Ichigo slowly lead Yohko towards home. Rain was pounding down like angry needles on their skin, and Yohko's tears mixed with the chilly water. She shivered under Ichigo's protective arm, numbly walking at his side, a hand clenching his black gi's fabric.
The young man could not bare to look at her, she was positively pathetic looking; rain, mud and blood matted into her brown pigtails, scrapes, cuts and bruises doled out unevenly over her skin. Her dress was slashed haphazardly, and almost indecent, especially when a bitting wind blew. Yohko had sense enough to cover herself though.
"I never got to say good-bye." Ichigo heard her rasp, weakly.
"Don't feel bad," he assured her. "Azusa didn't feel any pain going to the Soul Society."
"How do you know?" Yohko asked forcefully, brown eyes glistening with tears.
"It's my job," he answered, swallowing down annoyance. Yohko was grieving, in pain, Ichigo understood how hard that could be, and so he was patient. "She's not suffering in the form of a hollow anymore, either." he added.
Yohko cast her eyes on the shining concrete. "No. I guess you're right." Her lower lip began to quiver though, as once again Yohko's mind replayed the nights events. A new batch of sobs wracked at her busty chest.
Ichigo searched his mind for some way to comfort the poor girl. "C'mon," he said finally, directing her as he walked. "Let's get Rukia and your grandmother and you two can stay with us for the night. We'll get you some food and a shower. You can't stay at your place."
Yohko just nodded weakly. The pair walked along the puddle laden streets in silence, before Yohko glanced up at her company.
"Ichigo? Thank you."
He just squeezed her shoulder in response.
"So," the girl began a new topic, wiping her nose on her bare and bruised arm. "Is Rukia your girlfriend?"
"What?" Ichigo jumped back, looking quite aghast at that question. "I really don't think now's the right time to talk about stuff like that!"
"I need a distraction," Yohko insisted. "So, are you two dating?"
Ichigo exhaled in defeat. "No," he answered gruffly. "she's a friend from school, and a teacher. It's a long story, let's just say she's teaching me to be a full Soul Reaper."
"Oh. Do you have a girlfriend?"
"How come?" Yohko persisted. "You'd make a good boyfriend. You're brave, and fight for your friends, you're giving, you share, you make me feel safe..." Yohko realized how this little tangent was beginning to sound and she bit her tongue, blushing slightly. "you know...Girls like those sorts of things."
"I don't have time," Ichigo answered simply. "The girls at school never interested me, either."
"Yeah," Yohko muttered. "The boys in school wouldn't give me the time of day. Except for Osamu, but I've known him since we were young and it would just be too weird," a sigh. "I guess I'm just unlucky in love."
Ichigo said nothing, what could be said?
Soon, the pair reached the destroyed Mano house and crept back into the hidden shrine room.
Rukia was gathering some scrolls and texts, and anything that Madoka told her was important, magical, or of historical significance. The old woman broke mid-sentence when Ichigo and Yohko arrived.
"Yohko! Where's Azusa?"
"You look awful," Rukia said, placing some pictures of past hunters in a suitcase, eyes on the battle-damaged pair.
"Thanks a lot," snapped Ichigo, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Grandma," Yohko began. "Azusa... we... We couldn't save her. The demons, or hollows or whatever, they got her."
"They possessed Yohko's friend, Chi. Both have been sent to the Soul Society. Rukia, they can't stay here. They should come with us."
Rukia nodded, an action which Madoka mimicked, mind working through the saddening news of Azusa's loss.
"I'm gonna go..." Yohko spoke distractedly, almost lost. "Get some cloths to bring with me." She turned and disappeared from the hidden room.
Ichigo finally indulged in his own exhaustion, back leaning against a wall. "Rukia, the Hollows are teaming up with demons."
"Any idea why?" Rukia asked.
"No. Chi didn't say anything. She just provoked Yohko with gossip. Kid's stuff."
Yohko returned, changed into clean cloths, a duffel bag slung over her shoulder. She starred at the three, eyes still red and ragged from her spent tears. She didn't bother to brush her hair, and it was still tangled with grime.
"I guess we're ready then." Madoka said, rising to her feet before Rukia offered her arm for support. At first Madoka declined, pride was always her folly. Yet she saw the wisdom in Rukia's gesture and took up the offer.
The motley crew left the house sullenly.
Karakura Town was comfortably silent this late into the night. None of the group were interested in any excitement coming there way, and the stillness was welcomed. There was no idle chatter as the four made their way, no questions asked, no tales told. They merely walked.
Unexpectedly, Ichigo felt his heart seem to drop into his stomach, and he bolted ahead. Left behind, the trio looked to the distance, to see smoke curling up to the sky, past the rooftops of the neighbourhood.
"Here, take Madoka," Rukia passed the elderly woman to Yohko, before sprinting after Ichigo.
Yohko, Madoka resting her weight on her arm, tried to follow as quickly as she could.
They soon rounded the corner, to see the Kurosaki house in flames.
Ichigo's family, however, were not burning. Instead, they lay upon the grassy lawn, stained crimson with their blood. Yohko gasped as she realized that they were arranged just as her own family was: foot to foot, arm to arm, lit candles obscenely protruding out of private orifices, entrails piled in the center of the human carcass sculpture.
"Th-...there's two of you." Yohko stuttered quietly, pointing to Kon's fallen body.
Rukia hesitated, before she dared to touch Ichigo, gripping his forearm.
"C'mon," she demanded. "It's not safe here. We'll go to Urahara's."
"What's that?" Madoka asked, pointing to the limestone wall that served as the houses fence. Running down the pale surface were odd marks of chicken scratch mixed with occult looking symbols. Tastelessly, they were painted on the wall with blood. Rukia furrowed her brow, quickly pulling out her cellphone. Yohko could hear the audible click sound as the young woman snapped a picture, then re-pocketed the phone.
"Now, let's go!" Rukia commanded again, pulling Ichigo as she began to run from the scene.
The four ran, bathed in silver of moonlight, and gold of firelight, pretty silhouettes if not for the horror that seemed to bind them all.