Nnoitra sleeps. It’s not a bad sleep and it lasts a long damn time. It’s the warmth that wakes him – Hueco Mundo is never warm, not even in Las Noches under Aizen’s fake sun.
When he wakes it’s to dim skies and a thousand buildings all sticking out in the wrong direction. A bunch of them are smashed up, but despite hanging sideways in the sky they’ve got a surprising amount of structural strength.
Is this the human world? Nnoitra has hazy memories of the human world, but it’s been a long time since he hunted humans. If it is, it’s a weird part of it.
“You are not meant to be here,” says a voice. Nnoitra turns. It’s not Tesla, which is the first and most annoying problem with finding a stranger perched on the sideways building behind him.
It’s a tall dude in a dark coat. He has sunglasses, and Nnoitra sort of wants them. He can feel the air on his hole, singing noisily through his skull when the wind blows. It’s making his hair do weird things, tugging on his head, and it’s annoying as hell.
He licks his teeth. “Who the hell are you?”
“You haven’t earnt my name,” says the guy.
Nnoitra considers that. “That’s all right,” he decides finally. “You won’t need a name when you’re dead.”
Nnoitra loses that fight, kind of badly. The only reason he doesn’t die there alone in that strange world is that the guy in the sunglasses gets dragged off by some white-faced cackling asshole screaming about a better fight.
There’s no fight better than Nnoitra and if he could move he’d kick the little bastard from one end of the world to the other for suggesting it.
He can feel Ulquiorra, somewhere. He rocks with the flood of reiatsu when Murcielago’s released – and then again when it’s released once more. Ulquiorra’s been holding out on them, then.
He licks his teeth.
Part of why Coat Guy won, he figures, is his familiarity with the surroundings. It’s his home territory, isn’t it? The other part is that Nnoitra is recovering still from his fight with that dumb shinigami asshole, but–
Tesla. Tesla, Tesla. He was alive when Nnoitra fell. He knows he was – he saw the little idiot crying his eye out. Stupid, he thinks, grieved and angry and seething.
He looks around.
Home ground advantage, right?
He’s pretty sure he can make this place unrecognisable by the time Coat Guy returns.
Luckily, buildings don’t fight back. Not even these ones.
For Ichigo, a lot about Hueco Mundo becomes familiar surprisingly quickly. Part of it is that Orihime is under his watchful eye and no longer in danger, so the itch of urgency has stopped. And the rest… Well, it’s probably something to do with his inner hollow, if he thinks about it.
Either way, the huge empty open spaces don’t feel weird or threatening. Even Las Noches with its artificial sun and freezing air seems… pretty much normal.
Ichigo has a headache after defeating Ulquiorra, one which even Orihime’s skills can’t fix.
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells her, and she wrings her hands and looks at him like –
Well. Like something, anyway. She’s so anxious now. It’s not that Orihime was ever an especially chilled out person, but he remembers her being lively and creative and at least interesting. Now she seems to look at him before she moves, as though she needs permission for any action.
He's angry. What the hell did they do to her here?
She repeats his name like a mantra, and when he does look at her she goes immediately soft and passive.
Weirdly, she seems upset about Ulquiorra. She seems upset about a lot of things, but it's weird to Ichigo that Ulquiorra is among them. He wasn’t exactly likeable.
Ichigo thinks about the arrancar in preference to thinking about what Zangetsu said at the end of the fight against Ulquiorra – namely, that he had another fight waiting for him. Ichigo’s not sure if he means Ichigo himself, which seems obvious, or…
He can see, distantly, a body in a heap on the sand. Mostly the arrancar disintegrate when they die, so someone collapsed like that means –
Ichigo veers toward the body without thinking about it.
“Hey, Inoue,” he says, peering down at the arrancar’s fluffy blond head. “You can fix him, right?”
“Kurosaki-kun.” There it is again, soft, unconscious, like a talisman against harm. Orihime pauses. “Ah.. I can,” she agrees. “Are– Are you sure?”
“Huh?” Ichigo looks at her. It is strangely hard to tear his eyes away. He blinks. Why *does* he want the arrancar fixed up?
“Why?” he says slowly. Then, brow furrowing: “Did this guy hurt you?”
Orihime shakes her head. “Tesla-san is… polite,” she says, shifting her weight uncomfortably, and yeah, there’s a weird thought: a polite hollow.
Ichigo kind of wishes his hollow was ever polite.
“Um, he did try to crush you, though.”
“Did he..?” Ichigo remembers that, but his snapped legs and bone-deep terror seem so distant.
Ichigo shrugs it off. A lot of people have tried to kill him.
Orihime touches the clip at her temple, and then sinks to her knees in the pale sand next to the arrancar. The arrancar is Tesla. Okay. That’s an easy name to remember. Ichigo has the feeling in his gut that this one’s going to be important, and he always listens to his gut.
Orihime lays hands upon him and the wind wails across the desert.
He opens his eye – he has only one, Ichigo thinks in a daze, and he can shoot a cero from it – and Ichigo feels a strange, bubbling satisfaction.
There’s a long moment while Orihime’s working, her hands glowing golden and her eyes tightly shut, when Tesla meets Ichigo’s eyes. His mouth opens as though to speak, and Ichigo can’t drag his eyes away.
“Yo, Tesla,” he says. He hears himself distantly. After a second he realises he’s said it and drags his eyes away from the curve of the man’s mouth. He shakes his head. “I’m Kurosaki Ichigo.”
Tesla blinks slowly up at him. A strange expression crosses his face and he gives Orihime one short, disturbed glance.
“Aa,” he says. He has a quiet, even voice. Is this really the same guy who tried to crush him? Ichigo can’t seem to marry the two in his head. “I’m pleased to see you’re well… Ichigo-sama.”
Ichigo starts, blinks, recoils.
It feels like the world tips sideways and suddenly he can clearly remember exactly what happened – he remembers the weight of this arrancar’s blows snapping his bones, the rabbit-quick thump of his heart, the deathly sickness in his belly. He remembers looking up at his enormous resurreccion form.
This isn’t – he doesn’t want him healed. He doesn’t want to kill him, either – he would have been content to leave him here to whatever fate came for him. He doesn’t care about him at all. “Just Ichigo. Don’t… don’t follow me.”
Tesla’s expression shifts again, and again Ichigo can’t read it. “Hm,” he says, which isn't exactly a promise.
The next several weeks are weird, and defeating Aizen and losing all his power is only a small part of it.
Firstly, he’s pretty sure that even if the hollow and the old man are gone, he hasn't lost all his power – he can’t see ghosts, and he certainly can’t fight much, but he can hear them sometimes. He can definitely hear it when there's a hollow screaming away in the area.
Urahara diagnoses it as wishful thinking. Ichigo thinks 'wishful thinking' probably wouldn’t come in the form of a mean voice cursing him out.
He also gets a growth spurt, which is inconvenient because he’s already different enough to stand out among his classmates. But biology doesn’t ask his opinion on the matter and he grows two inches in three weeks. All the bones and joints of his human body ache with it.
His friends aren’t really responding to him – not even Orihime, who had mumbled his name like a prayer not even a month ago.
They’re part of something from which Ichigo is excluded, and they obviously know it. Ichigo can’t really fault them, either, which is even more annoying. He knows he’s no good for fighting hollows.
Being human feels awful.
They look at him sometimes - not often, but sometimes, and honestly sometimes is enough – quite warily, like he’s unpredictable and dangerous and they’re not sure what he’s going to do. He’s not sure what he did to deserve that and it pisses him off. He can’t yell at Chad or Orihime about it, so when he catches Ishida doing it he blows up at him.
Ishida is unhelpfully close-mouthed about it too.
“You could stop staring,” is the first thing Ichigo hears clearly, and that’s definitely not wishful thinking.
That’s when Ichigo realises none of them are looking at him, after all.
Ichigo tries to remember where he’s heard that voice before, but the sound of it fades quickly from memory. He has nothing.
They won’t tell him what it is that follows him – they seem determined to pretend that there’s no spiritual world, that nobody sees ghosts, that Ichigo can’t hear hollows shrieking when he tries to sleep at night. There’s awkward laughter, bad excuses, eyes drifting over his shoulder and never staying fixed on him. It’s exhausting.
Nobody seems to want to tell him what kind of ghost is haunting him. Orihime’s stories are the worst, because she’s a hilariously awful liar. At least Chad just shakes his head and stares pointedly over Ichigo’s shoulder.
It must not be there all the time, or even often, but…
“Let it be, Kurosaki,” sighs Ishida once, finally, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
Ichigo grinds his teeth. He gets the impression that it can’t be anything good.
His dreams are… weird.
He dreams a lot of what was once his inner world. There’s no nameless hollow, though, and no old man Zangetsu. There isn’t even the terrifying, oddly pretty younger version of his zanpakuto.
The buildings are wrecked – the concrete and stone are shattered and the metal is broken off. Rusty debris juts out into the freezing air, spiky and jagged. There’s broken glass underfoot and everything smells like wet iron.
Ichigo wanders. Sometimes he finds marks on what’s left of the buildings and they’re… strange. It’s like a bladed weapon, but… it seems unlikely that Zangetsu would have gone around hacking at the buildings.
“You’re such a pain,” he hears, all exhausted and distant, and he flinches. That snarling voice isn’t one Ichigo knows, but it makes him twitch all the same. There’s something attached to it, some distant memory. It… hurts.
He wakes up.
It’s dark, he’s sweating, and everything aches. His bed is uncomfortable.
“That’s not good. You need to rest,” says a voice, from somewhere in the distant vicinity of his desk.
There isn’t even a shadow there in the dark. There’s a strip of moonlight from between his blinds and there’s nothing but a highschool text book on his desk.
Ichigo closes his eyes.
There’s definitely someone there. Ichigo can’t see it and he can’t feel it. He sits up and rests his forehead on his knees.
The room’s silent.
There’s definitely someone there.
He shivers when they sigh. They’re much closer now. If he could feel them, he’s sure he’d be able to feel the breath on his ear. “Go back to sleep, Ichigo-sama.”
Ichigo blinks. He hasn’t been able to place the voice until then, but there’s really only one person ever to call him that, and–
It’s not what he expects. He was thinking his haunting would be a regular ghost, some spirit who couldn’t pass on properly – but then, he thinks, somebody would have done a soul buriel by now. Actually, Urahara doesn’t seem to have seen his follower, and neither has Karin or Isshin.
It’s only Orihime, Chad and Ishida – and not even often them. But the voice is here in his room, telling him to rest.
“You're able to hear me,” says the voice.
“Yeah. Now I can.”
“That’s good. I hope you get better quickly, Ichigo-sama.”
“Why?” Ichigo wonders. He knows why he hopes to recover, but Tesla is…
What’s he even doing here? If anybody would haunt Ichigo he’d… Well, honestly, he’d think it’d be Grimmjow.
“Ichigo-sama is very important,” the voice tells him.
That's …technically an answer but it doesn’t really resolve the question Ichigo intended to ask.
“’S it because I beat Aizen?” Ichigo asks. He’s sleepier now. “I’d have done that anyway. You don’t have to…”
Stay. Be here. Take care of me.
“…That, too,” says Tesla quietly. “Rest.”
His dreams continue to be weird, but then Ichigo’s whole life is weird. He can roll with it.
Ichigo hears hollows, but he never sees them – and he’s never chased by one, either.
It’s strange, because Ichigo right now is exactly the kind of human hollows hunt: a strong soul, burning brightly, but not quite strong enough to see them and fight back.
He’s not around his friends or family all the time, after all. And alone, he’s the perfect meal.
On the train, walking home from school, grocery shopping for the household – over and over, he hears the ear-splitting roar and nothing comes of it.
“It’s you, right?” He asks one night, leaning against a telephone pole. The sun’s just setting and the street’s empty, and despite the hideous cry from a moment ago all Ichigo can hear now is distant traffic, a television through an open window, the dull buzz of insects.
There’s a soft noise like a sigh from somewhere over Ichigo’s shoulder. A long pause, like he’s reluctant to admit it.
“… Yes,” says Tesla.
Ichigo tilts his head. He still sounds like he’s calling out to Ichigo through water. He’s clearer, sometimes, when it’s dark and silent and Ichigo wakes from a dream of mumbled profanity and broken buildings.
Tesla is probably hungry, Ichigo realises with a chill.
He’s a hollow, of course he’s hungry. He’s hungry and he’s taking it out on the hollows Ichigo attracts, killing two birds with one stone.
Ichigo tips his head back, looking for stars. They’re not out yet.
“…It won’t be forever,” says Tesla, startling him. “There’s no shame in…” he hesitates, and it’s the first time Ichigo’s heard him sound so – cringing. He frowns. “… while you recover, in allowing me… that is, even one such as myself…”
Something cold passes over Ichigo. His head snaps sideways and his eyes narrow.
"Stop telling me shit I already know,” he snarls.
He can’t see. He can’t, but somehow the aim of his scowl is unerring. He feels Tesla freeze under his gaze.
He blinks. The night air is warm again, the stars dim and distant, and he feels alone but – “Sorry,” he says immediately. “That didn’t… come out right. I’m getting better, okay?”
There’s a long pause. Then: “Of course. You don’t need to apologise to me,” says Tesla, in a voice both sweet and astonishingly warm.
It’s the happiest Ichigo’s ever heard him.
Even for an arrancar, Tesla is a weird guy.
That opens the door to more interaction, though – Tesla is almost always there, especially if Ichigo is alone. And Ichigo, isolated from his friends and struggling with his own losses… Ichigo is alone a lot these days.
He doesn’t talk to Tesla about anything of substance, not really. It’s not like he complains about shinigami to him or anything. Tesla is quiet in much the same way Chad is, although Ichigo tries to remember that he’s not as kind and a lot less gentle.
Ichigo tries to remember that Tesla is a hollow – and not a normal hollow like the ones that show up in Karakura on the the regular, either. He’s an arrancar, and before that he was an adjuchas class menos.
It’s just that Tesla, along with being patient and quiet and polite, is possibly the most attentive audience in the world. Ichigo can recite irregular conjugations for English homework for thirty minutes and find, somehow, that Tesla has not turned him out at the end of it. He’s just… listening. Relentlessly. Always.
It’s a bit …concerning. But it’s also flattering and comforting, and, damningly, habit-forming.
Ichigo’s lonely. He doesn’t even have his zanpakuto to keep him company anymore, he feels like his friends have abandoned him, he aches all the time and sleeps poorly, and Tesla…
Tesla is always pleased, somehow, to be the object of Ichigo’s attention.
Even the bad kind of attention.
Perhaps, strangely, especially the bad kind of attention.
That’s the thing about Tesla: his weirdness isn’t a one time deal. It’s not an isolated incident. Oh, he seems cautiously pleased when Ichigo acknowledges him at all. And he’s wary but tolerant of Ichigo’s efforts at friendliness.
But Tesla gets downright giddy whenever Ichigo snaps at him.
Ichigo isn’t a tactful or diplomatic person – that much they all know – but he’s not a mean person, and sometimes the way he treats Tesla, without even thinking about it, is… bad. He knows it’s bad.
Everything will be normal, they’ll be alone, he’ll be talking – and then suddenly Ichigo will open his mouth and something awful will emerge.
Tonight’s his history homework – hollows have quite a good, if disjointed, grasp on the minutiae of human history, which is unsurprising if you think about it – and he finds, distantly, that the subject has changed while he’s been relaxed and talking here at his desk, and suddenly he opens his mouth and says, “Were you crying, Tesla? It’s pathetic. You spineless little idiot. When I have the energy to touch you again,” he promises, feeling his breath hiss too hot between his teeth, “I’m going to shove my fingers down your throat and dig until I find your self respect.”
And then he freezes. “I…”
“I look forward to it,” says Tesla’s voice placidly – and it’s not just calm, either, it’s warm and pleased and actually maybe a bit anticipatory.
Ichigo bristles. “D-don’t say that,” he hisses, red-faced and mortified. He cannot believe that came out of his mouth. He cannot believe he was thinking it – but also imagining it, the warm mammalian heat and soft tongue and saliva, smooth teeth and bones and–
He feels queasy, and also like his face is going to catch fire any second. He makes a faint, soft sound like a boiling kettle.
He has no idea where in the room Tesla is but if he leans on his desk and buries his face in his arms he stands a strong chance of avoiding looking at him.
“I think… Ichigo-sama is an unexpectedly gentle person,” Tesla muses quietly.
Ichigo can’t think of anything in what he just said that warrants that description, and it’s been a decade since anyone called him gentle anyway.
It’s almost impossible to concentrate on his homework after that.
“Shut up,” he says. He can’t even think of a time he’s seen Tesla crying. He… really isn’t sure what came over him at all.
Sometimes Ichigo’s glad he can’t see or touch him, because there’s no telling what he’d do to him.
It keeps happening, though. It’s fine when it’s Tesla – or, not fine, but not the worst thing. Tesla draws it out of him, somehow, all the sharp edges of his personality poking through where Ichigo’s never even seen them before.
Ichigo’s meaner than he thought he was. But at least Tesla can take it – on the chin and with a smile, by the sounds of things.
It’s worse, if less common, with other people.
Isshin, alright, Isshin’s an idiot. It’s not the first time Ichigo’s met him fist-for-fist and felt like he really, seriously, wants to hurt him – but now it’s consistent
Hell, Karin has that experience at least weekly.
He doesn’t actually think there might be anything wrong until it’s Orihime.
She’s just – talking, just normally, and –
Annoying, he thinks, and it’s like there’s an echo in his head. Yeah, he realises, feeling her voice grate on his nerves, it kind of is annoying, actually.
The thought builds up until he can’t quite contain it.
Her voice drones on and on, though, and he blinks over and over, trying to distract himself from it –
Now it’s something about robots and bread salad, and Ichigo’s skull is starting to itch from the inside.
Ichigo doesn’t even think about it. He just turns on her. “Do you ever shut up?”
“Ichigo!” barks Tatsuki, cutting off her own conversation mid-sentence.
Orihime is white. “I – sorry, Kurosaki-kun,” she gets out. She doesn’t say anything else.
Tatsuki stares at him with murder in her face. Of course she does. She’s always been protective of Orihime. He never did understand what was so special about that girl anyway.
The rest of the afternoon passes in a haze. He gets the impression he hasn’t been very nice to people but he doesn’t have the patience for it and he can’t seem to muster any feelings about it.
He has no enthusiasm for the classes, either; they’re boring. It’s been months now since Ichigo fought anything more interesting than the queue at the subway.
He scratches idly at the grain of his desk and breaks a fingernail. Hm.
“Are you finally dyeing your hair?” His English teacher asks. “It’s not quite right yet, but it’s looking better already!”
“What?” Ichigo scowls thunderously, annoyed at her encouraging tone. She flinches from his expression – or maybe from his face in general. He’s been told it has that effect. “No.”
“Hmph,” she says, eyeing him like she thinks he’s lying, or making fun of her, or perhaps a disguised delinquent.
“Text books open to page eighty three, please,” she says coldly.
He stares at his hair in the mirror later that evening and his hair isn’t really different. Duller, maybe. A little more brown in it. He knows hair gets darker as people grow up, sometimes. Maybe he’s just starting to show some of his dad’s genes as well as his mum’s.
That’s a pity for Ichigo – who’d want to take after goat face – but it’s not something for a teacher to get all huffy about. He scowls harder.
“It doesn’t look darker to you, does it?” he asks Tesla finally.
“No," says Tesla without pause or hesitation. He doesn’t ask why Ichigo’s suddenly demanding his opinion either.
“Ugh,” mutters Ichigo. It’s been such a weird day.
He apologises to Orihime. He's frustrated with her -- he's frustrated with all of his distant, alienating friends right now. Pretty much everybody is pissing him off -- but that's not a good reason to be as mean as he was.
It's probably stress that's making him behave differently lately. Ironically, Ichigo can fight for his life and save the whole world, no problem, but take away his powers and apparently he turns into kind of a mess.
He just has to pay more attention, he decides finally. Yeah, he doesn't like being helpless and largely ignored by the people he had come to rely on. And yeah, he feels a little bitter about it. He doesn't have to express that to everybody, though, does he?
He tries to apologise to Tesla, too, but something must get lost in translation. He seems unimpressed.
He starts making a concerted effort. There are no more unexpectedly vicious outbursts.
Maybe he's not a genuis, but Ichigo is not stupid.
He doesn't know quite what's happening to him. He doubts it's all just stress and grief. He knows he's recovering, but he's not sure he's just recovering. He's also changing a little more each day.
He's never noticed how much he dislikes Tatsuki before. She doesn't even have any spiritual power -- well, not much -- so it doesn't make sense why they all allow her to act so high and mighty all the time. Who the hell does she think she is?
It's weird, because he recalls liking her when he was younger. It's just that now her flaws drive him up the wall and he finds himself watching her, still and quiet and thinking about hurting her. He wants to shake her like a rag doll and slam her face into the lockers behind them.
The other students would probably be angry if he did -- they'd yell, but they probably wouldn't attack. He could do it and just leave.
He won't, he reminds himself, scowling by rote when Tatsuki turns to interrogate him about why he's looking at her like that.
"I'll catch up," he says, "I think I forgot my text book."
"You were just at your locker!" she calls after him. He ignores her.
Violent urges aren't new, but this kind of graphic, prophetic visualisation of them is. He can almost feel his hands on her.
He takes them out, as always, on Karakura's delinquent population. Ichigo has always had something of a reputation, but now it's actually accurate: the punks he beats up are lucky if they limp away.
When he picks a fight on a bad day he's...
The yakuza tries to recruit him -- they do a good job, too, all friendly. He has a light meal with a guy who looks like a salaryman in his bland conservative suit. 'Part of the family' is the phrase he uses.
Ichigo learns that if the people he picks a fight with are actual yakuza and not just teenage delinquents, pretty much everyone turns a blind eye to the sheer savagery of the disagreement. Even, and sometimes especially, the police.
That's useful information.
It says bad things about Ichigo temper that he needs this information, but it's good to know.
Tesla listens to him complain about it, because Tesla listens to everything. Ichigo gets the impression Tesla would listen to him talk about comparative barometric pressure for an hour. He doesn't understand what drives Tesla, other than the apparent instinct of most hollows to find someone stronger than they are and follow them, but he's grateful to have him.
Even when he says things like: "Aa. The strong eat the weak."
"I guess," says Ichigo tiredly. That probably makes a lot of sense to a hollow, but humans are meant to live together without fighting. Ideally.
Something buried in Ichigo scoffs at that.
That's why hollows eat humans.
And, look, maybe that's true too.
He still can't hear anything from Zangetsu or the hollow, but he's starting to see ghosts again -- Tesla, mostly, because Tesla is the only one around by whom he can reliably measure.
And Tesla is always around. That startles Ichigo. From the moment he starts to register ghosts as strange half-real ripples in the air, Tesla is there. He might loiter in corridors or outside to avoid Ichigo's family, and he disappears abruptly if Urahara or Yoruichi is around, but otherwise he's pretty much always right there.
"Where else would I be?" he wonders when Ichigo asks. He sounds honestly puzzled.
Ichigo rolls over from where he's sprawled on his bed. From the movement in the air he suspects Tesla is sitting on the floor next to the futon's base, which seems weird because there's a perfectly good desk chair right there and Ichigo isn't even taking up the whole bed or anything.
"You might have your own interests," Ichigo points out.
"Yes," Tesla agrees.
Ichigo gets the impression that he is item number one on Tesla's list of personal interests. It's not as unsettling as he thinks it should be.
There's a short, stiff pause.
"While Ichigo-sama is recovering, I'll be nearby," he says.
There's no room for argument, but Ichigo opens his mouth anyway. "I don't need -- babysitting," he sputters.
"I -- of course not." A short pause. "I follow Ichigo-sama because I admire your strength. It is important that nothing stand in the way of your recovery, so... I won't allow it."
Yeah, Ichigo gets that.
He lets his head fall back to the pillow, no longer trying to make out the ripples of Tesla's shape. He's never had a -- a follower before. It seems strange that it should be so familiar a feeling.
"...It seems I am presumptuous. I apologise."
Tesla, Ichigo knows, apologises beautifully. He does it like art form, with every indication of sincerity.
His apologies are also mostly bullshit.
It's taken him months, but now he recognises that Tesla pays lip service to Ichigo's ego. It is done perfunctorily, habitually, a sort of formality observed for form -- and then he casually continues with whatever behaviour he feels like.
In this case, there's no way he's going to leave 'Ichigo-sama' alone to pursue his own interests.
That's difficult, because it's weird to sleep when Ichigo knows there's a ghost watching him -- or, in this case, a hollow. It was easier when he couldn't see him.
Now he stares at Tesla in the dark instead of closing his eyes and sleeping. He knows he's there.
Tesla is sympathetic but he's also not going to leave.
When he does finally sleep, he dreams of wandering Hueco Mundo with him. His dreams are disjointed but each scene has the clarity of a memory.
Recovery is faster now, and it's only days until Ichigo can see ghosts properly again. He sees Tesla, too: blond and wiry, still dressed in the white coat and black gloves Ichigo sees in his dreams.
His eye patch is neatly in place and Ichigo wonders what's under it. Is it his hollow hole? Scars? A perfectly functioning eye? He feels like he should know, or did know, or something...
"You don't remember?" Tesla asks.
Ichigo stares at him. He is on the roof of a school building, avoiding friends for the break period. The sun is out and the collar of Ichigo's school uniform is restrictive. "How am I supposed to remember?"
"...Ah. Excuse me." Tesla doesn't tell him what he should or shouldn't remember, but he does tip his head forward and bring his hands up to remove the patch.
There's no eye under it, just mottled scar tissue, stretched unevenly over the socket.
The warmth of the day drops away like a fond memory.
Ichigo does remember.
Hueco Mundo is cold and he can smell the blood.
"...Somebody pulled it out," he says haltingly. He can barely hear his own voice but the inflection is all wrong.
"Nnoitra-sama," Tesla agrees.
I did, he thinks. I pulled it out. There's a confused second, and an answering voice somewhere inside, deeply satisfied: yeah, I did.
"...and we match now," he says, still all wrong and blank and distant, "since you're so determined to... be..."
He rubs his fingers together uncertainly. They're not slick. Not... like he expects.
Ichigo has two eyes. And Tesla had only one when they met. He knows this.
Tesla looks at him, one of those long steady looks he excels at. Pensively, he says, "Nnoitra-sama did me the kindness of taking only the one I do not use for cero."
"That's not kindness."
Tesla tips his head sideways, sparrowlike. "Nnoitra-sama did not want a fraccion at first. He found my aspirations presumptuous and arrogant, of course. He wasn't able to kill me, but Aizen would have allowed much worse than merely this."
He gestures to his eye. "This is a mark of my dedication to Nnoitra-sama. He gave it to me, and I will carry it forever."
"That's..." Ichigo doesn't want to hurt Tesla's feelings, so he's kind of lost as to how to end that sentence.
There's a part of Ichigo that gets it, though -- and not from Tesla's perspective, either. You're mine, it seems to say, comfortable and proprietary and completely savage, and now everyone who ever looks at you will know it.
It's a part of Ichigo that thinks of sinking his teeth into Tesla, each bite a declaration. Mine, mine, mine, and I'm going to wreck you so badly nobody else will ever want you.
It's a small part, yeah.
But it's getting bigger every day.
The schoolbell rings and Ichigo goes back inside. The sun wasn't very warm anyway.
Ichigo kills a hollow one afternoon in May.
It's the first time he's really had to defend himself against anything more than human recently. It occurs walking home alone from school
It's the tail end of an unusually late cherry blossom season, and there are still falls of petals that get whipped up by the breeze. They're ubiquitous, pale pink, sweet smelling and a little unearthly, and they scatter across the ground everywhere.
Tesla has clearly never seen anything like it. Even though they've been flowering since the very end of April he still seems fascinated.
Ichigo takes his time walking home because, honestly, it's sort of cute. Tesla is a lot of things but rarely is he cute. He holds his hand out to catch the sweet-smelling petals as they fall, sort of cautiously pleased by them each time.
He supposes it stands to reason: there's pretty much nothing but the bleak, blasted landscape of endless rock and sand in Hueco Mundo. The human world rarely impresses, but -- cherry blossoms. Huh.
This afternoon, though, Tesla turns to him and tilts his head. "Can you feel that? This one will be yours."
Ichigo has no idea what he's saying and he scowls, ready to tell him so at length -- and then the scream of a hollow reaches him, the air ripples, and he guesses he knows exactly what Tesla means, after all.
This hollow is faintly bovine, in the sense that it has four legs and horns like a bull. It stomps down, cracking the concrete beneath its huge hoof and sending petals fluttering into the air.
Ichigo looks up at its pale looming mask and its flat white teeth and something flicks on in his head.
All he sees is food.
Suddenly, Ichigo is ravenous.
He kills it easily but not cleanly. Once he breaks the mask, he knows the hollow will begin to disintegrate, and he doesn't want that.
Ichigo's hands are hot and the air smells bloody when he realises what's going on. His mouth is wet. And full.
It doesn't even have the courtesy to taste bad. Hollow flesh melts on his tongue, hot, sweet-salty, rich with fats.
Ichigo stops. He covers his mouth with a hand, shaking and unsteady, but he doesn't quite want to gag.
It tastes good. It feels good. And he's not as hungry. He licks his lips.
"That's no good," says Tesla quietly, materialising next to him in a sudden burst of sonido. "You need your strength."
Ichigo turns his head and stares at him.
"Tesla," he starts.
"Aren't you hungry?"
He is. He's -- very hungry. Starving. Ravenous. He's also worried.
He's eating a hollow. He should be more than worried. He should be panicking, rallying his defences -- if nothing else, he should be going to Urahara for some kind of strings-attached help.
He's sort of... distantly concerned.
And while he's thinking about that, he tears off another piece of hollow flesh and shoves it in his mouth. It tastes so good he wants to moan aloud.
"Not long now," he says, baring his teeth. They feel strange, sometimes, like there's too many teeth in his head, smooth and pale and polished like tombstones lined up in a row.
He has no idea what's not long. He can't figure out why he said it.
He doesn't know why he's eating this hollow.
"As you say, Ichigo-sama," says Tesla, and this time Ichigo hears the hesitation in his voice, the miniscule hitch before his name.
What's meant to be there? Ichigo wonders. What name is he avoiding?
He takes another piece. Bites down. Sighs.
It tastes so good.
By the time he gets home Ichigo has forgotten being worried. He grudgingly bothers kicking off his shoes at the door, ignores Yuzu and his other sister on the way in, ducks below the man's greeting kick and disappears into his room. He can hear them downstairs, complaining -- there's something about teenaged hormones and delinquency and how very fast he's growing.
Tesla is perched on the windowsill when he gets to his room. Ichigo doesn't want to see anyone but there's a growling satisfaction in Tesla's company specifically.
He's meant to do homework but he forgets about that too. He's full and sleepy. He crawls onto his bed and sprawls.
It seems only natural to pull him down to the soft sheets too. After a split-second's resistance Tesla comes easily, relaxing into the pull of Ichigo's hands.
He feels better dozing with Tesla there, big and quiet right next to him. He's warm like a person, but a hollow has no pulse. Even with his head on Tesla's chest, Ichigo can't hear a thing. He is still and heartless.
"Is this better?"
"Shut up and nap."
Tesla doesn't. He just watches Ichigo instead, and when he doesn't snap he also touches. It's not that much and never quite pushing Ichigo to respond, just cautious testing slides of his fingers and hands in the dark and the quiet. He still wears gloves and Ichigo sighs at the slow drag of their fabric drawing circles low on his belly.
Ichigo can feel Tesla's breath on his skin, too, and that... does not actually make it easier to nap.
Ichigo doesn't push him away. It feels good.
He thinks of responding, of rolling them over and shoving his hands under Tesla's clothes, of licking him from his ears to his ankles and digging his nails in.
He's pretty sure Tesla would let him. Like... Ninety nine percent sure. But then, Tesla would let him do almost anything, wouldn't he?
He feels briefly uncomfortable about that, but then he shakes the stupid thought off. Of course he would. Tesla's his. He can do whatever he wants with him.
He licks his teeth. He doesn't need to rest that badly.
He hooks a leg under Tesla's, flips them effortlessly and does, indeed, do exactly what he wants with him.
Tesla never protests.
He wakes in the morning with dark hair in his eyes and a perfect, raw-looking indentation of his teeth in the bare chest under his face.
There's no heartbeat in the room.
He smacks Tesla's shoulder with one hand.
"Get up," says Nnoitra. "I wanna find someone to kill."