03 October 2007 @ 09:46 pm
Part II  
And now we enter the part of the story which was not only the hardest for me to write, but also that I'm most nervous about in general.

Title: Push Comes To Shove - Part II
Author: [livejournal.com profile] aoife_hime
Fandom: Bleach
Rating: Teen (overall)
Word Count: 4860
Summary: For better or for worse, Tatsuki can't bring herself to tell anyone her secret until eventually it's forced from her.
Notes: Story picks up in the middle of Chapter 239 of the manga (roughly where the anime is at currently, I think... I haven't been following it closely so I'm not entirely sure), so beware of spoilers. However, beyond that everything is of my own imagining, and thus is AU. This is part three of four.

Link to Part I
Link to Interlude

Push Comes To Shove
Part II

They return exactly four days after the day Tatsuki stays home sick from school. That day she stayed home because she could barely bring herself to get out of bed, though by the next morning she was feeling perfectly fine. It confused her, and she still has a nagging suspicion that her illness wasn’t entirely physical, but there was no one to ask at the time so she let things be. Then on the fourth day, she feels their presences return to the world, their familiar, friendly pressures weighing in on her mind. She nearly jumps out of her seat from the overwhelming sense of relief, but forces herself to act with more restraint. She asks to be excused to the bathroom and in seven steps is off school grounds completely, racing towards the spot where she can feel they are.

Tatsuki slows as she gets closer, apprehension building in her chest. It has been weeks, over a month in fact since she last saw any of them – they’re bound to have changed during that time, just as she has. Will the reunion between them be awkward? Will her friends be so different that she’s not important in their eyes anymore? These thoughts keep racing around her head nauseatingly the last few blocks. But as soon as she rounds the corner and her friends come into view, each walking as slowly as the other, those thoughts evaporate. She races the last few meters and launches herself at Orihime, enveloping her friend in a giant hug.

Usually, Tatsuki isn’t one for hugs. Hugs are something feminine girls do; Tatsuki tends to just give an encouraging punch on the shoulder, if anything at all. But this time is special. The sense of relief she feels at actually seeing her friends alive in front of her is overwhelming and she just wants to touch them all to make sure they’re really real and not some sort of figment of her overactive imagination. Orihime is solid, though, and Tatsuki figures that means the others are as well. The laugh that escapes her is mixed with a sob, and she holds her friend tightly as unbidden tears leak out the corners of her eyes.

“I’m so glad you’re all alright,” she says, and she can feel Orihime’s tears trailing down her neck as her friend practically squeezes the life out of her, returning the hug.

The day was long in coming, but finally her friends are home.

~#~#~#~

Tatsuki doesn’t go back to school the rest of the day, but instead follows the group as they go their separate ways. She doesn’t ask about what happened in that place behind the sky and none of them volunteer anything either. There really is no need for words; their somber faces tell enough tales as it is, none of which are entirely happy. They all feel different as well: their energies are bigger, stronger than before they left, but at the same time they’re weary and in need of rest. A heavy silence hangs over them as they walk through the quiet residential streets, and to break it Tatsuki talks about what’s been going on since they left: how much of a pain their teacher has been, what sorts of punishments she has created, which sports teams are doing well, even what the weather has been like. What she doesn’t talk about is what she’s been doing during their absence. As with Ichigo’s dad and sister, she can’t bring herself to let her friends in on her little secret. Besides, if any of them sense she’s different from before, they don’t say anything.

Sado is the first to break off from the group, followed by Ishida. When they reach the parting corner, Tatsuki is about to follow Orihime back to her apartment when Ichigo asks if he could maybe talk to her. Orihime smiles and nods encouragingly, though Tatsuki can’t help but notice the smile is a little sadder than usual – it doesn’t quite reach her eyes and Tatsuki has a suspicion that it will be a while before she sees her friend truly smile again in that carefree manner. She goes on her way back to the apartment alone, and Tatsuki decides when she’s done she’ll make her friend a huge dinner and not leave her alone for the rest of the night so that she won’t be lonely.

When Orihime is out of view, she turns back to Ichigo, only to find him watching the spot where Orihime disappeared around the corner, a serious expression on his face. Tatsuki doesn’t know what happened while they were gone from this world, but she doesn’t want to bring it up now. It may be selfish, but she’s still so happy about their return that she doesn’t want to mar it with talk of what happened. That is a story for another time.

She and Ichigo walk in silence for a block. Tatsuki watches her breath evaporate in little clouds on the chilled late autumn air and waits for her friend to speak his mind. “You aren’t still mad at me, are you?” Ichigo asks eventually, rewarding Tatsuki’s unusual bout of patience while kicking some loose pebbles on the sidewalk and resolutely not looking up. “I’m sorry I said those things to you before I left. Really sorry. I just… I didn’t want you to worry -”

“Idiot. We’ve been friends for how many years? I’m not going to stop worrying just because you were a jerk. I’ve been worried every day since you and Orihime and everybody left.”

He turns and looks at her at this, his expression incredulous. “You punched me through a window! I thought I did a good enough job.” Ichigo pauses, his eyes returning to the spot on the street. “I’m sorry.”

Ichigo looks so serious – almost depressed, in fact – that Tatsuki feels the need to make him smile again. He gets scary when he gets moody – she remembers that much from her childhood. “You’re repeating yourself – you said that twice already. I’m not losing my memory, you know!” Her words succeed in producing a smile on his face, albeit a lopsided one: the one corner stays resolutely fixed in a frown position and, as with Orihime, Tatsuki realizes that it will be a while before her friend is able to smile wholly again.

An overwhelming urge to kick the asses of all the bastards who did these things to her friends sweeps over her, and she clenches her fist so tightly her nails seem to almost pierce the fabric of her mittens and delve into her palm. She realizes that her friends probably already kicked those bastards’ collective asses, but that doesn’t mean she feels the desire to do her own bit of damage any less.

“So… are we cool?” Ichigo asks, a little worried. He’s looking at her in that apprehensive way that just makes her want to roll her eyes, smack him and say ‘duh!’.

Tatsuki punches him in the shoulder lightly instead, just in case he has any injuries she doesn’t know about. Sometimes she wonders how he can be so smart and yet so stupid at the same time. “Yeah, we’re cool.”

~#~#~#~

It’s a long process getting her friends caught back up in everything. In school, they’re so behind that it almost isn’t funny even though watching the teacher jump through hoops to get them back up to speed can be entertaining at times. Sado, Ishida, Orihime, and Ichigo are all top-level students, though, and within weeks they’re all mostly caught up on work and material. When Tatsuki sees the stacks and stacks of homework Orihime brings home every night while she’s cooking dinner for her friend, she’s almost glad that she was too weak to go off and fight – there’s no way she’d ever be able to make up all that work, not even if she had one hundred years.

Despite the fact that all her friends are all back, Tatsuki doesn’t stop training. While they’re all busy studying things that have long since slipped out of her memory since the first time the teacher taught the material, Tatsuki is working at becoming faster, stronger, more accurate with her kicks and putting more energy into her punches. Her grace and balance is increasing with each training session as well; she wouldn’t be surprised if she could balance on the top of a fence given only a few more weeks of practice. Before and after school she darts around the clearing in the woods near the cemetery; to the casual observer, she is nothing but an indistinct smudge against the trees. But she doesn’t get too many casual observers – the area she practices at is quiet and removed from most of the shrines and graves. Sometimes, that crazy bushy-haired man in the black robes comes by, looking more and more confused each time he does so. Tatsuki always makes sure to be far away when he comes by the clearing, just in case he decides to pull his sword on her; she’s seen his hand twitch on the hilt a number of times and the prospect of fighting sharp steel with her bare hands is more than a little daunting.

One night at dinner, she asks Orihime why Ichigo sometimes dresses in that funny black outfit. Her friend replies that the black kimono and hakama are the uniform of a shinigami. Tatsuki has to hold in a laugh when she thinks about the confused man with the birds’ nest for hair as a glorified god of death. Or Ichigo, for that matter. Though at least Ichigo has always had a great respect for the dead. Something tells her that of all her friends, the one who would make the best shinigami would be him.

Sometimes Tatsuki fights with hollows, vanquishing them before anyone else can arrive on the scene. She doesn’t actively seek them out, but when she runs across one she doesn’t hesitate to act. There have been a couple of close calls, once with the local shinigami, once with Ishida, and once with Ichigo himself. Tatsuki watched that last time from her perch atop a tree branch as her friend’s giant sword gleamed unused in the moonlight and he looked around with no little confusion for the monster that was there only moments before.

With this increase in her abilities, Tatsuki figures that it’s only a matter of time before her secret comes out. And how right she is. The night after a confused Ishida left the scene of her recent fight with a hollow, he corners her during break and asks just what the hell is going on. An unfamiliar flush creeps up her neck and spreads across her cheeks, and Tatsuki suddenly finds herself short on words. She mumbles something incomprehensible that might be ‘I killed it’; at least, that’s what Ishida hears it as, and his eyes widen behind his glasses in surprise. Tatsuki leaves to go talk with Orihime and the rest of her classmates before Ishida can ply her with more questions. She avoids him after that, just in case his curiosity hasn’t been sated.

Orihime too notices something is different, though her approach is not quite as forceful but no less direct. In fact, she simply blurts out one night at dinner that she realizes Tatsuki-chan has been fighting hollows and that she hopes Tatsuki-chan always takes care not to get hurt. Tatsuki stares back dumbfounded for a moment at her friend before she allows herself a small grin.

“Couldn’t keep letting you guys have all the fun, could I?” she jokes, but immediately wishes she had said nothing at all. Orihime is still smiling, but the expression is strained. She remembers that her friend hasn’t had anything to do with hollows since she got back, no doubt because of something that happened during that time she still doesn’t talk about with anyone. Tatsuki fidgets, suddenly even more uncomfortable than when Ishida cornered her and demanded an explanation. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?” She says the first words that spring to the front of her mind. When Orihime looks a little surprised, Tatsuki elaborates. “I’m not really that good; it’s kinda embarrassing, you know?”

Orihime nods, still obviously a bit confused. “Okay,” she agrees. “But you know, you’re a lot stronger than you think you are.” Orihime then smiles, almost proudly, at her friend. “You never seemed weak to me.”

~#~#~#~

One night, Tatsuki’s luck seems to completely run out.

She’s practicing as usual, darting between her self-appointed targets until she is pleasantly exhausted and her breath comes out in white puffs against the clear almost-winter air when she senses a presence materialize near her. If the nauseating feelings its energy elicits weren’t enough of a hint, a loud howl and a corresponding crash are a dead give away that a hollow is near by. And not just near by. When she turns around, she can see it at the edge of the trees, heading straight in her direction. The same panic that she felt the first time she encountered one of these monsters alone fills her stomach, weighing it down as if it were lead, but unlike before she doesn’t let it paralyze her. Without a second thought, Tatsuki launches herself forward, straight at the oncoming hollow.

Her first kick, a direct blow to the thing’s chest, does more damage to her than it does to the hollow; now that she’s closer, she can see that its hide seems to be composed completely of plate-like armor. If it weren’t for the manically grinning mask and the depthless black eyes, she probably could have mistaken it for some sort of dinosaur. Tatsuki lands in a crouch, the force of her rebound propelling her back across the ground a few meters before she stops completely. She has to jump to avoid a swing from its tail that could easily have taken off her head if she was just a hair slower in reacting, and she rolls immediately when she realizes its foot is about to pound her into the ground. She barely has time to catch a breath before she bounds off the side of a tree, propelling herself over the hollow’s back and trying, in vain, to lash out at one of the weak spots of the joints of its armor.

The battle proceeds like that for longer than any fight Tatsuki has ever been in, and even though she’s as strong as ever, she feels her energy flagging as the minutes drag on and her enemy doesn’t seem to get any less deadly. Once, one of the spikes on the end of its tail catches her in the side, piercing her coat. She thinks it’s strange she doesn’t feel any pain, but when she places her hand over the slash it comes away covered in her own warm blood.

Suddenly, another presence fills her mind, one that is incredibly familiar and at the same time makes her panic a little: Ichigo. She still hasn’t told him, though it’s been over a month since he and the others returned, and unlike Ishida and Orihime he hasn’t seemed to notice any change in her. She’s not entirely sure how he will take the news, but if Ishida’s and Orihime’s reactions are anything to go by, it probably won’t be received with a smile and congratulatory slap on the back.

The hollow takes advantage of her momentary distraction and catches her across the face with a blow from one of its stout legs. Tatsuki sees it coming only at the last moment, but even those few milliseconds are enough to turn a finishing blow into a little more than a painful glance. Blood trickles down hot and fast from the gash and she wipes it away before it can get in her eye.

They dance around for a little while more, and all the while Tatsuki is getting more and more tired. Her steps don’t carry her quite as far, and she almost stumbles when she changes direction, rolling her ankle before she can regain her balance. But then she sees her opening: the correct angle to hit the right target. She’ll only have one chance, though; she’ll have to nail it, regardless of how she’s feeling now. And so before she can have any second thoughts, she shoots off, streaming over the back of the angry hollow and up to a particularly thick branch of tree on its other side. Without stopping, she uses her hands to push off back in the direction of the hollow, leveling her feet at the base of its neck where there is a large gap in its armor. Tatsuki lets loose with all the energy she can summon, focusing every bit of it down into her feet. Before the hollow knows what’s going on, her feet connect with the spot. There’s a crack, a shudder, and the beast that has caused her so much pain this evening is nothing more than a wisp of glowing nothingness that is quickly swept away by a gust of wind.

Tatsuki falls to the ground, her heart racing inside her chest; it’s beating so fast and so painfully that she’s almost afraid it will break loose or maybe just stop working altogether. She’s happy, though, and the feeling surges through her, racing through her veins faster than her blood. She can feel her blood clotting on her forehead and sticking awkwardly to her bangs, her side throbs, and her ankle aches a bit when she puts pressure on it in a certain way, but she laughs anyways.

The feeling dies quickly, however, as a shadow falls over her and she is overwhelmed by a truly furious burst of energy from the person currently standing over her head.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Ichigo shouts, his expression livid. He’s wearing the black kimono and hakama again, and his sword is wrapped up and tied securely to his back. “You shouldn’t be fighting something like that, Tatsuki!”

For a moment, Tatsuki is caught off guard and she stares up at Ichigo with blank features. But his last words spark something in her. It makes her absolutely furious, hearing her friend say that it’s not her place to be fighting. After all they’ve been through, she thought he knew her well enough to realize she’s not the type of person who can just sit back on her ass and watch others do the dirty work for her, especially if her own or someone else’s safety is on the line. Despite the sharp pain in her side, she sits up and turns to face him, her face set in a stubbornly angry look. “Like hell I shouldn’t!” she spits back, ignoring the insistent throbbing of her wounds. She stands up, wobbling slightly on her bad ankle, but her fury doesn’t diminish. “Who are you to say I shouldn’t fight if something like this attacks me?”

Ichigo raises his hands as if to gesture at the hollow, but when he remembers it’s gone he just waves them angrily. “Shit, Tatsuki, you could have been killed! That thing was way out of your league!”

“Oh, but it’s in yours?” she snorts, though she immediately regrets it because the action sends a sharp pain flashing up her side. It could just be the fact that the sun is setting, but the world looks a little dimmer than usual around the edges.

“Hell yes!” Ichigo shoots back. “That thing was small fry compared to other things I’ve faced!”

“Aren’t you just a big shot then! Anyways, I killed it, didn’t I? I don’t think it was so much out of my league.”

“You’re an idiot!”

“And you’re a chauvinistic pig!”

Tatsuki’s words reverberate through the trees as silence descends on the pair. They both stand there, glaring daggers at each other even though neither can see well through the long shadows cast by the nearly-set sun. The atmosphere is charged with tension; it’s a silent contest to see which turns away first and though Tatsuki is starting to feel each and every one of the places she got hit just previously, she refuses to waver.

Eventually, Ichigo takes a step forward. Tatsuki tries to step forward, rising to the challenge, but her balance falters as she steps wrongly on her foot and her whole leg crumbles involuntarily beneath her. Before she hits the ground, she feels his arms loop beneath her own and haul her up, pulling her close to his chest.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” she shrieks as he moves one arm behind her knees so that she is cradled next to his chest. She wants to struggle, but it hurts too much and Ichigo’s grip is like an iron vice.

“Shut up,” he responds gruffly, not sounding any happier about the arrangement than Tatsuki feels. “It’s too far to walk. My dad’ll fix you up.”

Neither speaks on the journey back to the clinic, and Tatsuki wishes wholeheartedly that it wasn’t too far of a walk to make with her injuries because a little more pain would be infinitely preferable to being forced to cling to the one person with whom she is most furious at the moment. As it is, the journey only takes a few minutes, as Ichigo is apparently quite proficient at jumping from building top to building top even with her added weight in his arms. He drops her off at the clinic’s door before entering the house through his bedroom window one floor up. When next she sees him, she has five more stitches in her side, butterfly sutures above her left eyebrow, and her ankle is wrapped so tightly in bandages she’s fairly certain circulation will be completely cut off at some point in the near future. Ichigo, on the other hand, is back in his normal clothes, but the scowl from before remains etched on his features. He doesn’t say anything as she limps slightly out the front door, and she doesn’t look back as she closes the door just a little harder than necessary behind her.

~#~#~#~

Tatsuki’s fairly sure she wouldn’t be quite so mad at Ichigo if she didn’t have so much time to sit around and think about what he said to her nearly a week ago. However, with her stitches and bum ankle, she can’t participate at practice, and she holds off on her private exercises for fear of aggravating her injuries. With two of her main distractions unavailable to her, all Tatsuki has to do in her free time is schoolwork (which, admittedly, there is a lot of) and thinking. And each time Ichigo’s words play over in her head, the urge to punch the guy in the face grows a little stronger.

If their friends realize there’s something going on between the two of them (and really, they’d have to be blind, deaf, and living in a cave not to), they all wisely abstain from involvement in the feud. Even Keigo, whose sense of self-preservation has never exactly been strong, says nothing and tends to be as far away as possible whenever Tatsuki and Ichigo are forced to be in the same room as each other.

It takes nearly another week before she snaps; the tension has become so pervasive that her focus is slipping both during her incredibly limited training time in the dojo and her personal training sessions. And that annoys her almost as much as Ichigo does. So on Friday after classes are dismissed and they’re all walking home, Tatsuki does the one thing that has always been easy for her to do: she punches her friend hard across the face when he doesn’t expect it. Ichigo is probably the only person she doesn’t have any qualms about wailing on, most likely because she’s been beating him up in some fashion or another for as long as she’s been able to correctly write her name.

Ichigo falls flat on his ass, hand clutching his jaw as he lets loose with a string of curses strong enough to strip paint off a wall. It takes a few moments for it to register in his mind who just punched him, but when he sees Tatsuki glaring at him with just as much fury behind her gaze as that night a few weeks ago, his face hardens. It looks like he’s going to walk away, but she doesn’t give him a chance, her next blow catching him on the shoulder and sending him stumbling back to the ground. When he turns to face her this time, it’s with flashing eyes and a frown accentuated by the cut on his lip from her first punch. When Tatsuki goes in for the third time, he’s ready, and blocks her punch easily. Her kick, however, catches him off-guard.

She draws him further into the battle, forcing him to fight back and he does, to an extent. He was never great at hand to hand combat, and the years haven’t changed that. But he’s fast – faster than Tatsuki, even when she starts to tap into that internal power. He blocks all her serious shots as if he can see them coming from a mile away. This only serves to fuel Tatsuki’s frustration more, and she lashes out until her breathing gets ragged and the place where her stitches were until just recently starts to ache.

And still Ichigo has barely broken a sweat.

“Why…” she grunts as she lashes out desperately once more. He blocks it as usual but doesn’t attempt to return the blow. Instead, he grabs her arms and pins them both securely to her side. Tatsuki struggles, but she knows she’s too tired to break free this time. “Why are you such a bastard?!” she cries.

Ichigo looks back at her seriously, the blood from the few cuts she managed to inflict trickling slowly down his chin and temple. “Why are you so damn irresponsible?!” he counters. “You could have been killed by that thing, Tatsuki!”

“I KNOW!” she shouts, her temper so frayed it feels like it’ll take a miracle to ever put it back together again. “You said that already! It’s not like I went out looking for that fight. It came to me, for your information. Besides, you think I don’t know what I’m getting myself into?”

His grip on her arms tightens painfully. “That’s it! You don’t! You don’t know anything about what you’re getting involved in by fighting hollows!” His angry words pass from his mouths in white puffs of vapor, drifting off into the winter sky. A few ominous drops of cold rain fall around them, heralding a shower to come, but neither pay them any heed.

“I’m sick of being the weak one, Ichigo. I’m sick of you and Orihime always having to save me! So I did something about it. And I’m not sorry, not one bit!” Tatsuki’s world is blurring at the edges, and she wishes Ichigo would let go of her arms so she could wipe the excess moisture from the corners of her eyes. He keeps his hold on her, though, and the tears born of months of frustration, guilt, worry, and angry build up in the corners and spill out against her will. A few more raindrops fall, large and cold, running down her hair and neck and sending chills down her spine.

Ichigo’s eyes soften as he relaxes his grip slightly on his friend’s arms and he’s quiet for a moment. “I just…” he starts finally, looking down at his feet, but stops almost immediately. “I… I didn’t want you to get hurt. First Rukia, then Orihime… if anything happened to you because of me dragging everyone into this crazy mess…” he trails off there. He doesn’t need to finish; Tatsuki has known him long enough to know he’d probably drive himself insane with the guilt.

“I’m not a child, you know,” she reminds him, breaking the silence. The rain is starting to fall steadily now, matting her hair against her head so that her bangs drip water into her eyes. “You can’t keep me locked up or something.”

“I know.” The rain is starting to make his skin pale and his lips blue, and Tatsuki can only guess that she’s starting to look similar, if her chattering teeth are anything to go by.

“And you can’t always be telling me what I can and can’t do – I’m not completely incompetent, you know.”

“I know,” he answers, letting go of her arms. “We should get inside,” he adds, wiping rain from his eyes. “The clinic is closer.”

They walk together in silence for a few blocks, already too soaked to worry about rushing home in order to stay dry. It’s a companionable silence, though, and not at all hostile. Tatsuki looks over at her friend after a while, watching the rain run down his hair and coat. “You’re still a bastard,” she says bluntly.

Ichigo grins crookedly in response. “Yeah, I know.”
 
 
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[identity profile] cal-reflector.livejournal.com on October 4th, 2007 12:31 am (UTC)
“Why are you such a bastard?!”

This line inspired me to write something, right away, I'm taking it.
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[identity profile] aoife-hime.livejournal.com on October 4th, 2007 09:23 am (UTC)
Wonderful, wonderful. I can't wait to see the result!
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[identity profile] baby-werewolf.livejournal.com on October 4th, 2007 01:45 am (UTC)
aaaaahhhh
There are no words for the awesomeness.
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[identity profile] aoife-hime.livejournal.com on October 4th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
:) Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
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[identity profile] grass-angel.livejournal.com on October 4th, 2007 12:44 pm (UTC)
Small spelling mistake: "butterfly sutures" not "butterfly sutchers".

But otherwise, this was an absolutely jaw-dropping chapter. The discovery of Tatsuki's power by everyone; and then Ichigo finding out and that particular confrontation were all wonderfully delicious.
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[identity profile] aoife-hime.livejournal.com on October 4th, 2007 01:21 pm (UTC)
Ah, thank you (I was having issues with that word).

Honestly, the reason I was most worried about this part was because of all the character interaction - I'm so glad you liked it!
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[identity profile] shadowsinfire.livejournal.com on October 10th, 2007 04:25 am (UTC)
Go! Beat him up!


Yay for more Tatsuki awesomeness. And Ichigo too, this time! <33
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[identity profile] aoife-hime.livejournal.com on October 10th, 2007 07:22 am (UTC)
^_^ I love the history those two have and I think it provides much fodder for awesomeness.
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