I will be traveling for the next several weeks and won't have Internet, so this is the last update for a while. Also, 100,000 words! It's insane to think about, honestly.
Zangetsu eyed the tea in front of him with completely justified suspicion. To his left and right, Ichigo and the Old Man were doing the same. Across from him, Kisuke had his fan in front of his mouth as though he was trying to hide the fact that he didn't want to drink his tea either.
Considering that Kisuke was the one who made the drinks, they all had good reason to be wary. Kisuke's skills with anything meant to be ingested were always hit-or-miss. Sometimes, his tea was the best thing on the face of the planet, enough to revitalize exhausted Shinigami for at least a couple of hours. Other times, it could take down the most resolute Hollow with just half a cup.
Zangetsu knew that last part from personal experience. He'd even watched Kisuke make the stuff. Somehow, the scientist couldn't replicate the same procedure with any reliability; it was as though all of his genius intellect was devoted to his labs and not his kitchen, even if the two could conceivably overlap.
Finally, after the second minute of awkward tea contemplation, Ichigo cleared his throat. "So, Hat-'n-Clogs, you said you had some leads when I called."
Kisuke snapped his fan shut. "Yes, I do. After hearing about what happened to you—"
The liar. His instruments had picked it up. He'd just gone to Zangetsu to confirm it.
"—I did some investigating around Karakura. I found eighteen more of those traps scattered around at various locations that you, Ichigo, are known to frequent."
The number floored even Zangetsu. Eighteen? There was no way one Shinigami in this timeline would be capable of laying so many traps that were that complicated. Not even Kisuke could. It had to be multiple Shinigami all working together.
Not to mention—
"I was being targeted?" Ichigo asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Undoubtedly, given the way these traps are designed," Kisuke replied. "There was even one just outside my shop." He paused. "I have since dismantled it, as well as the other traps I could detect."
Zangetsu scratched an itch on his neck. What was he trying to remember? There was something he was missing.
Well, he wasn't going to think of it now.
"How did they get so close t' your shop?" Zangetsu asked instead. "I thought ya were supposed t' keep this place secure."
"I do," Kisuke said evenly. "But I do not control what goes on in the street beyond. I did manage to catch some readings from the equipment that was pointed in that general direction."
"Did you pick up anything that could tell us who they are?" Ichigo asked.
Kisuke thinned his lips. "Not as much as I would like. Whoever planted these traps has some knowledge of who I am and what I enjoy doing in my spare time. I did manage to confirm that our mysterious guests possess Shinigami abilities. If—when—they make another trip to Karakura, I should be able to detect them using the lingering traces of their Reiatsu outside my shop."
"Did you not detect a Senkaimon?" the Old Man inquired.
"I did," Kisuke said, "but it was at the usual time when the patrolling Shinigami in Karakura change shifts. Now that I have Reiatsu samples, I will be able to tell for sure if there are uninvited Shinigami coming through as well."
"Can you track them once they're here?"
Kisuke shook his head. "Only when they first arrive. Unless they are constantly exerting a large amount of Reiatsu that my instruments will detect, I cannot."
"What if we planted a tracker?"
"Then yes. Of course, you would have to get close enough—and weaken them enough—to do so."
Ichigo's eyes glittered with the promise of violence. "That I can do."
The idea that had been bugging Zangetsu since before Ichigo made his call to Kisuke earlier that morning finally crystallized. It was a good thing he was not holding his cup; with the way his body involuntarily tensed, he would have shattered it.
"Kisuke, would these traps affect the Visored too?"
"Yes, I believe—" he stopped, gears turning in his mind. The Old Man and Ichigo realized the implications almost as quickly as Kisuke. "Ichigo, I have a favor to ask."
"Check on the Visored?"
"Yes. I need you to go to the Visored warehouse. I have not been able to contact Shinji in more than a week. I thought—" Kisuke shook his head. "Well, I was foolish. I will stay here and watch for any Senkaimon."
"I can go right now," Ichigo said as he climbed to his feet. "And Hat-'n-Clogs, I'm not going to call it a favor. They're friends." Even though Ichigo's and Shinji's bond wasn't what it had the potential to be, Ichigo's loyalty to those that helped him was no small matter. Zangetsu glanced at Kisuke while the shopkeeper popped Ichigo's soul out of his body.
"Let us know if anythin' happens."
"Of course. Good luck."
Zangetsu returned to Ichigo's Inner World alongside the Old Man. They waited in tense silence while Ichigo shot in the direction of the Visored's hideout. Almost a minute before Ichigo actually arrived, Zangetsu could tell that something was wrong. Hachi's barriers should have been keeping their hideout a complete secret, but there was Reiatsu—small, almost undetectable, but there—leaking out. The Old Man sensed it too, and his expression, already drawn, became grave.
"Can ya detect any traps 'round here?" Zangetsu asked.
The Old Man closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes. Ten. It seems that eight have been activated."
Zangetsu cursed. "How the hell did these people find Shinji? The whole damned Seireitei couldn't find 'em for over a hundred years."
"Is it possible that they were tracking Ichigo when he last went to the warehouse, or even before then?"
Zangetsu glanced at the sky and drummed his fingers on the hilt at his waist while he thought. The habitual action served to anchor his thoughts when another surge of rage shot through him. The waves were becoming more and more difficult to control; it was as though his Hollow nature was struggling to overcome the Shinigami portion.
Because that was what Ichigo needed: a conflict within an already conflicted soul.
Maybe those Kidō spells did have lingering effects. It was certainly possible. Would he even be able to tell the difference between his own feelings and those that were spurred on by the spell? Either way, all of this uncertainty was just another thing that Zangetsu was going to pay the creators back for. Once they got up close and personal with the assholes responsible, Zangetsu could pay a little extra attention to—
"Well?" the Old Man asked, snapping Zangetsu out of his spiraling thoughts.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's possible. King's Shinigami badge is a tracker."
The Old Man stared. "And you choose now to tell us?"
"I forgot!" Zangetsu snapped. "There's been a couple of other fuckin' things I've had on my mind, okay?" That was too far. Zangetsu took a deep breath. "Sorry. After this, I'll teach 'im how to leave his body without it. At least he doesn't have it on 'im now. I'll warn 'im not t' use it in the future once we figure out what the hell is up with the Visored."
The Old Man nodded. For the moment, he was satisfied. Zangetsu then closed his eyes and switched his awareness to Ichigo's, literally seeing through his eyes. It was something he and Ichigo had perfected early on, back when Zangetsu had frequently taken control of Ichigo's body to demonstrate how to do a technique. The first couple of times, Ichigo hadn't been able to focus, too aware of Zangetsu to react quickly to his surroundings. Now, however, Ichigo's surroundings took precedence.
The Visored warehouse was a mess. Splintered wood littered the floor and the already-crumbling concrete looked as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. Only an old couch had been completely spared; the sagging green cushions had splinters on them, but were otherwise unharmed.
"Mashiro was redecorating," Ichigo muttered.
Yeah, no one else would willingly put that color in their home.
Looking at the destruction, though, Zangetsu's line of though ran somewhere along the lines of "What the fuck," and judging from the way Ichigo had tensed, he was thinking the same thing.
Ichigo had one hand on the hilt of his sealed Zanpakutō. Even Zangetsu could sense the profound sense of wrongness lingering about the place. To make matters even more suspicious, not one of the Visored was in sight.
Zangetsu's fury turned into a cold, dark thing that sat like a stone in his chest.
"What are the odds they're all in the training area?" Ichigo muttered.
He walked through the warehouse slowly, staying alert. Zangetsu tried to reach out and sense something—anything—but he couldn't scrape together the necessary focus. Despite not having a body, he felt as though he couldn't breathe, as though he was being unwound like a spool of string too taut to hold up—
Something cold and sharp went through his left shoulder. Zangetsu's eyes snapped open in Ichigo's Inner World and immediately fixed on the Quincy arrow impaled in his body.
"What the hell are ya doin', Old Man?" he growled.
"Bringing you back to yourself," the Old Man replied. There was no malice in his eyes and no hostility in his voice. Gritting his teeth, Zangetsu reached up and shattered the arrow before regenerating the damaged tissue and bone.
"I could sense Ichigo's inner balance shifting, so I acted."
"Ya forced me t' manifest in here?" Zangetsu asked incredulously. "Since when could ya fuckin' do that?"
"Just now. Fortunately, it seems to have worked."
"Yeah, sure," Zangetsu muttered. He climbed to his feet and rotated his shoulder. He fixed his gaze somewhere on the far horizon. Whatever ugly thing had been bubbling up and taking over had shattered with the arrow, but Zangetsu had no doubt that it would be back. He glanced at the Old Man but couldn't hold his gaze. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." The Old Man paused before speaking again. "I suggest meditating before you spectate again. Whatever Ichigo sees—"
"Could be enough t' set me off. Yeah, I know."
Didn't mean he had to like it, though. But the Old Man was in a sounder state of mind than Zangetsu at the moment, and Zangetsu trusted him enough to sit cross-legged, close his eyes, and focus on his breathing. It was harder than he remembered to let time slip away and to separate his awareness from his body so he could focus on his mind. Still, he managed it, which had to be a good sign. He had at least that much control over himself even with that Kidō spell screwing everything up.
(And if he thought about it too much, the effects of the Kidō spell were now feeling way too similar to the shit Aizen had cooked up before his death, the spells that had nearly put Ichigo in the same damned position and weakened him to the point that Aizen could hold him and torture him as he pleased. The same spells that would Hollowfy perfectly normal Shinigami—not in any way like the Visored, though. Those spells would make them go out of control until their own damned friends had to cut them down because there was no coming back from that in the middle of a goddamned war.)
"Don't shoot that arrow," Zangetsu said without opening his eyes. "I'm controllin' it. For now."
He opened his eyes to see the Old Man dissipating his bow. "I will try to isolate this spell. Its residual effects could be due to its continued presence."
"Sure. You do that."
While the Old Man did whatever the hell he just he'd be doing, Zangetsu went back to seeing through Ichigo's eyes.
Ichigo's eyes were seeing Shinji, and Shinji was very, very close.
"—come bargin' in here like you're some kinda hotshot, Ichigo! One wrong move and Hiyori could accidentally kill ya! Hell, right now, any one of us could!"
"Shinji, wait," Ichigo said, holding up his hands. "I came here because of that."
Shinji narrowed his eyes and leaned back, giving Ichigo (and Zangetsu) space to breathe. "Ya know about the traps?"
"Yes. I actually—well, I kind of set one off."
"And yer hollow?"
"He's—" Ichigo hesitated. Why was he hesitating? Zangetsu almost took control just to say he was fine but stopped himself at the last moment. He couldn't trust himself right now; the Old Man had made that clear. So maybe it would be best just to wait and watch.
(Yeah, this was like what Aizen had done. Ichigo and Zangetsu had needed months to recover their balance and trust after being hit by those spells, and things had never quite been the same between them. Not because of mistrust, but because the fact that their bond could be so disrupted by Kidō was sobering. Being a Visored made Ichigo incredibly powerful, but it also made him vulnerable.)
This time, though, Zangetsu didn't let the rage pull him down. He kept listening to Ichigo.
"He's been hit hard, but we're managing," Ichigo finally said.
"'Managin'?'" Shinji repeated. Ichigo nodded.
"Yeah. We'll be fine."
He said it with such confidence that Zangetsu had no choice but to believe him.
"What about you?" Ichigo said.
Shinji's expression twisted. "We're dealin' with it. We didn't even realize what was goin' on until a couple days ago. Now we're jus' takin' turns, really, whether we want it or not. Hachi's workin' on unravelin' the damn spells when he can, and we're all tryin' t' work it out on our own."
Ichigo momentarily focused beyond Shinji to where the other Visored were scattered in a loose circle. Hachi was clearly working on something while the others were asleep. Even Kensei was passed out, his body bruised and bloody. Clearly, the Visored had been hit hard.
"Is there anything I can do?" Ichigo asked.
"Not now," Shinji said. "Though, if you're really gonna go after the bastards responsible, let me know before ya get to 'em." Something dark flashed in Shinji's eyes. "I want a few words with 'em first."
Ichigo nodded. "I'll remember that."
Zangetsu switched his attention to Ichigo's Inner World when it became clear that there was nothing outside he needed to focus on. The Old Man was still meditating, but after a minute, something flashed on the horizon and the Old Man opened his eyes.
"It's gone," he said.
"Ya destroyed it?"
"Yes. There was residual energy buried within it that did seem to be leeching into its surroundings."
"Great. So I'm fine now?"
"That is not something I can tell immediately. How do you feel?"
Zangetsu did a quick mental inventory.
"Not much different." Still two steps from the edge, though the ground didn't feel as though it was crumbling anymore.
"Then we will just have to be careful."
Zangetsu nodded, though he doubted that he would follow that plan if things came down to it.
Kisuke took the news of the Visored with surprising equanimity, though his grip on Benihime's cane sheath tightened at times as Ichigo spoke.
"So even the Visored were affected," Kisuke muttered when Ichigo finished. "I thought maybe—but no, I suppose not even Hachi can defend against those kinds of tricks. Is their barrier back up?"
Ichigo nodded. "Yeah. Zangetsu and the Old Man put it back up on our way out."
"It was a bitch and a half t' do," Zangetsu groused. He found that directing his energy to complaining and small things bled off some of the pressure in his chest.
"Hachi is good at what he does," Kisuke pointed out. "So Shinji and the rest of them are lying low until the culprits are found."
"He does want to be there when we meet them," Ichigo said. "He was very specific about that."
"I don't doubt it. The Visored—Shinji especially—are very protective of their own."
Zangetsu snorted, his mind going to their stupid, reckless, dangerous, potentially-war-ending raid on Las Noches just to get Ichigo back. "Protective" didn't do that kind of idiotic loyalty justice.
They were staring at him. "Don't worry about it."
"Right," Kisuke said after a second. "In any case, all we can do now is wait for those responsible to return here. Yoruichi should be stopping by here within the next day or two, so at that point I can have her poke around in Soul Society to see if anything comes up."
Yeah, it was probably best for Ichigo to stay away from Soul Society for a bit. Zangetsu could still remember all the things he had said to Old Man Yamamoto, and the Head Captain didn't seem like the type to forget things within the month.
What if Zangetsu had gone and talked to Yamamoto the way he was now?
Just thinking about it was enough to make the room seem hotter. That would not have ended well.
(Would've been a hell of a fight, though. At least until Yamamoto's bankai came out and Zangetsu accidentally leveled Soul Society while trying to stay out of range.)
Fuck, why couldn't he stay focused?
"Zangetsu?" Ichigo asked, pulling Zangetsu from his thoughts.
"I asked if you wanted to go to the river. Since all we can do is wait."
"Sure, yeah. Yeah, that would be fine."
"Oh, Ichigo?" Kisuke asked as they were heading out. "One last thing."
"Do you want your friends to be informed? They are coming here for training this afternoon, you know."
Ichigo thought about it for a few seconds and then slowly nodded. "They should probably know. I—I don't want them getting caught off-guard."
Kisuke's thoughts were almost impossible to read with his face hidden behind his fan and under the shadow of his hat. "I will let them know, then. If anything happens, I'll call."
"As long as it's not a weird rock through my window, I don't really care how you do it," Ichigo said. "And no, that is not a challenge."
"Consider it beta testing," Kisuke said easily.
"I'm not 'considering' it anything," Ichigo replied. "See you later, Hat-'n-Clogs."
A/N Ugh, this chapter didn't feel right. Oh well.
MistyPaws: There is no story without conflict, 'tis true.
Anne Camp aka Obi-quiet: Yeah, a revamp of the first chapters would only happen once I finish this story. Also, question: is the "Obi-quiet" part of your name supposed to be a variation of Obi-Wan's? Because I read it like "Oh, be quiet."
Shinigami no Koneko: Well, things are very different this time around, what with Aizen dead and the Winter War not a thing. Certainly, many groups that didn't have the chance to move before have breathing room now.
Until next time,