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This article, Wind and Talon, is property of Njalm2.

This article, Wind and Talon, is property of ShonenChicoBoy.

The Sparring Match

It was late afternoon when Takashi left his squad’s headquarters. The sky was a clear, deep blue, and the wind carried with it a taste of crisp autumn. He breathed in deeply and smiled to himself, feeling limber and energetic. Today would be a good day.

Leaving the Seireitei behind him, Takashi took to the skies, using Shunpo to soar over quiet Rukon Districts far below. To the north lay Enbun District, and already he could picture the field, gold in late fall and hazy in the sunlight. He reached Enbun soon enough, barely disturbing the grass as he landed. Kohaku flew from his shoulder almost immediately, taking to the sky on her own with a powerful beat of her wings. Takashi watched her circle around the field for a moment before he began to stretch, making sure he was warmed-up beforehand. It was fortunate that both he and Kazuo had the day off, as normally such instances were rare considering their busy schedules. Takashi unsheathed his Zanpakutō and went through a series of kata, quietly running through the upcoming duel in his head. It was always challenging to spar with Kazuo. As the Lieutenant of the 2nd Division, Kazuo was known for his prowess in Hohō. And then there was his Kidō to consider, which was more troubling for Takashi since he tended to avoid using the art in combat. In any case, the most thrilling element was always the fact that, whenever they fought, they could go full-out, heedless of injury, and focused solely on testing and improving each other’s strength.

You’re exited. Kohaku’s thoughts entered his own mind. Of course. He replied calmly. He sensed that Kohaku was feeling anxious. What’s got you so concerned? He asked. She did not respond at once. I hate it when you get hurt. She answered at last. Takashi smiled. She was always the same. Don’t worry. We’ll stop if things get out of hand. We know each other’s limits. Kohaku did not seem impressed. She acted as though she wanted to tell him something else, but just then she spotted Kazuo approaching in the distance. Takashi sensed it through her, a faint reverbating awareness in the back of her mind. Please be careful. She warned one last time before removing her presence from his thoughts.

Takashi sheathed his sword, a bit perturbed that Kohaku was acting so edgy that day, as it affected his own mood. There was no reason to be uneasy. He began to breathe deeply and rhythmically to mentally ready himself. He was alert, he was excited, and he was ready as his fellow Lieutenant made his way towards the field.

Kazuo Hanazawa moved through the air, jumping off of rooftops and letting the cadence of his steps carry him across the Rukon districts. His face was calm and his features solemn, he knew what was going to take place today and despite himself, he was noticeably excited. He'd never be the guy who went out much, he never accompanied any of his subordinates to the amusement districts, he simply couldn't find the time. Takashi had become a friend to him, he might let him meet his family someday.

With him, was a large bag, containing groceries and cooking ingredients most likely. His sisters had requested home-made Onigiri today and they would not be in want of anything. He'd ensure that they remained happy and got the childhood he never got. In seven steps he'd crossed the distance between the Second Division's barracks and the place of their sparring match. Takashi appeared to be in a good mood, he couldn't blame him, the two Lieutenants were of similar strength that they could grow together, strong enough that they could give it their all and not hold back.

He appeared in mid-air, allowing himself to descend down to the ground in front of Takashi. Greeting him with a warm smile, Kazuo went and placed the bag against a nearby tree. Stretching his arms outward, he began a routine to loosen up the muscles in his limbs, and prepare his body for what he hoped would be an excellent workout. He went with this for a while before he raised a single leg and muttered: "Sekienton" before immediately bringing it down to the ground, the exact moment the foot made contact with the soil a massive blanket of purplish smoke rippled across the area, concealing Kazuo completely from sight. Well knowing of the bond between Takashi and Kohaku, he expended a little bit more energy than usual when he cast the spell, in order to make the smoke thick enough to conceal him even from her eyes.

His foot now firmly planted in the ground, Kazuo immediately issued his entire being into motion. As he with a single step closed the distance between them, he remained in that position just long enough to cast a silhouette through the purple veil. Before he took another step, and another one, quickly maneuvering in a circle around Takashi, his skill in Hohō evident. With every sudden turn and movement, the air convulsed around him, making the smoke whirl around, carried by the conflicting momentums. In an attempt to confuse Takashi's sense of direction - to goad him into leaving himself open. Then, he made an effort to strike his opponent at last.

Someone less knowledgeable about assassination would've instinctively gone for his opponents blind spot. But that was what most would expect, and by extension, the attack most likely to fail. Instead, he quickly encircled Takashi a second time before breaking off his Shunpo with a powerful roundhouse kick towards Takashi's left side, allowing the built up momentum to increase the force of his attack and carry him a few steps away from immediate retaliation.

I can’t see anything. Takashi thought to himself. He reached out his mind to Kohaku, but she simply turned him away: she couldn’t see through the thick smoke either. As Kazuo used Flash Step to move in a circle around him, Takashi readied himself. He knew it would be foolish to try and use Shunpo to escape the concealing mist as Kazuo would be waiting for him to emerge. So he waited for Kazuo to come to him. He bent his knees, resting on the balls of his feet, ready to strike. Takashi gathered his Reiatsu and suppressed it slightly, allowing his body to become infused with energy, poised to react. Considering Kazuo was the Lieutenant of the Stealth Force, Takashi expected he would lash out at any one of his pressure points. Probably the back of the neck. He thought. But the attack never came. Instead, Kazuo brought a powerful kick towards Takashi’s left side.

Takashi had waited to draw his sword until now, planning to use Iaijutsu in a swift counterattack. The kick caught him slightly off-guard. His blade emerged in an instant, it’s blunt edge forming a shield against the kick, but Takashi was in an awkward stance and off balance. He was pushed backwards with violent force, and did a complete summersault in mid-air before landing heavily and skidding back, turning up the earth beneath his feet. Fortunately, he now found himself out of the Sekienton’s mist.

“Well, that was unexpected.” He called out to Kazuo as he regained his footing. His hands were stinging from the impact, and he wondered how Kazuo’s shin had fared.

Kazuo did not reply, and Takashi frowned as he peered into the rapidly dissipating smoke screen.

He was definitely going to have some pretty bad bruises, it was fortunate that he'd trained his legs as well as he had. It hurt though, a lot in fact. Fortunately, Shunpo relied more on raw technique than the feet themselves. But he didn't have the time to worry about this now, his cover was about to fade and his target was recovering, he'd have to be relentless in his pursuit. Kazuo quickly raised both of his hands and directed them towards Takashi's general location. Elegantly, and with practiced ease, he moved his right hand in a fluid circle before making an flourish ending with his palm facing upwards. The somatic gesture invoked the spell of Restraint silently, with the gestures replacing the incantation, the execution was largely the same, but it was invaluable for an assassin.

The spell was one of compulsion, as he for a brief moment attempted to seize control of Takashi's arms and force them behind his back. It was a weak spell, not intended to hold someone of Takashi's caliber restrained for long, and Kazuo had not yet mastered the technique of exchanged-incantation, so it's power was affected. But he assumed that Takashi was expecting to react to an attack that he'd see, and an unseen spell might catch him off-guard for enough time to make his true follow up a success.

"Byakurai!"

The uttered word was the only indication of the spell, although since it was an Omnitsukido favorite, it could've been expected. The spell was cast a brief moment after the smoke fully dissipated, and immediately following Sai. From Kazuo's index finger a brilliant bolt of blue lightning streaked through the air towards Takashi. Hanazawa's knowledge as an assassin reflected in how it was aimed not for any vital organ, but at Takashi's right shoulder. Kazuo's objective was evident, he intended to greatly reduce the strength, speed and efficiency of his adversaries swordsmanship, his greatest threat, by damaging the joint and reduce his ability to react. The spell was fired with intent, and lined up with great precision.

There was no way for Takashi to anticipate Kazuo’s silent restraining spell, and he swore as his arms were wrenched behind his back. But this is what alerted him to what followed. He had seen Kazuo employ the technique before: it was a simple act of misdirection, meant to distract the opponent while a stronger spell was prepared.

He was ready for the stronger spell, even though it followed but a split second later. He was already moving. Rushing towards Kazuo. He heard him call the name of the spell and a bolt of pure, blue light shot past his head. Takashi ducked to the side as he continued to move towards Kazuo. While he was still occupied with finishing the spell Takashi leapt into the air and brought his foot crashing down towards Kazuo’s shoulder, quickly unbinding his arms from the Sai at the same time.

Looking up, Kazuo saw Takashi descending down towards him. Quickly breaking off the spell, he raised his hands and readied himself. He knew from experience that Takashi rarely employed Hakuda, he was proficient in it, most certainly, but it was not something he was that good at. Meanwhile, Kazuo vastly preferred martial combat, and this presented him with a golden opportunity. He'd be a fool to squander it. Without thinking, Hanazawa's body moved into an accommodating stance, the form having traits of Wing Chun.

His hands lashed out just as Takashi's foot drew close to his shoulder. With an elegance that spoke of diligent practice, Kazuo utilized Hohō to move upwards to meet him in mid-air, their bodies parallel, he in ascent, Takashi in descent. Just as he drifted upwards, Kazuo spun around in mid-air in an attempt to deliver a powerful kick to Takashi's chin. The blow empowered not only by Takashi's rapid descent, but also by Kazuo's personal momentum. It was a simple counter, but a potentially risky one. If his attack didn't connect, he'd be in trouble.

Takashi’s kick had not been meant to cause damage, but rather to allow him time to free his hands in order to use his sword. He was impressed as Kazuo met the attack with two quick steps of Hohō, simply and effectively allowing him to match his momentum. They were moving impossibly fast, but as they passed each other in mid-air time seemed to slow. Takashi looked into Kazuo’s face: it was blank and tense as he focused on… on what?

In the blink of an eye his foot chopped into Takashi’s neck. He caught it just in the nick of time and managed to turn his head just enough so the strike missed his throat. He was still sent hurtling into the ground, an explosion of grass and dirt flew around him as he landed. That was a mistake. He thought ruefully. Kazuo stopped in midair and looked down.

“Are you alright?” he called. Takashi got to his feet, thankful for the brief pause, and rubbed his neck.

“So far.” he answered.

“That’s two hits I’ve landed. You seem slow today.” Kazuo pointed out.

“Well, truthfully, I’ve been trying to see how long I could last without using my Zanpakutō.” He grinned. “So I suppose it’s my own fault.”

He was eyeing his opponent closely, waiting for the inevitable attack from above. It was not like Kazuo to pause in the middle of a fight, he was obviously up to something. Takashi’s neck and shoulder throbbed, but he ignored the pain as he raised his sword horizontally in front of his chest, the mune facing him, and placed his left palm flat against the shinogi-ji.

“Plunge into flesh, Aka no Tsume.” As he released his Shikai he used the sudden burst of Reiatsu to propel himself into the air. He rushed upwards towards Kazuo, turning the blade so that the cutting edge shrieked through the air, ready to cut into its target. The blade glinted red in the sunlight, and Takashi delivered a sweeping diagonal slash, using his momentum to carry himself through the curvature of the strike. It seems I’ll have to draw blood after all. He said to himself.

Well, shit. Kazuo's outward response to Takashi's Shikai was an expression of indifference, inwardly however, he made a horrific grimace - among all the Shikai in Soul Society, Aka no Tsume was the one he disliked the most. He'd grown terribly acquainted with the Zanpakutō during his frequent sparring matches with Takashi. Their swords were supposed to mirror their hearts, he wondered what Takashi held in his to manifest such a mean and relentless Zanpakutō.

He had no time to think this over though, as he reflexively drew his own Zanpakutō and met Takashi's attack head on. With some difficulty he managed to block the strike, but Takashi was no fool and he knew he had the advantage here. What followed next was a continuous barrage of powerful blows, each perfectly executed and made with purpose, he narrowly parried slashes, piercing strikes and hacking blows. It was always unnerving to face Takashi when he got like this, he could sense the killing intent in the blade of his adversary. Except it wasn't killing intent of the bloodthirsty kind, it didn't attempt to overwhelm him or frighten him, it was cold, an icy truth of the blade itself. There was a certainty to the feeling which always frightened him.

He didn't want to die. He couldn't afford to die.

Kazuo made no attempt to retaliate, his focus was on avoiding or blocking every single strike that went his way. A glancing blow might screw him over, big time. He narrowly parried a piercing strike directed towards his chest, and quickly sidestepped the following downright chop of Ama no Tsume. Finally! An opening, time to make some distance between them. Hanazawa took two steps away from Takashi and... barely had two seconds of downtime before his rival was upon him again, that damn Zanpakutō it neutralized his biggest advantages. Speed and stealth.

Utilizing what little time he had to the best of his abilities, Kazuo quickly brandished his Zanpakutō and performed an elegant flourish. The action was completed mere moments before Takashi's blade would've pierced his chest.

"Flow, Shūkikōjaku!"

Torrential winds were unleashed in all four cardinal directions when his Shikai was released. Their great force pushing the two combatants apart as it'd hurl towards Takeshi as an attack in and of itself, attempting to seize him in mid-air and send him crashing to the ground, again. But more noticeable than this was the thousand falling leaves which now filled the airspace around them, colored yellow, red and orange. As Kazuo raised his sword in preparation for his opponent, a rustle went through the leaves and they seemed to whirl around the Lieutenant in a defensive manner, concealing him from sight.

Takashi had attacked swiftly, silently; puzzled as Kazuo had made no attempt at a counter attack, entirely consumed with blocking his strikes. Kazuo was a naturally defensive fighter when it came to swordplay, but Takashi had expected some sort of a Kidō spell or Hohō maneuver to compensate. It couldn’t be helped; Takashi began to gain the upper hand. As his blade contacted with his opponent’s he felt a very slight trace of hidden emotion. The sword quavered slightly with each hit. It was barely perceptible, but he could feel a trace of fear. His own blade was empty, dead; but it was urgent and resolute. Takashi had one objective, and that was to cut his opponent. So far, Kazuo had been able to block his attacks, complicating his efforts. He needed to get closer. With one step of Shunpo he moved past Kazuo’s counterattack and drove the blade towards his chest. Kazuo twisted at the last moment and the piercing strike narrowly missed him. But there was no way Takashi would miss this opportunity, he was so close now he could see the thin beads of sweat on Kazuo’s forehead. He quickly turned the blade and barely brushed the kissaki against Kazuo’s shoulder, a tiny stream of blood following the blade as he continued moving to extricate himself from his dangerously open position. He had barely scratched the skin, but it was enough. Instead of moving to attack, Kazuo stepped backwards, and Takashi took the opportunity to slash at him again. Already the blood he had drawn from Kazuo’s shoulder had been absorbed by the blade, giving Takashi the slightest increase in speed. Kazuo delivered an unexpectedly strong blow, catching Takashi off-guard as he had just begun a Flash Step. This allowed Kazuo some space as Takashi misjudged and went too far past him. Takashi felt, rather than saw, as Kazuo readjusted his stance, grounding himself firmly in the air, and regained his own footing just as he released his Shikai.

Takashi knew he had a very narrow window to strike, and rushed forward to attack. If he could reach Kazuo one last time before…

A sudden wall of wind slammed into his chest and sent him flying back. Instead of trying to resist the gust Takashi turned and used the current to take him higher into the sky. He stopped and watched as a circle of leaves radiated around Kazuo, falling by the thousands until, with an elegant sweep of his blade they coalesced and began to swirl around him. Beautiful. As always, Takashi found himself admiring the Zanpakutō. The bright leaves flashed through the sunlight, glowing in deep gold, fiery red, and burnt orange. Kohaku took notice at once and cried out in delight as she soared amidst the leaves. There was no malice to the sword, it was meant to protect, not cut, and she allowed the wind to carry her through the sky at blinding speed. Takashi smiled despite himself, and his chest swelled with warm satisfaction. Here his blade met its match: A thousand impenetrable shields.

He steeled himself, for a moment he was completely motionless as he suppressed his Reiatsu into the cutting edge of his blade. The sky seemed brighter, the grass in the field stood out with more clarity. His senses were fully alert, keening to find a path to his target. The leaves continued to rush through the air, moving at incredible speed. Takashi would need to increase his own if he wanted to keep up, and that meant he would have to cut his opponent again. He breathed out slowly, clearing his mind… and then he struck.

He skirted along the wall of leaves with caution. He could not see Kazuo, but he knew he was hidden somewhere in the splendorous blanket of color. Takashi gripped his sword with both hands and dug the tip of his blade into the leaves, using Shunpo to give force to his forward drive. It took all of his concentration to cut through the defensive barrier, as he could only do so by using Muyō: infusing the very cutting edge of the blade with Reiatsu, but even so he was barely able to penetrate the leaves and they reformed instantly after the sword passed through them. Behind him he could hear the rustling of hundreds of leaves following him, reaching out to grab a hold of him and throw him back. He was outrunning a storm. The question now was whether or not he would contact Kazuo’s body before he himself was overwhelmed.

Accompanied by a trail of fluttering leaves, Hanazawa closed the distance and engaged Takashi in close quarters. Blades clashed, sparks flew and the air around them convulsed with each blow, affected by their spiritual pressure, vying for dominance. Each time their Zanpakutō connected it resulted in a shockwave of energy. As expected, Takashi excelled in close combat, and whenever the former drew his blade, Kazuo normally preferred to remain at a range - but his Shikai released, it was different. Clever feints, spectacular counters and perfectly executed maneuvers that would typically have overwhelmed him and resulted in serious injuries never found their mark as barriers of leaves rose up between them to deflect them in his stead. Throughout the exchange, Kazuo remained in constant movements, pressuring his opponent from multiple angles and directions in what amounted to the span of a few seconds.

He interchanged between striking with his blade, locking his sword against the hilt of Takashi’s Zanpakutō, and delivering consecutive fast-paced kicks at Takashi's legs and abdomen. It was dirty fighting, but effective, as several of his Hakuda blows connected, but his adversary's mastery of the sword proved too great for him to accomplish much with a blade. The focus here didn't lie with the physical blows, or even weathering his opponent down - it lied predominantly with the movement itself. For with every successive attack, every turn and step, the leaves began to form an increasingly spherical shape around the two of them. Boxing them in little by little, he just had to hold on for a little while longer and he could- Kazuo's thought process was interrupted by a flash of agony as Takashi's blade grazed across his left bicep, leaving a long gash in it's wake.

The difference was immediately noticeable, whereas his foe had up until this point struggled to react in time with his blows, he now attacked, moved and reacted much faster. Before the sphere had fully formed around them, Kazuo had already taken two glancing blows, but as both of them drew blood, they would each alter the course of the battle significantly. Aka no Tsume was such a pain in the neck to deal with. Narrowly avoiding another strike from Takashi, he leapt backwards - out of the sphere as he pointed his index finger at the swordsman and shouted:

"Bakudō #61. Rikujōkōrō!"

Four beams of light manifested in the air around Takashi, each of them conjured close to their intended target, and aided by the tight confines of the sphere of leaves. In unison, they surged towards his midsection in an attempt to render him completely paralyzed for a short duration. Kazuo turned away and took another step to make distance between them, the opening through which he had left quickly sealing behind him. His injuries throbbed in protest and his breath had grown ragged and his face showed telltale signs of exhaustion. But he was not yet done.

He initiated the second step of his three-part strategy. With impressive speed and precision he drew four crescents in the air in front of him, employing his Zanpakutō's most powerful ability. Hineri. Each crescent drawn caused a portion of the leaves to whirl in a different, separate direction - pressing against each other and quickly building both speed and force. Inside the orb, a powerful surge of wind would gradually pick up, tossing and turning at whomever remained inside. Pulling them in four different directions at once. At four crescents, it's power was significant but not life-threatening, it was employed in a desperate bid to buy himself enough time to launch his true offensive. He could only hope the aftereffects of Hineri would keep him occupied for long enough.

Tucking his sword in his armpit, Kazuo let his spiritual power flow to the surface. Harnessing it and uttering the full incantation for a powerful offensive spell. The sound of his voice resounding in the air. As his reiatsu turned from white into a bright crimson. It's form gradually changing to resemble flickering tongues of red fire.

"Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! Inferno and pandemonium, the sea barrier surges, march on to the south!"

He supported his right hand with his left as he uttered the name of the spell: Shakkahō. At first, there was silence, then it was broken by a shrill cacophonous roar as a massive sphere of red fire issued forth from his outstretched palm and engulfed the sphere in a violent explosion of crimson flames. Briefly setting the sky alight with red and culminating in a blast wave powerful enough to send it's own caster careening fifty yards backwards. Whether or not the spell had connected, he did not know. It mattered little, as exhaustion took it's toll and the Lieutenant was left gasping and panting where he stood, eyes scanning the perimeter for any sign of Takashi.

I got him. Takashi felt a sudden, small surge of energizing speed run through him as his blade contacted flesh, drawing a gash across his opponent’s arm. Kazuo recoiled naturally from the pain, and Takashi moved while he had the advantage. He slashed at Kazuo’s chest and his stroke was blocked. With an expert and sudden twist of the blade he drew back his own sword, leaving a thin diagonal cut on Kazuo’s chest in the process. Kazuo responded with a kick and a downward strike, which Takashi parried with the flat of his blade before using Shunpo to rush past Kazuo, turning his sword so that the tip barely grazed his side. He stopped and pivoted on his heel, preparing to strike again. His speed was now nearly half of Kazuo’s, which meant he could attack and react more skillfully, but he was still nowhere near keeping up with Kazuo over any extent of distance. As if to reiterate this fact, by the time he had turned around Kazuo had disappeared, a thin trace of shimmering Reishi the only sign of where he had been just a second before.

For the first time Takashi noticed how close the wall of leaves had formed around him, creating a tight sphere. He knew he had been surrounded the whole time, but had been so focused on attacking Kazuo that he had let his guard down. Now he was hedged in on all sides by a dense barrier. At the same moment he realized this, he heard Kazuo call out a Kidō spell.

Rikujōkōrō.

Not again. He thought as four rods of light appeared in the air around him. He was extremely familiar technique, as he had been trained to use it himself while in the Onmitsukidō, and had often lost to Kazuo due to the latter’s skilled use of the spell.

It had only one weakness, and there was only a split second to react.

Fortunately, it only took an instant for Takashi to concentrate his Reiatsu into the edge of his blade. As the first bolt of light shot through him he brought his sword down with as much force as he could muster. The very Reishi that was concentrated in the air split to either side of the blade, invisible but audible from the reverberation. His timing had been perfect: just before the second pair of bolts contacted his abdomen he had struck, the shadowing blades of Sanbankage destroying the bolts simultaneously before he was paralyzed. The two remaining bolts shattered as the spell was neutralized.

Takashi’s heart pounded in his chest. The entire exchange had lasted less than a second. Takashi, he’s preparing a Shakkahō. Kohaku’s warning shot into his mind so suddenly it gave him a throbbing pain in his head. But before he could react he was hit with a powerful gust of wind and found himself caught between the four directional pull of Hineri. He might not have been paralyzed, but he was still unable to move. The wind whipped around him, so tight and fast it forced the air from his lungs. Takashi! Kohaku's cry was desperate. How many seconds did he have?

One…

He had only one hope of escape… Karafuru.

Two…

He suppressed all the Reiatsu available to him into his own body. This is going to hurt.

Three…

The wind roared in his ears, but he could feel Kazuo’s presence clearly, and even hear his words.

Four…

He sprang, ripping through both wind and leaves just as Kazuo cast the Shakkahō.

The entire orb of leaves exploded with flame behind him, fueled by the wind encircling it. The heat alone disintegrated his waraji and burned the edges of his hakama. The sky glowed red, and the blast from the explosion was so powerful it caught up to Takashi, even while he was still in momentum from Karafuru, and sent him hurtling towards the ground. He landed some two hundred meters away, slamming into the earth without anyway to break his fall. His body dug a trench as it continued to travel forward, and he was thrown up into the air once more when his shoulder hit a rock. He skidded into the dirt again, rolled twice, and stopped at the base of a tree trunk.

Takashi stared at the sky and blinked, trying to clear the circles of tiny white lights that were swimming in front of his vision. He gasped, breathing for the first time after the explosion, and began to cough as he breathed in dust. Slowly, shakily, he got to his feet. He watched as Kazuo, who had been pushed back by the explosion as well, sank back to the ground. He seemed exhausted, and Takashi felt the same way. Both of them were panting heavily.

“Damn.” He muttered. He had just narrowly escaped the Shakkahō's blast and was in bad shape: he wondered what would have happened if he had taken a direct hit. That was a little excessive. He inwardly glared at Kazuo. He was bruised, battered, and bleeding from his journey through the ground, could barely breathe from the pain of his possibly dislocated ribs, and had a splitting headache from where his skull had apparently contacted the tree. He felt drained of Reiatsu as Karafuru had taken nearly everything out of him.

But he still had his Shikai.

Takashi began to limp back through the field towards Kazuo, the grass swaying around his feet. He began to breathe deeply and methodically, even though his ribs throbbed every time he filled his lungs. The wind pushed at his back, and Kohaku’s shadow flew in front of him. He rolled out the tension in his arms, feeling his muscles ache in protest. But he was still in one piece. The earth was cool and thick against his bare feet, and he seemed to draw strength from the calming sensation. It reminded him of the days he had spent wandering throughout the Rukongai. He had known exhaustion then too. This he could bear. This he could push past. Ignoring the pain, Takashi took a step of Shunpo and found, to his surprise, that although reduced from the damage he had taken he still possessed some speed. He had his Zanpakutō to thank for that. Unlike other Zanpakutō, the Aka no Tsume did not drain his Reiatsu so quickly while using Shikai, allowing him to fight for a more extended length of time. You’re back. Kohaku seemed pleased. So it seems, little one. He replied. Be careful, he may seem weak at this point but his speed still exceeds your own. She warned. Takashi smiled. Not for long.

His blade flashed red for an instant as he imbued it once more with Reiatsu, matching the resolve that shone softly in his eyes.

“You had best be ready, Hanazawa-san.”

With that he rushed forward once again.

Kazuo made a point of concealing just how shocked he was, his expression empty of anything but determination. He'd been certain of his success, what had given away his ploy? It was unmistakable, Takashi had acted as though he knew of the Shakkahō beforehand, but surely that was impossible, right? There was no way he could've heard the incantation when caught in Hineri, and he'd sealed the sphere shut the moment he exited, so how had this happened? Above him he could see Kohaku circling in the air.

Of course.

Readying his blade, Kazuo relaxed his feet and allowed Takashi to enclose upon him. Raising Shūkikōjaku as though preparing to parry the incoming attack he shifted his feet and prepared to execute his feint. He'd grown used to Takashi's increased speed at this point, four strikes had landed against him. At the very last instant before Takashi's blade would bite into his skin he moved, performing two consecutive steps in one fluid motion. While his opponents blade was still mid-swing, Kazuo's steps had taken him high into the air - floating above the clouds and caught up with Kohaku. His adversary would undoubtedly pursue him, but it mattered little, the difference in speed was great enough that he'd probably manage to accomplish his objective without interruption. A hawk though she might be, Kohaku should be incapable of outrunning a Shunpo Master.

Extending a hand out towards Kohaku, he muttered softly - "Tanma Otoshi". A pale nimbus of white light surrounded his palm as he cast the enchantment. The spell was non-damaging, but it would plunge the bird into a very deep sleep, effectively removing her from the battle and preventing further meddling. He took precautions to ensure that she could not be woken up easily. As he didn't want to hurt her though, he readied himself to snatch her out of the air in a gentle manner, preparing to deposit her unconscious body somewhere on the ground.

Kazuo leveled his blade as Takashi brought a sweeping horizontal slash down to meet him, but a mere instant before the stroke landed Kazuo had disappeared. Although Takashi could not keep up with Kazuo’s Shunpo, he could see it at least.

In two steps Kazuo had reached Kohaku, reaching out his hand to hit her with some unknown Kidō spell.

Several things happened at once after that. Takashi felt icy panic grip his chest, and before he knew what he was doing he was rushing towards Kohaku. She, on the other hand, sensed the danger behind her immediately and folded up her wings in a steep dive. But Kazuo continued to follow her, gaining momentum as he sped towards the ground.

“Hanazawa no!” he yelled. It was too late. The Kidō spell reached its target and Kohaku seemed to go limp. Takashi’s headache was worsened with splitting pain as her presence was torn from his mind.

Before Kazuo could catch the falling hawk Takashi lunged forwards and snatched her from the air, allowing his step to carry them back to the ground. He cradled the bird to his chest, murmuring softly to her. But she did not respond. Takashi set her down as gently as possible, and there was a sharp pain in his chest as his Shikai forcefully regressed, leaving him entirely alone.

Deep down, he knew Kazuo would never intend to harm his hawk, but that is not how he responded. As he stared at the small, motionless body lying in the grass he was reminded of his past: This had happened before, and he had nearly died trying to save her that time.

Fear and silent fury ran through his body now, threatening to swallow him before, suddenly, he snapped away from all emotion.

There was an eminent threat approaching, his objective now was to cut it down. And he lost himself to that objective. He ground his feet into the earth, rooting himself in an immovable Gedan stance. He turned, instinctively, as he heard Kazuo take a step of Shunpo and fly towards him, no doubt intending to use Hakuda to quickly finish the battle. He could not avoid it, and felt no desire to avoid it. His blade was as empty as his mind, as empty as if it were dead.

Kazuo delivered a crushing kick to his side. The instant Takashi felt the concentrated Reiatsu in Kazuo’s leg reach him he shot out his hand and dug his fingers into the skin: no matter what followed he would not lose his stance or his grip.

The impact of the strike slammed into him like a wall. If his ribs had not been dislocated before they were dislocated now. But Takashi couldn’t even feel the pain, his mind seeming to control his body from a distance. The force of the blow ran through his body, diffusing into the ground in a shockwave. For an instant the two opponents were locked together, Takashi’s grip keeping Kazuo close to him. Their pulses beat in unison, they were breathing out at the same time, and they were both in motion.

He swung his blade then. Even without Shikai the sword sliced impossibly fast through the air, Reishi mirroring the cut so that it fell like the talons of a hawk. When the stroke finally hit, it would cut through bone and flesh, severing the chest in two.

But it never did reach its target. For an instant time seemed frozen as Takashi became aware of himself once more. His eyes focused on Kazuo, sword at his side, mouth drawn in a tense line and eyes wide as he prepared to deliver a strong punch to Takashi’s face before his own strike could reach him. Takashi was unconcerned by this, as it was more important that he stop his own attack. He pulled back, trying to reverse the direction of the sword. It still cut across Kazuo’s chest, but not deeply, three red lines following the path of the blade. Then Kazuo’s fist found its mark, and time resumed as Takashi was thrown back violently. While still hurtling through the air Kazuo caught up to him with Shunpo and sent him flying into the ground. He backed off for a moment, allowing Takashi to stand and the dust to clear so he could attack once more.

Takashi used the brief pause to flick the dirt from his sword gracefully and return it to its scabbard. Then he crossed his forearms in front of his face and rooted himself to the ground once more in Gedan, hoping that he could withstand being repeatedly sent like a meteor into the surface of the earth. And as Kazuo rushed towards him Takashi calmly accepted defeat.

Just Another Day

The finishing blow never came, as Kazuo stopped in his tracks a yard away from Takashi. Raising his hand and drawing a in front of Kohaku. Written with green energies and then broken by a clean flourish of his hands, shattering his previous enchantment and returning consciousness to the hawk. Takashi's Zanpakutō had returned to it's ordinary state the moment Kohaku fell unconscious, it was strange, but he felt there was some sort of connection between the hawk and Ama no Tsume.

"You've sheathed your blade and your expression shows defeat. It appears as though there's a connection between Kohaku and your Zanpakutō. Judging by how it resealed when she was knocked unconscious. I don't intend to sound harsh, but if that is the case, you're putting both yourself and her in danger. She's a secondary target, easily spotted and vulnerable. If I could figure out the connection, so could our enemies."

There was a critical tone to his voice as he spoke. He could understand the advantages of something like this, as it'd somehow allowed Takashi to escape from his trap earlier, but once discovered it would spell immediate defeat, as it had done in their sparring match. This explained so much, there was so many times this had occurred before, even if it had occurred to a much smaller degree. He'd - Kazuo's eyes widened as he realized that the tree where he'd left the bag of groceries happened to be the only tree in their general vicinity, and that very same tree had been destroyed by Takashi. Groaning to himself, he realized he had to buy groceries again.

Takashi relaxed after Kazuo released the Kidō spell, which he now recognized as Tanma Otoshi. Kohaku shook her head, rolled to her feet, and then sprang from the ground, gliding over to land on his shoulder. She buried her beak in his hair, which she did whenever she was shaken up and trying to calm herself. You are all right? He asked her. Yes. But the same can’t be said for you. She pointed out. Takashi took a quick stock of his injuries and sighed. He was not bleeding as much as Kazuo was, but his internal injuries probably accounted for twice as much damage, at least.

"You've sheathed your blade and your expression shows defeat.” Kazuo said.

“So it seems. Once again you’ve bested me, Hanazawa-san.” Takashi bowed to his training partner, wincing from the pain of moving. Kazuo had sheathed his own sword by this time, and the last few leaves still floating in the air from his Shikai disappeared.

“It appears as though there's a connection between Kohaku and your Zanpakutō, judging by how it resealed when she was knocked unconscious.” He said, looking closely at Takashi to determine his reaction. “I don't intend to sound harsh, but if that is the case, you're putting both yourself and her in danger. She's a secondary target, easily spotted and vulnerable. If I could figure out the connection, so could our enemies." He sounded critical. Takashi sighed again and rubbed the back of his head, grimacing again as his skin moved around his busted ribs.

“I always meant to tell you…” he began. “I knew you would eventually find out, one way or the other. Truth is, I don’t really understand it myself, but for some reason Aka no Tsume prefers to reside in the body of the hawk, as opposed to my sword.”

Kazuo snorted. “And I’m assuming you haven’t told me until now because you knew it gave you an advantage.”

Takashi shrugged and then winced, forgetting that his shoulder had been torn up in the process of their fight as well.

“Until I can find a way to match your speed I need everything I can get.” He said lightly.

Kazuo’s eyes widened suddenly and he rushed past Takashi, running to the edge of the field. Takashi followed him at a much slower pace. He stopped in front of the tree that Takashi had landed against. The bark was cracked and splintered from the impact, the whole tree leaned back, its roots lying exposed amongst huge chunks of dirt. Kazuo reached down and picked something off the ground before groaning to himself. It was the bag that he had brought with him earlier. Takashi had not asked, but assumed it had been filled with groceries. Now it was tattered and caked with dirt, with smashed vegetables spilling out and vinegar leaking from the bottom. Takashi nodded towards the bag.

“Lunch?” he asked.

“No, I was going to make Onigiri.”

“For your sisters?” Takashi asked, now curious. Kazuo had mentioned his family before, but always seemed to dodge the subject. He could tell he cared deeply for them, however, as it was a sentiment he could easily empathize with, considering his relationship with Kohaku.

“Well, I suppose we’ll just have to go buy you some more ingredients.”

“I'll accept your charity. It's because of you this is necessary after all." Kazuya stated flatly, although there was a twinge of amusement to his tone.

“What are you talking about? The loser always buys the drinks.”

Takashi acted as though he were going to head off back towards town, but as he took a step his leg suddenly gave way under him. No doubt the result of one of Kazuo’s powerful kicks. He grunted with pain before sinking back somewhat haphazardly onto the ground, trying to find a comfortable position. Kazuo came over and held his hands above Takashi’s shoulder, a wound that he couldn’t reach himself, and began to use Kaidō. It was simple habit: after their matches they would take turns healing each other’s wounds. Takashi felt a stinging pain that quickly faded as green energy worked its way through the injury.

Thinking back to the battle Takashi said: “On a more serious note, my bond to Kohaku is both my greatest strength, and my greatest weakness. I haven’t found a way to protect her while I’m engaged in combat…” he drew in his breath sharply as a tendon realigned itself. “Maybe a barrier spell could work.”

“Hmph.” Kazuo did not reply at first. "I could've killed Kohaku with ease, and you should expect to fight opponents much more powerful than I. Besides, do you even have the knowledge to produce warding spells?"

“Hardly.” He admitted. “While I was in the Onmitsukidō we used barriers.”

“Those aren’t the same.” Kazuo stated. “At any rate a ward spell could disrupt your ability to communicate with your Zanpakutō.”

He’s right. Kohaku added. And what makes you think I’d be willing to be caged in by a box, watching helplessly as you get cut to pieces? Takashi smiled at her tone. He ran his fingers through her chest feathers, soothing her.

There was a long moment of silence before Takashi asked, plainly, humbly.

“Hanazawa-san, until I find a way to protect her… may I ask that you attack only me.”

Kazuo did not answer at once. "Only if you don't involve her in our matches.” He said. “If you rely upon her for direction then I must treat her like an enemy."

“So be it.” Takashi affirmed. It is for the best, Kohaku. He cut in to her train of thought before she could protest. It is time I learn once more to rely only on my own strength. Kohaku said nothing, strangely depressed at what he had told her.

After that there was little attempt at conversation. They concentrated on their task, and soon, both of them were fully restored physically, although they still felt weak from their drained Reiatsu.

“Hopefully no one notices the mess we made here.” Takashi said as he stood and stretched. The field was once again calm, although the signs from their battle were still visible, deep scars of dark earth that interrupted the rolling, grassy terrain. The sun was not as high in the sky as it had been, and evening was fast approaching. “We had better go before they close the markets.” Takashi said.

“If we must.” Kazuo said brusquely, aloof as usual, but started off across the field nonetheless. Takashi acted as if he was reaching down to re-tie a sandal strap, but instead grabbed a handful of soil. He weighed it in his hand before he turned and hurled the dirt at Kazuo. The clod of earth sailed through the air before smacking Kazuo in the back of the head, but by the time he turned around Takashi had disappeared, using what little Reiatsu he had left to race at breakneck speed towards town.

“Challenge accepted.” Kazuo said with a wry grin before he too flashed off.

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