I try to keep my profile up-to-date, so check there in case you're ever wondering if this story has been dropped (spoiler: it hasn't).
The arrow flying at my face missed, but only barely. I still brought my left hand up and brushed it over the bridge of my nose to check for blood. Uryū, not lowering his bow, scoffed.
"Don't be so dramatic, Ichigo," he said. "You and I both know that your reiatsu alone is enough to protect you from a scratch like that even if the arrow did actually make contact."
"Says you," I retorted, bringing my two swords back into a defensive position. "We might actually be able to test that if you manage hit me."
Uryū's glasses flashed. "Is that a challenge?"
"More of a taunt."
"You're going to regret that."
The competitive grin I'd been hiding finally broke through. After all the paperwork I'd had to do yesterday, I was itching for some action. "Make me."
As soon as I spoke, my vision went blue. Arrows so numerous they blocked out the ceiling hurtled towards me. Zangetsu's blades became a blur as I spun, ducked, jumped, and slid to areas of lower density. Uryū could fire a ludicrous number of arrows, sure—but he couldn't fire them uniformly. He favored his right side in particular, a quirk of the way he drew back his bow. Any average opponent wouldn't be fast enough to take advantage of that deficiency; it was something Uryū had only worked on much later in the war.
An arrow tore through the fabric over my right leg. Another clipped my cheek, drawing sparks off a combination of my Hierro and reiatsu. Untold numbers splintered against Zangetsu's blades, harmless blue shards raining down like arrows themselves. Sweat ran into my eyes, blinding me, and three more arrows broke against my chest.
This wasn't an attack. Not one of these arrows was meant to wound. Uryū knew they weren't strong enough to take me down, so what was he—
Realization struck. I leaped backwards right as a Seele Schneider cut through where my arm had been. Feet skidding against the rocky ground, I searched the nearby boulders for my opponent. He was still roughly where he had been, but that Seele Schneider hadn't come from that angle. How had he—
I ducked. It was automatic, instinctive, a reflex to the warning blaring in my mind. Another reishi-disrupting blade swished above my head, only to drop to the ground a moment later. To stop any other tricks, I swiped the cleaver across my chest. "Getsuga Tenshō."
Uryū leaped off his boulder to dodge the crescent and fired three pinpoint arrows: one to the left, one to the right, and one straight at me. I jumped above them and flash-stepped to close the distance. Not expecting my speed, Uryū was slow to get away; Zangetsu's blunted edge caught his left hand. He reappeared several yards away, bow gone, left hand clutched in his right. I lowered my swords.
"Done already?" I called. He scowled.
"Not all of us can stubborn our way through broken bones."
I rolled my eyes. "I think I remember you doing exactly that when Orihime accidentally broke your leg last week."
"That was different."
"Why? Because you don't need your leg to shoot arrows? Because you've already exhausted your ability to use those creepy string things? Yield already so Orihime can heal you." I flicked up the trench knife, deflecting the third and final Seele Schneider. "And sneak attacks don't really work when I can see those weird threads of yours."
Sighing, Uryū let the ransōtengai strings vanish. "Fine. I yield—this time."
We both dropped back down to ground level. Orihime rushed over, having finished her spar with Tatsuki several minutes ago. Tatsuki, of course, was still raring to go, so I volunteered for the next match. Uryū would watch, and hopefully we would figure out a little more about Tatsuki's power.
I snuck a glance at Uryū. He was preoccupied with Orihime's healing, the orange light of the dome reflecting off his glasses. He'd been practicing that technique for months. He excelled at using it on his own body. That was the whole purpose of it. But now he was trying to expand it. While I'd never admit it, those swords had nearly had me.
He couldn't move them that quickly, nor could he do any advanced movements with them, but a simple swipe was all it took to kill someone, no matter how sloppy it was. Somehow, during the Licht Regen barrage, he'd formed those strings, attached them to the Seele Schneider blades, and floated them all into their proper positions. I was willing to bet that he hadn't intended the second one to be such a lethal strike, but he didn't have that fine level of control yet.
"Done," Orihime proclaimed. Uryū thanked her and then caught me looking.
He tipped his head at my torn shihakushō. "I did hit you."
I shrugged. "Lucky shots. Not enough to make me regret anything."
He deliberately turned away, shoulders rigid with pretend irritation. "Just get on with your spar against Tatsuki."
I counted that as a win in my favor and headed over to where Tatsuki was waiting for me. "I'm not going easy on you," I warned.
"Oh yeah? Then take out those fancy swords of yours."
In my head, Zangetsu's hollow half actually laughed. "Yeah, Ichigo, give the gal what she wants!"
"You're gonna have to make me," I said with the smirk she hated. "You know I suck at holding back. Prove you're worth it."
Tatsuki's eyes flashed. This was the first time I'd faced off against her in my Shinigami form, and while she thought it was because I was just stepping up our spars, there was another reason behind the change: Uryū suspected that direct contact with my soul form would cause Tatsuki to absorb power even faster. This, more than anything, was a test of that theory.
"You gonna stand there looking pretty or are you gonna come at me?" Tatsuki asked. "I made the first attack last time. It's your turn now."
I obliged. Our fight was over faster than any other; I hadn't been lying when I said I wasn't going to go easy on her. While I didn't use shunpo, I was still way quicker as a Shinigami than as a human. Tatsuki was down before she launched her third hit, my knee in her back while I fought to get her arm locked back for the hold.
Her reiatsu, steady—if unusually dense—before the fight, was now a blanket over the training ground, as noticeable as Chad's. Sure, my power was sealed, but I was still a captain-class fighter physically strong enough to match Kenpachi in a fight. Despite that, Tatsuki was only a few pounds of force away from throwing me off.
It was like sitting on top of a pit of quicksand, only my body wasn't moving. Tatsuki was her own gravity well and I couldn't stop my reiatsu from getting sucked in.
"Yield," Tatsuki finally gasped. While she dusted herself off and flexed her shoulders, I stared at my hands. My reiatsu shimmered over my skin in an uneven patchwork of blue. The holes were filling themselves in, but she'd probably absorbed…
I blinked. That much? I'd only been in direct contact with her for maybe a total of ten seconds.
"It appears," Old Man Zangetsu mused, "that when you are without the physical barrier of your human body, proximity is all she needs."
That was…a scary thought. I shot her a considering look, but she was still too distracted with a tear in her sleeve to notice. Uryū, when I glanced at him, had a furrow between his brows that told me we were definitely on to something. Leaving Orihime to t-shirt repairs, I sat next to Uryū with a grunt. Chad was right next to us, but I could tell from the set of Uryū's shoulders that he'd told Chad about our ideas as well.
"She didn't even need to touch me this time," I said without preamble.
"Indeed." Uryū pushed up his glasses. "She absorbed enough power to put her on par with me in such a short time."
I frowned. "With you?" Uryū had more reiatsu than Chad, but Tatsuki had started out this training session with barely any. "That was less than a minute of fighting."
"And yet, she did it."
"It doesn't seem to hurt her," Chad said. "Whenever I fight her, I just get tired."
"Well, she is quite literally stealing your strength." Uryū sighed. "She isn't doing it intentionally, but I'll admit I'm curious to see how far it can go."
Watching Tatsuki and Orihime laugh at some joke I couldn't hear, I shook my head. "No."
"The first time I released my bankai, I nearly got crushed to death under the weight of my own reiatsu. Tatsuki might be able to handle more with that ability of hers, but I'm not putting her at risk like that."
Uryū's expression turned pensive. "You're right. I got caught up in the moment."
"We should let her reiatsu fall back to normal for now," Chad said. "So she doesn't get hurt." He pushed himself to his feet. "I can work with her. She's been showing me karate techniques."
"She's been showing you?" I asked with a raised eyebrow. He nodded.
"I'm teaching her how to box in return."
With Uryū and I left alone, I leaned back onto my elbows and stared up at the ceiling. "When you do those Quincy techniques of yours, do have some kind of…I don't know, some kind of visualization technique?"
When I glanced over, Uryū was giving me an odd look. "Planning on stealing my family's techniques, are you, Ichigo?"
"Nothing like that, I swear."
"You say that like it's an actual risk," Uryū said with a quiet, bemoaning edge. He didn't notice the way I stiffened on reflex, and I got my expression under control before he refocused on me. "Yes, I do."
"Do you—I mean, you shoot out a thousand arrows. Do you picture each one?"
He scoffed. "Of course not. And I can shoot more than twelve hundred, now."
"Right, my bad. So?"
Uryū spent a moment thinking. "I suppose…once I have the power I need, it's just about knowing the result I want. I've practiced each technique so many times that I don't need to think about it."
"But you started small."
His attention is somewhere in the past. "I started very small."
Seeing that I wasn't going to get anything else out of him, I pushed myself to my feet. "I'm gonna meditate. Poke me when it's time to leave."
I found a spot away from the others and sat cross-legged, laying the larger half of Zangetsu across my lap. The Quincy blade went halfway into the ground just in front of me, acting as a kind of barrier to keep my reiatsu from flattening everyone else in the training ground.
Hollow Zangetsu was waiting for me, large blade laid over his shoulders while he flipped the smaller one through the air. I could see Old Man Zangetsu watching the display with a noticeable amount of irritation, but the hollow wasn't about to change his ways.
"About time," he said. "I was getting impatient."
I drew my swords. "You're always impatient."
"And you're always rude. I feel like you're a bad influence around here, Ichigo."
"I think we all know where the root of the problem is. Let's go, if you think you can handle my terrible manners."
Zangetsu's smile turned wicked. He launched himself at me with a cry, cleaver coming down with enough force to split me head to waist. I ducked right and aimed a slice at his side. He disappeared with the boom of sonido. I leaped back, shunpo carrying me halfway up the skyscraper as a Getsuga Tenshō ripped through the building. I pushed off into the air, but Zangetsu caught my attack on crossed swords. I kicked him in the stomach and gave chase as he crashed through another skyscraper.
Temporarily blinded by sunlight on the other side, I felt something dig into my Hierro. I flared my reiatsu on reflex, pushing Zangetsu back before his sword could cut more than skin. He skidded on reishi platforms before coming to a stop.
"Anything?" he asked. I checked the cut on my side—healed—and shook my head.
"No. We have to do more."
Zangetsu spared a glance at the Old Man, who was floating above our fight like a referee. He nodded in tacit permission—his barrier outside would hold. Grinning wider now, Zangetsu flared his power. I matched him and we met in the middle, blades drawing sparks off one another. We used every dirty trick we knew to get an edge, but we knew each other too well for anything simple to work.
I mixed up sonido and shunpo, using them interchangeably, often starting with sonido and switching to shunpo mid-step so that Zangetsu didn't get the warning boom. It was twice as tricky and half as precise as the individual techniques, but the element of surprise gave me an advantage when I didn't break my own ankle.
"Tricky bastard," Zangetsu growled the third time I did it. My only warning was a gleam in the spirit's eye before Zangetsu kneed me in the gut. I wheezed, buckling on reflex, and the hilt of Zangetsu's trench blade slammed into my temple.
My vision blurred. I clawed back to consciousness in time to crash into a skyscraper. Broken glass rained down, bouncing off my skin and crunching under my hands as I got to my feet. I shook my head, instant regeneration working to heal the concussion. Brain injuries had always been tricky and Zangetsu knew it.
"Asshole," I muttered, picking up my swords and scanning the sky.
"Lookin' the wrong way!"
I got one arm up in time to take the hit. Zangetsu's cleaver went nearly all the way through the limb before blut finally stopped it. Pain roared up my nerves. Scowling, Zangetsu yanked on the blade, but it was stuck in a dripping web of reishi-infused blood. My right hand was still free, but so was Zangetsu's left. We warred for a second, neither of us able to get the advantage, before Zangetsu released his cleaver, leapt back, and charged a cero in his empty right hand. I released a Getsuga Tenshō in the same instant, but it didn't have the same level of power behind it and Zangetsu's cero tore through. I was already gone, shunpo carrying me above Zangetsu's head. He spun, right hand extended down to where his cleaver lay fallen on the broken skyscraper's surface.
He caught my attack on the trench blade and I had to twist in midair to avoid being skewered when the cleaver flew up to his hand.
"Anything?" he asked again as we exchanged a lightning-fast barrage of attacks.
"No," I grunted, kicking out his knee and slicing a bloody line across his stomach. Zangetsu growled. His leg healed instantly, and even as he spoke, he never stopped moving.
"Fine. Old Man!"
I blocked Zangetsu's overhead strike and parried the follow-up aimed at my thigh. Between one blink and the next, time slowed. The arrow crawled through the air over Zangetsu's right shoulder. Zangetsu's bala-charged left hand hung in the air.
I could see it. Thoughts lit up like sparks in my mind and realization tore through it all like lightning.
My cleaver flicked away Zangetsu's attempted bala. In the same instant, I tilted my head to avoid the arrow and buried my trench blade in Zangetsu's stomach. Shock overwrote Zangetsu's expression for an instant, and even as pain flickered behind his eyes, he released a frenzied laugh. I pulled out the trench blade in a shower of blood.
We squared off again, and this time, we held nothing back.
Later that day, I ended up walking Karin and Yuzu home from school. They'd stayed after to finish a project—rather, Karin had stayed late, and Yuzu had waited for her. In the middle of telling me about her project, Karin spread her arms wide.
"And it made a huge explosion. I mean, completely gigantic. Like, if it happened to the sun, the Earth would be toast."
"You're pretty excited about this whole thing," I said wryly. Karin, eyes lit up, didn't even register my tone.
"Of course I am! Space is really cool, you know? We don't get to talk about it much, but—well, remember that time Dad got a telescope years ago and we drove out to that field?"
I did, vaguely. I caught Yuzu's supportive smile and felt a grin of my own threatening to break through. It was rare to see Karin so utterly enthralled by something other than sports or video games. "You were pretty young."
"Right? But it still stuck with me. Of course I'd do a project on it when I got the chance. Just think about it. A supernova! An explosion big enough to wipe out an entire solar system! Something we can see from—from—from really far away!"
I ruffled her hair, making her duck and swat my hand away. "I'm glad you're enjoying yourself."
"You make it sound so patronizing," she mumbled.
"You know he doesn't mean it like that," Yuzu said pleasantly. "By the way, Ichigo, how would you feel about stir fry tonight? We have some leftover ingredients from yesterday. Kon got a little too much when he went to the store."
"Yeah, that sounds fine. How was he, by the way?"
"Kon?" Karin, finished getting her hair out of her face, shrugged. "He wasn't bad. Kept looking over his shoulder, though, like he was about to get jumped. It was a little weird."
"I'm sure he was just nervous about having to act like Ichigo. Not everyone can hold a scowl like his for so long."
I scowled. "Hey."
Yuzu's smile didn't waver at all, and I felt my cheeks getting red.
"I don't scowl that much."
"You kinda do, though," Karin said. "You're doing it right now."
I wrangled my expression into a frown, but Karin and Yuzu just exchanged smiles. I pushed open the gate to our house and followed them to the front door. "All right, enough of targeting me. Training time: should I open the door like a normal person who's not anticipating a surprise attack from their own father?"
Karin squinted. "Um…"
Yuzu pursed her lips, expression mirroring Karin's. "I…don't think that would be smart. I think I sense Daddy."
"He spends a lot of time here. Where do you sense him? Upstairs? Downstairs? Eavesdropping three feet away?" I could see Karin's suspicion at the specificity of my last suggestion, but instead of giving her a solid hint, I just raised an eyebrow.
"He's…downstairs," Karin said, and then nodded. "Yeah. Downstairs. Not right next to the door, though."
"I'll get the door, then."
Before I could get a word in edgewise, Yuzu reached up and opened the front door with little fanfare. As I'd expected, my dad came sailing through, right foot extended and fully prepared to take my head off. What he hadn't counted on was that his target was off to one side and the actual door-opener was a good bit shorter than I was. He flew right over Yuzu and crashed headlong into my fist.
Shaking out my hand, I stepped over his groaning body. "So, Karin, was your project—" I stopped, this time out of genuine surprise. "Yoruichi?"
The black cat on the stairs tilted her head, an amused twinkle in her eyes. "Hello, Ichigo."
"Don't tell me my dad got you to watch that disaster."
"He seemed rather confident in his ability to catch you by surprise."
Karin and Yuzu headed up the stairs, carefully stepping around Yoruichi and being especially mindful of her tail.
"I'll be ready in a bit," Yuzu assured me. "But no need to rush your meeting."
"Have fun with your afterlife business," Karin said over her shoulder. "And tell Dad that I can help him clean the clinic in an hour or so."
"Got it." Roughly on cue, Dad strode through the door looking none the worse for wear. "Karin'll help you with the clinic in an hour."
He shot me a thumbs-up. "Of course!"
"So why is Yoruichi here?" I glanced at her. "No offense, but I wasn't really expecting a visit."
"None taken," she demurred. "This is more of an informal debriefing. I think your room would be a better place to chat, however."
I shot my dad a glare before Yoruichi even finished speaking. "Don't even think it."
His grin was just barely shy of impish. "I'll be in the clinic if you need anything, my adventurous young son."
Regrettably, I had nothing on hand to throw, so I settled for a scowl before following Yoruichi up the stairs. She found a spot on my bed, circling it several times before she sat. "How was your first day of school?"
"You're hilarious." I rolled out my desk chair, spun it around, and sat with my arms resting on the back. Kon was hiding in the closet, having sensed Yoruichi's arrival. His terror of her claws was a blessing at times. "You could've warned me that one of your—what, sisters?—was in the zanjutsu class."
Yoruichi's eyes sparkled. "Ah, Yui?"
"She tried to kick me."
"She does that." Yoruichi's cat features couldn't convey her fondness very well, but I easily heard it in her voice. "She's not in line for succession—or, rather, she's so far down the line that it's moot—but she's rather determined to take her place in the Onmitsukidō. You'd better be careful around her; she's sharper than she looks."
I was very careful not to point out that Yui and Yoruichi shared very similar appearances. "Right. Some warning still would've been appreciated."
"What's the fun in that? Half these missions are all about adapting. So, any suspects?"
"It's been one day." She just waited. I sighed. "Look, when I've got something, I'll let you know. Right now, I'm just trying to remember everyone's names. And, by the way, those Kuchiki twins are real pieces of work."
"I'm not surprised. You had to nearly kill Lil Byakuya to get him to change his ways." Her left ear flicked. "Just…be careful, Ichigo. There have been assassination attempts on them a couple times in the past. The Kuchikis and Yui both."
"You want me to be a spy and a bodyguard?"
"It's another reason you were such a good candidate."
I rolled my eyes. "I get the feeling you're enjoying this."
"A little. It's nice to see you out of your comfort zone." She sobered. "However, if I had been able to find any other option, I would've taken it over this. I trust you, Ichigo, which is an unusual feeling for someone like me, so I want you to know this: I didn't want you on this mission."
I frowned. "You think I can't handle it?"
"I know you can handle it. That isn't the issue." Her tail lashed back and forth. "You fought in a war that I can barely comprehend. You lived through experiences that would have killed—did kill—everyone else. You deserve some time to rest without getting caught up in Soul Society's problems again." Yoruichi's tail stopped moving quite so much, but it still twitched.
She knew the broad strokes of what I'd been through. She even knew a few particularly painful details. She knew how it began and she knew how it ended.
But there was so, so much that I would never say, so I just sighed. "How do you know what I deserve?"
Yoruichi blinked. "Ichigo—"
"Anyway, isn't there a bit of an issue with this whole operation that you overlooked? I mean, think about it. What are the odds that I get sent to only the two classes they've infiltrated?"
Yoruichi let me get away with the obvious deflection. "Aw, Ichigo, it's cute when you think I haven't already thought of something. We staged a lottery among all the classes at the academy to choose which ones you would assist, and conveniently had those two classes win. We also know that the Daybreakers have only infiltrated one of those two classes, and they simply have no way of knowing that we have narrowed our search that much. Quite honestly, I didn't think we could convince you to do more than two classes, but Suì-Fēng really wanted you to do three."
"You were right, I guess."
Amused, Yoruichi tilted her head. "Also, there is one more thing you should do to make all of this a little more believable. I need you to make it clear that you're doing this as punishment for the Kasumiōji incident. It took me a while to get the necessary paperwork through so anyone who goes looking finds the trail, but it's ready now."
"But that was weeks ago."
"And? The people in charge just took a while to decide your fate. And when I say make it clear, I mean drop a few hints."
Insulted, I scowled. "I'm not completely new to this, Yoruichi."
"Just making sure."
Rolling my eyes again, I opted to change the subject with a gesture at the closet. "How was Kon? I get the feeling you were watching him instead of me yesterday."
She smirked as much as her feline features allowed. "Your little mod soul did just fine. Didn't you, Kon?"
"Leave me alone, you crazy woman!"
Yoruichi's claws extended and audibly tore into my bedsheets. Kon yelped, voice still muffled by the closet doors, and went silent. I winced, already planning my apology to Yuzu.
"That's what I thought," Yoruichi said. "You don't have to worry about Kon, Ichigo. Your friends will be insurance enough if his nature gets the better of him." This time, Kon knew better than to respond. "You should be far more concerned with the paperwork you haven't done yet."
The picture of innocence, Yoruichi made her voice gratingly chipper. "Oh, I guess we forgot to tell you. You're supposed to fill out a daily report after each trip to Soul Society. Don't worry, I left a bunch of copies with your father."
Forgot my ass, I groused. Aloud, I said, "You just love giving me work, don't you? After all that talk about getting rest."
She smiled, fangs gleaming. "Make sure to be as specific as possible. Details matter."
"Get out of my room, you scheming woman," I growled with mock irritation. She pranced past me. "And don't you dare spin some kind of stupid story to my dad or I'll shave your tail."
Yoruichi went rigid and all the fur on her back stood on end. She looked back at me with narrowed eyes. "That's a dangerous threat, Ichigo."
I was unmoved. "I've done it before. Kisuke said you looked great."
"I'll be sure to remind him not to get ahead of himself. As for you—I do hope you value your eyebrows. Mutually assured destruction, Ichigo."
Grinning, I waved her out. I hadn't actually shaved her tail in the future—I didn't have a death wish—but she had no way of knowing that.
"Ichigooooo!" Yuzu's voice carried up the stairs. "I'm ready now!"
I met her at the foot of the stairs and we headed out together, her now dressed in an outfit much more suited for Quincy practice. Yoruichi was gone already, probably well on her way to the shop.
As we walked down the street, I absently reached up and rubbed my eyebrows. Yuzu glanced up at me.
"Is something the matter?"
"It's nothing," I said, dropping my hand. "Just a joke between friends." I hoped, anyway.
Yuzu nodded sagely. "By the way, Daddy left a stack of papers for you on the counter. He said he didn't want to interrupt your personal time with Yoruichi."
My right fist slammed into my left palm. "I'm gonna kill him."
We reached the lake on the edge of town without issue. Since there didn't seem to be anyone around—the weird reiatsu of this place, still lingering after Muramasa's defeat, generally kept away anyone but the most determined of joggers—I didn't bother with a barrier. We were sequestered on the far shore with a whole forest of trees between us and civilization. Anyone on the opposite end of the lake wouldn't be able to see anything significant with the naked eye.
"You warm up," I told Yuzu. "I'm just going to make sure we're alone out here."
She nodded and started stretching. I left my body leaning up against a tree and hopped into the air. I could sense Chad, Orihime, and even Tatsuki without trouble; Orihime and Tatsuki were at Orihime's apartment, and Chad was over at a local boxing gym I knew he frequented. I was pretty sure he was the main customer keeping it open; maybe he'd even take it over one of these days. The owner was getting old.
Uryū was the only one not at home. He'd volunteered to handle hollows for the afternoon, leaving Rukia with some rare free time. One she had been assured that no trouble would come of the arrangement, Rukia had commented wryly that Karakura was the best assignment a Shinigami could ask for, since it practically took care of itself these days.
I dropped back to the ground by Yuzu, reassured that we didn't have any hidden observers. "Ready?"
She straightened up from where she'd been reaching for her toes and snapped a remarkably crisp salute. It was honestly cute, and I knew my dad would've been melting on the spot. "Ready!"
"Where'd you go and learn something like that?" I asked while I found a good spot for my demonstration.
"We're learning about history, and the teacher taught it to us." She did it again. "How's it look?"
I chuckled. "Don't ask me; I've never been big on that kind of thing. You watching?" She nodded. "Good." I closed my eyes, gathered what I needed, and leaned forward. In the next instant, I was twenty feet ahead, a faint blue light disappearing by my feet. I faced Yuzu. "What did you see?"
She bit her lip. "You pulled reishi to your feet and then…um, rode it? I think."
"You've got it." I drew more reishi and stopped right next to Yuzu. The resulting breeze rustled her hair. "It's called hirenkyaku; Shinigami have shunpo and hollows have sonido. Hirenkyaku is basically the Quincy equivalent of those movement techniques. First step: gather reishi at your feet."
Yuzu had plenty of practice with that. The soles of her shoes and the air just around them gained a soft blue glow. She wobbled for a second as the reishi cushion pushed her slightly off the ground but quickly steadied herself.
"Step two: direct the reishi where you want to go. Ride it like a skateboard."
I stepped back to give Yuzu space. She pressed her lips together, brow furrowing in concentration.
To the untrained observer, she simply vanished. An instant later, she reappeared several feet away with a yelp, arms pinwheeling before she faceplanted. I winced. "You okay?"
Moving gingerly, she pushed herself up, leaves falling from her hair. "Ow." She brushed the remaining leaves out and got back to her feet. "I'm okay. I didn't expect to move that fast."
"Hirenkyaku relies on reishi and your ability to focus more than muscle. It's a mental game." I picked one last leaf out of her collar. "You're plenty smart, Yuzu, and you've been practicing reishi manipulation constantly. This'll just take a little more practice."
Her smile held a nervous, but determined, edge. "I feel like I'm going to fall a lot more."
"You will," I assured her.
She took a deep, bracing breath, and then squared her shoulders. "Okay, I'm trying again."
While I stood off to the side and watched—correcting a couple things here and there, though my experience with hirenkyaku was painfully limited—Yuzu darted in stilted leaps and bounds all across the clearing. She tripped more often than not, and the soft grass floor was gaining noticeable streaks on it from Yuzu's body tumbling over it so many times. She had no control over her speed, and about half the time she went in the wrong direction. Not to mention the instances in which her control wavered and the reishi either slipped away or imploded.
She flew by me on a wild wave of reishi and I caught her by the shoulders before she could crash headlong into a tree. "I think it's time for a break."
Offering a shaky smile, Yuzu let me help her to the ground. I immediately began a Kaidō treatment to address the worst of her scrapes and bruises.
Yuzu went rigid, but it wasn't because of me. I spun, braced for an attack that never came. Uryū stared down at me.
"Ichigo," he greeted, finally letting go of his tightly-restrained reiatsu.
He dropped down from his perch above the water. "I was suspicious when you asked me about my visualization techniques, and I've been sensing strange fluctuations in the reishi around Karakura for weeks now. I should have known you were involved."
Yuzu tapped my shoulder, and I realized I'd been leaning in front of her on reflex. She didn't need protecting, especially not from Uryū. I resumed healing her while Uryū walked over.
"Care to explain?" he asked, stopping in my peripheral vision.
Yuzu wasn't going to say anything unless I did. I sighed. "I'm guessing you're not gonna give up until you get the whole story."
"What would you tell me if I didn't walk away?"
"That my sister is learning Quincy techniques."
When I didn't continue, Uryū crossed his arms. "You were right."
I finally looked up at him. Tatsuki's challenge—my promise—would not leave the forefront of my mind. "Look, if I tell you everything—because this can't be explained without a really, really long story attached—you won't be able to unlearn it."
Uryū had the nerve to scoff, Quincy pride rigid along his shoulders. "You're being rather dramatic. Whatever it is, I can handle it. I handled storming the afterlife with you, didn't I?"
"Now who's being dramatic?" I patted Yuzu on the head, a silent signal I was done. "Keep practicing, okay?"
"You're telling him?"
Her eyes were full of sweet concern. I managed a crooked smile. "I'll be fine, Yuzu. I'm not the one who has to worry about getting a mouthful of dirt."
Her expression twisted in distaste, but she nodded and jogged off to find a clear stretch of ground, leaving me with Uryū. I gestured to a spot nearby.
"You should probably sit down. This is gonna take a while." He sat, arms still crossed. When I realized he wasn't going to relax, I gathered my thoughts. After so many times, I was getting better at prioritizing what to say and what not to say.
Uryū, true to his word, handled it. When I was done, he leaned back, head tilting so he could look up at the sky. The reflection of the sun made it impossible for me to see his eyes, but his mouth was pressed into a thin line. He'd looked incredulous a couple of times, but he'd always returned to this strained composure.
I didn't know what was going on in his head. There was any number of life-altering revelations to choose from: the fact that he and I were related, the fact that I was a Quincy, his death…The list went on and on. I could only guess which ones he was choosing to focus on.
After an uncomfortable stretch of silence, Uryū sighed, sat straight, and pushed up his glasses. "While I can understand wanting to keep your history a secret, I can't say I appreciate being left out. You're remarkably thick-skulled when you want to be."
I felt an eyebrow twitch. "Hey."
"That being said, you…It explains a lot of what I noticed since we came back from Soul Society. You've been acting oddly for months now. I thought it was from a battle we weren't there for, but it appears the answer was a little more complicated. Does Orihime know? Chad?"
I shook my head. "I haven't…I haven't found a good time to tell them yet."
"And my 'good time' was when I confronted you and gave you no other choice?"
"I could've lied. I've gotten better at that, you know."
"Sure, and I would've believed none of it."
"You say that now."
"The last thing I need is someone as stubborn and impulsive as you with the deviousness of that shopkeeper."
"I'm not impulsive!"
He gave me a dry look. "That's your defense?"
"Oof!" We both turned to see Yuzu picking herself up after yet another slide across the grass. Her clothes were stained green, but the determined set to her jaw hadn't changed. Uryū watched her next few attempts with an unreadable expression, then turned to me.
"You're the one teaching her."
It was and was not a question. "Yeah. There a problem?"
"Problem," he repeated. "Yes, there is a problem. Her technique is terrible."
"She just started today, lay off."
He shook his head. "Not from lack of experience. She is fundamentally failing at hirenkyaku. How did you teach her this?"
I briefly outlined my short lesson plan. Uryū was shaking his head before I finished two sentences. Scowling now, I gestured at Yuzu as she just barely managed to stop before splashing into the water. "Got any better ideas? I learned all my techniques on the battlefield. You were a little too busy to give actual lessons."
Uryū paused, but only for a second. "Clearly, what you did pick up was incredibly flawed. She'll be stuck doing these things wrong if her technique isn't fixed."
I eyed him, not saying a word.
After several seconds, he realized I was staring. "What?"
"You know, if I keep teaching her, those flawed techniques are gonna be all she knows." One of his eyebrows twitched. "Hell, with the way things are going, we might even start a whole new Quincy lineage with what I'm teaching her right now. Imagine that: a whole line of Quincies, every one of them messing up their most fundamental skills."
I grinned when his irritation became too much for him to bear.
"Fine. I will teach her. I won't have someone related to me bringing shame to the Quincy." He pointedly ignored my triumphant grin.
While I watched Uryū approach and talk to Yuzu, a thought struck me. Yuzu now had a dedicated teacher and all the tools she needed to be a full-fledged Quincy. Karin had the teacher, sure, but she didn't have the tools. Without a zanpakutō, her training would be in swordsmanship and Kidō only, lacking the crucial element that all Shinigami needed to defend themselves. I leaned forward and slung my arms over my knees.
Hollow Zangetsu, ever attuned to my darker instincts, laughed.
"They ain't gonna be happy."
If my training was worth half a damn, they'll never even find out.
The next day, I sat off on the sidelines while the hohō teacher, Saki, delivered a short lecture on some of the finer points of fast movement. I tuned most of it out.
This class was even smaller than the other one. There were only four students, all of them relatively young and inexperienced. I didn't know which zanjutsu classes they were in, but given that they were all in remedial hohō, they probably weren't top of their other classes, either.
Most second years had imprinted at least a little on their asauchi when Muramasa attacked. Although these four had avoided death, their classmates had been slaughtered for their progress. Did that haunt them? Would it be enough to turn any of them away from the Gotei Thirteen entirely?
There was only one noble in this class: Yuuto, a boy whose family was some branch of a notable house. Not a member of one of the main clans. He was quiet and unassuming, lacking any of the Kuchiki pompousness I dreaded.
The other three students, two girls and a boy, were either children of working-class Seireitei residents or from just beyond the wall. Sayoko and Akio were both from the same district in North Rukongai—one of the near ones, probably inner ten—and their attitudes towards each other reflected a shared childhood. Noa, on the other hand, radiated nerves. The adopted daughter of a popular cook, she was far from her element, and it showed. Still, she got up with everyone else when Saki ordered them all to stand and give their best attempt at crossing the field with shunpo.
"Remember," Saki said, eyes sweeping over her charges, "shunpo is all about covering the greatest distance in the fewest number of steps. Don't focus on sheer speed; that comes with practice and discipline."
From the looks on their faces, they'd all heard this speech many times before. None of them looked particularly eager to give it a shot.
"Come on, on the line you go. Noa, you've been making great progress. You too, Yuuto. And if you two would stop trying to trip each other, I'm sure you could get under twenty steps."
I barely stopped my eyebrows from shooting to my hairline. Twenty steps for the length of the field? No, not even that—there was another line marked in the grass some forty yards away. If I put my mind to it, I could cover miles in a single flash step when I was in my released shikai or even more if I used shunido.
Then again, I'd had personal training from the Goddess of Flash, and if I hadn't learned quickly, I would've died. The right kind of motivation worked wonders.
Eventually, they all gathered on the line, bodies taut with varying degrees of tension. My focus went immediately to Noa, whose starting stance was textbook. Too textbook—she was rigid as a board. She was either going to tear a muscle or faceplant.
Saki appeared next to Noa, making both of their uniforms swish in the sudden breeze. "Noa, you're going to hurt yourself," she said, adjusting Noa's stance. "Relax. Shunpo requires tension like anything else, but if you're too tense, you'll snap."
Noa pressed her lips together. This was not the first time she'd heard that particular piece of advice, I could tell that much.
Saki stepped back, surveyed her students one last time, and then nodded to herself. "All right, everyone, let's see it."
After another couple seconds of hesitation, they took off. Sayako and Akio easily doubled the distance of their classmates in the first step. Remembering Saki's earlier remark to those two about competing, I focused on them. For the first half of the field, they were evenly matched; a fight between them wouldn't be about speed.
Then Sayako noticed Akio to her left, and Akio noticed Sayako to his right. Between their next steps, they both leaned forward a little more, dug into the ground a little more, drew on their reiatsu a little more—
And they both tripped. Yuuto yelped in surprise, flashing into view just in time to tumble over Akio. Noa was the only one to actually make it to the other end of the field without falling, and even then, I could see her wincing and massaging her calves. Even with Saki's advice, she'd been too tense.
I glanced at Saki. Her hair—black, long on the top, shaved on the sides, and utterly unruly—flopped over her left eye, but her right eye was squinted with concern. She had bitten her lip, her whole expression conflicted.
"All right," I muttered, pushing myself to my feet. Saki immediately took notice. I raised an eyebrow in silent question, and she nodded permission. Together, we flash-stepped across the field to where the four students were recovering by the finish line. They all started in surprise when we appeared next to them.
"Mr. Kurosaki!" Noa stuttered. They all stood straight. I raised my hands.
"Just call me Ichigo," I said. I had introduced myself at the start of class, but apparently, my request for informality hadn't been heeded.
"Ichigo here has a few pointers he'd like to share," Saki said with a quick glance at me to confirm that was why I'd come over. I nodded. "He's only been here for a day, and he's only seen you all practice once, but he's already noticed some of your bad habits."
That earned a few ashamed glances.
"Now," Saki continued, flicking her hair out of her face, "Ichigo, the floor is yours."
"Thanks." I crossed my arms. "I know you guys don't know me, and I've only just met you, but honestly, none of you should be in this class."
They all frowned. Saki raised an eyebrow.
"I don't mean you're secretly as good as Yo—the Goddess of Flash. I mean that the mistakes you're making are all things that should get hammered out with practice. You're just not able to get over the mental blocks you've got in a low-stress situation like this."
"Low-stress?" Yuuto repeated.
I nodded. "Yeah. Yuuto, you've got the most solid technique, but you're hesitating way too much with each step. Noa, you're just too tense. And Sayako and Akio, you two are individually just fine, but the moment you get into competition, you try to push yourselves too far. This is class, not a race."
Sayako raised her hand.
"We do have races sometimes, though," she said. Akio and the rest mumbled their agreement. I scowled.
"Yeah, but that wasn't a race. It was just an exercise. And in a fight for you life, the price of screwing up is more than some grass stains."
"In any case," Saki said, "did you all hear what he said? I know I've been telling you all these same things, but I'm hoping the second opinion makes you all think a little harder on your weaknesses."
Nods all around.
"Ms. Saki, can I talk to you for a second?" I asked.
She blinked. "Sure. You all, line up again. Another crossing, okay?"
A weak chorus of groans went up, but it choked off into silence when Saki levelled her students with a challenging glare. Once they were set up, she joined me a few yards away from the start line.
"What is it?"
"How much time is left in class?"
Saki's eyes drifted up towards the sun. "Hm. Around an hour, I'd say. Sayako and Akio broke our clock last class, and I haven't been able to requisition a new one, so we might get interrupted by the bell."
"That should be plenty of time."
She frowned at me. Her head only came up to my shoulders, though, so it wasn't all that authoritative. "Time for what, exactly?"
The furrow she got between her brows when she was irritated reminded me of Suì-Fēng's look whenever she had to be in the same room with me. "Tag?"
"Look, just trust me. It's how Yoruichi trained me, though I promise I won't actually try to kill any of your students."
After staring for a second, Saki heaved a sigh. "You know what? It can't hurt. My teaching methods clearly aren't working for this class." She tipped her head towards where Sayako and Akio were brawling on the grass. "Honestly, winning that class lottery was a godsend. Knock yourself out, Ichigo. And you can just call me Saki."
She flash-stepped over to the two troublemakers and yanked them apart. I narrowed my eyes. Noticing it once was a possible mistake, but twice? I knew that footwork.
Time enough for that later. I cracked my knuckles. "All right!" I called, flaring my reiatsu enough to get everyone's attention. "Remember what I said about this being a low-stress environment?" A few hesitant nods while they wandered closer. "We're gonna play a little game. You've all heard of tag, I'm sure." I grinned. "Try not to die."
Sayako screamed and ducked under my palm at the last instant. Shattered tree bark peppered her hair and she lost her balance. I crouched in front of her and flicked her forehead before she could try anything.
"Gotcha," I said.
She groaned. I stood, surveying the training field. The other three students were lying around the grass in varying states of exhaustion. They'd all lasted almost the whole time, which was impressive. I'd been making sure to push them right up to their limits, but in the end, Sayako had been the last one standing.
I couldn't give her too much credit, though. She'd been using Ayako as a human shield for the first half of the game.
Facing her again, I held out a hand and helped her to her feet. She winced and brushed grass and dirt off her uniform.
"I don't get it," she said, looking up at me. "I don't even see you take a step. You just disappear. How many steps does it take for you to cross the field?"
Sweat streaked her face. Her chest still heaved with exertion, and there were leaves and debris in her hair that wouldn't come out without a pretty intensive shower. Despite all that, she stared up at me with genuine frustration in her eyes, the kind that wouldn't take silence for an answer.
What could I say to her? The differences in our experience, in our training…
Then it hit me.
"I've trained really long and really hard to get where I am," I said. "I wasn't born knowing how to shunpo. There's a really famous guy from the World of the Living—William Shakespeare. Have you heard of him?"
"Not really. Sometimes the librarian talks about him while I help her re-shelve books, but I don't know anything about him."
"Well, he's got this pretty famous quote: 'Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.'"
Sayako stared up at me. "I don't get it."
"I wasn't born some great Shinigami. I just didn't have a choice but to get to this point. You have that choice. You have to decide to become great, Sayako. It can't just be because you want to see Akio's face when he loses. You have to want it for yourself."
Leaving Sayako to digest that—and feeling rather proud of myself, much to Old Man Zangetsu's amusement—I joined Saki in making sure all the students were okay and could stand under their own power. We had just finished when the bell rang.
"All right, everyone," Saki said to the pod of exhausted students shuffling towards the exit, "good work today! Remember to practice your basic forms for at least an hour on your off days!"
They managed weak affirmatives. Saki kept her arms crossed and her back straight until the last of them left the grounds. Then she blew out a breath and let her arms fall.
"You certainly get results," she said.
She shot me a droll look. "Don't give me that. Those kids, every single one of them, managed to use shunpo during that tag game of yours. I'm pretty sure they didn't even consciously do it, either. It makes me feel a little better, because at least I've been able to teach them the motions, but I've been trying to get them to do that this whole year."
"So why didn't you use the tag game? There's no way you've never heard of it."
Saki sighed. The wind stirred her hair again, but she tucked it behind one ear. "I thought it would be too difficult for them. I didn't want to throw them into the water and tell them to swim without giving them a chance first."
"Sometimes people need to be thrown to the wolves."
"You'd know, wouldn't you?"
Saki shook her head and headed for the gym adjacent to the field. "You're not even tired at all, even though you've been running around for an hour. Those kids were exhausted. Even I'd be winded."
"I've had a lot of stamina training."
She snorted and sat on the edge of the gym floor, which was raised a couple of feet above ground level. "Right."
I found a spot a respectful distance away and started picking the mud out of my hakama. Akio had tried to play dirty, slinging dirt and whatever else he could get his hands on at me to try to slow me down.
"By the way," I said, trying to sound casual, "you've got a pretty particular shunpo stride."
Saki stiffened. "Is that so?"
"If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine. I was just wondering how someone from the Onmitsukidō ended up teaching remedial hohō."
This time, when her hair slipped loose, Saki made no move to push it aside. She focused somewhere far beyond the training ground walls. "It's a bit of a sob story."
"No, it's fine. I'd rather you know than deal with your curiosity." She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I used to be a member of the Fēng family, but I failed the test to join the Onmitsukidō. Per tradition, I was kicked out of the family and unofficially banned from the Gotei Thirteen. I only managed to stay in the Seireitei because I landed this job." She chuckled, low and bitter. "But I'm not even good at this, either."
I focused on the grass between my feet.
"Harsh tradition," Hollow Zangetsu commented. I agreed, but I didn't say anything out loud. It didn't sound like a healed wound, so I didn't want to pick at it.
"I'm sorry," I eventually said, since that was the least offensive thing I could think of.
Saki straightened and pulled a headband from her pocket. Why hadn't she used it from the start? "Wasn't your fault. I was complacent." Hair firmly away from her face, Saki stood. "Anyway, I've got my own training to do. It was nice to chat, Ichigo."
She stuck out her hand. I shook it. She had a strong grip belied by slender fingers.
"I look forward to next class," she said. "I'm thinking we can do more of your style of training—it seems like fear is exactly the kind of motivation these kids need."
She flash-stepped away. I stood as well. I hadn't meant to hijack her class, but it seemed like she was fine with it. That was good, right?
A former noble forced to teach…was she spy material? She had the training for it.
No one else in this class seemed to have any motive. Sayako and Akio were from the inner districts and didn't seem to resent Yuuto at all. And Noa, with her comfortable life as a baker's daughter and anxiety, didn't seem like the murdering type at all.
"So long as none of them are shapeshifting Kasumiōji assassins," I muttered to myself.
"Ichigo!" Mei waved from the gym entrance.
"You're early," I said when I got close.
"Only by a minute. You should be grateful, though." She leaned a little closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. "I saw Ōnabara headed this way, just like you said he would." Seeing me blanch, she smiled. "Don't you worry; part of being a bodyguard is knowing all the escape routes. Just follow me!"
We managed to escape Ōnabara and his mountains of paperwork without too much trouble. Mei left me in front of my house and departed with a wave. She was the perfect escort: chatty enough for the both of us without forcing anything.
The moment her Senkaimon closed, I turned my back on my house and shot over to Kisuke's shop. Having been briefed on my plan by my dad while I was out, Kisuke already had the Senkaimon ready. We barely exchanged words before I headed into the Dangai. No cleaner this time—
—but I didn't want to linger. Coming out in the Seireitei in an under-construction shop where I'd left Kisuke's tiny device that morning, I cloaked my presence as much as I could before sneaking into the alleyways and side streets that allowed for covert movement within the Seireitei's crowded walls.
This time, Ōnabara would never know about my trespassing. I was there and gone without anyone the wiser.