Blackout2020: So sorry for the very long radio silence. But this next parts are kind of like the SS arc. Screw one thing up everything else gets screwed up. For now, enjoy, what I can assume to be is our last 'breather' chapter. I'm still working on things, but no idea when it will come out.
(Chapter 46: Two faces of life.)
As the light of a new day filtered through his window, the newly anointed captain of squad 3 tossed over to the darker side of the room, a tired groan rumbling through the air as the piercing rays breached the blinds.
Eyes reluctantly opening his eyes, the man pushed himself up from the bed, half in a daze, "Ughh…god." He croaked as he shut his eyelids, fighting off the urge to go back to sleep. "I'm exhausted." he mumbled, dragging his hand over his face.
As the haze in his mind cleared up a bit, he let his hands drop down and saw that he was still wearing his Shikusho from yesterday. Puzzled, he looked around and saw that he was in his room, which begged the question why go to bed in his clothes. Trying to recall, what led him to his current state, a brief faint image flickered in his mind.
Moving shadows and flickering candle-lights, the hard stiffness of a wooden chair, nothing at all like the comforts of his room. Narrowing his eyes, he concentrated harder trying to recall through the hazy fog of fatigue, soon the images became clearer, he saw Senna and Shaolin laying together on a bed, their mouths moving as they spoke to him and each other, his body resting in a wooden chair across from them.
They spoke of many things from the obvious worries ahead to the more hopeful reprieve they'd indulge in. He remembered them talking and talking, as their eyes grew heavier, as heavy as the worries on his heart, worries he didn't dare voice in their blissfully happy presence.
He remembered just sitting there in silence watching them carefully, as they slept in each other's arms, as the candlelight from the bedside table began to dim, the long hours of the night passing by. The weight of the world seemingly on his shoulders as he let the mask of strength he wore fall under what was to come.
A heavy sigh escaped his lips, as he slouched in the chair, unbeknownst to the sleeping beauties. For so long, he considered this, all these troubles, to end at the hands of Aizen, but now, it seemed with each passing second, the situation, his life, just became more and more complicated. More than once he felt himself having to second guess or retract what he might say or do, lest it lead to some disaster just a hair beyond his sight.
'Was this part of the Spirit King's test?' he would ask himself, as he struggled to find the right answer to the problems that plagued his family.
More than once, he'd wished it was physical.
The types of problems he had during the fall war or his battles during the summer. At least then he could directly see what he had to do, force it to bend its knee with a little effort.
But now…now he was unsure, the lives of everyone he cared about once again resting in his hands—looking to him for the answer…
He closed his eyes, feeling tears pooling around the rims of his lids. Opening them again, they streaked down his face, at the crushing realization of the bravado and bluster he used to reassure them.
To keep them from the truth…the truth that he didn't have the answer to their problems.
Wiping away his tears, lest he allow himself to cry further, startling the loves of his life. He smiled ruefully, as he leaned back into the chair. Seeing their peaceful faces…and all that he fought for, he still felt the urge to not let them down, to keep going forward, even if he had to crawl.
But for now, he'd keep things small and watch over them sleep, their unfailing protector…
As the light of the candle fizzled out into a smoke plume, casting the middle-sized room into darkness, he remained unmoving in his chair, eyes still hovering over their bodies as they adjusted the environment.
Soon without his realizing it, the image of the sleeping pair faded out of sight, only to return when he felt his head lurch forward suddenly. Hearing his wife shift in her bed slightly, a dull mumbling escaping her lips, Ichigo gave his head a quick shake to refocus on them, as he leaned back in the chair, arms crossed. Again, he kept his gaze on them for a long time, until he slowly began to lose sight of them through the pervading darkness broken only by an insufferable light.
'Then how did I…?' Ichigo asked himself, fully recalling the events of last night. Closing his eyes, he felt a slight remnant of foreign reiatsu hanging in the air. Focusing on it, he gathered the fragments together until it formed a silky white spirit ribbon in his hand.
Curious, he clutched it gently and began to rub it with his thumb, trying to discern just who had moved him, as the texture and familiarity burned into his mind, he felt it in the fabric, the distinct aura of a hollow's spiritual energy.
"Cirucci." He muttered the culprit-his servant's name. "That was pretty reckless of you…"
A long-suffering sigh escaped the man, since he, and everyone else, knew that as Ambassador, she had to be civil, and without Senna, or anyone else he trusted, to help fight for her case in an altercation, she was easy prey to intimidation or bullying tactics, especially at night, when drunken Shinigami were prowling around the labyrinth-esque corridors of the Seireitei.
'Still…' His grimace broke into a wry smile, "Thanks though." He muttered to himself, appreciative of the fraccions gesture of dedication to him and his family.
Hopping out of bed, the Shinigami spared a glance at the clock, only to crinkle his face at seeing it was almost pushing noon. While he'd hoped to have told everyone in the morning at breakfast, he could at least count on the fact that they'd be there at the lunch hall. "Better hurry." He said to no one in particular, as he began to disrobe, making his way to his personal bathroom to shower and take care of himself.
Ten minutes later, Ichigo emerged from the bathroom towel clad and fully refreshed. Pulling out a new uniform from his closet absentmindedly, he silently weighed the options of taking a moment to look through it to find something to wear for the outing that afternoon, but after staring into the mass of hanging black robes, he decided against it. It would have to wait until his squad business was finished and Senna finished her belated rehabilitation, two events that would derail his promised outing, if he didn't attend to them.
Making the last adjustments to his shirt, he spared a glance at his weapon resting against the wall and said to him, "Be back soon." Before disappearing.
The white steel of the blade simply shimmered in response, in tandem to the glowing orb wrapped in the cloth.
Passing into the mess hall, Ichigo scanned the crowded room for his blonde-haired lieutenant. Starting from the near empty officer table, he glanced over to the lunch line, before switching over to several crowded tables.
It didn't take long for the captain to spot his right-hand man chatting amicable to several unseated officers, an uncharacteristic smile on his face. With a confident smirk, he waded through the sea of humanity, eyes never once leaving his lieutenant, as he dodged and evaded passerby's looking for an open spot to sit and chow down at.
"Well, that definitely sounds interesting. I'll talk to Shuhei about it. He knows more about it than me." Izuru told his college, intrigued by her idea.
The pig-tailed girl bowed respectfully, "Thank-you Kira-Fukutaichō. I also had another-" she paused seeing her captain coming over to them. "Oh, hello Kurosaki-Taichō." She greeted with a wave of her hand.
Looking over his shoulder, the second-in-command spotted his commander, "Oh, hey, captain. Good…noon I guess? It's a little late to be morning."
Ichigo gave an apologetic bow, "Sorry about that. I was up late last night."
"It's okay, sir." Izuru waved off, "From what I hear you were booked all day yesterday with the other captains. So, it must have just gotten to you."
'Izuru, if you weren't my lieutenant, I'd promote you to one, because you are a fricking mind reader.' Ichigo thought quietly, impressed by the man's keen insight. "Something like that."
He then turned slightly to the girl standing there, and felt an embarrassed flush come over him for his discourteousness in interrupting them moments ago. "Sorry, I didn't mean to just cut into your conversation like that Ms…uhh…"
"Fumi. Fumi Kanno." The girl said with a humble bow.
"Right, sorry for forgetting, Fumi."
"I-it's okay." She said with a hint of pink on her cheeks, embarrassed by the tone of familiarity he was taking with her. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she asked, "Do you…normally call people by their names…s-sir?"
"Huh?" he grunted, slack-jawed by her reaction and response. It took a moment for his mind to pick up the error, but soon the epiphany came to him. "Oh! Uhh, sorry. I'm not really one for putting barriers and distance between people I talk to frequently. I want you to be comfortable around me, because when it comes to fighting, you can't really pick and choose your allies."
"I see. Sorry, I'm new here, fresh out of the academy and all…"
"Yeah, sorry, if I made you uncomfortable. I just wanted everyone to feel like they didn't have to be afraid to approach me for something, I'm happy to lend a hand, especially in these trying times."
"I'm sure it might take a little getting used to, Kanno-san." Kira spoke up, holding a hand towards his Haori-less captain. "It might seem unorthodox, but he means well."
"Speaking of unorthodox, I kind of need to make an announcement." he glanced over his shoulder, looking over the assembly hall that was mostly filled, as well as the outside eating area, "But I wasn't sure if everyone is here."
The normally gloomy-looking man looked over the crowded hall as well, before turning back to the near empty officer's table. "Mmm, most of us are here from what I can see. I can try to pass on the message to some of the other officers that might not be feeling well or are out."
"Thanks." Ichigo shifted to one side, raising a hand against his head, as he closed his eyes thoughtfully. "Although…that would kind of defeat the purpose of my message, if you're working…" he mumbled beneath his breath.
Tilting his head to the side, Izuru looked at him oddly, "Sir?"
"Nothing." He lied with a shake of his head, turning back over to the roaring crowd. It was now or never.
Giving an apology in advance, he stepped over Kira unto the top of the wooden table, giving him a distinct vantage over the hall. Cupping both of his hands to megaphone his voice, he yelled. "EXCUSE ME! YO! CAN I GET YOU ATTENTION PLEASE?"
The clamoring noise of conversations slowly began to die down as people began to notice their Haori-less captain standing on the table, calling out to them.
When the room finally fell silent, Ichigo moved his hands away from his mouth. "Afternoon team, thanks for giving me a moment of your time. I've got a bit of an important announcement for you all, so sorry it took me so long to bring it up.
"Is it about the Arrancar?" an oily-haired man asked from the back of the room.
"Has a decision about them been made Kurosaki-Taichō?" another busty silver-haired girl inquired as well, the same question on the mind of everyone.
While he did his best not to show it, he couldn't help but feel the pressure on his shoulders return at the mention of the Shinigami-Arrancar situation. He didn't fault them since he should have known that's what would have been on everyone's minds, when he said the words 'important announcement' after spending quite a while at the captain's hall with the other captains, but it was still burdening all the same.
"No, the Central-46 has convened in their halls to discuss the issue." He informed them with a shake of his head, eyes darting over the faces of the crowd to judge their reaction.
Seeing the cautious uncertainty, he decided to lightly press the inquiry. "Technically," he spoke up louder, but no more threateningly. "I wasn't even supposed to answer that, for reasons everyone is quite aware of."
The crowd nodded understandingly.
It was a touchy subject; everyone was supposed to be nice to the ambassador that visited. Still…not everyone was happy about seeing a Hollow in their midst. "I won't punish you," he continued, seeing the murmurs and sideways glances to one another, "but may I ask why you brought it up? If there is a problem, please feel free to tell me."
A resounding silence fell over the room, the girl that initially asked looking away uneasily, while the other guy's expression grew graver. 'Well…they aren't angry, so that's something.' Ichigo thought to himself, after continued observance. "Is it about me, and my leadership?"
Again nothing, no sounds, no movement.
"Is it about the Arrancar Cirucci?" he took another stab to no avail.
"It's…" a yellow haired guy spoke up, garnering his leader's undivided attention. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he continued. "Look, sir, do you really think we can trust the Arrancar, especially with how many of us they killed?"
"Y-yeah," another girl admitted with a shaky nod, "I mean, Hollows eat each other to get stronger and, and, and they can be so cruel! How can we trust them to watch our backs, let alone live with them Taichō!?"
"She's right, man! Those guys we fought were crazy tough, they must have eaten thousands of people!"
"Look, I get what you're saying." He assuaged, hands held up to gently placate the crowd, before hysteria broke out. "Rest assured, me and the other captains are working together to resolve this situation. I also promise you guy that in the event the Arrancar start staying at this division, they'll live in a separate barracks initially. I understand some of you may have lost family or friends to them over the years, but we should remember so, have they."
Lowering his hands back down, he levelled his gaze across the mass of Shinigami, allowing them a chance to meet his gaze, making sure that they understood, he got their fears and misgivings, and, unlike their previous captain, he was going to assuage their fears instead of exploiting it.
"You have more in common with the Arrancar than you might think. We can't keep living in 'what ifs' or uncertain fear, I swear to you here and now, that, if push comes to shove, I will fight to protect every single one of you. I already fought Aizen, so you can bet your ass I'll tussle with an Arrancar any day of the week, but you gotta work with me here. You need to be willing to try. Please, I know it's hard to ask you to trust someone you barely know especially after what you've been through over the years, but…"
His thoughts drifted back to his wife Shaolin, from how she grew from the cold secluded captain tempered by hatred and betrayal and evolved into a warm happy woman that smiled and lived more optimistically. If someone like her could change her worldview, couldn't another?
"I also know starting—being willing to trust someone again, will start the healing process. Believe me, I know the first step is always the hardest, and I'm not asking you to just completely accept all at once, but…at least give them a chance, you'd be surprised."
Once again, the congregation started shifting, murmuring and whispering to each other. Emotions and expression ranging from appeased to apprehensive, calm smiles to uncertain frowns.
Deciding to relieve the tension, Kurosaki eased his stance up, a goofy smile plastered on his face, "Damn! Totally wasn't expecting this to take a serious turn, ha-ha. I was actually hoping to just give you some good news and jet."
"What would that be sir?" asked Kira, appreciative of his sense of levity.
"I thought giving you guys the day off might show a bit of my appreciation for all of the hard work that you guys do." He said, glancing away embarrassedly, as he scratched his cheek. "I mean, you've put up with me and a lot of other crap thrown your way like champs, so I just thought I'd show my thanks…even if I'm a little late in announcing it."
"Sir…" Fumi whispered quietly.
The man held his hands up, as he started to step down from the table. "Anyway, that's all I wanted to say. I've got to take care of some stuff, so you're all dismissed have a good one."
Just as Ichigo was about to leave, Izuru reached up and grabbed his sleeve. "Sir?" he spoke up, as the orange haired man turned to him. "Are you…" he glanced at their subordinates cautiously, most calm, but a few still pensive of his earlier words. "Are you sure sir?"
Ichigo smiled, giving a confident nod, "Like I said, I've got some stuff to take care of. If I'm not coming into the office to work because of that, how can I justify you guys coming in to work? I try to lead by example, do as I do, not as I say."
Extending his hand towards them, he chose to be genuine with them. "Besides, you've been incredibly patient with me since I took over. I know some of you have reservations about me; especially, knowing I'm a Vizard that has an Arrancar coming through here now and again, but I'm not going to hold it against you. You've done excellent work and right now this is the only reward I can think of that might be worth a damn: the ability to spend time doing what you want and pursuing your goals and dreams."
Smiling to himself, he glanced at the clock and nearly cursed. He was gonna be late at this rate and he still hadn't even picked up Senna yet. "Okay, I really gotta go guys! So, do me a favor and get out of here." He yelled back at them, bursting into a small run, before vanishing in flashstep.
Sitting there slightly amused by his captain's flustered exit, Izuru looked over to a giggling Fumi, before looking at his fellow reapers, each wearing a coy smile or bemused grin. "Well!" Kira said standing up, getting ready to go deliver the message to anyone not present. "You heard the captain." He slowly shooed them away with his hand, "Go on and enjoy yourselves."
"Shit, shit, shit." Ichigo cursed aloud, each word in tandem with another successful flash step. 'IF she doesn't kill me then…'
Ending his flashstep just outside the squad two gate, Ichigo jumped high into the air, catching the Torie with his fingers, he hung still for a second, before rocking his body to the left and right just enough to swing himself up.
Landing atop the gate wall, he started running down the tile pathway, giving a faint wave, as he passed by the half-filled training area of his old squad. Turning around the corner, he jumped from the wall, grabbing hold a tree branch and swung over to the ground safely.
As soon as he landed, a small group of Onimitsukido appeared ready to attack, having sensed an intruder approach from an unusual route. Just as the group was about to attack on reflex response, the masked leader noticed who it was coming at them. Chuckling to himself, he held up his fingers signaling for his squad to part, as so they did, right as the captain barreled past them to his wife's room.
"Thanks guys, sorry for the trouble!" Ichigo yelled as he ran by.
"No problem." The man said to his superior officer, clearly amused by his actions, "Try not to keep the commander waiting, sir!"
The Onimitsukido leader's men laughed audibly at the grief he was given, returning to their patrol.
As the grass beneath his sandals turned to tile, Ichigo vaulted over the inner wall separating the outdoor assembly area. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he darted his eyes to the floor, as he ran on. She was on the balcony overlooking the area, her prior view of the Seireitei from the front of the captain's office traded for the quiet view of the back.
'Shit, she sensed me.' He realized, his frantic flash steps from earlier giving away his approach. "Oh well." He told himself, as he ran up the wall, kicking off it to grab hold of the support beam of the guard rail. With a few grunts, he hoisted himself up, directly into the amused face of Shaolin Kurosaki.
Placing her elbow on the railing, she rested her cheek against her knuckles, "You're late."
Ichigo closed his eyes painfully. "I know."
Her smile widened, clearly enjoying the struggles he was going through. "There's also a front door, you know." She informed him, jabbing her thumb behind her.
'Well, if she wants to play, let's play.' He thought to himself. "Would have taken too long. Too many people at this hour to go the normal way."
"Too many people, take too long?" Shaolin repeated, as she took a step back from the guard railing, her eyebrows raised. "So, you took the back way and saved yourself a minute and ten seconds." The sarcastic woman recounted, making sure he heard the pathetic excuse of a story he was expecting her to believe. "Congratulations, you must be so proud of yourself."
"Well, yeah, I mean it gives me a minute and ten seconds to flirt with you." He pointed out to her.
Chuckling to herself, she decided to let him off the hook, he was taking them out after all, even if it was at that cretin Kisuke's suggestion. "She's inside with Cirucci-san." The Chinese woman informed him, before leaning closer to the edge, lips puckered expectantly.
Popping up from his hanging, he kissed her lightly on the lips. "Thanks, honey." He then leaned back and tossed himself over the railing and proceeded to enter the office of the Onimitsukido leader.
Walking into the office, the captain of squad 3 saw his fraccion and his sister chatting amicably in a pair of chairs. Hearing the door to the balcony open, the girls turned in their chairs.
"Good morning, sleepy-Ichi!"
Ichigo rolled his eyes, "Hahaha, very funny. I probably wouldn't be late, if SOME people weren't all 'oh no, I can't sleep in the dark, Ichigo-kun'."
Senna smiled, appreciative of his diverting sense of humor to keep the worries of that night on the downlow. "That's a very good Soi-chan impression. I give it 9 out of 10."
Cirucci turned to her mistress confused, "Really? You thought it sounded like Señora Soifon? I thought he was trying to imitate you." Cirucci's confusion only deepened when the twins facepalmed simultaneously.
"Thank-you, Cirucci." Ichigo thanked sarcastically.
Once again, it sailed over Cirucci's head. "No problemo." She answered dutifully, earning a loud sigh from Ichigo, as she turned back to Senna, still slightly puzzled. "Pero, I never knew you feared the dark."
"I'm not. He was just making a joke."
The fraccion visibly frowned, "I don't get it."
Senna glanced away, "Yeah, I don't get you either."
The marked woman scrunched up her face, "I feel like you are mocking me now."
"I would never do such a thing." She lied through her teeth.
That perked Cirucci up, "Really?"
"So, we ready to go Ichigo?" Senna asked, tactfully dodging the question.
"Yeah, yeah." Ichigo waved off, as he walked over to give her a piggyback ride. As Senna got on, he looked at his fraccion. "Hey. Cirucci."
"Thanks for taking me to bed last night."
Immediately, Senna's head snapped in his direction, "She did what!?"
"…I immediately regret what I just said." Ichigo muttered, as he tried to ignore the ringing in his ear.
"He's talking about when I came into the room and quietly took him in your slept, Senna-sama." Cirucci clarified with an innocent smile. "Don't worry. Though I was inexperienced in such a task, I was gentle with Master." She turned a sheepishly glance back to Ichigo, "I suppose we were muey suerte you were in the chair and not the bed. I fear the amount of motion we made together would have woken them otherwise."
'Oh god.' Ichigo thought to himself, dread coursing through his heart when he practically envisioned Senna's arms tightening around his throat.
"You did what!?" the visibly blushing girl shrieked, blasting out Ichigo's eardrums a second time.
'GOD! DAMNIT!' Ichigo sweatdropped, as he tried to re-affirm that his hearing was still good. "Not helping Cirucci…"
The confused fraccion tilted her head to the side, baffled by their reactions. Had she done something wrong? She had only carried him back to his room. Was that not a customary thing that Shinigami…friends did for each other?
Not that she really knew since Sado-sama was such a responsible Espada, but she'd seen plenty of fraccion assist their blacked out Masters back to their quarters. Perhaps, the room was his room too, in a sense?
She couldn't really tell. Shinigami culture was strange sometimes.
"But…that's what happened." She said slowly, not sure how else to explain it to them. "Aaahhh, perhaps you'd prefer to watch while I show-"
"Stop! Please! Just stop!" Ichigo yelled at her burning with embarrassment, while Senna roared with laughter unable to continue her faux outrage.
"Ha-ha, yeah, you don't need to do all that. I totally know what you mean, I just wanted to mess with Ichigo-kun." The woman clarified with a gleeful smile, no wonder Kisuke liked to do this, it was too much fun.
Ichigo shook his head, ready to cry. "Why are you always such a handful?"
The crazy girl pressed her breasts playfully into his back, "I can't help my bust size, Ichigo. We already talked about this with Shaolin." She 'helpfully' reminded him.
Ichigo closed his eyes, trying and failing to hold in his frustration. "Why do you keep twisting my words…?"
"(siiiiiiigh)…the things I do for love." He muttered to himself dejectedly. Shaking it off, he turned back to Cirucci, "Anyway Cirucci, I just wanted to say thanks."
The fraccion bowed appreciatively for his praise, at least glad they resolved whatever had happened between them. "Gracias, Ichigo-sama."
"Still," he continued, a twinge of seriousness in his tone. "Please don't do that again. You know you aren't supposed to travel alone," he cautiously reminded her.
The other two fell silent, since they knew she needed someone with her while traveling about to at least serve as a collaborating witness to defend any action she took. Otherwise, the incident in the fourth division hallway might just happen again.
"I know you can wander around Lin and mine's division alone without anyone bothering you; but, with the way things are, between the Shinigami and the Arrancar, I wouldn't feel comfortable about it, especially in the middle of the night."
The dutiful Arrancar nodded, as her eyes fell to the floor, "Ahh…yes. Sorry for troubling you master."
"It's alright." Ichigo waved off, as he stood up, hoisting his charge as well. "I just want everyone to stay safe." A bemusing smiled worked its way onto his face. "Anyway, don't worry so much about it. What's done is done, and no harm came about it. So, forget about it and just try to have a good time with us tonight, alright?"
"Alright." The purple haired woman in white said.
Taking her words at face value, Kurosaki turned to the woman clinging to his back. "Hey, you ready to go? We're gonna have to book it and I don't want you falling off on accident."
"Mmhmm." She hummed gently, before kissing his cheek softly. "Let's go." She commanded, burying her head against his shoulder.
"Right." He replied, walking towards the balcony. Sliding the door open, he raised a hand up, as he lazily waved goodbye to his wife. "Later Lin-chan. Love you."
"Wǒ ài nǐ. I love you too." The smiling Chinese woman reciprocated. "Love you too Senna. Don't overdo it at the hospital."
Senna smacked her lips and blew her a friendly kiss, "Love you too Shaolin-chan and I will. Byyyyyeee!" she yelled, as her brother hoped over the balcony's railing, freefalling to the ground below.
As soon as Ichigo's feet hit the ground, he shot off like a rocket towards the 4th division, Senna's excited cheers heralding his sonic boom.
"Woohoo!" Senna shouted excitedly, as they zipped by the training field, wind force bowling over some unawares Shinigami, as the pair exited through the front gate.
"Hold on tight!" Ichigo told her, as he lifted her legs up, better adjusting them against his arms and side. Hugging her arms around his collar, Senna pressed her face against his shoulder.
Closing one of her eyes against the wind pressure, she kept an eye out and upon spying a group coming up ahead warned her driver. "Ichigo."
"I see them."
Hearing the crackle of air behind them, the back most Shinigami turned around and screamed at seeing the bull-rushing Shinigami bearing down on them. As her compatriots turned around, they could barely process what they were seeing, let alone hope to brace themselves for impact.
But just before they were mowed down by the human rocket, Ichigo kicked off the ground, using his impressive momentum to run along the wall around them, before kicking off the wall again and landing on top of the opposite wall's tile roofing. "Sorry about that!" Senna yelled back at them, as Ichigo focused on the express lane in front of him, continuing full tilt to Unohana's office.
Tapping her ball-point pen impatiently against her wooden desk, Unohana continued to stare at the two empty chairs in front of her, almost in the hopes that those two would magically appear in them. Despite already knowing it, she still glanced away to the clock beside her personal photo of her, sensei and Ichigo, holding up peace signs after a fun day-time activity.
Her brief smile at the recollection of the memory was overshadowed by the fact, that she couldn't enjoy another experience like that due to one impossibly simple fact.
"They're late." She muttered darkly, eyebrows twitching with annoyance.
It was one thing to keep a busy doctor waiting, it was another to keep Retsu Unohana waiting. Years spent as the unchallenged shadow ruler of Rukongai, with a vast criminal empire at her disposal, left her with a profound 'get it done' and 'just business' mentality. And while her dear Sensei did bea-taught her to be less impulsive and more patient, it did not change her extreme annoyance at being stood up. It was not only disrespectful, but it made her feel like an idiot for having spent time waiting around instead of better applying it to something worthwhile, like, oh she didn't know, being a doctor!
'I'm going to kill those two when they get here.' The woman thought to herself, standing up out of the desk, fist shaking. "Alright. Where are you?"
Opening her senses, she smiled evilly when she picked them up, right off the bat. Walking around her chair, she went over to the door located against the wall. Opening it up, she saw Ichigo in the middle of climbing the last few feet to climb over the railing, with her patient and his sister Senna clinging to him like a cute koala.
"Hey Unohana-san!" Senna called out obliviously, clearly not reading the mood that Retsu was in.
For better or worse, experience prior made Ichigo a little more aware.
'Oh shit.' He thought to himself, seeing the look of fury barely hidden beneath that dull lifeless stare directed at them. "W-wait. I can explain Rets-owww!"
"Don't 'Retsu' me, Ichigo." The doctor coldly informed him, lifting the man up into the air by the scruff of his bright orange hair. "You know I hate having to wait up on others. Senna, I can forgive, but you…"
"Oww, ow, ow, damn it! I know, I know, ow stop yanking! I had things to do! I'm sorry!" he tried to explain, as he was dragged into the room, Senna still clinging to him like a chibified plushie. "Please forgive me!"
For a brief second, Retsu stopped her death march, and even lowered the force exerted against his scalp. His brief hope of a peaceful resolution was quickly shattered, when the woman turned around encased in a towering aura of death, looming dangerously over his prone form. "No…"
'It's not fair…' Ichigo cried a waterfall of tears beside himself, while Senna smiled sympathetically.
After finally earning the doctor's forgiveness, courtesy of an explanation and the pair practically throwing themselves to Unohana's infinite mercy, the trio went to Unohana's private examination room to continue Senna's rehabilitation.
From a special waiting room, Ichigo watched through the double-sided glass window as his scarred sister followed the healer's instructions, performing each task assigned to her in the sterile room, occasionally shouting words of encouragement to her through the intercom system connecting the rooms.
From the basics exercises of jogging on a treadmill or performing aerobic side-slides to the advanced of releasing her Hollow and Shinigami spiritual energy to maximum and circulating the reiatsu visible in and around her body, the patient did it as carefully as she could, following Unohana's directive and crucial pieces of advice to complete the task without straining her body too much.
More than once, Ichigo had to bite his tongue and stay silent, balling his fists up to stop himself from interrupting when things started to look tough for her. He knew that doing anything that might break her concentration on the more taxing tasks could do irreparable damage to her as her reiatsu spiraled out of control.
He only breathed a sigh of relieve once Retsu finally chimed 'that's good enough for today, Senna,', and then shooed him out of the viewing room, so that Senna could strip for Unohana and allow her to go to work on healing her.
Waiting around in the external waiting room for what seemed like forever, the pair finally emerged from the back room. "Thank-you for your patience, Ichigo-kun." Retsu called out to the young man.
"So how did she do?" he asked, glancing to Senna as he pushed himself off the wall.
"Better." Unohana answered, as she handed the girl a super nutrition tablet, before turning back to the orange haired man. "Casual everyday tasks are well within her abilities, but I would still label her 'combat undeployable'. If training doesn't get too strenuous, she'll manage with proper supervision and rest, but we can discuss more on that at the next milestone for her health check-up. Right now, she's very eager to relax."
Senna blushed, "W-well, I'd like to enjoy some time off…" turning her attention to the ground, she dug away at it with her sandals. "I mean, it hardly feels like we ever get to enjoy the peace we fought so hard for…"
Unohana chuckled, as she ruffled the top of the purple haired girl's head childishly. "Good to see that youth isn't always wasted on the young." She then turned back to Ichigo, "But she is right. You won't be young forever; you should enjoy this time."
Retsu's smile faded slightly, as she looked into Ichigo's eyes. "Ichigo." She said a bit more firmly, "Is something wrong?"
"…" caught off guard by the question, he ran his hand in the back of his head and grinned slightly, "Nah, just kind of overwhelmed with possibility is all…"
The trio sat in an awkward atmosphere for a few seconds, before Senna tried to break the tension, "Ummm…"
"I understand." Retsu foreclosed, willing to not press the issue, placing her trust in Ichigo to come to her, if needed. Still, she'd give him some space.
"I'll take her back to captain Soifon, Ichigo. You can go back to your division and get ready." She then leaned forward, smile on her face…before unleashing the full weight of her spiritual pressure on him. "Don't. Be. Late."
Ichigo sweatdropped, while Senna chuckled nervously, knowing she was partially the reason as to why he was late to begin with. But she'd let him take the fall, after all, she was hurt, he wasn't. Leaving the building, they parted at the gate, Retsu taking to the air with Minazuki, her Zanpaktou.
With his head in the clouds, he returned to his ghost town of a division, going straight for his office to get ready for his date. Passing corridor after desolate corridor, he entered his personal room beside his office, trudging past his bed without a second glance, heading straight for his closet.
Sensing his master's return, Zangetsu's spirit materialized from its shell resting against the wall. "Ichigo." The self-described old man greeted amicably, tilting his head slightly.
"Hey, what's up?" he called back, partially distracted, partially worried.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing."
Stepping back to face him, Kurosaki smiled slightly. "I'm doing okay, old man Zangetsu."
The sunglasses wearing man sighed wearily. "Ichigo, you know you can tell me anything, right?"
The smile on his partner's face fell away. "Is it…that obvious?" he asked quietly.
Zangetsu shook his head, "You've been able to hide it well from most, but like Unohana-san, I can see the clouds gathering overhead. You are worried."
Closing his eyes, the young man sighed heavily, finally acknowledging the truth in his partner's words, the truth he'd been trying so desperately to ignore. "Yeah, I am."
Taking his own way of handling things, the lightly bearded man lobbed a rhetorical question. "What troubles you?"
"I just don't know what to do." He admitted flatly, his shoulder lurching at the admittance. "The Arrancar situation, Shaolin and Senna, what's going on with my daughter, the Hogyoku, the friggin' spirit king…" he tiredly sighed again, as he ran his hand through his hair. "Honestly…" he took a step back and leaned against the dresser, his eyes going to the empty bed, "I can't tell if I went along with Kisuke's dumb idea because I wanted to be strong for the girls…or…or…"
"Or because you were looking for an escape from reality." The wise man finished for him.
The young man's eyes darkened, as he turned back to his blade spirit. "Yeah. I wonder…before the spirit king became so jaded…if this is how he felt when he created this world. So uncertain…never knowing if his next choice or action would undo everything he'd been trying to lead us towards. Maybe that's why…he changed so much and became so hedonistic…he gave up and despaired, then became apathetic and is looking for any new distraction to break the monotony."
"Before he returned you back here, he did tell you to witness events unfold. Perhaps, like Sosuke Aizen, he is seeking to see your ability to understand him, while forging this path you have made to co-existence."
"Maybe." He answered softly, turning his gaze up to the ceiling for a second, considering things more carefully. "Zangetsu…"
"I don't think…I don't think any one person can truly be the spirit king." He closed his eyes remembering the words, passions and reasons he challenged god with. "I wouldn't have gotten this far on my own. I had you, Shaolin, Senna and so many others to pull me out of the fire…I think somehow, we need to show the spirit king this…maybe it'll…"
Tilting his head back, he banged it against the wooded door to his closet. "Arrgh! Damn it, if it was that simple then I don't think I'd be in this stupid mess! Fuuuck! I know we can do things better if we work together somehow, but damn it, I don't know what I'm supposed to do here!"
Zangetsu leaned back against the wall, his head tilted back, as he pondered the paradox plaguing his master. After a pause, he said, "Perhaps, master Ichigo, you are already on the right track, but are simply unaware of it."
Almost mechanically, Ichigo turned his gaze from the ceiling down to his cryptic partner, "Whaaa?" he drawled dumbly, clearly thrown for a loop with that response.
Now it was Zangetsu's turn to sigh, too wise, too aloof he thought to himself. "I'm saying perhaps you should change your perspective. You worry because you don't know what to do." He explained the heart of the matter, before showing the death spiral, he fell into.
"When you don't know what to do, you feel like you are letting down those you love. When you feel like that, you begin to hesitate and begin to feel powerless. Finally, when you feel powerless, hesitating to take a single action, you renew the cycle worrying about your lack of power and control over the situation, causing the clouds to gather and the skies to rage over your inner world."
'Now I see what he means.' Ichigo thought to himself, understanding his point better, still, something about what he said was nagging at him. "But you made it sound like I was doing something right just a second ago."
"Sometimes Ichigo, one must remove themselves from a situation to see the bigger picture unfolding around them. Life is much more than a storm of problems raining upon you or the gauntlet of work extending in front of you. Life is beauty, it is fleeting but miraculous, an adventure of your own making. You must take the time to witness and experience its beauty to not drown in her seemingly cruel nature."
Pushing himself off the wall, he began to walk over to his master. "You are not running away…" stopping just in front of him, he pressed his hand against his chest, the young man's heart beating vigorously underneath the palm. "I believe on an instinctual level you are trying to solve the problem plaguing your mind…"
Ichigo's eyes closed, as he saw the image of his family and friends flashing in his mind, his reason to keep getting up despite insurmountable odds. "To protect them." He said more confidently.
Zangetsu nodded, "To give them the future they deserve."
As Ichigo nodded his agreement, Zangetsu gave him a smile, as his body began to break into black reishi back into his weaponized form. "Remember Ichigo: You are not invincible. But if you keep moving forward, trusting your instincts, your partners and me, you will be strong enough to make a future without regrets. To make a world where the rain brings mercy, not sadness."
Feeling more optimistic, Ichigo thumbed his cheek, traces of a smirk forming. "Thanks partner. You always know what to say."
"The truth is all I've ever told you." The solemn man stated quietly, "Facing it and moving on is your duty."
And just like that, old man Zangetsu returned to the inner sanctum. With the weight lifted off his shoulders a bit, he turned back around to face his closet, confident he could allow himself to relax for the date ahead and still remain ready for what the future had in store. Without a second thought, he pulled open the doors and opened his mind to the possibilities.
…before promptly sweat dropping at seeing a sea of black monotony.
'Daaaaamn. Never realized how many work uniforms I had.' Pushing the first row of hanging clothes to one side, he looked at the second row of hangars meant for his casual clothing and saw it was almost entirely empty, save another black outfit of some kind, neatly folded up.
Frowning, he looked to the far-side of the room and saw a pile of his off-duty clothes thrown haphazardly in the wash hamper. 'Explains why I don't have a kimono handy…'
Closing his eyes to envision what would likely happen if he turned up in his regular work uniform, he just imagined stares of disbelief, followed by Unohana cratering him into the ground for once again wasting everyone's time, especially after they had spent time putting on make-up and such. 'Note to self: Never put off doing laundry to the last second.'
Turning back to lone attire on the second rack, he reached toward it hoping it was at least more unique than his other options. Unfolding the outfit off the hanger, he was surprised to see that it was not only not another pair of work clothes accidently thrown on the back half of his closet, but it was an outfit Senna and Shaolin had gotten him as a birthday present, before Senna returned back to the human world at the end of the previous summer.
Thinking back, he recalled the rather humorous events that lead to item getting into his possession.
While Senna busied herself working on her summer research project on her computer, Shaolin happened to spy the young girl clicking and clacking on the bright metal L-shaped television. Intrigued, she decided to sit in; asking the girl what the strange object with all the different characters on it did.
Taking the rare opportunity to reverse roles and be the sensei to her Gakusai, Senna showed her friend a flurry of images sprawled across the internet, ranging from flowers of different colors to strange exotic locations and buildings to different types of people and animals from around the human world. When asked: what she thought of the place the human world had turned into, the Chinese woman said: It was quite grand indeed, Soul Society paled in comparison. But, while it did certainly invigorate her imagination, it did immensely raise the bar of expectation to find a belated birthday gift for the pair; one that could match up to the worldly splendor she'd seen of the modernized earth.
Delighted and a little touched by her concern for her, the girls began in earnest searching the web for something the man of their life might like.
Ichigo chuckled to himself, when he remembered how Shaolin told him not so subtly about an advertisement popping up for a…'adult service', playing a song in the background declaring the internet's true purpose was for pornographic content.
While Shaolin probably couldn't even spell the word internet to save her life, she did have a special relationship with porn, courtesy of the late Omaeda. She held a special burning place in her heart for 'depictions of graphic nudity'. This resentment was stoked even further when Senna offhandedly mentioned a supposed 'rules of the internet', one of which was that there was porn of everything. The girl even jokingly teased that maybe putting their names into her search bar followed by the word 'lewd' might get them some amusing results, before laughing cheerfully.
As he assumed -correctly- of what would happen if her hot little 'go-nuclear' button was pressed, Shaolin was most certainly not amused. It was only after Senna's herculean effort and earnest sincerity of purging the machine of all erotic pop-ups and search history that she managed to keep her personal laptop from having it's monitor smashed in, the frame ripped in half and then the destroyed remains either casually tossed into the nearest incinerator or blown up with Jakuho Raikoben by the dead-eyed captain.
After the porn-purge finally measured up to the Shaolin Fon standard, they decided to brainstorm about what to get a guy that had no real ties to modern human society, before accidentally clicking on something else that might cause Shaolin to test the strength of Senna's warranty.
They couldn't properly count the number of times they thought up an idea only for them to shoot it back down for innumerable other reasons. It went on for nearly an hour, before Senna, doing a cursory glance at Shaolin's Onimitsukido uniform was struck with inspiration, a gift functional yet stylish, meaningful yet simple.
Jumping over to the computer, she began rapidly typing into Google's search bar. Shaolin's puzzlement over Senna's strange actions lingered as she stared at the characters, commands and roaming mouse clicked all over the screen, but it all went away when the noise died down and she was looking at result the young Kurosaki dreamed up.
She smiled at the Chinese style martial arts outfit on the screen, it looked very formal at first glance, but Shaolin knew it was a very casual attire, clearly built for active use. The black wing chun uniform had streaks of red emanating from the right-side crossing over half-way, stopping both above and below a hanging gold crescent moon. Without a second thought, the pair pressed the checkout button and waited for its delivery to Senna's home in the human world.
Smiling to himself over the thoughtful gift, he began to unfold the clothes, confident in his chosen attire for the evening. After pulling on the outfit, he looked himself in the mirror and after a moment's consideration, he felt something was missing. Turning away from the mirror to ponder what it could be, he spotted Zangetsu's leaning innocuously against the wall.
The ponderous look on Ichigo's face turned into a triumphant smirk, as he grabbed Zangetsu and, after spinning the cleaver in a circle, brought it to rest against his shoulder, blade snuggly held in its white wrap.
'It's time, Ichigo.' The old man said, as he floated precariously behind him, hand resting gently on his master's shoulder.
"Right." The swordsman answered, turning away from his cocky reflection to head over to his beloved's division.
Entering the now devoid compound, the young captain made his way to Shaolin's private room. After about ten minutes spent climbing stairs and walking down corridors, he came to her door. Knocking on the door, Ichigo announced himself. "Hey, it's me, can I come in or are you still getting ready?"
"Ah, Ichigo-sama, un momento por favor!" Cirucci's voice rang from the other side of the door. The fraccion's voice then muffled a bit, presumably to talk to the other ladies; a moment later, the door slowly opened, "Si." Rang Cirucci as she opened the door for him.
The fraccion to his surprise was still dressed in her normal attire, a white Onimitsukido master's uniform that cut off a good hand's length above her knees, two white straps extending around her legs and across the arch of each foot. The messy bush and twin drill haired woman smiled joyfully at her master, "Gracias por tuyo paciencia, Ichigo-sama. The girls are ready."
Blushing at her choice in words, the man awkwardly averted his gaze, "Thanks, although the way you said it…it ahh, certainly makes me think Kisuke is cursing me right now."
The fraccion tilted her head to the side, very confused, "I don't get it." Her eyes looked him up and down carefully, taking in every detail. "You seem un-cursed. You're as handsome as ever, master."
Ichigo closed his eyes, practically hearing the jealous insinuations of Urahara in his head. "That…that's kind of what I'm talking about." He mumbled to the oblivious fraccion. When the woman furrowed her brows, not catching what he said, he decided to change the subject. "Never mind, forget what I said. So, you're gonna wear your normal clothes, Cirucci?"
"Ahh…" the woman peeked down embarrassedly, at her unflattering choice in attire. For forced 'prisoner clothes', it was quite comfortable and certainly befitted a warrioress such as herself, but under different circumstances, like say the limelight of night and dark corridors, it made her undeniably look like a courtesan.
With a shake of her heard, she nervously stuttered, "S-si…(gulp)…uh, umm, I'm sorry, if you are disappointed in me, Ichigo-sama." She apologized in advance, hoping her attire wouldn't embarrass her master and mistresses on their deserved night out.
"No, it's fine, Cirucci. You still look as lovely as always," he assured her, trying to make her feel more comfortable. "I just thought maybe you'd like to wear something a little more extravagant or relaxing and not…" he waved his hand up and down appraisingly, "Not something white that maybe…might remind you of your situation."
Seeing her go wide-eyed at his words, the man bit his lip figuring he must have made the mood uncomfortable by reminding her of her status. Running a hand through his hair, he took a second to reconcile his intentions, "Sorry, for killing the mood there." He apologized softly to her. "I just wanted you to relax and enjoy your time with us, not feel like it was an obligation."
"Gracias, Ichigo-sama. I know what you mean, and I am thankful to have met you that day in Hueco Mundo." Bowing her head slightly, she sighed tiredly, "Sinceramente, I wish we could have met sooner-that more people were as understanding as all of you. Perhaps we wouldn't have fought…that this would have never happened." Looking back up, she smiled softly, content in her resolve, "But I won't dwell on the past, for Luppi, Dordoni, and all my other friends that could not see your compassion, I must preserve."
"You can count on us."
"Thank-you." The woman said, interlocking her fingers together contentedly. "Anyway, as for your question well…" the purple haired hollow blushed, as she bit her lip. "Truthfully…I did wish I could wear one of the colorful kimono's that the girls were wearing."
"Oh?" Ichigo pipped, interest piqued at her admittance. "So, why don't you? I mean, if you want, you can go get changed, we can wait until- "
"No, no. It's not that." She interrupted, her face growing even redder, "It's just a…size issue."
Ichigo's brow drew closer, "Size issue? What? Like, you're too tall or something?"
The fraccion sweatdropped, as she brought her hands apart, waving them in a small semi-circle. "Umm, Soifon-sama is too short, Unohana-sama is too 'big', and Senna-sama is too 'small'."
'Why is she emphasizing the words big and small here?' The man asked himself, confusion deepening by the second. "Am I missing something?" his eyes looked down to her feet up to her head, and then back. "You're practically Senna's height."
Turning crimson red, the woman hated that her attempts at subtlety were likely failing to get through due to her usual language gap. 'Damned metal-forks and EDMs! Fine, I'll do it the old fashion way.'
Closing her eyes, the red-faced Sanderwhicc steeled herself, before reaching out and taking hold of her master's hands. Ichigo stood there confused until his jaw nearly came unhinged, when she not only placed them on her breasts, but pushed them in deeply till he had a handful in between his fingers. "Too small like Senna and Soifon-sama." she said through her blush, as her D cups were smooshed against her chest. She then pulled his hands away, so they were hover several centimeters above the chest he'd just been forcibly groping. "Too big like Unoh-"
"Okay, okay, I get it!" he practically yelled at her, tearing his hands out of her grasp. He forced himself to turn away, as he felt blood threaten to leak from his nose. 'How the hell did Cirucci get those kinds of measurements!? Thank god, the girls probably couldn't see that from their angle otherwise I'd be skinned alive!'
"Are you okay, master?" Cirucci asked, sincerely concerned by her master sudden covering of his face. She assumed it must have been, some kind of Japanese purging ritual for couples, given her understandably mis-understandable demonstration of her problem.
"Yeah, n-no prob, Cirucci." He said, turning back around with a hard to suppress grin on his face. "Umm, let's keep this between us and…don't ever do anything like that without uhhh…telling me what you're going to do first okay?"
"Entiendo, no problemo."
'I can already tell this is gonna be a wild night.' "Good. Let's go inside and get this show on the road."
Stepping around her, Ichigo walked into the room and after spotting the semi-circle of chairs at the far end of the room near the balcony stopped dead in his tracks. Waiting for him were three kimono-clad ladies, each a spellbinding beauty in her own right, rivaled only by the others she shared company with.
To the right-hand side and closest to the balcony was the protégé of his late mother, Retsu Unohana, wearing a blood red kimono with beautiful autumn leaves hovering around the black obi wrapped around her waist. Her normally braided hair that went over her front was instead loose and draping over the shoulders of the chair and her arms, flowing all the way down to her Zanpaktou that rested against her chair.
Opposite of the eldest woman was the youngest of the bunch, smiling amicably, Senna waved at Ichigo on sight, the sleeve of her white yukata swaying in tandem. The festive outfit was decorated with light pink and green flowers, a dreamy-esque design reminding the man of Senna's starry-eyed nature.
Finally, in between the two different visions of beauty was Shaolin, decked out in a beautiful black maternity kimono. The outfit had a red lining running down the center as white branches stretching across it with pink sakura petals blooming. Her normally confident expression was quite meek, as she refused to make eye contact with Ichigo, as soon as he entered the room. A long single braid of hair draped over her front, brushing against the small but noticeable baby bump she gently and proudly cradled. "S-stop staring." A red-faced Shaolin stammered, self-conscious of her appearance, especially in the garden of beauty she was surrounded by.
Like Retsu, Senna was aware of the incoming protest, given the choice in attire, and quickly decided to lift her up playfully. "Aww, don't be shy, Shaolin-senpai. Ichigo clearly likes what he sees!" The flowery girl quipped, bursting out in a giggle fit, as her sensei balked into a nervous wreck.
"Now, now, no teasing, Senna-chan." Retsu chided, as she got up from her chair. "We're supposed to be having a nice time and getting along."
"Ooookaaaay~." she whined, a little sad she wouldn't get to see more of Shaolin's trademark cute flustered expression. It was one of the few things she'd come to learn Shaolin was okay with letting her have free reign on, considering the nature of their relationship.
Regaining her composure thanks to both girls, Shaolin looked up and upon seeing the attire her lover was wearing found herself a loss for words. "Ichigo" she pointed at his attire, a hopeful elation in her tone. "…are…are those…?"
A breezy smile graced the man's face, as he tugged lightly on the collar of the jerkin, "Yeah, never really had much of a chance to wear it, since we were in the middle of the war and training or doing missions to set up for the war." Casting a wink at the girls, his smile became a smirk, "Thanks for thinking about me, you two. I love it."
"I'm happy you're happy, Ichigo-kun! /O-of course, Aìrén, it was nothing."
"So…now that everyone is here." Unohana announced, as she got up from her chair, hand tightening around her precious Zanpaktou Minazuki. "Shall we head to the balcony and be on our way to an enchanted evening?"
"Yeah!" the chorus of youths answered her.
Following her outside, the group quickly took to the air on the lime-green manta ray's back, Ichigo providing directions for Unohana, while the other three girls chatted amongst themselves in the back, for the most part informing Cirucci of the kind of function that they were heading to.
Spying the sprawling festival grounds ahead, Retsu slowly began her descent a small distance away from Shino academy, a precautionary choice to protect their outing, since creating a huge spectacle with their entrance would plague their evening with a countless number of well-meaning starry-eyed academy students aspiring to be even half the captains and war-heroes they were.
Once landing preparations were completed and Minazuki was successfully sealed back into blade form, the group followed Ichigo to the festival. Once they came upon the entrance of the grounds, their breaths were taken away from the sheer magnitude of lively attractions beckoning their indulgence.
Senna and Cirucci were agape, as they pointed to each stand or event, before moving on to the next eye-catching sight. Ichigo watch the two girls in amusement, as he placed his arm around Shaolin's shoulder, while the woman interlocked her fingers with his, gently resting her head against his body in a blissful daze. Retsu cast a wistful look over the inviting carnival, a little sad that she never got to go to these types of affairs due to her apprenticeship under Masaki-sama, still she'd enjoy the present and its company over the ghosts of what could be.
A loud thunderous cheer echoed to the far-right hand side of the group, surprising them by its magnitude. Turning, they saw a large crowd tightly packed together blocking off whatever they were watching from view. "Let's go see what all the hubbub is about!" suggested Senna.
"Sure. I'm a little curious too." Shaolin agreed with venue choice.
"Well, that settles it then." Ichigo said with unanimous finality, "Let's go check it out."
Returning close to Ichigo, so as not to get lost, they started to make their way through the crowd. Pushing through the tight spaces as best they could, they began to hear the sound of loud grunts and yells with the occasion shouting over a microphone.
Finally making it to a small clearing in the dense crowd, the group saw a large tiled ring, where a precession of spots lots highlighted a fight taking place between two men and two women, all to the cheers of the crowd.
"Is this a street fight!?" Senna exclaimed; eyes wide as dinner plates to the spectacle. "Is this even allowed!?" she asked, pointing at the ring, just as one of the guys delivered a vicious uppercut to his opponent, taking him clean off his feet.
"Of course not!" Shaolin quickly answered, as Ichigo stared at the match taking place in front of him, a nagging thought tugging at him.
'Why does this look familiar?'
Stepping closer to the stage, the purple haired Arrancar looked at her master's expectantly, "Then should we stop it?"
"I don't know. This looks very official." Commented Retsu, looking away from the fighter and to a tent set up behind them with a sign that said, 'SAMAC healer unit'. "A street fight wouldn't really have such an open venue either. Perhaps a martial arts club's challenge exhibit?"
Snapping his fingers loudly, it finally clicked to Ichigo the why, he'd been look for. "Now I remember." Turning to his expectant wife, he thumbed the arena off handedly. "Remember, when we came to the Shino academy festival last year? There was some kind of fight thing last time too."
Hearing his words, Shaolin, turned back to the arena, trying to remember that night he was referring too. As her eyes narrowed trying to recall, she began to see images through the haze, the fighter of now replaced by her on center stage with Ichigo standing in the crowd holding her red flower. "Oh, that's right. I remember now." She replied delightfully, a small blush on her face, "Ahh! Such lovely memories."
An amicable laugh escaped Ichigo throat, "Oh yeah, you were very graceful. I remember everyone staring at us when you asked me to hold your flower. They even called you the mysterious rose petal or something."
"Oh god, I remember that part too." Shaolin said, closing her eyes, hoping and praying to god that nobody recognized her from back then, she had been so automated, so focused, the thought of how it looked at the time didn't once cross her mind. "Everyone was saying how cute or romantic it was…" her blush deepened, as she became more frantic, "Oh god, I wasn't even thinking."
"Whoa! That sounds pretty romantic, Shaolin-chan." Senna pointed out, a saucy smile on her face, piling on even more.
"I…i-it…I wasn't-I didn't mean to do it like that!" she tried to correct the record of events.
"Oh, so you didn't mean to say that you cared." Came Ichigo, the feigned hurt in his voice catching the woman's attention. "Man, I got it for you because it seemed so lovely and so suited for you. (sigh)."
Shaolin nearly gagged at what he was, even falsely, implying. "You…" her voice lowered, as if trying not to be overheard by any possible onlookers. "You know I loved it."
The swordsman held his hands up defeatedly, "And how can I know for sure?"
Without hesitation, Shaolin looked at him, still red in the face, but completely serious. "Because you gave it to me, dummy."
Leaning back, Ichigo's face turned the same shade of red as his wife's. Casting a glance at Senna and Cirucci, he saw that they seemed to be enjoying themselves, so far.
Turning back to his frumpy wife, he leaned in and kissed her on the lips, catching her off-guard by his sudden mood change. Pulling away quickly, he laughed to himself. "Sorry," he apologized, his thumb, stroking her cheek gently. "But your reasoning was oozing with so much love that I couldn't help myself."
That embarrassed love turned to swift ire.
Slamming her fist into his arm, the Chinese woman turned away in a huff, face still scarlet. "Stop bullying the pregnant woman."
"Ahaha, that's pretty hard, when she's so adorable, right Senna?"
"Absolutely." She replied without a second's thought.
Shaolin's voice was immediately drowned out as the crowd around them erupted into a thunderous cheer, drawing their attention back to the ring, as one pair of combatants fell to the floor in obvious submission.
Backing up, the other two combatants, one a pale slender woman with long blue haired and shimmering turquoise one-piece wrestling leotard, and the other a tan blonde-haired man wearing only black trunks, exposing his ripped chest and bulging arms, raised theirs arms up into the air, drinking in the shouts of praise and glory from the crowd.
"Aaaaaannnnnd that's the match folks!" the short blonde-haired commentator announced, jumping around wildly, "While the upstart volunteer pair of Tsunderella and Dan 'Bad dude' Hibiki put on an astounding performance, worthy of applause, they paled in the face of this tournament's winner and still reigning champions, Mr. Akaze Inkino of the Kill-Fu style and his partner the sensual Yukie Fujikaze of the catch-wrestling judo school."
"Kill-Fu?" Senna snickered to herself, amidst the cheers of the audience.
"Now how about a few words from the winners?" Walking over to the muscle-bound behemoth, the commentator turned over the mic. Bringing the device to his face, the sweaty muscleman was about to say something, but froze in place, his eyes barely making something out.
Bringing the mic down, he confused everyone, when he took a few steps forward, raising his hand to shield his eyes to get a better look. His odd actions started to get the crowd to murmur about what he was doing, before nearly every jumped out of their skin, when Inkino shouted "It's you!"
Following his finger, the crowd began to part, as the clearly unaffiliated and non-martial artists moved aside, while spotlight fanned out and scrolled through the crowd until it finally fell over Ichigo's group standing in the small clearing.
Head swiveling around quizzically, Senna stared at the surrounding crowd wondering if this was some elaborate prank or just an accidental misunderstanding. Raising her finger up, she pointed between herself and Cirucci and Ichigo, Shaolin and Unohana behind her. "Y-you mean us?" she asked, taking on the role of ambassador.
"Hell yeah!" he shouted into the mic, a fierce determination radiating from his persons. "I've been waiting for a long damn time to avenge myself!"
Taking a step back, Senna looked at the implied suspects slack-jawed, while Ichigo and Shaolin stared at one another, each silently asking the other if they had any clue to the identity of this man and their connection to him.
Seeing their rather lackluster response at his challenge, simply threw the fighter over the edge. "Are you telling me that you don't even remember me!?" he shouted, practically ready to go ballistic.
"Well…" Ichigo drew out the word uneasily.
"…kinda." Shaolin finished, nose crinkling.
"YOU BASTARDS! I'll KILL you!"
Before her partner did something completely idiotic, like jump off the stage to get after them, his lovely partner walked purposefully and wrapped her arms around his chest, restraining him. "Whoa, there cowboy! Slow down." Yukie said to him, her soothing voice amplified by the mic in her partner's hand, "You just gonna jump on in and fight the girl, who kicked your ass in last years' tournament, and her boy-toy too?"
As the crowd laughed at that little tidbit slipped out, the pregnant woman stopped and tried to remember this man's face and beating him. 'Last year…' through the haze she tried to recall, more specifically the date this was inexorably tied too. Finally, she began to see more images through the haze, events that took place after she gave the flower, casual echoing words, a mental analysis, her fist colliding against…
"Oh!" it finally clicked, "You're that guy, I fought." she pointed at him, "The sexist!"
"WHO THE HELL SAID I WAS A SEXIST!?" he yelled into the microphone, damn near bowling over the entire crowd with its intensity.
"Easy there, killer! It's probably just a misunderstanding!" Yukie assuaged as she continued to restrain the thrashing man. Unbeknownst to everyone, Ichigo silently sweat-dropped, internally cursing his vanquished loud shit-talker of a horse for taking over back then and stirring up the pot in the first place.
Finally reigning his temper back in, he gave a small signal for his partner to let him go. "Fine, you win."
Smiling the woman let him go. Just as she did, he immediately pointed back at the group and barked, "You, carrot-top, get your ass up here, so I can smash your face in a re-match!"
Before Ichigo could make a move, Shaolin released herself from his side, and glared at the uncouth thug. "Why him, hmmm? I'm the one who beat you, challenge me coward."
To the confusion of everyone, save his latex clad partner, the angry champ jerked his face away momentarily, a bashful look on his face and…was he tearing up Ichigo wondered. "It…it's not like that damn it! I just had a…" the man closed his mouth and swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to force out the next words. "A Cru…cru…crusssssshhhhhhing urge to beat up your boyfriend!"
Nearly everyone in the crowd facepalmed, 'I see where this is going.' Ichigo realized, clearly reading between the lines. 'She must have left a big impression on him last time. I guess Lin must fall into his type.'
"That…" Shaolin said in a slow serious tone, everyone around her wondering how she'd react to the news, that a rival appeared to try and take her away from her current man. It was something out of a stage act unfolding before their eyes. She sighed to herself and shook her head despondently, "That doesn't make any sense at all!"
It was then that Shaolin would eternally wonder if everyone around her simply lost their footing, or if a colossal earthquake hit and she simply hadn't felt it. As those around her fell over themselves, those that weren't affected were either too ignorant like Cirucci or beside themselves with laughter like Unohana and Senna.
Fighting through the sheer embarrassment, Akaze tried to downplay the reasoning game, "It's a man's thing. You wouldn't get it!" he replied in clear denial.
"What was that!?" Shaolin snapped, ready to break him in half for thinking that she couldn't understand simple human reasoning just because she was a woman.
Akaze's partner sighed dejectedly at seeing the man put his foot in his mouth once again. Placing a hand over one of her eyes, she shook her head, "You see, this. This right here. This is why people think you're a sexist pig, Akaze 'enemy of all women' Inkino." She stated matter-of-factly.
"What?" the man snapped, turning to his exasperated partner, "When the hell did people start calling me 'enemy of all women'!?"
Once again, Yukie sighed at his focused obliviousness; while she found it as one of his more amusing traits, it was undoubtable also the main reason it was so damn hard to convey her true feelings with this idiot.
From the sidelines, Senna snickered to herself, truly getting the whole dynamics of things. "Talk about a match made in heaven, eh Ichigo?"
The man simply averted his gaze. "No comment."
"Weeeelll," Shaolin said lowly, turning a critical eye at the battle pair, "I think they'd make a nice couple." She replied, still blissfully unaware that the twins were discussing her. "She clearly seems to see something more in him to continue hang-out with that bastard."
"Again…no comment." Ichigo simply repeated, clearly done with the stupidity of the day that had only just begun.
"I don't really get what's going on, but if he is trying to fight Ichigo-sama, we can't just ignore this." Cirucci finally said, cautiously throwing in her two yen.
"(sigh) fine." Ichigo removed his arm from around his wife and stepped up. "Alright, let's just get this over with."
The muscle-bound gorilla smirked, hearing the words he so longed to hear. "Alright, pick your partner and step on in!"
"What!?" the group squawked as one.
The irritable man pointed back at them again, hoping to get his point across, "This is a mixed gender tag tournament. So, pick a partner to battle with and get your ass in here for me to kick!"
Understanding the situation better, Shaolin stepped forward beside her husband, a cool confident smile on her face. "Then I nomin-"
"No!" he shouted back, damn near bowling over the woman with his sheer intensity. "I am not about to hit a pregnant woman, even if she broke my," he fell silent for a second, as he swallowed the lump in his throat to say the next precious words that needed to be said. "hea…hear…hearrrrr-ttty pride!"
Everyone immediately sympathized with his partner on stage, as she faced palmed even harder in embarrassment and annoyance.
"Hearty…pride?" Shaolin blinked, clearly confused by the strange turn of phrase. "Ichigo," she turned to her beloved, serious as ever. "Is that a guy thing? What the hell does that even mean?" Everyone immediately sweatdropped, at her obliviousness.
"Subtle." Yukie quipped over the silent crowd, moving a strand of her long hair out of her eyes.
"Very subtle." Senna re-affirmed on the opposite end of the crowd.
"Well, on the bright side, he's an honest man, if a little dim." Retsu chimed in thoughtfully.
"What's everyone talking about? Am I missing something?" Shaolin asked, genuinely confused by her loved ones' strange responses.
"It's okay, I feel that way all the time Soifon-sama." Cirucci replied to her mistress.
The pregnant woman looked away, as she cradled her hands softly, "I…don't know if that's a comforting sentiment or not…"
As the white clad Arrancar went to go cry on Senna's shoulders for the insensitivity of her ladyship, Shaolin turned back to her hubby, "Still, someone needs to go with you, so who will you take?"
"Well…" he drawled, lightly fiddling with his bright orange hair, the option to just not even accept the challenge, clearly off the table at this point. Looking away from the girl at his immediate side, since she was out for obvious reasons, he started his search with Unohana. He didn't even get a chance to give her a cursory look, before she waved him off.
"Sorry, Ichigo-kun, but I took an oath to not do needless harm. Besides, I'd probably scare them away with a single glance."
"That's why I'm considering you." He stated unapologetically.
While inwardly appreciative, the woman in red kept herself cognizant of the situation and its consequences. "If I did that, we'd be hounded all night long about it being rigged, and that man will no doubt challenge us at every opportunity. We need to be decisive here and now."
"Alright, alright." Ichigo gave in, as he turned around to the last two ladies of the group. 'Well, Senna's injured. So even though I'm pretty sure I could smoke them and probably everyone else here in my sleep, it's way too unnecessary to risk someone hitting her heart. That just leave…'
He turned to the still sniffling Arrancar in his sister's caress. Current mood aside, there was certainly nothing stopping her from entering in with him. "No choice." He muttered, before walking over to his fraccion. "Hey Cirucci-"
His words immediately died in his throat when she turned to him, a waterfall of tears streaming down her face. "S-siiii, Ichi (hic)-saaaamaaaahahaa…!"
'Wow…she's surprisingly fragile to criticism from friends.' Ichigo thought to himself, as he looked back over his shoulder at Shaolin, who sheepishly bowed her head, clearly sorry for the situation she caused. Sighing quietly, he tried to rectify the situation, "Cirucci-san, Shaolin ahh didn't mean to hurt your feelings. She was just so frustrated about this situation, that she misspoke."
"Really?" the Arrancar perked up, her normal attitude returning.
"Yeah." He then reached out and clasped her shoulders, gently, but firm. "Listen, I hate to drag you into this, but will you just play along to help us out? I can only rely on you, since everyone else can't help me."
'Esta es mi primera asignacion de Ichigo-sama!' Cirucci's eye lit up, as she hastily scrubbed away the childish tears from her eyes. "Si, I accept! I will defend your great honor!"
Ichigo sweatdropped, "It's…not really my honor per say."
"Oh, you are correcto! Es as that man said," she paused trying to remember the phrase, "Ah? 'Manhood'?" Yeah, it was definitely something with the word man in it, she recalled. "Very well, I will defend your enormous manhood with my body and soul, Master!"
Before Ichigo could even have a chance to react to get her to retract that statement, the damage was done. "Whoa! Was that a love confession!?" Someone in the crowd asked.
"Enormous manhood?" A girl gripped, "Sounder dirtier than that. How lewd."
"Did you hear? Body AND Soul."
Slowly the crowd began to stir under the wildfire of rumors. Seeing that her words had obviously something to do with it, Cirucci intervened, lest she answer to Ichigo, "N-no, no, no es amour." She spoke out, garnering the crowd's attention.
However, just as Ichigo was about to give a sigh of relief, she ended up burying them six feet deeper. "We," the purple haired woman extended her hands to their group, "have simply 'pledged ourselves to Master' and to the 'fulfillment of his needs' to achieve his 'ultimate goal'."
"Holy shit, did you hear that!? Dude's a baller!"
"So, all of them? 1, 2, 3, 4 of them? Wow…"
"Fulfill his needs? Ultimate goal? What a sicko. Are they like a walking brothel?"
'God fucking damn you Cirucci!' Ichigo visually shouted at her with his eyes, letting her know that she royally screwed up.
"Dude, 800 yen on the battle harem."
"Nah, man 1200 says the champ takes out playboy!"
"2000 says the girls have a make-out match!"
"I'm so sorry, master." Cirucci squeaked, as tears fell anew.
'Ichigo, stop trying to access the Hogyoku.' Zangetsu warned his master, materializing at his side, 'Your urge to destroy these people is petty and is befitting more your Hollow than your current self.'
'…I could still- '
"(sigh)" Raising up the mental white flag, Ichigo removed Zangetsu from his back and handed him over to Shaolin to hold on to, lest he do something he regret, before trudging to the arena, Cirucci gave her deepest apologies to the group for the mix up, before dutifully following her master.
Stepping into the ring, the head of the Kurosaki family helped his subordinate up, before turning to the MC, giving scarce glances at their two opponents. "So, what exactly are the rules to this thing?"
Moving the microphone away, the blonde acting ref cleared his throat. "The battle is a 2-on-2 style match. So, it's straight-forward; however, due to possible spiritual energy differences between Shino academy students, we've enforced the rule that you cannot attack an opponent, whose gender is opposite of your own until you have defeated the one that matches you."
'So, guys fight guys, girls fight girls. Makes sense.' "So how do we win? Just beat them up?"
The man nodded, "Yes, that, or forcing them to surrender, or hitting them outside of the ring. It's rather straight-forward." Raising his finger up, he wagged it tellingly. "However, this is a martial arts competition, so that means even aspiring Shinigami like you two can't go using things like your Zanpaktou, or flinging Kidos around, you understand? I don't want to see a stream of Hadoken's flying across the stage, it's liable to hit something or someone and cause serious damage."
"I…see." 'What the heck is a 'Hadoken'? Some kind of slang for Hado and kido?'
"But if you want to shout out the name for your special moves, like Shoryuken, go on ahead. In fact, it usually gets the crowd going." The blonde man blithely informed them.
'Sure-you-can? Sure, you can what? Am I asking permission for him to hit me or something?'
"And absolutely positively no killing. That means no finishing arts. I don't want to be seeing any 'Raging Demons' or 'Instant Hell Murders' out there, capische?"
'The fuck are those? Man, Shino academy certainly has been teaching strange things since I graduated.' "Got it." Ichigo grunted, barely able to keep the bewilderment off his face.
"Good, now have fun." The ref backed up, raising the mic to his mouth. "Okay folks, we've got ourselves a match!"
As the crowd erupted into cries of joy and excited cheers, the servant and master duo cast a glance back behind them, catching sight of their group at the ring's edge, bright confident smiles on their faces, as they gave gesture of encouragement and whoops of joy. "Introducing first: The winner of this year's tournament. Knocking out Soul Badguy and Imma Goodlady, team 'Proper impropriety' in the first round, followed by defeating 'the essentials', Toya Let and her partner Pa-piere Rolls to clenching gold against runners-up: Hugh Mungous and his girlfriend Ivana Diek of team 'Meteor Pepe2020': Team 'Dark Division', Akaze Inkino and Yukie Fujikaze!"
As the crowd roared in approval, Ichigo turned to Cirucci, while Akaze and Yukie waved to their adorers. "Hey." He whispered to her.
"Yes?" she whispered back, keeping an eye on her opponents just in case they tried to sneak attack them.
"From what I'm getting, these guys aren't even out of the academy, they're way weaker than us. So, hold back or they'll die the moment you hit them."
Surprised by his words, the Hollow did a sensing of their reiatsu and nearly balked when she felt the massive power difference between them, a distance she could only measure by comparing the sands of her home to the moon hanging high above Las Noche.
"G-gracias, Ichigo-sama." She thanked for the fair warning, now realizing that if she had hit them full force, like she had intended for sullying her master's honor, she would have ended up separating their upper half from their lower body.
"And in the other corner!" The commentator continued, unaware of their side conversation. "The challengers known only for two things: Beating Akaze in single combat last year and polyamory! Introducing from Team 'Playa-playa and the harem girls', Dick 'Sugar daddy' Hardens and Lolita Complexion!"
Amidst the loud cheering and laughter, Cirucci kept her eyes firmly pressed forward, not out of pure determination to defeat the enemy anymore; no, it was for a more primal and noble(?) reason, fear. 'Ichigo-sama is gonna kill me.' Sanderwhicc gulped, feeling the dreadful and oppressive battle aura directed at her by her Espada. The only reassurance she had was that she didn't feel her combined groups' pissed aura. 'I have to win! I…I don't want to consider if I don't!'
"Cirucci," came her master's voice. Overcoming the feeling of dread, she turned to him, and saw him giving a reserved smile, completely different from her perceived image. "Relax. It's all just fun and games."
"You…" she started cautiously, "aren't mad?"
Ichigo looked away, a small shake of his head "Annoyed, yes. Mad? Not really." He turned back to the enemy, "This is kind of what you can expect your life to be like if you stay with us. So…" he steeled his expression, "I hope you're ready for the long haul. We'll be counting on you."
As the announcer was about to start the match, Cirucci smiled at her master appreciatively, "Yes…master Ichigo."
No sooner had the MC jumped back to start the match-up that it ended with Ichigo flicking Inkino hard enough to KO him, while Cirucci lightly dropped Yukie from her arms onto the out of bounds, before either opponent could react.
Complete and utter silence fell over the entire arena, as everyone save Ichigo's group tried to process what had just transpired so quickly that nobody had caught it. As the crowd erupted into thunderous disbelief, Shaolin, Senna and Retsu got on stage to regroup with Ichigo and Cirucci.
As the girls gathered around the man, casually handing him back his sword, the ref was finally able to find his voice. "Who…" his voice quivered, "Who are you guys!?"
"Us? Well…" Ichigo turned to his group momentarily, giving them instructions in anticipation of the crowd's reaction. Picking up his wife in his arms, and Retsu his sister, he turned back to the master of ceremonies and answered, "Shinigami."
"What!?" came the initial outcry.
"Bullshit! Full-fledged Shinigami can't compete!"
"Wait for it." Ichigo mumbled.
"That means this was rigged!"
"I want a refund!"
"Sorry, all bets are finals!"
"Run for it!" Ichigo ordered, as he, Retsu and Cirucci ran for it, as the crowd turned into a bloody prize-money riot over the argument of legitimacy.
Leaving the fires of the arena behind, the group stopped to catch their breath in another corner of the campus grounds. "Everyone alright?" Ichigo double-checked.
"I'm okay, Aìrén." Answered the woman in his arms.
"Totally good, Ichigo." Answered Senna from Retsu's arms.
"I'm alright as well." Answered Retsu.
"Scared, but I'm fine, master."
Ichigo breathed a sigh of relief, as he set Shaolin down. "Good. Hate for the night to end with injuries."
"I'll say." Shaolin stated dispassionately, hand on her hip. "I still can't even fathom how things escalated so quickly."
'Ignorance is bliss…' Ichigo quietly thought to himself. 'I guess she still can't understand someone's romantic interest unless it's spelled out to her.'
"I never knew the schools in Soul Society could be so exciting. We should look around some more." Suggested Senna, eager to resume their venture.
"Si, my heart is racing, but it was pretty fun."
"I guess no one wants to comment on the 'team-name'?" Retsu subtly poked fun at.
Shaolin rubbed her temple at that comment. "It wasn't accurate, but I can see how someone could reach that conclusion…"
"I apologize. My actions are profound sadness."
"I think you mean 'quite regrettable', not 'profound sadness'." Retsu corrected Cirucci's Japanese.
"Well…" Senna scratched her cheek, a light blush forming on her face. "I guess I was the only one that wasn't bothered by the name?"
"Yes." The group unilaterally rebuked her.
"You guys are mean." Senna pouted outwardly, a distant contrast to her inner masochists delight.
"Anyway, we should-" Ichigo stopped, as he turned around hearing something. "Is that singing…?"
Quieting down, the group heard the distant cadence of music and singing. "Oh! It's karaoke!" Senna shouted excitedly, grabbing hold of Ichigo's hand. "Come on, let's go!"
"Hey wait!" Ichigo tried to cool her heels, only to be pulled with a surprising amount of force from the girl. The others simply laughed to themselves, before following the twins.
Following the voice of a young energetic girl singing to very bubbly music, they came upon a large crowd and brightly lit up stage. "Waka laka make you fly!" the small pink-haired singer sang, as she jumped up and down.
"Hey isn't that…?" Senna asked, pointing at the kimono clad singer.
Before Ichigo could take a better look, a voice from above answered. "Yup, that's Yachiru-chan."
Looking up, the pair saw the Yachiru of Hueco Mundo sitting on a roof's edge, drinking out of a large bottle of sake. "Little brat wanted to come to the festival, but we ended up getting roped in with the events." She took another swing, "But I guess it works out, she's happy."
As Shaolin and the other girls caught up, the alcoholic redhead hopped off the roof top, landing on the ground beside them. "Still, you guys got perfect timing."
"Why is that?" asked Senna
"Cause," she started, dusting herself off. "I need your guy's help."
"What exactly do you need us to do, Yachiru-san?" Retsu asked.
The foul mouth woman gave a rough nod to the stage, "I need you guys to belch out a song or two. The backstage band isn't quite ready yet for the Shino Musical, so I've been trolling around trying to find some people to sing and stall for time. I caught you guys, while taking a break."
"Oh, well that makes sense." Senna said, nodding to herself. Turning to the others, she decided to ask the expectant question. "Want to help them out?"
"Well," Ichigo looked to the stage, memories of the last time he was here at the forefront of his mind, "I don't know…last time I was here I ended up singing a few pretty questionable songs…"
That got Yachiru's attention, "Eh? Like what, kid?"
"A song…" he averted his eyes, when he saw Shaolin's devious smile, recalling things. "about beer."
"Beer?" Yachiru repeated curiously; when Ichigo merely closed his eyes in reply, she started to laugh. "Hahaha sounds awesome! The hell you embarrassed for carrot top!?"
'Why am I not surprised she'd say something like that?' Ichigo turned away, as some of the girls giggled at his expense, "Who was asking for help here again?"
"Okay, okay, my bad." she apologized off-handedly, "So, will you help a girl out?"
"Ladies?" the man in black asked, turning to the rest of his group.
"Totally, let's do this!" shouted Senna, raring to go.
"I think I'll pass." Shaolin replied, content with sidelining herself. "I only managed to sing because nobody knew me and even then, it still took a bit of encouraging." She patted her growing belly playfully. "But being on stage now? I'd die of embarrassment."
Ichigo nodded, understanding her concerns, "So Sen's a go, Lin's a no. Unohana-san, Cirucci-san?"
"I'm going to have to pass as well. But, thank-you." Retsu politely declined
As all eyes went to Cirucci, the fraccion frivolously shook her head, "N-no, no way am I singing!"
"Aww, come on. It'll be fun!" Coaxed Senna
Cirucci wouldn't budge, however. "No!" she snapped. Seeing the girl recoil, she tempered her tone, knowing she was talking both to a friend and superior. "I…appreciate the offer, but no." she dug her foot into the ground, "Soy terrible al cantar."
"I take it she said she can't sing." Shaolin voiced, as she glanced at Senna, who gave a small confirming nod.
Yachiru stepped up next. "Come on. It can't be that bad."
Cirucci sighed to herself, resigned to the fact that she'd have to show them to convince them. Clearing her throat, she opened her mouth…
"MemOriEs AlL Alo-"
Her mouth was immediately silenced by an unchanted kido spell courtesy of Unohana. "Thanks, Unohana-san." Shaolin thanked, as she and the others removed their hands from their ears.
"No kidding, lady." Yachiru said, ears still ringing. "I almost went deaf. Keep the mic away from her!"
As Cirucci went back to her usual crying spot on Senna's shoulder, the girl sweatdropped, "There, there." She assuaged, patting her friend on the back.
"Anyway, if you two are ready, let's go."
Ichigo nodded, before turning to Senna, as she handed comfort duty over to Shaolin-chan. "See you on stage."
Giving a farewell wave, the twins followed the rag-tag red head to the backstage area. Once they selected their respective songs, after Ichigo got rock solid confirmation nothing unusual was going to happen, much to Senna's confusion, Ichigo followed Yachiru on to the stage, while Senna watched from the back.
Raising his hand up against the bright spotlights, Ichigo continued to follow the female brigand, as little Yachiru hugged her adoptive mom, while the woman lifted the mic up to her mouth. "Alright kiddos, I'm sure you enjoyed the show, so far am I right!?"
A roaring cheer answered her back. "Sweet. Now the main show is going to be starting in a few minutes, so feel free to enjoy these last couple of free-lancers, before the extravaganza begins."
With that said, the woman turned and handed the mic to Ichigo, before sauntering off to see how things were going with the live band. As she left, the title of Ichigo's song showed up on screen.
[Superman by Goldfinger]
Running a hand through his hair, as the speakers began to play the startup instrumental, Ichigo took in a deep breath and exhaled, a reticent smile on his lips, as he looked to the front row, where Shaolin and the others were. As the first lyrics appeared, he slowly started to walk along the stage. "So here I am doing everything I can, holding on to what I am, pretending I'm a superman."
Scratching the back of his head ruefully, he continued his pacing with a nonchalant air. "I'm trying to keep, the ground under my feet." He brought his hand down, gesturing to the surrounding area dissatisfiedly, "It seems like the world is falling down around me. The nights are all long, I'm singing this song. Trying to make the answers more than 'maybe'."
Coming to a stop, he shook his head, his self-deprecating smile still on his face. "And I'm so confused, about what to do. Sometimes, I want to throw it all away!"
As the drum strummed back up, the orange-haired singer took an about face-turn, and his once sad smile became much more exuberant, as he sang with more confidence. "So here I am, growing older all the time, looking older all the time, but feelin younger in my mind." Stopping back in front of his group, he looked at them briefly, as he sang. "And here I am doing everything I can. Holding on to what I am, pretending I'm a superman."
As the trio nodded in response, seeing and hearing the burdens he felt and promises he was making, Ichigo looked back up to the larger crowd and held his hands up dispassionately. "I'm trying to sleep, lost count of sheep. My mind is racing faster every minute. What could I do more?" the black-clad man rolled his head to the side, "Yeah, I'm really not sure, I know that I'm running in circles, but I can't quit!"
Leaning back, he shouted, "And I'm so confused about what to do. Sometimes I just want to throw it all away."
As the tempo changed pace, Kurosaki held up his left hand, tilting it towards his head, almost as if listening to its unspoken words. "Controlling everything in sight. Feeling weak, I don't feel right, telling me I have to change, telling me to act my age." He then held up his right hand and turned to it instead, "But if all that I can do is sit and watch time go, then I'll have to say goodbye, life's too short to watch it fly!"
As the cresendoing music returned to normal volume, Ichigo stopped walking, instead facing the crowd with the same exuberant confidence he had earlier. "So here I am growing older all the time," he then unexpectedly turned the mic towards the crowd, who gladly sang along.
"LOOKING OLDER ALL THE TIME!"
"But feeling younger in my mind!" he finished taking the mic back, to round out the song. "And here I am doing everything I can, holding on to what I am, pretending I'm a superman!"
As the instrumental finally bowed out the song, the crowd erupted into a loud cheer, as Ichigo sheepishly smiled at his friends in the front row.
Coming from backstage, the lady of the 11th gave a short applause, as she walked to center stage. "A magnificent showing from carrottop, let's hope his friend in the back doesn't get cold feet after that brilliant performance."
Seeing his chance to depart, Ichigo turned around and walked back, giving Senna an encouraging high-five, as they passed. Quickly, making his way out of the back area, he made it back to the group, just as Yachiru finished her usual introductory hype. "That was some very good singing, Ichigo." Retsu praised the young man.
"Si, es muy bien!"
Leaning closer, Shaolin clasped his hand in her own, a quiet understanding smile on her face, "You aren't alone Ichigo-koi. We'll always be there for you, so don't worry, if things don't go perfectly all the time. We'll sort it out together."
"Thanks," he muttered appreciatively, kissing her on the forehead, before turning to the stage, "Let's see what sis can do."
[Counting stars by OneRepublic]
As the spotlight fell on her, Senna bobbed her head for a second or two, before raising the mic up, "Lately, I've been…I've been losing sleep. Dreaming about the things that we could be." Brushing a strand of hair out of her face, she shook her head, "But baby, I've been, I've been praying hard. I said no more counting dollars, we'll be counting stars…"
Glancing back up at the crowd, she nodded resolutely, "Yeah, we'll be counting stars."
As the music picked up, Senna started swaying her to the beat of the song, casting a playful wink at her friends, specifically Soifon and Ichigo. Tapping her heels, she pointed at the crowd and sang. "I see this life, like a swinging vine, swing my heart across the line. Seek it out and ye shall find." Wrapping her arms around herself, she cradled her body, as she dreamy yukata swayed entrancingly.
"Oh, but I'm not that old, young, but I'm not that bold. I don't think the world is sold, just doing what we're told." Pulling her arms away, she extended it to the audience. "And I feel something so right, doing the wrong thing. And I feel something so wrong, doing the right thing."
Shaking her hips sensually, she wagged her finger teasingly. "I could lie, could I lie? Coulda lied. Everything that kills me makes me feel alive."
Stepping side to side, Senna clapped her free hand against her wrist. "Baby, I've been, I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be. Baby, I've been, I've been praying hard, so no more counting dollars, we'll be counting stars. Lately I've been, I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be. But lately, I've been praying hard, I said no more counting dollars, we'll be counting stars."
As the musical interlude played, the girl on stage swooped her arm away, holding it out with a bright smile, as the lyrics picked back up. "I feel this love and I feel it burn. Down this river, every turn. Hope is our 4-letter word. Make that money and watch it burn." She declared, tossing her hand away, before placing it against her hip, leaning towards the crowd, "Oh, but I'm not that old, young, but I'm not that bold. I don't think the world is sole, just doing what we're told. And I feel something so wrong, doing the right thing."
Holding her hand up, questioningly, Senna sang, "I could lie, could I lie? Coulda lied. Everything that drowns me…" the girl tilted her head forwards, hair swaying invitingly. "makes me wanna fly."
Pulling back, as the spotlight widened, Senna began walking around the edge of the stage, hand swaying in time. "Lately, I've been, I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be. Baby, I've been, I've been praying hard, said no more counting dollars, we'll be counting stars. Lately, I've been, I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be, but lately, I've been, I've been praying hard, said no more counting dollars, we'll be…we'll be counting stars!"
As the music fell away, Senna began to clap her hands together, the crowd quick to follow her lead. "Take that money watch it burn. Sing in the river the lessons I've learned."
Extending the mic to the crowd, she kept singing, as they sang along with her.
"Make that money watch it burn. Sing in the river the lessons I've learned."
"MAKE THAT MONEY WATCH IT BURN! SING IN THE RIVER THE LESSONS I'VE LEARNED!"
"Everything that kills me…" Senna cooed, a small fleeting smile on her face, as she stared straight at Shaolin and Ichigo, her hand pressed lightly against the wound over her heart. "Makes me feel alive."
Tempo picking back up, Senna skipped back, breaking the intimate moment, but her words secretly understood just between them. "Lately, I've been losing sleep, dreaming about the things that we could be, but baby I've been pray hard, said no more counting dollars we'll be…we'll be counting stars!"
Handing the mic back out to the crowd, she sang the final lyrics with them. "So, take that money, watch it burn. Sing in the river the lessons I've learned. Take that money and watch it burn. Sing in the river the lessons I've learned!"
The duet between singer and crowd ended, the crowd erupted into a loud cheer, as Senna bowed graciously for the adulation.
From the back, Yachiru came running out to the stage, quickly placing a hand on Senna's shoulder, as she raised her mic up to her lips. "Woohoo, that was pretty good. I see you all enjoyed it!"
The crowd rumbled appreciatively, while Yachiru slid closer to Senna and whispered into her ear, "Sorry, but I'm gonna need your help a bit longer."
The girl didn't get a chance to respond, before the red head pulled away from her, "Anyway, we are about to start our show, so we'll do a special commencement song that set the mood for today's show byyyyy~!"
A plethora of stage lights shot over the crowd, passing over people, as a drum roll echoed over the loudspeaker. Once the final beat of the drum hit, the light disappeared momentarily, before converging unto Ichigo's party.
"Huh…?" Ichigo muttered dumbly, feeling the sudden heat of the spotlight.
Shaolin's face paled, "W-wait those lights…does that…?"
"N-no…" Cirucci let out a horrified gasp
"Oh my!" Retsu said, pleasantly surprised by this turn of events.
The initial shock that fell over them, prevented them from saying anything, "Anyway, come on backstage, you lucky contestants you!" Yachiru volunteered them, as she dragged Senna to the back with her.
Sweat dropping, Ichigo turned to the girls around him. "Let's go. It'll be awkward, if we make a scene here."
With a collective nod, the group made their way to the back to get answers. Coming to the back-stage area, they say the once smiling Yachiru yelling something at some people with Senna standing beside her. "Are you freaking kidding me!? Get that shit done on the double fucker!"
"Y-yes ma'am!" the technician saluted, before running away in fear.
"Hey, what the heck is going on?" Ichigo asked, as they got closer.
Giving a slight glance at the group she forcibly volunteered, the red-headed MC let out a low curse, as they approached. "Look, sorry to force that on you guys, but a few technical issues came up." She apologized, jutting her thumb to a hovel of workers working above them, desperately trying to set up several pieces of equipment. "We can't do the show just yet. I need you to stall for a bit more time. Can I get you to sing one more song?"
As Ichigo rubbed his temple irritably, while Cirucci and Shaolin let out a frustrated sigh, Senna stepped in front of the group to better propose the plan, "I know it sucks, but it's just the opening song." Clasping her hands together, practically begging, she plead, "Please, say yes, I'd hate for the event to get totally canceled."
Closing his eyes, mentally weighing the pros and the cons, he gave a sideways glance at his group, who all seemed anxious, but set to back his decision. Finally, after careful consideration, the orange haired captain took in a deep breath and sighed, "Alright." He caved, "We'll do it."
Rubbing the back of his neck, as Senna smiled excitedly, he turned to the benefactor. "So, what's the song? Is it the Shino academy fight song or something? I think I remember how it went."
Dashing his hopes, Yachiru shook her head in the negative. "It's not that kind of opening song. It's a song to set the tone of the show, kind of like a ballad intro."
Shaolin's frown deepened, "But we don't know anything about the show nor are we performers. This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen."
"Don't worry about it. I've got the lyric script right here." She explained, waving said papers in front of them, "Besides, the lyrics are going to appear on the big screen behind you, in case you forget."
Taking the extended documents, the group huddled around Ichigo, trying to sneak a peek. Alarm bells went off quickly, as they saw the title, followed by jaws collectively dropping, as their eyes scanned the 'lyrics'. "What the hell is this!?" Shaolin snapped, cheeks blazing red from sheer embarrassment.
Expecting the reaction, Yachiru laughed heartily, setting herself up a buffer. "Well, the ballad follows the story of a male…ahhh…" she paused to…better phrase it. "Performer. Yeah…a dancin' man, real crowd-pleasing fellow."
"'Pleases the crowd' my ass!" Ichigo roared, face beet-red.
Surprising everyone, Unohana placed her hand on Ichigo's shoulder, attempting to calm him down, lest he do something rash. "Now, now, Ichigo-kun. It's all in good fun. Let's just go along with it."
"H-how can you say that Unohana-san!?" Shaolin asked, stupefied by the doctor's ability to bounce back after being asked to do…this! "These lyrics…" she squeaked, gesturing to the page to drive home her point.
"Are clearly very joking in nature." She effortlessly shutdown, serene smile still on her face. "Do you honestly expect these people to personally judge us knowing what the live performance entails?" Gesturing to the door to the stage, and the patiently waiting crowd beyond it.
As Shaolin shrank back with a groan, Senna flipped the top paper over, revealing more lyrics. Seeing a strange break and writing, she pointed at the paper for everyone, "Hey, it says 'transition change' here followed by number switch. What does that mean exactly?"
"Yeah, one song sets the basic overview of the ballad, while the second sets the beginning of the 'story', if you will."
"So, we're really doing two songs?" Ichigo asked directly.
The rough woman at least had the dignity to look apologetic, as she looked at the rafters. "Like I said, stalling for time."
"At the cost of our dignity apparently…" Groaned Shaolin.
Ignoring the Debby downers, since the show literally had to go on; the red head clapped her hands testily, "Okay, if there are no more questions, get reading. Chop-chop, you're on in 3."
Raising her hand timidly to call Yachiru's attention, Cirucci obligately reinforced her handicap. "I can't sing."
"Look there's some back recording. So just sing low, or hell, lip synch. People aren't expecting professional grade work from you all. They just think you were random picks out of the audience. So just have fun."
Turning away, the woman of the 11's walked off to get the performance issues settled ASAP.
"Have fun she says." Shaolin grumbled uncomfortably, resting her hands against her stomach.
Senna sweat dropped, "Well, we can't back out now." She said fatalistically, defiantly trying to downplay her role in roping the group into this mess.
"God, please don't say that!" Shaolin pleaded, while Ichigo shifted from one foot to the other.
"We'll kill her later. For now, let's look over these…lyrics."
Nodding collectively, they broke up the parts as best as they could, devising a rough and simply choreography, before making their way to the door heralding their spotlight debut.
Once they made it, they looked out at the dimmed stage and at the expectant crowd ahead. Turning his head, he spied adult Yachiru with her adoptive daughter giving him an encouraging thumbs-up, before turning around and barking orders at someone. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he nodded, and muttered to his team. "Show time, ladies."
As the music began to play over the built-in stage speakers, a husky female voice groaned out some words, before a deep sensually voiced male replied back to her "I'm the pleasure man. You will be my fan."
As the musical interlude began, Ichigo made his way on stage. His uniform, to fit with the image of the show, had been cropped open, exposing his rippling chest and abs for all to see, shirt untucked to flitter and flutter with every movement he made, designed to catch the eye of the hungry.
As the spotlight appeared over his head, Ichigo reached out to the crowd, a devilishly wicked smirk on his face. "I come to you in the night." He said, running his hand across his abs as he sang, "With my shining body in my Ferrari."
As the crowd exploded at his onstage persona, Ichigo coyly wagged his finger at them. "I do private dance, no romance."
On the back-left side of the stage, two spotlights illuminated the sinfully clad black and red kimonoed forms of Shaolin and Unohana, each sporting an entranced smile on their face. "You come with glitter and glam." They sang.
With a dismissive shake of his head, Ichigo seemingly replied, "No, no, kiss on lips."
Another pair of spotlights appeared opposite of the dark pair, revealing Cirucci and Senna in their playfully innocent bright colored attire. "Darling, please show what you can!" they both practically pleaded to the front man.
Jerking head to look over the crowd, the man winked at them seductively, "I'm the pleasure man."
Contrary to his charmingly seductive façade, Ichigo, Zangetsu and especially the girls knew that at that moment…a part of him died inside.
As a seductive groan echoed over the loudspeakers, the girls kept the act. "You're my pleasure man."
'Fucking kill me…' Ichigo silently cried to himself, "I come to you in the show." Taking off his Zanpaktou, he stabbed it into the ground and began gyrating his hips in a slow circular motion, "I'm doing my thing in my golden string."
'Ichigo. Stop involving me in this.' The old man griped to his young master, clearly against being used as some stripper pole.
It fell on deaf ears.
'If I have to go down, I'm not going down alone, old man,' Ichigo replied, wagging his finger, as the ladies in the crowd cheered and whooped, the men laughing jovially. "Your eyes are waiting for more. I do private dance, no romance."
"You come with glitter and glam." His girls sang, hands gripping their shoulders, as they swayed softly.
"No, no kiss on lips."
The four girls extended their hands to Ichigo at the forefront of the stage, still singing in time. "Darling, please show what you can!"
Ichigo then surprised everyone, when he glanced back at the women behind him, smooth cocky smirk on his face. "I'm the pleasure man."
As the S&S pair nearly tripped over themselves from sheer embarrassment at what he just did, Retsu and Cirucci, well mostly Retsu since she wasn't lip-synching, sang even harder, "Wam bam baby bam bam. Give me all your loving, give hanky panky, oh, oh, oh! Wam bam baby bam bam, working hard for money, you're my honey bunny, warm bam bam!"
"I'm the pleasure man." The man sang, as a musical interlude descended. The pace of song slowed down, as the girls wrapped their arms around their bodies, as they slowly shimmied their bodies. "Loving lover love me, loving lover love me, oh!" the moaned seductively, before throwing their arms over their heads, "Darling, come to me!"
Sliding his foot in front of him, Ichigo kicked his massive blade into the air, only for him to turn around allowing the cleaver to return to its usual resting spot, as he shook his ass to the crowd's delight. "I'm your pleasure man, you will be my fan."
As the crowd went nuts, the naysayer in the blade spoke up again, materializing in the air before him, staring the young man down. 'Ichigo…' he grumbled
"I know…" he muttered pathetically, "Please. It's almost over. Just bear with me."
Shaking his head stiffly, the old man simply replied, 'The tempo is changing. Get ready for more.' And then vanished.
Sure enough, as soon as he disappeared, the sound of the song began to change. Steeling himself, as best as he could, he nodded back to his team, who looked at one another uneasily, before returning the nod resolutely.
Slowly, one by one, they walked over to Ichigo, Senna leading them all followed by Cirucci tailed by Unohana with Shaolin ending the line of beauties.
Confused by the quartet's sudden march to the front, his preponderance only increased when his sister clasped his hand, turning him till he was facing the anticipating crowd again, before letting it go, leaving Ichigo standing in the middle of the protective circle of the four ladies.
"You naughty boy!" they suddenly accused, pointing directly at Ichigo, sickeningly sweet smiles on their faces.
'Oh shit.' Ichigo realized, feeling the killing stares piercing his body. The protective circle he thought the girls were making was in fact a ring of death, 'They're gonna kill me and make it look like it's part of the show!'
Despite his sinking fears, the girls stayed charitable…for now. "You're my naught boy! You're the one my momma loves, but daddy won't. Uh, uh, darling, you're my naughty boy! You've got the touch that I can't get enough!"
As the ladies finished swarming around him, they started to head back to their previous spots behind him, to allow Ichigo to proceed with his part, although, not without Shaolin, the last woman in the line, giving him a playful hip check on her way out, to the whoops of the crowd.
Momentarily surprised by Shaolin, Ichigo gaped at her, only for her to wink at him playfully. It was then that a wave of relief washed over him, as put on a cocky smirk, playing up his part for the gob smacked audience.
"I'm a ladies' man." The cocky bastard sang, feeling significantly fired up now. "Always ready to answer a call." Shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly, he continued, "Just give me a chance. And I. Will. Give you all."
Feeling hands suddenly on his shoulder, Ichigo turned to the right, coming face to face with Senna and her usual playful smile. "For so long I've tried, to get to you. Daring, you're a one of a kind."
Just as Senna stepped back after singing aloud what felt like a public confession, the red-faced Kurosaki was nearly knocked over, as something collided against his left side. Stamping his foot to steady himself, he turned around to a glaring Shaolin.
The shiver he felt run down his spine dissipated when the pregnant woman's glare softened to a loving longing gaze. "In my dreams, every night, it's me and you." She sang softly, a smile on her face., "Darling, please won't you be mine?"
'Shit…' Ichigo glanced away, totally embarrassed and unable to speak. The girls giggled slightly at his reaction, before stepping back and wagging their fingers at him tauntingly.
"You're my naughty boy! You're the one my momma loves, but daddy won't! Uh, uh, darling, you're my naughty boy! You've got the touch that I can't get enough of." They sang in synchronization, before blowing the sandwiched man a kiss and making their way to the back, the spotlights on them dimming for their retreat.
Trying to remember his place and not their charms, Ichigo cleared his throat and turned back to the audience, determined to make it through, or die trying out of embarrassment.
"Yeah, I'm the one, who never ever closes the door." He sang, running a hand through his hair playfully, trying to keep up his suave persona, "Darling, come with your flower." The man felt his face heat up, "and I will give you more."
Just as the crowd whooped again, Ichigo felt a light pressure on his back, looking over his shoulder, he saw Retsu pressing herself against him, mischievous smile on her lips.
A smile that almost distracted him from the thousand-yard death glares of Shaolin and Senna in the back.
"For so long I've tried, to get to you. Darling, you are one of a kind."
Feeling a pull of his hand, Ichigo turned to see Cirucci down on one knee, cupping his hand tenderly in her own. "In my dreams ever night, it's me and you." The fraccion lifted her head, her eyes locking with his, "Darling, please will you be mine?"
As a blush re-emerged on his face, the humble gesture's meaning no doubt lost on Cirucci, Unohana raised his other arm up and around her shoulder, her finger tracing up and down his cheek, "You're my naughty boy. You're the one my momma loves, but daddy won't."
Standing up, Cirucci lip sang her part, still holding unto her master's hand. "Darling, you're my naught boy. You've got the touch that I can't get enough, uh, uh."
"You're my naughty boy." The voices of Shaolin and Senna sang from behind, drawing closer to him. "You're the one my momma loves, but daddy won't."
"I'm your sex bomb." Ichigo sang, barely able to keep a straight face. 'Someone…anyone…kill me…'
"Sexy, sexy." The four girls sang in hushed whispers.
"Darling, come with your flower." The man implored; eyes closed embarrassedly as he forced himself to say. "I…I'm your naughty boy!"
The unbelievably loud cheering and laughter that erupted from the crowd at the impromptu performer's performance, nearly made all of them silently swear death on the Yachiru that had roped them into this…pervert's paradise!
Resuming their prior gait surrounding Ichigo, the girl sang out the finishing chorus. "You're my naughty boy. You're the one my momma loves, but daddy won't. Uh, uh, darling, you're my naughty boy, you've got the touch that I can't get enough, uh, uh."
As the jazzy outro played over the loud speakers, the girls following Senna's lead, began to file out in the same line that they had entered in, only this time, Shaolin, the last girl, took hold of her husband's hand, the crowd cheering the performance, as they left hand-in-hand, symbolic of the musical ballad about to take place.
Crossing the stage door that led to the backstage, the devil herself was the one that greeted them, "Good work kiddos! Ya have fun?"
The only things stopping that shit-eating grin on her face from turning into a terrified 'o' from all hell breaking loose was Senna acting as a human shield and Retsu's Minazuki using its tentacles to bind the other three with its malleable body.
Senna sweatdropped, "Let's…" she smiled nervously, "let's all calm down, okay?"
"I am calm." Shaolin retorted with an icy glare.
The girl cringed, "Then…less 'murdery'?"
"It's only murder, if there is a body." Ichigo informed, rather menacingly. "She's just going on a nice long vacation."
"To Hueco Mundo…forever." Cirucci spoke with an affirming nod, quite in agreement with this course of action.
As Senna pouted defeatedly, Retsu decided to intervene, "Calm down. We all had fun, didn't we?" she placated.
They were about to speak back until they felt her shift her eyelids down and smile serenely, a chill ran down their spine.
"O-of course," Shaolin muttered darkly, pausing to convey her words without tempting the doctor's wrath. "I'm just suggesting another 'fun' activity, Unohana-Taichō."
For her part, the redhead wasn't even fazed by the death threat. "Man, you kids are a vindictive sort." Yachiru said, a smarmy grin still on her face.
"Indeed." Retsu agreed, releasing Minazuki' s hold over the vengeful trio, quite appeased. "But we are here to relax, not get to wound up. So, forgive and forget?"
While her warrior pride was deeply wounded, Cirucci knew her place and looked to her masters for their decision, it was their lives she would affect after all. Shaolin for her part was quite torn as well, quietly warring with herself, her shy embarrassed half vocally yelling at her while her more adventurous half was admittedly entertained by their evening so far. She settled with looking to Ichigo, not particularly vengeful anymore.
The orange-haired man feeling everyone's stares at him decided to take the path of looking at the bright-side and sighed tiredly, "Unohana's right." His frown turned into a deprecating smile, "Embarrassment aside, it's definitely something I'm gonna remember for a long time, and I can't say I didn't enjoy myself up there."
"That's because you're a pervert." Shaolin huffed to herself, a blush on her face.
"So why are you smiling?" Senna cheekily pointed out, also smiling.
"Because: shut up."
The Miko's smile widened, "Embarrassed?"
True to form, Shaolin averted her eyes, "Verily." Turning back to her husband, she rested her head against his shoulder, "Let's go, Ichigo. I'm kind of tired from all that dancing around."
"Me too." Senna seconded
The doctor nodded in agreement, "Then let's wind down on something more relaxing."
"Just nothing embarrassing, por favor…" Cirucci pleaded
Shuffling his feet, Ichigo shook his head uneasily, "Considering our luck so far, don't count on it."
As Ichigo's beaus reluctantly agreed, Cirucci found herself ready to cry. "Come, let's go." Retsu prodded, ready to lead the group elsewhere.
Giving their fondest farewells, the quintet traveled to the less obviously bustling sectors of Shino, bright stage lights and loud music, were replaced by humble stalls with kimono clad visitors. The paper lanterns adorning the air setting a relaxing mood, as the group walked through the area.
Just as they were going to deliberate on what to do, a loud curse filled the area. "Shit!"
Followed by an accompanying whine of, "Kiiiiissukeeee!"
Turning behind them, they saw a large stand with a white and blue banner with a cute fish design, indicating a goldfish scoop. The only people there aside from the grinning owner was Yoruichi pouting in her very elaborate red kimono standing over an exasperated Kisuke in black, a broken paper scooper in hand.
"Yoruichi-san!" Shaolin called out to her delightedly.
Hearing the voice of her protégé, the dark-skinned woman immediately turned around, as did her blond companion.
Before the others could properly greet her, the cat girl in red bounded over to them, pulling Shaolin into a loving embrace.
"Just the person I needed!"
"That doesn't sound like a 'hey how are you doing?' to me." Snarked Ichigo
"Says the group that hasn't even acknowledged me or given an apology for shoving my head into a wall." The pervy scientist loudly complained.
The group turned to him briefly, staring right at him expressionlessly, before returning their attention back to Yoruichi, much to Kisuke's annoyance "Dicks!"
"Anyway, did you need something, Yoruichi?" Shaolin asked her sensei, slipping away from the hug.
The tall woman took a step back staring longingly at the stand Kisuke had been playing at a moment ago. "Sorta." She meowed, as cat-ears appeared on her head, while a feline tail swished about.
The group sweatdropped, "Can't you use your 'cat-like' reflexes?" Ichigo antagonized to the mirth of the girls.
Crossing her arms, Yoruichi puckered her lips, "Too much water."
"Bath time must be interesting." He replied, pinching the bridge of his nose.
A wicked smirk graced Yoruichi's lips. If it was sass he wanted, it was sass he was gonna get. "It's VERY interesting." She whispered seductively, leaning closer to him, as her melons jiggled at the slightest motion. "Would you like to see next time, Ichi-boy?" she asked, running her finger up and down his chest.
Before things could escalate further, Shaolin pulled Ichigo back, as Kisuke did the same with Yoruichi.
Although for entirely different reasons.
"Ichigo, stop flirting, or else I'll really get mad!"
'Umm…she flirted with me.' He mentally said to himself but kept quiet under her thankfully rare jealously fueled death glare.
"That's right. Hands off playboy! Yo-chan….Yo-chan belongs to everyone!" declared Kisuke, backing up the irritated wifey-chan.
"Umm, why are you putting your arms around Yoruichi's waist like that Urahara?" Senna pointed out his clearly ulterior motive.
"I'm protecting her from that man-whore." Kisuke replied flatly, nuzzling his face against Yoruichi's kimono, not that she minded.
"Care to say that to my face, Kisuke?" Ichigo challenged, taking a dangerous step closer, while Shaolin innocently felt the grip she had on him…loosen.
"H-hey don't fight!" panicked Senna, trying to ease tension, "We came to relax remember?"
"Señora Unohana, shouldn't you say something?" Cirucci prodded the observing doctor.
Clasping her hands, Retsu smiled cheerfully, "It's been a delightful evening. I'm really glad I came." She replied intentionally unaware.
"That's…" Cirucci started, trying not to cringe at her answer. "no es what I expected."
As everyone else sweat dropped at the exchange, Senna simply said, "I'm so glad you're enjoying yourself."
"Thank-you." She answered quite sincerely to her sarcasm.
Drooping his shoulder, the man let out an exasperated wheeze. "I suddenly feel exhausted."
"Me too, Ichigo." Agreed his wife, the fire she had a second ago snuffed out by the doctor's blasé attitude. Perhaps, it was intentionally planned this way, they wondered.
"Oh, come on, you're young! You gotta loosen up and stop being so grim." Yoruichi advised, a playful smile on her lips.
"Yoruichi…" muttered Soifon, genuinely touched by her generosity and insight. "You're right."
'Even though she's the cause of everything in the first place!?' Ichigo shouted in his head.
'Just let it go Ichigo.' Zangetsu chimed in, sounding equally as defeated, 'It's easier this way…'
"Still," spoke Yoruichi, eyeing the group over, "I gotta say, I'm glad that you all decided to listen to Kisuke and take it easy for once. Although, I didn't think we'd meet up so quickly considering the size of this place."
"We've been on the move." Ichigo replied vaguely.
"Sounds like an interesting story."
"No, no it's not." He shut down, to the relief of the younger girls in the group.
Yoruichi smiled her usual Cheshire grin, "Now, I really want to know. But I'll promise to forget all about it for a goldfish." She offered, casting a sly glance at the nearby stand.
'Figured, she'd want something. Still…' giving a shrug, the special forces operative said, "Well, I don't see why not. Ladies?"
Cirucci's eyes sparkled, "Oh! Si, I can do this easily!"
"Sure, it's not a festival without goldfish scooping."
"For Lady Yoruichi, anything."
Retsu smiled as she turned to Ichigo, "Well, shall we begin?"
With a nod, the group made their way to the brightly lit stand, where a gnarled old man sat in front of several small tanks of cut little orange fishes.
"Evening kiddos!" the man greeted jovially, "enjoying the- "
The man paused, when he saw Yoruichi and Kisuke amongst them. His expression morphed into a challenging smirk, "Oh ho! Brought reinforcements, eh?"
The ebony woman shot him a grin right back. "As a member of the Shihoin family, I can't allow myself to admit defeat at a goldfish stand!"
Unfortunately for her, Ichigo didn't quite share her intensity on the matter, "That sounds really petty…and pathetic."
"I completely understand." Cirucci exclaimed excitedly, clearly oblivious or ignorant of what her master said, "The feeling of capturing prey. Ah, es exquisite!"
Walking forward, the Arrancar rolled up the sleeve of her white Onimitsukido Gi, ready to help a fellow huntress on the prowl. "Allow me, Yoruichi-san. I will show you my preferred technique!"
After getting the go-ahead, the twin-tailed girl confidently marched up to the first tank. The moment her rear hit the wooden stool; her entire demeanor changed. Gone was her plush exuberance, instead a deathly seriousness washed over her, as her eyes darted from fish to fish in the tank, thoroughly examining each with a predator's gaze, trying to pick out the weakest link.
Her first kill.
After a few quiet contemplative seconds, a cruel smirk crept on to her face, her target spotted and locked unto. Slowly, she began to lean forward, oblivious to the old man holding the paper fan across from her. Narrowing her eyes, she followed her target's movements, hand slowly hovering towards the extended scooper, without ever breaking eye contact with the glittering fish.
Just as her fingers were about to touch the handle, she struck.
The onlooking group sweatdropped, as they watched Cirucci thrust her entire hand elbow-deep into the water with a loud obnoxious splash, fishing around with a maniacal grin on her face, until she pulled out her drenched arm, a traumatized little goldfish in hand.
"Ha! No escape from Goldrina Sanderwhicc!" she shouted triumphantly, holding up her target for her master's to see and praise her.
Her exaltation was short-lived.
"What the hell are you doing!?" the shopkeeper yelled bowling over the surprised Arrancar with his intensity. To add insult to injury, her captured prey took the opportunity the man gave her and flopped free from her hand and back into tank.
"W-W-wha?" the girl sputtered, taken off guard by his reaction. Had she made some faux-passé?
Thankfully, he answered her unasked question. "You can't go using your hand! That's cheating!"
"Eh!?" Cirucci balked, clearly surprised by that tidbit. "But, but, but it said goldfish scoop!" she yelped, pointing at the shop's banner to reinforce her point. "You scoop things with your hands! What else would you use!?"
"The damn scooper ya idiot!" the man shouted, waving said scooper he'd been holding the entire time in front of her face.
Embarrassed at her inexcusable ignorance, Cirucci retreated into her Espada's shoulder, crying penitently for bringing such unimaginable shame to the group. As Ichigo patted her on the shoulder, trying to reassure her not to take it so seriously, Senna stepped up ready to avenge her fellow avian. "I got this!" she confidently proclaimed.
As the girl walked forward, Yoruichi cheered on her second student. "Woooah! You go girl! Show us how the humans do it!"
Walking up to the second tank, since the fish in the first were spooked and on high alert, Senna confidently reached out and took the paper scooper from the old man. After carefully examining her capturing tool, she made to sit down on the wooden stool to begin her attempt. However…
Unbeknownst to all, fate would have poor Senna live up to her high-school title of unlucky number 13.
As soon as she sat down on the wooden stool, the rear leg gave out causing an inconceivable chain of events. While Senna tumbled backwards to the ground, her legs swung up into the air, before coming back down and slamming into the wooden counter holding her tank, causing said tank of water to spill forward completely soaking the young Miko.
"Senna!" the group called out worriedly for their friend.
"Hey kid, you alright!?" the old operator asked, standing up from his side.
He was about to offer her a hand up, when he, along with the rest of the group, saw the girl's smooth peach skin through her now transparent yukata.
"Oww…" the girl groaned obliviously, rubbing her butt gently. It took barely a second for her to notice the dampness and chill of her clothes over the pain, but when she did the immediate thought of what happened and what she looked like came over her. Hoping against hope, she looked up at the old man and upon seeing the blood flowing out of his, grimly looked down her front, forced to accept reality.
"Kyaaah!" she shrieked, wrapping her arms around her body and crossing her legs to protect a shred of her decency.
'She's naked…' Ichigo exhaustedly repeated to himself, eyes closed incredulously. "Senna…why…why aren't you wearing undergarments…?"
"Is that really the issue here!?" the embarrassed girl shot back, thankful the area was relatively devoid of people, but still more than a little uncomfortable to be seen in this state by any curious passerby.
Shaolin tilted her head to the side, diverting her eyes with a blush. "Sort of." She answered pointedly.
"Are you two serious!?" She practically cried her eyes out, incredulous that they were having this conversation now of all times. "F-fine! I'll tell you! Just let me borrow Ichigo's shirt for a little bit! I'm practically naked here!"
With a sigh, Ichigo did as asked, taking his shirt off, with some difficulty considering his still clinging penitence-seeking fraccion on him, before wrapping it around Senna's shoulder. "So, about that explanation." He urged, buttoning up the front for her.
Hugging the black shirt closer, the blushing girl said, "I can't wear a bra because it'd get in the way, if my heart started acting up. I…I didn't want to risk dying because time was spent getting off and not healing the heart underneath it."
"That's a surprisingly considerate and thoughtful reason." Ichigo noted.
"I agree, Ichigo-koi." Shaolin agreed, also taken aback by it, but trying not to show it.
"I'm the one who suggested she go bra-less, until she was fully healed up." Kisuke pipped from behind the pregnant woman.
Immediately, the married pair glanced at him, before looking back at Senna. "Senna, I say this lovingly, but you are a bit too trusting." Shaolin informed her.
"Hey!" shouted Kisuke.
"What about your lower half?" asked Ichigo, ignoring the pervert in the peanut gallery. "My jacket can't cover all of that."
Placing her hands behind her to try and conceal her butt, she simply and sincerely said, "You aren't supposed to wear panties with Yukata."
As soon as the words left her mouth, an eerie silence fell over the group. As everyone turned to look at Kisuke, a dangerous glint in their eyes. Fearing what they might do to the surprisingly innocent man, she quickly shouted, "It's a human world thing! Kisuke did nothing wrong!"
"What." Ichigo muttered flatly, he along with the lynch mob, turning back to the obviously embarrassed girl.
Nodding shyly, the girl explained, "Yeah, you see, Yukata are typically for summer festivals and well…Japan is too hot to be wearing these kinds of clothes outside." She looked away, "So…"
"Oh, yeah, that makes sense." Yoruichi agreed, scratching the back of her head absentmindedly. "I practically sat around naked in the Shoten during the summer months. Waaay too damn hot to be wearing extra layers."
"Oh yeah, I certainly remember those days." Kisuke chimed with a sly grin on his face.
Shaolin shifted from one foot to the other, clearly uncomfortable with the implications the Shoten pair were bringing up. Closing her eyes, she opened her mouth to say something, but upon seeing the nude version of Yoruichi in her mind's eye, being lazily sex—dignified in a chair! Steam started pouring out of the poor woman, as a pained groan escaped her lips, trying to rid the image out of her mind for her own sanity.
Cupping his chin, cool smirk widening by the second, Kisuke said aloud, "I wonder if this is a common phenomenon among Japanese women. This requires first-hand research."
"You're a very sick man, Urahara." Stated Ichigo, an uneasy mix of pity and disgust in his voice.
"I've only been saying this for decades now." Spoke a re-energized Shaolin, broken from her stupor by pure vindication of her lifelong accusation against the scientist.
"Okay, you understand, great." Senna said hastily, "Now can someone please stand in front of me, before all of Soul Society sees my ass!"
Boldly, Urahara stepped forward, "I gladly accept this important respon-hurghah!" He immediately fell to the ground, clutching his stomach after Shaolin mercilessly elbowed him for his pervy self-nomination.
After getting over the self-satisfaction of watching the scientist hit the ground. The current patriarch of the Kurosaki name turned back to the soaked girl before him.
Looking over her, he could see that the wet yukata was slowly drying due to the spiritual energy radiating from her body, but it wasn't anywhere close to finishing up.
"Come over here." He commanded wearily, the girl nodding her head, as they made their way back. Taking his spot next to his wife, he wrapped his arms around Senna to heat her up with his combined spiritual energy and to cover her butt with his body, all the while Cirucci clung to his back.
Ignoring the teasing smile of Yoruichi and bemused look on Shaolin's face, he turned to Unohana, "Can you go for me? I can't exactly fish with Cirucci crying over here and Senna standing in front of me…"
"You seem surprisingly un-upset, Ichigo-kun." Teased Shaolin.
"Unohana…" his voice wavered, practically begging. "Please."
Smiling at his predicament between the girls, Retsu stepped forward with a reassuring nod, taking the third chair. Quietly taking the paper scooper, she dipped it into the water and went for the fish in the corner, hoping to trap it, before it noticed her.
Just as she was about to catch it, the paper broke under pressure and the fish swam right through the hole in her scooper. Ignoring the clear sounds of disappointment at being so close, Retsu pulled out the scooper and examined it closely. Silently eyeing it, she beckoned the man over, before whispering something.
For a moment, the man was calm and curious, only to then sputter fearfully, before swallowing loudly, and leaning back with a nervous smile.
"What was that all about?" Senna inquired the question on everyone's mind, as the doctor got up to make her way back.
"Nothing, nothing. Just reminded of things I used to do back in the day." She waved off blithely, before leaning down next to Shaolin and whispering something.
The dark-haired girl's eyes widened for the briefest of seconds, before she nodded resolutely, quietly thanking the doctor, as she sojourned forward to try her hand next.
Taking her seat at the fourth and final fish tank, she eyed her prey carefully. 'Good, they aren't spooked.'
Looking back up at the old vendor, she held her hand out expectantly, Retsu's words still fresh in her mind.
With a shaky hand, the old man handed her the paper scooper. As she wrapped her fingers around it, she noticed the wooden handle was much darker than the one the others had used.
"It seems she was right about you rigging the game." The woman whispered softly to the owner, low enough that the others wouldn't hear. "While I do wonder how she noticed your little racketeering gambit, I'm thankful you aren't trying to pull anything in front of the leader of the stealth and punishment force."
The man remained silent at her unsaid threat.
Smiling to herself, glad to see he understood the position he was in, she condescendingly asked the stony vendor, "I can keep fishing till it breaks, right? That is the rule?"
"You're…." the man gulped hesitantly, sweat rolling down his forehead, as his professional smile wavered, "You're gonna make me close up early for the evening, aren't you?"
The girl's unsettling smile persisted, "Better that than ruining our lively evening, Vendor-san. The customer is always right, as Senna says."
The old man let out a tiny pathetic whimper, as the experienced goldfish scooper went to work. Taking all but two goldfish from the swindler, the proud Chinese woman promptly handed over a sack full of glittering fish to her mistress.
"Aww, you're the best, Soifon-chan." Yoruichi squealed in delight.
Ichigo and the others looked on with bemusement, as a blissfully happy Shaolin tried to suppress a smile whilst being embraced by the woman she once thought of as a goddess.
Not wanting to break-up, the tender moment; the elder Kurosaki turned to Kisuke, "You guys got any plans?"
"Not really. 'Sides from the tickets to the festival play I won in a lotto; I blew most of what I had on me on that goldfish stand. Guess we're gonna be heading home early tonight. (Sigh)…"
"A…play?" Cirucci asked softly, eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement, "Que es eso?"
"You've never seen one, Sanderwhicc-san?" Retsu inquired curiously
The twin tailed girl merely shook her head and gave a soft, "No."
"Well, I'm kind of interested too." Voiced Senna, before looking to Ichigo, "Is it okay, if we go?"
"A play, eh…" the man mumbled, thinking over the possible repercussions.
Unfortunately, it was taken out of his hands.
"What about a play?" Shaolin asked mechanically, the word bringing back fleeting memories of those she missed dearly.
"Yo-chan and I had plans to go see a show in the theatre department." Answered Kisuke, a naturally smooth smile on his face, blithely unaware of her internal conflict. "The kiddo wanted to come too so…"
"That a great idea, Kisuke!" Yoruichi said with a matching grin, missing the pang of hurt in Shaolin's eyes, as she turned to face the blonde inventor.
But…for everyone that missed it.
"I…don't think it's a good idea." Ichigo interjected, stepping forward to impose his presence on the group.
"Huh? Why not?" Senna asked innocently, blissfully unaware like the others.
Closing his mouth into a thin line to craft a careful but polite answer, Shaolin stepped forward, taking Ichigo's hand to stifle his protest.
"It's okay…" she said neutrally, more to him than anyone else, "Let's go watch."
Senna's eyes flickered between the two of them awkwardly, as if a whole silent conversation had occurred right in front of her and she didn't have a chance in hell to grasp the unsaid cues.
Turning around, she saw her confusion mirrored only in Kisuke and Cirucci, the Retsu and Yoruichi were uncomfortably quiet; the doctor out of reserved knowingness, while the shapeshifter from realizing the faux pas she had committed thoughtlessly.
"Let's go." Unohana declared, hoping to avoid the inconsiderate opening of such personal affairs directly in the face of the ex-captain. Unfortunately, it didn't stop the resulting awkward atmosphere that hung over the group, the stifling mood so thick that even as Senna gave Ichigo his shirt back, she couldn't bring herself to open the can of worms, while so very close to Shaolin.
As they came to the theatre area, Ichigo and Shaolin broke off from the group to go to the ticket booth to purchase seats, while the rest remained a little way off, more in their own personal thoughts about the situation they had found themselves in. Some knowing the intimate details better than the others.
As the attendant began counting the money the couple handed over, Ichigo stole a glance at Senna, who was talking lightly with Cirucci, but fidgeting with her hands. "She's definitely worried, Lin-chan." He said, turning back to his wife, ruefully.
The somber woman grimaced guiltily, "I…I know…" she whimpered tiredly, since she knew it wasn't something that could be avoided forever. "She deserves to know, but…"
"I know you didn't want to ruin the festive mood everyone was in. And I'm not saying it's your fault, but…"
"…yeah…I should've just not said anything." she admitted, knowing how poorly she'd handled the dismissing of Ichigo's concern.
"Look." The man said in a careful coaxing tone, reaching out to cup her hand. "You don't have to push yourself okay? I know we've got a lot going on, but if you aren't feeling up to something, especially because it's painful, you just got to say it. People will understand."
The woman quietly looked up at him hesitantly, while he just assuaged with a careful squeeze of her hand. "Shaolin, my beautiful wife, you can still talk to me, about anything. Please, don't try to shoulder your burdens on your own alright?"
Slowly a tender smile crept on to her face, eyes lighting up joyfully, "You know, that's very ironic to hear from you of all people, Mr. Altruist." The man rolled his eyes, eliciting a small giggle from the woman, "Not only that, you're an incredibly smoother talker. A very dangerous combination."
"Oh?" he grunted with a playfully dismissive scoff, "How so?"
"Well…" she said slowly, looking back at the distracted attendant, wry smile widening. "You made an army of Arrancar surrender." She stated knowingly.
Ichigo's brows shot up for a second, amused by the game she seemed to want to play. "I'm both flattered and surprised you forgot about the rest of the assault army fighting alongside us. I didn't idiotically charge in there by my onesome."
"That's because, I wouldn't let you dear."
"Someone has to be responsible." She shrugged, "Then again, I suppose I am admitting your point, so then how about…" Glancing behind her, she locked eyes with Senna, before half turning to Ichigo, the couple knowing she was watching them intently. "The way you made Senna fall in love with you?"
"That was incidental."
"I'm not hearing an unwanted."
The orange haired reaper looked at her slyly, "Didn't you say something about irony earlier, Ms. Reciprocate?"
Tacitly, the woman conceded the subject, even if she couldn't her embarrassment. "Okay, then." She looked at him from the corner of her eyes, "How about…getting me pregnant? Surely, talking me into bed wasn't a coincidence."
"Oh, that?" he said rather smugly, tearing his eyes away from her. "That was intentional."
Whatever response Shaolin was expecting, that wasn't it considering her mouth practically unhinged itself, as her face turned scarlet. Adding fuel to the proverbial fire, Ichigo shrugged, "Oh, so that's what you mean by 'dangerous sweet talker'."
"You…jerk." Shaolin replied through gritted teeth, eyes closed from sheer embarrassment, as she tried to collect herself.
"I'm so happy that you two are still in love enough to flirt, but our show is going to start soon." Yoruichi teased from the back, she along with the others catching the more upbeat side of Soifon resurging.
"Y-Yoruichi-san, w-we are not flirting!" the red-faced woman tried to defend.
The cat girl shook her head dismissively, smile widening, "It's okay, Soifon-chan. You don't need to justify anything to me." She said airily, as Kisuke and Senna snickered to themselves.
"I…I'm not!" she all but yelled at her mistress, arms flailing around to illustrate her point. "Ichigo-kun, tell her that—Why are you smiling like that!?"
"Because, I smile when I'm happy, silly Soifon."
The deathly glare the woman levelled at him was unreal, he was pretty sure he saw himself getting strangled in the reflection of her eyes.
Still totally worth it in his opinion.
"You…you! Gah! I hate all of you!" the woman pathetically exploded. As the others chuckled mirthfully, Shaolin was about to storm off to her seat, before Ichigo wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pressing her against his chest.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry, no more pouting."
"I am NOT pouting." She pouted, jerking her face away from her clearly unbelieving audience.
"Come now, don't be like that." Yoruichi cooed, walking over to take her proteges' hand, grabbing the tickets extended by the waiting booth attendant. "Let's go watch the show. We can even sit right next to each other."
"Okay…" she replied, resistance the furthest thought on her mind.
"Wait. That's my seat." Cried out Kisuke, as the older woman started leading the Chinese girl away. The ebon woman merely paused for half a second to look at her supposed date, a dour look on her face.
"Kisuke, don't forget the popcorn." She said in an unusually serious tone.
"What!?" he yelled incredulously; the wailing of his poor wallet heard by his ears alone. "But I blew my money on that goldfish stand!"
"And thank-you Soifon-chan for the fish." The ex-captain said affectionally, gently patting her demure ward on the head, as her other hand clutched the bag full of glittering fishes, she'd won for her.
"Come on, ladies. Let's get to our seat. The boys can handle this."
"Wait." Ichigo said, the full implication of Yoruichi's words hitting him. "Did you just rope me in with him?"
Much to his chagrin, he was ignored by the ringleaders.
"Senna-sama, what's 'popcorn'?" Cirucci asked, following the girls lead to their seats. "Does the corn explode? Then how do you eat it?"
"Sorta." Senna replied, amused chuckle rolling off her tongue from the hard-hitting questions her friend had. "It's really delicious. Especially with butter. Oh!" the girl turned back around to Ichigo, reminded of something. "Ichigo-kun! Don't forget the butter. Okay? Thanks!"
After blowing him a thank-you kiss, she walked off with her friend, leaving the hero, the scientist and the doctor alone.
As Ichigo's mind raced to process the information of his obvious desertion, Retsu started to step away. "Well," she said in a soft, clearly unbetraying tone. "I'd say that was authoritatively unanimous."
Sighing to himself, Ichigo turned around and went to the nearest stand, leaving the equally stunned Urahara behind.
"Come now, Urahara-san." Retsu called out to the blonde, briefly getting his attention. Pointing towards the young man getting in line, she simply said, "Chop. Chop."
As the beautiful woman in red disappeared, Kisuke drooped his shoulders and cried on the inside.
With popcorn secured, the duo made their way to their seats, the small gap between the right of Shaolin and the left of the Arrancar Cirucci. It didn't take much deliberation for Ichigo to take the spot beside his wife, who was busy talking quietly to her mentor, considering her unfathomable and utterly irrational disdain of Kisuke; while Kisuke sat rather contented next to two rather young innocently minded girls, a creeping smile on his face as he wondered, if he could lay the Urahara charm to corrupt not only them, but the soft-spoken sadist on the far end.
Turning to his wife, as he handed over the popcorn to Yoruichi, he was about to ask if he had missed anything, when the curtain went up, a strange crew of people coming upon stage already mid-action. As Ichigo watched and listened trying to piece things together from what was said, he pondered where he had heard this before, the way they were dressed, the way they said things, there weapons. It was so…familiar.
His concentration was broken when the grip of Shaolin's hand on his own tightened dramatically. Turning back to his wife, the young war hero saw a silently unsettled look on her face, her normally peach skin growing paler, a stark contrast to her black kimono.
"So, is there a part one to this?" Senna asked the question very obviously written on her face. "Because I really don't get what's going on here."
Easing the strength of her grip, Shaolin pulled her hand back and sighed lowly, sadly. "It's…'theirs', Ichigo."
"Theirs?" he repeated quietly, looking back to the stage once again to pick up the connection she saw that he didn't.
"I can explain it." Kisuke continued blithely, unaware of the separate conversation going on beside him. "You see this is a pretty famous play on this side of the afterlife, so that's why the explanation was kinda vague. They took for granted that everyone knows about the story."
"It's famous?" Cirucci asked, clearly surprised by that tidbit.
Kisuke nodded enthusiastically, "Yeah, it's had many different adaptation and artistic flairs, but the general plot points are the same."
"Shinjiro…and Subaru…" Shaolin muttered dazedly, this time catching the full attention of her mentor sitting beside her.
The nekomata looked back at the stage and felt a crippling chill in her soul, "Oh…" she gulped, silently cursing herself for what she'd forced her pupil to see. "It's…that play."
"So, basically, the story involves this prince from the eastern lands." Kisuke pointed to the male actor for the girls. "The guy in the blue there, getting banished from his village due to a curse placed on him by god corrupted into a demon."
"…the play Shinjiro and Subaru acted in. When we went on our date, Ichigo."
"He travels to the western lands, the place where the monster originated from, in hopes of finding a cure to the curse, as well as putting a stop to the source of the corruption, which were little metal balls designed to kill monsters."
"Oh, wow…that sucks. Poor guy." Senna expressed, a look of pity on her face, as she leaned back into her chair.
"As a formerly exiled man myself, 'sucks' doesn't begin to describe it." The dispassionate ex-captain of the twelfth recounted; eternally grateful his genius intelligence helped him, and his friends survive having their lives completely uprooted. "Anyway, he ends up in iron village, the place where the irons balls are made, and learns of the struggle between the humans living there and the creatures of the forest."
Looking back to the stage, he pointed to the female actor beside the prince. "The girl in the tattered clothes is a guardian to the forest and the monster across from them a forest god."
"Shaolin…" Ichigo muttered, eyes closing tight, already knowing it must have been too soon to take her to something that reminded her of her dearly departed friends. Hefting a sign, he was about to get up out of his chair and ask the group to leave the show but was stopped by his wife's hand.
Biting his lip, he looked at her hesitantly, awaiting a sign or something, but all she did was smile, a small sad smile, before slowly shaking her head, her eyes resting on the terrible interested Cirucci and Senna and the happily indulgent Urahara, "Please, don't." she requested softly, her eyes flickering over to the stage. "It's…just a play."
The man looked at her flatly but said nothing.
"Ichigo…?" she called out to him, worried that he hadn't or wasn't willing to accept her request.
Quietly, the man looked to Yoruichi, who simply nodded her head, ready to go with whatever the young man chose. Glancing behind him at the blissfully unaware trio and observant doctor, he made his choice. He silently nodded to his wife, as he leaned back into his chair naturally, relaxing himself to watch the play alongside his wife, but kept his hand on hers, stroking the back of it with his thumb, giving his support without a word.
Smiling weakly, she mouthed a sincere 'thank-you' before looking back to the unfolding story, steeling her resolve as best as she could.
As the plays' second act began to unfold, Ichigo felt his eyes drift to his wife more and more, especially when the San and Ashitaka characters were on set together. The man watched as the unblinking woman muttered something under breath in tandem with the speaker, before looking down to the ground lost in thought.
As another battle scene occurred, Soifon unexpectedly got up, as San was taken off stage from injury, quickly giving an excuse of 'not feeling good', before leaving.
Ichigo didn't waste a second before following after her, his mouth shooting off some paper-thin excuse.
"Shaolin." He called out to her, as she made her way to the exit, walking past people without a second glance. "Shaolin!" he yelled again, as they exited the amphitheater.
This time she did stop right beside a wooden beam that held up a large banner fluttering in the wind, her body shaking uncontrollably. Steadying his expression, he walked closer to her, ready to scoop her in his arms and take her away from this place. "Lin…" he whispered to the woman in front of him, hands setting themselves against her arms.
Turning her body, the woman revealed her tears falling freely from her eyes, a sight at odds with her tired reticent smile, "Ichigo…I…" a hiccup escaped her shivering lips, as she wiped away her tears, false smile morphing into a terrible frown.
Pulling her into his arms, he gentle cradled the emotional captain, hand slowly caressing her back, trying to coax the troubles barely bottled up inside.
"I'm sorry…" the dazed captain apologized, for what she couldn't quite pin down to one major reason or another. "I…"
"The play, I know." The man in black finished for her, "Honestly, I should have been more-"
"No…" she interrupted head softly in denial, "I thought that I could handle it, but…" she bit her lip, "as I watched, the memories came flooding back. The two of them practicing lines in front of me, occasionally roping me in…"
Lowering her face, she rested her forehead against his chest, "I thought I was ready to move on. That I could put the memories behind me…if only for a little while."
The woman paused, taking steady breath after steady breath, her beau silently allowing her to continue opening the flood gates. "But seeing that play, it brought it all back. I remember thinking to myself, 'It's not fair'. Ever since, they were declared traitors, ever since I learned what I Aizen forced them to do, I've wanted to scream those words out loud."
With a hiccup, the tears began flowing anew, "Why did they have to die? Why are they just going to be remembered as traitors? Why…does it hurt so…so much to think about them?" as a chocked sob, escaped her lips, she was grateful for the gentle reassuring squeeze of Ichigo's arms. "I'm sorry, Aìrén. This is so petty and we have so many bigger prob-"
"As far as I'm concerned: There is no problem bigger than anything involving this family, Shaolin." He stated adamantly, "Besides, they sacrificed everything for this world, for us. If you want to show them how much you love them, then don't give up. Be the best person you can be and live a full life without any regrets. I promise you that not only will I be there, but I'll make sure this world becomes a better place; a place where there don't have to be people who sacrifices themselves for others!"
Turning her eyes up, the kimono-clad woman looked at her earnest counterpart, a hopeful twinkle in her eyes, as she giggled, relieved just a little bit of her anxiety. "You don't need to do all that, Aìrén. You do enough and worry enough as it is. Honestly, between the baby, the Arrancar-Soul Society situation, being a captain and the Spirit King, I really don't know how you keep things together."
"Well," he started looking away, uneasily, "It's more like I actively don't think about it. I know I'm stumbling around desperately hoping that I don't say or do something that fucks up everything we've fought to create. I…" he looked away, ashamedly. "I'm sorry, that I haven't really told you. I didn't want to worry you. I just…wanted to keep you smiling, thinking about happy things like the baby or enjoying fun things like this festival. I didn't want-"
"To make me unhappy." She finished grimly, hurt understanding flitting over her expression.
"Yeah. I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm not keeping it to myself. I've at least talked it over with Zangetsu, but…"
"(sigh) It just feels hopeless."
"Perhaps...the weight of your problem is similar to the Spirit Kings, a weight that's too much for one person alone." Shaolin commented, lightly chiding him for keeping these thoughts to himself.
For his part, he at least gave her a bashful smile, glad to get some light reassurance with her guidance. "Yeah, I think so too." He quietly admitted, turning back to the woman in his arms solemnly, "I mean I know I'm not wrong, but I'm beginning to wonder if there's even a good solution."
To his surprise, the woman giggled lightly, "Weren't you just telling me not to give up, Aìrén?"
The man rolled his eyes playfully annoyed, "I'm so glad Yoruichi and Senna taught you how to properly use sarcasm, Lin-chan."
"My sincerest apologies. We can't all be natural clowns like you or Urahara." She retorted, devilish smirk on her face. A look mirrored in his own.
"You obviously must be feeling better Soifon-Taichō, if you can tear down your partner so casually."
The pair shared a hearty laugh in each other's arms, the only distance between them the fruit of their mutual love. As the seconds passed into minutes, Ichigo pulled back, looking back in the direction of the theatre and friends. "We should probably get back. The others might start freaking out soon, wondering where we are."
"I suppose…" she said quietly, lips pursed, "But…" her cheeks lit up, a beautiful crimson red, "Can we stay like this a little longer? A minute or two won't hurt anyone."
For a second the man merely stared at her, then to her delight answered her question with a loving kiss, as the sound of the theatre audience gasps and cries filled the open air.
As the pair pulled back, the expectant mother smiled tenderly at her beau, hands still connected. "Ichigo?"
"Yes, my love?"
"Thank-you. Thank-you for always listening to me and…and for giving me a home at your side."
"Don't worry about it, Shaolin." He replied softly
The woman nodded her head, as people began exiting the arena, "Promise me on thing, Ichigo."
"That you'll tell me if something is bothering you. Even if you think it's something stupid, I want to know. I don't want to be left in the dark ever again. I don't want to be happy, if you're left miserable, so please."
Ichigo nodded resolutely, "I swear on my life."
"Good." The delighted woman said with a smile, slowly pulling him back to the theatre. "Then let's find a way to make things right together."
With that the pair made their way back. Ichigo soon to take the lead to guide his wife through the departing crowd. They didn't have to go very far, before running back into the exiting group.
"Where were you guys!?" Senna asked, worry quite evident in her tone. "You disappeared for a really long time…"
Shaolin smiled weakly at the girl, "Sorry, but I felt kind of nauseous. I guess popcorn and pregnancy don't mix all that well."
As Senna's eyes drifted to Ichigo, he smiled as well, continuing the soothing lie, "Don't worry, I stayed with her to make sure she got over the worst of it."
The girl looked back at the Chinese woman uncertainly, "Are you really okay…?" she asked, still doubtful.
The captain nodded, "Yes, Senna, I'm much better now. Thank-you for asking and sorry for worrying you."
Seeing both their earnest smiles, the purple haired girl decided to let go of her initial doubts, content in knowing that whatever had her down before wasn't affecting her anymore. "No problem. I'm just glad you were okay."
Unbeknownst to Senna, the two female reapers behind her, gave a knowing nod and wink respectively, content to know she'd overcome her true reservations.
"Did you enjoy the show? I hope you didn't miss anything on our account."
Senna giggled, scratching her cheek sheepishly, "It was kind of hard to concentrate on it, but I did like what I could remember. Hehe, Cirucci-chan was bawling her eyes out at the end though."
"S-Senna-sama!" the betrayed Arrancar shouted at her friend, who laughed alongside her masters.
"So, you were brought to tears? I gotta say Cirucci-chan, you're surprisingly more fragile than I initially thought." Ichigo teased his flustered servant.
"No, No! I don't cry easily, it was just a very sad ending, Ichigo-sama!"
"Truly, Sanderwhicc-san?" Retsu pondered aloud, a subtle tease in her tone, "I don't know you well enough to concur with that conclusion. You've ran to Ichigo's shoulder more than once tonight."
Turning around, the Arrancar spoke quickly, hands gesturing wildly to try and help emphasize her point. "I am a warrior, I shed no tears for my enemies, only pity for a fallen kindred spirit or recognition of a fellow soldier. But…umm…I…I can't really stand the idea of bringing shame to my friends, let alone my masters."
Looking down at her feet, she brought her hands back down to her side, a heavy expression on her face. "Ah, how do I explain? Fraccions like me are not just any random soldier, tu entiendes? We are a symbol. We act not only as vanguards and personal attendants to our Espada, but we are a reflection of our master. Every act of honor or shame that we brought to ourselves, either on the battlefield or in the courts of Las Noche, would in turn reflect on our master, for me the Kurosaki family I serve. I…I…"
The woman's voice fell off, as she closed her eyes, steadying herself to say what she truly felt to the people that took her and protected her. "I…am unworthy of the compassion shown to me, your greatness too overwhelming to match in service. You…wish to protect us, the Arrancar, despite all the suffering we have inflicted upon you, you…see us as human's worthy of life. You show mercy when others would kill us. I…I've never…even with Master Sado, I wouldn't have done that for you, for any Shinigami! I wanted…I wanted to live no matter the cost. Sado-sama spoke so highly of you and now here I am helping you create the world he believed you'd make. So, so, I must not falter. I must not make mistakes! The future you see for the Shinigami and the Arrancar, and my pride as your fraccion, your willing servant, will not allow me to bring shame to your name!"
Realizing she was almost shouting at them, the purple haired swallow audibly and spoke in a lower more controlled pitch. "T-that's why. I am…q-quite sensitive to making you look bad, it is…the last thing that I want. I will face whatever penance is necessary to rectify it, even crying to you begging your forgiveness, my masters."
'I see. So, she's afraid that she can't measure up to the expectations she thinks are in place because of what we've doing.' Ichigo thought grimly, as he glanced at his wife, who also had a similar glint in her eye, seeing the hidden self-deprecating side of Cirucci. "Cirucci." He called out to her informally.
As she turned to him, he said, "I…'we'." he gestured to his wife and sister, "appreciate your concern for our honor and sense of duty. But first off: We don't want you to think we only keep you around because you swore servitude to us, as a fraccion to an Espada. That doesn't matter to us. We keep you around because we like you, you're a pretty good person, whose friendship we enjoy."
Cirucci's body stiffened at his words. While she knew they did consider her to be a friend, she didn't think that they would completely throw out the concept of her being the servant to their master. "Ichigo-sa-"
"Secondly," he continued, placing an arm on her shoulder, letting her know that he wasn't going to broker any kind of argument on what he was telling her. "Don't go overboard. Being perfect all the time? Give me a break, I make mistakes all the time. Everyone does. So, stop thinking that you gotta do everything right. We won't judge you for that, and by your own admission, that's all that matters, right?"
"Si, Ichigo-sama. Entiendo, but, pero-"
"No, 'buts', Cirucci-san." Shaolin interrupted, "We get it, being our fraccion means a lot to you. But Ichigo is right. No one is perfect. Besides," a bemused smile crept on to her lips, "We like you just the way you are, flaws and all. You always try your best, anyone can see that."
The fraccion's mouth hung open, lost for words. "Ummm, ah, g-gracias, mis amos." The flustered woman thanked, bowing her head. "I will…take it to heart."
"I'm glad to hear it, Cirucci-chan." Chimed Senna, giving her friend's hand a gentle squeeze. "Anyway, now that that's out of the way, maybe you can tell us why you were crying at the end of the play?"
Remembering her earlier train of thought, the barefoot woman dug her foot into the ground, obviously embarrassed, "Ah, well, you see, in the end, the young man was forced to leave the wolf-girl that he loved, and he didn't rid himself of the curse. They beat the monsters and saved the village, but he's still going to die. How can it be anything but sad?"
"Actually." Shaolin spoke up, "There is an alternate theory."
"Ah, you speak of audience interpretation, Soifon-san." Retsu spoke up, deigning into the conversation.
"Audience interpretation?" Senna and Cirucci both repeated, lost as to what the two captains were getting at.
"Yes, you see, in the play, Ashitaka and San are forced to part ways, this is true." Shaolin recounted the ending of the play for the girls, to which they nodded, "However, do you recall what he said near the end?" When they both answered negatively, she continued, "He promised San that as soon as he found a way to remove the curse he'd come back to her. Thus, the story ends with Ashitaka ridding away from the village with San watching him leave."
"Right, that's what we saw." Senna agreed with the recounting.
"However, that is only the end of the story, which is where the audience imagination comes into play. It is left open-ended on whether Ashitaka was able to find a cure or not to his curse, so…" the woman's smiled gently, as she looked at Cirucci, "As long as you believe that he did in fact find a cure eventually, he would have returned back to the village and San, no?"
"Oh?" the woman repeated to herself thoughtfully, a moment's pause taken to let the full weight of her words sink in. "Oh! You're right! Si!"
"Oh yeah, the guy never died, so he could have found it next day for all we know." Senna exclaimed excitedly, stoking the child-like wonder in her fellow avian. "I didn't even think of that! Wow, you're so smart Shaolin-chan!" the woman said with a big beaming smile on her face.
"Don't worry about it. I've had a lot of time to ponder the ending myself." She said gently, before raising a hand over her mouth and yawning tiredly, "Speaking of time, I think I'm ready to go to bed."
"Yeah, it's getting late." Ichigo agreed, kneeling down for his wife to hop back on to her back for the journey home. "I think we can call it an eventful night, yeah?"
As the group began to make their way to a clearing for Unohana to release Minazuki, they took in the sights of the various stalls promising temptation and diversion that made them wish they could spend more time at. By the time they had reached an area with no real crowds, the sky had truly darkened and the star glitters brightly.
With nary a word, the doctor summoned her shapeshifting manta-ray spirit. As everyone climbed aboard, mindful of their footing, their attention was called behind them, as a loud thunderous roar erupted. Looking back, they saw the sky shining a bright blue from an explosion of light, before more loud pops echoed nearby dashing the world in vibrant colors.
"Fireworks." Senna whispered breathlessly
"Let's go see." Unohana said, prompting her Shikai to take to the air. Gently, the manta ray touched off, arching upwards, before turning and flying over the crowded streets. "Enjoy the show." Retsu said to her passengers softly, as more fireworks shot up high into the air, bathing the seven in a breath-taking array of colors.
Finally, after a leisurely slow five-minute flight through the cool night air, the light show ended in a brilliant finale. The Shinigami applauded appreciatively both to the ones that organized the show and Unohana for giving them such a view. The kind doctor gave a silent nod, before directing Minazuki to their first drop-off.
Approaching the front gates of the second division, Retsu saw a small crowd of Shinigami awaiting in the entranceway, she was about to ask the group if they were expecting company, but upon seeing Yamamoto in the center, she realized something was amiss. "Everyone, I've spotted the Sotaichō just outside of the second division?"
"What? The head captain?" Senna repeated
"Yes." Retsu affirmed, as she slowly brought Minazuki to a halt, so it could land.
"What now?" Ichigo grumbled to himself, as his equally puzzled wife turned to Unohana.
"Do you think it's because you were using your Shikai?"
"All these people for that?" Retsu replied doubtfully
"Everybody did tell their division to take time off, right?" Kisuke double-checked. When everyone nodded, he scratched his head, as Minazuki touched down. "Maybe he's mad so many took off on short notice?"
"Well," Ichigo started, stepping off and helping Shaolin off. "Let's find out."
Once everyone was on the ground and Minazuki was safely tucked away, they approached the Sotaichō's group.
"Out enjoying yourselves, I take it? The old man asked them pedantically. "If so, I would appreciate it, if you didn't use your Shikai so frivolously."
Unohana bowed her head, "My apologies." She gestured to her group, specifically Senna and Soifon. "We had the infirmed with us."
"And so, you took them out of the hospital?"
"It was a homeopathy experiment today."
The old man grunted but didn't push the issue further. Instead, he looked over the group and said, "I have an announcement for you. I take it you never received my advance hell butterfly?"
"No." answered Ichigo, "Is that what the crowd of Shinigami behind you is for sir? A search party to find us?"
"In a manner of speaking." Came the cryptic reply, before making a motion of his hand to someone behind him. "We were looking for Sanderwhicc-san."
Stepping from the crowd, Nozomi Kujo stepped beside the Sotaichō, scroll in hand. "By unanimous decision of the Central-46 the Arrancar experiment is to cease and Arrancar of lieutenant level are to be executed-"
"The hell!?" shouted Ichigo, "What do you mean executed!?"
The dispassionate sorceress paused, after hearing the expectant outcry. "Like I said, the central-46 has weighed in on the matter and cast their judgment."
"Screw that! There's no way they reached that conclusion in a day!" shouted Senna, taking a step-in front of Cirucci.
Kujo sighed, "Don't shoot the messenger." She grumbled
"I assure you; Kujo-san speaks the truth." Yamamoto interjected, "Cirucci is to be taken into custody. If you have objections there will be a meeting set in a week for a hearing of your grievances."
"Tell me Yamamoto-Sotaichō, is the meeting a formality?" Kisuke asked, a dangerous glint in his eye.
"I am not one for frivolities, Urahara-Taichō. I take it you'll be there?"
Kisuke said nothing, as he pulled down the rim of hat. The pervading silence that fell over the group was broken only by Nozomi making a motion for her kido corps to apprehend the ex-ambassador.
"Ichigo…" Senna quietly pleaded to her silent brother, urging him to do something.
'Think, think, think.' Ichigo rushed himself, trying to find some kind of escape—some immediate solution, as the kido soldiers slowly encroached. "Cirucci." He said quickly
"Do you trust us?"
"I do." She replied without hesitation.
Turning his eyes back to the soldier, he inhaled deeply, before stepping forward. "That's enough. There's no need for force." He stated firmly, but calmly. The approaching Shinigami stopped in their tracks, not daring to make another move. "If we need to prove our case, we'll do so."
Surprised by his agreeability, Nozomi smiled appreciatively. "Wonderful. Gla-"
"But!" The man cut her off, "I'll take her to the penance tower. And you better believe I'll be the one to take her out of there when we win!"
As Nozomi's frown returned, Shaolin stepped up beside her husband, "Are you sure about this Ichigo?" she asked warily
"No, but we don't have a choice." He replied, careful to not let his concern show in the face of opposition. "Starting a fight is going to make things worse."
"And Cirucci?" Senna whispered frightfully.
"I'll make sure she's safe…but we have to meet them on their terms."
As Senna looked away dishearten, the orange-haired reaper turned back to the head captain's group. "If there isn't anything else, I'll be taking her now."
"On one condition." Nozomi chimed, pulling out a pair of handcuffs, as she stepped forward. "That the Sotaichō and I accompany you."
"Given your 'relation' with the Hollow in question." The old man started, a grave look in his eye as he watched the group. "I felt it…a necessary precaution."
"Fine." He grunted, doing his best to ignore oh so subtle implication. "Cirucci," he called out glancing back at his servant. "Let's go."
With a solemn nod, the Arrancar took a step forward to follow her master. When Senna stopped her, her arms wrapped around the surprised woman. As the breathless woman was pulled in closer, her mouth closed, as a grim, but thankful smile appeared on her resigned face. Bringing her arms up, she returned Senna's hug, as the others looked on. The embrace broken only when one of them was led to the cold tower of penance.