Chapter 1: Second to None
"Damnit, Ishida!" Ichigo bellowed as his Zanpakuto sliced through yet another Hollow. Dozens, if not hundreds, of the sinister creatures were overrunning Karakura Town thanks to the bait the asshole had released. All to hold some kind of sick competition to see who could kill the most Hollows. How many innocent people was that four-eyed bastard planning on putting in danger just so he could attempt to show up the Substitute Soul Reaper?! What a joke.
An ear-splitting screech alerted the orange-haired teen of yet another gang of Hollows tearing their way down the narrow street towards him. There were four of them this time, their rubbery skin all different shades of sickly purple and grey. Demonic red eyes burned with a mindless hunger from the bleached masks that covered their faces. As they inched forward, their jaws unhinged to reveal the bottomless pits aiming to devour the young Soul Reaper.
Scowling right back at his enemies, Ichigo charged the pack of fiends head on. The nearest Hollow, a snake-like being with only two fangs protruding from its mouth, swiped at the oncoming teen with a three-taloned claw.
"Too slow!" he said, easily countering the blow with a quick flick of his wrist that sent the lunging arm flying into the air. Black blood spewed from the Hollow's severed appendage as the creature fell back, howling in agony. Taking advantage of his opponent's opening, Ichigo quickly finished the wounded specter off by thrusting his gigantic katana into its mask, piercing through the bony armor effortlessly. Another guttural scream rang in his ears as the Hollow dissolved into nothing.
Taking notice of their fallen brethren's demise, the remaining Hollows all rushed Ichigo simultaneously. He was prepared for the monsters' assault, though, and quickly dispatched one with an overhead cut, decapitating the beast in a single blow. This caused the other two to hesitate, long enough for Ichigo to press the offensive. With a sharp jab, he buried the butt of his hilt into the mask of one of the demons and sent the monster flying into a nearby building.
The final Hollow roared in frustration as it clumsily lashed out at the black-clad swordsman. A brisk tsk clicked from the tip of Ichigo's tongue as he effortlessly ducked underneath its flailing arm before delivering three lightning-quick slashes to the Hollow's head and torso. This one didn't even get a chance to utter a dying cry as it faded into nothing.
"Damn it, I need to find Ishida so I can put a stop to this." Ichigo walked over to the small pile of rubble the final Hollow was trapped under. The beast was still dazed from his earlier blow and he didn't plan on giving it a chance to recover, sheathing his sword into the crack in its mask. Lifting his head, Ichigo scanned the area for more enemies as the ethereal remains of his last opponent floated around him.
Catching a gleam of light out of the corner of his eye, Ichigo quickly pivoted to face the potential threat, tightening his grip on the massive sword he wielded. The edge of his blade dropped, though, as he realized that it was merely the light catching his own reflection in the broken glass of a window.
He paused for a second to examine himself in the shards, surprised by how calm he appeared. There was no sharpness of breath and he felt no fatigue, even after slaying countless Hollows. His hand was steady on the hilt of his blade and there appeared to be no wounds from his battles so far. Ichigo guessed battling evil spirits for the past few weeks was really whipped him into shape. A couple of weeks ago, he could barely manage to defeat a single Hollow. Now, he was taking out dozens of 'em without even breaking a sweat.
Ichigo's eyes drifted up his reflection, and what he saw stunned him. The scowl he had worn all day had transformed into...a smile?
He violently shook his head, the scowl returning. What the hell was he happy for? There were still tons of Hollows running around the city. He had to find Ishida so he could get him to reverse whatever was bringing them all here, and he had to do it quickly. What good was this contest anyways? Killing a couple of Hollows wouldn't prove who's stronger. The only thing that would really prove who's stronger would be the two of them facing off, one on one. When he was beating that four-eyed bastard's ass, that's when Ichigo would prove which of them was the strongest.
Turning his back on the broken window and renewing his search, Ichigo's thoughts immediately strayed to his sisters. He couldn't let anything happen to Yuzu or Karin. With all these Hollows running around, there was a good chance they'd be drawn to their unusual Spiritual Energy. Same went for the rest of his friends, who all were seeming to get into trouble ever since he had taken on this Soul Reaper gig. Ichigo thought the rest of his friends could probably handle themselves alright, though. As long as Orihime didn't do anything stupid like trying to fight a Hollow on her own...
Better hurry up and find Ishida.
Orihime gave a relieved sigh as the bisected Hollow began melting away into plumes of white smoke. She began taking shaky steps over to her prone friend. "I don't know what that thing was...or what I just did...but I did protect you, right, Tatsuki? I...said I would." She fell into a sitting position, breathing heavily—only for her breath to catch in her throat at a low hiss from behind.
She spun rapidly—two more of the creatures, each significantly larger than the first, crawled their way over the nearby rooftops. She felt the same pressure as before, the deadness in the air that seemed to have paralysed everyone but her. Gulping and fighting back her fear, she stood in front of Tatsuki, readying herself to fight again.
Just that one, and I think I'm at my limit...I...I'm not sure if I can do this…! She raised her hands, taking a deep breath and trying to keep both of the approaching beasts in her line of sight. One more time…what was it again? She shook her head, feeling fatigue set in—somehow using this new power was extremely draining. Focus! "Tsubaki!" The tiny man materialised again, forming into a disc of golden energy between her hands. "Koten Zanshun...I re—"
And there it was: The Hollow, inches from her, enormous reptilian mouth gaping wide open, six inches away if that. Th-This one's...so fast…! Her eyes squeezed shut on instinct, preparing for pain or worse.
The vicious, serrated teeth didn't so much scrape her shoulder as brush it, so briefly were they in contact before they were jerked away, an explosive noise washing over her.
Orihime opened her eyes, seeing the creature still in motion away from her, leaving a trail of broken concrete as it skidded to the ground. Where its monstrous head had been, a human fist was now extended over her shoulder from behind—Tatsuki, apparently fully recovered, striding past her even as she turned to look.
The short, lean girl shot a quick grin her friend's way. "I'll protect you? That's my line, right?" Some kind of electricity seemed to be running up and down her right arm, focused around her fist.
The cumulative shock and fatigue finally overcoming her, Orihime fell back against a nearby wall, panting, still looking her friend up and down. "T-Tatsuki, what's…?"
"I'm just as lost as you are, t'be honest…" Tatsuki replied, her breathing fully returning to normal, "but I can move again, and those things got a lot slower all of a sudden."
The Hollow roared, scrambling to its feet, rows of insectoid legs scrambling for purchase before launching itself at Tatsuki; it smashed into the ground where she'd been standing, seemingly crushing her beneath its bulk. Before Orihime could cry out, however, Tatsuki appeared standing atop its head, arms folded. "Or did I get faster? I can't really tell."
At this, the second Hollow, three-metre bat-wings unfolding from its back, threw itself off its perch and down at her, catching her off-guard and carrying her with its charge, burying her in the wall of a nearby building. It continued to shove forwards, claws flicking out with a wet sliding noise. After a moment, though, it began to move backwards-slowly, inch by inch, against its will. Tatsuki's hand was clamped around the horn protruding from its forehead, and was gradually shoving it back. When it was at arm's length, she gave a grunt, placed her other hand on its head and wrenched it sideways, snapping the horn off and tossing it away. It lurched up at her, and moving on instinct, she swung forwards, smashing her head down into its snout and sending it writhing to the ground.
As it screeched in pain and frustration, she drew her arm back, eyes narrowing as the electric aura appeared again, swirling and concentrating around her hand. Right as it was preparing to spring once more, she took a step forwards and swung, fist breaking right through its bony head and driving it into the ground, wailing.
One down. She gave a contented sigh, hopping over the twitching body, heading for where the first Hollow she'd fought briefly was circling. She wiped some of the dirt from her face, giving Orihime a thumbs-up to indicate she was fine, before returning her attention to the now-charging monster. She jumped sideways just before it reached her, letting it thunder past her, grabbing its serpentine tail as it went and digging her heels into the ground.
It came to a flailing halt, screeching at ear-piercing volume. Gritting her teeth and straining with all her strength, she pulled back on the giant beast and hurled it overhead, sending it flying uncontrollably through the air.
She dashed off down the street, keeping pace with it on the ground; she had no real idea how her new abilities worked, but was starting to get the hang of summoning the aura around her right arm. At a guess, she gave the same mental command, altering the direction somewhat, and was rewarded with the same energy now surrounding her leg.
The Hollow was beginning to crest the arc of her throw-now would be the best time. I'm crazy strong now, seems like, but I dunno if I can get that high...hell with it, let's find out. Her knees bent for a brief moment before she leapt, the speed with which she gained height astonishing her. It still hasn't recovered...never gonna get a better chance! She kept up her forward momentum, turning it into a full somersault as she extended the charged-up leg. Her power seemed to respond to her desire to finish the fight here, and the instant she made contact, all the built-up energy discharged directly into the Hollow's body, blasting a huge hole through it and catapulting it to the ground. Tatsuki hit the pavement shortly after, gasping at the impact. She had expected worse, though, surprising herself again with how quickly she was able to jump to her feet—covered in dust and dirt, but otherwise with only mild scrapes to show for the whole ordeal.
She strolled back over to Orihime, humming mindlessly, trying to process what had just gone on.
Orihime, for her part, still seemed somewhat shell-shocked. "I...I'm sorry! I couldn't...I was worried you might—" Mid-sentence, she gave a nigh-hysterical giggle and collapsed, tiredness overcoming her.
Tatsuki shook her head slowly. "You worry too much. But, y'know...I think you got the right idea." She felt her legs give way beneath her, and she hit the ground next to Orihime, eyes closing slowly. "Yeah...s'good plan," she mumbled, drifting off.
About thirty seconds later, there came a shuffling sound of wood on concrete. An unkempt man ambled down the road, hat obscuring his eyes, picking up the tune Tatsuki had been humming and whistling the rest.
"Oh dear, oh dear, this almost went very badly…" He stopped by the two unconscious figures. "I didn't think multiple Hollows of this level would come after this area...I was more counting on just the one being enough to awaken Miss Inoue's powers. I certainly didn't expect two, as it were, for the price of one…" He paused, eyes flicking left and right beneath his hat-brim. Okay, that was terrible...good thing they weren't awake to hear it...anyway. Much work still to be done today...no rest for the wicked, I suppose.
Ichigo couldn't help but grin as he stared up at the gigantic face of the Menos Grande. What else could he do? This one was monstrous! Its body, a pillar of pure darkness, stood as tall as a skyscraper, and even its pointed nose was longer than his house. If it weren't about to destroy the city, Ichigo would have laughed at the absurdity of its size.
"We'll clean up here, Kurosaki," Mr. Hat-and-Clogs said, a small smirk plastered on his face. "You devote your talents to stopping that."
With a small nod of his head, Ichigo and his new ally, Ishida, both turned their heads back to the massive Hollow who was literally ripping through the sky. While a solemn, concerned look passed over the face of the last Quincy, Ichigo felt his smile widening even more.
"The size of that…" he heard Uryu saying next to him, trailing off. Ichigo didn't even bother to take his eyes off of their next opponent to respond. His grip simply tightened around his Zanpakuto's handle.
"No use tryin' to come up with a plan to stop that monster," he said. "If you do, you'll just think about all the ways you can't beat it."
"When you're facing down hell itself, there's only one thing you can do...Attack!"
Bringing his sword to the ready position, Ichigo began to charge straight at the feet of the Menos Grande. As the adrenaline of battle once again began to course through his veins, the Substitute Soul Reaper found a soothing quiet had fallen all around him. No longer could he hear Ishida's cries for him to wait, or even Rukia's call for him to stop. No, all he could see was his enemy before him, and his blade.
Unleashing a mighty war-cry, Ichigo leapt into the air, allowing gravity to combine with his own slash for extra power. His blade harmlessly bounced off the Hollow's white foot, causing the hot-blooded youth to let out a yelp of surprise. With a twitch of its body, the Menos kicked the Soul Reaper away, sending him flying back to land next to Uryu.
A gasp of pain escaped from the orange-haired swordsman as he crashed into the ground. His Zanpakuto clanged onto the ground next to him as his grip slipped.
"Idiot! What are you thinking charging head-on like that?!"
"Shut up," Ichigo growled. "There's nothing else we can do!"
"That's not true!" Uryu said. "We could…"
The words died in the bespectacled teen's mouth as his hand brushed against the hilt of Ichigo's Zanpakuto. A sudden rush of pure Reiatsu overflowed into the Quincy's body and the bow of light he held instantaneously tripled in size.
"Wait, Ichigo!" Uryu did a double-take, inspecting the blade more closely. "Look...all this energy you're giving out, it's powering me up like nothing I've ever seen! You're like...like a faucet that's stuck on, pouring out massive amounts of Reiatsu every second. I can focus all that disparate power into a single point-rest your Zanpakuto on my shoulder, and I'll channel your energy into my next arrow! Hurry!"
Ichigo didn't hear a word Uryu said, though, as he lay on his back, staring into the blank mask of the Menos Grande. All he could think about was Karin and Yuzu. That...monster was going to obliterate them without a second thought. It would destroy everything. Everything he had ever cared about. Unless he stopped it.
"Screw that, Ishida!" he snapped. "We don't have time to do experiments. We have to stop this thing!"
Snatching his sword away from Uryu, Ichigo gathered what remained of his strength for one final charge. A snarl formed across his face as he raced across the grassy field. This would be it. He'd stop this damn thing or he'd die trying!
Idiot…! Uryu's face froze in shock as the novice Soul Reaper charged off ahead of him. That thing's about to—
Right on cue, as this thought passed through his mind, the Menos Grande's mouth cracked open, its rictus grin parting and revealing a crackling pool of deep red light, which instantly burst forth, sweeping down towards Ichigo. Uryu winced, preparing for impact—but it never came.
What the… The Cero had stopped in place, its progress halted by Ichigo's sword, his other arm shoved against the back of the blade. Slowly he rose, forcing the blast back, defying all expectations. Uryu relaxed slightly. It's incredible, but...Kurosaki…
Is this how you fight?
Those were some fine words earlier...working together...and I'm sure you meant it at the time, but...do you even remember that now? Are you thinking at all? I doubt it. Indeed, Ichigo seemed quite caught up in the moment. He looks...happy. And I suppose I should be happy too, but…
I couldn't scratch this monster...and I can't hope to compete with this Reiatsu he's putting out. I'm sure I could absorb it and put it to good use, but you didn't give me the chance.
He sighed, recalling his bow and settling back to watch the struggle. From his estimation of their respective energy levels, it was no great surprise to him when Ichigo repelled the Cero completely, the shockwave from his slash driving a great wedge all the way up the Menos' enormous body and forcing it back.
So, we need to work as a team, then...right up until it's time for you to be the hero. I see.
"—and then there's Tsubaki, he's kinda rough but I think he's nice underneath, I dunno, I mean they're like created from me right? I don't think I'm 'rough' so there's gotta be some me-ness in him somewhere right? I mean—"
"Mm-hmm." Tatsuki patted Orihime's arm, tuning out her incessant ramblings. "Cool, cool. Hey, Chad."
"Hmm?" Chad glanced down at the girl he supposed was one of his new friends; Ichigo, it seemed, was rapidly becoming a package deal.
"Hear you had a pretty mean punch there with that Hollow." He shrugged, declining to reply, so she continued. "Ya think yours has anything on mine?"
"Uh…" He seemed about to say something, then stopped, appearing to find something on the other side of the street highly interesting all of a sudden.
She shook her head. "Be that way. Hey, Rukia!"
Rukia jumped a little at the sound of her name. Her eyebrows raised in surprise, she pointed one finger at her face and asked, "Me?"
Tatsuki blinked, before giving a half-smile. "No, the other Rukia."
"—and then the three of them together make, like, this triangle thing? And it's like a shield? I mean I know shields aren't supposed to be like triangles, well I mean they are but like...curved triangles? What are those called? Anyway, then there's this—"
"Uh, that's nice, Orihime. Really cool," Ichigo said, a little shell-shocked by the girl's constant barrage. He shot a pleading glance over to Rukia and mouthed 'save me' before they were both dragged back to their own conversations.
"Anyways," Tatsuki continued, leaning past Orihime in order to check that she still had Rukia's attention. "Chad's being...Chad...so, like...you do, y'know, magic things. Could you tell who was stronger back there, him or me?"
"Um...sorry, Tatsuki, but I don't really know," Rukia said with a polite smile. "With all the Hollows running around, and then that Menos Grande showing up, I couldn't really sense anyone's spiritual pressure besides Ichigo and Ishida's."
"Wait, hold on, what?!" Tatsuki protested. "They're both stronger than me?"
"Well, to be fair," said Rukia, attempting to appease her friend. "They both have had their powers for far longer than you have. 'Rome wasn't built in a day' I hear is an expression in your world for this sort of situation."
"Can't be right," Tatsuki muttered, folding her arms. "I always beat Ichigo anytime we fight...and Ishida—there's nothing to him! He'd fall in half in a strong breeze!"
Rukia gave the martial artist another polite smile. "Sorry, Tatsuki. Though, I am interested in hearing about all these times you've beaten Ichigo. I only ever hear about his glorious victories from him...it's interesting that he can't even beat a human girl half his size in combat."
"Hey! Beating me when I was five doesn't count!" Ichigo cut in.
"I beat you just last week, you liar!" Tatsuki tapped her chin, feigning contemplation. "What was it you said? 'I'm gonna go all out this time'...?"
"W-Well, she's a monster, that one!" he stammered. "No way she counts as a normal girl..."
"What's that s'posed to mean?!" Tatsuki sprang at Ichigo, who retreated, laughing.
"—but then I was thinking, so, like, what if I come back next week and they don't stock the strawberry ice cream anymore? So I thought I should just get all of them, right? So I had this whooooole thing with every flavour, and I thought I'd just eat one but then I wondered if it'd get lonely in my stomach without its friends? So I just ended up—"
Rukia found herself chuckling as she watched her friends' antics. She could get used to this…
She stopped in her tracks as the thought hit her like a runaway freight train. As the others continued on down the road without her, a shadow cast itself over Rukia's solemn face. No, she couldn't think like that. These weren't the emotions of a Soul Reaper; these were human emotions, and no matter how much she wanted to, there was no way she could ever really be a part of their world. This was simply a mirage. A tempting dream she could never really grasp.
"What's wrong, Rukia? Why you just standing there?"
Looking up, the Shinigami saw that the group had all stopped and were standing there waiting for her. Glints of concern seemed to pass through the bright eyes of Orihime. Tatsuki was looking up from where she had Ichigo in a headlock, waving to her to come on. Chad stood still as a statue as always, but his head was facing her. Even Ichigo had stopped his taunting in order to give her a concerned look and ask his question.
Biting her lip, Rukia put on a smile before answering.
"Oh, sorry. I dropped something, but I've found it now. Sorry to hold you guys up over nothing."
A wave of assurance came from the group as she ran to join them again. Yet, the gnawing pain in the back of her mind never stopped as they continued home, bathed in the crimson light of the sunset.
Uryu observed all this from atop a nearby roof, frowning. Today...did not go as planned. But if there is an upside, with all of them awakening like that...this town should be safer than before…
"Hello!" came a sing-song voice from behind him, startling him out of his reverie and almost causing him to fall clean off the building. He spun, going for his spirit bow's focus, only to find it missing.
Kisuke Urahara stood before him, dangling the small cross between his fingers and giving a sheepish grin. "Please don't attack me...I'm but a humble shop owner."
Uryu snatched it back, slipping the loop around his wrist with an irritated sigh. "I'll be better next time. He won't overshadow me like that again…"
Kisuke gave a noncommittal shrug, fanning himself. "You're assuming there'll be a 'next time'...frankly, I'm sure most people would prefer if you refrained from unleashing hordes of vengeful spirits on the town in future."
"You seemed pleased enough."
Kisuke's voice lowered for a moment. "I'm not most people." Immediately after, the seriousness passed and he brightened up again. "But, well, good to see you're doing all right! Just stopping by is all." He glanced at the group heading away down the road below. "You may want to keep an eye on Miss Kuchiki, you know…"
Uryu raised an eyebrow at this. "What?"
"What?" Kisuke repeated. "Hmm? Oh, nothing, nothing, don't mind me, mind wandered. Must be going!" He sauntered away for a few steps, then vanished into an untraceable blur.
Uryu remained standing there for a few seconds, staring after him. What is with that guy…?
As a black cat slunk across a telephone line in the dead of night, the door to the Kurosaki household slowly creaked open. Rukia winced at the loud noise. She didn't want to wake anyone in the household. It would be pretty rude of her to not say any goodbyes and to disrupt their sleep.
Turning her back on the place she had come to know as home for the last few months, Rukia began to run into the night. However, her presence didn't go unnoticed…
"Captain Tosen, I have eyes on the fugitive, Rukia Kuchiki."
"I sense very little Reiatsu…"
"It appears that she has been hiding inside of a Gigai, Captain. It would explain how the sensors were unable to obtain her location."
"Until now. The arm of justice is long, Lieutenant, and it knows no barriers."
What we're hoping to do with this story is deconstruct and reconstruct Bleach into something we feel it could have been, had some concepts and characters been explored more deeply, without some of the trappings of the Shonen genre. Nothing against Shonen of course, it is a great genre that we enjoy greatly, but it has a distinctive feeling that we're not trying to replicate here. We're trying to make a story that is still recognizably Bleach while something different from the canon material at the same time, if that makes sense.
Captain Space is about to explain a little more in depth though, so… please read on.
-Ultimate Black Ace (Creative Editor)
So essentially this story is less an AU and more a rewrite, which means there will be changes from canon which aren't the result of a single divergence point as such, and simply because we felt that was how this story should develop (though of course the changes we do make will spiral out into continuing consequences throughout the story in AU fashion).
Also, fear not, we won't be like throwing in a bunch of self-insert OCs or anything; we're gonna be using the cast we've got to tell what'll hopefully be an entertaining, satisfying story.
In any case, there is usually one of a set few reasons for the changes we make:
-It's part of an attempt to fix some of the problems we feel began to set into Bleach as it went along. Now, this does include changes to earlier arcs like this one even though we like those arcs very much*—we just think that in hindsight you can sort of see the seeds being sown for the downhill slide even in the parts of Bleach that are on their own very good.
-We didn't want to simply write up canon, so we added a fresh twist to a scene to keep it interesting for this story. Usually this still ends up feeding into one of the other reasons though.
-It's part of/important for a character's development. Almost everyone has some sort of arc planned out for them.
So yeah. To sum up, rewrite, so if this doesn't sound too pretentious, try and go into this with the mindset you did when first viewing the series! So hopefully you won't be asking, "Why did that change happen?" But rather, "I wonder what'll happen next?" Or even, "I wonder where they're going with this change?" I hope that makes sense, and I hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it (and as much as we enjoyed Bleach's high points)!
(*To clarify where I think we stand though the others may correct me if I'm misrepresenting their views, these are certainly mine: Substitute Soul Reaper arc, pretty decent. Soul Society, absolutely fantastic. Arrancar, still entertaining but the cracks sort of beginning to show. Hueco Mundo, plenty of decent moments but especially towards the end the bad starts to outweigh the good. Fake Karakura Town, ugh. Fullbring, largely pointless. Thousand-Year Blood War, bleeeeegh.)
-Captain Space (Writer)
I am a bit higher on the Hueco Mundo arc than my compatriots. I also am a believer that the Bount Arc was one of the best arcs in the entire series. Yay opinions!
I was asked to say a few words here, to really help legitimize the story and show how serious we are as a team to consistently putting out amazing chapters.