The Star & the Strawberry
I tried my best, but I made Orihime cry. I'm sure she didn't intend the sight of it to render me almost powerless, wondering if there was any other way to cheer her besides staying here with her in my arms. So yeah she didn't make what I had to do easy. I knew I had to leave; it wasn't safe to be with her no matter how short the time was. Yes I'd admitted to loving her, we were stuck at that moment--couldn't go further--because I had to leave to find Shinji.
I couldn't be with anyone; I wasn't just making excuses to escape. Yes, escape a naked, willing...Grrr...
Body shivering with tears she had fallen asleep murmuring nonsense as she snuggled against me. She wiggled a lot in her sleep as if aware of her position even asleep and thus...
Hard-on in tight jeans.
Fucking hollow, Igrumbled as I finished dressing.
"Kurosaki-kun..." Orihime's hushed whisper made me freeze on the spot, but she was still sleeping. I moved to lean over to catch a look at her face, angelic in sleep. I didn't deserve any of these women around me, even this one.
"I'm so sorry Inoue..." I murmured and started to turn away to leave the room as her sleep talk continued.
"I can wait..." She sighed and a small smile curved her lips as she nestled her head deeper into her pillow. "Kinda...like..." She gave a soft snort, almost a snore but for the breathy whisper of, "Normal...again."
Normal? I wish I remembered what that meant. For me it was something I'd abandoned that night so long ago when I'd taken Rukia's power to save the lives of the people I love. For Orihime...
A different wave of guilt smashed into me as I thought of words she'd told me less than an hour ago. 'I'm tired of not telling you how I feel inside...I've loved you for so long...' How long? How long did I say and do things to make her heart shatter little by little?
I shook my head to break the hundred yard stare at her sleeping form as I contemplated unintentional hurtful words in the classroom and slipped out of Orihime's room, before my body rebelled--in the normal teenage hormone-driven way, not in a resurgence of my hollow way.
I thought about taking a quick trip back home to ditch my body with Kon. As my mind went over the quickest route it inevitably continued with "what ifs," the biggest being; what if my hollow came back while I was there?
I didn't have time.
Guilt rose inside like high tide, Karin and Yuzu would worry if I disappeared again, so soon...I would rather them worry than meet my hollow in the hallway outside my room.
Plus Kon was off somewhere being distracted by Ririn.
My ability to track spiritual energy wasn't all that great; especially when I didn't have a connection with whomever I tracked, emotional or otherwise. No surprise then that when I reached around for a sign of Shinji I found the tightest connection I'd managed to forge at my age.
People don't usually find it, I'm sure. I was lucky that I'd been at the right place and the right time to become tied to Rukia.
It was true, I had my own power now, and that turned out to be the biggest problem. In gaining my own powers I opened that door to a power the living shouldn't possess, nor the shinigami.
I wished I could have inherited my powers. But then if mom had been a shinigami she wouldn't have fallen to that Grand Fisher bitch. And otousan...
Shit, if they let people like Matsumoto and Yumichika become shinigami then otousan...Heh...Naw.
"Damn," I hissed at myself as my distracted sneakers crunched on the gravel in the alleyway leading to a familiar shouten.
I would be lucky if the entire shouten's inhabitants didn't already know I was lurking in the shadows. I turned quickly, cursing my distracted state, and made myself focus on leaving with no destination just needing distance fast.
"You okay Ichigo-kun?"
For a moment I mistook the rough voice for Renji and I grimaced as I remembered how pissed he was at Orihime's. I spun around to see the small dark shape of a black cat running along the fence starting from across the front yard of the shouten.
"Where are you coming from?" I asked instead of answering the feline. "Or were you just out walking the perimeter?"
"You're learning," Yoruichi's masculine cat voice was obviously not Renji's.
Guilty much? Me?
"You hear about--"
"Yes," Yoruichi didn't stop after jumping down off the fence to cross the alley toward me, she continued back down the alley to the sidewalk.
I followed her, gaining that distance I'd wanted so badly, even if everyone in the area knew where I was. "Urahara fill you in?"
"I was here when Rukia-san came looking for help," The cat ambled down the sidewalk just outside the street lights unlike a normal cat. "Kisuke knew what to do, Abarai-kun was boiling for a fight..." She murmured explaining how they had decided who was going to assist Rukia. "It was Abarai-kun's night for the watch but I've been quite the insomniac as of late...So..."
I listened to her voice the "what ifs," getting to me again as I dragged my feet. I knew I was only delaying the inevitable, knew I had to find Shinji, knew I couldn't let my hollow win. I still found my feet dragging.
"She's been crying since they got back."
Almost tripping on the perfectly even sidewalk at the cat's words my eyes swiveled to the cat as she turned to peer up with golden eyes. "Crying."
"Abarai-kun only just persuaded her to let him in her room," Yoruichi sat down her tail curling neatly around her feet. "Shame he's going to get her on the rebound, poor boy deserves better than that."
"Koneko-hime?" Urahara's dulcet sing-song brought my attention around and I jumped to see the shopkeeper only a few feet behind me. "Ah, Kurosaki-kun!" He was already behind his fan eyes mischievous, but it was held far enough away to reveal most of his face so he could fan himself casually. It wasn't even warm.
"Urahara, I'm sorry for the hour--"
"Nobody but the kids and Kurōdo are asleep at this hour Kurosaki-kun," Urahara snapped his fan shut and took me by surprise with a sudden shunpo toward me.
By the time I tried to block any blows--I was so much slower in my physical body!--Urahara's dark haori fluttered in my face. I turned, teeth gritted as he disappeared behind me only to see he hadn't been attacking me at all but coming to Yoruichi's rescue.
I clamped my eyes shut but Yoruichi's nude human form was already covered thanks to Mr. Hat-and-Clogs's strange ESP. Maybe it was just the woman; I always wondered how long ago their friendship went.
"I gently reminded Abarai-kun of his duties this evening," Urahara's arm was still clutching the haori closed, using the pretence to keep his arms around Yoruichi's slimmer, curvier form.
"Oh but I've got to do my part of Karakura Town," Yoruichi protested.
With overly dramatic lunging steps of his long legs, his geta plunking on the sidewalk, he guided Yoruichi away. I watched semi-amused as he glanced over her shoulder at me with a grin. "Remember Shiro-chan--oop!" Urahara snapped his fan shut and bonked his own head. "I mean Hitsugaya-Taichō said no one should venture far into town alone and that means you too!"
Urahara's geta and his voice grew fainter as he and Yoruichi left me standing there alone on the sidewalk. How had Yoruichi gotten anything remotely stealthy done with a loudmouth like Urahara tagging along?
I take that back, I've seen him with a zanpakutō.
I turned back a moment, from my spot on the sidewalk I could just see the fence surrounding the shouten and it's courtyard. Renji was now on watch? I definitely wasn't going to press my luck.
Not that I'd had all that great luck tonight. I don't know why I thought coming here was any better than the clinic; at least everyone here could defend themselves.
I bit my lip and turned away as I remembered how well Rukia had fought against my hollow. I closed my eyes and dreaded hearing his maniacal laughter echoing in my head my lips moving over a silent curse directed at the bastard.
Not the expected reasons were behind it; mostly the paltry memory of what she tasted like angered me. I had the knowledge secondhand and there would be no way to experience it myself. Not yet anyway.
I promised myself I would get through this training and come back to her. I would make time before the war started.
If she would have me that is. I wouldn't blame her, I'm a monster.
Where do you suppose you are going?
I gave a strangled gasp and went still as a soft voice murmured in my mind. I quickly spun on my heel only to let my eyes slam shut as I was seized by vertigo after finding myself standing on the normally vertical face of a skyscraper. As my inner world wasn't subject to normal gravity I was standing on it as if it was horizontal.
I was in my shinigami form of course but I took little notice of that since I never came to this place totally alone. My eyes fell on, not Zangetsu, or my hollow but a complete stranger. Here. How?
I had thought my time was already up but the words that had echoed in my head and the figure that stood in front of me wasn't my hollow."Um, who are you?"
The woman was short, about the same height as Rukia, hairstyle longer but achingly similar, but everything else about her was different. Rukia's skin was pale but this rendition's was like snow. "Baka," She shook her head softly her long, soft blue hair falling in her eyes, so familiar that I was reaching forward to move it out of her face with a fingertip before I realized.
The nearly floor-length sleeves of her white kimono danced as something cold and hard slapped against my bared wrist knocking it away from her face. There was imperceptible silver thread run through her furisode that caught the light just as well as the shining white of the blade in her hand.
My gaze left her eyes, like shards of hard, pale blue ice, and looked between us at the sword clutched in her left hand. The blade, the guard, the hilt were all white, taking the sun of my inner world and sending it shining into my face. I lowered my hand and stepped back, just incase doing otherwise would be seen as a sign of hostility. "S-Sode no Shirayuki?"
Although she seemed to have mastered Rukia's aloof exterior there was a cold detachment about her eyes that her master didn't have. She lowered her arm and the long white ribbon extending from the hilt curled beautifully on the glassy surface of the skyscraper. "Where do you suppose you are going?"
I started to answer but I was overwhelmed by darkness and my heart jumped again into my throat only to settle as my eyes were met with the dark sidewalk and the shouten fence. I looked around but I was truly alone again, what the hell was that? Rukia's zanpakutō dragging me into my inner world? What did she want?
Did Rukia send her?
Rukia had seemed okay earlier. Yoruichi's words about her tears resonated in my mind as I found my feet shuffling forward. Renji had done his bit at consoling at her and they were longtime friends.
"Konbanwa, Kurosaki-kun!" Tessai took me by surprise as I walked through the dark storefront toward the shoji doors, jumping--okay he didn't jump--out at me from the dark.
I was using my socked toe to wiggle my other sneaker off when the larger man was suddenly in front of me. I dislodged my other sneaker and stepped back through the open doorway as a hand landed heavily on my shoulder and we both sunk onto pillows scattered around the small table in the center of the room. "Konbanwa Tessai-san."
"Be still," He murmured as he peered so closely into my eyes that I could see his eyes squinting through his tiny glasses. I swallowed audibly as he found whatever he was looking for (or didn't?) and gave me a grin. "What brings you here so late?"
"Rukia…" I stuttered to a halt. What? Her zanpakutō kind of invited me? That would be everyone's last straw on the validity of my sanity I'm sure.
"Ah," Tessai nodded softly without waiting for the rest of my answer and pointed with a jab of his thumb over his shoulder. "She's the last room on the right."
"You might wanna hop to it," A familiar shrill voice chirped. "Kon ran in when Abarai-san stormed off," Ririn appeared through the second set of shoji doors and hopped up on the table with a small grunt, I suppose the jump was high for her stuffed animal body.
I looked back to meet Tessai's eyes, now hidden behind the glare of his tiny glasses before I pulled myself up to my feet and padded down the hallway and knocked softly on the frame of her door.
I frowned at the terse order, the voice was still strong but I easily detected the tremble, "Its Ichigo--"
"No shit," Kon's voice pierced the door even easier than Rukia's followed promptly by a thud and the lion's grunt of pain. "You've got some balls Ichi-baka--Mmgh!!" Another solid thud.
"Do you want to leave?" Rukia whispered angrily and Kon's answer was a whine, then silence. "I don't want to talk to you," She called through the door to me.
"Well I need to talk to you," I checked the door and it slid open. Yes, I barged in unannounced, sort of. "Rukia…"
She was still in her shinigami form, laying on a futon under a pile of blankets clutching Kon like he wasn't a mod soul but just a normal stuffed animal. For comfort. It wasn't apparent that she was crying but I still couldn't see her eyes from across the room.
"Get out of that!" Rukia snapped as I moved toward her and I felt her spiritual pressure flared sharply. I stumbled back as something slapped across my chest, a shove of her reiatsu.
I retreated to the hallway as her reiatsu vanished as she powered down and didn't hesitate to use my badge. I knew it wasn't a good idea but she could easily see my mask if I lost control.
Besides, I think I've already mentioned a few times that I should be looking for Shinji while staying away from anyone else.
Rukia sat up, Kon still clutched in her arms. No wonder he shut up, the only thing that'll keep him busy at home was one of otousan's Bomb magazines, no surprise real breasts in his face would be an effective muzzle.
"Neesan said I could stay if I shut my mouth!"
I didn't argue just moved back into the room, after leaving Zangetsu with my body in the hall. I closed the door; I didn't want to be alone with her. Couldn't be.
"I'm here to tell you what I told Inoue," I tried my best to ignore Kon, who was honestly looking like he was doing the same to me. "I can't be with anyone right now."
"Kon, go outside."
"Kon!" Rukia did a good impression of a baseball pitcher with Kon. As I moved into the room he flew past me and I think I heard him hit the door but I didn't move my gaze from Rukia. "Baka!"
"Kuchiki-sama allow me to clear your hallway," Tessai's voice called through the miraculously intact shoji door and I glanced over my shoulder to see his head pop around the doorjamb as he pushed it open enough to accommodate his face.
"Domo arigatou gozaimasu!" Rukia chimed in a soft slightly happier voice.
Tessai nodded and closed the door, after retrieving Kon, who was out for the count. "Oyasuminasai Kurosaki-kun, Kuchiki-sama!"
I sighed as I turned back to catch the soft smile on Rukia's face before it faded and I was finally close enough to catch her eyes. "I'm sorry."
Rukia sat with her back against the wall, pulling her knees up to hug them instead of the missing mod soul, still wrapped in blankets. "Sorry for what? The almost sex, or the--"
"What! What do you think?" I blurted out as her voice started to get uglier. "I will learn how to control it. Lock it up."
"Ichigo," Rukia shook her head. "I have this belief..." She gave a small shrug of one shoulder as she kept her eyes on the edge of the futon. "The only thing that keeps a soul from being a hollow is their heart; their goodness...whatever it is that's in a soul that makes up love, happiness, pride, victory..."
"Pride?" I lifted an orange eyebrow.
"Humility too..." She sighed in a frustrated way, but only because she couldn't find words effective enough to explain herself. "It's a weird belief...got a problem?"
"No, no," I grinned and shook my head softly.
Another sigh, long and drawn out and she leaned forward to catch my hand. "Remember that on your mission to control him--Oh!...don't forget determination."
I threaded our fingers together the feeling of just holding her hand making me feel monumentally better. "I needed plenty of that to regain my shinigami powers."
"Urahara's training must have been intense. I don't know how a shinigami is made..." Rukia admitted. "The only ones I know where born in soul society or were souls that were sent there already with the spiritual energy at an unusual level...That plus six years at the Academy."
I frowned, "You have to go to school to be a shinigami?" I didn't want to focus on the unspoken question in Rukia's voice. Urahara would be better equipped to handle that explaination; I still don't get all of it.
Rukia smiled and looked up, her violet eyes almost clear of tears as they met mine. "You could use a few years at the Shinōreijutsuin."
"What?" I scoffed, pretending to be outraged but I couldn't hide the grin. "I'm already in school."
Yet another sigh spilled from her lips and her eyes flickered down to where our arms bridged between us. "Wouldn't you want to learn Kidō?"
I'm sure my eyes lit up at the idea, Rukia laughed softly as she caught my eye again. I could use my spiritual pressure offensively but only like Rukia had done earlier, brute force like a fist or a wall.
"Would I have to go to be in the Gotei?"
Her eyes widened with an audible gasp, "No." Her voice came out softly and suddenly the poignant girl was back. The one I saw in soul society…like the hollow had said I'd always noticed how freer she seemed in the World of the Living.
This time the "Good-Bye" face was from something she'd thought, in reaction to my question? "What's wrong Rukia?"
"Besides one of my comrade-in-arms having a crisis?" Her voice was now huskier, the light reflecting on a fresh sheen of tears in her eyes.
Of course said "crisis," was there in the back of my mind, just a tension, a paranoid awareness for a niggling hollow voice. At the forefront was what I--it, what it had done to Rukia and sandwiched in-between a whole hell of a lot of guilt.
"Listen," I could hear the certainty leave as the word left my lips. "I-I really am very sorry Rukia..."
"Just…" Rukia shook her head her hair in her face but I still saw the tears escape onto her pale cheeks. "Just get stronger!" She growled and her fingers gripped tight in mine. "Okay?"
"Hai!" I lowered my head after a few nods and was surprised when Rukia tugged on our joined hands.
"C'mere," Rukia whispered but the low volume of her voice didn't make the words lose an ounce of authority. Then her pull became more insistent and I lowered to brace a knee on the edge of the futon. "Baka."
"Rukia…" I couldn't stay; I'd already been here too long. I wanted to comfort her but--damn it--I shouldn't even be near her! "I can't--"
"Teme…" Huffed out of her lips, the scowl on her face mirrored one of my usual expressions. She rocked forward and pulled her legs underneath so she could move forward on one hand and both knees to meet me where I'd stalled at the edge of the futon.
The taste of her lips was so much better than the shade of my hollow's memory. I caught the salt of tears as my tongue ran along the seam of her mouth.
I pulled back and almost went cross-eyed trying to meet her eyes. "I have to go."
"I don't know if it'll stay under control, I can't stay," I was glad to hear how steady my voice was. I was sure of my words.
Yes even if I was here, where I hadn't meant to go, I knew better. I was too selfish, guided by my dick. I know I love her but I should want to leave her to keep her safe--like Orihime.
Did that mean I loved one more than the other? I couldn't protect anyone from that fucking hollow not even myself.
"Then why did you barge in so rudely at such an ungodly hour?" I could tell from the cool way she asked me that she was upset at my rejection but her face was still relaxed, no real expression to guide me. It was obvious that I wouldn't be leaving Rukia any happier than before I'd shown up.
"I don't know."
"You don't know huh?" Rukia mumbled in a derogatory tone. "You didn't figure out how to let Inoue down softly then?"
That question stopped me; I froze where I stood my legs brushing the futon my hand still joined with hers. Was that it? I really wouldn't have described it like that, she had fallen asleep crying. Thinking about it reminded me of how guilt-ridden I still was, how dare I forget? I can't be with anyone right now.
I was able to resist Orihime entirely nude; Rukia in a soft lavender kosode shouldn't be…
"I shouldn't have come here, I've put you in danger again," I shook my head wanting to kiss her good-bye, but I made myself turn and walk away.
"Bakudō number four," Barked out behind me. It was followed quickly by, "Hainawa!"
"Rukia--" I spun a moment too late and I felt the warm sizzle of the rope of spiritual energy coil around my forearm with the snap of a whip.
The small shinigami was on her feet the rope clutched in her hand. "If I want you to protect me I'll let you know," She murmured as she closed the distance her eyes bright with anger. "I'm a member of the Kuchiki house for a reason!"
"I'm not--" I protested as I kept tension in the rope of light as I continued to try and escape. "Let me go Rukiammmghf--"
Like the kidō I was taken unawares by a shunpo and soon I was sandwiched between the tiny warrior and the frame of the door her small hand slapped over my mouth. "Do you remember what I told you before I left Inoue's?"
Although it had only been a few hours ago, it felt like an eternity. "You told me you understood…" I watched her make a sour face at my selective memory. I was trapped by a deadly, sexy noblewoman; her soft body pressed to mine making the situation much more awkward, for me at least.
"I said you would have a fight on your hands Kurosaki…" She whispered my surname the bulk of the warning coloring it as she drew out the syllables, letting them roll off her tongue as she let her hand slip from my mouth to rest on my chest. "So you can pick..." Her face moved a few inches closer as she lifted up on her tip-toes but it still wasn't enough to close the distance between our faces. "You can fight me until he shows up and I have to introduce him to Sode no Shirayuki..."
"Forget about him and stay with me."
"But what if--"
"Baka..." Suddenly she was gone, her weight off of me and the charge of her kidō gone. My eyes followed her as she walked away from me and back to her futon. "Leave then, Oyasuminasai," She tossed over her shoulder and I was stuck to my spot as if she'd done some other kidō without an incantation or a word of command.
"Are you just going to stand there?" Came over her shoulder again and before I could make myself turn away I saw the fabric of her kosode slip off her shoulders to expose her narrow shoulders. "Ichigo..." Her voice was soft but I heard it easily in the quiet room. "Go away."
That sounded like the worst idea ever, even worse as the soft purple fabric slid down to bare more smooth skin. She glanced over her shoulder to catch my gaze as I drank in each inch of skin and had to yank the kosode back up onto her shoulders to get me to meet her gaze. "Rukia?"
"Are you leaving?"
"Y-yes..." I whimpered and made myself turn away and slip out the shoji door. I stood there a moment staring at the floor of the hallway my mind occupied with the movements behind me even as I wondered where my body had gone. I didn't look back on purpose as I reached to slide the door shut again.
There was a faint mutter of, "Baka," Then her bare feet slapping across the floor of her bedroom. I was in the midst of turning toward her when my eyesight was blocked as she threw something over my head before slamming the shoji door shut.
I pulled the soft fabric off of my head and looked down to find her kosode clutched in my hands. Damn.
I glanced downward distractedly as my teenage mind started off imagining what was behind that door, and Ririn was walking down the hallway toward me. "Do you need--"
"Kon took your body!"
"What!" I turned and started down the hall and found Zangetsu, still sheathed and resting on a few pillows on the table. "Kon!"
The small stuffed lion was discarded in the corner of the room and I moved to pick it up, resisting the urge to strangle it. Better to wait until he was back inside it.
Ririn was running to catch up with me as I started to leave the shouten. "Kurosaki-san! Tessai-san already went after him!"
"What?" I took a deep breath before I threw the stuffed animal back to the floor as if the mod soul was still in it.
"Tessai-san told me to tell you to wait for him to come back," Ririn said timidly. "He's only been gone a few minutes."
I cursed and had to close my eyes and take a deep breath to calm myself, it was never good when I felt violent, angry. It was like fate was conspiring against me.
"Is that Kuchiki-san's?"
I looked down at the purple cotton still clutched in one hand.
I could kiss that filthy perverted mod soul.