A/N: It's been a while since I updated... whole year. To be honest I kinda forgot about this story but I do plan to complete it! Let me know what you think.
It was only five seconds. That is how long it took for Ichigo to regain his full conscience as he woke up. On sixth second, the same pressure began to build in his chest once more. He sighed deeply as he sat up, rubbing his still sleepy eyes. This night was one of the bad ones… Restless, plagued by various nightmares that jerked him from sleep, covered in cold sweat. Ichigo moved head from side to side, hearing a cracking of his neck as he stretched. He loathed this. He loathed the fact that not only his power was on the line but also Rukia's. Living as human was something he will have hard time adjusting once again but how will she take it? Cut off from Soul Society, from people she knows, from life she has now... Will she handle it? And then there is her brother who undoubtedly will blame this on him. He will most likely strangle him over and over, then bring him to Soul Society to be revitalized only to strangle him again and that is best case scenario. This is not something that Ichigo could take lightly and time was ticking.
Today he he decided to take another approach, trying to remember every single detail of that night and writing it down. Perhaps there is pattern, a common occurrence, something that would give him clue as to what Zangetsu and Sode no Shirayuki would want. Alas, there was little he truly remembered. Feeling of danger, rush adrenaline and surge of power drew Ichigo's focus away from small details. Nothing indicated why Zangetsu would rebel but that wasn't what irked him most. What did, in fact, managed to touch his nerves was the fact that Rukia was taking this with incredible ease. After she woke up, she entered bathroom, left, ate her breakfast, watched TV, went back into her closet to read, left to watch TV once more, ate lunch and then proceeded to laze around. It looked like as if this is just another slow day for her.
He stood up from chair and went over to couch where Rukia was sitting, laughing quite loud as she watched one of the reality shows. Eye began twitching as he glanced over at TV and quickly took remote, turning it off.
"I was watching that!" Rukia protested, turning head to look at Ichigo.
"How about you help me instead?"
"With what?" She asked.
His agitation grew with every second but somehow managed to calm down before replying "With figuring out what our zanpakuto want."
Rukia sighed deeply "We've been through this already a dozen times. There is nothing we can get from that one event."
"What happened before you arrived to town?" Ichigo inquired.
"Nothing special." Rukia replied "Captain sent me to investigate hollow appearance in Karakura. I followed my instinct and it led me here, after which hollow appeared, you had to play the hero and I got injured. The rest is as Zangetsu showed… You got your powers while I lost mine. That's it."
"There has to be something else…" Ichigo mumbled, squeezing the cushion of couch hard. Rukia noticed fingers that dug into the fabric and sponge and how they turned white from sheer pressure he put into it.
"Probably but we don't know about it. So relax."
"How can I relax?" He yelled, lifting the cushion and threw it against the wall "How can you relax?"
Rukia's eyes followed the cushion that hit wall and then looked up at him "Because there is nothing we can do about it yet. We only got that one scene, there is bound to be more clues." She stood up and walked over to pick up the cushion and return it to couch, placing it where it belonged "Right now we are trying to solve puzzle based on single piece we got. Look… if they wanted to just take away our powers they would do it one way or another without the need to inform us. Instead they pulled us in and explained that we need to figure it out. So, let's just be patient. Nothing good will come from us pacing around and biting our nails."
Her reasoning was sound but it gave little comfort to Ichigo. Soft sigh escaped through his lips and his hands relaxed, loosening the clench they had on the second cushion.
"How come you are so calm about this?" He asked with more composed tone "You stand to lose more than me. How do you keep your cool?"
She just eyed him quietly for few moments. That calm image quickly disappeared and she sat down on the couch. In pure contrast to Ichigo's beliefs, she showed her worried side and it was proof to him that she did care about this situation.
"I don't." She shot back with uneasy grin "I barely got any sleep last night… I think I woke up about ten times and just paced around this room only to come back and try to sleep. How am I going to explain this to captain Ukitake? How -can- I explain this to brother? Everything I have is in Soul Society… my life, my career, almost all of my friends are there and… and…"
"And?" Ichigo asked as she took a long pause. Her lips kept opening and closing, failing to deliver any words. She calmed herself and then continued.
"And I have to push it back for the moment and keep it together… find valve to let pressure out so we can focus on our issue but we can't do it if we torch ourselves with worry."
Ichigo couldn't find any appropriate words to retort. He heard everything he needed to hear and the way she behaved, the way her eyes started darting around, the way her hands rubbed one against another and the sudden desire to literally jump out of her skin was enough to convince him that Rukia was just as involved in this as he did. But he also saw something else. Perhaps he is wrong, perhaps it is this anxiety playing tricks on him but it looked like she is trying to be strong for him. Ichigo's approach has always been direct attack, strike at the very heart of enemy. If he falls, he will get up, never surrender… but this enemy is not one they can simply strike down. He is involved just as she is but they both know that Rukia will be one who will start figuring things out first… and she needs to be one on the level.
Smirk appeared on his face as he watched her inner struggle. Guilt took over for his outburst, one that was wrongfully aimed toward her. She always has been his ally and it seemed like they have been such forever… since the dawn of time itself.
"Get dressed." He said, making her fix her confused gaze on him "We're going out."
"Out?" She asked.
"Yeah. You said it yourself, we need valve to let out pressure. No reason to stick here so… let's go out. There's bound to be something interesting we can do to pass time before evening."
"Are you… asking me out?" Rukia asked crossing her arms.
"What?" Ichigo snapped, feeling the jolt in his spine "No no! It's just… friends going out to have some fun."
"Aha…" Rukia replied, narrowing her eyes at him. He could swear that she let out soft sigh. Even if it was true, she did good job covering it "Then I'll go get changed."
"You look in particularly good mood." Sode no Shirayuki commented with a slight grin as she approached hollow that casually stood on open field, face turned up and smile wide and showing teeth.
"Let's just say things are looking up! Get it?"
"Have you had any influence on him?" She inquired to which he merely waved with head.
"This is all him which is why I am feeling optimistic about this." He continued and crossed his arms, shifting gaze toward silver-haired zanpakuto "I mean come on… two people, spending time outside, going to amusement park… it's a fucking cliché! Good one too!"
"Oh? You know where they are going?" Sode continued with questions, not hiding her own amusement with idea.
"I know him." Zangetsu commented with a shrug "Best thing about strong idiot is that he is predictable at times. And that means, as long as he is like this… there is hope."
"My my…" She let out a silent giggle "From what you told me about him, one would assume that it is foolish to hope."
"It is!" He exclaimed loudly "To leave it only to hope is to abandon it completely! That is why we are giving them… slight nudge in the right direction. I wonder, wouldn't it be easier to just plunge them to the end."
"Impatient, are we?" Sode asked as she moved past him. Zangetsu followed her slow steps, always making sure he is two steps behind her. His lack of answer was enough for her to know the truth "If we do, it might create effect we do not want. No, they have to realize it on their own… well, your master at least."
"Yeah he's a wanker…" Zangetsu murmured "You know that if tenth day comes and they are not one bit wiser, they will figure out something's up."
"Which is why we will complete it within ten days." Sode commented. Her voice was sharp and determined "Plan will work as long as there are no obstructions."
"Determined, are we?" Now it was Zangetsu's time to inquire on particular trait that Sode no Shirayuki exhibited.
"Of course. I intend to see it conclude successfully."
"Is that so?" He chuckled and easily cut the distance between them. His hand reached grabbed that of Sode no Shirayuki, forcing her to turn around and look at him "It's not often you show this side to me... I like it."
"Careful." She smiled "You know what happened last time I touched you."
"I do." He answered "But I am willing to bet this time it won't freeze me."
"And what is the cause for such confidence?" Sode inquired with soft, gentle tone.
"Fool's hope. Better yet, I am placing a bet."
Slowly he pulled her by arm and the distance between them was no more. No more than few inches away from each other, he gazed down with his amber eyes down into hers and he could feel the air around them cool down, dropping by several degrees for each second that passed. Given the chance, she could truly lock freeze him into a block of ice, but he didn't care… His hand traced down and lightly took hers by wrist, lifting it up to her face, not stopping until he could feel her gentle skin upon his. There was no ice like last time, not a single bit of skin that was encased in a frigid prison. Instantly, when all of his senses suddenly became dull, he closed his eyes.
"It's warm…" He whispered, still keeping his eyes shut, daring not to look at her. New feeling suddenly was carved into his existence, one multiplied thousand-fold by the fact that this very touch could reach to point of absolute zero, but it didn't… Anticipation. If he opens his eyes, will she look the same? Will her eyes also be closed? His right hand lightly rose, moving only a hair-worth of distance at the time. Anticipation now had to make place for one feeling he loathed… Hesitation. Should he? Should he not? How far away is her face? How will her skin feel? Will it be cold, or will it be as warm as her fingers are right now?
To his great surprise, she took his hand and guided it directly onto her cheek. A soft, echoed chuckle escaped Zangetsu's lips, one that he failed to keep it in. It is just as warm…
Back in the world of the living where great suffering of indecisiveness still exists, pair moved from one attraction onto another. Ichigo couldn't believe that he can actually have fun, though perhaps the circumstances have aligned in such way that they made him desperate for even a bit of fun. Then again, it could've been a particular, short girl in casual clothes that kept dragging him from one stand to another. To his greatest of fear, and disappointment, not even amusement park was safe from the horrible, terrifying presence of a franchise called 'Chappy'. He could feel gaze from that bunny on a poster… those lifeless dots that represented eyes and followed him no matter how much he leaned back or to sides. How did it even got here? For long time now, Ichigo was firmly convinced that it was a Soul Society conspiracy, one that was directed toward him. They did worse… why wouldn't they sic a stupid-looking rabbit onto him just to see him squirm. It had to be, how else would it be here?
Rukia on the other hand was thrilled to browse through numerous items with its liking. Key chains, shirts, bags, mouse-pads. On few occasions she almost squealed from joy but had to restrain herself from doing so. This would usually be time when Ichigo makes a comment that would irk her beyond any reasonable limit but he was remarkably casual about it… though on few occasions she could swear he was looking at poster like vampire looks at cross. Still, she tested his willingness to participate by making him buy her few souvenirs and to her surprise, he obliged. It almost felt like the entire situation with rebelling zanpakuto was all just an illusion, a meager misunderstanding. This life… was not that bad.
"I'm beat." Ichigo exclaimed. It already passed two hours since they entered park and Rukia wasn't showing any signs of tiredness, especially for one who claimed to barely had any sleep.
"Come on, I see a good place." Rukia said, pulling him by hand toward a small café. One table was still available and they quickly took a seat.
"Oh sweet merciful God, that feels good." Ichigo added, only now realizing just how much his stamina was depleted. It was his beleif that having two zanpakuto in his inner world did this and it did make him a bit uncomfortable. The session of anxiety was cut short by the voice of waitress that approached.
"Good afternoon." She said with bright smile, wearing a pink 'fluffy' dress, looking more like a cupcake on two sticks "What can I get you?"
"How about something sweet?" Rukia asked, looking over at Ichigo who could only shrug in compliance.
"Then I have a perfect thing for such cute couple." Waitress exclaimed in cheerful voice.
"Huh? Oh actually we- aaack!" He yelped and clenched his teeth hard.
"Would like that, thank you." Rukia completed sentence. For brief moment she followed waitress as she left before she looked toward Ichigo with innocent eyes "What?"
"You really needed to kick me?" He asked, leaning down to rub his shin where her foot previously thoroughly exploited his tolerance to pain.
"I am interested in this special menu." Rukia quickly added, grinning wide.
"It's a -couples menu-" Ichigo retorted, still rubbing his leg over long jeans.
"And I am suddenly not good enough to be seen as part of this 'couple'?"
"What? No no, I didn't mean it that way…"
"Is that so?" She continued with inquisitorial tone, leaning forward "And what did you mean?"
Suddenly, it felt as if he is middle of pack of dogs holding a steak in his hand. It is a trap and no matter what he says it will most likely be taken wrong way. Her expression quickly turned from amused to annoyed as she waited for his answer.
"What I meant was… that… that…" He stuttered.
"Yes?" Rukia pressed on, not giving Ichigo a single excuse to change topic "Is the thought of dating me really that bad?"
"Of course not!" She spat out immediately but soon realized how loud he was and he slightly lowered his head, waiting for people around to move on with their business. This scenario managed to draw out a slight tint of pink on his cheeks, one that Rukia hasn't failed to notice. Smirk appeared on her face but before she could comment, waitress returned with a single, albeit large, cup of ice-cream, complete with pink and red frosting and a strawberry on top. Situation has gone from bad to worse as Rukia took the spoon and plunged it straight into strawberry, cutting it in half with ease. He gulped hard at the sight.
"What I meant was that… any… ummm… shinigami would be a lucky man… to… have… you?"
She looked at him as he struggled to draw out words from his mouth. There was great urge to kick him in the face. Though she probably should and no one would bat an eye. Instead she just sighed at the grand failure to draw out words she wanted to hear from him. Perhaps it is not the time for it but it didn't change the how she felt.
"Smooth…" Rukia commented, watching him squirm on his chair. Part of it could be contributed to him recovering from her kick, though she could see the awkwardness build up "You ever wonder what you would be if it never happened?"
"If what never happened?" Ichigo asked, unsure what she was referring to.
"You becoming shinigami." She answered, continuing to enjoy her share of 'lover's delight' unsure why she asked this "If I never showed up."
"I dunno. Kinda hard to imagine my life being anything but shinigami. If I'm gone, who's gonna save your ass?"
"Please as if my ass needs to be saved." She scoffed at his words, frowning. All he did was chuckle at her "You know, it is possible that I will be recalled and assigned to another town."
That image did not sit well with Ichigo. Rukia gone. He already had to face her being 'gone' once and time spent as just a regular human was a kick in the guts. The feeling of helplessness, all that power he once wielded was rendered useless. It's not as if it wasn't used for noble cause but he felt that the world moved at different pace, slow pace… and another, entirely separate world continued to move outside of his knowledge. But being cut off from Soul Society wasn't what got to him… it was the fact that he couldn't see Rukia anymore. For long time he wondered why she couldn't just use artificial body to visit. It could be that he is just another human and interaction would be prohibited by the laws of Soul Society. Whatever it was, it drew him crazy for good three weeks. And now she asked him to imagine that same scenario again… the effect was not pleasant. He was deep into his thoughts to a point he missed to see what was right in front of his eyes… literally.
"Earth to Ichigo!" Rukia raised her voice, making him snap out of his daydream. Right in front of him was a spoon filled with cream. He widened his eyes at the sight and her annoyed expression due to making her wait "You haven't even try it yet. Come on, otherwise they might figure out we are not a couple."
"He cannot be this stupid, he cannot be this stupid, he cannot be this stupid…" Hollow chanted as he was sitting on roof of one of the houses, continuously rubbing his temples.
"Is something wrong?" Sode asked, looking up at Zangetsu.
"He is fucking stupid!" He shouted from the top of his lungs, trying to make the words reach up to skies "Just when I thought everything played out well he had to be this oblivious, ignorant, stupid asshole! I didn't bother him much, gave him all the freedom and peace to figure stuff out but he acts like an idiot! IDIOT! And now I have a headache…"
"Mind is not a thing that can easily be changed. Have patience." She spoke, trying to calm him down. Zangetsu show a glare at her but after a few seconds the anger simply melted away.
"Nothing fazes you, does it?" He asked but instead of answer she offered him a brief smile before walking away. For the past couple of days, she spent quite a lot of time exploring his little world, exploring the memories and desires that Ichigo harbored. There wasn't anything that Zangetsu didn't know about this world but he still couldn't figure out what she is looking for. He could probably help her but right now he had another thing on his agenda and he smiled wide at what is about to happen.
"Now I'm beat." Rukia exclaimed as she sat down on the couch after they arrived home.
"Yea that's your punishment for dragging me around." Ichigo commented as he closed doors behind him.
"Oh please, you enjoyed it too." She looked at him, expecting a rebuke but none came. Silence was his answer and she was content with it "That reminds me what's for dinner?"
"Home specialty!" Echoing voice filled the room and she once again saw ember eyes right before hers. There wasn't even time for her to react, palm already was placed across her face "Don't forget to thank the chef!"
The trip down into Ichigo's inner world was just as shocking as it was before and it made all of her senses scream as she was plunged into the world populated by numerous small houses. Unlike her world where she would simply open her eyes and be already at the center of it, here she actually saw the entire transition into world… the descent from the sky, crashing down into the ground. It wasn't like this last time…
Ichigo was standing right beside her, staring at Zangetsu who was already there to greet them with wide smile.
"Welcome back, your Royal Assness." Zangetsu said, breaking the silence "What brings you here? Came to share a cup of tea and few gossips?"
"Knock it off!" Ichigo barked "You know why we are here."
"Straight to the point. I like that about you Ichigo." Zangetsu commented "You always aim for the heart. Not a bad quality actually and I do like to think that you actually took it from me. Then again, they say that we, your zanpakuto, are reflection of your traits so it is possible you rubbed it off on me. You know I am actually a bit hesitant to show you this…"
"Why is that?" Ichigo asked, crossing arms.
"You spoke with old man, didn't you? You see, he shares my views but he is more inclined toward you than he is toward himself and what he wants. I think he'd break the stick in his ass if he refused to help you. He is not wrong about them, a lot of what he says is useful for you."
"Is that why you are hesitant now?" Ichigo pressed on with questions "You are afraid that I might learn about your secrets?"
"You misunderstand." Zangetsu replied, rising right hand with finger pointed up "Learning my secrets would benefit us both."
"So then why the game? Why all this secrecy?"
"Because, my idiotic king, if I tell you right now what we want you will refuse it." Zangetsu explained "Telling you what I… no, what we want will make both of you refuse without a second of consideration and no matter how much I would try to reason with you, you will not give that to me."
"Is it my body? Is that what you want?"
"No. Well, yes I do want it and it is on my agenda but not right now. Right now I want you to realize what I want. If you realize it on your own, there is great chance that you will agree, so you see… it is not just about goal, it is about reaching to it, it is about understanding what it took to get there. And that is why I am showing you this…"
Zangetsu lowered his hand and snapped his fingers. The world once more shifted and entire scenery changed, now showing the cave with countless swords lodged into the ground. On one side there was old man and on the other was Ichigo, holding broken sword, panting heavily from exhaustion. Though Ichigo was all too familiar with the place, Rukia on the other hand didn't recognize it.
"Where is this?" She asked, looking around.
"This is where I learned my bankai." Ichigo answered, looking at younger version of himself that reached for another sword and rushed toward old man Zangetsu.
"Correct!" Hollow exclaimed in cheerful tone "And if you want my opinion, that was the only way you could've achieved your bankai. Not meditation and most certainly not meticulous training! I am not that kind of zanpakuto, you see… I am also a hollow. Patience is not in my nature and you didn't need power. You had it all along, trapped inside numerous constraints that limited your abilities. What you needed was experience, you needed to feel that power in your hands, to learn how to control it, to control me!"
"What you both fail to realize is that we, zanpakuto, are born with power, almost unlimited power but we are bound by your abilities. Our potential only grows as much as yours do. Your good buddy-buddy Aizen realized this and went through all that crap to break the limits of shinigami and reach into hollow world to extend that potential. Now look there!" He pointed toward younger Ichigo that traded blows with old man only to have himself kicked back into a boulder. That image made hollow burst into laugh and even Rukia couldn't help but be amused at the image of Ichigo having his ass handed to him.
"You were tasked to find correct sword that contained your power. So you looked for one that resembled yours first and when that failed you went for another and another and another, failing to realize that every sword had but a fraction of your power that only needed you to spark it."
"Yeah, I remember." Ichigo commented, briefly looking over at Rukia who tried her best to calm herself but the grin on her lips was impossible to hide "Took me three days to find right one."
"Hello!" Zangetsu waved hand slowly in front of Ichigo's face "Didn't you hear me? Every sword was right one, you just didn't know how to use them. That's why you broke them. Didn't that blonde asshole with funny hat already explained why his sword cut through yours? You had power, you didn't know how to wield it and that's why you had to break so many of them. It was necessary!"
"Alright, so… what does this have to do with what you want?" Ichigo asked "First you showed us moment I got my powers, now you are showing me how I got my bankai. Is it the power that you want?"
"No. Right now what I want you to do is to look at this scene and realize what it means."
"It means I got my bankai!" Ichigo shouted, taking few steps back, standing eye-to-eye with Zangetsu. The sheer contrast of them was remarkable, where Ichigo was frowning, baring his teeth with anger, Zangetsu was smiling, calmly enjoying the outburst his 'king' is displaying.
"Yes, but why? What does bankai means so much to you?"
"Because I had to do it! Because I needed power!" Ichigo shouted.
"Why?" Zangetsu asked calmly.
"To face Captains!" Ichigo replied quickly, not lowering his voice even one bit.
"But why?" Zangetsu asked once more, still calm, expecting to hear particular answer from his master.
"Because if I didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to beat Aizen or Byakuya!"
"And?!" Zangetsu pressed on with question, this time shouting the word.
"And what more?!" Ichigo shouted in return. Obliviousness on his face clearly angered Zangetsu and now both stared at eachother with a glare of rabid dogs, aching to tear eachother apart. Hollow breathed fast through his nose, audible enough for even Rukia to hear.
"Fucking slowpoke, that's what you are." Zangetsu finally added, being first to calm down. He snapped his fingers and both shinigami disappeared from the world "Think carefully about what you saw and why you got your power…"
"Well, that was an interesting thing to see." Female voice reached from behind him and Zangetsu turned. Whatever anger was still in his core has disappeared… He was annoyed, yes, but his rage has subsided "You handled it well… for a moment I thought you would go for his throat."
"If I do that then everything will be for naught." Zangetsu commented "What of your master?"
"Nothing changed." Sode no Shirayuki added, slowly walking over to him "The feelings are there but her courage is a bit lacking. She seems to be afraid."
"Rejection." She added calmly "Though I would lie to say I do not share her feelings."
"Have I not proven enough to disperse those doubts?" Zangetsu turned to face her, lifting eyebrow as he gazed at her graceful posture and noble regalia.
"And if your master's feelings waver?" She inquisited "You always claim that you are reflection of his desires and instincts… If by chance he rejects his feelings, how will it reflect on you?"
"Is that what bothers you?" Zangetsu asked, reaching over to her but as his fingers drew close to her cheek, he felt the sudden drop of temperature. Warmth that she radiated a while ago was replaced by the icy shield she protected herself with and instead of touching her skin, he took but a few strands of her silver hair. Both stood in silence as he gazed at the silky hair that lightly caressed fingers that so far only craved for more power.
"It does." She said in quiet tone, keeping her gaze away from his.
"You have seen -that- house, yes? You have seen what is in it?" He asked in equally low tone. Instead of words she merely nodded "Then let me cast a bit of light onto you, Sode no Shirayuki…" He continued, placing particular accent on her name "Should such a moment comes where I will waver, I shall take over my idiot king's body and come just so you can plunge your sword into me. You… and no one else."