably only sensible by him because it was fighting.

Ichigo was forced to leap back from the apartments as the front door cracked and flew off it's hinges, human and hollow following shortly after. A red-headed girl landed painfully on the ground with a cry of pain as the hollow attacking her howled. It slithered closer to the girl, but Ichigo stood frozen, eyes glued onto the girl.

Checkered handkerchief.

Warmth and despair surged in him in a confusing medley, patches of understanding and memory eluding him in this strange game of keep-away he played with his own mind. He knew her somehow, recognized her without having any recollection of who she words she spoke to the hollow were kind and soothing, something he was sure had been directed at him once. She was friendly, kind even, but he didn't know how he knew this. Again, something in his head protested the unwelcome push of memories as they threatened to come bursting to the surface. Looking at her and trying to remember hurt, but Ichigo wanted it. He wanted to remember, even if it hurt because without memories he felt more like an animal. If he could just remember, this cloudy fog would leave his head and he could think again. He could walk and talk, be intelligent, be human.

Ichigo was shaken out of his half formed thoughts as the hollow screamed and rushed at the girl. Releasing a scream of his own, Ichigo threw himself at the hollow, sinking his teeth into it's shoulder as it cried out. The hollow clawed at him and thrashed wildly trying to dislodge him, but Ichigo stubbornly held on. He savagely dug his teeth in, clawing and scratching at any attempt to dislodge him until one of the hollow's hands finally managed to grab him. Feeling it clamp down on his wrist, Ichigo didn't have time to cry out as it threw him like a ragdoll away. Rolling with the impact, Ichigo had to dig his clawed toes into the ground to stop himself from crashing into a building several feet away before falling to one knee with a hiss. The rough landing had aggravated his already hurt ankle. Shaking himself off, Ichigo prepared to rejoin the fight when he felt two more signatures rush out to where the girl was. Running on all fours, Ichigo slowed when he got close enough to see what was going on.

Ichigo blinked. There were two more humans there, another teenager with a strange arm and the petite girl he'd seen earlier. Looking at the two, something told him to hang back. The larger one seemed to have some fight left in him still, even if he was bleeding badly. The hollow Ichigo had just attacked screamed and threw himself at the large teenager. Ichigo was about to intervene when a loud thump signaled that the hollow had been blocked. Again the hollow attacked, and this time the human looked like he was done for.

A cry died in Ichigo's throat as he saw that the girl had blocked the hollow, taking the blow for her friend instead. He watched as she spoke to him, hugging his massive head even as blood dripped from her shoulder. Soft words filled with kindness made the hollow unlatch it's jaw and slither back in despair. Coming out of his defensive pose, Ichigo watched as the hollow spoke to her. The teenager Ichigo was sure should have been passed out or dead by now talked back to it, saying something that Ichigo couldn't hear.

Again, the girl hugged the hollow, saying more and stepping back as the smaller girl behind her handed it a sword she had previously been using as a crutch. Ichigo watched as the hollow began removing it's mask to reveal a human face. Ichigo blinked and held up a hand to touch his own mask with a shiver. he could tell from the way his scars itched that taking his mask off now was not something he was meant to do in this state. Fascinated, Ichigo flinched slightly when the hollow plunged the sword into itself, glowing oddly before fading away. He watched in concern as the smaller girl who had given her sword passed out. Should he be doing something...? The other teenager looked like he too was on the verge of passing out as the redheaded girl tried desperately to keep him awake. Eventually his head dropped and she began to panic, turning to her friends and holding her head. Ichigo started to go to her when when the hair pins she was wearing began to glow and separate into smaller figures.

This was... confusing. Ichigo cocked his head to the side and watched as the girl shrieked several times, even hitting one of the figures in fear. Scooting a little closer, Ichigo sat down to watch as the tiny figures began talking to her and guiding her through how to use a strange ability that seemed to be healing her friends. Glad that the two unconscious friends would survive, Ichigo turned to leave only to hear the girl crying. Not sure what to do, Ichigo crawled through a couple bushes to try and see if she was alright.

Crunching on a particularly loud stick, Ichigo froze. The girl turned around and looked at his hiding place. Ichigo held his breath as she peered into the bushes.

"Hello? I know you're there... are you hurt? I can heal you..." She said, one hand held out in a friendly gesture as she gave him a friendly smile.

Ichigo didn't know whether or not to come out, pacing about the bushes slowly. He was somewhat hurt from being thrown so far, but he was extremely reluctant to go to her. He was still deathly afraid of people, and no matter how gentle she seemed, a massive part of him recoiled in fear at the thought of letting her near him. Looking at her calm smile, Ichigo felt the familiar ache of loneliness he had felt when he'd met that little girl. He started to come out, but skittered back when he lost his nerve. Scooting closer, she tried again.

"It's okay - I'm not going to hurt you. If you just come out, I can take a look at your injuries and heal you." She said.

Slowly, Ichigo began inching his way forward, leaving the shadows. Everything was telling him to leave before she stopped acting so nice, but he wanted to believe that she really was gentle. The girl squinted as she tried to see his face, but but he was crawling on all fours to her, bone white limbs tentatively coming into the light. She widened her eyes when she saw his clawed hands and Ichigo desperately hoped she wouldn't be scared of him. He had no such time to find that out as he heard a loud groan behind the girl. The sound startling him, Ichigo flinched and hissed on reflex before dashing away, heart thumping in his ears as he heard her call out to him.

.

.

.

-x-

Kisuke Urahara - "Humble" Convenience Store

Kisuke hummed thoughtfully as he watched his monitor. As exciting as the readings he'd been getting from the mystery signature were, they had stopped about a day or so ago. He could only gain so much information from them, so now he was left to check up on the rest of his sensors.

Ever since he had been exiled, he'd had to find his own ways of keeping in the loop of events surrounding the three worlds. It had taken quite some time to create devices that could accurately monitor every and any meeting between the different superpowers of each world, but he had done it. Hueco Mundo was lacking in sensors compared to the other two worlds, but that couldn't be helped. Reina Harribel was a rather cunning woman that took full advantage of her more chaotic surroundings. Others had tried and failed to spy on the arrancar in the past thanks to the sheer difficulty of getting in unnoticed since shinigami and quinies were far more different from hollows than they were each other. The rest was thanks to Szayelaporro Granz's (Szayel if you knew him or wanted to piss him off) meticulous knowledge of every nook and cranny of the palace in Las Noches as well as his own anti-spy technology.

Kisuke's solution had been to put sensors outside the palace strong enough to pick up on all recordings of the meetings. They were cleverly modeled after Szayel's own sensors so that they would be less noticeable and able to take from the denser reishi atmosphere to gain the same power with the same power signature. So far none of them had been found, and he expected they never would.

It was actually the arrancar's meetings and orders that he was monitoring now. While he had his own contacts, it was much easier to take information directly pirated from Szayel's records to find out what was going on. Currently an order was being issued to all hollows to keep an eye out for a new wanted hollow. It didn't say exactly what the hollow was wanted for, but Kisuke got a pretty good idea once he saw that Szayel had had a personal part in putting out the order. Everyone knew that the deranged scientist had been experimenting on hollows for years, but Harribel had turned a blind eye after his "research" gave it's own rewards. It wasn't all that different to how things worked in the Soul Society with their own research department.

What was making Kisuke scratch his head was the description of the hollow. Apparently it was a human-sized white-skinned hollow with long spiky orange hair and humanoid features. The orange hair was interesting and reminded Kisuke of the boy he had met in the park, but plenty of hollows were brightly colored and he himself had seen others with orange hair before, so it registered as an unimportant coincidence to be filed away in the stead of better information.

It's mask had red markings and several scars to match the ones covering it's body, and it had a small hollow-hole in the center of it's chest. It was last seen wearing the bottom pants part of a black shihakusho tied by bandages across his waist before disappearing through an untraceable and unknown type of garganta. Kisuke himself had gotten no alerts of a garganta or any other sort of portal being opened, but he had gotten a hit on the same day as it's supposed opening marking it as part of the anomaly he'd been tracking at the academy and with those human teenagers. That was why he was still monitoring the various channels, trying to find out if anyone else had seen this hollow. Both the shinigami and quincies had been contacted and sent the wanted ad. So far no one had seen the hollow before, and no one could figure out it's reiatsu signature.

Sipping on a cup of tea, Kisuke was distracted from his computer when he felt a familiar reiatsu approaching.

"Any news of that hollow?" Kisuke asked to the seemingly empty room. Yoruichi didn't bother trying to make Kisuke work for the information as she walked up to him.

"I thought you said those teenagers were being monitored!" Yoruichi said. Kisuke looked at her, genuinely confused.

"Care to share with the class...?" Kisuke asked. Yoruichi crossed her arms.

"I got a call from the new local shinigami saying those two, Chad and Orihime, were attacked by a hollow and had gained strange powers from the encounter. The hollow actually managed to injure all three of them before Orihime talked it down into letting them purify it." Yoruichi said with a hard glare. Kisuke winced.

"Ah, that shinigami was supposed to be their 'monitoring'..." Kisuke said. Yoruichi's glare didn't leave.

"I may have dropped an anonymous hint that there were two souls in need of being watched to the Outreach, and the local shinigami may or may not have taken that on as a personal assignment to check out the area and protect the two. It seems that might have been a bad first-day assignment for her..." Kisuke said sheepishly.

"Considering she hadn't yet had her seal lifted, I'd think so. Now I have to go over there and give them the talk while comforting that poor girl - it was her dead brother that attacked her." Yoruichi said. Kisuke winced a second time. No wonder that hollow was able to wound all three of them...

"Ah, I see. In that case, I'll have to keep watch over them much more closely. Closely, carefully, and... from an academic standpoint!" Kisuke said the last part with a grin. Yoruichi looked confused before catching on.

"Dear god, Kisuke. Haven't those children been through enough?" Yoruichi asked. Kisuke pouted as he took a small flyer out of his robe.

"Maa~ You make it sound like my Educational Extracurricular Academic Student Club isn't any fun!" Kisuke moped. Yoruichi cringed at the ridiculous name. It sounded like he was trying way too hard to convince people it was an actual club and not a front for what it really was.

"You've been trying to lure kids to your 'club' for years and have never been able to get anybody to join thanks to those horrible flyers. No one keeps those up where you put them, not even the Outreach." Yoruichi said as she snatched the flyer from Kisuke. Kisuke tapped his chin thoughtfully.

"Ah, people do seem to have an annoying habit of tearing down my flyers. But that's why I made sure to staple them to the wall this time." Kisuke said. Yoruichi choked.

"Kisuke! What if somebody actually decides to look into the owner of those flyers?!" Yoruichi exclaimed. Kisuke shrugged helplessly. It wasn't his fault school officials couldn't see an excellent academic opportunity when it was stapled right in front of them.

"If you want to be able to hook those students, you'd better get going before another representative shows up." Kisuke reminded. Sighing, Yoruichi shook her head as she realized Kisuke was right. Suddenly grinning at Kisuke, Yoruichi stuffed the flyer in her robes.

"If that's the case, then it seems I'll be needed here to help teach them how to hone their abilities. Since you are just the humble shopkeeper, I'll have to use you to demonstrate." Yoruichi said with an absolutely feral grin. Kisuke paled. He'd been used by Yoruichi for demonstrations before, and he was not looking forward to it.


Las Noches Imperio - The Night Empire

Reina - Queen


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Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner Speech/Thoughts

Chapter 5: Memory Lane

-x-

Sogen Apartments

"- and that concludes the basics of Souls and the Afterlife. Any questions?" Rukia finished.

Orihime and Chad stared blankly at Rukia as they sat on their knees across from her. Orihime raised her hand like she was back in grade school. Rukia pointed at Orihime even though she was obviously the only one raising her hand.

"Yes?" Rukia asked.

"Um, why did we have to have this talk here?" Orihime asked, gesturing around them.

They were currently sitting in Orihime's torn up apartment, debris from the wall and smashed furniture littering the floor as a cool breeze wafted in from a large hole in her dented walls. Since Sora had smashed Orihime's table, the three of them sat in the center of the living room where it had been on some spare cushions from Orihime's room (only the living room was really beat up). Looking at the extensive damage, Chad felt sure that the entire apartment was a building hazard.

"We can't very well leave the apartment in such a state - that would be a clear breach of my protocols." Rukia snorted.

If it wasn't for Orihime's easy-going temperament, she would have smacked her head in frustration. Rukia had only been awake for a few hours and it was already glaringly clear that she was a stickler for rules and regulations. When Chad and Orihime had wanted to start cleaning up the apartment, Rukia had immediately shut them down under the pretense that Orihime's apartment was now a crime scene and would need to be filed correctly with pictures of the damage and samples of the hollow. That was also why none of them were allowed to change out of their clothes. Indeed, they all had blood and strange stains from Sora's acid on their torn and ripped clothing, leaving the distinct impression they were "hobo zombies" (Orihime's words). The only thing they did seem to be allowed to do was help Rukia fill out her report via eyewitness accounts which she meticulously recorded in a little notebook she always carried on her. Orihime supposed that it was a good thing shinigami were so thorough considering they played such an important role in both the World of the Living and the afterlife, but it still made things a little difficult.

"What even are your protocols?" Chad asked. Rukia crossed her arms and huffed.

"Well, as I already told you, some things are for shinigami of the Gotei 13 to know only, so I can only say so much. While it is my job to assist souls in their journey to the afterlife and purge hollows, I am also required to observe any supernatural doings in Karakura town as this is my town." Rukia said.

That was another thing that they had learned about Rukia, she was very proud about her being a shinigami and all the duties that came with it. It definitely wasn't like Rukia was arrogant or snooty, she was just very passionate about her job and what she did. It had actually been pretty surprising to Chad and Orihime when she told them she was a noble from some fancy clan. Orihime would have expected a noble of any clan to be super sophisticated and elegant, ruling over vast estates and being waited on hand and foot. Rukia had just chuckled at that, saying that she did know quite a few nobles like that, but she wasn't born into that life. Rukia had grown up in a portion of the Soul Society called the Rukongai that's district was a merchant town surrounded by several trading ports. According to her, most of the Rukongai and Soul Republics were to the living standard of feudal Japan as far as the outer districts where law enforcement varied greatly. Districts closest to the Seireitei and Soul Republic Centers were generally far more patrolled and peaceful while the outer districts mostly ran themselves, rarely relying on shinigami. Her own district was a bit wilder than the others as it had a secret black market going on, so she had ended up growing up in a less than peaceful area.

Orihime had been fascinated by the Soul Society and all the different parts to it, but Rukia had ended up only telling them the absolute basics of what they needed to know since they didn't have nearly enough time to go through everything. As disappointed as Orihime had been, she could understand why they were only being told the basics first. There was so many things that happened right under their noses that they never even knew about, and it was confusing. Since they were still new to everything, Rukia had called the Outreach to get a mentor to come down and schedule a time for later meetings. That and to clean up the apartment...

"Do you know when the mentor will be here?" Orihime asked. It was starting to get dark out, and Orihime really didn't have anywhere else to sleep if they didn't get here soon. Wait, could they even fix her apartment? The hole in the wall was a pretty large one…

"Well, I called the Outreach before i gave you two the talk, so one should be here fairly soon." Rukia said. As she had said, it only took a few more minutes before someone claiming to be from the Outreach showed up. When she did, Rukia had immediately bowed low after looking extremely surprised by who the mentor was.

"No need for all of that Rukia, us noble ladies have no need for that stuff." Yoruichi said with a wink as she nudged Rukia.

"O-oh, uh, yes Yoruichi-sama!" Rukia said. Yoruichi ignored the use of honorifics for now. Turning to Orihime and Chad who had gotten to their feet to give less severe bows, Yoruichi returned their greeting.

"I am Yoruichi Shihoin, princess of the Shihoin family and special instructor at Shino Outreach." Yoruichi said. Orihime's eyes widened.

"You're a princess?!" Orihime exclaimed. Yoruichi laughed.

"Yes, but I'm not here as royalty - I'm here as your mentor. As I said to Rukia, none of you need to give me any special treatment. That's how I've been doing things ever since I became an instructor at the Outreach." Yoruichi said. Chad and Orihime nodded, but Orihime still seemed a little intimidated. Gesturing for them all to take a seat despite the lack of proper furniture, Yoruichi sat down.

"Now, first thing's first; what powers have the two of you developed?" Yoruichi asked. Both Orihime and Chad were too exhausted from their fight to manifest their powers, but their descriptions gave Yoruichi an accurate enough idea.

"Well, it seems pretty obvious Chad has unlocked Fullbringer powers, but I'm not so sure about Orihime." Yoruichi said. Chad frowned.

"But Rukia said that fullbringers manifest their powers through physical objects. I didn't have any object that started manifesting powers, not like Orihime." Chad said. Yoruichi nodded.

"Oh, but you did. When Rukia said that fullbringers manifest their powers through physical objects, she meant they used physical matter. Was there any object or thing during your fight that you felt a particular affinity or pride for?" Yoruichi asked. She herself could guess what it was, but it was important that Chad figure it out for himself. Chad frowned and though for a moment before slowly speaking.

"I was wearing a Mexican coin my abuela gave me, but I wasn't thinking about it at the time... I was thinking about how my tough skin had saved me from Sora's attacks, but that I would do more than just defend myself... my fists are for fighting..." Chad said as he slowly realized.

"My fullbringer powers manifest themselves through my... skin?" He asked. Yoruichi nodded, pleased that he had caught on so quickly.

"Yes, but i think it's a little bit more specific than that since you were thinking about your skin in the context of using your fists to fight. That probably is why your powers manifested special armor on your arms suited for punching and fighting hand-to-hand combat." Yoruichi said. Chad nodded thoughtfully. Hearing Yoruichi explaining how Chad's powers worked, Orihime's hand shot up as she waited for Yoruichi to call on her.

"Er, yes Orihime?" Yoruichi asked. Orihime dutifully put her hand back down and straightened like she was about to ask an important question in class. This girl was certainly quirky.

"Ah, I was just wondering why you said you weren't so sure about my powers. From what you explained about Chad and fullbringers, it seems like i'm the same - my powers manifested from something I have an emotional attachment to - my hair pins." Orihime said. Yoruichi shook her head.

"While that is true, fullbringers don't manifest spirits. Shun Shun Rikka's fairy spirits are far more similar to a shinigami's weapon - the zanpakuto. A zanpakuto is a sword containing a living spirit that develops based on it's wielder and lends them it's power. Because of this, you can't be considered a fullbringer." Yoruichi said. Orihime paled a little. It was concerning to think that not even someone as knowledgeable as Yoruichi knew just what she was.

"Are you sure I don't fit into any group - surely there's someone who knows what my powers are!" Orihime said. Yoruichi slyly smiled to herself. She'd been waiting for just the opportunity.

"No need to worry Orihime, I know a friend who can help identify your powers. He even runs a special club for living souls like you to receive training and guidance. He also happens to have an extensive knowledge of fullbringers, so if Chad wanted he could accompany you to the club. I'm sure he would end up learning quite a few things there." Yoruichi said. Chad looked at Orihime and nodded. It sounded like a good deal, and he knew that Orihime would probably be lonely without him there. Orihime gave Yoruichi a smile and nodded as well. Rukia, however, looked skeptical.

"A special club outside of the Outreach? How come I've never heard of such a thing?" Rukia asked. Yoruichi groaned inwardly. Kisuke had warned her that Rukia was far more competent than the previous local shinigami, but Yoruichi was no fool to the art of persuasion.

"That's most likely due to the fact that the local soul officials thought his club was a practical joke." Yoruichi said tapping the object she had just pulled out.

All three leaned in to get a closer look at the flyer lying on the ground before understanding immediately what she meant. It was a brightly colored advertisement for the "Educational Extracurricular Academic Student Club" scrawled in a ridiculous orange bubble font followed by locations and times written in red comic sans over top a neon yellow background filled with fake explosions and flames. There were sayings like "super cool!" "awesome!" "radical!" and "totally safe!" scattered across the flyer in jagged letters that looked like it had been drawn with sharpie. The biggest eyesore however, was the image of a man in a green and white striped bucket hat holding a fan and smiling like his face was about to break as he struck a ridiculous pose.

"I completely understand..." Rukia said with a wince. The man was clearly insane.

"If only you did..." Yoruichi said with a heavy sigh. She would never have allowed Chad and Orihime the unfortune of meeting Kisuke if it wasn't for their current situation.

"I'm going to assume their are open spots." Chad said. Orihime giggled slightly. She was pretty sure with advertising like that they were the only members.

"Yes, but I still need to call Kisuke to ensure he can work out a time for you and give him a heads up." Yoruichi said. It was a lie of course since they had been planning this whole thing out, but the last part of their plan still had yet to take place. Pulling out a phone, Yoruichi quickly punched in the numbers and had only a short while to wait before Kisuke came on speaker phone.

"Aah~ Yoruichi-san, what a surprise! What can this humble shop-keeper do for you today?" Kisuke asked in a cheery voice. Holding the phone out so her three companions could hear better, Yoruichi answered as scripted.

"I was just calling to let you know that I have two students from Karakura High who would like to join your club." Yoruichi said. Orihime leaned in to speak.

"Hello Kisuke-san! I'd be very glad if Chad and I could join your club so that we can learn more about our powers." Orihime said. Chad grunted in agreement.

"Wonderful! I was just wondering what I would do with such a lovely afternoon - why don't the two of you come on down to my shop so we can set this up." Kisuke said. Orihime looked like she was about to agree before she remembered the state of her apartment.

"Oh, I would, but you see my apartment kind of got destroyed and I still need to figure out how to fix it..." Orihime said, disappointed.

"Oh no! How did that happen?" Kisuke asked with false concern. He knew very well the extent of the damage and events by now.

"It's a little complicated, but my dead brother came back as a hollow and attacked me - that's how Chad and I managed to gain powers." Orihime said a little sadly. The events of the day were starting to weigh on her.

"I'm so sorry to hear that..." This time his concern was genuine. "Do you have an idea yet of how long it will take to fix your place?" Kisuke asked. Orihime looked to Rukia.

"That depends on how quickly I - the local shinigami - can administer memory replacements on the residents and repairmen. From there, it will likely be a couple days until her apartment is fixed." Rukia said. Chad surprisingly spoke up next.

"I was actually going to let Orihime stay with me in my apartment until hers was fixed." Chad rumbled. Orihime immediately began insisting that it was too much to ask Chad to do that, but he was adamant. Kisuke couldn't help but "ooooooh~" when he heard the offer.

"Kisuke!" Yoruichi snapped as Orihime and Chad blushed. Both of them knew it wasn't like that, but it was still extremely embarrassing.

"I'm sorry! I couldn't resist - really!" Kisuke whined. Suddenly he gasped, as if struck by an idea.

"I know! Since my new pupils already know each other so well, why don't we all have a sleepover! Chad, Orihime, Rukia, Yoruichi-san and I can all get to know each other while you stay in a more secure location - I'd hate for another hollow to show up thanks to the lingering reiatsu of your brother." Kisuke said. Yoruichi bit on her tongue to stop herself from growling at Kisuke. This was not the plan - Kisuke was only supposed to convince Orihime and Chad to spend the night, not her and Rukia as well!

"A-ah, I thank you for the offer, Kisuke-san, but I still have my duties to tend to..." Rukia said. She was trying her best to ignore the puppy eyes Orihime was giving her. Chad looked like he was attempting to help Orihime win Rukia over, but his eyes said "constipated dog" more than "begging puppy."

"Nonsense! You've obviously just became local shinigami - the other was nowhere near as talented with his duties - and you should celebrate!" Rukia blushed slightly at the compliment, coughing.

"If you really want to be the local shinigami, you have to be local. Take some time to make friends, see the city, know your territory. You wait for crime, not the other way around. Once you're done taking care of things at Orihime's apartment, why don't you come to my shop and join us. I'm sure it would be beneficial for you to learn how to fit in here if you ever need to use a gigai." Kisuke said. Yoruichi had to admit he was playing Rukia well. He knew that she had already had to use a gigai and had not fit in very well.

"I suppose it is still my duty to take care of Orihime and Chad..." Rukia said. Orihime gave a small fist-pump before victory before hugging Rukia excitedly. Rukia laughed slightly and Chad gave her a thumbs up. She hadn't thought to make friends here, but she was beginning to feel glad that she'd gotten such an opportunity with bubbly Orihime and friendly Chad.

"Now hold on just a minute there Kisuke, I do have things to do you know!" Yoruichi huffed. Orihime and Rukia immediately began pleading with her as Kisuke wailed on the phone, hoping his gut-wrenching agony would make her take pity on him.

"You stop that right now Kisuke, you're encouraging them!" Yoruichi snapped.

"It's not like you have classes to teach - school is over! I say sleepover! Sleep-over! Sleep-over! Sleep-over!" Kisuke chanted, Orihime, Chad, and Rukia quickly joining in.

"Alright, alright, alright! Fine! Sleepover it is!" Yoruichi exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. Everyone cheered and Yoruichi swore she could smell the upcoming chaos.

-x-

Yuzu Kurosaki

This wasn't any fair!

Yuzu huffed as she watched Karin playing soccer with the older kids. It wasn't that unusual for Karin to play games, especially soccer, with the older kids at the park simply because of how skilled she was. She still played with kids her own age, but she usually got bored of that pretty quickly. Normally Karin would have stopped playing with the older kids so Yuzu could join in and play, but today Karin had refused, telling Yuzu she didn't want her getting hurt. Sure, Yuzu wasn't nearly as athletic or skilled as her twin, but that didn't mean she was terrible!

Watching Karin wiping the field with the older kids, Yuzu could see just how frustrated her sister was. Yuzu could understand Karin being a little overprotective after she nearly got run over on Friday, but she hadn't expected it to last more than a day. Now Yuzu was beginning to suspect Karin was acting strange not because of what had happened to Yuzu, but what had happened to Ichigo. It had taken a while for Yuzu to connect Karin's recent attitude to the teen's suicide, but when she did, it made sense. Karin could see spirits and as a result ended up thinking about the afterlife more than any normal girl her age, but it had never affected her negatively until recently.

Maybe learning about what Ichigo did really made the whole "death thing" heavier for her...

Wait, what if she could see Ichigo's spirit?!

It was horrifying to think about, but it would explain her behavior. Yuzu didn't think she could handle it if she ended up seeing the spirit of a boy who had killed himself hours after they had talked to him. She was upset enough as it was at the news, but this certainly put a new spin on things.

"Oy! Yuzu!" Karin called with a wave. Yuzu waved back and jogged to her.

"You finished the game already? Guess we can go home now..." Yuzu said hopefully. Karin ignored her sister's boredom with a wave of her hand.

"Not yet, I promised those kids another game, but they wanted to go play it on the other soccer field closer to the park." Karin said.

"What?! But you promised me one more game and we could go home!" Yuzu exclaimed. Karin had been saying "one more game and we'll go home" for the past hour now.

"Oh come one Yuzu, it's not like mom and dad care about us playing out this late. It's not even dark yet." Karin said rolling her eyes. Yuzu crossed her arms.

"That's not fair and you know it! What am I supposed to do?" Yuzu huffed. Karin kicked up her soccer ball and started walking away.

"I don't know, go play in the park or something! You don't always have to stick to me!" Karin yelled over her shoulder as she joined her teammates.

"You can't just leave me here!" Yuzu called, but Karin ignored her and kept walking.

"Jerk!" Yuzu yelled, face red as Karin left.

She hated it when Karin left her behind like this. Normally it wasn't a problem, but today it just made Yuzu feel like a little kid. At home in the kitchen she was an expert, at school a whiz, but whenever she tried to participate in Karin's sports, she ended up feeling so stupid. Karin barely even tried to include her anymore, and it was embarrassing.

Stomping around, Yuzu decided if Karin wanted to pretend like she wasn't there, she might as well not be. Their house wasn't all that far from the park, and if Yuzu wanted to walk home by herself, by all means she should. Turning around, Yuzu decided she would take a shortcut through the trees to get home. Crunching through the thick underbrush, Yuzu searched around for the small footpath she and Karin had been using for years. Unfortunately, Karin remembered it better than her.

Where is this stupid thing?

Yuzu thought as she continued traipsing around the woods. It wasn't like it was an actual forest, but it was big enough to get lost in for a short while. Huffing, Yuzu came to a stop as leaves continued to crunch around her. Well, behind her. Behind her?

Whipping around, Yuzu only heard silence. She'd probably just imagined it. Continuing her search, Yuzu could have sworn she heard the trees swaying around her, but every time she stopped she heard nothing but the natural sounds of wind, leaves, and small animals. The further she went, the more she became unsettled. It really was starting to feel like something was following her, and she still couldn't find the path.

A sick snapping sound behind her made Yuzu squeak and whirl around, heart beating as she searched for signs of anything besides her. Again, only silence. She waited another heartbeat, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary... As she went to take another step, she suddenly heard another noise and froze. It immediately stopped when she stood still, but when she walked again, she could swear the noise was back.

Okay, now she was scared. Maybe she shouldn't have tried to walk home by herself? Walking faster, Yuzu barely noticed that her breath was coming out in short gasps now. Suddenly everything sounded like a possible stalker, every rustle, twig snap, and branch creak making her jump. Faster and faster she walked as she started to become frantic. She swore she could feel something right behind her, but she couldn't find the path.

Where is it?!

Where is that -

A loud snap from above her made Yuzu shriek and look up into the trees. A strange clicking noise that sounded almost like a growl made Yuzu scream and break out into a full run as she tried to escape the trees. Branches tore at her clothes and scratched her face painfully as she tore her way through the trees, similar noises coming from right behind her. Tripping on a root, Yuzu crashed to the ground with a cry.

"YoU caN't JuSt leAVe Me heReEEeeeEeEee!" Came a warbled version of Yuzu's own voice careening through the trees.

Yuzu screamed as she desperately tried to untangle her probably twisted ankle. Her nails tore as she scratched at her ankle, trees swaying and plants flailing as something unseen came for Yuzu.

"RrrRrRRreeeKkkkkK Kkk KKkk kk kkkkkkkaaaaaaahhh!" Came a stuttering scream as something knocked into Yuzu, ripping her ankle away from the root.

The wind was knocked out of her as Yuzu crashed to the ground under the weight of her attacker. She couldn't see anything there, but she could feel claws digging into her shoulders as something pinned her to the ground. Unable to scream, Yuzu could only gasp for air as one of the clawed hands that had been holding her down pierced into her forehead, drawing blood. Tears streamed down Yuzu's face as a scream built itself up inside her. For a moment, she could finally see what was attacking her.

Black like a charred corpse, the thing atop her was completely emaciated, bony limbs twisted out at odd angles ending in wicked claws. Worst of all was it's face, for she could make out no features other than a gaping mouth from all the scarring and twisting of it's face. It's skin shifted constantly as something wriggled around underneath it's flesh, making Yuzu feel sick. She could sense this creature's intentions from the horrible connection it was forming with what felt like her soul.

It was going to eat her.

But suddenly the weight of her killer was ripped off of her body as a different howl tore through the woods. Yuzu scrabbled away with a sob as she tried desperately to get away. Even though the monster's claws were gone from her forehead, Yuzu could still see it clearly as it screamed in pain. The second figure was fuzzier, but it was decidedly not human from the way it moved and howled.

The dark creature was bleeding heavily, but it was still going as it screeched and flung itself at the other. The two fought in a frenzy of screams and blood as Yuzu tried to keep up, but they were moving to fast. Scooting farther back, Yuzu flinched when her rescuer was flung back to crash into a tree with a sick thud. Hissing in pain, it got up and howled again in defiance. The other screeched back in challenge and rushed forward, claws poised to shred. Blood splattered the foliage around them as the two exchanged frenzied blows in a deadly dance. It was becoming clear that the stronger of the two was the fuzzier figure as it used it's superior speed and strength to break the dark creature's limbs and even tear off an arm.

Screaming in pain, the dark creature tried to pin the other to the ground but was overpowered quickly. A red dot of light began to glow where the blurry figure held the other by it's head, growing in size as the other's struggles became more desperate. Yuzu wisely launched herself out of the way just as the red orb was released in an explosion of power that shook the trees. Yuzu was painfully thrown back onto the ground where she curled up until debris stopped raining down. Opening her eyes again, Yuzu lowered her arms from her face as dust clouded her vision. It was completely silent now, so she hoped that meant the battle was over.

Once the dust had cleared, Yuzu could see a small crater where the dark creature's head had been, twisted body wriggling on the ground in death throws. Even though it was over, her rescuer still stood poised over the body in an aggressive stance as if looking for something in the spasming remains.

Yuzu nearly missed the movement from the body when something shot towards her only to be stomped on by the rescuer. To her horror, Yuzu now realized worms were slithering out of the dark creature's corpse to come squealing at her. Yuzu screamed and stomped on one that got just a little too close to her as her new companion ran around on all fours squishing and killing the parasites quicker than they could leave the corpse. Eventually the stream of maggots stopped and the two sat staring at each other.

Covering her mouth to stop herself from vomiting, Yuzu felt faint. She felt so sick and weak, and now she wasn't even sure if the creature before her had saved her or was just as dangerous to her as the first. Every time she tried to make out what it looked like, all she got was faint impressions of it's transparent shape as well as a headache. It was like her brain knew it was there, but couldn't quite remember what it looked like. Yuzu could just barely make out that something was even there. She could tell it wasn't human though, and she wasn't ready to risk that it was friendly, so she slowly picked herself up, creature watching her the entire time.

It turned out standing up wasn't the best idea as Yuzu's legs wobbled and she almost crashed. The creature watching her flashed to her side in concern to prop her up and Yuzu couldn't help but scream. It was too much, and as the creature dropped her, Yuzu scrambled back to try and get away. She was so tired and hurt and scared and she didn't know what to do. It kept coming closer to her, making Yuzu scream again and start sobbing. Her back hit a tree and she realized there was no way she was going to be able to outrun this thing, even without a busted ankle.

"P-please, please don't hurt - hurt me." Yuzu sobbed between her panting.

The creature was towering over her shaking form now, but it miraculously started backing away. It took a moment, but Yuzu realized she could hear a strange rumbling coming from it. It was crouching low now, one arm tentatively held out to her. Yuzu breathed heavily as she stared back and forth between the clawed hand and the creature. It was treating her as if she was the wild animal, slowly moving to her with an arm offered out in a comforting gesture as it rumbled soothingly at her. Shaking, Yuzu slowly reached out a trembling hand to his, breathe stopping in her throat when she finally touched him. It felt just like human skin, except maybe a little tougher. He held still for her as she carefully ran her fingers over his hand, feeling tiny grooves in his skin where numerous scars must have been before stopping when she came to his claws. They weren't as long and spindly as her attacker's, but they were sharp nonetheless as Yuzu cautiously tested their edge. It was fascinating to be feeling something there that her mind couldn't quite register, and it was a little jarring.

Yuzu flinched when she felt his hand moving underneath hers, but settled when she realized he was just twisting it so his hand was facing palm up. Feeling his hand, Yuzu inched hers into his slowly. They stayed like that for a moment, Yuzu shaking and bleeding while the creature rumbled low and steady in a sort of purr as they held hands. Eventually she began to feel dizzy (probably from the blood pouring down her forehead) and had to prop her head against the tree to keep from falling. Sensing that she was quickly growing weaker, the creature gave Yuzu a gentle squeeze of her hand and slowly reached out his other. Not quite understanding, Yuzu put her other hand in his and yelped when he suddenly pulled her up.

For a terrifying moment she thought that she had just made a horrible mistake, but the creature hadn't pulled her up to hurt her, he was cradling her in his arms as his rumbling grew into a loud purr. Yuzu had to admit it was incredibly calming as her breathing began to slow.

Okay, okay. He's friendly, he's not going to eat me...

Yuzu weakly tried to shift in his arms, but he firmly put a hand on her chest as if to tell her Stay still. Rest. He began sniffing her all over, pausing at her shoulders and ankle before turning her head back and forth to inspect the gashes the dark creature had left. Yuzu gasped when she felt something warm and wet cleaning up the blood. He was licking her...

To her surprise, when he started carefully cleaning the wounds on her forehead, she actually started to feel a little tingly where he was licking. Reaching up to feel at her forehead, Yuzu was shocked to feel her wounds closing.

Sniffing around her face, he made a small dissatisfied noise. Still hurt. Apparently he decided that the cuts on her face from her flight through the trees needed attending because he then gently cupped Yuzu's face in his large hand, taking care not to let his claws pierce her, and began licking her whole face like a cat cleaning itself. Yuzu couldn't help but giggle a little as she felt him cleaning her up and healing her.

"Stop! That tickles!" Yuzu laughed quietly. It unfortunately turned into a cough because of her bruised ribs.

Making a small huffing noise of concern, the creature shifted Yuzu in his hold to put her head in the crook of it's neck. Standing up fully, Yuzu could feel him looking around the trees. He wasn't going to leave with her, was he? Panicking a little, Yuzu struggled to get him to take his hand off her head so she could look at him.

"Hey, don't just run off with me! I do actually have somewhere to be you know..." Yuzu said. The creature just looked at her blankly. She couldn't make out it's face since he did look more like a ghost than a solid human, but she could guess that he was pretty confused.

"I live not far from here, and my dad is a doctor. If you bring me to my house, I'll be able to heal a lot better." Yuzu said as she pointed in the general direction of her house.

Not really getting it, but wanting to do what Yuzu was telling him to do, he began walking in the direction where Yuzu was pointing, stopping every now and again to make sure this was what she wanted. The entire time Yuzu held on to him, trying to process the events of the day. She supposed she should be really upset or scared right now, but all she felt was kind of numb, probably from the shock. All she could focus on no was getting herself home, she would think about everything that had happened later. Eventually they reached the path that Yuzu had been searching for in the first place. Her new friend had no idea that this was what they were looking for however, and nearly plunged back into the trees again.

"Wait! This is how we get there - we need to follow this." Yuzu explained, pointing to the path and tracking it with her finger.

Understanding, he began walking down the path, breaking into a jog when Yuzu assured him this was the right way to go. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, but he made sure not to jostle Yuzu's ankle too much, and for that she was thankful. Eventually they made it out of the trees and onto a street. By this point Yuzu was too tired to walk him to her house, so she just kept pointing in the direction they needed to go, explaining that she leaved in the Kurosaki Clinic.

"See, that house right there..." Yuzu said with an absent yawn. She had a feeling she might've been asleep by now, but the pain from her ankle prevented that from happening.

"Just put me down for a moment and I can unlock the door." Yuzu said.

Tugging a little at her friend, Yuzu got him to lower her to the ground in front of her front door. She held onto his shoulders as she fished around for her house key, making sure to keep off her bad foot. Unlocking the door, Yuzu held onto the handle and made her way inside, motioning for him to come in as well. When he didn't Yuzu shifted painfully and frowned.

"Come on, it's alright. I want you to meet my mom and dad while they check me over." Yuzu said.

He made a small noise and began pacing slightly, coming through the door only to hop back out again. He could hear the sounds of Yuzu's mother cooking in the kitchen while her father watched tv in the living room, and he wasn't so keen on people other than Yuzu currently. The sound of Yuzu's father cheering at the tv made him flinch and start back.

"Okay, maybe not my dad... But my mom is really nice, really calm." Yuzu added on the last part seeing how sensitive to noise and movement he was.

"Yuzu? Is that you?" Yuzu's mother called out from the kitchen. Yuzu's rescuer scurried farther back and Yuzu hastily called back before trying to coax him back.

"Yuzu's home?! Oh my baby girl is home again! I thought I'd never see you again!" Her father wailed as he came barreling over the couch to scoop Yuzu up in a bear hug. Yuzu was almost too busy with her father to see that her friend immediately bolted away.

"Ow! Dad you're hurting me!" Yuzu cried as her father crushed her already bruised ribs. He immediately dropped her at the pain in her voice and gasped when he saw the healing marks on her forehead and scratches in her clothing. Worst of all was the blood soiling her clothes and the dark purple bruising on her ankle.

"Yuzu, what happened?! Masaki, Yuzu's hurt!" He called, all traces of goofiness gone.

"What?!" Masaki exclaimed when she came rushing out of the kitchen.

Hurriedly checking Yuzu and turning her face this way and that, both overwhelmed her with questions. Yuzu began to cry as the full weight of everything hit her. Both her parents wrapped her up in a hug and closed the door, setting her down in the living room. Sobbing, Yuzu told them about everything that had happened to her from getting mad at Karin to trying to get her rescuer to come inside their house. When she was done, Masaki and her father just looked at each other.

"Call him, Isshin." Masaki said. Isshin nodded and Yuzu looked up.

"What about the creature that saved me? He got scared and ran away when dad hugged me..." Yuzu said. Masaki pulled her exhausted daughter into her arms.

"I'm sorry honey, but we can't let him near you until we know more about him. From the way you described him, he's most likely something that we already know is a very dangerous being. Why he didn't hurt you, we don't know." Masaki said. Yuzu sniffed.

"What do you think he is? Does this have to do with the talk Karin's going to have about spirits?" Yuzu asked. Her sister had been able to see spirits ever since a few years ago, and Yuzu was pretty sure that what had saved her was a spirit of some type.

"...Yes. We were going to wait to talk to Karin until as late as possible, but now it seems that we can't wait anymore, especially now that it seems you're becoming spiritually aware. There are certain spirits that aren't exactly human, they're dangerous and can kill you if you don't know how to fight them." Masaki said. Yuzu's eyes widened.

"But it's okay Yuzu, your dad and I are actually pretty experienced with this sort of thing. So long as you're with us, you will always be safe." Masaki said as she kissed Yuzu's forehead.

"That creature kept me safe though too. He protected me and healed me, so would he really hurt me? He might be dangerous, but I don't think he's dangerous to me..." Yuzu said quietly. Masaki sighed. Until Yuzu knew everything that was going on, she likely wouldn't understand why that was so hard to trust.

"I know you think that, but please, don't go looking for him. We don't know what he is or what he's capable of." Masaki said.

-x-

Ichigo .?.?.?

Ichigo paced around agitatedly. He wanted to go back to that little girl, the one that tugged at his mind, the part of him that remembered who he was. She had been so scared of him at first and he'd wanted to run away just like he had with the first girl, but he knew he couldn't. She was injured, vulnerable. So he had stayed and hoped he could at least get near enough to heal her before she ran away from him. And he had, but she didn't run away. She let him hold her, talked to him, tried to let him come inside her house. Even the words she spoke sounded nice, though they scratched at the part of him he knew was off limits. But she hadn't screamed or been scared of him at the end, so that counted for a lot.

He would go to her if it wasn't for the two other souls in that house, the ones who he knew could seriously hurt him. The woman felt like the souls Ichigo had seen hanging around the buildings by the place where Ichigo had fought the snake-like hollow, and the man felt like the small girl in the black robes who had been trying to catch him. They were both powerful and together would put up a fight he didn't want to fight.

So now he was left all alone, restless and frustrated.

He needed to kill something, hunt down a hollow to keep himself from going to that girl. The sun was going to set soon, so Ichigo decided he would stay in this town to hunt instead of going to Hueco Mundo. Nights were for this world, and days were for Hueco Mundo.

Sniffing around, Ichigo was disappointed to find that there weren't any hollows here yet. He would have to wait for one to show up before he could begin his hunt. Pacing around, Ichigo decided to find a better place to wait than out in the open. Maybe the park?

Hopping over the houses, Ichigo shot off in the direction of the park. The closer he got, the more he sensed something else following him. Eventually he stopped, jumping down to hide in some bushes. Waiting with baited breath, Ichigo cast out his senses to try and figure out what was out there. With a jolt, he realized it was the man at that little girl's house, her father. Had he followed Ichigo? But Ichigo had made absolutely sure to hide himself and erase his signature...

Eyes peeled for movement, Ichigo grew stiffer as he felt the man drawing nearer. Finally he saw the man coming down the street, but he didn't look angry or like he was about to fight, so Ichigo resisted the urge to run. Looking both ways, the man hastily crossed the street and jogged down the sidewalk. He didn't even so much as glance towards Ichigo when he ran past him towards the park. Once he was gone, Ichigo relaxed a little. So he wasn't following Ichigo, they just happened to be going to the same place. Curious, Ichigo left his bushes to follow the man a safe distance away. He was pretty fast for not using any energy, and it seemed like he was worried. Ichigo could see it on his face every time he looked around. Was something wrong? Was the little girl alright?

Once they reached the park, Ichigo watched as the man headed towards one of the clearings. That was unfortunate, Ichigo would have to be a lot more careful if he wanted to continue stalking this man. Disappearing into the trees surrounding the clearing, Ichigo scurried as close as he dared to where the man was heading. The children Ichigo had seen leaving the little girl earlier were playing in what he now saw was a soccer field, kicking around a ball to each other as they cheered their teammates on. Ichigo watched as the man ran up to the group of kids, calling out to a girl with black hair.

"Karin! Come here, we're going home." He yelled with a wave to the girl. "Karin" gave him a confused look before jogging over. Was this his daughter? So then she was that little girl's sister. An image of the two girls standing together flashed into Ichigo's head before something stole them away. It left a sharp pain in his head that he struggled not to make noise by scratching at. These memories hurt.

"Why? Can't I just finish this game - it's not even dark yet." Karin said as she crossed her arms. Her father shook his head and took her hand.

"No, you need to come home now. Your mother and I need to have a serious discussion with you and your sister." He said. Karin looked surprised at her father's attitude.

"Why? What's wrong - do you need me to go get Yuzu?" Karin asked in a concerned voice as she jogged to keep up with her father. The other kids protested, but let her go. All children instinctively sense when a peer is in trouble.

"Your sister already came home, covered in scratches and in pain from a broken ankle." Karin's eyes widened and she looked panicked. "She'll be fine for now, but she shouldn't have walked home alone. From now on, you two are to stick together and stay at with us until we get this all sorted out." Her father said. Ichigo scrambled back into the bushes as they came closer to him, still unaware they were being watched.

"What?! What happened?" Karin asked.

"We'll tell you when we get home, but for now trust the decision that your mother and I have made." He said.

They quickly passed Ichigo without incident, leaving the park at a brisk pace. Ichigo decided not to push his luck further by following the two home. He would check up on them later when they weren't so... suspicious. For now he was content to process everything he had seen and heard. He didn't really understand what they had been saying to each other, but the names used did. Karin and Yuzu... The sharp pain was back in his head and this time he did scratch at it. It turns out that was the wrong thing to do because the moment his clawed fingers tangled themselves in his long orange spikes, it was like he was tugging memories to the surface. Suddenly he was ripping at his hair, short now as he curled up in a bathroom, desperately trying to stop the pain. Fuzzy panic mixed with the clear pain he was in now, rolling waves crashing through his head like a hammer.

Screeching, Ichigo violently shook his head trying to dislodge the memories. He panted as the memory disappeared, shoved back into it's box. Shaking, he ran his clawed hands over his mask, trying not to bring that part of his mind back. He wasn't ready yet, and he didn't know why. Letting out a shaky breath, Ichigo opened his eyes and looked around. He wasn't in the bathroom anymore, he was here in the park.

Shaken by the sudden memory, Ichigo stood up and wrapped his arms around himself. He was scared, he didn't understand what was happening. He wanted to run away, but he didn't have anywhere to go. What if going back to Yuzu meant he would have more episodes like this? His mind was too clouded to connect that it wasn't just Yuzu causing this, it was him. He was getting worse, or rather he was getting stronger. Ichigo was growing, but the hollow was still trapped like this, an animal.

Looking around, Ichigo didn't want to stay here anymore. Walking away in a random direction, Ichigo began to move faster, breaking into a jog, then a run. The need to flee took over his rational mind and he flew out of the park, running to god knows where.

-x-

Educational Extracurricular Academic Student Club

"Go ahead and just set your stuff down in the back, my assistant Tessai will help you set up your things later." Kisuke said with a wave of his fan. Rukia, Orihime, and Chad all nodded before heading to the back of the store. Yoruichi stayed behind to glare daggers at Kisuke.

"My my, Yoruichi-san, why such a sour face?" Kisuke asked. Yoruichi sauntered up to him and grit her teeth.

"This wasn't part of the plan Kisuke." Yoruichi hissed. Kisuke looked over in the direction of Rukia.

"Ah, but it is now. I looked more into our little shinigami's latest doings and found that she has been tracking a very interesting set of events that all point to a rogue hollow." Kisuke said with a sly smile. Yoruichi sharply turned to look at Kisuke.

"And you think she's tracking the same hollow the Las Noches Imperio put a hit out on." Yoruichi finished. Kisuke nodded.

"You really think it's such a good idea to fish for information from her while doing the same with Orihime and Chad?" Yoruichi asked as she crossed her arms. Kisuke waved his hand.

"I'm pretty sure Rukia has already been informed of the Academy incident, so any information brought to light is probably already known by her. If not, I don't think it would hurt for her superiors to know." Kisuke answered.

Once the group of teens (well, one teen looking) had returned, Kisuke ushered them all into one of the guest rooms where he had everyone sit down around a round table. Clapping his hands, Kisuke grinned at the group.

"Now, what should we do first? Braid each others hair, get some snacks, or gossip?" Kisuke said as he leaned in and rubbed his hands mischievously. Orihime couldn't help but laugh a little. When she first met the man, she had thought that he'd been joking with all the over-the-top antics, but after a while she realized that was just how he was. She rather quite liked the man after she got past the feeling that he was hiding something and was smarter than he originally appeared. Kisuke gasped suddenly.

"All three! We can do all three and then end the night with some scary stories!" Kisuke exclaimed. Yoruichi resisted the urge to groan as she rubbed her eyes. As much as Kisuke hid his true intentions, she could tell that these were all things he genuinely wanted to do. Jesus, he was such a hassle sometimes.

"That sounds good, though we might want to skip the scary stories for tonight..." Rukia said with a glance to Orihime and Chad. Seeing her concern, Orihime held up a hand and shook her head.

"I'll be fine if we tell some scary stories, so unless Chad has any objections I think we should go ahead with that plan." Orihime said. Chad gave a thumbs up and Kisuke's grin grew even wider.

"Then that settles it. Tessai, could you go get the snacks I prepared? Did any of you bring something to do the braiding with?" Kisuke asked. Rukia looked thoughtful and Orihime scratched her head.

"Well, I brought a brush and some hair ties, but I left all my accessories at home." Orihime said. Rukia coughed awkwardly and rubbed her arm. She really wasn't planning on sharing this, but...

"I didn't know what I should pack, so I brought most of the stuff my friends at the academy picked out..." Rukia said. Orihime cocked her head to the side. "It's not like I even got the chance to see all of them, so I don't really know just what kind of stuff is in there." Rukia quickly stuttered.

"I'm sure it's all good stuff, why don't we go get everything? We can change into our pajamas as well." Orihime said as she took Rukia's arm and led her out of the room. Rukia continued to spout excuses as she was dragged along by Orihime. When they returned Orihime was wearing a set of matching pajamas with cartoon shrimp (?) covering them. Rukia herself was wearing pastel pink jammies covered in rabbits to match the slippers on her feet. Once inside they found the table covered in food and drinks. Mouth watering, Orihime quickly sat down her stuff and looked at the spread. Tea, juice, and water were set out alongside various snacks and pastries, some of them ordinary and some of them strange things Orihime had never seen before.

"Wow! Where did you get all this stuff from?" Orihime asked. Chad and Rukia were also enthralled with the display. Kisuke smiled.

"Well, I do run a convenience store, so some of these are products that customers don't buy a lot of or were in storage. The rest are just some things I went out and bought." Kisuke said. Pointing to one, Orihime asked what it was.

"It looks spicy, what flavor is it?" Orihime asked.

"I'm not sure you would like that one Orihime, it's really spicy. Not to mention none of my customers really liked it, said that the combination of wasabi, peanuts, and rice krispy tasted weird." Kisuke said with a sniff. None of them appreciated his merchandise.

"Really? But that sounds amazing!" Orihime exclaimed as she reached forward to take the snack. Rukia gagged and Chad turned a little green when Orihime bit into the green, brown and white krispy mess. Munching thoughtfully, Orihime's eyes lit up and she took another bite.

"Mmmmf, this is really good!" Orihime said around her mouthful of treat. Kisuke looked like he was going to cry.

"Ugh, maybe we should wait to eat until we start the braiding..." Yoruichi said, slightly sick. Orihime shrugged and continued to eat.

Once everything was out and Orihime had finally stopped eating the abomination, everyone began picking partners. Yoruichi wisely chose to forfeit that particular activity as Orihime chose Kisuke (who gladly accepted after deciding she was truly the only one deserving of his merchandise and time) and Rukia chose Chad.

"Are these yours, Rukia?" Chad asked picking up some sparkly hairclips. They were covered in chibi bunnies, cats, and birds. Rukia turned bright red and chad suddenly realized why Rukia had been acting so weird earlier.

"I didn't even know those were in there - guess one of my friends slipped it into my bag!" Rukia quickly said with a slightly more emphatic shrug than was necessary.

"...I see." Chad said. As Orihime began brushing Kisuke's hair, Kisuke casually started up a conversation.

"So, how have things been going as local shinigami?" Kisuke asked. Rukia paused from pulling Chad's hair away from his eyes (which she realized she'd never actually seen before).

"Fairly well, though I didn't expect things to get so eventful so fast..." Rukia said. Kisuke nodded.

"I suppose it was pretty unexpected to go from those first few days of peace to fighting a hollow with humans developing powers." Kisuke said. Rukia frowned.

"I would be fine it it was just that, but my first few days weren't all that peaceful." Rukia said. Orihime looked at her.

"What do you mean? Don't they start off new shinigami slow?" Orihime asked. Rukia shook her head.

"Normally yes, but I was already in the World of the Living on a special mission when the then local shinigami was relieved of his position. About a day after that, my mission ended but we were getting reports of hollows going missing. Since Karakura was without a shinigami to officially investigate, I volunteered. It turns out I fit the profile for local shinigami and they decided I would be of greater help here than in the Soul Society." Rukia said. Kisuke looked at her curiously.

"You were the one investigating the disappearing hollows? I'd heard about that happening, but I thought it had stopped." Kisuke said.

"No, unfortunately hollows are still disappearing. All signs point to another hollow feeding on the hollows of this area, but we haven't been able to pick up a signature or hit on the hollow." Rukia said. Kisuke frowned.

"You don't think this hollow had anything to do with the Academy incident, do you? I heard that no one saw what really happened." Kisuke said. Orihime and Chad looked at each other.

"But we were at the academy, and there wasn't any creature there. There had been a break in and one of the teachers had been killed." Orihime said. Rukia froze.

"What? You were there? But we have no record of any witnesses!" Rukia exclaimed. Orihime and Chad both looked extremely confused, so Yoruichi took it as time to reveal her part.

"They were there. I'm sorry that I didn't get a chance to tell you this earlier, but what you remember from your time at the academy is false. When the two of you were found with your friends, you were all severely injured and had been attacked. Officials made a mistake and wiped your memories of the incident before you could be questioned." Yoruichi said. The last part was a lie of course, Yoruichi had purposely wiped their memories before they could be questioned with one of Kisuke's devices so they could restore their memories later and question them for themselves.

"What? You did that to us?" Orihime squeaked. They could just take her memories away any time they wanted?!

"Now hold on Orihime, if it really was a mix up, then it wasn't Yoruichi-san's fault. It was pretty gruesome at the academy, so maybe it was best you did forget..." Rukia said. Orihime looked at Yoruichi in distress.

"If what we remember isn't real, then what happened?" Orihime asked. Yoruichi held up her hands.

"I'm sorry Orihime, but we don't really know. No one ever found who or what had attacked you, but we did find the teacher's corpse. We kept an eye on you because whatever had happened there had boosted your spiritual awareness. You had greater reiatsu than before you entered the academy. That's probably why you unlocked your powers when you fought Sora, because you had already gained a link to your powers thanks to whatever had been in the academy. The only way we would know is if we were to somehow restore your memory." Yoruichi said with a sigh. She felt a little bad manipulating them like this, but she had done far worse in the name of a good cause. Kisuke put a finger to his chin and gave the four of them a thoughtful look.

"If you really wanted, I might actually be able to do just that..." Kisuke said.

"How?" Rukia asked.

"Well, on ordinary humans, such a thing would never be possible, but both Orihime and Chad are no longer ordinary humans. If you haven't noticed already, this shop is more than just an ordinary convenience store. I have very special goods here that assist in the function of reaping, and after so many years of dealing with these products, I have a certain expertise. I've always dabbled in inventing and most things soul-related, so I guess you could call me a scientist. I have something that might be able to bring back those memories that were erased. I'll only do it if Orihime and Chad agree to it." Kisuke said.

He wasn't ready quite yet to tell them just how much of a scientist he really was, so he settled with the semi-humble shop keeper image he had been portraying for years. Chad and Orihime looked at each other. Did they really want to remember the events of that night? Orihime opened her mouth and was about to answer when a cheery ringing started coming from Kisuke. Patting around his robes, Kisuke pulled out a phone and flipped it open.

"Hello?" He asked in a falsely cheery voice. He didn't appreciate being interrupted like that, especially when he was so close to gaining the information he was looking for.

"Ah! Isshin, how are you? How are young Yuzu and Karin -" Kisuke abruptly stopped as he listened to the voice on the other end. Listening, his face suddenly went from cheery to confused, to dark.

"I see. I'm on my way." Kisuke said, all traces of jovial attitude gone. Yoruichi tensed. Something must have happened.

"Are the Kurosaki's alright?" Yoruichi asked. Kisuke's three guests looked at him as Kisuke grabbed his hat and got up.

"Yuzu was just attacked in the woods on her way home. She's wounded but fine for the most part, so Isshin's going to get Karin while Masaki stays with Yuzu. I need you to come with me while Tessai watches over our guests." Kisuke said. Rukia stood up.

"I'm coming with you - as local shinigami, this is my town and my job to investigate." Rukia said. Kisuke clenched his jaw. He really didn't want her coming with him, he planned on investigating this alone.

"I think it's best if you stay here, Orihime and Chad need to be looked after." Kisuke said. Orihime looked between Rukia and Kisuke.

"Then why don't we just come with? Then Rukia could still do her duty while Chad and I stay safe with you at the Kurosaki's - besides, I can use my powers to heal this Yuzu." Orihime said. Chad nodded in agreement. Kisuke sighed. She unfortunately brought up a valid point, and he did want to see these perplexing powers of hers at work.

"Alright, but you need to do what Yoruichi-san and I say. No running off, no matter what." Kisuke said firmly. All three nodded and they set off.

-x-

Ichigo .?.?.?

Ichigo huffed as he lit atop a street light. He had absolutely no idea where he was going, but he knew that he just needed to keep moving. He was still scared and shaken from the random memory that had slipped into his mind, and now he felt that something was going on. Sniffing anxiously around, Ichigo tensely shifted on his perch. He could sense a strong group of souls heading in the direction of Yuzu's house, and he wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. For Yuzu, he didn't feel that it was necessarily a bad thing since the souls felt friendly, but for Ichigo it was. Sensing the strength they carried, Ichigo bristled and began breathing heavier. He didn't want those souls anywhere, he just wanted to be left alone. He still bore scratches from his fight with the dark creature that had attacked Yuzu, and he was so tired. He just wanted somewhere to hide.

Feeling his skin crawl, Ichigo jumped off the street lamp in the opposite direction of the group of souls. Soaring over streets and buildings, Ichigo's mind sparked in recognition as he saw a bridge in the distance. He still remembered following the river that bridge went over to this town, so he decided to check it out. Coming closer, a chill ran down Ichigo's spine. Why was that?

Slowing down to a walk, Ichigo stopped crawling and stood up on two legs. There was something about this place...

A flicker of movement up ahead caught Ichigo's attention and he scurried to the side to hide behind a tree. There was a group of men walking near the bridge, over by a concrete bridge marker. Looking at one of the men, Ichigo turned his head. He was a skinny, balding thug wearing purple jumpsuit surrounded by equally thuggish looking men following him.

Post-liposuction telletubby looking for the rest of his hair.

Ichigo blinked. What was that? He knew that those words had just come from him, but he didn't understand what they meant. Human speech tickled at the part of him that was locked away, but that didn't mean he understood. Sensing that these men weren't strong enough to see him, Ichigo slowly crept out from his hiding spot. Watching them leave, Ichigo began walking to the bridge. He didn't realize that he was holding his breath until he was actually on the bridge looking out at the river. Releasing a heavy breath, Ichigo watched the lazy water flowing beneath him. A feeling he couldn't place was welling up inside him.

Stepping closer to the edge, Ichigo sucked in a breath. He remembered crawling out of that river, and he remembered struggling in it...

Ichigo's legs moved of their own accord and suddenly he was across the safety railing. Water down his mouth, up his nose, choking strangling drowning him...

Ichigo's chest was heaving as he looked at the river. The current was so strong and dark, he couldn't fight it. He was so cold and scared, everything had just hurt so bad...

Slowly holding his arms out, Ichigo raised them from his sides, wind whipping his long hair about. As the sun slowly began to sink down in the sky, Ichigo's shoulders began to violently shake. Letting out a strangled sob, Ichigo dropped his arms down and sank to his knees. Crying out, Ichigo covered his head with his hands as he bent over. The terrible feeling he'd had at the park was back, but so much stronger. Now he knew that he was getting worse, but he didn't know what to do about it as memories threatened to spill over.

Wailing, Ichigo stumbled to his feet and threw himself back over the safety railing onto the bridge. He had to get out of here before this continued. Breaking into a pel-mel run, Ichigo fled from the bridge as fast as his four limbs could carry him. Terrified sobs escaped him as he ran, desperately searching for somewhere to hide. He needed somewhere to get away, somewhere memories wouldn't follow him. But unfortunately places like that didn't exist for Ichigo. All he had was what felt familiar, even if it was still a place of fear he would go to it to hide.

Skidding with a screech to avoid a car, Ichigo left the road hardly aware of where he was going. He didn't know it, but he was taking the same route he took to school every morning. Flying past houses slowly degrading in quality the further he went, Ichigo found himself in a rather shady neighborhood. Ichigo panted as he whipped his head around trying to find a place to hide. He froze when he smelled the faint odor of smoke wafting from the buildings. Slowly turning in a circle, Ichigo followed the scent that called to him the most.

Smoky apartments...

The sound of a car starting up behind Ichigo spooked him and he bolted for the run down apartments. He slipped through the propped open front door and shot up the rickety stairs until he found the right hallway, nearly ramming into the wall as he sharply turned. His claws scrabbled slightly on the ratty old carpet as he ran down the hallway to the very end. Police tape covered the entrance to his apartment, but it had already been broken no doubt by the other residents looting his home.

Pushing his way through, Ichigo nearly ran into the kitchen table. Pain lanced through his head and suddenly he was coloring a picture on the floor.

He was drawing such a pretty picture for his mommy and he wanted to show her, but she was drinking her grown-up water again at the table, so he stayed quiet. It was hard for him to draw steady when he flinched every time his mommy stirred, but that was okay. Maybe his mommy would like this picture, the one where the angels weren't dying, they were fighting for the black eye monster. He did like these angels better than the last ones he'd drawn because they didn't have any blood on them and they weren't losing. Maybe that's why his mommy always ripped up his pictures. She said he was a terrible drawer and he supposed she must be right, but maybe she would like this one better. Maybe if she liked them enough she would buy him real crayons instead of the ones he found left behind at recess.

A bottle crashed and Ichigo flinched, the sound in his memory mimicking the one in real life ending his revery. Ichigo had fallen gasping to the floor and had taken a bottle with him. Cradling his head, Ichigo crawled away from the kitchen to escape the memories there. His head hurt so bad and he couldn't think straight, terrible screaming rivaling the high pitched ringing in his ears. Claws scraped against his mask as more and more memories escaped the little box someone had tried so hard to stuff them in. Struggling to stand, Ichigo wobbled into the living room.

The living room... his bedroom.

"Stop it! Why are you crying?!" Lena screeched as Ichigo keened in the corner. He desperately tried to hide himself in the dirty old sleeping bag and blankets that made up his bed, but Lena ripped them from him.

"How the fuck do you expect me to sleep when you're out here screaming and muttering you goddamn PYSCHO?! Do you want that alte frau next door ratting on us again?!" Lena bellowed as she dragged Ichigo kicking and screaming out of bed.

"Don't, DOn't ToucH me! Won't*hic* stop, STOP! They're gonna take me away agai- *hic* -n, please they won't stop STOP IT! GET AWA -" Ichigo's frantic screaming and struggling was cut off by Lena throwing him to the ground and knocking the wind out of him with a swift kick to the stomach.

"SHUT UP!" Lena screamed. Loud knocking on the wall was heard and Lena whirled around.

"YOU SHUT UP TOO SCHMUTZIGE ALTE HEXE! Ich sollte dorthin gehen jetzt sofort..." Lena muttered the last part. Turning her bloodshot eyes back to Ichigo gasping on the floor, Lena grabbed his arm and pulled him in close enough to smell her rancid breath.

"Sei still, kleiner Bengel..." Lena whispered into Ichigo's ear. Finally sucking in a breath, Ichigo squirmed and tried to pull away from her touch, oh how he hated to be touched. They were all touching him, they were all hurting him and they wouldn't stop...

Ichigo's claws were digging into his scalp hard enough to draw blood now. The screaming in his head had gotten louder now, memories crashing into him faster than he could pull them back.

Stop stop stop stop stopstopstop stopstopstop stopstop

Gripping his mask, Ichigo let out a strangled sob as the memories continued to slip out. He hated them, and he wanted this to stop but he didn't want to shove it down either because that hurt more in a different way. He saw such strange things, but none of them were sticking, just the feelings they brought and he hated it. He hated this so bad, he hated this hated this hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate

Ichigo barely noticed that he was now gripping his mask so hard that it was starting to creak under the pressure. A cracking sound finally drew his attention as he felt the mask painfully shift. For a moment it felt better as silence once again muted his mind, but then everything exploded in searing pain. Ichigo screamed as he felt something deep inside him twist, black blood oozing out of the crack he had made in his mask to dribble down his face and stain the ground. Curling up, Ichigo slammed his head to the ground to try and relieve his pain, but it only served to further throw himself into a frenzy. It hurt so bad and he didn't understand why, everything felt so wrong and jagged.

Now Ichigo couldn't distinguish the screaming in his head from his own. Clutching his head in agony, Ichigo proceeded to scream and slam his head to the floor. More and more cracks were forming in his mask, but he didn't notice. He was simply in too much pain. Ichigo could feel himself slipping further and further into darkness but had no way of propelling himself away from it. Minutes multiplied and turned into hours as Ichigo struggled, but eventually the darkness won out.

Everything faded as Ichigo fell...

.

.

.

D

o

w

n

x

Silence in the darkness. Then cold rain and howling wind.

Ichigo's eyes shot open and he gasped before coughing. Dragging himself onto his knees, Ichigo hung his head and panted. Holding up a shaking hand, Ichigo looked at it. He could have sworn he'd had claws before, and white skin. Now the only strange thing about him was the soaked black robes he was wearing.

His shihakusho.

Jumping to his feet, Ichigo looked around with wide eyes. He knew this place, knew it like the back of his hand. As usual, he stood on the side of a skyscraper defying gravity as he stared out through the pouring rain to the darkened skies. Thunder and lightning continuously rolled through his world rivaling the constant howling wind and scraping of metal as skyscrapers crumbled and crashed against each other in a constant state of decay. Most of his skyscrapers had been drowned in the torrent of inky black water churning not far below him.

Feeling the fragile glass of the skyscraper beneath him cracking, Ichigo jumped as far up the skyscraper as he could, panic welling up inside him.

No no no no no no no no, no. This wasn't real, Lena had said this wasn't real. I know this isn't real, I know it.

Ichigo's breath was coming in short gasps as wind whipped his hair wildly around his face.

"Ichigo! Why are you doing this? Do you want them to drag you back to that place?!" Came familiar screeching from behind Ichigo.


Alte frau - old crone

Schmutzige alte hexe - dirty old witch

Ich sollte dorthin gehen jetzt sofort - I ought to go over there right now

Sei still, kleiner Bengel - be quiet now, little brat


National Alliance on Mental Health

- 1-800-950-6264
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- 1-800-826-3632
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- 1-877-SAMHSA-7
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line
- Text "Start" 741-741
S.A.F.E. Alternatives
- 1-800-DONTCUT
The Trevor Project
- 1-866-488-7386 (24/7)
- Text "Trevor" 1-202-304-1200 (F 4pm - 8pm EST)
Disaster Distress Helpline
- 1-800-985-5990
- Text "TalkWithUs" 66746
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- 1-877-739-3895
RAINN- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
- 1-800-656-4673
National Sexual Assault Hotline
- 1-800-656-4673
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- 303-839-1852
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- 1-800-799-SAFE
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- 1-800-537-2238
USA National Child Abuse Hotline
- 1-800-422-4453 (24/7)
National Safe Place
- Text SAFE and your current location to the number 69866 (24/7)


 

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner Speech/Thoughts

Shiro (Zangetsu)

Old Man/Ossan (Zangetsu)

Chapter 6: Truth Be Told...

-x-

Ichigo Godebert

"Ichigo! Why are you doing this? Do you want them to drag you back to that place?!" Came familiar screeching from behind Ichigo. Whipping around, Ichigo came face to face with his bleached double, normal manic smile twisted in rage. Stumbling back in shock, Ichigo began to stutter.

"N-no! No no no no no, you're not real!" Ichigo cried. Growling, Shiro shot forward and grabbed Ichigo by his shiakusho.

"The fuck's wrong with you? Ya didn't decide to shove down all your normal memories too, huh?!" Shiro bellowed into Ichigo's face. Ichigo didn't bother to break Shiro's hold on him and started frantically tugging at his hair, eyes squeezed shut.

"It's just another dream! Wake up, wake up wake up wake up WAKE UP!" Ichigo screamed. Shiro stopped his frantic chanting by violently shaking him.

"Stop it! What's wrong with you?! This isn't some stupid dream!" Shiro yelled inches from Ichigo's face. Ichigo's eyes finally flew open and he shoved Shiro off him, panting.

"Of course it is! How could any of this be real?! YOUR'E not real, your just apart of some fever dream my fucked up head made! I spent years thinking my nightmares were real, that MONSTERS had dragged me away to this nightmare land, convinced that it was all real! I WAS FUCKING CRAZY! I'M STILL INSANE!" Ichigo screeched at the top of his lungs, eyes wild as he violently jabbed at his head to make a point. For a moment, Shiro just stared at Ichigo.

"Oh my god, you really think everything that happened was fake?!" Shiro said, a combination of shocked and enraged. Ichigo let out a short bark of laughter and ran his hands over his face, leaning back so far he looked like he was going to fall.

"How could I think it was real? I tried to tell everyone, but they knew I was batshit crazy! You told me that you'd always be with me, you'd be waiting to fight me again if I ever grew weak on you, you'd train me to make your power mine, but you wanna know what happened when I woke up every morning? YOU WEREN'T THERE! OSSAN WASN'T THERE! MY POWERS WEREN'T THERE!" Ichigo screamed, stomping on the glass as he bent back over again. Unfortunately the force of his foot bearing down on the glass was too much for the fragile material to handle, and it promptly shattered. Jumping back into safety with a flash, Ichigo watched wide eyed as black ooze bubbled up from the building to creep towards him.

"Don't let it touch you!" Shiro screeched as he shoved Ichigo out of the way.

"Whatever the hell's going on, you need to let me take over!" Shiro exclaimed.

"What?! No, you need to let me leave! This isn't real and I -" Ichigo was interrupted by Shiro aiming a knee for his stomach. Ichigo's reflexes proved too fast and he quickly dodged the attack.

"What the hell?!" Ichigo exclaimed. Shiro's large khyber blade was pulled out now as he advanced. Ichigo looked for his own dual blades only to realize they weren't on him. Snapping his eyes back to Shiro, Ichigo realized his spirit wasn't wielding his usual inverse Zangetsu. That was his blade.

"I told you what would happen if you were too weak to fight, whether it's against me or for yourself. We don't have time to sort out what's going on with you, but you're obviously too screwed up right now to take care of the issue, so I'm going to do it for you." Shiro growled. The two squared off against each other, but Ichigo was at a clear disadvantage not having his blades. How the hell did Shiro manage to take his sword?

"Whatever happened to me earning the right to be King?!" Ichigo exclaimed. He was stalling, and the other knew it.

"Let's just say that ended when you chose to hide so much of yourself from us. If you had really accepted us, you would have let us see what was hiding in those walls you put up. Even when your soul is tearing itself up from the inside, you refuse to let us see your memories! We didn't even know you had a human body, so when you went and somehow got yourself killed your soul went into overdrive. The damage, pain, and trauma you've been hiding over the years finally got out and now it's threatening to drown you!" Shiro called out over the raging storm. Ichigo stayed silent, confused. As far as he knew, this was just how things were in his inner world. There was always water covering his buildings, was the higher water level really that bad? Sure, the black ooze was new...

"I tried to take over and put everything back in their boxes so we could sort this thing out and heal you, but you kept refusing me. You kept fighting for control, for yourself. You and your memories are the same, you can't be Ichigo and still shove down all that shit! We've known for years that your inner world was on the edge, but we didn't think the chaos would end up this toxic! Whatever being in that hell hole did to you is eating at your soul. If just being there was bad enough to make you this sick, then do you have any idea what would happen if you went back there now?! The closer you get to being Ichigo, the closer they are to bringing you back, SO LET ME TAKE OVER!" Shiro screamed as he launched himself at Ichigo. Scrambling to get out of the way, Ichigo desperately tried to play along with this figment of his imagination.

"What about the Old Man?! What does he have to say about all this?!" Ichigo cried as he dodged a swing to the head only to nearly get kicked in the head.

"Thought you already knew that since you were the one who put him to sleep! Apparently he's the one those bastards are using to get to you - so I let you put him under! Since he's the connection, I ain't waking him up to deal with your shit!" Shiro yelled as he nearly skewered Ichigo.

The next blow was faster than Ichio could block without his swords, and he barely had any time to cry out when Shiro knocked him over the head. Stunned, Ichio couldn't stop Shiro from grabbing him and shunpoing leagues across his inner world. He himself had never even seen this part before, but now he knew what Shiro had meant by him hiding things in walls. Massive walls of ice rose up from the dark sea to section off miles of his world. What had once been sturdy was now cracked and chipped everywhere as the pelting rain beat down on it like a hammer. Two massive crevices stood out from the eroding walls as howling wind gushed from them. If Ichigo squinted, he thought he could actually see shadows escaping, but he didn't have time to contemplate this as Shiro dragged him kicking and screaming to the cracks.

"Stop! What are you doing?! STOP!" Ichigo screamed, but his efforts were futile.

"If you won't let me help you, then you're just going to have to stay out of my way until you're healed!" Shiro yelled before throwing Ichigo head first into the void beyond the ice. Ichigo tried to scream, but no sound reached his ears. Instead he fell into darkness, the world fading from him...

-x-

Kurosaki Clinic

Despite not feeling the best, Yuzu couldn't help but giggle a little at their new guests. Apparently when her father had called Kisuke to come over and help him, the man was in the middle of hosting a sleepover for a couple of students that had just joined his club. Indeed, the two girls were wearing pajamas while the rather tall boy was sporting half braided hair covered in sparkly animal clips and bows. Kisuke himself had a few stray bows and clips in his hair from their unfinished activity. Karin however, found none of it funny as she rushed to her sister. She'd just heard from her father about what had happened, and now she was seeing it for herself.

"Yuzu! I'm so sorry, I never should have left you alone in the park I should have just walked home with you!" Karin burst out when she saw the blood on Yuzu's clothes and her bruised ankle. Yuzu pulled her distraught sister in for a hug.

"I'm fine, really! Besides, Kisuke says that one of the friends he brought over will be able to fix me up real soon." Yuzu said. Karin held onto her nonetheless until Masaki put a hand on her daughter's shoulder.

"It's okay Karin, but we need to talk to you two for a minute." Masaki said as she pulled Karin onto the couch next to her. Isshin looked to Kisuke.

"Should you explain, or us?" He asked. Kisuke put a hand up.

"These are your children, you decide. I'm perfectly happy to wait while Yoruichi investigates the woods." Kisuke said. Satisfied, Isshin turned to Masaki and nodded.

"Alright, then let's all sit down." Masaki said. Once everyone was seated, she took a deep breathe and began.

"As the two of you know, when your father and I first met, we weren't exactly meant to be friends. He came from a family of people belonging to a life that generally opposed mine. My family didn't like his and those that shared the same life as him. They wanted me to marry my cousin in order to preserve our family name, but I met your father. Something about him drew me to him, and something about me drew him to me. We ended up meeting more and more until one day, we both found ourselves chasing down the same assignment. Things went wrong quickly and I ended up saving your father's life. Shortly after, I got very sick and fell into a coma." Masaki said with a far off look. Yuzu interrupted.

"And then dad saved you with his medical skills. After that you fell in love... But what does this have to do with what happened to me?" Yuzu asked. Masaki and Isshin both looked at each other before smiling at Yuzu.

"Because we only told you part of the story. You see, your mother and I aren't ordinary humans. If we were to tell you about everything that had happened, we would have had to tell you about the afterlife and what we are." Isshin said. Karin's eyes widened.

"Wait, are you telling us you knew about ghosts and stuff before I told you they were there?" Karin asked. Masaki couldn't help but chuckle.

"Oh honey, we're able to see spirits as well as anyone. We just couldn't tell you that until you were ready for the whole talk. It wasn't all that surprising when you started being able to see spirits, but now that Yuzu has accidentally gained that same ability, we need to talk. Both of you will likely become completely spiritually aware before you die." Masaki said.

"You see, your father and I contain abnormally high amounts of Reiryoku, or spirit energy. Reiryoku manifests itself into Reiatsu, a physical form of our reiryoku that can bee seen and used in various ways. We are part of a group of beings that can use these abilities to perform different duties necessary to the cycle of life and death." Masaki said. Yuzu and Karin were both hooked now.

"You see, when a person dies, their soul leaves their body and either stays here with us in the World of the Living, or goes to a place called the Soul Society. The Soul Society is basically the afterlife where souls go to live out the rest of their life. When they die there, they are reborn into the World of the Living in a different body as a different person. But sometimes souls get stuck in the World of the Living and can't move on. These souls can become corrupt and turn into creatures called Hollows. Some are innocent souls who were in so much pain that they transformed while others are evil souls that enjoy the torment of others. Either way, they all grow an enormous hunger for souls and begin eating souls. Hollows live in another world called Hueco Mundo, but they come here to hunt. This along with natural birth and death creates a very delicate balance that must be kept. Your father and I are both beings with the ability to do so." Masaki said. Yuzu's jaw dropped and Karin was trying her best to look skeptical.

"What are you? You're not ghosts... are you?" Yuzu asked. Isshin and Masaki both laughed.

"Oh no, but I would sort of be considered one if it wasn't for what happened between your mother and I. You see, I am a Shinigami, a master of death!" Isshin cried as he struck what he thought was a mighty pose. Masaki snorted and shook her head.

"Your father does not kill anyone, just to be clear. Shinigami are humans who have died and trained to gain special abilities in the afterlife. They assist souls in their journey to the afterlife as well as killing hollows. Shinigami use special weapons called Zanpakuto to purify hollows' souls, allowing them to rejoin the cycle of rebirth. I can also kill hollows, but when I do, their soul is destroyed and cannot be reborn. This is because I am what's called a Quincy, a living or passed human capable of gaining very special abilities." Masaki said. Karin looked between the two.

"Then how in the world did you two get together? Isn't dad technically dead?" Karin asked. Isshin huffed in offense at his daughter's comment.

"Just because I'm mostly semi-alive-ish doesn't make me any less good for your mother!" Isshin pouted. Masaki giggled and put a hand on her husband's shoulder.

"We already told you half of what happened. Shinigami and Quincy don't really get along, but I kept seeing your father going on missions in the World of the Living. The 'assignment' we were chasing down was actually a mission to hunt down a rogue hollow that had attacked and wounded a quincy in the Soul Society. When I caught up to your father, he was badly wounded and was in serious trouble. I let the hollow bite me in order to get close enough to kill it. Unfortunately, it infected me and I became very sick. When I tried to reach out for help, I was attacked by a strange group of people. Apparently that hollow was supposed to be a secret and led to your father and I violating a sacred rule of both the Shinigami and Quincy; never attempt to fuse souls, hybrid or artificial. Even though it wasn't my fault that the infection was hollowfying me, I was still wanted. I had no idea what to do until I was approached by another exile, a strange yet humble shopkeeper..." Masaki said. Yuzu and karin both looked at Masaki before turning to Kisuke in shock.

"Kisuke?!" They both exclaimed. Isshin laughed and threw an arm around Kisuke who smiled behind his fan.

"Yup! Kisuke got the boot too because of some weird rule. He knew that Masaki was innocent and was being blamed to cover up something, so he took her in and offered to hide her. We never did find out who or why someone was pulling strings up in the Soul Society, but it didn't really matter anymore. Masaki became gravely ill and fell into a coma. I found out when i came back to the World of the Living to check up on her. I also found out that I was probably in danger too, but I refused to leave Masaki, however dangerous it was staying with her. She had saved me, and I owed her the same." Isshin said with a solemn nod. Now Kisuke decided to interject.

"By all rights Masaki should not have been able to escape the implications of hollowification, but something happened before the hollow could completely change her. The original plan was to create a fake human body, a gigai, for Isshin and tie it to Masaki's soul. Shinigami are the opposite of Quincy, and Humans the opposite of Hollows, so by placing Isshin in such a body, he would be able to block Masaki's hollowification. We did this and it worked, but not long after the hollow in Masaki began receding. For some reason, something in her very being was repelling it from her soul. This was completely impossible and is one of the few mysteries in this world that still stumps me..." Kisuke said the last part with an unreadable expression. Shaking his head, he continued.

"It took two years for the hollow to completely disappear, but by that time Isshin and Masaki had already fallen in love. Even though the charges had dropped due to Soul Society finally being able to reject such an outrageous ruling and Masaki was no longer in danger, they had already made a life for themselves. I agreed to continue to hide them so they could carry on with their lives, and the rest is history..." Kisuke finished. Yuzu let out a breath.

"Wow..." Yuzu whispered. Forgetting that they weren't really apart of this, Orihime piped up from where she was sitting with Chad and Rukia with a round of enthusiastic applause. Completely ignoring the fact that she was clapping over serious real life events, Isshin shot up and began bowing like an actor receiving thanks.

"Thank you! Such a dashing and heroic tale, I know! The suspense! The drama! The sorrow!" Isshin cried, fake tears spilling down his face as he got a little caught up in his own passion. Karin shook her head at Orihime.

"Don't encourage him!" Karin said. Orihime stopped clapping and smiled sheepishly.

"Sorry, it was just such a good story! I had no idea two people I've seen around Karakura town for so long had such riveting tales!" Orihime exclaimed. Isshin began bowing and posing again, all while crying fake tears of joy.

"I have been waiting for years to tell this story, and now I even have an audience!" Isshin cried out joyfully. Karin rolled her eyes.

"Okay, cool. But how does this all circle back to Yuzu?" Karin asked. Isshin sobered up a little at the mention of his wounded daughter.

"Ah, that. You see, because you two are the children of spiritually aware beings with considerable power, you're beginning to inherit our power. We predicted Yuzu might never be spiritually aware enough to see spirits, but the creature that attacked her in the woods changed things. It did something to Yuzu to make her more aware of spirits than she had previously been. Yuzu still can't see spirits clear enough to distinguish one from another, but it's enough that she will likely become fully spiritually aware before she dies. I brought Kisuke here to try and figure out just what that creature did to Yuzu and if she's in any danger." Isshin said. Karin hummed thoughtfully and looked at Yuzu in concern.

"You really think something could be wrong?" Karin asked. Yuzu looked mostly fine to her...

"Yuzu would have displayed symptoms of anything bad already if there was anything, but we still need to check. She also came in direct contact with a hollow, the creature that saved her, so we need to figure out how it's reiatsu affected her." Isshin explained. Rukia suddenly seemed a lot more interested and Yuzu sat up.

"Wait, you mean the other creature who fought off that thing in the woods is a hollow? But he wasn't acting like how you said hollows were... He was nice and healed me, and he carried me home!" Yuzu said. Masaki sighed.

"I know honey, but he's still an unknown hollow we've never seen before. I don't know why he helped you like that, but the only hollows who choose saving a soul over eating a soul aren't completely hollows, they're usually part something else." Masaki said.

"Then he's probably that!" Yuzu exclaimed. Kisuke shook his head.

"The Soul Society has records of every hybrid and abnormal soul out there, artificial or born. If he truly was some sort of hybrid, then he would already be accounted for and living somewhere else. I must admit from the way your mother described your story, he did sound quite interesting. Perhaps he's beginning to evolve prematurely into a sentient adjuchas..." Kisuke mused. Rukia looked like she was beginning to connect this hollow to the rogue that was killing and consuming the hollows of Karakura town, but he had made the connection the moment he'd heard Yuzu's story. He also was fairly certain that such a unique hollow could be the hollow Las Noches Imperio put a hit out on, but he wouldn't know for sure until he saw it for himself. If only Yuzu had been aware enough to make out it's features...

"Please try and understand, Yuzu. We don't know what's going on here but we are certain that hollows are dangerous. Whether or not he's dangerous to you is a risk we're not willing to take." Masaki said. Yuzu crossed her arms and fell silent. She could understand her mother, but she still felt that the hollow was friendly.

"I hate to interrupt, but did you notice anything... strange about the hollow you encountered?" Rukia asked, amethyst eyes carefully watching Yuzu. Yes, Kisuke would certainly have to be careful around this one...

"What do you mean?" Yuzu asked. Rukia seemed to debate with herself before pulling out her denreishinki identical to a flip phone (not very modern, but practical).

"This is a device shingami use to track hollows, a denreishinki from the Soul Society." Rukia said. Masaki and Isshin shared a look with each other, but Kisuke subtly put up a hand to signal that she was with him.

"Ah, a shinigami! Don't suppose you could tell a humble former foot soldier how things are in his squad, eh?" Isshin probed with an elbow to the petite girl's ribs. Rukia didn't quite seem how to deal with him.

"Er, I'm sorry but I don't really recognize you from your days as a shinigami... Besides, I haven't been to the Soul Society since I was instated as Karakura's local shinigami." Rukia said awkwardly. She didn't notice it, but Masaki and Isshin immediately relaxed after that. Kisuke had to admit he was a little surprised at the move Isshin just pulled. It was hard to remember sometimes that the man had once been a captain. At least they knew now that Rukia had no idea who Isshin was and now thought he was just a simple foot soldier.

"Don't worry about it." Masaki said with a wink as Isshin pouted. Rukia nodded and continued.

"...Anyways, this denreishinki is programmed to pick up any type of hollow and almost any soul. A couple days ago, hollows started going missing in Karakura town, but my denreishinki wasn't picking up on anything. After a while I managed to come across a fresh hollow corpse and saw that hollows weren't disappearing at all, they were being eaten. Because no hollow was showing up, the Soul Society requested that someone take on the duty of becoming the new local shinigami so they could begin investigating as soon as possible. I volunteered after my Nii-sam- er - a captain recommended the position to me." Rukia said.

"The hollow you described seemed fairly abnormal, so I was wondering if it was the same hollow I've been hunting." Rukia explained.

"Oh, well I didn't exactly see anything..." Yuzu said. Rukia hummed thoughtfully.

"But it picked you up, didn't it? What did it feel like? Do you think you could maybe guess how tall it is?" Rukia asked. Yuzu scrunched her eyebrows in thought.

"Well, I guess if I really try to remember, he might have been as tall as Dad - no - shorter. I could sort of make out his shape when he moved, so I know he looked mostly like a person, besides the claws and weird legs." Yuzu said.

"A person? Did he show any signs of human level intelligence - did he try to talk to you?" Rukia asked. Yuzu shook her head.

"No he never talked to me, but he did sound a lot like an animal. He growled and screamed when he was fighting the creature that attacked me and he started purring when he healed me. Oh! That's the other thing, he licked me to heal me, and I know his tongue didn't feel human." Yuzu said. Isshin gagged and Karin rolled her eyes.

"It licked you?!" Isshin exclaimed. Yuzu sighed.

"Dad, he was healing me. I think he was also trying to make me feel better because when he first tried to get close to me I started crying. After that he crouched and let me feel his hands - that was when he started purring at me. I do remember that his skin felt kinda weird, kinda like he had lines in his skin or something - scars. But he was really nice to me and made sure I wasn't scared. He picked me up and hugged me and went everywhere I told him to even though he didn't really understand the things I told him." Yuzu said in a slightly pleading tone. Rukia appeared thoughtful as Kisuke thought she rightfully should be. It indeed sounded like the hollow had been friendly and -dare he say- kind to Yuzu, making itself less threatening to her by crouching, letting her feel it first, and purring to her.

"He does sound different, honey, but I still want you to be careful. We've already talked about this." Masaki said. Yuzu sighed.

"I know..." Yuzu said. Kisuke cleared his throat.

"Well, if we're quite done giving these girls 'the talk,' then I should be getting on with testing Yuzu." Kisuke said.

"Ah, right." Isshin said as he moved over for Kisuke to kneel in front of Yuzu. Taking out a couple of instruments, Kisuke began gently checking Yuzu over. He took several samples and swabs before standing up again. Masaki and Isshin both scooted in closer to hear the diagnosis.

"Well, that should be more than enough information. I can say now that the creature caused Yuzu no more harm than the physical wounds. It seems that when it dug it's claws into Yuzu's forehead, it made a connection to her soul using a band of reishi. Through this connection it implanted some of it's own reiatsu into Yuzu until she had enough amassed reiatsu to be able to see it. Oddly enough the foreign reiatsu does not appear to malignant and has already completely mixed with Yuzu's. This leads me to believe this creature wasn't aiming to infect her, but to grow her spiritual awareness to the point where consuming her would have an effect on the creature. For some reason it seems this creature needs a soul to be above a certain level of reiatsu to harvest it properly. I must say Yuzu is incredibly lucky that that hollow intervened..." Kisuke said.

He neglected from telling Isshin and Masaki that bringing a soul to spiritual awareness for better consumption was only part of why the reason the creature made her able to see it. It had wanted her to see it, to know that it had been hunting her and was going to eat her alive. The way Yuzu had described it chasing her and somehow calling out with her own voice made Kisuke realize that this creature wasn't just hunting to eat, it was hunting for fun. All signs pointed to it waiting for Yuzu to go into the woods so it could toy with her. It had likely been waiting in the trees watching her ever since Yuzu entered the park...

Masaki and Isshin both let out a sigh of relief that their daughter was fine, but Karin was pale. She hadn't really thought that that creature had intended on eating Yuzu. She thought that Yuzu was just scared and that's why she got the feeling it was going to eat her.

"Now that we know Yuzu has no strange infections or ailments, miss Inoue here can demonstrate her reason for being here." Kisuke said. Orihime stood up and bowed to Yuzu and her parents.

"I'll try my best to heal you, but I'm still a bit new to my powers, so I understand if you choose someone else to heal you." Orihime said. Isshin looked to Kisuke.

"Should we choose someone else...?" Isshin asked. He figured Kisuke would know better if Orihime really wasn't the best choice or was just being modest. Kisuke smiled behind his fan.

"That's up to you, though I will say that Orihime was able to heal her friends from the brink of death faster than any Kido master I've seen..." Kisuke said. As much as he wanted to see her powers at work, he wouldn't put Yuzu in danger. He trusted that Orihime would be able to safely heal her.

Nodding, Masaki held Yuzu's hand as Orihime knelt down to heal her. Closing her eyes, Orihime felt deep within herself to summon Shun Shun Rikka. After several minutes she found them and called out to them. Everyone watched in fascination as Orihime's hair clips began to glow, six tiny figures shooting out from them to hover around Orihime. Yuzu squinted to see them, so Orihime began describing each of them as they introduced themselves. While the introductions were going on, Kisuke's phone began to ring, so he stepped aside to where he could speak and still see Orihime's strange abilities.

"Yes?" Kisuke said.

"I found it Kisuke, and you're not going to believe this." Yoruichi said on the other end.

-x-

Uryu Ishida - Gemishct Quincy Academy

Uryu sighed as he tuned out his father. They had been at the academy for over an hour and still not dropped off the documents Mrs. Daan requested. Uryu had hoped that because of how late it was that there wouldn't be anyone to stop them, but the moment they had entered the school one of his mother's old schoolmates came running up to them. Uryu and his father had been forced to stop and talk as she rattled on and on about how things had been going at the academy and how happy Kanae would have been to see the school thriving like this. Uryu knew that she was saying such things to be polite and sympathetic, but her words only left a bitter taste in his mouth.

This academy was the last pace his mother had been seen alive, and yet when his father had tried to investigate the school, they had been denied by shinigami. Apparently they felt that such an investigation would draw too much attention to the supernatural world as they would have to go through the living to conduct it. What angered Uryu the most however, was what his father had had to say. He had followed their orders without question, hadn't even tried to use his connections with the Escht Quincies. Uryu had been absolutely stunned, but he had yet to learn what kind of man his father really was. No tears had been shed the day his mother's body had been found, no money used for a funeral, no words of grief or anything. Instead he had simply gone on with life, even becoming head doctor. All he had really cared about was his work.

"- Oh you're right, he has grown so much!" The woman said. Realizing she was talking about him, Uryu sighed. Now he actually had to pay attention...

"Yes, Uryu has grown considerably in his academics as well. He may yet prove himself learned enough to become a doctor." Ryuken said. Uryu gripped the paperwork he was holding harder. He would be "learned enough," but not to become a doctor.

"We'll see what I become." Uryu said curtly. Missing the silent animosity between father and son, the woman continued to speak.

"I must say I haven't had the chance to catch up like this in such a long time. What brings you to the Academy?" She asked. Uryu interrupted before his father had a chance to drag this conversation back into small talk.

"We're dropping off some paperwork for Mrs. Daan, but I'm not sure if she's still here..." Uryu said. Ryuken gave him a side-eyed glance. Uryu didn't care if his father thought it was rude to skip out on small talk, but he really wasn't up for another hour of idle pratter.

"Oh! I'm sorry, if I'd have known you were here for her I would have let you go much sooner. Mrs. Daan already left for the day, but I have keys to pretty much all the classes." The chatty woman said. Uryu opened his mouth to thank her, but this time Ryuken was the one to speak first.

"That's very kind of you, but I don't think Uryu needs my help to deliver her paperwork. Uryu, why don't you find Mrs. Daan's classroom while us adults continue catching up." Ryuken said. Uryu growled internally while the woman beamed. Taking the keys from her, Uryu left the two to their useless conversations.

Room 102...

Finally catching the room after several hallways, Uryu looked inside the darkened classroom and saw that Mrs. Daan was indeed no longer there. Unlocking the door, Uryu made his way around the desks to get to the teacher's desk. Plopping down the paperwork, Uryu turned to leave but tripped. Stumbling forward, Uryu caught himself on the desk. What in the world had he tripped on?

Reaching down to feel along the floor, Uryu felt something sharp and metal stuck in the carpet. Fumbling around with it for a few moments, Uryu finally grew tired of having to feel around in the dark and reached up to turn on the desk light. Caught in the carpet was a strange looking Quincy cross made of metal. The five points of the cross each had a small blood red orb embedded in the metal to join the thin metal connecting each one in a circle. Something about this cross seemed familiar to Uryu...

Shaking his head, Uryu untangled up the cross and tried to pull it from the floor only to find that it was attached to a thin rope hanging out of the bottom desk drawer. It must have fallen out when Mrs. Daan was getting something out and didn't notice. When Uryu tried to open the drawer, he found that it was locked. Jiggling it in frustration, Uryu fell back as he accidentally tripped the lock's inside tab with the bit of rope cracking it open. Growling, Uryu picked up the cross again and tried to shove it back into the drawer, but a dark green beanie was tangling the rope and making it impossible to close the drawer. Uryu leaned his head back and sighed exasperatedly. Today just wasn't his day.

Ripping the beanie out, Uryu was fully prepared to shove the infernal thing back into the drawer when something caught his eye. Holding the beanie up to the light, Uryu turned the beanie inside out. Was that... orange hair? Uryu's eyes widened as he saw that it was strands of short orange hair the exact color of Ichigo's. There was no way this wasn't Ichigo's. How in the world had this ended up in Mrs. Daan's desk?

Inspecting the beanie further, Uryu's breath caught when he saw blood splatters. Rotating it, he gasped when when he saw a rather large blood stain covering the inside to bloom on the outside. Quickly looking around, Uryu knelt down to look at the rest of the drawer. Rifling around, he didn't find anything all that strange until he came to a file at the very bottom. It was rather ordinary looking until he opened it up. Inside were pictures of various different people, some he knew as quincies and others he had only heard names of before. Uryu paused when he saw his own picture in the file, reading it to find mostly school records and personal testaments of his private training. At the very bottom it was labeled with an orange "possible" next to a green german symbol that read "neutral." Flipping to the next page, Uryu saw his father. His picture was labeled with an orange "rejected" along with the same "neutral." The next profile made Uryu's breath hitch.

It was his mother, Kanae Katagiri. Hers was a bit larger than his and his father's, but there far more pictures of her. The first page had her normal school teacher picture with the same orange "rejected," but a large red mark caught his eye. Underneath he could just make out a german symbol meaning "active", but it was covered up by the red "EXECUTED."

Executed.

The word rang out in Uryu's head like an alarm, but his mind was working as if underwater. He knew what it meant by executed, but he refused to believe what he was seeing. Quincies were the just ones, quincies were the juries and judges, they looked out for each other, cared for each other, they were the holy soldiers of god. But this was something undeniably disturbing. Looking at the other pages, Uryu's stomach turned when he saw that they were filled with pictures of his mother going about her life he'd never seen before. Kanae shopping, Kanae walking home, Kanae picking something up from the sidewalk. Someone had been watching his mother... Uryu was breathing shallowly as he looked around again and pulled out his phone. Quickly taking pictures of every page in the file from start to finish, Uryu paused when he saw the last ones. It was an extensive profile of Ichigo...

He was labeled both rejected and active, but now he saw a symbol he hadn't seen anywhere in the file before. A black "failed" covered up the side of his profile. Reading through it, Uryu felt more and more ill. It was a detailed account of Ichigo's medical records from the time he was born to last year, bloodwork, height, weight, nutrition levels, growth, dental records, everything. Massive chunks were missing in ages 8 to 11, but the chart picked up again after that. Alongside the usual hospital records and random check ups were personal notes. Reading through them, Uryu was shocked to find that they had actual records and instances of Ichigo being abused. All of it was written in a cold and critical way, only referring to incidents and injuries Ichigo had gained from physical abuse in relation to how it affected something called "Sonnenprinz," the sun prince.

They had known what Ichigo's mother was doing to him all along, but they had done nothing...

Flipping over to the next pages, Uryu saw that they were covered with unintelligible scribbling. He recognized the german and could easily translate it, but it didn't make any more sense like that. He felt like he was reading some sort of code.

Turning to the next, Uryu saw that it was Lena, Ichigo's mother. Hers was labeled both active and "expelled." What shocked Uryu the most was that Lena was a quincy, and an Echt at that. How in the world could Ichigo's mother be an Echt quincy and no one know about it? Uryu had never heard of the Godeberts before.

To his dismay, there were also records of non-quincies, like Masaki Kurosaki and former shinigami. Why were these here?

Having taken picture of the entire file, Ichigo's beanie, and the strange quincy cross, Uryu carefully put everything back exactly as he had seen it. As an afterthought, Uryu left the quincy cross as he had found it, hanging out the drawer and caught in the carpet tangled around the inner lock. That would make it look like whoever opened it next had been the one to break it, not him. Standing up, Uryu checked the rest of the drawers, but it was only the bottom one that had been locked. Making sure everything was in place, Uryu looked to the other file Mrs. Daan now had. He'd never taken the time to figure out what it was that Mrs. Daan had requested, but now he felt that he had no choice but to look through it.

Looking through the papers, Uryu was confused to see that it was an extensive history of the different quincy families. At the very end of the stack was a massive family tree that folded out like a map. Looking through the various families, Uryu recognized his own as well as almost every quincy he had ever met. One name caught his attention however, and that was Kurosaki. He knew the Kurosaki twins, knew their mother but had no idea that they were of quincy lineage... But there was Masaki Kurosaki. The entire Kurosaki line was deceased including for her. Looking at her extended family, Uryu saw that her father's sister had been erased. She had no last name or picture, but it was clear that she had been a Kurosaki. Married to her was a man from a similarily erased and deceased Echt Quincy family, and their child was none other than Lena Godebert...

So that made Lena Masaki's cousin, and Ichigo her nephew (first cousin once removed from a genealogy standpoint, but the common name was still nephew). Looking from Icigo's family across to his own, Uryu also saw that that made Ichigo his cousin as well as Karin and Yuzu. Uryu blinked. He had learned so much more than he had ever expected to at this school, let alone in one day.

Why did Mrs. Daan and the people behind the files want this information? These papers had to be connected to the files considering so many of the people of interest in them were found in the files with equally unique documentation. Uryu was so engrossed in the family tree that he almost didn't hear the classroom door open.

"Found something interesting?" Came a deep feminine voice from behind Uryu. Uryu swallowed and schooled his panicked expression before turning to Mrs. Daan.

"Not particularly, I was just checking to make sure all the documents were here. As meticulous as my father's records are, no quincy family tree is ever truly complete." Uryu said. Mrs. Daan moved closer to Uryu who had to repress the urge to move back.

"Indeed, so many of our ranks have a tendency disappear..." Mrs. Daan said. Uryu tried his best not to stiffen.

"I suppose that would have been the case in older times, but I've rarely heard of quincy disappearing nowadays." Uryu said. Mrs. Daan nodded sagely.

"Yes, it's much harder for a quincy to go missing without a plausible explanation. I suppose it's a good thing us quincies keep such detailed accounts of our members." Mrs. Daan said. Uryu's stomach twisted.

Detailed documents indeed...

Mrs. Daan sighed. "Well, if that's all, then I suppose I should be getting back to work." Mrs. Daan said. Nodding, Uryu took the cue to leave.

"I hope those papers are useful for whatever genealogy project your students are doing." Uryu said as he left. Mrs. Daan smiled secretively to Uryu.

"You have no idea how useful..." She said. Uryu offered a small wave as he exited the classroom.

Oh, but I do now...

-x-

Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez - Hueco Mundo

Grimmjow sighed as he looked out over the city of Las Noches. Over the centuries Las Noches had expanded from the ancient ruins of a long defeated civilization to a thriving city full of arrancar. The trade-off of having so many arrancar under the Las Noches Imperio was that they actually had to develop some sort of civilization. And in any good civilization, the people had to be civilized. They had to follow rules and regulations and all these restrictions Grimmjow found unbelievably boring. Don't get him wrong, the Las Noches Imperio had become a far larger and more powerful empire than the one Barragan had ever made and he never once regretted fighting his way up through the ranks to become one of Reina Harribel's Espada, but he was still far more wild than any of these other weaklings. Arrancar like Nel and Szayel could happily follow the rules and serve their benevolent queen, but Grimmjow itched to fight. He itched to kill.

Here in the civilized parts of Hueco Mundo, that was banned. You could still maim and gruesomely wound fellow arrancars, after all what kind of empire would this be if such violence wasn't present, but you couldn't kill. Artificial arrancar were hard to find, but natural arrancar were even harder to find. If arrancar were left to their own devices in a kill-or-be-killed world, their numbers would constantly suffer and the arrancar of Hueco Mundo would never be able to form any sort of empire or follow their part of the balance.

God, Grimmjow missed the days when the souls of hell actually tried to stage rebellions and would invade the different worlds. Then they would stage all-out glorious wars in a violent land that thrilled his inner savage. Murder and carnage reigned supreme in those times as Harribel led them into battle against the hordes of sinful bastards deemed even worse than them. But after a while, the arrancar had gotten stronger and finally grown in numbers. More and more hollows were unlocking the potential to become arrancar. It was almost pathetic watching the souls of hell try and fight them, they had just become too damn powerful. None of them stood a chance.

Sure, he could always let off steam torturing souls in hell or squashing rebellions like he was supposed to, but that wasn't any fun. He missed the thrill of battle, the feeling of fighting for your life while you tried to end your opponent's. He had tried many times to get Harribel to spar with him, but she only sparred with her resureccion, and he refused to join them. He wouldn't give up being an Espada for anything, he had earned this rank fair and square.

Grimmjow's communication device flared up, interrupting his thoughts.

"Please tell me you have something you need me to go kill or fight!" Grimmjow exclaimed before the other could speak.

"No, but there is something I'd like for you to check up on..." Szayel said.

Grimmjow growled. Of course it was pinkie. Ever since he had found that hollow that had disappeared on him, Szayel wouldn't leave him alone about it. Apparently it wasn't one of his experiments, but he had wanted it to be so he put a hit out on it anyways. It didn't really matter to Grimmjow whether or not the thing was his, he just wanted a chance to fight it again. The most he had expected out of it was a quick but interesting fight before he killed it, but it had surprised him. Not only had it proved to be holding back a considerable amount, but it managed to escape from him with a technique he had never seen before. And Grimmjow never let his prey escape, ever.

"What the hell is it now? I thought executing those weaklings for the menos crime would have stopped anybody from misbehaving." Grimmjow said. the execution hadn't been nearly as exciting as he thought it would be.

"You would think, but I'm getting some strange readings from the Forest of Menos." Szayel said. Grimmjow groaned. He hated having to go down there, everybody was so weak. None of them ever put up a good fight.

"What kind of readings?" He asked.

"Readings strange enough that Harribel's ordering me to take care of it." Szayel said. Grimmjow perked up. Now he was interested. If it was an order from Harribel, that usually meant something serious was going on.

"Alright, i'll bite. Just what sort of things are going on down there?" Grimmjow asked.

"Droves of gillians are disappearing as well as massive amounts of adjuchas. Something down there is having an absolute feast, but we can't track any power changes that would show a hollow feeding on this level. Better yet, something is disrupting the reishi in a pattern similar but definitely different to a garganta. I need you to go down there and find whatever is doing this. If possible, capture it, but don't kill it. If it gives you enough trouble that you have to kill it if you continue fighting, leave. I need this one alive." Szayel said.

Okay, now this did sound interesting.

"Sounds like fun, though I can't promise just how intact it'll be when I bring it to ya..." Grimmjow said with a grin.

x

Damn, Szayel wasn't kidding about the whole 'feasting' thing...

Massive trails of blood and torn up hollow bits stained the floor of the Forest, trees knocked over in the wake of all the fights. The normally noisy Forest of Menos was eerily silent as Grimmjow surveyed the damage.

"Jesus..." Grimmjow muttered to himself.

It had barely taken any time at all to find what Szayel had been talking about, massive trails of carnage scarring the Forest almost everywhere you looked. Normally a hollow strong enough to do this much damage left the Forest of Menos to either fight against or join the Los Noches Imperio, but whatever was down here showed no intention of stopping. Grimmjow had been tracking the bloody trails for nearly an hour and still found no sign of the attacker. If it wasn't how obvious this creature was being about it's kills, Grimmjow would have been able to find it by just going to wherever the strongest menos were, but it's obvious presence had driven menos and adjuchas to split up and flee as far apart from each other as they could. He was hoping he wouldn't have to do this, but it was looking more and more like his only option...

Grimmjow dropped his reiatsu like a hammer, blanketing the forest with his power and making him into a beacon that screamed "I'm here! Come fight me, fuckers!" If this wasn't a challenge, he didn't know what was.

It didn't take long before he felt something approaching, but not by it's reiatsu. Just like the hollow Grimmjow had met in the deserts, he couldn't sense any reiatsu coming from it, but his instincts told him to be ready. He sincerely hoped it was the same hollow just so he could really get a fight out of it this time.

Catching a flash of white and orange behind him, Grimmjow grinned. It looked like this would be a rematch after all.

"Little greedy with the menos down here, don't you think?" Grimmjow asked without turning around. He could here the hollow breathing behind him, but he wanted to draw this fight out a little before he inevitably overpowered the other.

Silence.

"Not very talkative, huh?" Grimmjow said. He could feel the other slowly stalking around behind him, and he let him. Let him see just what kind of predator he was up against.

"Well, that's fine by me. I'd much rather just skip the chatter and get right to the good stuff!" Grimmjow exclaimed and put a meaningful hand on the hilt of Pantera as he turned.

Still no response came from his opponent as he stalked Grimmjow through the shadows, but Grimmjow's obvious threat drew him out to stand in front of Grimmjow. Grimmjow's grin twisted when he saw the hollow. He still bore the same spiky orange hair cascading down his back, but his mask had different markings. Twin black stripes ran down both empty eyes down to join the stripes coming from his shoulders into the hollow hole in the center of his chest. Massive horns reached out from his head to twist out in front of him, currently angled at Grimmjow's throat. His eyes were no longer the bright, intelligent gold he'd seen before, now they were empty pits of darkness like those he had seen in hollows who had long ago abandoned their humanity. Even the way it stood was different, less anxious and skittish. Now as it watched him, all he felt was cold power, a silent danger grating on his instincts from this eerie creature. The feeling of immanent danger was further strengthened by the blood soaking his tattered shihakusho pants and staining his parted jaws and arms to drip down their clawed tips.

As disturbing as he now generally looked, it wasn't these changes that set Grimmjow's stomach turning. It was the massive crack in his mask spanning from his ear across his brow to disappear over his forehead. Black ooze that reeked "toxic" dripped from the crack as well as it's eyes, mouth, and hollow hole. This hollow smelled deeply of sickness, and it made Grimmjow take a step backwards.

The hollow took a step forward.

"What the hell happened to you?" Grimmjow muttered as he unsheathed Pantera.

He wasn't so sure if he wanted to fight the hollow when it was like this, for all he knew he was contagious. Cocking it's head slowly to the side, Grimmjow got the distinct feeling he was trying to decide if Grimmjow was worth eating... Not keen on being put on the menu, Grimmjow snarled and stuck up an aggressive stance. Mimicking Grimmjow, the hollow lowered it's head and set it's feet squarely to face him. Not one for waiting around, Grimmjow launched himself at the other with a growl.

As the other nimbly dodged his attacks, Grimmjow immediately noticed that he was faster than before. Whether or not that was because he was stronger or because he was no longer holding back was still up for debate. For the most part it was only Grimmjow attacking, but after a while the other began to attack in kind.

Dodging a swipe that would have no doubt cleaved lesser hollows apart, Grimmjow jumped back to get out of range. It was obvious now that this hollow wasn't any less intelligent than before, it was just... emotionless. This was clear in the way that it studied Grimmjow and began copying his attacks without any reaction. It was operating purely on instinct, but that was fine. Grimmjow himself played that side of the coin quite well.

Jumping back in, Grimmjow struck out even faster, slashing and stabbing with Pantera to force the other to tighten his defenses. Unfortunately the hollow's speed was growing, and he managed to slip between Grimmjow's attacks to swipe at his masked jaw. Narrowly avoiding injury with a sudden burst of sonido, Grimmjow pushed off against a tree to come flying at the hollow, a red cero growing in his palm. Screw bringing it back in one piece, Grimmjow was taking this thing down by any means. Serves it right for ruining his fight with the threat of disease...

Seeing the abominable bastard preparing to flash out of sight, Grimmjow changed his trajectory to intercept the hollow where he knew it was going to end up.

"Have a taste of this!" Grimmjow snarled and launched his cero point blank into the hollow's face.

Thrown back by the size of the explosion, Grimmjow kept Pantera up, just in case his cero hadn't quite finished him off. Just before the dust cleared, a massive roar shook the forest in rage. Grimmjow swore loudly and threw himself out of the way as a large red cero shot out at him.

Yeah, "hadn't quite finished him off."...

Now Grimmjow could get a read of the mystery hollow's reiatsu, and it was like nothing he had ever felt before. Dark and oppressive, it blanketed the area in an unshakable pressure that no doubt was crushing the weak adjuchas of the forest. Filled with rage and bloodlust, the pressure reminded him somewhat of Harribel's reiatsu when Barragan had nearly killed one of her Fraccion. Come to think of it, it did have the same feel as hers, but that was impossible. Harribel was unique to other hollows and arrancar in that she had reached a stage of evolution never before seen in hollows before becoming an adjuchas; Vasto Lorde. That was what she had called it, but she herself had no idea how she knew this. Everyone knew that after adjuchas, arrancar was the next natural stage of evolution. Harribel was the only exception, the only hollow who's path of evolution had differed.

And yet here he was fighting a hollow clearly not an arrancar with abilities and strength far beyond any adjuchas...

Dropping low to avoid a lightening-fast strike, Grimmjow charged another cero at the hollow from one side while jumping to the other to swing Pantera like a cleaver. Cero exploding and blade only cutting air, Grimmjow yowled in pain and surprise as he was grabbed by his hair from behind. Barely managing to rip his head away, Grimmjow felt claws graze his side as he hastily dodged. Now he was pissed.

Letting out an enraged cry, Grimmjow let loose three consecutive ceros before cutting off any means of escape. No one dragged him by his hair and lived to tell about it.

Grimmjow hissed in satisfaction when one of the ceros managed to catch the hollow's side, but no blood came. Howling in anger, the hollow flashed to Grimmjow to swipe, slash, and strike even faster than before. Impressively, Grimmjow's cero hadn't been enough to break the hollow's heirro, but it was more than enough to piss him off as much as Grimmjow.

Fighting in a flurry of blows, the hollow suddenly bent it's head down to twist Pantera away from him in his horns as he fired a cero at Grimmjow's stomach. Unable to block, the cero hit Grimmjow full on and blasted him back. Luckily Pantera came untangled from the hollow's horns in the blast and was still in Grimmjow's hand as he crashed to the ground, stomach bleeding profusely. Spitting blood, Grimmjow's eyes widened when he saw the massive red cero charging in the hollow's horns.

Ground cracking under the weight of the power being gathered up in the hollow's horns, Grimmjow didn't even have time to swear as the massive cero tore it's way through the forest obliterating trees and boulders in it's wake. Desperation and rage fueled the Gran Rey Cero Grimmjow released moments before the other cero hit. Everything exploded in a magnificent display of violent power, red and bright blue reiatsu crashing against each other in a wild fight for dominance as the two fluctuated. Eventually Grimmjow's larger Gran Rey won out over the ordinary cero in a wash of blue, but so much energy had been spent stopping the other cero from hitting that by the time his reached the hollow, it was only slightly more powerful than a normal cero.

Blocking the cero with his bare hands, the hollow dug his heels into the ground as raw power blew his orange hair back. Finally the cero ran out, strands of blue reitsu rippling off the hollow's hands.

Show off...

Grimmjow growled, but refused to pant. He had far more fight left in him than this, it didn't matter how much power this guy had, he still had his resureccion. He wouldn't use it yet, but if things continued like this for too long, he might actually have to.

Growling long and low, the hollow suddenly did something strange.

Slowly standing up straight, the hollow set his shoulders back and put a hand to his chest like he was gripping something. Black ooze poured out of his hollow hole as he slowly began to pull his hand out. Grimmjow's eyes grew wider as he felt more and more power pouring out of the hollow, but his greatest shock came when he saw a sword handle wrapped in white bandages gripped in the hollow's hand. Clamping his other hand onto the sword hilt, the hollow's entire chest became jet black now as black liquid continued to spill from his hollow hole to coat his skin.

Impressive power quickly turned sickly as the hollow's shoulders began to shake spasmodically. Something wasn't right, and Grimmjow had a feeling it had to do with the black substance he was now choking on. Coughing up inky gobs, the hollow began to pant, but refused to release it's grip of the sword. His hands were shaking now, and he was swaying, but Grimmjow didn't dare to move. Something told him to stay put and see this to it's end.

Chest heaving, the hollow began to keen deeply as his body started violently jerking. Stiff stance dropping to an unsteady crouch, the hollow looked ready to collapse, but still he fought to release the sword from his body. Howling and screaming, suddenly he began to throw himself about as if locked in some sort of unseen battle. Grimmjow could feel his turmoil in the shift of his powerful reiatsu as two decidedly different signatures of the same reiatsu raged to find purchase over the other. Doubling over so far Grimmjow thought he was going to fall, the hollow began a howl that slowly built itself up to a deafening crescendo. At the peak of his cry, the hollow finally released the sword from his chest with a sickening squelch.

The hollow fell forward to his knees and propped himself up with his blade, a massive black sword like a khyber knife with a small cutout. Shakily raising his head up, once again gold eyes locked with Grimmjow's. Frozen in place, Grimmjow felt the hollow's reiatsu slowly drawing back into itself. While undoubtedly the same reiatsu, what Grimmjow was now feeling wasn't nearly as dark or oppressive as before. Something had happened, but he didn't know what.

"Well, that was one hell of a surprise, got anything else you wanna show me?" Grimmjow asked, carefully watching the hollow for a response. Something told him he was more likely to get a reaction from him now than before.

The hollow flinched at his voice, but neglected to answer. Instead he dragged himself up to stand, warily watching Grimmjow as he continued to pant. The two watched each other for a tense heartbeat before the hollow raised it's blade putting Grimmjow immediately on guard. But it didn't look like he was going to attack...

"Oh no you don't!" Grimmjow yelled as he scrambled to get to the hollow before he could open a garganta with his sword. Black void opening up, Grimmjow shot his hand out to try and grab the hollow, but his fist closed around air as the hollow narrowly escaped into the garganta. His only link to the mysterious hollow was gone in seconds.

"Dammit!" Grimmjow swore. This was the second time that bastard had managed to escape from him, and this time it looked like he was going to get an actual challenge. Grimmjow was even still bruised and bleeding from their brief encounter! He hadn't even had the time to enjoy his battle because of that stupid crack and ooze! Grimmjow resolved to ignore those things the next time he fought this hollow, and demons below, he would fight him again...


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Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner Speech/Thoughts

Shiro (Zangetsu)

Old Man/Ossan (Zangetsu)

Chapter 7: Believe You Me

-x-

Ichigo Godebert - 4 years old

Ichigo's eyes flew open. He was surrounded by darkness on all sides, emptiness washing over him as he gazed out into the void. The normal panic that always ensued when he found himself in this place began to well up inside him alongside his just as usual despair. After about a year of having to deal with this place, Ichigo had taken to calling it "the Empty," but coming up with a name for it didn't make him feel any better about being here every time he fell asleep.

Sobbing in the darkness, Ichigo tried to move his tiny hands to his face, but his whole body was stiff. Oh how he wished his mommy was here, she would pull him right out. It didn't matter that she would yell and scream at him later, she would at least pull him out. Nothing stopped his mommy, not even the neighbor's mean old dog would mess with her.

Shaking with fear, Ichigo closed his eyes and began to count the seconds. That was the only way he could tell if he was going to stay stuck in the Empty or make it to the Other Place every night, so he counted through the minutes until he reached the mark. It was always around five or six minutes that he would stay here before plunging into the Other Place. Any longer meant that he'd be spending this night stuck in the Empty, and he honestly didn't know which was worse.

3 minutes...

4 minutes...

5 minutes...

Ichigo's breathing became heavier as he drew closer to the tipping point, would he be trapped here, or in the nightmare world?

5 1/2 minutes...

Ichigo felt his stomach twisting, unbelievably anxious. Waiting like this was absolute torture, and it wound him up so much he felt like he was going to hyperventilate or pass out (which he'd done many times before).

6 minutes...

So it looked like he was -

Ichigo screamed as light burst around him in a crescendo of sound and suddenly he was falling through nothing into everything. Blinded by light and deafened by sound, Ichigo felt his shaggy hair whipping wildly around him as he continued to plunge towards land only to stop so abruptly he felt his stomach climb into his throat. Gagging and straining all his muscles, Ichigo writhed in pain and confusion for a few moments before he finally began to realize where he was. Brittle grass long dead scratched at his arms and face as he desperately tried to suck air into his battered lungs. He was lying face down in a rather barren yard surrounded by ramshackle huts, grey sky slowly being lit up with burnt orange as the sun began to rise. Sunsets and sunrises seemed to be the only thing to bring color to this barren grey-scale world. Well, that and blood.

Sobbing loudly, Ichigo began to retch, emptying his tiny body of the terrible emptiness he still felt crawling over his skin. Apparently his miserable sobbing and vomiting had drawn the attention of this particular house's occupant as Ichigo dully heard steps behind him.

"Ichigo?" A sharp voice asked from behind him. Too busy vomiting to answer, Ichigo didn't bother moving from his position.

Hands rough with callouses wrapped around Ichigo to pull him into a better position, awkwardly patting his back in an attempt at comfort. Unfortunately Ichigo wasn't used to such gestures, so he flinched and began vomiting harder (if such a thing was possible). Taking the hint, the hands removed themselves from around him to lean him on his side against a dead tree. Eventually his vomiting turned to weak coughing as his body readjusted itself and he could open his watery eyes again to look at the man kneeling in front of him.

"No food again?" Mari asked. Ichigo looked down at the mess he had made in confusion. Mari was right of course, but he didn't know how.

"You've been vomiting bile and stomach juice, not actual food..." Mari explained absently.

Pushing himself up with trembling arms, Ichigo took a closer look at Mari. He'd gotten pretty good at figuring out what type of mood Mari was in, but Mari's ratty black hair was hanging in front of his face in long strands having escaped from the messy bun he always kept his hair in. If Ichigo couldn't see his eyes, he wouldn't know if he was breaking or just spacey, so Ichigo kept his guard up as he wiped his mouth with the already stained sleeves of his yukata.

"H-how long was I gone?" Ichigo whispered. Just like his mommy, Mari didn't like it when he was too loud, so Ichigo always made sure to be quiet. He didn't want to see Scary Mari again.

"Four days, but it's better than the time you were gone for nearly a month." Mari said as he coughed weakly, pushing his lanky strands of hair away from his face.

Ichigo relaxed a little when he saw his eyes. He wasn't breaking, he was just spacey. As for being gone for four days, that wasn't all that surprising for Ichigo. Some nights he just couldn't sleep, others he would get stuck in the Empty, and the rest was thanks to time working different here. Mari had tried to explain it to him before, but all the stuff about reality and the dangai was just too complicated for him. He had just accepted that things were different here, it was easier if he did things like that. Everything was confusing and different here, but he didn't understand most things at home either, so he decided he was just stupid. His mommy had told him plenty of times that that was about right.

"But your sword left with you this time." Mari said. Ichigo just looked at him blankly. Was that supposed to mean something? Mari sighed. He often became frustrated when Ichigo had trouble understanding these honestly basic concepts everyone here knew.

"It means your sword is no longer just a sword to you, it's become your Zanpakuto." Mari said.

"Oh." Ichigo whispered with wide eyes. Mari had been telling him ever since they'd met that Ichigo was destined to wield a zanpakuto, and when his blade finally became his own they could begin the next stage of his training.

"Does, does that mean you can tell me everything...?" Ichigo hesitantly asked. He flinched when he saw Mari's eyes harden suddenly.

"What do you think?" Mari snapped with a rumbling cough. His cough had a tendency to get worse when he was angry.

Ichigo's heart raced on instinct. He shouldn't have asked that, he knew better than to ask Mari to tell him about what was happening in this world. The one thing Mari had said about the issue was that Ichigo couldn't know anything about his past life, his secret mission, and what had happened to make the three worlds like this because if he knew, there was a chance the Gottlich could find out through him. That left Ichigo to try and piece together what had happened through what Mari and the others of this world said or did. The most he got was that there was a very bad quincy who had done something to begin killing the three worlds, his past life had done something to change this in some way (but died in the process), and it was up to him to finish what his past life had started. Mari would tell him once they reached the  San Teikoku  Alliance headquarters in Hueco Mundo, but until then he would train Ichigo to wield his zanpakuto.

"I'll start meditating..." Ichigo said as Mari glared at him. Trying to ignore the holes Mari was boring into him with his eyes, Ichigo put his back against the tree and crossed his legs. Carefully pulling out his sword - "asauchi" Mari had told him - Ichigo set it down on his lap across his knees and closed his eyes.

As Ichigo steadied his breathing and tuned out his surroundings, he felt himself slowly entering a state of calm. The normal eerie silence of the Soul Society broken by Mari's occasional coughing and spitting began to fade to a much more comfortable quiet, one that Ichigo had taken nearly a year to reach. He had just turned four when he had his first nightmare and ended up in the Soul Society, but he didn't end up meeting Mari until several months later. Since then he'd been training and learning to meditate so he could try and enter jinzen, but he wasn't very good at it. Now he was almost five and far closer to reaching jinzen than before despite how anxious and generally troubled he was. It had been an enormous struggle to calm himself down enough to meditate, let alone focus at first due to both his age and temperament. It was just so easy to scare him, everything made him jump or cry. He was such a crybaby...

Feeling himself slowly slipping away, Ichigo focused on that feeling of inner calm just like Mari had told him to. He had no idea what his soul felt like, but he knew he was supposed to find it, so he began to search for it deeper and deeper within himself. He could feel something just on the edge of his consciousness if he focused hard enough, but every time he reached out to it he lost it. Scrunching his eyebrows in frustration, Ichigo continued to try and make the connection but with little success. He continued on like this for what felt like eternity until he was suddenly shaken out of his meditation.

"What's wr- mmmf!" Ichigo's question was quickly smothered by Mari's hand clamping over his mouth.

Mari's eyes were wide open as he crouched over Ichigo, stock still. Ichigo himself was now frozen as Mari silently searched with his eyes around the huts, heartbeat pounding in his ears. Tense silence was broken only by the sound of Mari's labored breathing and Ichigo's own muffled breath, but it wasn't long before Ichigo heard a slight shuffle. Both hands immediately went to sword hilts, but neither moved. This part of the Rukongai should have been empty, but here in the Soul Society, danger was everywhere...

Another shuffle closer this time caused the two to quickly turn their heads in the direction of the sound. It couldn't be a  Nejireta because of the traps they'd set, but that didn't make the threat any less. Anything could be stalking them right now.

Giving Ichigo a meaningful look, Mari slowly took his hand off of Ichigo's mouth to motion at their hut. Ichigo was still too young to have developed fighter's intuition so he didn't know that fighting in a closed area was bad, but he did know that they still had valuable supplies inside the hut, so he followed Mari without question. Silently stalking across the yard to get to the hut, Ichigo was glad that he had learned to be so sneaky from living with his mommy. Unfortunately, Mari didn't have the benefit of living somewhere with non-semi toxic air and had to stifle his coughing the entire way. Ichigo always felt bad for Mari when he heard him coughing.

Once they were inside the rickety hut, Ichigo and Mari immediately began gathering as much of their stuff as they could without making noise. Mari didn't even need to tell Ichigo to cover his bright hair with his dirty shawl. This wasn't the first time he and Mari had had to make such a hasty getaway, so Ichigo already knew exactly where everything was and needed to go for them to leave. Luckily they didn't have that much with them since most of Soul Society had so little to offer and the rest was already looted or too dangerous to loot.

Nodding to Mari when he was finished, Ichigo tried his best to steady his breathing and stop himself from panicking.

Ichigo knew Mari saw the look he was giving, but he didn't pause from packing, nor did Ichigo expect him to. Mari had made it very clear a long time ago that he would not make time for Ichigo's panic, especially when they were fighting. That made Ichigo's first few weeks of training particularly brutal as his first reaction was almost always panic. Mari would teach him a set of moves and stances, let him practice, and then spar with him over and over again without break until Ichigo could replicate the moves perfectly. Any time Ichigo tried to pause or started freaking out, Mari would injure him and force him to keep fighting. The first week Ichigo was getting so many injuries that he was on the brink of death within half an hour, which wasn't very conducive and to training. Mari's solution was to pin Ichigo down every time he was about to pass out and heal him with kido just enough for him to keep fighting before immediately resuming training. Much of that time was passed in a terrifying blur of pain and exhaustion, but miraculously Ichigo began to improve. It wasn't anywhere near enough to stop Mari from wounding him, but it was enough to slowly stretch the time before Mari could land his first hit each session in the following week. After a while, the horror of constantly being attacked and wounded every day by his vastly stronger companion began to lessen as Ichigo grew used to the fighting. It felt kind of weird at first, watching Mari bear down on him with a sword knowing that he was going to hurt him only for his own blade to suddenly shoot up and block him. Mari had told him after one training session when Ichigo had confided his feelings that this was called instinct, and Ichigo was using it more than Mari had anticipated. That was the closest Mari had ever come to not insulting Ichigo, so Ichigo couldn't help but feel a little proud of that. Ichigo began relying on that more, using his fear to force himself to improve.

As the weeks passed, Ichigo froze and ran away (or at least tried to) less and less and actually managed to start using some of the moves Mari was teaching him instead of hoping his instinct was enough to help him block and dodge everything. Every time Mari taught him a new move, Ichigo would fail so spectacularly at it that Mari would declare him hopeless and swear at him, but then he'd suddenly get it one day, faster and better at it than Mari had predicted in the first place. Those were the times Ichigo would look to Mari hoping to see something there, of what he wasn't sure of. All he knew was when Mari would just huff and say how terrible his technique was, his heart would sink. But it wasn't that far off, was it? He was clumsy and slow, weak and stupid. No talent whatsoever. It began to be that when Ichigo finally nailed a move or lasted longer when they sparred, he only felt... disappointed. He felt bad when he was doing better, so was he even really doing that well? Mari seemed to think the opposite, and it wasn't like Ichigo ever really excelled at anything... or passed...

Maybe it was because he was training to be able to kill? He knew enough to understand that killing was bad and should feel bad, so maybe that's what this was? He did seriously struggle with fighting outside of sparring at first... Mari had been beyond angry when Ichigo had first tried to refuse to kill anyone after he'd accidentally beheaded a man during his first battle, slapping him across the face and yelling at him until Ichigo broke and cried. Mari hated that, his crying. He said it was childish and would only distract him in battle. But his harsh punishments weren't enough to stop Ichigo from sobbing and vomiting after each battle. Oddly enough, he had stopped doing that as much, though for what reason he didn't know. Instead of getting upset, Ichigo would suddenly get hit with an overwhelming sense of flatness, like a lack of emotion. Kind of... numb. Nothing felt real then, like some kind of switch had flipped in Ichigo.

It was starting to happen at school sometimes, making his voice catch in his throat no matter how many times his teachers told him to speak. They were asking him to do that more now, to explain why he was fighting with other students and why he was so angry. But Ichigo just couldn't seem to tell them that he wasn't angry, he just couldn't stop himself from lashing out when his classmates started bothering him. All it took was one kid to try and pull his hair or even get too close to him and his fighting instincts would take over. Once he would realize what he'd done, he'd immediately start crying and run away. Worse yet were the consequences at home with his mommy...

Ichigo jumped slightly when he felt Mari pinch him. Ichigo silently shook his head. He was doing that more and more, spacing out and losing focus. His teachers absolutely hated it, but Mari hated it more.

Checking no one was blocking the back door, Ichigo and Mari quickly stole away from the hut to get as far away from their stalkers as they possibly could. But the silence was too thick that day, and as any whole thing in that world existed, it was bound to be broken.

"Why the hurry little one?" Came a husky whisper from the shadows just behind Ichigo.

Ichigo screamed to alert Mari to the sudden attacker and barely managed to grab Mari's hand before the other took off as fast as his legs could carry him. Screaming and whooping broke out on all sides as a torrent of vicious rogues gave chase. Too late Mari realized they had stumbled into a carefully laid out trap just by coming to this abandoned city.

"SKINNERS!" Mari screeched to Ichigo. If Ichigo wasn't terrified before, he was now.

Panting wildly, Ichigo looked around in terror as naked men and women painted in blood cackled their delight at the gruesome game they were playing. Barely avoiding a swipe from a man with practically black teeth, Ichigo hopped over rubble and stones in their wild flight to try and escape the growing ring of monsters.

"Door!" Mari yelled as they fled. Wildly raking his eyes over everything, Ichigo saw the lone wood door standing in a clearing and immediately understood. To escape being surrounded they would need to make it to that clearing, the only place where they had a straight shot of getting out of the district while avoiding Nejiretas.

Pumping his tiny legs as fast as they would allow, Ichigo could feel the inhuman hunters breathing down their necks. But they were so close, he could see the clearing getting closer and closer as they fled. Eyes glued to their one ray of hope, Ichigo didn't even bother to slash at the hands grasping at him like Mari did, they were going too fast for the skinners to catch them. They were just too fast, they were racing, soaring, flying out of there in a blur never to be seen by those monsters again. Adrenaline raced through his veins as the door was inches away, freedom a breath away. They were going to make it just by the skin of their teeth, by the bite of their heels, the snap of th -

"AAAAAGH-uh!" Mari screamed as a sick crunching sound rang out.

"MARI!" Ichigo screamed as Mari's hand was torn from his.

Blood and bone decorated Mari's chest in a macabre pattern where one of the skinners had clotheslined him with a bone and scrap club typical to skinner weapons. Ichigo could only watch helplessly as the skinner pulling Mari away shoved him into the waiting group of skinners behind him. Dodging the same man with the club, Ichigo struggled to get to Mari, slashing and stabbing his way through the converging skinners. He tried to use his lack of size to his advantage like Mari had taught him, but he just didn't have the benefit of years of fighting experience like Mari. Hands clawed and tore at Ichigo as more and more skinners fell on him, catching chunks of his flesh and clumps of his hair.

"MARI!" Ichigo screamed again. He was quickly being overwhelmed by the skinners and was bleeding profusely from the various different injuries they were inflicting. If he didn't escape the group soon, he would either be crushed or beaten to death.

"RUN! JUST RUN!" Mari screamed back. Ichigo couldn't see him through the writhing horde of bodies, but he could hear the screams of agony as Mari tore his way through the skinners.

Cleaving the arm off a howling woman, Ichigo switched tactics and made for the rapidly closing opening at his side. Dirty shawl was ripped from his head as a skinner tried to drag him down by his hair, but Ichigo twisted his head and whirled around to slash at the skinners behind him. Barely dodging a swipe, Ichigo lashed out and stabbed a man in the chest before jumping away from another trying to grab his ankle.

Whirling around in a desperate dance, Ichigo blocked, dodged, and fought for his life as skinners began overwhelming him again. Hands were ripping and tearing at Ichigo faster than he could cut hem, and it was only a matter of time before one of the skinners got close enough to grab Ichigo.

Screaming in fear, Ichigo was dragged down under the writhing mass of bodies suffocating him. Something broke under the weight of bodies suffocating him, but Ichigo couldn't tell one injury from another. They all hurt and scared him, and he didn't know what to do. A man's hand with ragged bloody nails caught him in the side of the face as another bit his leg and he screamed again, tears cutting trails down the blood covering his face.

Ichigo's mind was desperately trying to think of how to fight back like a true shinigami, but he just wasn't. He was a little boy, and it didn't matter how good with a sword he had become. He was being beaten, scratched, and bit from all sides when a blade erupted from a skinner's stomach inches away from his face. Screeching in agony, more skinners were cut down around Ichigo as Mari finally made it to him.

"Get Up!" Mari bellowed as he beheaded a charging woman.

Ichigo struggled to follow Mari's orders, gripping his sword so tight his knuckles turned white for fear of losing grip from all the blood. Sliding on his knees between the legs of a larger man, Ichigo cut the back of his heels before plunging his sword up into the man's abdomen as he doubled over in pain. Ichigo just made it to Mari when he suddenly pushed Ichigo down to the ground.

"Writhe,  Shapubara !" Mari called as he released his shikai. Sword glowing a menacing dusty pink, power erupted around Mari in an explosion Ichigo just managed to avoid by clinging to Mari's leg.

In place of a blade, Mari now held a long whip covered in thorns like barbed daggers. Ichigo had seen Mari's shikai enough times to know that he needed to stay as low as possible. Snapping Shapubara up to wildy lash out at the surrounding skinners, Mari whirled his weapon around in a deadly circle of barbed death, ripping and tearing into skinners indiscriminately as every other thorn remained buried in flesh. Mari forced the skinners to make a large clearing around the two as they fled unhindered by skinners pressing in on them, but there was still the problem of the skinners who did carry weapons.

Ducking another of Shapubara's coils, Ichigo cried out when he saw a skinner preparing to launch a spear at Mari, but his warning came too late. Mari was forced to use Shapubara to block the spear by wrapping around it and changing it's direction with a yank, but that left a massive opening. Faster than Ichigo could track, skinners swarmed them, no longer held back by Shapubara. The first thing they did was try to rip Shapubara from Mari's hands, but Mari refused to let go. Ichigo tried to help him by slashing at the skinners trying to grab Shapubara, but he was too busy trying to fend off the skinners trying to grab his own weapon.

One managed to dart through his defenses to grab him by his yukata and drag him forward.

"Mari!" Ichigo screamed.

The skinner that managed to get behind Ichigo was swiftly dispatched as Mari yanked Ichigo back to him just in time, but in Mari's distraction, a madly grinning skinner impaled him with a screech. Falling to the ground, Mari knew this was it. The two of them couldn't make it out of here. But one of them could.

"Ichigo, Run!" Mari yelled as Ichigo desperately tried to stop the skinners from getting to Mari.

"But -" Ichigo's protests were interrupted when Mari shoved him away. Skinners immediately filled the gap, forcing Ichigo further away from Mari.

"I'll be right behind you, just RUN!" Mari screamed. He knew Ichigo wouldn't leave him unless he lied, foolish brat. Didn't he understand yet that his duties were more important than Mari or even himself?

Nodding furiously despite Mari not being able to see him, Ichigo did as told and stopped trying to fight back through the skinners. Dodging under a man's swing, Ichigo cleaved his way through the skinners until he finally had enough room to slip by the larger adults without having to cut everyone he saw. Under legs and through slim gaps Ichigo shot, a tiny blur of orange in a sea of bloody adults. Not even skinners could last forever, and eventually he broke away from the bloodthirsty maniacs to run just ahead of the trailing hunters.

Too terrified to risk looking back, Ichigo didn't see that Mari was still far behind him fighting the original group of skinners as the second group broke off to chase Ichigo. Injuries and fear be damned, Ichigo was fast when he needed to be. Not even seconds were lost as he leapt over the rubble surrounding the lone door. He had finally made it past the marker, and now all he had to do was make it through the tree line and lose them in the forest with Mari. He could see a couple of places where he could safely make it into the forest, but his best options were through the creek by the little burrow under an oak Ichigo had spotted when the first came to this part of the district. Even if Ichigo couldn't swim, it was better than  going through the natural tree line where all the Nejireta traps were...

"Creek!" Ichigo called, but Mari wasn't behind him to hear his directions. Nonetheless Ichigo ran as fast as he could to the creek. Inches away from release, Ichigo barely managed to see what was wrong in time.

Rotting animal corpses surrounded the creek bank in a gruesome warning punctuated by the lack of flies. As Ichigo had painfully learned his first time in the soul society, water was extremely dangerous and often killed. Half of it was either poisoned by corpses and toxins while the rest was completely acidic. Everything in this world was dying or already dead, but Ichigo didn't plan on following that rule.

Heart dropping, Ichigo forced himself to turn back towards the burrow and find another way around before the skinners bearing down on him caught up. But when he began running beside the tree line, he finally saw what was happening behind him.

Skinners were still tearing Mari apart, but the rest were now converging on Ichigo with no signs of giving up. Worse yet, Mari was leagues away from Ichigo. He had lied so that Ichigo could get away, but now it was for nothing. There were far more skinners than Ichigo had expected to be behind him, and now they were cutting him off. He would never make it to another entrance, but Ichigo wasn't without ideas. If he could just hide in the burrow until night, he could go to sleep and return home. Pumping his legs harder, Ichigo desperately hoped he was fast enough to get to the burrow before the skinners blocked him, but his chances were looking slimmer with every passing second.

Heart pounding in his ears, Ichigo's vision began to blur with tears again. He could see the manic grin growing on the panting skinner as he drew closer to the tree line, buddies not far behind. He could practically feel the malicious glee oozing from the skinner as he threw his arms out wide, waiting for Ichigo to come. Their eyes locked and Ichigo swore he could feel death, but as he was watching, one of Shapubara's thorns lodged in the skinner's cheek began to glow menacingly.

"Korosu, Shapubara!" Ichigo heard Mari scream in the distance.

Suddenly the skinner in front of Ichigo exploded in a mass of dusty pink energy. Thrown forcefully back, Ichigo could hear explosions rocking the clearing as Mari released his special attack. Any skinner still carrying one of Shapubara's thorns was instantly blown up, leaving nearly half the original skinners alive to rage at their prey. This was just enough distraction to give Ichigo another head start.

"Go! LEAVE!" Mari screamed before one of the remaining skinners dragged him down.

Scrambling to get back onto his feet with a sob, Ichigo sprinted for the burrow. Tripping on roots, Ichigo slid down headfirst into the burrow pushing dirt and scraggly roots out of his way. Halfway through he felt a hand grab his ankle and screamed as he was slowly dragged backwards. Clinging to roots and clawing at the ground, Ichigo screamed again and again, refusing to let loosen his hold and be taken. Finally he felt the grip on his ankle lessening and shot deeper into the burrow. He was almost to the bottom when he suddenly realized how silent it was. Not even a shuffle was heard behind him.

Shifting around in the narrow hidey-hole, Ichigo listened. The only thing he could hear was his own labored breathing and the shifting of dirt around him from where he had clawed. Waiting for a few more heartbeats, Ichigo debated peaking his head out to see if the skinners had given up, but his instincts told him they were still there.

What if it was a trap, what if they had left a couple of skinners to kill him when he left the burrow? If they underestimated him and only left a couple behind, then he could probably escape... But he needed to know how many.

Taking a deep breath to try and slow his heart and panting, Ichigo closed his eyes. Shifting in the cramped space to cross his legs in a mock jinzen, Ichigo forced himself to breathe in and out, in and out, in and out. He needed to be completely relaxed, so he waited while his breathing slowed down and his body began to relax. It was hard to calm himself giving the current situation, but if this was what he needed to do to survive, he would. While Ichigo could mostly sense where people were on instinct, he had been training for nearly a year and still couldn't sense other people's reiatsu. But today he prayed the levity of the situation would help him break through and get a read on how many skinners were outside.

Sinking into a comfortable darkness, all noise began to fade away from Ichigo. For a moment he couldn't feel anything but the sense of him, but eventually he began to feel something else. Just like when he tried to reach true jinzen and communicate with his zanpakuto, Ichigo could only reach out so far. He just couldn't quite get what he knew was the people around him, but it wasn't the only feeling. There was something else in the darkness, and as he turned to it, he realized this feeling tickling at his senses was more... natural. It felt used, practiced. The more he felt for it, the stronger it became as well as easier to grasp. He didn't know exectly what it was, but it felt right. It felt like this was what he needed, so he grabbed hold and slowly pulled.

Opening his eyes, Ichigo jolted when he saw thousands of ghostly ribbons floating around him. One such ribbon was already in his tiny fist, lazily twirling around in a playful dance. This ribbon wasn't like the other ribbons in that it wasn't just one color. Other ribbons were white, red, black, and a light blue. The one he was holding was black with a deep red trim, light blue and white threads twisted in an almost diamond pattern down it's length. Feeling the ribbon between his fingers, Ichigo let out an unconscious breath. Somehow he knew that this ribbon was his. Oddly enough, each color gave him a different feeling when he inspected the threads.

The red felt comfortable and sturdy, somewhat similar to how Mari felt. It made this horrible afterlife he was stuck in feel more like... home.

In contrast, the black felt sharp and ferocious. It gave him a sense of power, dark and foreboding.  Letting go with a shiver, Ichigo focused on the light blue and white threads.

They felt somewhat similar to each other, but the light blue was distinctively stronger than the other. It somehow felt pure and left Ichigo with a strange feeling he didn't recognize. Was it... dignity? Pride? Ichigo wouldn't know, his life had never afforded him such things. Other than those feelings, something about the light blue felt more like this world, but it wasn't a homey feeling like the red had provided. It was cagey and tense, like how he felt whenever he was suddenly pulled into the Soul Society. Like he was tangled in a fisher's net, slowly being reeled in.

The white threads felt much more plain than the other colors, but they were nonetheless unique. These threads felt a sort of familiar in a common way. They also felt much more lively, like he was breathing in life. Searching deeper, he realized the white thread felt so much like the light blue because there was the same feeling of entrapment, but this was more like... restraint. It reminded him of the tight pressure he felt in his chest when he got scared at home. Here when that happened mari would glare at him and tell him to "reel it in," whatever that meant.

Mari...

Now that Ichigo had the means to sense others, his thoughts turned to Mari. Could he find him like this, and did he really want to? What would happen if his ribbon was no longer there, was it better then to not look and maintain the tiny hope that Mari had escaped?

No, he had to know. Mari had been the first person to show Ichigo real kindness in a long time, and Ichigo considered him his friend. Mari had saved his life and taken on the arduous task of training him, pushing and pushing him until he finally made progress. Even when Ichigo was exhausted, beaten, and crying Mari would make him keep going until Ichigo did what he wanted perfectly. Even his punishments, if scary and painful, were never without reason. Ichigo could just never get it exactly the way Mari wanted his first time. He only ever screamed at Ichigo when he did something wrong or upset him - more than his mother had ever done. He made sure Ichigo never rested, always training and learning until Ichigo broke down, and then they'd train some more. That was just how someone as miserably unskilled and stupid as Ichigo could learn, right? Ichigo was unbelievably grateful that Mari had only tried to abandon him once, and he felt that Mari should have. Ichigo was a failure, he couldn't do anything right. All he did was cry and complain, he had no right to learn so much from such a great instructor like Mari.

Ichigo had never had a friend before, but he was pretty sure that was what Mari was from the way he treated him. He was so much nicer than the kids at school.

Looking around at all the ribbons, Ichigo realized he didn't know which one was Mari's. Ichigo had no idea what the different ribbons meant, but he tried to look at this from a logical standpoint. If the majority of ribbons around him were white, that probably meant that the white ribbons were skinners. Even though skinners were psychotic cannibals, they were still regular souls, so that meant white was ordinary. The red he'd felt in his own ribbon reminded him of Mari, so maybe Mari's ribbon was red?

Feeling around the ribbons, Ichigo closed his eyes and focused on Mari. Eventually he felt something brush up against his hand and opened his eyes to see a crimson ribbon floating in front of his face. The fact that it's color was fading and the ribbon itself was in tatters didn't escape Ichigo's notice, but it least it was still there. Relief washed into Ichigo and he hugged the ribbon to himself. Mari was alive, even if wounded.

The only mystery now was the mass of white ribbons surrounding Mari's. If Mari was still alive, then why were there still skinners around him? Skinners never let their victims live...

Pushing the ribbons away from him to fade away, Ichigo shifted and crawled forward a little. So long as he was careful, he might be able to get a small peak outside and see what was going on. Finding that it was harder going out than in, Ichigo took his time crawling over roots and pausing every now and again. During one of his breaks, Ichigo felt a shiver run down his back. Pausing to peer through the darkness, Ichigo froze. He hadn't noticed it before over the sounds of his struggling to move forward, but now he heard a second set of breathing. Someone was waiting for him at the top of the burrow.

Clamping a hand over his mouth to smother the sound of his breathing, Ichigo tried to scooch back as silently as possible. He was almost all the way back in when the back of his foot hit a stone, sending it clattering down into the burrow. Ichigo cringed at the noise, eyes blown wide open as he trembled in fear. Wheezing laughter broke the spell and Ichigo shot back down to the bottom of the burrow.

"Aaaaw, don't be like that... It's no fun playing with your food if you can't see them..." A husky voice whispered.

"At least he can hear..." A second voice whispered. The two began to cackle and Ichigo's stomach dropped.

Shuffling was heard from above as the two left. Now that Ichigo was aware of their presence, they no longer bothered to be quiet. He could hear laughing and movement as skinners moved closer to his hiding spot. Eventually the chatter and laughter turned into screaming and whooping as something happened above. Straining to hear beyond the sick sounds of celebration, Ichigo finally heard the sound of something being dragged. Muffled noises came from above and Ichigo began to feel sick. He didn't understand what was happening, but it didn't sound good.

"This one still has some kick!" Someone laughed.

"Let's hear what he has to say..." Another said. More laughter was heard as Ichigo heard familiar screaming.

"Mari!" Ichigo sobbed. He could hear his labored breathing, but he could also hear the pain in it.

"Don't leave *cough* n-no matter what, I didn't waste my *cough* - my life on your pathetic e-existence just for you to fail your *cough* duties!" Mari cried weakly through bloody hacking.

Something crunched loudly and Mari screamed in agony. Ichigo sobbed and tried to get closer, but there was only so far he could go without risking being caught.

"Mmmmmm..." Someone groaned between a mouthful of something. "Delicious..."

After that the noise became unbearable. He could hear skinners rushing in from all sides as sick sucking and crunching noises filtered their way down into the burrow. But none of the feast's macabre symphony was as loud as Mari's screaming. Again and again he screamed, pain and agony saturating his cries as the feast went on without end. Blood began to dribble down the burrow to pool around Ichigo's feet, but he was too busy trying to cover his ears to notice it until another eternity later.

Scratching at his head and face to try and distract himself from the noise, Ichigo rocked furiously back and forth as Mari continued to scream. Eventually his screams became weaker as the skinners continued to crunch and make hungry noises. It felt like forever had passed, but still Mari cried. Time inched forward and stretched into an eternity filled with Mari's groaning and Ichigo's sobbing.

Finally, Mari's struggling and waning cries stopped. Unable to process what had happened, Ichigo sat silent and frozen listening to each skinner take his fill like an animal. Blank eyes stared at nothing through the darkness long after the noise had stopped, long after they had left. He was alone now, but he dared not move or breathe. It felt like if he did, he'd break some spell and have to face what had happened.

It was silent.

Mari was gone.

It was so quiet.

Even when he strained, he still couldn't feel Mari.

Mari was gone. He was really gone.

Slowly making his way out of the burrow to reach the outside again, Ichigo nearly vomited. Mari's corpse had been picked completely clean, stark white bones jutting out of Mari everywhere but the places inedible. Luckily Mari's face was to the ground, so Ichigo was spared the trauma of seeing whether or not the skinners had deemed his face... palatable. Blood stained the ground beneath Mari to run down into the burrow. Dropping down onto his knees, Ichigo found he couldn't move. All he could do was stare at what was left of his mentor as his young mind struggled to process the scene and events before him. Long moments passed and still Ichigo didn't move, even when he began to shiver from the cold.

Reaching trembling hands up to his face, Ichigo's shoulders began to jerk. He had spent all his tears when Mari was... He didn't have anything left now. He had done this. He had killed Mari.  If he had just been stronger none of this would have happened. He was weak, and in the end he couldn't even grant Mari a painless death.

Ichigo had utterly failed to protect his one and only friend.

Touching his head to the ground, Ichigo finally began to shake off his numbness. Now he felt a barrage of horrible emotions. Horror, shock, grief, guilt, self-loathing, and rage. Slamming his fists into the ground, Ichigo let out a piercing scream.

He had done this, HE HAD DONE THIS.

Pounding the ground again, Ichigo covered his head with his arms and cried soundlessly. No tears fell down his face this time. Mari had hated how he always cried, so this once Ichigo would not shed tears. Crying wouldn't erase what had happened, wouldn't make him stronger.

That's what he needed, to be stronger. He needed to be the strongest, the fastest, whatever it took to be able to protect.

That one word rang in his head over and over again, a terrible combination of failure and future. He had failed, but he would make it right. Friends were supposed to protect one another, so he would get strong enough to protect the people he cared about. Even that wasn't enough, if he could just protect somebody, ANYBODY. That was what Mari had told him, that he had a destiny waged in war. Ichigo would make this his his destiny, protection. He never again wanted to lose someone, and he would make sure it didn't happen.

He would fight.

He would protect.

Protect.

PROTECT.

PROTECT!

.

.

.

Ichigo shot up with a gasp, adrenaline racing through his body. Dragging himself on all fours to escape the water behind him, Ichigo began vomiting water. Finally raising his head to look around, Ichigo sucked in a sharp breath. Standing atop the fallen shell of a skyscraper, Ichigo was surrounded by darkness. Below him everything was dark water, deceptively calm. The skyscraper he was on seemed to be the only one not completely submerged, but even this building was just barely out of the water. The only sources of light came from two massive and a couple smaller cracks showing Ichigo where the water ended.

So this is what Shiro had meant by keeping me out of the way...

Unlike the Empty, this place felt suffocatingly full. The darkness was practically water itself, pressing down on him in an invasive and oppressive manner. Being here sent chills up his spine, but it wasn't like he had much choice in the matter. He had no idea Shiro could trap him in his own mind like this. Shiro...

God knew what that bastard was doing with his body, but Ichigo had a feeling it wasn't donating to charity. It might not have been Shiro's intention to force these memories onto Ichigo, but the result was similar to what the freaky spirit wanted. Ichigo was starting to seriously doubt that what had happened to him wasn't real.

Everything felt so real when he was remembering Mari's death, and this place was as real as the ridiculous hair on his head. Was all this really real? Had he been right all along and just couldn't accept it? Lena had literally beat into him that all the things he believed to have happened weren't real, but Lena wasn't exactly stable, and how would she know if such things had happened? She was just an ordinary soul. If she wasn't, then she would have recognized what he was talking about. She would have come looking for him after he killed himself.

Shivering in the frigid darkness, Ichigo rubbed his arms. If all this was true, then why hadn't Zangetsu ever contacted him? Why hadn't he had any powers or been able to leave his body when he came back home? Even after that hell his mother had called "a rough three years with your father," he still hadn't heard so much of a peep from his zanpakuto. He couldn't have possibly shoved them down... could he? He did make these ice walls for his memories without meaning to, was it possible for him to shut out his own inner spirits?

But that didn't explain Shiro's apparent lack of knowledge to the fact that he had a human body and life outside the Old Worlds. Or his unawareness of the memories within these walls... He could hide memories from before he met his zanpakuto spirits all he wanted, but the memories of those three years had happened in the Old World where he had his zanpakuto. His spirits should have had some sort of memory, no matter how suppressed they had been. Maybe Shiro did remember, but he just felt like Ichigo was making a big deal out of nothing?

That was a possibility... Even when Ichigo had believed he'd been through the things he remembered, he had been unbelievably angry with himself for reacting the way he did. Plenty of people went through worse things and here he was acting like his whole world had fallen apart. It disgusted him and made him feel so weak, so maybe Shiro shared the sentiment?

Even so, there was a reason Ichigo didn't want his spirits in here. It was nothing but pain, for him and them. People had hurt him and cut him up in places he didn't even understand, and he knew how deeply that would hurt his spirits. They felt responsible for Ichigo's well-being, but in reality it was they who needed protecting in Ichigo's eyes. So he never talked about what happened to him before he unlocked his spirits or those three years that haunted him. He hadn't meant to put up a wall like this, but it made sense. He didn't want to remember these horrible things - they were what had drove him to kill himself in the first place. They had made his life a living hell when he finally made it back home. A never-ending nightmare that forced its way into the waking world.

What's worse than going through something painful?

No one believing you. No one understanding why you flinch when someone tries to touch you, when someone speaks just a little too loud or moves just a little too fast. No one understanding why you suddenly break down screaming and shaking for no reason all the time. No one understanding why you can't stand to be near other people anymore. No one understanding why you stopped speaking... eating... crying...

Being told you're faking it, you're making it up. Being told you're crazy. You're a freak. A troublemaker. You just don't care about school anymore. You're antisocial. You're disruptive. You just want to cause trouble for your teachers - all you have to do is just pay attention and speak when they tell you to. Nothing's stopping you.

And you believe them, because no one believes you.

You don't understand why you still hurt from all these things that never happened, why won't they go away? How dare you act this way and pout over things you made up, there are people who actually go through these things. You have no right to complain and cry and scream and cut - don't you understand there are people who's lives are absolutely terrible?! You have it easy and yet you feel like your life is falling apart. How dare you feel this way.

So it was hard for Ichigo to go back to believing what happened was real. He'd spent so long feeling bitter and hopeless when no one believed, then angry and confused when he didn't believe himself.

Ichigo honestly didn't know what to believe anymore. If he was going to believe all this was real, it had to be real.

Ichigo stood, slowly picking himself up. He was sore all over for some reason, but he couldn't see any visible injuries. That could mean Shiro was fighting currently, and considering who Shiro was, that was more than likely.

Unlike Ichigo, when Shiro was taken over as a hollow, he lost all sentience and became a monster made up of pure instinct. At least before when Ichigo was stuck in that strange in-between state of awareness and hollow (thanks for that, Shiro), he was following his own instincts. Sure, he still had the hunger of a hollow, but it wasn't all-consuming. His instincts weren't like Shiro's, he wasn't a creature of death and violence. His instincts were to fight and protect, to hide and wait. He wouldn't kill someone just for standing in front of him like Shiro would.

Ichigo swore. Ichigo had to get out of here before Shiro hurt somebody. Looking around, Ichigo tried to figure out which of the cracks leaking light was closest to him. The two largest cracks were pretty far away, but there was a small one not too far from Ichigo.

Crouching down low, Ichigo tried to gauge the distance he'd need to clear. With a loud boom, Ichigo shot off the fallen skyscraper in an explosion of glass to soar through the air. As Ichigo came closer to the crack he was surprised to find that it was much bigger than he'd first thought.

Ichigo was just about to soar through the blinding light back into his inner world when he was suddenly yanked back hard enough to nearly break his back, knocking the wind out of him. Plunging back into darkness, Ichigo struggled to make a reishi platform in the air before he fell back into the inky water below. Ichigo managed to stop his descent inches from the dark sea. Gasping and clutching his stomach, Ichigo waited until he finally caught his breathe.

"Jesus..." Ichigo coughed.

Well that was certainly rougher than he'd expected.

Glaring at the icy walls, it was then that Ichigo actually saw that the water never touched the walls themselves. Instead it sat suspended a good five inches from the walls, roiling and rippling menacingly. Fascinated, Ichigo watched as the ripples turned to massive waves closer to the crack he had just tried to slip through, jumping up to challenge whatever force was holding it back in a spectacular tide. It looked like the water might actually make it out and spill out, but only a portion managed to get through. The rest was violently repelled back.

It was obvious even to Ichigo that what he was seeing was direct symbolism of his darker memories trying to escape the self-imposed prison shoving them down. Though having it happen in reality was a bit more dangerous... He knew his inner world was constantly submerged from all the rain and raging storms, but the water level hadn't been quite as bad the last time he was here as it was now. Sure, it wasn't the worst it had ever been, but then again his worst was acid rain typhoons, exploding skyscrapers, and a dying sun, so...

Growling, Ichigo tensed himself and prepared to try again. If those stupid memories that he wanted in here could escape, so could he. There was no reason for him to want himself in here. Unless he was subconsciously trying to prevent himself from continuing life based on the deep-rooted fear of having to live again instilled in him from his many scrapes with death as a child escalated by the traumatic nature of his life's final chapter, but that was reading into the situation too much. Right?

Launching himself, Ichigo braced himself for a fight. Sure enough, as soon as he came close enough to leave, something tried to farce him. It was only by clawing and scraping at reishi platforms over and over again that Ichigo finally managed to drag himself into the light. The turbulent sounds of water crashing and roiling behind him began to fade as he let out a cry of determination with one final push. Everything went white and Ichigo felt the pressure suddenly leave.

x

Something was howling quite loudly, and it was making it really hard for Ichigo to sleep.

Wait.

Ichigo's eyes flew open to find a most distressing site. The howling in question was due to the fact that he was plummeting straight through the air right for a crumbling skyscraper.

"aaaaaAAAAAHHHHHHHH!" Ichigo's growing cry of panic was abruptly interrupted when he was slammed into from the side.

Unfortunately, his "savior" actually had worse plans for him and promptly ran him straight through one of the few skyscrapers not submerged. Just barely getting about his wits after the shock of being rammed through a building, Ichigo twisted in his attacker's grip to throw them spiraling into another building an angry yell. He could guess who had just tried to turn him into mince meat.

"Shiro, you bastard!" Ichigo hollered. He was hellbent on taking back his body, but hearing a stuttering growl from the decimated building in front of him, Ichigo had a feeling words wouldn't be doing any good today.

Shiro shook his masked head with a hiss. Lowering his horns at Ichigo's throat menacingly, Shiro roared in rage. Great, autopliot Shiro was already pissed. Reaching back to pull out Zangetsu, Ichigo paled. He'd forgotten his blade wasn't there. Things just got a lot harder.

Squaring his shoulders, Ichigo put up his fists in a ready stance. It was more for balance really, I mean what was he gonna do, box with the beast? Shooting forward to swing at Ichigo, Shiro tried to grab Ichigo's face with his free hand. Luckily Ichigo was just as fast as ever.

Kicking out at Shiro lightening fast, Ichigo immediately dropped low to avoid the predicted swing, rolling forward to try and catch Shiro with an uppercut. Maybe if he could damage him a little, Shiro would have to pull out of the driver's seat to fight him for real, breaking the hollow instinct's hold over his sentience. It was clear that Shiro was busy fighting someone out in real life or else he would have come to his senses via Ichigo's presence, but that just meant he'd have to force him to pay attention to him. That would be difficult to do like this, but Ichigo thought of another problem. Would Shiro really let him take back control? He'd probably have to fight him, and their fights tended to take a while. That meant more time where Ichigo's body ran around a crazy murder beast.

He'd just have to take back control the old fashioned way.

Trading blows, neither one could yet hit each other. Ichigo was sweating from the exertion of having to fight with no blade against an opponent he had trouble fighting even with his sword. It was actually quite impressive how well he was doing, but Ichigo had never once been satisfied with his fighting prowess, so any significance was lost on him as always.

Nearly cuffing Shiro over the head, Ichigo was forced to bend backwards as Shiro tried to cleave him in half. Snapping back up, Ichigo aimed a kick at Shiro's unprotected side, but he seemed to know that was coming and quickly sidestepped the attack. Huffing slightly, Ichigo switched tactics and tried to surprise Shiro with a charge. But Shiro wasn't there anymore.

"Gah!" Ichigo cried as Shiro clipped his shoulder.

Flashing away before Shiro could finish the attack, Ichigo clutched his shoulder and panted. Blood welled up around his hand, but still he refused to stop fighting. Yelling in defiance, Ichigo attacked Shiro again and again. Their deadly dance was clearly favoring Shiro, but that didn't matter. Ichigo would win, he had to. By now he was bleeding from several places, but he'd managed to get in a blow of his own, however minor. Chest heaving, Ichigo growled stubbornly and tried to kick the back of Shiro's knee with a fancy shunpo maneuver. As fast as the beginning had been, Ichigo was beginning to tire. Before Ichigo could move away, Shiro snapped out to grab Ichigo by the ankle, flinging him.

Ichigo gave a short cry of pain as he felt his ankle crushed, but it was cut off once he hit the water. Sinking below, Ichigo forced himself upright to stand on reishi again. Their fight had been going on for hours, but things like that never deterred Ichigo. Bleeding buckets of blood and hopelessly fighting a battle he couldn't possibly win was pretty much every Tuesday for Ichigo at this point.

Besides, he could feel the power shifting in him. He knew he was pressing Shiro, proving himself King of this world once again. It was about damn time for things to be ready for the next step. This world, soul, blade, and body were all his, and he was basically screaming his claim at the inner spirit. He would force the blade in Shiro's hands to be his own, here and out in the real world.

Seeing Shiro flash into view without warning, Ichigo threw open his arms in challenge.

"Come on then!" Ichigo screamed.

Returning his own warped scream, Shiro charged Ichigo blade first. But this time Ichigo didn't dodge, zanpakuto skewering him with sick shlucking sound. Jerking in shock, Shiro froze.

Locking eyes with the empty pits of Shiro's mask, Ichigo clamped both hands down on the sword, his sword. Slowly forcing it deeper, blood dripped from Ichigo's half-open mouth. At the same time that it was cutting him, he could also feel the sword sinking into his soul. Pain wavered with the tenuous control Ichigo was gaining.

Shiro tried to yank his blade back, looking back and forth between Ichigo and his sword. He knew what Ichigo was doing now, and he was desperate to stop him. Pulling and growling, Shiro's efforts did nothing to stop Zangetsu from sliding into Ichigo. Ichigo's grip was one of iron, and there was no breaking it now.

Zangetsu was halfway through Ichigo when Shiro began to shudder and groan. The balance was tipping back towards Ichigo, and the consequences were finally drawing Shiro out of his hollow state. Cracks began to form on Shiro's mask, modified shihakusho slowly reverting back to normal. Slowly the pits of Shiro's mask began to glow with angry yellow eyes, mask breaking off in chunks and receding. Howling in rage, Shiro redoubled his efforts to take Zangetsu back, but his struggles were useless.

By now Ichigo's body was completely oblivious to the pain, the feeling of being whole again overtaking any other. This was his blade, and it belonged with him. He wasn't bleeding nearly as much, Zangetsu slowly fusing with him again. While Zangetsu was his blade, it wouldn't cut him unless he wanted it to.

A final cracking sound brought the rest of Shiro's mask crumbling away, fully himself again.

"Stop it! You don't understand what you're doing!" Shiro screeched. Ichigo refused to look away from Shiro's rage filled eyes.

"No! I know full well what I'm doing, and I know what you're trying to do! I need my blade with me here just as much as I need it with me out there!" Ichigo exclaimed.

He'd had some time to think about a lot of things when he was fighting Shiro, and he'd figured out how Shiro was wielding his own blade instead of the inverse version. Shiro had forced Zangetsu's physical manifestation to recede so he could take the blade, forcing Ichigo to fight without. It was also another way of stopping Ichigo from taking back control, but he wasn't defeated that easily.

The other thing he had thought about was that particular memory he'd been subjected to. There had to be a reason for that specific one to come to him like that, and he had a pretty strong hunch it had to do with why Shiro was freaking out.

"I'm trying to help you! You can't just take back all your powers and not expect to be taken back! They've had years to sink their claws into your soul, you can't just make them let go!" Shiro spat at Ichigo. So he was right.

"But I'm not taking back my quincy powers - do you see me holding Ossan's blade? You're both Zangetsu, and I have to accept both of you to have both blades." Ichigo retorted. Shiro hissed. Ichigo was right, and he knew it.

The first time he'd ended up in the Old Worlds, it was quincies who had somehow brought him there. He had had no idea how they were forcing him to leave his body and go there, but he'd always just assumed they were using his quincy powers as a connection. It didn't really explain how they managed to pull him out of his human body when his quincy and other powers were only present and accessible when he was in the Old World, but it was the only explanation he had. Even when Ossan had revealed to him that he was actually a manifestation of quincy powers directly derived from the father of all quincy - "The Father" as his real name was taboo - Ichigo still hadn't connected it. But now when he was forced to look back to the first time he had summoned spirit ribbons, he realized the light blue threads - his quincy power - had felt cagey and tense. Those quincies weren't relying on his quincy powers themselves, but the connection he had to whoever was the father of the quincy. After all, the quincies had called him the son born of darkness...

That also meant that The Father had a connection to him, and if he took back his quincy powers, he'd be exposed. Both Yhwach and the quincies could force him back there, and that was not what he wanted.

"Then you don't really deserve this blade - it's both of us or none! You purposely suppressed us when you were in your human body, so how can you truly accept us?!" Shiro shot back. It was an excuse, but Ichigo would answer his spirit nonetheless.

"You really think I would shut you out from my human life - why do you think I was so upset when I finally saw you?! I thought you had abandoned me, that you weren't real! I wasn't suppressing you, something else was. If those bastard Gottlich could force my soul to travel to another world, what's to say they couldn't seal my powers when I wasn't in the Old World? I couldn't even leave my body!" Ichigo said.

Shiro looked a little hesitant now, but he still refused to let Ichigo take back his blade.

"That doesn't excuse you from winter wonderland over there!" Shiro snarled with a jerk of his head towards the ice prison. Ichigo's determined expression fell slightly.

"Would I hide who I am from you? Have I ever shied away from my failures or tried to shield you from my shame? I didn't mean to make that thing, but I didn't want you to see... I just wanted to protect you..." Ichigo said quietly. Shiro was faltering more now, hearing the truth in Ichigo's words. It pissed him off to no end.

"What, you think we're too weak to handle whatever's in there?! You think we're not equipped to deal with your shit?! It's not your job to protect us!" Shiro shot back. Ichigo's eyes flashed and he ripped Zangetsu from Shiro's hands to disappear through his chest.

"YES IT IS!" Ichigo screamed as power surrounded him.

"Ichigo!" Shiro shrieked.

He tried to restrain Ichigo, but there was too much power flowing out of Ichigo to stop him completely. Ichigo was holding Zangetsu in his hand now, the blade's inverse back with his inner spirit. The two struggled with each other, but it was too late for Shiro to do any damage. Ichigo was fading from his inner world faster than Shiro could pull him back.

Water violently churned and thunder rolled as Ichigo's inner world reacted violently to the change. Black ooze began shooting out of the skyscraper in an explosion of glass to bubble over and mix with the pelting rain. Things weren't looking good, but at least nothing was on fire or being burned by acid, so Ichigo continued to pull himself away from his inner world.

Darkness encroached.

x

Pain lanced through Ichigo as he panted. He could feel his power roiling inside him, but he refused to release it.

Dizzy and nauseous, Ichigo raised his head to try and see where he was and what was happening. His golden eyes locked with cerulean ones. He didn't know the electric blue-haired arrancar crouching before him, but some part of him recognized the man. It was obvious this was who Shiro had been fighting, but he had a feeling he might have met him when he was in his suspended hollow state.

Frozen in place, the arrancar kept his eyes glued on Ichigo, evaluating and silently appraising him. Ichigo mostly did the same, but the strange feeling tugging at his soul was a bit distracting. It hurt a lot, and it felt like something was trying to drag him somewhere. That immediately made him think of the quincies and shove his reiatsu down, violently pushing that tug away. He needed to get away from here, he needed to hide somewhere until he could get things under control. He couldn't stay hollowfied like this forever, and he could already feel his hollow powers receding. This transformation wouldn't last.

"Well, that was one hell of a surprise, got anything else you wanna show me?" The arrancar asked, carefully watching Ichigo.

Ichigo instinctively flinched at his voice, but neglected to answer. Instead he dragged himself up to stand, warily watching the arrancar as he continued to pant. The two watched each other for a tense heartbeat before the Ichgio raised Zangetsu. The other was immediately on guard, but there was no need. Ichigo didn't plan on finishing this fight.

Raising his sword to cut the sky, Ichigo focused not on the instinctive pull towards the Empty, using his shinigami side to draw a destination.

"Oh no you don't!" The arrancar yelled as Ichigo's hybrid garganta split the air.

He shot forward to try and grab Ichigo, but only managed to grab air as Ichigo flashed through the rip, closing it behind him as quick as possible. Darkness stretched out before him as he ran along reishi platforms. He wasn't sure exactly where he was going, but so long as it wasn't the Empty or the Old Worlds, he was fine.


San Teikoku - Three empires

Nejireta - twisted

Gottlich - divine


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Chapter Text

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.


Inner Speech/Thoughts

Shiro (Zangetsu)

The Old Man/Ossan (Zangetsu)

Chapter 8: Revelations and Tribulations

-x-

Kisuke Urahara

"What... is that?" Isshin asked in shock and disgust.

Everyone stood around what could only be described as an oil spill corpse, twisted black limbs splayed out on Kisuke's examining table. Kisuke had originally wanted to leave the Kurosakis and guests out of this, but Yuzu still needed to identify the creature and Rukia had resolutely insisted once she heard the way Yoruichi was describing the creature. Curse that pipsqueak's superior hearing.

"Something I've never seen before." Kisuke answered darkly.

Masaki and Isshin shot each other concerned looks. If Kisuke didn't even know what it was, this was serious. Yoruichi frowned at the thing she had transported to Kisuke's shop. She hadn't really expected everyone to follow Kisuke here like this to inspect the creature, but she supposed that's what you get when all your plans get interrupted. Now everyone was staring at the monster in stasis with a variety of expressions.

Rukia and Kisuke both had the same intense expression of calculation and concern. Chad seemed mostly neutral, but his hands were gripped into tight fists as he sat to the side with Yuzu so she wouldn't have to look at the creature again. Masaki and Isshin were both looking between Yuzu and the creature with concern and a certain degree of horror. Karin sat pale and stiff, clenching her jaw. Orihime just looked plain disgusted.

"Where the hell did this thing come from, Kisuke?" Yoruichi asked. Kisuke hid a grimace behind his fan. That was the million-dollar question, but he'd really hoped they wouldn't crack open that can of worms so soon.

"Well... To explain that, I'm going to have to take you all through a little history lesson." Kisuke said.

Ushering everyone away from the creature and into his meeting room (or "Sleepover Headquarters," if you will), Kisuke got out the set of set of files and devices he needed. Once everyone was seated and sipping at their tea, courtesy of Tessai, Kisuke clasped his hands over the table.

"I know that our senior members of the supernatural world know their history, but there are quite a few youngsters here with no such knowledge, so bear with me until I get to the main parts." Kisuke said. Taking a deep breathe, Kisuke launched into the deep history of the world.

"As you already know, our world consists of three realms - which we still ironically refer to as worlds - connected by various pathways through the Dangai. Each world is claimed by a different race, save the World of the Living where Quincies managed to develop different from humans. But less known or talked about is the fourth realm, the Royal Realm. Unlike the Soul Society, World of the Living, and Hueco Mundo, the Royal Realm has been around for a different amount of time. It would make sense for the Royal Realm to exist if it came into existence after the other realms, but the Royal Realm is actually eons older than the others." Kisuke said.

Orihime and Chad were both listening, fascinated while Yuzu and Karin absorbed the information with wide eyes.

"Not only this, but there's an entire city within the Royal Realm. The ruins there, specifically a massive palace, leave a massive mystery about the nature of our world. While no one knows just what the Royal Realm is or why it contains relics and traces from quincies, shinigami, and arrancar, it remains untouchable and impervious to time. There are many theories as to what it means and how it came to be located from the Soul Society, but the most popular one is that it at one point in time held a being responsible for balance between the worlds and some sort of disaster had erased this being and the civilizations it ruled over." Kisuke said.

He himself had studied the Royal Realm extensively, and this theory was indeed the most plausible. It still left everything about the Royal Realm shrouded in mystery, so he had gone farther than any before him to try and figure out the various puzzles of that realm. It had ended quite disastrously, but at least he could use his knowledge to help his long time friends and new pupils.

"I personally suspect that this being had more to do with the traffic and flow of souls rather than balance based on the warnings left behind in it's palace. Very few people share this suspicion though, and the first theory is almost always accepted as truth." Kisuke said with a sigh. One would never learn if they simply accepted theory as fact.

"Why?" Orihime asked. Kisuke seemed very smart to her, and from the way he talked about the world, it seemed like he'd been around for a long time.

"Because it suggests that the balance had been tipped before in favor of the shinigami. Shinigami are in charge of regulating soul traffic actively. That would fault them for tipping that balance and destroying the previous civilizations." Isshin said with a frown. He'd never heard Kisuke voice this theory before, or really talk about the Royal Realm in general.

"Ah, but not necessarily. There is absolutely no trace of the civilizations that were indicated to exist from the Royal Realm. If it really was the shinigami's fault, there would have been some evidence of destruction, some trace in any of the three worlds, but there is none. It's as if the Royal Realm is from a completely different existence..." Kisuke said slyly.

He couldn't help but enjoy getting his guests to think and question like this. Maybe he just wanted them to experience the same thrill of a mystery that he had (minus the terrible consequences of what had happened because of it).

"Despite what Central 46 would have you believe, no one knows just what lays hidden inside the Royal Realm. What we know is carefully regulated to reveal only what is explicitly meant for all. The rest hides inside the Royal Palace, protected by secret barriers, spells, and booby traps as well as guarded by squad zero and special Schutzstaffel. The only race not to place guards in the Royal Realm are arrancar, but that's simply because they feel the information there is mostly beneficial to the other races as well as biased." Kisuke said.

"I myself have been lucky enough to be within one of the research teams tasked with the Royal Realm, but my curiosity came with a price..." Kisuke said ominously.

Isshin, Masaki and Yoruichi were suddenly listening more intently than before. They all knew that Kisuke had been exiled from the Soul Society the same way that Masaki had, in a tangle of rules and regulations twisted by some shady force. But they never knew the exact details. Yoruichi was the only one to know that it had to do with his time in the Royal Realm, but that wasn't anywhere near a full story.

"For as many deterrents and precautions within the palace to prevent curious minds from indulging themselves, their defenses aren't impenetrable. The palace itself is surprisingly sentient, certain sections rejecting any entry no matter the purpose of an individual. Some of these restrictions contradict the modern outside defenses. I was studying near one such permanently closed sections when I somehow managed to trigger a release. I still don't know exactly what allowed me to enter that section of the palace, but it's the result of my entry that matters." Kisuke said.

Sure, the question of what he had done to unlock parts of the palace burned in his mind like a thousand suns every single time he even thought about that blasted palace of endless mysteries to the point of becoming an unreachable itch only satisfied by destroying that tantalizing challenge, but he could ignore that for now. Definitely.

"I obviously can't tell you what I saw in there..." Kisuke said with a smirk. "But I can tell you one of the things I learned as a result."

"You see, our world is actually made up of far more nothing than things, something figured out even by human scientists. But the addition of multiple realms and an afterlife complicates things. No one has really thought to explore the space outside these realms because of the existence of the dangai. The dangai suggests that even in the spaces between things, there has to be something. This assumption is wrong." Kisuke said.

"You're not going to turn our whole reality upside down... are you?" Isshin asked weakly. He'd had far too many conversations with the man that had started with the weather and ended with the true meaning of life. Kisuke grinned.

"Not today..." Kisuke said. Isshin didn't feel any better.

"It's nonsensical to compare reality with the dangai in a set of standards. You have to look at what something's made up of and pick it apart. Our world in concept is nothing but a set of delicate balances in unknown contradictions, concepts and their opposites, so we can tell already that there has to be a place of nothing to contradict everything." Kisuke explained with a wave of his hand. Everyone just stared at him blankly. Kisuke scratched his head.

"Ah, sorry... I mean to say that the place between worlds isn't a place at all, but the opposite of reality. It's completely empty outside of the different realms and worlds." Kisuke said.

"Oooooooooh." Everyone chorused.

"Even though this are can't be considered a place, I've still chosen to give it a working name to simplify things: Muko. Because Muko is technically nothing, it's the natural host for places of existence to come into being. How our world was born is unclear, but it's starting place was likely in Muko. Once reality became structured enough or some other element was introduced, our world could no longer be considered within Muko. It is my belief that the Royal Realm is actually the remnant of another world separate to ours." Kisuke said.

Everyone was silent for a moment before everyone began to talk at once. Sitting amidst the chaos calmly, Orihime's hand shot up and she patiently waited for Kisuke to notice her.

"Ah! Miss Inoue." Kisuke yelled over the talking. Orihime sat up straighter.

"Um, so you're saying that there's another world we don't know about... And you're telling us all this because of that creature we found... Do you think that creature is from this other world?" Orihime asked. Kisuke flipped his fan open and grinned. He was going to enjoy teaching his new pupils.

"Yes, but it's important to understand that this other world doesn't have to be anything like ours. It could be similar to the dangai, which would explain this creature's strange appearance and abilities. When I say that the Royal Realm is a remnant of this other world, I don't mean that it was never apart of our world because that would make no sense. There's just too much evidence of all the races in the Royal Realm; it obviously belongs to this world. I'm saying that the Royal Realm once held a connection to this other place. It would be like the World of the Living being attached to the Soul Society through the dangai for centuries until one day the dangai was somehow destroyed. The World of the Living would still be in the same place and be connected to Hueco Mundo, you just couldn't get to it directly from the Soul Society. While the main pathway is gone, there are still other ways to get through, and that's what this creature has done, found another path through the Royal Realm into the World of the Living." Kisuke said.

"There could be more of these creatures, undetected?" Masaki asked with a dangerous edge to her voice.

The only reason she let her children have the freedom they did in such a dangerous world was because Kisuke helped to make that world less dangerous by constantly tracking everything and warning them. He'd promised them they would be safe here because he knew this world in and out, knew everything that went on the moment it came into existence.

Kisuke felt a slight shiver. He admitted this instance was his fault, a random blunder that had nearly cost Masaki's little girl her life. He'd taken this town as his responsibility and made a point of being precise and accurate in everything he did. It was a point of great pride for him, so for something like this to happen was serious. He knew full well he needed to fix this.

"Possibly... But not the same type of creature that attacked Yuzu." Kisuke said.

Pulling out a small laptop, Kisuke opened it up to display a line graph of sorts charting something in colorful marks and hues. Everyone huddled around to see the screen better.

"What you see here is the culmination of fifteen years and nine months of dedicated research and recording, the continuation of a mystery I discovered while monitoring Karakura Town in person. Yoruichi-san knows of the work I'm showing you, but I'm afraid i haven't been all that honest in sharing the true nature of my mystery signature." Kisuke said with a slightly sheepish grin to Yoruichi.

Yoruichi just rolled her eyes. She knew Kisuke hadn't been completely truthful with her, but that didn't stop her from helping him with his investigation. That's just how the madman worked, and it was better to trust that his plans were half in the dark for a reason.

"You see, fifteen years ago I picked up on reiatsu like I had never experienced before. It was powerful and heavy, but unbelievably restrained and more importantly, untraceable. I only felt it for a few minutes before it was gone again, as if it had never even existed. When I went to check my sensors, I found that they hadn't picked up on anything abnormal, so I re-calibrated and resumed vigilance. It was obvious that I had felt reiatsu, but that was all I could feel, that it was reiatsu. Not that it was a result of a person's reiryoku or was even tied to a person." Kisuke said.

"Stranger yet was that this reiatsu held no signature scent, no defining feature that could tell me if or what it was tied to. That's what made it untraceable and largely undetected, that there wasn't any object, person, or creature for me to track it to. This is why my sensors weren't picking up on anything. But I knew something was there, so I began checking averages and their distributions until I finally found something abnormal." Kisuke said.

Fiddling with the keys, Kisuke pulled up a piece of the graph where a strange shape was depicted next to the line. Pressing something, Kisuke showed everyone a small animation of the strange shape developing from a blue dot to a sort of spectral circle growing in size until it imploded, collapsing in on itself.

"I discovered that there had been an overlooked anomaly in Karakura town developing before I felt the mystery reiatsu. It had originally been overlooked because the shape and nature of the reishi distribution occurring was similar to a senkaimon or gargantua, only rougher and about 30x smaller. By my calculations, the reiatsu had been displacing reishi like this in the Living World for about 9 months before I felt it, meaning that it had been slowly leaking into the Living World from somewhere else and pooling into a specific point. Once the entirety of the energy had finished pooling and developing, the reishi displacement ceased and the reiatsu became complete, finally releasing a signature that only I had felt for some reason. The animation I just showed you depicts this happening, but notice that once the reiatsu reaches a certain size (completion), the shape collapses in on itself and disappears. That means that whatever portal or opening allowing this reiatsu and its owner to come through closed as soon as everything was through. It's no longer accessible." Kisuke said.

"That should mean that the two foreign creatures, the fifteen year old resident and the newer resident are not the same creature. But it doesn't mean they aren't from the same place." Kisuke said.

He then showed them a point on the graph where the line wavered and suddenly shot up from a cool blue to an angry red.

"It wasn't until four years after the first signature that I got another one, but this one was just as untraceable as the first. While still unable to get a location, I was finally able to get a hit on the reiatsu itself. It wasn't detailed enough to even classify it as living or not, but it was enough to mark it as a variable that I could pick up on. A variable scarily similar to this popped up when I began testing the week old creature." Kisuke said. Yoruichi's eyes widened.

"You've finally found out where your mystery signature came from: Muko." Yoruichi said.

Kisuke couldn't help but smirk. It was unbelievably satisfying to be able to gain so much headway on something that had been escaping him for fifteen years. He would celebrate if it wasn't for the situation at hand.

"Yes, there's no other place it could come from." Kisuke confirmed. Masaki frowned.

"And just what kind of creature is this?" Masaki asked.

"Considering there hasn't been mass slaughter or chaos, it's either neutral or friendly. I don't know more because frankly, I believe someone has been trying to hide it. Readings from the mystery signature after I got a hit out on it became much more frequent but far weaker. Five years after that there was another signature just as powerful as the very first, but immediately after there was absolutely no activity for three years. When it did come back, it was about five times stronger than the first. Since then readings had been frequent but weak until the pattern proved true again. My sensors practically exploded the night of the academy incident, immediately went quiet, and then picked up on Friday. For signatures to spike up stronger each time only to be squashed back down immediately after seems a bit fishy..." Kisuke said.

"You think someone has been putting seals on the mystery signature?" Yoruichi asked, putting it together.

"Indeed. But the seals must be proving too weak for the rate of growth the signature is showing, which is why we get such a strange pattern. Whatever it is is getting stronger, and while my graph doesn't quite point this out, my new pupils surprisingly do!" Kisuke said with a grin to Chad and Orihime.

The two in question looked extremely confused as well as put on the spot.

"But the strangest thing we've come across was my brother and now this mean old little-girl-snatcher." Orihime said.

"That you know of. Since I first began tracking my little mystery signature, souls in Karakura town have been reaching spiritual awareness faster and faster each year, and those that aren't are saving up more and more power. You and your particular group of friends, Tatsuki, Keigo, and Mizuiro stood out. Each of you were storing more and more power coming from a foreign source that just so happened to resemble my mystery signature. Seals can only hold so much power, and when you get a soul or creature growing as fast as the mystery signature, then excess power is bound to leak out and affect the souls around it." Kisuke said.

"Is that why we ended up with powers?" Chad asked. Kisuke hummed.

"Yes and no. The powers you have are a part of your soul and have always had the potential to develop in you. Normally these powers wouldn't have awoken until you died and went to the Soul Society, but the foreign power affecting you sped up that process over the years. Your encounter at the academy is what boosted you to the point of spiritual awareness, which is why it is now paramount that you regain your memories of your time there. You bear the signature of the newer creature." Kisuke said. Orihime paled.

"That creature was at the academy? Oh god, is that what killed that poor teacher?" Orihime asked in a horrified voice. Chad put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but he didn't look that well himself.

"Unfortunately, yes. I asked Yoruichi-san to take those special readings at the academy because that night my mystery signature was acting up. When I got the readings back, there were mixed signatures. Parts of it were close to my mystery signature, but other parts were different. Knowing now that you were involved, it makes sense since you still carried the mystery signature's scent during the incident." Kisuke said.

He might have been twisting things to make it seem like he had just stumbled upon these observations, but it was necessary. A little lying was alright if it managed to help them out in the end.

"So then there's obviously still a path open from Muko to our world - how else would this creature be here? It's entirely possible that these creatures are running around undetected." Masaki said, frowning at Kisuke.

"I'm actually quite certain of the opposite. This creature is likely to be the only other one currently here, and only for about a week at that." Kisuke said.

"But you just said these creatures have another way to get here - unless you know where it is, there's no way of stopping them from coming here." Yoruichi pointed out.

"Ah, this is where things get interesting. " Kisuke asked.

"If these creatures did have a way of getting here unhindered, then why was it just the one fifteen years ago and this one? The timeline between the two makes no sense and is unlikely to be a coincidence. What's also odd is that this creature was released on the anniversary of the fifteen year old creature's arrival. Even if a pathway just happened to open up, there wouldn't be anything stopping it from staying open and allowing more creatures to come through, but there's no evidence of any other creatures, and I would have picked up on an opening had it existed for more than a couple days. No, the pathway was clearly opened just long enough for a single creature to get through before immediately closing. All these instances are far too purposeful, too coordinated to be an accident or the work of something short-planned." Kisuke said, pausing slightly.

"It's almost as if this was a test, letting only one creature out to study it, use it like a scout... It seems someone purposely released this creature." Kisuke said.

Yoruichi's eyes hardened. Kisuke hadn't named any suspects, but she had a couple of people in mind from her and Kisuke's past that would do something like this. Rukia spoke up for the first time in a long while.

"And just who do you think would do something like that? You bring up a serious accusation that will no doubt require an investigation." Rukia said.

Kisuke hid his souring smile behind his fan. He'd never meant to bring the dutiful local shinigami into this, but he had had no choice after she had joined their little party and seen far too much. There was no way he could exclude her without looking exceedingly suspicious, so he was going to have to include her and hope she remained true.

"Indeed, but there will be no formal investigation." Kisuke said. Rukia stiffened.

"And why not? You've stumbled across a threat that needs to be addressed immediately! An investigation led by the Gotei 13 and facilitated by the Lichtreich would quickly find the perpetrators and bring them to justice before anyone else gets hurt. Not to mention the theories you suggest about our world and this 'Muko' are groundbreaking!" Rukia exclaimed.

"While your trust in your superiors is admirable, this isn't something you can just trust them with." Yoruichi interjected. Rukia bristled at the interpreted insult, but Kisuke held up a hand.

"We mean no offense to the people you no doubt hold in high regard, but Yoruichi-san is right. No one outside of us can know about this for a couple of reasons." Kisuke said.

Huffing still, Rukia crossed her arms and waited for Kisuke to continue. This whole deal smelled of criminal element, and the supposed humble shop keeper was looking shadier and shadier, but Yoruichi obviously trusted him. She was one of Rukia's superiors, so if even she felt bringing this information to the Gotei 13 was a bad idea, there must be a good reason.

"For every straight-laced good samaritan doing his duty, there is a hidden snake operating in the shadows - I should know!" Kisuke laughed with a bright grin. Yoruichi's eyebrow twitched. If this is what he thought easing Rukia's suspicions meant, he was never going to win her over.

"You see, when snooped around the academy incident and came up with those null signatures, I kept them in my data bank to see if any signatures popped up again, just in case. Imagine my surprise when they didn't show up in the academy feed! Surely the academy officials had this same signature entered in - they too never skip over null signatures. But when I checked, there was no signature. It had been completely erased along with a few other things from the file." Kisuke said, snapping his fan shut.

"Someone on the inside erased those signatures so no one would find out that creature had been there. Whoever did it is most likely connected to the people who released this creature in the first place. They could only know about such a creature and where it's from if they also knew about my mystery signature, so most likely I wasn't the only one to detect the fifteen year old outsider. That means that they've had years to plan this. There could be spies, informants, and insiders everywhere if they managed to penetrate such a tight-knit community of sticklers like the quincies. Releasing this kind of information... would put everyone in this room in danger." Kisuke said.

Rukia's pensive gaze shifted at that as she looked around the room. Civilians, innocents, exiles, children... Two of the people here had already been hurt by someone pulling strings from within the Gotei, and even an official within the organization didn't trust them.

"I'm going to ask something big of you, Rukia. You can of course say no, but I must ask you to consider for our sakes. Can we trust you to keep this secret? Kisuke asked.

Rukia looked around at everyone in the room again, a little put out. Masaki and Isshin were watching her passively, Chad and Orihime curious, Karin apprehensive, Yuzu concerned, Yoruichi unreadable, and Kisuke solemn. Shaking her head, Rukia sighed.

"Can you really expect me to say no? My job is to protect the innocents of this world first and foremost. No one will know about what's happened here." Rukia said, the last part resolute.

Orihime and Yuzu whooped as the tension immediately dissolved, everyone relaxing and thanking Rukia. Isshin cried loudly in relief while Karin yelled at him, Orhime chatting excitedly to Kisuke about changing the club name to "Super Secret Educational Extracurricular Academic Student Club." Rukia tried to cut through the noise by standing up, but it wasn't really that attention-grabbing, so she began to yell over everyone.

"HEY! I didn't say my silence was without cost!" Rukia yelled. Kisuke had a feeling he knew what she was demanding, but it was all part of his plan.

"Fair enough." Kisuke said, solemn expression back (no longer genuine). Orihime nodded and sat down by Rukia.

"Then we must each give you a lock of our hair as a symbolic show of our mercy to your will." Orihime said with a sage look. Everyone looked at Orihime.

"Erm, no... and why?" Rukia asked. Orihime tapped her pointer fingers together innocently.

"Because they did it in a movie...?" She answered.

"What the hell kind of movies do you watch?" Karin muttered from the back. Coughing, Rukia brought the conversation back to her.

"I'll keep quiet about this on one condition: I investigate with you. I'm a part of this as much as the rest of you, and I can't just leave you to fight this on your own." Rukia said putting her hands on her hips.

Kisuke clapped and cried out happily.

"Another member for the Super Secret Educational Extracurricular Academic Student Club!" He cried. Orihime clapped too and gave Rukia a celebratory hug.

"Wait, that's not - " Rukia said.

"Meetings are every day after school from 3:00 to 5:30! New members get a free T-shirt with the logo a week after joining!" Kisuke jabbered on. Rukia tried to stop him as he whipped out a bunch of informational pamphlets and random club merch, but there was no stopping the madman.

"I DIDN'T AGREE TO THIS!" Rukia hollered.

-x-

Ichigo Godebert

Birds were chirping merrily, but Ichigo was far from happy.

This sucks ass, Ichigo...

I thought I told you to shut up and try and sleep. Ichigo shot back.

And I thought I told you this was a shitty idea.

Look, it's not like doing this will shut out my hollow powers - it just makes full hollowification off-limits. I can at least still summon my mask and use ceros and stuff.

...

...Just don't do anything stupid.

Ichigo sighed.

It wasn't exactly his first choice to shove down his inner spirits like this so soon after reconnecting, but it was the only way he could think to stop his soul from careening back through the Empty to the Old Worlds. He had hoped to deal with the issue immediately, but that plan was thrown out the window when he ended up in what he assumed was the Soul Society instead of the World of the Living. Worse yet, his hollow transformation had timed out the moment he left Hueco Mundo, probably because he was having to squash down his reiatsu to hide himself. That left his soul in the state Shiro had been trying to heal it from...

He knew he was sick, but that was just the norm back in the Old Worlds. The signature cough he remembered Mari having turned out to be not so signature after all as literally everyone had violent lung infections and illnesses from the terrible air quality. Ichigo himself was no exception and ironically had the same cough that he had in his human body, though surprisingly a little better from the murder-healing Shiro had done.

You're welcome... Shiro muttered.

What did I say about sleeping? Ichigo said.

Shiro continued to mutter something colorful, but Ichigo ignored him. He was too busy trying to calm his inner world enough that Shiro could slip into the same sleep Ossan was in. Eventually he felt the inner spirit fading into the background as a stuffy tight-feeling took over. It was remarkably similar to the feeling Ichigo'd had anytime he was upset in his human body...

Those bastards had done something to him to make his powers inaccessible to him in his human body, but he had no idea what. He searched deep within his soul to try and find it a couple times, but he'd been largely unsuccessful. He had gotten pretty close to the connection within his quincy powers, but that was a different matter he couldn't deal with here.

Leaning his head back against a tree, Ichigo let out a shaky sigh. He felt exactly as he normally did in his human body - achy, exhausted, and sick - but much deeper in a different sense. It felt almost like he was rotting, but being here in this lush and healthy world full of beautiful greenery and fresh air seemed to be easing it at the least. Ichigo thought back to what Shiro had said about Ichigo just being in the Old Worlds being enough to make him sick and realized he was more right than he wanted to admit. He'd never really thought about being in a place of death and decay that severe would affect him in the same way, but it made sense.

Jesus, he really needed to find a way out of here, or at least someplace safe to hide for now. Ichigo slowly got up with a grunt and looked around him again. He was in some kind of forest, but he could sense quite a few souls off in the distance, probably some sort of town. As much as he hated the idea of going to an area with people, he really couldn't think of anywhere else he could find some clothes to hide his appearance. He was fully aware of how striking he looked, wild orange hair going down past his shoulders and scarred body clearly in poor shape (he was only well-muscled when hollowfied since his body was already being altered by massive amounts of reiatsu).

Ichigo pushed off from the tree and began wandering in the general direction of the town, guard up for anything. Zangetsu hung loosely on his back as he walked, somewhat strange without his other blade at his side, but he would do.

Ichigo traveled like this with little incident for many hours, silently admiring the wildlife and lush plants. Everything felt so alive here, it was hard to believe this place was once the Soul Society he knew. It was kind of refreshing to see this beautiful world thriving in place of that barren landscape. Like a sort of do-over.

Crossing over a clear flowing stream, Ichigo paused and marveled at the water. He'd never seen water this clear in the Soul Society, and seeing it now made him realize just how thirsty he was. Ichigo bent down and put a tentative hand out to test the water out of habit (drink acid just once and you're guaranteed to be paranoid), flinching back when he felt how cold it was. He'd find this pleasant any other time, but now his heart began to thump and his breathe quickened.

Lightless rooms flashed through his head as he began to shake. He was shaking back then too, but not from fear anymore. He was freezing, so cold, so cold... so cold...cold...

A twig snapping to the right of Ichigo drew him out of his revery, whirling around to face the intruder, Zangetsu already in hand. It was... just a kid.

"Whoah! Is that real?! Are you a shinigami? Why are you so dirty looking? Did you just get back from a mission? What squad are you from?" He rapid-fire questioned with wide eyes.

Ichigo reluctantly forced himself to drop his aggressive stance. He was still a bit twitchy as the kid ran up to him, flinching back when the kid tried to reach out and touch Zangetsu. The kid took a step back and seemed to reevaluate Ichigo and his guarded expression as he scrunched up his nose.

"You're not an outlaw or something, are you? The Onmitsukido'll find you for sure..." He said. Ichigo frowned.

"Who are the Onimatsukedo?" Ichigo said, fumbling slightly around the unfamiliar name. It sounded a little similar to something he might have heard, but he still didn't know it. The kid just looked at him with wide eyes.

"You don't know who they are? But you've got a zanpakuto, which means you're a shinigami and besides, everyone knows who they are! That's like saying you don't know who Yamamoto is!" He exclaimed. Ichigo gave him a blank look.

"The eight noble clans? Central 46? The 13 captains? Nothing?" He asked.

Ichigo shook his head to all of them, though he did know that the Soul Society's military had once been governed by 13 captains or something. He didn't know their names or anything though. The kid gasped suddenly and pointed at Ichigo.

"Amnesia!" He cried.

"What?" Ichigo asked, confused. The kid began waving his arms around as he excited himself.

"Amnesia! You fought some super-crazy hollow or something that stole all your memories! That's why you're wandering around here all like 'eeeeh, I'm so wounded and tired, who am I ~, where am I ~'." The kid imitated in a cheesy version of Ichigo stumbling around with a weak expression. Ichigo growled.

"Hey! I wasn't walking around like that, and I remember who I am!" Ichigo exclaimed with a small bout of coughing somewhat ruining the end. He really didn't need this right now, he was sick enough as it was. The kid paused at that and thought for a moment before snapping his fingers.

"The hollow only took your memories of being a shinigami so you couldn't remember how to fight it or get home! I'm a genius!" He cried, throwing up his arms. Ichigo groaned and put his hands over his face. Misunderstanding Ichigo's annoyance for pain, the kid quickly ran over to stand in front of him.

"Don't worry! I have a super secret base out here in the woods with some stuff you could use. Then I can take you into town -" He said.

"No." Ichigo said in a gruff voice with a step back. The kid finally seemed to get that Ichigo wasn't exactly fond of people and stopped jumping around, childish features falling.

"No one's gonna hurt you, you know..." He said. Ichigo stiffened.

"That's not how this world works." Ichigo said in a cold voice. At least that's not how his world worked.

"Well I won't hurt you!" The kid huffed. Ichigo scoffed lightly.

"Like you could even if you wanted." Ichigo said in an oddly somber voice. The kid wouldn't know it, but Ichigo was pretty sure he'd been through too much to even hold a playfight without going overboard. The kid puffed up his chest, offended.

"I could! I found this super secret training place where shinigami go to train - and I've picked up some moves from watching them! I'm gonna become a shinigami and beat up bad guys and hollows! Like this!" He cried, jumping around and fending off imaginary enemies. Ichigo couldn't help but snort again at the ridiculous sound effects, but he could feel the ghost of a smile tugging at his usual weary expression.

"And what's your name, Oh Great Warrior?" Ichigo asked. The kid stopped his mock fight to strike a heroic pose.

"Ori Mishuira!" Ori cried. Ichigo couldn't help but feel a little guilty that Ori's goofy antics weren't shutting down his defenses. He wasn't a bad kid, he was just a little too curious for his own good.

"What's your name?" Ori asked. Ichigo paused. He hadn't thought about what name he would give, but he'd learned long ago to never give his real name. A thought struck Ichigo and he gave a small bow.

"Tensa." Ichigo said. Ori put a hand up to his chin and nodded.

"Single name, I like it. Makes you seem all mysterious-like. You wanna go to my secret base and eat something - my mom just made snacks!" Ori said hopefully.

Ichigo immediately began weighing his options. As nice as Ori seemed, he wasn't all that willing to go with him when there was a chance the kid would drag him into some situation where he actually had to interact with other people or go into town. Ichigo just wasn't a trusting person. On the other hand, Ori seemed to know a lot about the Soul Society that Ichigo didn't, and maybe he had something Ichigo could use to hide his hair? Some clothes for him would be good too, and he could always do with food...

"Only if we don't go into town." Ichigo said with a firm look. Ori cheered and immediately began telling him all about his base.

The two walked like that for a while, Ori telling Ichigo all about the Soul Society, Hueco Mundo, the World of the Living, and anything else he knew about with some rather animated explanations. Ichigo would just hum or grunt in response, gratefully taking the pauses Ori granted him whenever he broke out into a coughing fit. Ori would look at him in concern, but Ichigo would just wave it off. They conversed like that, Ichigo patiently absorbing the information. He ended up learning that the Soul Society was basically a massive country split up by the eight noble clans and ruled by the shinigami in a sort of soul bureaucracy. Judiciary duties were taken care of almost exclusively by an organization called Central 46, though there were plenty of checks and balances to keep too much power from being put in their branch. Ori said it was a great honor to be elected as one of the many wise men or judges, and most members had to train their entire life in the matters of legislation, judiciary authority, civil duties, as well as having extensive knowledge of Soul Society from elite life to lower rukongai slums.

This sounded vastly different to the stuffy old aristocrats Ichigo had heard once ruled over Soul Society in the Old Worlds. He'd never met them or had experience with them, but from the way Mari and other shinigami from the old government described things, it was best that the military branch took over.

That was the part Ori ended up talking about the most, the military organization called the Gotei 13. He told Ichigo about so many captains and lieutenants that ichigo just ended up forgetting all their names. He did however, make a point of trying to remember the names of a separate squad that apparently wasn't considered apart of the Gotei 13. Ori was a little spotty on just how that squad had come to be, but he did know that they were made up of former captains and lieutenants who had been involved in a serious scandal a while ago. Like Ichigo, they weren't just shinigami. They had become special shinigami-hollow souls called Vizards after a terrible accident, but were mistakenly blamed for it and exiled. Several captains including a fellow exile fought the case and revealed that the Vizards were innocent, having been experimented on without their knowledge or consent.

After that, positions were shuffled around and the Vizards were allowed to live in the World of the Living as a separate entity so long as they didn't mess with anything Gotei. Ichigo found it extremely suspicious that no one ever found the person responsible for the experiments but continued to go on with everything with no more investigation. It was also pretty shady that the Vizards had been exiled so quickly in the first place, but those were just his feelings.

What ended up interesting Ichigo the most was what Ori had to say about the Quincy. Ichigo had of course heard of the Quincy academies, but he'd never looked into it because he'd spent so long thinking he was crazy. At the time he thought he's just made up everything based on things from the real world, just like how every lie held a kernel of truth. Now that he'd been forced to come to terms with everything being real again, he had so many questions about the quincies right under his nose.

Did he know any quincies? Did they know about him? Why were there significantly more quincies here than there were in the Old Worlds? Why were these quincies so different from the ones serving Yhwach? How could they exist without Yhwach?

But there were no answers when he was stuck in this world, and he couldn't very well straight up ask them or the shinigami. Come to think of it, what was he going to do? He didn't have anywhere to go, and things had actually gotten much worse for him. He didn't have a human life anymore and now he was being hunted down by probably everyone as well as still connected to the problems in the Old Worlds.

Is that what he would do? Go back to the Old Worlds and continue the fight? If he went back there, he'd fight through unimaginable horrors yet again. If he lost, he'd die. If he won, he'd die. But he knew what would happen if he didn't do something... and there was still very much the part of him from the bridge...

"We're here!" Ori cried, breaking through Ichigo's dark thoughts.

"Welcome to Mishuira Base!" Ori said with a flourish.

"Mishuira Base" was not the dinky little stick fort Ichigo had expected, but a full-on chunk of ancient Japanese mansion peacefully rotting away under creeping vines and plants. Two stories high, the mansion was sticking diagonally out of the ground as if it had been ripped off from the original mansion and just dumped here. Ichigo could clearly see the parts of it where it had been ripped away from the original building, splintered wood blending with the ground as centuries of growing nature took over. Even though it only looked like there were 3 or four rooms in total, it was impressive nonetheless.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Ori said with an elbow aimed at Ichigo.

Flinching away before he could be touched, Ichigo continued to stare. This building reminded him of the ones he'd seen in the Old Worlds, and the closer he got to it, the more eerie it became. Hell, he could see disintegrating San Teikoku banners hanging inside like a beacon of what this place once was. How in the world did this get here?

"How did you find this?" Ichigo asked, turning to Ori. Ori scratched his head.

"Eh, I didn't really find it. My sister was actually the one who discovered this place and set up base, but she lets me use it all the time. She'll be here in the afternoon to walk me home, so you can ask her about it then. Ooh! I totally forgot but there's something I've got to show you!" Ori exclaimed, hopping towards the base excitedly.

Apprehensively following Ori inside, Ichigo looked all around him. Even though this place was from a time of death and pain, being here was nothing like the experiences he had in the Old Worlds. Despite it's degraded state, it wasn't creepy or unnerving to him at all like he would expect from being confronted with something from his past, but actually kind of cheery. Children's toys and decorations were neatly splayed around the room, bright colors matching the different blankets and material draped everywhere to cover up old tables and furniture. Old clay tiles clearly from other buildings were used to patch up any holes or damage making the rooms feel slightly more secure. Ichigo also noticed several bags of candy and snacks lying around. Children's drawings were pinned up around, the majority depicting what Ichigo guessed was Ori as a shinigami running around with a sword fighting hollows.

"Uh, can you wait here while I go get it?" Ori asked. Ichigo nodded and Ori disappeared into one of the rooms next door.

Crazy how different this place has become with time... It's actually kind of comforting to see that something from the Old Worlds could...heal.

It wasn't long before Ori returned toting several items under his arms, grinning and huffing like he'd had quite the search.

"Turns out this place is a little messier than I thought..." Ori explained.

"Oh! I also brought the snacks my mom made for me and my sister yesterday - they shouldn't be stale though." Ori said, taking out a little bag from under his arm and holding it out to Ichigo.

"O-oh, uh thanks." Ichigo said, taking the bag and opening it up.

Inside were about a dozen or so little pastries that Ichigo couldn't quite recall the name of. They reminded him a lot of the pastries and goodies he was used to seeing in the bakery across from the elementary school when he was younger. They had always looked so good, but he knew they weren't for him, so he didn't bother trying to imagine what they tasted like once he was older.

"The ones with red jam are strawberry, but I still haven't figured out what the purple ones are. They're still good though." Ori said, beckoning for Ichigo to try one when he still didn't reach into the bag. It wasn't that Ichigo wasn't hungry, it's just that he wasn't really used to people giving him things... and when they did it usually made him anxious and hesitant to accept that thing for some reason.

Cautiously popping one of the strawberry pastries into his mouth, Ichigo's eyes widened.

"Mmmmf, these are really good!" Ichigo said around a mouthful of treat. Ori grinned.

"My mom's a great baker. She actually has a shop where people can buy her stuff, but mostly nobles and shinigami buy them since most people don't want to spend money on something they don't really need." Ori said.

Ichigo's stomach rumbled loudly as he barely stopped himself from scarfing the entire bag. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until he started eating, but he'd taught himself how to spread food out to make it last longer a while ago and made sure to eat only a few. Not surprisingly, it turned out Ichigo could only eat a few. He wasn't used to getting food regularly, and for some reason he had this thing about eating, it tended to make him extremely nauseous and sometimes even panic when he had to eat. Some days it was easier to eat than others, but the problem today was that Ichigo had eaten an entire bag of chips on Friday plus the clearance rice bowl, practically a feast. His stomach wasn't used to taking in food this frequently (he did still have his hollow kills), nor of this quality. Greasy expired food was usually his only option, so this felt oddly rich and filling to him. He wanted to eat more, but his stomach was already uncomfortably full and pricking at his unpredictable panic of having to eat. Compromising, Ichigo decided he'd eat until he got just a touch sick, trying not to inhale the food out of politeness. Watching his struggle, Ori suddenly smacked his head.

"I'm such an idiot! I totally forgot, shinigami need to eat food and you're a shinigami! You must be straving - I've got some more food you can have!" Ori exclaimed, running off before Ichigo could protest (out of politeness only).

Ori returned shortly with an arm full of various snacks and candies, insisting Ichigo have them all. Mouth watering, Ichigo thanked him profusely and accepted the snacks. While he was eating and subtly tucking away the snacks (he was a miser out of necessity), Ori plopped down on an old seat mat and motioned for Ichigo to take a seat as well. Sitting down, Ichigo watched curiously as Ori laid out the items he'd brought with him. All but one looked like ordinary carved children's toys, and this one Ichigo recognized.

"My sister made these toys for me out of old chunks of wood she found - aren't they cool? She does lots of wood carving, but she started making these toys because of this cool old relic thingy we found while we were cleaning this place up. She really liked the designs on it, said they were 'hella inspiring.' My sister's so awesome!" Ori said, chattering away about how cool his older sister was and all the things she taught him.

But Ichigo wasn't listening. He was too busy staring at the "cool old relic thingy" made of intricately carved wood. It was a whistle shaped like a turtle, the mouth being the turtle's head. The holes were all along the turtle's shell breaking up the tiny scenes carved into it, winged figures waging war against each other and many other figures in a story oh so familiar to Ichigo. He knew what this was, and he again had no idea how this had ended up here. Ichigo was so busy staring at the whistle that he didn't hear Ori calling his "name" at first.

"Tensa? Are you all right" Ori asked. Ichigo shook himself out of his memories and gave a slight nod.

"...Yeah, I've just seen this before. You haven't ever used before, have you?" Ichigo asked suddenly, flicking his eyes up to scrutinize Ori. Ori just blinked before giving him an excited look.

"No, why - is it a super special shinigami whistle? Ooh - a special whistle used to signal attacks! War whistle!" Ori exclaimed, reaching forward to pick up the whistle.

"Don't!" Ichigo cried, snatching the whistle away before Ori could blow on it. Ori jumped, scared by Ichigo's sudden lashing out.

"This whistle isn't any of the things you said it was, but it's not a toy! You could really hurt yourself using this!" Ichigo snapped, a littler louder than he meant to be. Ori looked at Ichigo with big eyes, quiet from Ichigo's outburst. Realizing that he'd scared Ori, Ichigo sighed.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you Ori... I'm not overreacting though, I'm serious about this whistle being able to hurt you. It may look like an ordinary children's toy, but this whistle is actually a type of weapon." Ichigo said, gentler this time.

"A weapon? How could it hurt me though...?" Ori asked, inspecting the whistle from afar.

"This whistle has a special material inside of it, the polar opposite to Sekki sekki stone. While Sekki sekki stone repels reishi, this material inside absorbs it like a big sponge. When someone uses the whistle, it absorbs that person's reishi and reiatsu. It uses this absorbed energy to change the sound the whistle with a release of this energy to produce a very special type of frequency only heard by hollows. Anything hollow, hollows themselves, vizards, arrancars, and hybrids are affected by the sound negatively. It physically disrupts the reishi pattern in these beings just enough to hurt and distract." Ichigo explained. Ori listened to it all, fascinated.

"The problem is, only people with a sufficient amount of reiatsu and or reishi can use it. The whistle will take reishi first and foremost, but it can be substituted with reiatsu. This is why shinigami and certain souls can use it, though it won't be nearly as effective as somebody using reishi. Quincies are the ones who use these whistles the most because they can gather reishi from their surroundings and use that instead. But you're an ordinary soul, you don't have any extra reishi or reiatsu to give the whistle. If you used it, it would suck up all of your reishi and kill you in the process." Ichigo said.

"Holy crap... not War Whistle, Death Whistle!" Ori exclaimed, staring at the whistle with a new level of wariness.

"How come I've never heard of this before? Not even my sister knows about this, and she knows everything!" Ori exclaimed. Ichigo scratched his head. He couldn't very well tell Ori that this whistle was used in a war from a completely different world, but he had to say something.

"Well, that's because... Quincies only used it a long, long time ago before they realized they had to work together with the arrancars... and all that. These whistles were specifically made to hurt arrancars and other hollow beings." Ichigo said. It was a little rough, but Ori seemed to be buying it.

"Yeah, that makes sense... After all, my sister says the three races and worlds can never go to war." Ori said thoughtfully.

What? That's like, the exact opposite of what the Old Worlds were like... then again that might be why...

"Why not, what would happen?" Ichigo asked. He was curious as to why this world had this particular rule and if Ori knew why.

"Right! I forgot that you don't remember that stuff. See, there's this place in this really weird realm inside the Soul Society called the Royal Realm. I heard there's like, this massive palace and city in there, but the important stuff is what's inside the palace. A really really, really long time ago, like before the Gotei 13 long ago, somebody found the Royal Realm and this entire mural-thingy. They had a whole bunch of scientists and smart people from all three worlds look at it, and they figured out that half of it was a warning, and the other half was a whole bunch of rules. The warning said that if the three different races didn't work together and do their sacred duties, the world would lose balance and die. I forget all the rules of the second half, but I do remember some stuff." Ori said.

"Shinigami must live in the Soul Society and keep the cycle of rebirth working, quincies must live in the World of the Living and execute bad people from the cycle of rebirth, and arrancars must live in Hueco Mundo and take care of Hell. I'm pretty sure hollows are also supposed to keep the cycle of death and birth going by consuming souls, but lots of people don't like that." Ori said with a shrug.

"I can see why, but I suppose it's a necessary evil to keep the world in balance..." Ichigo said. Ori looked up suddenly.

"Wait, if you had your memory about shinigami stolen, how did you know about the whistle?" Ori asked. Ichigo began to sweat.

"Uh..." Ichigo said. Ori smacked his head.

"Because it's not about shinigami - quincies made the whistle!" Ori said, adding on a "duh" at the end. Ichigo let out a breath. Thank god this kid was lowkey stupid.

After that, the two began to talk about less serious things while they waited for Ori's sister to show up. Apparently she was actually well on her way to becoming academy material for the shinigami from practicing at home and sneaking out to the secret training grounds they found. Ichigo found out that was why Ori wanted to be a shinigami, because his sister was going to be one and he looked up to her a great deal. Eventually they turned back to Ichigo, and he found himself having to fend off way too many personal questions.

"Okay, you don't have to say anything about your father and the complex relationship you have with a missing father figure, but can you at least say his name...?" Ori asked.

"What the hell Ori?! You sound like a psychology textbook - and I never said anything about a missing father!" Ichigo spluttered, shock spurring on another coughing fit. Ori put a hand over his heart sagely.

"But your eyes told me everything." He said in a wistful voice. Ichigo choked again.

"Where do you even get this stuff?!" Ichigo asked once he recovered.

"From the culture night our district has. Every month each district gathers in the largest town's plaza and watches a whole bunch of movies and stuff from the World of the Living on this moving picture screen - it's so cool! My favorite's are the Mexican soap operas, though the Cowboy movies are pretty cool." Ori said. That certainly explained it.

"Why do you call it culture night?" Ichigo asked. It sounded more like a cinema festival.

"Because each night we watch stuff from a different culture. What's cool is that we don't have to use subtitles since everyone has the gift of tongues. You should come to one some time, the Shinigami Women's Association was the one to start the whole thing and occasionally stop by to watch with us. It's really fun, sometimes we even have quincies or arrancars!" Ori said excitedly, bouncing up and down a little.

"Er, I don't know about that..." Ichigo said. He wasn't planning on staying in the Soul Society, or even this world really. Ori deflated a little before perking up again.

"Right, you'll be busy doing shinigami stuff! Hey, when you get back to the shinigami, so you think you could put in a good word for my sister? I know she's really good, but I still worry that they might not think she's good enough..." Ori said, little brows scrunched in concern.

Now Ichigo felt really bad. He might not be outright lying to Ori, but he wasn't exactly telling him the truth either. Ori trusted him, and that just wasn't fair. He knew it was probably a bad idea telling Ori that he wasn't who he thought he was, but it didn't seem right to keep this up.

"Listen, Ori. There's something I need to tell you... but only because you've been so nice to me and deserve to know. I'm actually -" Ichigo said.

"A STRANGER!" Someone screeched.

Ichigo just managed to dodge a blow aimed at his head out of reflex.

"Wait, Nara! It's okay, he's with me!" Ori cried, jumping up as Ichigo shot into the next room to avoid being hit.

"No stranger danger, no stranger danger!" Ori yelled, clinging to his sister's leg.

"What? Okay, then who is he?!" Nara asked, blunt wooden sword resting impatiently on her shoulder.

"He's a friend - a shinigami! I found him wandering around the forest all confused 'cause some hollow stole his memories of being a shinigami so he couldn't fight or get home! Please, he's got abandonment issues!" Ori wailed.

"I do not!" Ichigo exclaimed from the other room, heart racing.

"Stop saying that I've got all these issues!" Ichigo cried in frustration. It was bad enough that his heart felt like it was about to explode and he was twitching to fight or run, but now the kid had to go spreading all these lies?!

"I think he's in denial." Ori whispered to Nara.

"I heard that!" Ichigo yelled. Nara sighed.

"Alright, I guess I believe you since you do look like somebody whooped your ass. Come out already - I promise not to kill you!" Nara called.

"Wow, thanks." Ichigo snorted, tentatively coming back into the room. As promised, Nara kept her sword on her shoulder.

So this was Ori's older sister... Definitely as fierce-looking as Ori had described her. She had the same thick black hair and freckled olive skin as Ori, making the two unmistakable siblings.

"So, got dragged here by little Ori-o here, huh?" Nara asked. Ori pouted, but didn't deny it.

"Yeah, but he's pretty nice, so I don't mind." Ichigo said. Ori beamed.

"I'm Nara, what's your name, mister hobo?" Nara asked. Ichigo crossed his arms, but hesitated. He couldn't very well tell the truth now, Nara had more sense than her brother and would likely turn him in.

"Tensa." Ichigo said.

"Single name, I like it. Makes you seem all mysterious-like." Nara said with a nod. Ori threw his hands out.

"I know, right? He's got the coolest sword too!" Ori said. Nara perked up a little at that, looking all over Ichigo to try and find it. Sighing, Ichigo figured it wouldn't be too harmful to show them Zangetsu. He knew they wouldn't leave him alone until he showed them it.

"I'll show you my zanpakuto, but you have to promise not to touch him. He gets all upset when anybody but me wields him, and right now I need him to sleep." Ichigo said.

"Cross the stars and eat a pie, our promise is not a lie." Nara and Ori said together.

"That's not - that's, oh never mind." Ichigo said, pulling Zangetsu off his back to hold lightly thunk the tip into the floor. The two immediately pressed up as close as they could without touching it.

"Woah!" Nara and Ori chorused. Nara turned to Ori.

"I thought you already saw his sword?" She asked. Ori shrugged.

"Still cool." He said.

"Wait, shouldn't your sword be a katana or something?" Nara asked, flicking her eyes up to Ichigo. Ichigo scratched the back of his head, playing dumb.

"It should? My zanpakuto only told me what he was and that he needed to sleep..." Ichigo said. Nara made an "oh" face.

"Guess you really did have your memory stolen if you don't even know how asuachi and shikai work. Maybe that's why your zanpakuto needed to sleep - you're still in shikai. That takes a lot out of a shinigami to keep that up." Nara said. Ichigo was impressed. She really seemed to know her stuff.

"Maybe. I don't think there's much I can do about it now." Ichigo said with a shrug. Ori and Nara stood up, letting Ichigo put Zangetsu back onto his back.

"We need to get you to one of the local shinigami." Nara said. Ichigo stiffened and Ori poked Nara.

"Tensa doesn't really like being around other people... He doesn't even want to go into town." Ori said. Nara frowned.

"It doesn't matter if you don't like it, you're obviously a mess. You need a shinigami's help - how else are you going to get your memory back?" Nara said. Shit, Nara brought up a really good point. But his heart raced at the idea of going into town and he felt his familiar anxiousness. He was going to have to convince her to either not take him, or let him go it alone.

"I can't." Ichigo blurted. Nara stared at him skeptically, waiting for him to continue.

"...I need to let my zanpakuto sleep for a day. He told me before he went to sleep that it would take a day to get my memory back, and that I needed to stay in this forest because the hollow was still out there. If I leave, there's a chance it'll escape before I regain my memory, and I'm the only one who remembers how to fight it. I tried to ask my zanpakuto how to do that without having my memory, but he was too tired. He fell asleep before I could get any answers." Ichigo said.

"The hollow's still there? Why didn't you tell me?" Ori asked, a little hurt. Ichigo rubbed his arm, mock guilt more sincere than he wanted to admit.

"I didn't want you to get scared and try to run off by yourself. That's why I came here with you, to protect you. Hollows would attack a lone soul like you without hesitation, but if a shinigami was with you, they'd stay away. Hollows know not to mess with shinigami by now." Ichigo said. Ori's eyes widened.

"Is that what you were trying to tell me before Nara attacked you?" Ori asked. That was a good excuse... Ichigo nodded.

"I wanted to tell you before your sister came here so there'd only be one soul I needed to protect instead of two, but that didn't happen..." Ichigo said.

"So we're in danger?!" Nara exclaimed, wooden sword snapping down to a ready stance. Ichigo quickly waved his hands.

"No, no. I'm with you, so you two should be fine. I'd never let anything happen to you." Ichigo said, locking eyes with each of them to emphasize his claim.

He was serious, though. Even though there wasn't really a hollow out there, he would protect these two with everything he had. That's just who he was, and Shiro would just have to deal with his less than self-preserving philosophy once he inevitably found out.

"Which is why I'm taking you two back to town. I'll drop you off by the tree line and make sure you make it home, but then I'll go back into the forest and wait for the hollow." Ichigo said. Ori immediately began to pout.

"But why can't we stay here with you - you said we're safe here! We can have a sleepover and -" Ori said.

"No. You might be safe with me, but I don't want to take any chances. It's easy for things to go wrong in a battle." Ichigo said. Nara sighed and put a hand on Ori's shoulder.

"Sorry Ori-o, but he's right... We shouldn't tempt fate. Besides, it's already getting dark out. Do you really want to stay in this forest at night?" Nara asked, leaning in a little. Ori immediately clamped his mouth shut. Ichigo looked between the two.

"While I agree with you, what's so bad about this forest?" Ichigo asked. Nara leaned in conspiratorially, drawing Ori in with her like she was going to tell a scary story.

"Oh, nothing's wrong... during the day. At night, strange things begin to happen around here, odd noises, screaming, animals randomly showing up dead in the morning right by the tree line. Local shinigami have tried for years to figure out just what goes on in this forest at night, but any that try and stay the night end up disappearing. Since the beginning of our town, people who go into the forest have always disappeared, but only at night. People say they can see those who have died calling out to their loved ones from just beyond the trees, trying to lure in more victims. Go in during the day and you're perfectly fine, but at night, these shady trees may be the last thing you see..." Nara whispered. Ori did his best not to look scared, but he wasn't doing a very good job.

"That stuff is only part true - and mom says to stop talking about that! You're just spreading rumors and scaring people!" Ori exclaimed.

"Then why does mom also tell us to never ever stay here past dark?" Nara countered. Ori huffed, but he looked doubtful.

"Some people say it's the soul of a lost serial killer, others a hollow with special powers, and others still say that it's an abomination of sin - a hybrid!" Nara cried, one hand smacking Ori's back from behind. Ori started and shrieked.

"Stop that! That's not funny!" Ori cried, slapping Nara on the arm as she laughed maniacally. Something twisted in Ichigo at the way they acted about hybrids. He knew there was prejudice about them, but it wasn't like they were all bad... he himself was a hybrid and so were the vizards, technically.

"Why would a hybrid be taking people? You know arrancars are technically hybrids because they remove their masks to gain shinigami-like powers." Ichigo said with a frown. Nara stopped teasing Ori and looked at him.

"No they're not. Arrancars are just the next stage of hollow evolution. Besides, most hybrids aren't exactly... whole." Nara said, looking a little uncomfortable. Ichigo frowned. He'd never heard of any other hybrids quite like him before.

"What do you mean?" Ichigo asked. Nara and Ori shared a look.

"Well... a long time ago there was a group of people who wanted to know if they could make a hybrid between the different races. The only problem is, making hybrids is forbidden for a reason. They illegally began experimenting on souls to try and make complete hybrids, but they never quite made it. All the creatures they made were either way too unstable physically, or mentally and ended up dying within months. One of them managed to break loose once and killed an entire town in a single night. Shinigami managed to kill the creature, but it was too late for the people of the town. They tried and executed the group of scientists, but they think there were more than just the people in the Soul Society. No one's ever found them, so everybody just assumes they stopped." Nara said.

"I see... That would put people off about hybrids, but it's not like they asked to be born or made... You can't exactly expect them to be friendly and civilized when from their very birth they're treated like animals and experiments." Ichigo said. He'd had a bit of personal experience with this, but he would say this without as well. The circumstances just weren't... fair.

"Inhumanity as a result of early behavioral molding lacking in empathy." Ori said sagely, nodding slowly.

"Deep." Nara said. Ichigo snorted. These two were definitely siblings.

"Okay, well if you two are quite done, we should get going. Monster or not, it's pretty much dark out now and I don't want to walk through a strange forest at night." Ichigo said. Panic flashed onto Ori's face.

"It's dark already!? But we just got here!" Oir squeaked, looking outside one of the uncovered windows.

"We were here for a long time… and we have been talking for a while since Nara came to walk you home." Ichigo said. Nara put a hand on Ori's shoulder.

"I'm sure it'll be fine - we have Hobo Man to protect us!" Nara exclaimed.

"You can just call me by my name, stinkin' twerp… Come on, let's get going." Ichigo grumbled, ushering the two to pack up their stuff.

It wasn't long before the two were ready, Nara selectively packing bags while Ori frantically shoved everything within reach into a pack. Confirming they were both ready, Ichigo led the siblings out into the decidedly dark forest (sorry Ori).

Ichigo could definitely see why Nara's urban legend was so popular, this forest did have a completely different feel to it at night. Dark and foreboding, trees stretched out before them creaking and cracking gently in the cool night breeze as Nara and Ori led the way to town. Ichigo tried to see the stars out through the trees, but the foliage was too thick for him to see the sky. Barely any light managed to penetrate the dense trees.

For the most part their walk was fine, but the further they went, the darker it got and the more unsettling the noises of the night became. Twigs snapping, leaves rustling and the random unearthly call of some critter put them all on edge, jumping and starting at every noise. It certainly felt sinister here, but Ichigo tried his best to ignore it. It was pretty common after all for him to feel anxious and paranoid like this even when nothing was happening or it was completely peaceful. But still, this felt... different. An odd feeling he couldn't quite reach, but felt lurking at the back of his head. His instincts were making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, so whether or not he was just being paranoid, he would at least be prepared. Ori and Nara were too busy trying to follow the path to notice Ichigo drawing Zangetsu from his back.

After Ori began stumbling increasingly and making small scared noises, Ichigo jogged forward to walk closer with him. Ori immediately went for Ichigo's hand making him flinch, but this time he didn't move away from Ori.

"It's alright Ori, it's just the forest making noises." Ichigo whispered, squeezing Ori's hand in a comforting gesture. Ori held on tighter.

"I know, but… it feels like something's watching me." Ori whispered back. Ichigo swallowed. He'd hoped he was the only one feeling that way.

"I'm sure it's just your imagination." Ichigo lied.

He really hoped he was right, but something just didn't feel right no matter how little evidence he had. On reflex, he'd had his senses cast out for any other soul since the beginning of their walk, but he felt nothing. Maybe he just wasn't casting his senses out far enough... Or maybe he was still too unskilled to feel anything... He was notoriously bad at sensing other souls without soul ribbons. Should he try and pull out some ribbons now, see if there really was something they should be worried about? Another creak behind Ichigo nearly made him jump, but he resisted for Ori's sake. He was good at pretending to be fine, so all he had to do was just pretend a little more tonight.

"Do you see Nara? I can't see that far up ahead." Ori said.

Ichigo could feel him straining against his hand. Looking ahead, Ichigo squinted and realized he couldn't quite see her either. Ichigo tried to feel her reiatsu, but realized with a jolt she was way farther up ahead than she was supposed to be.

"Nara? Nara!" Ichigo called. His voice cut through the forest unnaturally against the sounds of the night, but no response came. Ichigo could feel Ori shaking.

"I'm sure she just ran ahead to go see if we're close - she'll hear us when we're closer." Ichigo said. Scooping Ori up with his free hand, Ichigo sat him on his hip and began jogging forward. Ori huddled in closer to Ichigo, but his shaking didn't settle.

"Nara! Nara!" Ichigo yelled as they got closer to where she was supposed to be. Ori piped up from his hold on Ichigo.

"If you're trying to scare us, it's not funny!" He yelled. Ichigo could hear the fear in Ori's voice, and he was beginning to feel the same way.

"NARA!" Ichigo bellowed, slowing down.

This was where she was supposed to be, and he could feel her reiatsu, but he didn't see her anywhere. Turning in circles, Ichigo searched deep into the foliage beside the path, but again, he didn't find her.

"Nara!" Ori screamed, but they were met with only the sounds of the forest.

Shit.

They continued to call for Nara, tracing back and going forward, but there was no sign of her. Coming back to the spot where Nara was supposed to be, Ichigo held Ori to him, trying his best to comfort the sobbing boy.

"It's gonna be okay Ori, she's got to be around here somewhere. I'm gonna try something to find her, so don't be scared, okay?" Ichigo said, pulling Ori back to look him in the eyes.

"O-okay." Ori said between sobs.

Setting Ori down, Ichigo straightened his back and called on his natural mode of sensing souls. He didn't even have to close his eyes or use jinzen to summon spirit ribbons anymore, and it was only a matter of seconds before ribbons began blossoming around him. Ori's eyes widened as he looked all around at the glowing ribbons floating gently in the breeze. Half-closing his eyes in concentration, Ichigo focused on Nara and held his hands out into the ribbons to feel. Brushing up against one, Ichigo saw a flash of Nara's face. Bringing the pale luminescent ribbon to him, Ichigo tugged on the ribbon, dismissing all the others.

Ichigo followed the ribbon along the path, Ori trailing close behind, but he wasn't even a few feet forward before the ribbon led directly up. Following the ribbon with his eyes, Ichigo looked straight up, up into the trees...

Ori screamed when they saw Nara hanging high above them from a branch, unmoving and illuminated by the spirit ribbon. Ichigo grabbed Ori and held him close to his body so he wouldn't see the bood dripping from Nara's body. He could feel that she was still alive, but she was seriously wounded. She was too high up to have climbed on her own, so Ichigo kept Zangetsu at the ready, raking his eyes over every shadow for a possible aggressor. Ichigo was more than used to having to see in the dark and actually had pretty good night vision, but this was ridiculous. He could barely see five feet in front of him.

"It's okay Ori, Nara's wounded, but she's still alive. I need you to stay here while I get her." Ichigo said. Ori just sobbed harder, but Ichigo would have to take that as agreement.

Ichigo left Ori and circled the tree to find the best way to get to Nara, eyes locked on her limp figure. He went to jump up and get her, but suddenly her body was dragged away by something in the trees. Ori screamed again and Ichigo stumbled back. The anxious watched feeling Ichigo had had since the beginning of their walk tripled. Something else was here. Whirling around to Ori, Ichigo grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Get help! Run as fast as you can to town and get help - I'm going after Nara!" Ichigo said in a rush.

"But -" Ori said.

"GET HELP!" Ichigo yelled, shoving Ori back onto the path. Sobbing, Ori took off and Ichigo shot up into the trees to chase down Nara and her kidnapper.


Schutzstaffel - protective echelon

Muko - void

Lichtreich - light empire


National Alliance on Mental Health

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