Crossover with Kyou Kara Maou. “More strange worlds and weird people. Just what we need.” Ichigo looked at Shibuya Shouri walking away, and shrugged. “Hey, at least he’s not trying to kill ...
Note: Author's Notes at the end of the story.
“I thought the one advantage to letting you drag me along on this shopping trip would be that we wouldn’t have to go after Hollows,” Ichigo grumbled. He was in shinigami form and moving as fast as he could without going into flash-step.
“Shows how wrong you were,” Rukia answered, following close behind. Her eyes were still locked on her Hollow radar. “Just because we’re not in Karakura Town doesn’t mean a Hollow can’t show up here.”
“Yeah, but this place has a shinigami assigned to it as well, right? Can’t he take care of it?”
“He’s probably busy. There’s a bounty on this one.” Rukia was looking around. “This way.”
“I know that.” Ichigo changed direction at the same time Rukia did. “You know, I wonder what you do with all that bounty money. I haven’t seen any of it, and you keep making me pay for stuff all the time.”
“School fees. And there’s a lot more that I need that I don’t make you pay for, either. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that I haven’t got it.”
Ichigo turned his head to frown at Rukia. “Getting close to too much information, there.” She smiled at him, deceptively sweetly. He shook his head and focused his attention back on the Hollow. They were getting close enough now that they should be able to see it. “What the hell?”
Something that resembled a giant hand shaped out of water rose up, slapped the Hollow that was raring up for an attack, then grabbed it with crushing force and dragged it down among the buildings.
Ichigo halted, trying to puzzle out the storm of spirit energy coming from that direction. The Hollow was still there, but there was something else, too. Probably whatever had caused the watery hand to appear. “That doesn’t feel like a shinigami.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Rukia had stopped beside him. She sounded just as confused as he was. “But that Hollow is still there. We haven’t got time to stand here marveling. Let’s go!”
It didn’t take the two of them long to close the remaining distance. When they arrived at the scene of the Hollow attack – a small park – the Hollow was still there, and still being held down. Save for three people, the park was deserted.
One was a woman fiercely kicking the Hollow. By the way some of her kicks missed, however, Ichigo could tell she couldn’t actually see what she was kicking at. It was probably for the best that a flustered-looking man was trying to hold her back, using his arms to secure her from behind. That way, whenever she lost her balance, he caught her. Both of them were soaking wet.
The third was a man in his mid-twenties. He was dressed like an average university student, though his clothing had lost most of its neatness by being soaked through. He was staring intently at the Hollow, one hand stretched out toward it, the other balled tightly into a fist at his side. When Ichigo moved into this man’s view, he twisted around to face the intruder, simultaneously releasing his hold on whatever held the Hollow down. The shape of the watery hand broke down and the water it contained cascaded down, drenching Ichigo in the process.
“Watch it!” Rukia shouted as the Hollow took flight again. Then she dodged out of the way of the Hollow’s whipping tail. Her sword was already in her hand. Ichigo jumped away as well, cursing his sopping clothes, and had to watch as Rukia dispatched the Hollow with a quick strike.
“That went easily enough,” he said when she landed on her feet next to him. Then he tried to wring some of the water out of his clothes, with little success. “Crap. I’d better not catch a cold because of this.”
Rukia glared at him. “You can’t catch a cold as a soul. Even an idiot like you should know that by now.” She shook her head, then inclined it in the direction of the stranger. “And things wouldn’t have been as easy if he hadn’t exhausted it.”
Ichigo’s reply to her rebuke was forestalled by the stranger. “Who the hell are you people?” He asked. He had positioned himself between them and the other two people in the park. From his posture it was clear he was still on full alert. The two people he was protecting were looking curiously at their protector. “Shou-chan, who are you talking to?” the woman asked. She was ignored. The man kept his attention on Ichigo and Rukia.
“We could ask the same thing,” Ichigo answered him, then shrugged. “But it’s not that big of a secret. If you’re fighting Hollows, you should know, anyway. I’m Kurosaki Ichigo.” He pointed at Rukia. “She’s Kuchiki Rukia. We’re shinigami.” He turned to face ‘Shou-chan’ fully, folding his arms. “Now you want to return the courtesy?”
The stranger relaxed his posture slightly. “My name is Shibuya Shouri.” He pushed his glasses back up his nose, and then inclined his head. “I wasn’t aware of the existence of shinigami, or these ‘Hollows’. Obviously my education is still lacking.”
“Shou-chan!” the woman Shouri had been shielding stepped out in front of him, hands on her hips. “Don’t ignore me. Who are you talking to? And what are you talking about? Is the attacker gone?”
Shouri looked at her, then at Ichigo and Rukia, and frowned.
Rukia took pity on him and stepped forward. “She can’t see us,” she explained. “It takes certain abilities to see spirits, and she doesn’t have them.” She looked around the park, and Ichigo did the same. People were coming back into it. “Perhaps we had better continue this conversation somewhere you wouldn’t stand out so much.”
“Will they be safe if I leave them?”
Ichigo nodded. “That Hollow was probably after you, not them. They’re attracted by strong spirits.”
Shouri considered this, then returned the nod. He turned his attention to the woman, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Mother, it’s fine. The attacker’s gone.” He looked up to address the other man, who had so far remained silent. “Why don’t you take father and go ahead? I’ll explain later.” He gently handed her over to the man. She looked ready to protest, but Shouri was already walking away, and Ichigo and Rukia followed him. Ichigo could hear her sputtering for a little while yet, but Shouri ignored her, so he did the same.
At the edge of the park, Shouri sat down on a bench, offering the other place to Rukia. “This is awkward,” he said.
“Can’t be helped.” Ichigo leaned on the back of the bench, only to be shooed away by Rukia because he was dripping water in her neck. “Oh yeah, thanks for this by the way,” he said to Shouri accusingly, wringing some more water out of a still dripping sleeve.
Shouri looked at him impassively through his glasses and shook a little water off one equally drenched arm. “My control isn’t perfect yet. I apologize.”
“Control of what, exactly?” Ichigo pressed on, taking the opening Shouri had given him. “It’s not something we’ve come across before.” He turned to Rukia for confirmation. “Right?”
Rukia shook her head. “I haven’t, at least.”
“I see.” Shouri paused and looked away for a few moments. “I’m a Mazoku,” he said, then shrugged. “Well, half; but that seems to be enough.”
“Mazoku?” Rukia frowned. She looked as if the word sounded vaguely familiar. After a few moments silence, the fished her mobile out of her sleeve and started typing furiously.
Ichigo gestured at Shouri to go on. He sighed, and then shrugged. “I’m not exactly sure how to describe that further. The term ‘demon’ has on occasion been used, probably because of what you witnessed before.” He nodded in the general direction of the park. “Some of us can call on the elements to aid us. The ability is rare, however. Especially here.”
Shouri leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “I’ve only recently learned how to access these abilities, and I can only really do it if I’m protecting someone. I’m getting better at it, though.” He used one hand to sweep his wet hair out of his face, then rubbed both hands over it. “But I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to hold up if attacks like today’s are a regular occurrence.”
Rukia looked up from her information gathering. “You’ll do fine. You had bad luck because you didn’t know how to fight one, not because you couldn’t handle it.”
Ichigo nodded in agreement. “You saw how Rukia got rid of it; destroy the mask and it’s done for,” he added.
Rukia had returned her attention to her phone, but gave an affirming grunt anyway. After a few more key presses, she replaced her phone in her sleeve and continued. “And they really shouldn’t show up all that often. Mostly, the shinigami should be able to deal with them before they attack anyone.”
Shouri’s shoulders relaxed. “That’s good to hear. The world is dangerous enough.”
“So?” Ichigo asked, then hit Shouri on the shoulder with his fist; something between a punch and a push. “Don’t just worry about it. Get stronger until you’re the most dangerous thing in it.”
Shouri raised an eyebrow at him. “Now there’s an idea,” he said dryly.
Rukia cleared her throat. “I think it’s time we got back, Ichigo.” She looked at Shouri. “And I think your parents will also want to talk to you, Shibuya-san.”
“Yes.” Shouri got up. “Thank you, Kuchiki-san, Kurosaki-kun.”
Rukia bowed slightly, Ichigo threw him a brief salute. “See you around, Shouri.”
Rukia straightened up as Shouri walked away, a slight frown on her face again. “Mazoku are known to Soul Society,” she said, still following Shouri with her eyes. “They came to Earth from another world, just like shinigami do. But their ways of travelling between worlds are far more limited than ours. They’re rare on Earth, and ones that can use their abilities even more so.” She looked up at Ichigo. “As far as Twelfth Squad knows, there’s only one that can: their Maou, the current Mazoku king.” At Ichigo’s look of surprise, she explained further. “To the best of our knowledge, it’s a ceremonial position more than anything. Mazoku are scattered across the human population, so it’s not like they have any real influence on human affairs.”
“Okay, but still…” Ichigo looked in the direction where Shouri had now finally disappeared, then back at Rukia. “It’s not him, is it?”
Rukia shook her head. “Seems unlikely. He said he was just learning.” She considered it for a moment. “But he could be the designated successor.”
“More strange worlds and weird people. Just what we need.” Ichigo scratched his head and shrugged. “Hey, at least he’s not trying to kill me.”
Several weeks later
Tatsuki picked up a sheet of paper that had been ripped out of a magazine. It showed a picture of a man with long white hair modeling the latest fashions of three months ago. “Hey, who lost this?” she asked aloud and held it up. The only people of the class still around to hear her were Ichigo and his friends. The rest of their classmates had gone home already, impatient for the weekend to start.
There were a few seconds of silence. When, after that time, nobody had claimed it, Rukia stepped forward. “Ah, I’ll hold on to it until we find out whose it is.” She hesitantly held out her hand. Her cheeks were reddened.
“You’re blushing,” Ichigo whispered behind her back. That earned him a glare and a hand raised for a slap, which he ducked away from easily.
Ishida tsk-ed. Then he took the picture from Tatsuki to hand it to Rukia. Before he did, he looked at it. “I know this guy. He disappeared, right? I wonder what happened to him.”
Rukia shrugged. “No one knows. He was just gone from a photo shoot one day.”
Orihime glanced over Rukia’s shoulder at the picture. “I always thought he was a lost traveler from another world, looking for his friends. He went away because he found them, and so he could go home.” She stared out dreamily, probably imagining the reunion of this model with a group of his white-haired friends, or something.
Tatsuki laughed and patted Orihime’s head. “You and your imagination. It’s certainly unique.” Orihime just smiled.
“Hey, are you walking home with us?” Ichigo asked while Rukia secured the picture in her school diary.
Orihime’s smile disappeared. She shook her head, then looked down. “No, sorry. I’m going to visit my brother today. It’s been a while.”
“Oh, right.” Ichigo looked away. He was silent for a few seconds. “Don’t be sorry, just go,” he then said gently.
“I’ll go with you, Orihime,” Tatsuki volunteered. “A graveyard’s no place to be alone.”
All of them walked to the school gates together. “See you tomorrow, then,” Ichigo said, waving his goodbyes to Tatsuki and Orihime as they went in one direction and the rest of the group in the other. They were about halfway to his house when Rukia’s phone beeped. The warning it gave wasn’t necessary, as the sensation of Hollows was unmistakable. By the strength of it, there had to be quite a few, and close by. There was something else there, too. Another presence that Ichigo recognized almost immediately. He looked at Rukia.
“Shouri is here?”
Rukia didn’t dignify that with an answer, and Ichigo didn’t wait for one. Neither did the others. They were all running full speed in the direction of the threat before Ichigo’d finished talking. When they’d gotten a little closer, Rukia and Ichigo stopped briefly to get out of their bodies, into shinigami form, but that took but an instant, and they caught up with Chad and Ishida quickly enough.
They found six Hollows attacking a group of six people, who had formed a circle to cover each other’s backs. Right when the group arrived, a great wave of water rose up from the nearby canal and formed itself into a hand. The hand grabbed the head of one of the Hollows and crushed it. Yep, definitely Shouri. “Smash the masks,” someone shouted, as the Hollow dissolved and the hand moved on to a new target, slapping that target away from the group under assault.
Two of the defenders, both carrying swords, broke out of the circle, dashing toward another Hollow. One ran up its tail while the other, someone with long white hair, distracted it by feinting in and out of its strike range.
That was all Ichigo had time to pay attention to, because at that point one of the remaining Hollows noticed him and charged. By the time he’d slashed it in two, his friends and the others had dealt with the rest, too. But not without some casualties. The strangers that had engaged a Hollow together were both injured, the one with the long white hair pressing his left hand to his right shoulder and the other one limping along supported by a black-haired kid with glasses. All of them were also dripping wet, courtesy of Shouri’s party trick.
He said kids, but… now that he had the chance to consider them, three of the group looked to be about Ichigo’s own age, while the other two strangers were adults. And Shouri, of course. The latter was fussing over one of the kids, the black-haired one without glasses. Hindering Shouri in that was the third kid. He had to be a foreigner, with hair that shade of yellow. He was loudly chewing out the black-haired boy for being careless and spineless. He added force to his arguments by gesturing with a sword.
The target of the blonde kid’s ire shook off the tirade as well Shouri’s concerns when he spotted Ichigo looking at him. He stepped closer and bowed. “Thank you for the help, shinigami-san.”
“Kurosaki-kun,” Shouri interrupted, apparently only now realizing exactly who had come to the rescue. “I hadn’t expected to see you here.” He inclined his head slightly. “Thank you once again for the help.”
The boy’s eyes widened and he looked up at Shouri. “This is the shinigami you were talking about, Shouri?” he asked, indicating Ichigo. Then he grabbed Ichigo’s hand and shook it excitedly. “I’m glad I got to meet you, Kurosaki-san. I’m Shibuya Yuuri.”
“Hi. Uh, no problem. ” Ichigo scratched his head. He didn’t really know what to do with all the enthusiasm. It wasn’t as if he’d actually done that much. He decided to let someone else deal with it. He pointed over his shoulder at Rukia. “Rukia stole all the glory back then, anyway.”
“She’s here too? Then I’ll have to thank her as well. Please excuse me.” Yuuri bowed again quickly and trotted off to introduce himself to Rukia, leaving Ichigo with Shouri.
“Your younger brother?” Ichigo asked, seeing that Shouri was still keeping his eyes on Yuuri.
“Why’d you bring him along on whatever you’re doing? Especially here. This place attracts Hollows like nobody’s business.”
Shouri cleaned the droplets off his glasses and replaced them on his nose. “I didn’t bring anyone. He insisted on coming here. I tagged along for his protection, as did the others.” He turned his head to look Ichigo in the eye and forestalled the next question. “As for why we came here, I think he or his friend,” he pointed at the other black-haired kid, the one with glasses, “can explain that much better than I can.”
More introductions followed, with enough bows and handshakes to make Ichigo dizzy. He wasn’t used to this kind of formality. Most of his introductions happened at swordpoint. Anyway, the black-haired kid with glasses was Murata Ken, a schoolfriend of Yuuri’s. The blond kid was Wolfram von Bielefeld. He was apparently Yuuri’s fiancé, which Wolfram was very insistent about and Yuuri treated with a kind of amused embarrassment. Shouri’s look warned Ichigo to not ask any further. For some unexplained reason, the entire group consisted of Mazoku, though only Shouri had displayed any supernatural ability beyond being able to see the Hollows and shinigami.
The swordsman who had run up a Hollow’s tail to cleave the head in two and paid for it with an injured leg was Conrad Weller. The man shook Ichigo’s hand firmly, as if he was hardly injured at all. In fact he needed to be supported by Chad to even remain upright.
The final member of the party – the swordsman with the injured arm -- drew another slight blush out of Rukia. And indeed, he looked just a little familiar, but it was Rukia’s uncharacteristically demure behavior rather than his name, Günter von Christ, that let the coin finally drop. And then Ichigo had to fight to keep a straight face.
“It would seem that even Inoue-san’s imagination is sometimes right,” Ishida remarked under his breath. He didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping a straight face, though. “It’s a pity she’s not here to see it.”
“Shame Orihime’s not here, period,” Ichigo answered him at normal volume. “There’s people here that need healing. She could do a lot of good.” Conrad and Günter were most badly hurt, but Shouri, Wolfram and even Murata also carried cuts and bruises. The only one of the group who wasn’t injured at all was Yuuri. Ichigo spoke up even louder, so that Rukia could hear him from where she was examining Günter’s shoulder wound. “Hey, Rukia—anything you can do?”
Rukia shook her head. “Sorry.”
Yuuri spoke up from next to Conrad. “I don’t think the healing spell Gisela-san taught me works on Earth.” He was crouching down, holding his hands over Conrad’s leg just like Ichigo had seen Orihime do several times, but nothing was happening.
“We could just take them to a doctor,” Shouri suggested.
Ichigo turned his head, surprised. “That works? Wouldn’t there be problems with the whole ‘not human’ thing?”
Shouri pushed his glasses back up his nose. “I’ve been to doctors all my life and I’ve never heard any protests. I’d say there wouldn’t.”
Conrad also spoke up. “The physical differences are small and subtle. People would need to know what to look for in order to notice.”
“So it’s just the spirits that feel different,” Ishida said.
All of the Mazoku looked at Ishida curiously. “I suppose so,” Shouri finally said to him.
“There is a certain difference in feeling between Mazoku and humans,” Günter added. “In Shin Makoku everyone seems able to tell, but I haven’t come across anyone who could distinguish us here, yet. Apart from you, Ishida-sama.” He bowed to Ishida as deeply as his arm allowed, and then did the same toward Ichigo. “And Kuchiki-sama and Kurosaki-san, naturally, but I had supposed that to be a shinigami trait.”
“Yeah, well, whatever, let’s just get them to a clinic, then,” Ichigo said. He wanted to get this over with. He liked Shouri, but he had more important things to do than stand there and chat. Besides, having wounded people just standing around probably wasn’t helping them, either. He checked his mental map of the area. “Damn, I guess my dad’s clinic is closest. He’s going to be asking troublesome questions.” He briefly considered leading them to the next nearest clinic, but then shrugged and discarded that idea. “But it’ll get back to the old man anyway if I take you anywhere else, and then I’ll still get the questions. Let’s go.”
They had to pause briefly on their way to the clinic while Ichigo and Rukia got back into their bodies. The Mazoku had seemed quite shocked when Rukia’s fake body, with its substitute soul, had come walking up while carrying Ichigo’s, and the process of getting back into those bodies had seemed even more intriguing. But most of them had held their curiosity in check for the moment. Ichigo had asked them to pretend their injuries were due to a normal accident, and they had agreed without much protest. The only ones who objected were Shouri and Yuuri; mostly Shouri.
“I didn’t think you would have a family who knew nothing of this business, Kurosaki-kun,” Shouri said to him after the group had gotten underway again. There was a question hidden in the statement, too. “From what I learned, shinigami don’t normally spend much time in the real world. Certainly not enough to have families.” Apparently, Shouri had done his research after meeting Ichigo and Rukia that first time.
“I’m something of a special case,” Ichigo said, causing Shouri to frown. “And that’s a long and complicated story I don’t really want to repeat all over again if it’s not relevant. Let’s just leave it at the fact that my dad and my sisters know nothing about Hollows and shinigami and I’d like to keep it that way. That’s why I asked you to act like Conrad and Günter had fallen in the river, and like we helped you pull them out.”
“Good thing we’re all wet anyway.” Yuuri laughed. “That’ll make it convincing.”
“It’s still disrespectful to keep your family in the dark,” Shouri said, unwilling to let it go that easily. He also shot a look at Yuuri while he said it, for some reason. Yuuri didn’t seem to notice.
“You know what?” Ichigo went on, changing the subject. “I’m curious, too. I thought Mazoku couldn’t travel between worlds, that’s why they were rare here.” If Shouri was trying to one-up him, Ichigo could play along. “But if I heard it right, half of this group comes from over there. So how did you meet, and why are you here?”
Shouri lowered his head so that his glasses reflected sunlight right into Ichigo’s eyes. “They’re sort of a special case, and that’s a long and complicated story we don’t really want to tell,” he said, mimicking Ichigo’s tone. His glasses couldn’t hide his smirk, though. “Let’s just leave it at the fact that we are here, shall we?”
“Shouri, don’t be like that,” Yuuri scolded. “It is a long and complicated story,” he told Ichigo, “and I don’t think there’s time to explain all of it. The important part right now is that I can travel between the worlds and take others with me. And I brought them here because we’re looking for something a previous Maou hid here on earth.”
“Earth as a hiding place for dangerous materials—where have I heard that one before?” Ichigo asked wryly. “Why is it always in my backyard?”
Murata, who had been helping Wolfram support Günter, now hung back and fell into step on the other side of Ichigo. “The earth under Karakura Town has a strong spiritual presence in and of itself. So even if something gave off a strong spiritual signature, it wouldn’t be easy to detect here.” Murata smiled. “This isn’t news to you, is it, Kurosaki-kun?”
There was something about that smile that was extremely infuriating. Murata also seemed to be able to strike that exact same tone Ishida always used if he wanted to get on Ichigo’s nerves. “Yeah, yeah, I get it already,” he said, not wanting a further lecture.
He was setting himself up for disappointment, because Murata continued. “In Shin Makoku, there is a type of stone that will allow anyone to use magic, in some form or another, whether they have the talent for it or not.” He turned his face away again, no longer looking at Ichigo. “When the Mazoku had to give up territory, they collected these stones so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. But keeping all of them stored away in the castle was also dangerous. So part of the collection was sent to Earth. And hidden /here/.”
“But I don’t think it’s right that they’re just lying around,” Yuuri said. “And the countries around Shin Makoku could really use our help right now. Those stones would make a big difference. So here we are.”
“Yes, we are.” There was a lot that Ichigo still wanted to ask, because Murata and Yuuri’s summary explanation had begged more questions than it answered. But they were approaching his father’s clinic, and so the conversation had to be cut off. “Sorry, better warn my dad.”
Ichigo ran ahead to tell his father that he had patients coming in, and so father and son stood together watching at the door as the whole group trouped in.
Kurosaki Isshin grinned as he received his new patients. “Well, well; what have we here? Somebody thought the weather was just right for a swim, did they?”
The others all continued further inside as his father ordered his sisters to get bandages and disinfectants, but Murata paused at the doorway next to Ichigo. “/That/ is your father, Kurosaki-ku… -san?” he asked, seemingly almost dumbstruck. It was a pleasant change.
“Yeah,” Ichigo watched as his dad put on his usual over the top performance of examining his patient’s – Günter’s -- injuries. “I know he acts like an idiot, but he’s a good doc, you know.”
“Ichigo!” Somehow his father had closed the distance between them in a single bound, and aimed a vicious slap at the back of Ichigo’s head. Ichigo evaded it effortlessly, causing his father to nearly lose his balance. “Don’t talk trash about your old man. If you’ve got time to stand around and chat, help me with these bandages so Yuzu-chan can make tea for our guests.”
“They’re not guests, they’re patients,” Ichigo protested, but went to help with the bandages anyway.
“Don’t be an idiot, they’re all soaking wet. At the very least they need to dry out. Our kitchen will do nicely for that. And what about your friends?” He nodded at Ishida and Rukia. “I think you may want to wait in the kitchen, Rukia-chan, Ishida-kun, Sado-san. This could get ugly.”
When the three of them had gone, Kurosaki Isshin disinfected and bound up Günter’s arm with quick and deft movements, then asked him to move it. When Günter didn’t admit to pain, he smiled. “You’ll be ready for another tumble down the canal bank in no time, I don’t doubt.” Then he patted the man on the shoulder, hard enough to hurt in its own right, if the flinch Günter gave was any indication.
He moved on to Conrad, and Isshin let the man spin his imaginary tale of how he’d injured his leg while he examined it. When the story was finished, Isshin looked up. “Have we spoken before? You sound familiar.”
Conrad looked puzzled. “No, I don’t think so.”
Kurosaki Isshin shrugged. “Must be my imagination, then.” He indicated the wound. “This will need a few stitches,” he said, then yelled for his daughter. “Karen! Bring the suture kit.” He took care of Conrad’s injury without the running commentary he’d kept up for Günter, and at the end advised Conrad to stay off the leg as much as possible for a few days, so he wouldn’t tear the stitches. After that, he helped Conrad into the kitchen and moved on to the rest of the group, sending them to join Ishida, Chad, Rukia, Conrad and Günter when he was finished with them. In the end, he shooed Ichigo in there as well.
“There, have fun with your friends. Karen, Yuzu, come help me clean up!”
Ichigo checked if his father had gone out of hearing range. When he was sure that was the case, he closed the door and leaned against it.
The whole kitchen was filled with people. Günter and Conrad sat at the table. So did Yuuri and Murata. Wolfram and Shouri had taken up positions against the wall just behind Yuuri, on either side of him. Even though there were still two chairs free at the table, Rukia had pulled herself up to sit on the kitchen counter and Ishida was leaning against it. Chad was nowhere in sight. Maybe he’d gone home already.
“I’d like to hear some answers,” Ichigo said, addressing all of the Mazoku. “Because so far, the more I’ve heard from you, the less sense it makes.”
“You haven’t been exactly forthcoming either, Kurosaki-kun,” Shouri retorted.
“We’re not the ones who need help.” Ishida spoke up. He struck a nerve with that, because Wolfram, who hadn’t looked all that happy to begin with, now fixed him with a lethal glare. Ishida ignored it. “I’d like some answers too, in fact.” He nodded first at Günter, then at Yuuri. “Like why he keeps trying not to refer to him as ‘His Highness’.”
“Huh?” Ichigo, who hadn’t really paid all that much attention to Günter up to now, turned to look at him. Günter just blushed and cast down his eyes. Yuuri at first buried his head in his hands, but then let his hands drop to the table and smiled nervously.
Wolfram bristled and opened his mouth to say something, but Shouri put a hand on Wolfram’s shoulder to silence him. Shouri pushed himself away from the wall and stood closer to Yuuri. “We’ve told you everything you asked about. Everything you needed to know.” He seemed to have appointed himself the spokesperson for the group.
Or maybe not. “I think we should tell them what they want to know,” said Murata, interrupting Shouri. He wasn’t looking at anyone, only at the surface of the table; the angle of his glasses served very well to conceal his eyes.
Shouri’s eyebrows rose. Then he dropped his head so he could look at Murata. “That’s not what you thought before, friend of my brother.”
Murata nodded, still not looking anywhere. “You’re right, brother of my friend; I didn’t think so before.” Now he looked up a Shouri. “But the situation has changed.”
Shouri had a reply to that, but Ichigo couldn’t hear it because all the Mazoku in the room –except for Yuuri -- decided to pipe in at the same time. The discussion quickly degenerated into chaos, teetering close to a full-blown argument. Ichigo wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise even if he’d wanted to.
“That’s enough.” It was just a single phrase, and not even said all that loudly, but it shut the whole group up. Yuuri, who had said it, now got up from his chair and bowed. “I’m sorry, Kurosaki-san.” He straightened up again. “We weren’t trying to hide anything. We only wanted to avoid long explanations. Please ask your questions.”
“Okay,” Ichigo said, stalling for a little time. He hadn’t expected the easygoing and slightly shy Yuuri to be the one to take charge like this. “Let’s start with what you’re really doing here.”
Yuuri nodded. “We really are looking for a cache of magical stones, Kurosaki-san.” He put his hands together. “A previous Maou collected them from a mine a long time ago when she had to give up the land during a war between humans and Mazoku. She thought it was dangerous to hold on to them.” He raised one hand again, palm up, then closed it and dropped the fist to the table. “So they were sent to earth and hidden.” Yuuri paused for breath, putting both his hands on the table and leaning on it. “But there is peace now, and the countries neighboring Shin Makoku need our help. With the stones, we can help more people, more quickly.”
“How do you know where to find these stones?” Ishida asked. “If they were hidden, then it couldn’t be as easy as just coming here.”
Yuuri turned toward Shouri, making encouraging hand motions. Shouri sighed. “Actually, it was,” he said. “There is a Maou on Earth, too. Part of his duty is to keep track of the artifacts that Shin Makoku sends here.” He adjusted his glasses. “I’m working with him at the moment; it was easy to ask.”
Ichigo saw a triumphant smirk appear on Rukia’s face. She had guessed that Shouri was the next Maou. Shouri hadn’t quite admitted that, but he’d come pretty close, nonetheless. Was that why Günter kept referring to a ‘Highness’? No, that didn’t make sense. And neither did Shouri’s explanation. Not yet, anyway. Ichigo frowned. “But if he’s the king, he didn’t have to tell you anything, right?”
“Shouri asked on my behalf,” Yuuri answered. “Um…” was all that would come out when he tried to continue, though.
Günter, sensing Yuuri’s hesitation, decided to spare Yuuri the trouble. “And the Maou of Earth is still subject to the Maou of Shin Makoku,” he declared proudly. “He’d need a very good reason to refuse His Highness Yuuri any information.”
“What?” Ichigo stared. He couldn’t help himself. This… kid – he was ignoring the fact that Yuuri couldn’t be much younger than himself – a king? No way in hell. Or Soul Society, for that matter. His dad might as well be a shinigami and the king of Soul Society.
“At least that explains the problem with the titles,” Ishida managed to say. Ichigo could hear the suppressed laughter in his voice.
“Um, yes, I mean…” Yuuri didn’t seem to know how to answer. He was stuttering, and even blushing. In the end he settled for grinning sheepishly.
Shouri frowned, but kept silent.
Wolfram wasn’t taking it that well, though. He stepped up next to Yuuri and glowered at Ichigo. “What’s with that reaction? Show some respect!” he demanded indignantly. It really didn’t help. The whole thing felt and looked so ridiculous that Ichigo burst into laughter.
“Oh for crying out loud,” Rukia said, when Ichigo still hadn’t recovered after half a minute. She pushed herself off the counter, walked over to Ichigo and slapped him. Then she grabbed Ichigo’s collar, dragging him down so they were face to face. “You really should know better than to judge someone on just how they look.”
Ichigo worked himself free from Rukia’s grip and rubbed the cheek where Rukia’s slap had landed. “Well, yeah, but…” He gestured at Wolfram and Yuuri, both short among the group of taller adults, and appearing completely powerless. With shinigami, Ichigo could usually get some sense of power. Even little Toushirou (“Captain Hitsugaya,” insisted an echo of the voice of the shinigami in question in the back of Ichigo’s head) carried himself with more authority than Yuuri, despite the latter’s instant silencing of his bickering entourage. And as for Wolfram, he was aggressive enough, but Ichigo had yet to see him do anything worthwhile.
“It is a little funny, though.” said Yuuri in Ichigo’s defense.“I also thought it was a joke at first. And then it turned out my parents and even my brother knew about all this long before I did.”
Ichigo shook his head, trying to clear the last of the laughter from his system. “Okay, fine. But why?”
Yuuri shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“It seems to be a popular practice nowadays, raising the royal succession as a normal person here on Earth,” Murata remarked, infuriating smile in place again. Ichigo didn’t get a chance to ask him to clarify this cryptic remark, however, because the kitchen door burst open suddenly. If his reflexes hadn’t been honed by sixteen years of such surprises, including one year of pretty much constant fighting, it would have hit Ichigo and knocked him out cold.
As Ichigo had expected, his father was standing there, holding four large brown paper bags. “Oh good, our guests haven’t left yet.” He deposited the bags on the table and grinned. He scratched his head theatrically. “You know, I thought I’d spare Yuzu the effort for once and treat the whole family to hamburgers for dinner. I seem to have brought a bit much.” He bowed toward Yuuri as if in supplication, although even without the huge grin it wouldn’t have looked convincing. “Would you do me the honor of helping us dispose of them in a suitable manner?”
“We’d love to, Kurosaki-sensei,” Murata accepted with another bow, apparently speaking for all of them. Ichigo could see Shouri open his mouth to protest, but he kept silent when the rest of the group made no move to join him.
“Thank you for the offer, but I won’t,” Ishida refused when Isshin directed a questioning expression towards him. “I’m going home.” He nodded at Yuuri’s group. “Maybe we’ll see each other again.”
After Ishida had left, Ichigo was sent to round up extra chairs in the house so everyone could sit down comfortably. Dinner was a little awkward at first, but eventually Conrad and Ichigo’s father got a good conversation going that drew everyone in. The discussion continued until so late, in fact, that Isshin ended up offering the beds in the clinic to Günter and Conrad, and futons to the rest of the group. He wouldn’t hear any refusals, either, adding that it would be bad for Conrad’s injuries if he had to be moved all the way across Tokyo to their temporary residence. In the end, he left them no choice but to gracefully accept.
“Your father has been a great help, Kurosaki-san,” Yuuri said to Ichigo the following morning, after the group had said their goodbyes to the rest of the Kurosaki family. “We would have lost a lot of time if we had to travel all the way from home again today.”
Ichigo and Rukia were still tagging along – mostly because Ichigo’s father had all but pushed them out the door and then shut it in Ichigo’s face, telling him to go have fun with his friends. Never mind where Kurosaki Isshin had ever gotten the idea that the Mazoku were Ichigo’s friends. Ichigo was still sticking to the story that he’d helped pull them out of the canal.
Still, he didn’t have anything better to do, not unless a Hollow attacked somewhere, so he guessed he could hang out. They weren’t bad people. He’d helped them out of a nasty situation, they had thanked him politely and they hadn’t given him a hard time about the way he’d helped them. Neither had they ordered him around without explanation. Soul Society could learn something from them, when it came to that.
They were heading into one of the larger parks, one that had a thickly forested hill in the middle of it. This early in the morning on a Saturday, not many people were here. In fact, the park was completely deserted. Ah, peace and quiet.
Or maybe not. As they were partway up the hill, Rukia started looking worried and Ichigo caught the sense of a powerful spirit not too much later. Trouble? Ichigo felt in his back pocket for the badge that allowed him to shed his body and go into shinigami form just in case. The Mazoku didn’t seem to notice anything, though Murata looked at Ichigo and Rukia oddly a few times. And then, when they reached the clearing where, according to Shouri, the stones were buried, they found it already occupied.
The first thing they saw was a white captain’s coat drifting in the wind like a flag. Very quickly after that, it became clear that the coat belonged to Captain Kurotsuchi of Twelfth Squad. A shinigami, but just about the worst of the lot, if Ishida’s stories were to be believed. He looked it, too, his face painted with an inhuman mask and with strange metallic protrusions where his ears should have been.
He was standing over an opened case of rocks that gave off a mild red glow. He held one of them in his hand, studying it. Behind him stood his lieutenant, covered in mud and shoulders slumped from exhaustion. She was holding a shovel.
Captain Kurotsuchi turned around as they approached. He spotted Rukia. “Ah, Kuchiki,” he said. “I commend you for reminding me about the Mazoku and their artifacts. I would never have thought to scan for them otherwise.” He held up the stone as he continued. “These stones certainly do have some interesting potential.” He looked over the group behind her. “And now you’ve brought me a couple of live ones, too. Very well done. These will make excellent test subjects.”
The Mazoku all looked at Rukia suspiciously, and she was quick to try and clear the air of any misunderstandings. “Captain Kurotsuchi,” she began, looking shocked at the captain’s implications.
“Oi, Kurotsuchi,” Ichigo beat her to it. He was behind Shouri and Conrad, but he stepped forward. “They didn’t come here for your amusement, and you know it.”
The captain regarded Ichigo with a look of utter loathing. “Stay out of this, substitute. It doesn’t concern you.”
“Like hell it doesn’t.” Ichigo pointed over his shoulder. “We didn’t save their asses yesterday just to hand them over to you today.” He pulled out his badge and pressed it to his chest. His body dropped away to the ground, leaving Ichigo standing in shinigami form. From the corner of his eye, he saw Rukia abandon her body as well. The substitute soul she put in her body scrambled to pick up Ichigo’s body and get out of the way. Ichigo put his hand on Zangetsu’s hilt. “You’ll have to go through me.”
Yuuri put a hand on Ichigo’s arm. “You don’t have to fight on our behalf, Kurosaki-san. You did enough yesterday.” Ichigo suddenly found himself surrounded by the Mazoku. They had arranged themselves around Yuuri. Shouri was passing out swords from the case he’d carried to Wolfram, Günter and Conrad, despite the latter two’s injuries. The four of them now formed a wall around the kid and Ichigo.
Wait, four? Where had Murata gone?
Oh well, thought Ichigo. There wasn’t time to worry about Murata’s disappearance now. “You’re underestimating what you’re up against,” he told Yuuri.
Rukia positioned herself on the other side of Yuuri. She also had a hand on the hilt of her sword. “Those Hollows from yesterday were small fry compared to a shinigami captain, Shibuya-dono. You would be better off running.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Conrad stated. He was on Yuuri’s right flank, and he had a sword in his hand, but he was currently using it more as a crutch than a weapon.
Ichigo shook his head. With his injuries, Conrad really shouldn’t even be here. “All the more reason to leave it to us.”
“No.” Yuuri sounded adamant. What do you know, he had a stubborn streak. “You shouldn’t go against your own friends. Please stand aside.”
“I am really not that interested in the blather of experimental subjects or minor shinigami,” Kurotsuchi interrupted, sounding bored. He turned to his lieutenant. “Nemu, disable them.”
“Yes, sir,” Nemu acknowledged. Then, with two quick, zigzagging jumps, she was on the group.
She moved fast, far faster than yesterday’s Hollows. Ichigo was used to speeds like this and so he was ready when her first strike came at him, but he wasn’t so sure the Mazoku were likewise prepared. Therefore it came as a surprise when Günter, his sword in his off hand, managed to block Nemu’s strike. With a twist of his blade, he threw her off to the side. There, she collided with some sort of shield that Shouri had summoned. The collision briefly knocked the wind out of her.
Rukia moved to strike, but Nemu had already recovered and rolled away. That brought her close enough to Conrad that she could pull at his injured leg. He screamed with pain and fell to one knee, but he did manage to slash with his sword. When it came back up, there was blood on it.
Rukia struck again, and this time she connected. Her sword pierced Nemu’s right shoulder. Nemu let out a grunt of pain. Then she pulled herself off the blade and calmly stepped forward. Once inside of Rukia’s guard, Nemu struck the other Shinigami in the stomach, making Rukia double over.
Ichigo stepped in to stop Nemu from landing another blow on Rukia, but it wasn’t necessary. Conrad, from his kneeling position, swung his blade in a flat arc, cutting at the back of Nemu’s knees. She evaded it, but it took her too far away to strike Rukia. Instead, she struck at Wolfram, who managed to block it, if just barely. The movement brought her closer to Yuuri.
Shouri roared, and above them dozens of streamers of water from the ponds and fountains in the park twisted themselves into a shape that rushed at his brother’s attacker and threw her back. The water hadn’t taken the shape of Shouri’s signature giant hand. Instead, what hovered overhead was a dragon to rival the release of Toushirou (/“Captain Hitsugaya”/)’s sword.
“Oho! Now things get interesting,” was all that Captain Kurotsuchi said to register his surprise at the fierce opposition. He glanced over to his lieutenant. Nemu stayed down for a few seconds before groggily sitting up. She got no sympathy from him. “Don’t just lie there,” he yelled. “Get on with it, you lazy dog!”
Nemu slowly got up and shook the water out of her face. “Move!” Kurotsuchi commanded again. His lieutenant complied with his order, but it was clearly too slow for his liking. He sighed and put his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Looks like I’ll have to do this myself.” He pulled the weapon. “Scratch out, Ashisogi Jizou!” he called out, and the blade changed into a warped trident.
With a speed that outstripped even Nemu’s, Kurotsuchi shot forward. He initially passed Ichigo by to strike at Günter. The Mazoku managed to interpose his sword between two of the blades and block most of the strike. One prong of the trident, however, passed his defenses and hit him in the throat. Günter fell to the ground immediately, clutching his throat. It sounded like he was suffocating.
Ichigo stepped into the hole in Yuuri’s defenses that Günter had left, raising Zangetsu and wondering when Yuuri was going to do whatever he had planned. Because if it turned out he didn’t have anything planned, asking Ichigo to stand aside would be upgraded from unwise to suicidally stupid.
Ichigo would have to wonder a little longer, because before Kurotsuchi could move on to face him, a bright blue spirit arrow shot between the two of them.
“Still up to your old tricks, Mayuri?” Ishida asked, his voice emanating from a tree at the edge of the clearing.
Ishida did love his grand entrances, and Ichigo cursed himself for giving Ishida the opportunity to make one. But he couldn’t be too angry, because however annoying the spectacle might have been, it meant reinforcements. Better still, Ishida wasn’t alone. Chad and Orihime came running into the clearing as well. Orihime saw that Günter was down and sped to his side, calling up her healing flower spirits. Chad took position next to the still kneeling Conrad.
Kurotsuchi, however, wasn’t impressed. “If it isn’t the Quincy.” He flicked his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Go play elsewhere. I’m busy.”
“Not just yet.” Ishida had drawn up another arrow and now loosed it squarely at Kurotsuchi. He blocked it while barely even looking. Then he fixed Ishida with a yellow-eyed glare. “You are not as strong as you were. Leave now.” When his answer was another arrow from Ishida, he didn’t bother with any further warnings. “Nemu,” he ordered, “deal with him.” And he was moving again, striking at Shouri this time.
The water dragon came down and washed over Kurotsuchi, but he was already moving on. Nemu was moving as well, attacking mainly Ishida, but also striking at other members of the group as opportunities presented themselves.
Ishida was the only one of their group free to move, and he couldn’t shoot freely because of all the friendly targets. Ichigo cursed Yuuri once again for his unwillingness to get away. Right now, he had a place in a fixed defense, so all he could do was block strikes coming at him and attack enemies coming into his range. He could do a lot better if he had some maneuvering room. But if he stepped out of the circle to engage one enemy, the other would have room to strike at Yuuri.
And right now, the two of them were whittling down the defenses. Orihime was crouching right next to Yuuri. She was done with Günter and was now working on Conrad, but Günter didn’t seem to be ready yet to join the fray again. Chad was doing a good job of keeping Conrad and Orihime safe, but Wolfram especially was struggling. For all his bravado, if Rukia hadn’t been drawing off most of the attacks that might have been meant for him, he would have been down already.
And then something happened. Ichigo didn’t see the exact moment because he was busy fending off an attack from Nemu, but when he looked back Rukia was down, and Kurotsuchi was just finishing a strike that would take out a just recovered Conrad. It did. That left an opening. Kurotsuchi stabbed forward, driving his three blades inexorably toward Yuuri. Wolfram let out a war cry and tried to interpose himself, but he was just a little too far away at the wrong angle. The longest prong of Captain Kurotsuchi’s trident was only a few inches away from Yuuri’s chest. There it stopped. Orihime, still kneeling on the ground, had summoned her shield right in front of Yuuri.
Shouri’s dragon swept in again to push the captain back to a safe distance, but that threat had also been enough to finally set off Yuuri. He screamed. The sudden flood of spirit energy emanating from the kid made Ichigo take several steps away from him. Probably a good thing, because with the winds spiraling up around Yuuri it would have been hard to move in his immediate vicinity.
Somehow, Yuuri seemed taller, and the wind whipping his hair around made it seem longer, too. And the sense of power was … overwhelming, especially coming from who it did.
“Now I get why they made him Maou,” Ishida said into the winds.
Kurotsuchi picked himself up and dusted off his robes. “This kind of power is good,” he said, sounding really pleased with himself. “Well, then let’s get serious, shall we? I may have to kill one or two of you, but happily there are enough to go around.”
“This is bad.” Shouri had stayed next to Ichigo. He was panting with effort, but his exhaustion still couldn’t mask the worry on his face. “Yuuri can’t keep this up for long outside of Shin Makoku.” He raised a hand, then clenched it into a fist. “There’s a way to share power, but I don’t know how to do it myself. Murata’s the one who knows how.” He cursed. “Where’s that damn coward run off to this time?”
Kurotsuchi held his sword in front of his face, almost in a traditional fencing salute. He spoke one word.
‘That damn coward’ Murata had, in fact, been running from the moment he’d become aware of who had beaten them to the cache of stones. He’d run all the way back to the Kurosaki clinic, knocking on the door with some urgency.
“It’s open!” Isshin called out.
Murata entered, slamming the door behind him and, when he saw that Kurosaki Isshin was alone, bowing deeply. “My utmost apologies for the interruption, my lord, but I must beg for a favor.”
Isshin turned his swivel chair so he sat facing Murata. A few beats of silence followed. Finally, Isshin asked, “Which is?”
“That Soul Society recognizes the state of Shin Makoku, and grants freedom from interference to its sovereign.”
There was another long period of silence. The answer, when it finally came, wasn’t quite what Murata had expected. Kurosaki Isshin laughed.
“As expected from the Great Sage of the Mazoku,” he said after his brief period of mirth had passed. “I didn’t fool you for a second, did I, old friend?”
Murata straightened up and shook his head. “It’s been a very long time since I was a Royal Guard. But I don’t think I could ever forget my charge.”
“I strived to be memorable.” Isshin smiled again, but this time with more regret than joy. “Unfortunately, these days I’m striving very hard to be unmemorable. And the thing about being incognito is that I can’t go around handing out royal edicts. I’d get laughed at.” He shook his head. “I’ve already done all I can to help you. Ichigo is a good man and he can take care of himself. He’ll help you to the best of his abilities, and I daresay that means something.”
“Against a captain of the Thirteen Protection Squads? While protecting someone else?”
Isshin laughed so hard he had to wipe tears out of his eyes. Then he coughed. “ I understand your worries, my friend, but if you say something like that, then you really don’t know my son yet.” He frowned, turning his head in the direction of the park Yuuri and the others were. “But I think you will soon be needed elsewhere.” He looked Murata over, who was still breathing a little heavily from the long run. “Can you make it back?”
Murata followed Isshin’s gaze out the window to see a grayish dragon soaring over the park. “I’ll have to.”
Isshin considered things for another heartbeat, then picked up his car keys and tossed them around in his hand. He stood up. “There’s one thing I can still do. Get in the car; I’ll give you a ride.”
Isshin drove Murata to the park. From there the run was manageable. Murata arrived just in time to hear Shouri call him a coward and demand to know where he’d run off to. Then he heard the shinigami captain announce his Bankai. It took the form of an enormous caterpillar-like creature with the head of a baby, many times the size even of the dragon Shouri still maintained. Noxious vapors emerged from its mouth.
It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Murata scrambled up to Shouri and Ichigo. “I was exploring other strategies, brother of my friend.” Murata decided that debating the use of the term ‘coward’ now would be counterproductive. Besides, he had always believed that discretion was the better part of valor. That didn’t mean he ran away when it really mattered.
Shouri’s head twisted around, his eyebrows rising with surprise at Murata’s sudden appearance. As soon as he’d processed Murata’s remark, he asked, “And?”
“And they didn’t pan out. I think we had better help Shibuya now.” He grabbed Shouri’s hand and pulled him around the clearing to a position where they would have better sight of Shibuya. Also where they wouldn’t be in between Shibuya and the captain when the former unleashed whatever he was going to do.
He saw the case of stones, abandoned for now, and he frowned. Surely someone would have put two and two together? Apparently not, because Wolfram was still standing as close to Yuuri as the storm would let him, sword at the guard, as if that was all he could do.
“Sir Von Bielefeld!” Murata called out. “Get to the stones!”
Wolfram twisted to look at Murata, panic on his face. Then he followed the direction of Murata’s outstretched arm to the case of stones, and his mouth dropped open as he realized what Murata meant. He started running. The shinigami lieutenant moved to take advantage of the opening, but Chad intercepted her with a well-aimed punch.
The earth around Shibuya started to rise up, forming itself into a vaguely humanoid shape as enough soil and sand accumulated. As soon as a single arm had formed, the golem started striking at the giant caterpillar, not at all bothered by its bite or the vicious blades on the underside. The caterpillar was smashed around, but it took the battering reasonably well.
When the golem had fully formed, it toppled over. Right on top of both the captain and his creature, burying them under a few tons of dirt. Shibuya sagged, still holding on to his magic, but clearly tired. Murata stretched out his arm, focused on his own magic and started sending the energy to Shibuya.
“Spirits of fire and flame, obey this proud Mazoku!” Wolfram’s chant rang out. He was standing on the magical stones, and he sent a lion shaped out of flames roaring at the mound of earth. The topsoil of this clearing had been covered with twigs and dry leaves, and all of them caught fire now.
Shibuya straightened, his energy temporarily replenished. With a flick of his hand, he sent winds raging in a cyclone above the burning mound, bringing in more oxygen and creating a hotter flame.
Murata reached out for Shouri’s hand, intending to share his strength with Shibuya, too, but Shouri was gone. When Murata could spare a fraction of his concentration to look for him, he saw Shouri had coiled his water dragon around the edge of the clearing and around the other people in their group. The dragon was already visibly shrinking as the water in it evaporated from the heat.
Shouri clearly couldn’t spare his strength. Then it was up to Murata and Shibuya. Thankfully, this onslaught seemed to have done the trick.
When Yuuri finally let go of the magic and dropped to his knees in exhaustion, the outer layer of the mound of soil had a glassy sheen to it.
Ichigo walked up to it and put a hand to it. He pulled back immediately and stuck his fingers in his mouth. “It’s hot!”
“We didn’t kill him, did we?” Yuuri asked. He was leaning heavily on Günter, who had finally recovered from his paralysis.
Rukia shook her head. “Him? It’s unlikely. Captains are really hard to kill, and Captain Kurotsuchi more so than most, I hear. But I think it’ll take him a while to get out of that.” She smiled at Yuuri. “You’ll be able to get home safely.”
“Thank goodness.” The relief in Yuuri’s voice was palpable. “I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble with your friends for standing by us.” He let go of Günter to bow shakily to Rukia. “Thank you very much, Kuchiki-san.” Then he turned toward Ichigo and repeated his bow. “And you too, Kurosaki-san, for wanting to protect us.” Now Yuuri turned to look around the clearing. “Is everyone else alright, too?”
There were various sounds of acknowledgement. Yuuri spotted Orihime where she was healing a cut that Ishida had sustained. He walked over to her and bowed as well, more deeply than he had for Rukia and Ichigo. “We haven’t even been introduced, but you just jumped in to help us. I don’t know how much to thank you. I’m Shibuya Yuuri.”
“Ah, that’s alright,” Orihime responded with a bow of her own. “Ishida-kun told me about all of you this morning. I’m Inoue Orihime, pleased to meet you.”
“Thank you again, Inoue-san. Thank you, everyone.”
“Don’t mention it,” Ichigo broke off the cascade of thanks. “You’ve got what you came for now, right?”
“Yes,” Murata answered him. “And you were a great help. If there is ever anything we can do to repay you, please ask.”
“Um, about that,” Rukia said. She retrieved a picture of Günter from somewhere inside her robes. “I didn’t know quite when to ask, but…” She presented the picture to Günter, along with a pen. “Do you think I could have an autograph?”