Ch 11: Character Growth
Class let out, and Ichigo walked to the back of the classroom, stopping in front of the desk of Ishida Uryuu.
Ishida Uryuu glared, looked away, glared again.
Ichigo said, "We should talk."
Zipping his bag, Ishida stood and moved toward the door, joining the tail end of the exiting line.
For a moment, Ichigo thought Ishida was simply ignoring him, but the ex-Quincy paused and Ichigo realized he was waiting.
Rukia was elsewhere in the town, doing her rounds, and Ichigo turned his attention to her. Not exactly telepathy, as it was normally thought of. No words. Just poking her, asking for her attention, and he felt her awareness seep into him in response.
Ichigo followed Ishida to the roof of the school, which was an interesting choice. Perhaps Ishida didn't realize that Ichigo and friends typically ate there and so it was effectively Ichigo's territory. Or perhaps he knew and didn't care.
They faced each other, victims of a long, uncomfortable silence, and Rukia landed softly on the roof between them. Ichigo didn't let his eyes flicker toward her, and Ishida didn't notice her at all. Currently without spiritual powers and all.
Ichigo leaned against the fence that edged in the roof and said, "You still hate me?"
"That's fine. I'm still angry at you for the bait."
Ishida looked aside, face twisting, and that told Ichigo what he needed to know. Ishida had thought about what he'd done, and he was ashamed.
Ichigo said, "But I don't have anything left against you. I'm not planning to do anything."
The question was unspoken. Did Ishida still have anything against him? Was he pondering revenge?
Ishida pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
Ichigo sighed extravagantly. "I can understand why you'd hate shinigami. Captain Ukitake told me the story about how the shinigami destroyed most Quincy. Even his version sounded pretty brutal. A horrible yet necessary choice. I'd imagine the Quincy version sounds different."
"No," said Ishida. "The version I heard also made it sound like a difficult and necessary choice. When I was told the story, I sided with the shinigami."
"Oh," said Ichigo, nonplussed. "Why the hell did you say you hate shinigami, then?"
Ishida said, "My sensei was a very kind man. As the last Quincy, the shinigami kept him under observation, and he wanted to collaborate with the shinigami. He dreamed of working together, and they always refused, answered every offer with, 'do not interfere with out work.' He informed them of Pluses they'd missed, and they said, 'do not interfere with our work.' When possible, he avoided Hollows, and when forced to fight them, rather than destroying them, he tried to disable or trap them so the shinigami could purify them. And they said, 'do not interfere with our work.'"
Ishida continued, "One day, five large Hollows attacked. It was obvious he couldn't win, and he faced them alone. Two hours later, the shinigami arrived. One hour after sensei died. In the end, Sensei's ideals never reached the shinigami. If they had acknowledged sensei's opinion, if they had acknowledged the strength of the Quincy, they would've come earlier, and sensei's death wouldn't have happened." Ishida's fist clenched.
Ichigo took the story in. Accepted it. In regards to Ishida Uryuu, the shinigami had made a mistake. He had a legitimate grievance.
But Ichigo was still too angry over the fact that Karin had almost died to respond completely without vitriol.
"That sucks," said Ichigo. "That really sucks. It's a story where the shinigami sound negligent. But, what do you think of how the story ends? The young Quincy grows up a little, uses Hollow bait to challenge a rookie shinigami to a competition, and more Hollows come than he'd expected. A Menos, even, and it could've gone really, really badly if the rookie shinigami's experienced partner hadn't returned from Soul Society so promptly."
Ishida's cheek twitched, jaw rigid. "The young Quincy was very foolish, and what the shinigami Captain did to him, while tyrannical and high-handed, wasn't completely unwarranted." The admission seemed to take Ishida a lot effort, pushed out between gritted teeth, and Ichigo was impressed that Ishida could look at himself so objectively. He wasn't sure he could've done that from the distance of only a couple weeks.
Ichigo said, "Captain Ukitake mentioned something about some Quincies regaining their powers."
Ishida said, "He mentioned it to me as well, requesting that if I regained my powers, I should use them more responsibly." Ishida's lip curled, but his eyes were downcast.
"I hope you are," said Ichigo. He hesitated, then made himself say, "If you do get your powers back, maybe we could work together a bit. Collaborate."
Ichigo looked away, stretching, pretending that he didn't know the weight of what he'd just said. "It's not like I've got any influence. I'm just a rookie, and strange one too. My legal status is a bit up in the air. But for my part, if you wanted to tell me about any Pluses I'd missed, I'd be happy to hear about them. As for fighting Hollows... Orihime's brother ended up turning into a Hollow. There's a decent chance my mom ended up as a Hollow, or as part of one. Don't know about your sensei. So balance of the worlds aside, I'd really prefer you didn't destroy Hollows, if at all possible. But if you wanted to disable and capture them and wait for me to show up and purify them, that would be a big help."
Standing nearly next to Ishida, Rukia nodded solemnly, and Ichigo said, "That goes for Rukia too. And though she's not an officer, she's got a lot more influence than I do. If she mentions it to her Captain, he might listen."
Ishida said, "I won't be a servant to the shinigami."
"Wouldn't ask you to. But so long as you don't have a way to Konso Pluses or Purify Hollows, we can't quite be equals in it. How about a junior partner?"
Ishida's gaze darkened.
Ichigo said, "Shinigami are shinigami. It's more than what they do. It's what they are. The weapons they use for it come from their very souls. But you're human. You're gonna have a normal job and all that, right? For you, fighting Hollows is on the side. And when you die, there's a good chance you'll become a shinigami. Probably a strong one too."
Ishida looked as if he'd bitten a lemon.
"Whatever," said Ichigo. "It's all moot until you regain your powers. See you around, Ishida."
Ichigo took the stairs down, abandoning the roof to the Quincy.
Urahara Kisuke was pleased. He didn't need any of his absurdly complicated byzantine plots to work out. He just needed Aizen's byzantine plots to fail. Preferably loudly and catastrophically For that, every wildcard, every X-factor, every wrench in the gears, was an opportunity to be courted, to be nourished and raised for no reason past general principle.
And so, Urahara had his humans.
They were progressing nicely, but Urahara felt they needed a little more seasoning.
It was hardly unheard of for a Hollow to appear in the living world and immediately leave. It simply meant it had gotten a closer read of the strength of the local shinigami and decided discretion was the better part of valor.
So when Urahara Kisuke came upon a level 2 Hollow, bound it, trussed it up, hid it with a few Kido, and escaped with it back to his candy shop, Ichigo and Rukia didn't wonder very hard where it had gone.
When Urahara reached his Underground Training Basement, Sado-san had his right arm activated and was punching dents in the wall, Inoue-san was using her Shun Shun Rikka to try to protect the wall, and Tatsuki-chan was going through a sword drill.
Unnoticed by his cute darling students, Urahara hid himself with a camouflaging Kido and released the Hollow, feeling like a female cat bringing a live rat back to the burrow for its kits to play with. Perhaps Yoruichi should've been doing it, for the sake of symbolism, but they had a strict rule against Yoruichi taking her true form on the streets of Karakura Town. So far as they knew, Aizen was unaware of her feline form.
His proteges responded with all the hissing, puffed up startlement of kittens on seeing their first rat. Sado-san shot a ball of reiatsu that missed wide and would've struck Urahara if he hadn't leaned out of the way. Inoue-san shrieked, backed up, and stuttered the command as she tried to bring the shield in front of herself and Sado-san. Typical reactions of the sufficiently drilled to their first engagement.
Tatsuki-chan skidded to a halt in front of the Hollow, sword raised and at the ready.
Sado's abilities were interesting. The Hougyoku acting on his natural Fullbring. Urahara doubted the big man had it in him to get to Captain level, but he might get to what lately passed for Vice-Captain level in short order. That could be useful.
He had much less hope for Orihime as a fighter, but her healing ability was remarkable. With time, she might, in some limited ways, surpass even Captain Unohana. Restoring limbs, for example.
Tatsuki was more disappointing. The Hougyoku had touched her lightly, and unlike Sado, she had no strange innate ability, and unlike Orihime, no 'sacred objects' that she carried around on her person for the Hougyoku to concentrate on.
Instead, the Hougyoku had given her the sort of strength she knew. The sort she had observed and envied. She could, in human form, summon a fake zanpakutou, a sort of DIY asauchi. From what he could see, she amounted to a pale imitation of a shinigami. A human shinigami, one might say, and not a strong one. Thinking about it normally, she should reach the power of a 10th seat at best, and another one of those wouldn't make any difference.
Urahara Kisuke had seldom been accused of thinking about anything normally. He saw the look in her eyes as she trained, as if she were willing to bet her life on it for no particular reason. He saw the look in her eyes as she faced her first Hollow, a chitinous thing like a four and a half foot high beetle with large, crab-like front claws.
Fear falling instead of rising, adjusting her stance and her hold on her sword until they were exactly what they were supposed to be.
Casually, Urahara cast Bakudos on Inoue and Sado. Either of them, he was sure, could defeat the Hollow with ease, once they'd calmed down, and that wouldn't do.
Tatsuki-chan's opening strike was careful, but not hesitant. Probing. A hard downward swing, blade screeching as it met the claw, scratching but not piercing the chitin.
Its second claw swung toward her, and Tatsuki leapt back.
Two more exchanges had similar results, Tatsuki giving up ground each time, narrowly avoiding its claws.
For each of your enemy's arms to be as strong as both of yours put together was a definition of being outclassed, and there was no way Tatsuki hadn't realized that. Yet she was wearing a desperate grin.
She circled quickly, trying to see if she could move more quickly than it could turn and get around to an unprotected flank.
More agile though she was, it had a smaller circle to turn to keep her in front of it.
Tatsuki reversed the direction of her circling, and the Hollow was an instant late to respond, and even then, it was a square, cumbersome thing and agility was not its strength.
Tatsuki got a line on its shoulder and struck hard.
Her blade landed an inch from where it should've, and rather than cutting the claw arm off at the shoulder, it only drew a line of blood along it and along the Hollow's side.
The Hollow burst forward, ramming its bulk straight into Tatsuki, and Tatsuki rolled with the hit, springing back to her feet just in time to dodge its rush. As it passed her, she left a long gash on its back, then another, pursuing it. The Hollow turned, sweeping its claws at her, and Tatsuki again leapt away.
She was bleeding from her head where it had clipped her with a claw, and Urahara knew that she had heavy bruises at best from when it had body-checked her, and quite likely cracked bones. Yet she was grinning more broadly than before.
Urahara wanted popcorn and a lawn chair. He felt negligent for not arranging such.
Behind Tatsuki, the bound Inoue was still making noise. Tatsuki glanced at her, but immediately returned her focus to the Hollow. Good. He'd used a Bakudo they wouldn't recognize, and perhaps the question had occurred to her of whether their incapacitation was some power of the Hollow or Urahara giving a lesson, but she wasn't dwelling on the question, not while a Hollow was in front of her.
The Hollow advanced, but not at such a reckless charge as before, and Tatsuki was unable to repeat the simple trick of letting it pass by and striking its undefended flanks and back. Instead, she was skipping around and trying to get another look at the shoulder she'd already cut into, though she'd also picked a spot on the claw and was battering at it, cutting in deeper, gradually wearing away the armor. Her intent was sharp, even if her reiatsu wasn't high.
She drew a thin line of blood on the claw and the Hollow changed the angle it held the claw at, making it less of a sweep and more of an awkward stab, wheeling around to try to get its other claw at her, hindered by its own bulk.
That could change the fight, a combatant being hesitant to use one of its weapons.
On the other hand, Tatsuki was getting winded. It wouldn't be long before her footwork lost its precision, and she'd be in serious trouble then.
But the Hollow must not've been as observant as Urahara, because instead of waiting her out, it reared up on its back legs, aiming to crush her beneath its bulk.
Urahara Kisuke felt a moment's nostalgia for the days when his enemies had been stupid.
Tatsuki stepped directly under the Hollow, and rather than waiting for it to come back down and impale itself on her sword, risking herself being crushed, as he'd expected, she stepped through, lopping one claw off at the shoulder, taking a kick from one of its legs.
She let the kick help spin her out from under it, ducking as she did. Coming out the other side, she pivoted just as the Hollow slammed the ground, and brought her blade smoothly down on its unprotected head.
The Hollow scattered into light, being purified rather than destroyed. Perhaps Tatsuki's blade was a real zanpakutou after all.
She put a hand to her stomach where it had kicked her, and her hand turned red.
Urahara released the Bakudos on Inoue and Sado, and the two raced to their friend. Tatsuki carefully sat, and Inoue summoned her 'healing' faeries.
Letting his camouflaging Kido fall away, Urahara appeared between them with shunpo. "No," he said to Inoue.
"Your ability doesn't 'heal.' It undoes. And Tatsuki-chan doesn't need that fight to be undone." One hand lit with aquamarine healing Kido. Urahara said, "Show me your stomach."
Tatsuki-chan lifted her shirt to her breastbone. The puncture was ragged and a little north of her belly-button. Examination showed it hadn't gone deep.
Sado-san said, "You brought that Hollow here. You bound Inoue-san and I."
"Of course. Tatsuki-chan, how was the fight?"
"It was a fight," she answered. "Thank you."
Urahara decided that of the three, he'd place his biggest bet on her.
Kurosaki Karin's tangible talent was, as expected, quite a ways beyond Tatsuki's. Birth really was unfair and inequitable. Urahara admired humans in that way. They didn't have such a ridiculously unequal spread of innate talent as spirits had. Except, it seemed, in spiritual power.
For Karin, one or two Hollows brought back to his basement wouldn't do. He took her on a field trip instead, Karin in shinigami form, a gikon animating her body back in town. They went deep into the mountains, and Urahara spread Hollow bait. Just a little.
The Hollows came, and Urahara watched.
He already had devices to help her spiritual power in human form feel like a human's. If she improved as quickly as he expected, he'd have to innovate new ones.
He'd forgotten how much he enjoyed teaching.
There seemed to be little reason for Urahara to take a hand in Ichigo's training. Kuchiki Rukia was a fiercer instructor than he'd expected. And powerful too. Whatever they'd done to each other, with the Hougyoku's help, had been every bit as consequential as he'd hoped.
Still, there was that extra touch. You never knew how to fight for your life against a superior opponent until you'd done it.
School was letting out for the summer. Ichigo had mentioned, in a painfully casual way, that he'd scored 18th in his grade, so Rukia had slapped him on his back and told him not to get too cocky.
He'd seemed to appreciate it.
With summer vacation came a trip to Soul Society. The plan was to stay there for at least three weeks. Considering the unusual number of occurrences in Karakura Town, they'd be replaced by four Shinigami, including the 8th seat and one of the several 13th seats.
But for the moment, it was just Ichigo looking after Karakura Town. She'd planned on a quick trip back to the Division to ensure everything was arranged, and when she'd gotten there, Captain Ukitake had called her into his office and told her he was promoting her to 11th Seat.
She'd felt horrible about it. She was lying to him about Ichigo, about the serious crime she'd committed, and Captain Ukitake was promoting her. The long looked for promotion was ash in her mouth.
Even as she'd gagged on the bitterness, she'd received a message asking her to come to the Kuchiki Estate with all promptness. Once there she'd been presented to the Kuchiki elders as the clan's newest officer. They'd been polite and respectful. Some of them had gone so far as to be warm, and she thought even Nii-sama had looked pleased for an instant. It would've been surprisingly pleasant if she hadn't felt the whole time like an impostor. Like she'd felt the first few years after being graduated early and being put unready in Division 13.
The meeting was winding down when she felt, as though across great distance, Ichigo's surprise. Then anger. Greater surprise and a flash of fear. Heard the clash of blades through ears that weren't hers. Felt a powerful and fierce reiatsu, and Ichigo's reiatsu rising in response.
Back in the human world, Ichigo was fighting for his life.
I lamented in some author's note in some story that I had not found a lot of Bleach fics I liked. I have since found more and added some of them to my favorites.
I have long been wary of the implicit assumption of story after story that trauma = personal development. I tend to think it causes you to be traumatized. But portraying traumatized people isn't something I'm very interested in doing. I don't enjoy it, and it's not as if stories have to be realistic.
A story is a sort of thing where events that would be traumatic and horrible in real life can be fun and character building. The characters react to thing less as real people would than as readers do? We enjoy Bilbo killing all the spiders, and he shouts a taunting rhyme as he does it, so Bilbo enjoys it too. I don't know. This tangent has little to do with this story. I'm just thinking about how I don't understand stories at all, and most of what little I've read professing to 'explain' stories has struck me as either uselessly vague or offputtingly irreconcilable to actual stories and completely unscientific.
I guess I think semiotics is okay.