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To Protect is to Defend

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The day started out so well. It was a month until my birthday, I'd actually landed a hit on Tatsuki, and Mom was going to bake cookies with me once we got home, to warm us up from walking in the rain.

Then I saw that stupid ghost girl. I didn't listen to Mom. I forgot what she said about being the number one protector, and ran to the river bank like an idiot, the mouse so fixed on the cheese he didn't see the hungry exterminator standing over them.

Only I didn't get exterminated.

Mom took the blow, shielding me with her body. I was too weak to do anything but lie there and choke on tears. Terrified. Couldn't move, barely breathed, watching as a nightmare from hell with red eyes put claws as long as I was tall right through Mom's body.

All I could see was red. I had her blood on my face, in my mouth. I felt her last breath ruffle the hair on the top of my head.

I lost the sun from my life, and I discovered true hatred.

I was nine years old.

~

I could always see ghosts. From my earliest memories, the world had more people in it than it should have. Ghosts looked just like real people to me, and it took a long time for me to realize that the people with the thick chains hanging out of their chests were dead.

They were usually whining.

When I was little, I felt sorry for them. They were all looking for something… a lost parent, a child, an ending.

That pity made me arrogant, and thoughtless, and got Mom killed.

After that day, I didn't pity them any longer. I despised them. Treating them like real people was stupid, because they were dead, and the dead shouldn't be hanging around the living. They should go in peace, or just go, and stop fooling little live kids into getting their mothers killed.

I didn't think much after they found me. It took awhile, there in the rain with the mud seeping into my clothes from beneath me and blood seeping into my clothes from Mom's body on top of me. The first cops on the scene didn't actually see me, just Mom.

The one nearly cried when they rolled her over and saw me.

I guess I was catatonic for awhile. I didn't make any noise, didn't respond when they asked me questions. I was stuck in my own mind, seeing a grinning skeleton's face with holes all the way across it.

Eating Mom's ghost.

She screamed and hit at it, still trying to protect me even though she was dead.

Mom was the only ghost I couldn't despise, and that monster ate her.

It must have been a couple days later, after Dad brought me home from the hospital, before I started to figure out what it all meant. Yuzu was curled up on the bed beside me with her head in my lap. I was combing my fingers through her hair instinctively, and she was crying without making any noise. Karin was on the bed too, sitting up with her legs stretched out beside me, resting against the wall. She was patting my head, and it calmed me, too. She stared out over the room with a frown on her face, like she was our protector. Mine and Yuzu's.

That made things clear, too.

Protection wasn't running into god-knows-what and getting people killed.

Protection is defense.

No monster would ever touch my sisters like one killed Mom. Not while there was breath in my body and any strength at all in my muscles. Mom had kept fighting to defend me even after she died. I would do the same for Yuzu and Karin. The only thing I could do was get as strong as I could so I could defend my sisters.

Caring about ghosts got Mom killed. I didn't care about them any more, no matter how pathetic they were.

I would protect the living. Defend them until and beyond death.

The dead were on their own.

~

Dad was very quiet for a few weeks after I came back to myself. He worked a lot. That was okay. I needed quiet.

The girls were confused, but they adapted to the new normal. Yuzu tried to cook, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. We worked together, as I showed her all the things Mom had shown me. It made us closer. Karin was a disaster in the kitchen, but she pitched in everywhere but cooking. I caught her a few times trying to pick up trash bags that were too heavy or shifting groceries on the upper shelves. I helped her, but I didn't stop her. We didn't talk about it.

Didn't need to. We all did what we had to do with Mom dead and Dad pretty much gone.

~

School was weird. Most of the other kids left me alone. A few made fun of me. I just looked at them.

"Poor little cry-baby!"

Didn't know I was crying.

"Weirdo!"

Whatever.

"Momma's boy!"

Yes. Always.

I didn't care what they said. They were ignorant, and most of them were stupid.

Then one of them swung a fist at my face.

I ducked, and a move Tatsuki had used on me so many times, that I'd never quite gotten, came through without a thought. My fist went into his belly, then my elbow caught him under the chin, and he fell like a sack full of rocks.

Defend.

Defend to protect.

I didn't have to start fights. I would just finish them.

"Kurosaki!" The sensei sounded like she didn't know whether to be shocked or angry.

I looked up at her over the hunched up, gasping bully. Then I looked at my fist. My wrist hurt a little. I looked back at the sensei.

That was my first trip to the office, and the first call home.

It got to be routine, after a while.

~

That night Dad came to my room where I was reading. Mom loved Winter's Tale, and though I didn't understand a lot of it, the words sounded like music when she read them. I stared at the page.

"I have heard, but not believed, the spirits o' the dead may walk again; if such a thing be, thy mother appear'd to me last night, for ne'er was a dream so like waking."

If only she would.

"Everything okay, son?"

Dad was always one for stupid questions. I looked at him. He sighed.

"If you're going to fight, you're going to need to train, or you're going to get hurt."

I nodded once. He stared at me some more. I went back to Shakespeare.

After a minute he got bored and left.

I kept reading.

~

The next morning, he kicked me out of bed. I was more startled than hurt, though it certainly didn't feel good.

"Goood morning, Ichigo!" he cried cheerfully.

I stared at him, eyes so wide I could feel them straining, over the edge of my bed.

He posed in the doorway, then finally dropped his arms and cocked his head.

"Are you ever coming out from behind there?"

I slowly came out, inching around him, hugging the walls until I got to the door. Then I ran downstairs as fast as I could.

He probably wouldn't have kicked me downstairs, but I wouldn't bet on it. He was odder than usual. He hadn't hit me before. Ever.

Yuzu put a plate in front of me and I nodded thanks. Karin plopped down opposite of me and looked warily at Dad, who was either hugging Yuzu or pretending to be an anaconda with a breakfast snack.

Hard to tell the difference, with Dad's hugs.

The food was good. Yuzu was getting better. I listened to Dad chatter like a chipmunk until I was finished, then took my plate to the sink, gave my sisters one last look just in case, and headed to school.

Idiots kept talking. Somebody talked about the bully I hit the day before. Somebody else mentioned that Mom died.

I shut off my ears and put everything I had into doing math problems.

One thing at a time. Idiots talking were not important. I couldn't do anything about them, and I didn't want to. Ignoring them was good, because any other reaction would just encourage them.

Schoolwork I could do.

That, and punch back anyone who tried to punch me first.

~

Keigo and Tatsuki came over to eat lunch with me. Tatsuki was okay. Keigo was too loud. He made my head hurt. As we were heading back to the classroom, Tatsuki tugged at my sleeve.

"You coming back to the dojo soon, Ichigo?"

I tripped over nothing.

She had a strong grip on my arm that kept me from falling. Some idiot laughed. She glared, and whoever it was choked.

Dojo. Walk to the dojo. Walk past where Mom died. Walk past where I got stupid, tried to protect a ghost, and got my Mom killed.

I tried to tell her I was never going back, but I couldn't make any sound come out of my throat.

She shook her head. "Later," she said, and let go of my arm to pat my shoulder.

Later?

Never.

~

Never's a long time, of course. Especially when you've just turned ten. Dad didn't stop with kicking me out of the bed. A couple days later he started punching me.

Not trying.

Punching.

I was pretty small, and I got faster every day, so ducking and running worked.

Then he cornered me.

I couldn't get away until he let me. He looked impatient. I didn't know what he wanted. I looked up at him.

"Damnit, boy," he caught himself, sighed, and started again. "Ichigo, you have to at least try to fight back!"

Why? Wasn't this my punishment for getting Mom killed?

Then he punched me again. I didn't duck fast enough and smacked into the wall. It hurt, but more than that, it made me dizzy. Dad yanked me up by the collar and hauled me off to the table, dumping me in my chair.

A glass of water thumped in front of me.

"Drink it," Dad ordered. "Get your head on straight and we'll try this again."

'This' appeared to be 'knock the stuffing out of your son'. I tried to hit back, but Dad's huge. It was like a flea taking on a dog. It was stupid.

So I figured it really was punishment, and I stopped trying to hit back. I ducked, and I blocked, and I got the heck away from him every chance I got.

I also watched my sisters as much as I possibly could.

It was okay if he hit me. But my sisters were innocent, and I would protect them. If he hurt them, I would kill him.

If anyone hurt them, I would kill them.

Somehow.

~

Keigo noticed the bruises one day in class. For once, he was quiet. As we headed off home at the end of the day, he pulled me aside.

"You gotta defend yourself, Ichigo," he said softly.

I had never heard him whisper. I didn't think he could. I tilted me head at him, a silent question.

"I take kendō lessons," he said, then added, "but I also take aikido. My sister beats the shit out of me, and my parents think it's okay, that I just need to toughen up. But I can't hit her back, mainly because she'd kill me, but partly because she's a girl, and my dad would kill me. So I found a way around it."

"Aikido?" Maybe that would be a good way to deal with Dad. Ducking wasn't cutting it, and blocking hurt almost as much as getting hit.

Keigo nodded, then handed me a slip of paper with an address on it. "This is the dojo I go to. They're great. Patient, and they make sure you really get it. I've had a lot better luck escaping my sister since I started going there."

"Thanks, Keigo."

He nodded at me, then bolted off after Mizuiro, babbling at the top of his lungs again.

He may have saved my life that day.

~

It took a few months, but I finally figured out Dad was trying to train me to fight, not hurt me for making him lose Mom.

Not that understanding helped. The few times I punched him it was like hitting a brick wall, and twice I ended up spraining fingers. Once I broke a knuckle.

He acted like it was about time, and piled on the pressure. Pretty soon he was kicking me out of bed, ambushing me in the hallway, punching me out at the dinner table.

Yuzu smacked him with a spatula when he did that, and Karin tried to stab him with a chopstick, but he told them it was ‘necessary.’

Pretty soon, Yuzu was packing me bentos for all my meals, and I was studying in the public library. It was great for my grades, but made it kind of tough to sleep at night. Not that I slept much, with the nightmares.

Sure, some of them were about Mom, or being trapped and drowning in blood, the usual. But I had other things to scream about.

Now I saw the monsters.

They were everywhere there were ghosts, and ghosts were everywhere.

The school counselor recommended I see a psychologist. I went twice. I didn’t say anything about the monsters. Even at my age, I knew people would think I was nuts if I told them I could talk to ghosts and saw monsters. But I did take something away from it.

I learned to meditate.

It helped the nightmares.

The counselor called it lucid dreaming, but I looked that up, and whatever I did, it wasn’t that.

When I meditated, I had a mindscape. It looked a lot like Karakura, with buildings and parks, but everything was sideways. The first time I showed up there, I fell off a tree.

It didn’t hurt, but I heard laughter. It sounded like the wind.

Over time, I got a lot better at walking on trees that grew out of the air, and breathing underwater. It was peaceful there. Also, there were people.

Sometimes, I saw an old man, with sunglasses and a long ragged cloak. He watched me, but it didn’t feel creepy. It was more like he was watching over me. He felt a little like Mom.

There was also another kid, who looked like me. Sometimes he would come out and play tag. At first, I couldn’t understand what he said, like he was speaking in a foreign language. But eventually, he pushed me off a rock, I jumped up and pushed him into the water, then I pulled him out, and he grinned at me.

“I’m Taishou.”

Since he looked exactly like me only with all the color drained out, I thought that was a good name. Either symmetry, or antithesis… he was both. I nodded back to him.

“I’m Ichigo. If you call me strawberry, I’ll break your face.”

That led to another spar, and it was just as fun as the first one.

~

Ryūken knew what he was trying to do, but it wasn’t working. He wasn’t one to pry into another’s parenting style. His own wasn’t the most effective. Uryū could barely stand to be in the same room with him, ever since he told the boy that Sōken was doing him no favors, and would some day get them both killed. In the past year he’d lost his wife and become estranged from his father and son. The only thing he knew to do was lay the truth out and hope Uryū was smart enough to see it. The only practical course to take was to turn away from the supernatural, forget being a relic of a dead civilization, throw away stupid Quincy pride, and concentrate on living a productive, useful, safe life.

Sōken had always been an idealist. It would get him killed, and if Uryū didn’t wake up it would get him killed, too.

So of course he understood what Isshin was trying to do, but any idiot could take one look at Ichigo and know it wasn’t working. The boy looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, barely said a word, and jumped at shadows. He had the instincts to be a good fighter, or he wouldn’t take down bullies twice his size so efficiently when he was attacked, but he would never be the kind of impetuous brawler Isshin was, no matter how many times Isshin tried to bully him into it.

He watched until he couldn’t stand it any more, until the school nurse called the hotline at his hospital, and he stepped in before it became a law enforcement issue. A father couldn’t leave that many bruises on a ten year old boy, that many dislocated fingers and mild concussions, before he was hauled off to jail. The kid wasn’t even taking martial arts, so he couldn’t blame it on the karate.

Reluctantly, he made the call.

“Kurosaki clinic, what is your emergency?”

“Isshin. It’s Ryūken. We need to talk.”

“Is it Uryū? Are you okay?”

He sighed. “Tonight. We’ll need alcohol.”

“Okay,” came the puzzled reply. “See you at nine, after I get the girls to bed.”

He hung up and tried to figure out exactly what to say. Isshin had a way of triggering his temper like no one else alive could. In the end, he fixed an image of Uryū and one of Ichigo in his mind, reminded himself to bite his tongue, and had another cigarette. He was pretty sure nicotine was the only thing keeping him centered, most days.

When he walked in the izakaya that night, it was easy to find Isshin. He hadn’t changed in twenty years, bastard with his gigai. Ryūken was aging very well, one of the few advantages of being a full-blooded Quincy, but he could still feel his age. Isshin was coated in teflon, and sometimes, well, usually, Ryūken hated him. Still, this wasn’t about how much he would prefer to never see the idiot again. This was about his son.

Masaki’s son.

And judging not only by the boy’s appearance, but also by his personality, much more Masaki’s son than he ever would be Isshin’s.

Sliding into the booth and ordering Iichiko Frasco, telling the waiter to leave the bottle and bring two glasses. Isshin’s eyebrow rose.

“Shōchū? This is going to be a serious conversation, I see.”

He was teasing. Ryūken gave him his normal deadpan look and waited for their drinks. This was not a topic to address while dry.

For a change, Isshin didn’t babble like he usually did. All the natural Shiba exuberance seemed to be drained out of him. Ryūken could understand that. The silence was soothing.

The waiter brought the bottle, the drinks, and some kushiyaki, edamame, hiyayakko and tsukemono Isshin must have ordered before he arrived. Ryūken filled both glasses and handed Isshin one.

“To Masaki,” he toasted.

Isshin choked a little, but he got it out. “Masaki.”

They both emptied their glasses, and Ryūken took a minute to wait for his sinuses to catch up with him. He believed in moderation, with the exception of nicotine, but this evening was going to hurt come morning, and he was prepared for that.

Isshin had already refilled both glasses and stripped a skewer of vegetables before Ryūken placed his hands flat on the table and stared at his… friend. Isshin looked almost as bad as Ichigo, dark shadows under his eyes and lines beginning to bracket his mouth even in the gigai. His shoulders were slumped. His eyes were dull. Time to wake him up.

“It has been almost a year.”

A nod, a sideways glance. He took another sip and ignored the protests of his stomach to nibble on a soybean pod.

“I have received complaints of abuse from the nurse at Ichigo’s school.”

Isshin choked on his drink, barely managing not to spit it across the table. Ryūken waited until his eyes stopped bulging and he stopped gasping for breath before he continued.

“You think of it as training. I can understand your perspective. Ichigo has not complained, but he is often injured, and he is a child. You know it is the legal responsibility of school authorities to investigate child abuse allegations. She has a file of photos and treatment records.”

“I… I… it… no!” Isshin spluttered a little before he pulled himself in. His expression was both shocked and disbelieving. Ryūken sighed again.

“You need to find another way to train him, Isshin, before they lock you up for abuse and I have to adopt your children.”

He carefully chose a square of hiyayakko with grated ginger and waited for Isshin to get over his heart attack.

By the time they emptied the bottle and cleaned the plates, he knew he’d gotten his point across. The other customers at the bar politely ignored the hysterically sobbing man in the back booth, and Ryūken left him with the check.

~

Dad stopped trying to beat me to a pulp around the first anniversary of Mom’s death. I don’t know why he stopped, but I didn’t trust him not to start it up again at any time. So I kept an eye out for flying feet or fists. Eventually I started coming back home for dinner.

It made things a little calmer at home, when he wasn’t attacking me every time I turned a corner. Yuzu was happy she didn’t have to hit dad with skillets anymore, and Karin stopped looking for knives to poke him with when he got violent.

Instead, he cleared space in the living room and taught me katas, showed me how to block, and how to escape various holds. It worked well with the aikido training I was getting into at the dojo.

He still looked at me like I was a failed experiment, but I didn’t let it bother me. As long as I didn’t have to go to the nurse for double-vision or splints, it was okay.

I had never been what he wanted in a son. Mom shielded me from a lot of it, but I saw it. I didn’t care.

She had been proud of me. I’d make sure she always was, even though she was gone.

For that reason, not because of anything to do with the screaming, pathetic ghosts, I started fighting monsters.

There were some big ones. I left those alone. I knew what they could do, and I wasn’t about to get eaten.

But there were little ones, too. I watched one day as a monster that looked like a mutated iguana, only as tall as my waist, jumped on the ghost of a little girl. It ate her head, first, then when her body collapsed, it worked at that until she was gone.

She’d looked a lot like the fake girl ghost I’d tried to save when I got Mom killed.

I waited until the iguana monster was busy eating, then ran at it and jumped on its head. Its skull cracked, and it dissolved. Little tiny pieces of it floated up into the sky and disappeared.

I smiled.

It was the first one. I watched, and when I could, I killed more of them. Sometimes I kicked them, sometimes I jumped on them. A few times I used a baseball bat.

If they were too big, I ran away. I didn’t care if it made me a coward. I was doing it to kill them, not to get myself killed.

As I got better at it, I could kill the bigger ones. Some of them could even talk. Once I even caught a smaller one and threw it at a bigger one to distract it as I was escaping. The bigger one laughed and thanked me.

One day, I would kill that one, too.

On the second anniversary of Mom’s death, as dad and the girls were heading back to the car, I saw the ghost of a man hunched over at a graveside. I looked through him and noticed that it was a marker for an entire family, two parents and two kids.

He was pathetic, but I could understand his pain. I felt sorry for him, not angry with him.

I don’t know where it came from. I just wanted him to stop hurting. I reached out and laid a hand on his head, bowed over the stone. “Find happiness in the next world,” I told him.

He didn’t stop crying. But he dissolved, like the monsters did. Only in his place, a strange black butterfly appeared, then slowly floated up into the sky.

It made me feel better, anyway.

While I was still too small to do much about most of the monsters, I could at least help some of the ghosts.

Maybe with less ghosts to eat, they’d find somewhere else to hunt.

That night, when I was meditating, Taishou was sleeping in one of the trees. For a change, the old man was waiting for me.

Standing on a pole.

I have kind of a screwed-up subconscious.

Anyway, he was waiting, and he looked sad. I asked him if he was okay. I couldn’t understand his response.

Then Taishou rolled out of the tree on top my head, and I forgot the old man to spar with my friend.

~

He’d been too late. He hadn’t expected Masaki to lose her powers like that, and he’d nearly lost Ichigo-kun along with the boy’s mother.

Clacking across the wooden floor, Kisuke absently checked his stock, both the candies for the neighborhood children who sometimes wandered in and the supplemental materials for the Shinigami who regularly used his services.

For an exile under sentence of execution, they sure didn’t make any effort to come after him. If they had, they’d have to find another source for all the little things that made navigating the Living world so much easier. Like gigai. And blue jeans.

Still, for all the sideways direction certain plans had gone, the young Shiba-Kurosaki was keeping to the family tradition in some ways. While he was no longer the sweet friend of Plus Souls he had been prior to Masaki’s death, he was at least fighting off Hollows. Given how he leaked spiritual pressure like a helium balloon with a hole in it, that was a good thing, as they honed in on him like a toddler going for sugar.

The improvised konsō was surprising, and effective, too.

He’d have to keep his eye on the boy.

As if he hadn’t been, already.

~~

I was eleven when it happened.

Mom had been gone almost two years. I was getting faster with the monsters, either escaping or breaking them. I spent some time every day turning ghosts into butterflies. Every night before I went to bed, I meditated my way into my subconscious, sparred with Taishou – I was getting better every time – and spent some time trying to talk with the old man. He was getting clearer, but I still couldn’t hear his name.

Then one day a monster attacked, and I couldn’t run fast enough.

I knew a lot of bolt holes, all over the city, shortcuts that I used to get away. But this one monster kept coming, breaking through concrete and steel, and it caught me.

I have no idea how it happened. Maybe it was because I was so determined not to die. Or so determined to kill the damned monster. But when it pulled me up, claws around my legs and chest, and I hit out at it… a short sword showed up in my hands.

It cut right through the mouth that was trying to eat me. The monster’s tongue slid down its own throat, and while it was choking, I punched it in the middle of the face with the sword.

It dissolved, and I fell to the ground.

The tantō disappeared.

That night, the old man told me his name was Zangetsu. He liked Shakespeare, too. Although he liked Poe better. I thought Poe was kind of morbid.

The next day, I joined Keigo at kendō class. If I was going to randomly have a sword show up in my hands, then I needed to know how to use it so I didn’t end up cutting off my own foot or something.

The next time a big monster showed up, so did the tantō.

And a dagger.

My sensei thought I was a little weird to want to try training with two blades. But he gave me the chance, and I surprised him.

In springtime, after I started fighting with two knives, I was looking for a place to practice. The dojo still emphasized single sword fighting. Oddly, Taishou and Zangetsu were able to make knives come out of thin air, too – I love my subconscious – and they were training me when I meditated. But I needed a place to do my katas.

I was heading to a clearing in the woods on the edge of town when I heard fighting. I inched through the trees and took a cautious look.

There were so many monsters! An old man was fighting, like some kind of archer god, shooting off blue arrows so fast it was a blur. But there were too many of them.

I didn’t know what to do. This wasn’t some pathetic ghost. This was a living man. Probably somebody’s dad, or grandfather. And he was losing.

Then one of the monsters saw me, and made up my mind for me.

My knives came to my hands and I shot out of the underbrush, taking off one of the monsters at the knees before jumping up and cutting through another one’s skull. The old man looked at me in shock, but he didn’t stop firing arrows. “Boy! Run! Be safe!”

Yeah. Like that was going to happen. As many monsters as there were attacking him, even if I did run, I wouldn’t get far before I became monster chow. I saved my breath for the fight.

Then more arrows started coming out from behind a tree, and I thought, for a minute, we had a chance. Another kid, a boy my age only skinnier and a little shorter, came out from the trees with a blue bow like the old man’s, only smaller. He couldn’t shoot nearly as fast as the old man, but he was doing a pretty good job.

Until more damned monsters came out of nowhere.

This is what I got for forgetting that protection means defending, not attacking. Still, it wasn’t like I could do anything else. At least when I died here, I’d be dying trying to save more living people from monsters.

“Sing, Benihime,” a voice said from behind me, and a red slash lashed above our heads, destroying three monsters at once.

It took a moment before I could spare a look at the new guy in the fight. He looked kind of silly, in a green and white striped coat and hat, with geta on his feet and a fan at his waist. But there was nothing silly about his sword. Every time he moved it, energy flew out, and more monsters died. Pretty soon, they were scared enough that they finally retreated.

Too late for the old man, though.

He’d died during the fight, but I don’t think a monster ate his ghost. It looked like exhaustion, maybe, or a heart attack. I’d seen some of dad’s patients at the clinic – there were some drawbacks to having a medical clinic at your house, and sometimes seeing dead people was one – and the old man looked like one guy who’d died from a heart attack last year. The boy was holding on to his shoulders, bowed over him, crying.

I didn’t know what to do. I looked at the guy in the hat. “Thank you for saving our lives,” I said awkwardly.

It was hard to see his eyes because of the shadow from the brim of his hat, but he looked sad.

Hearing the sounds the boy made as he grieved for his grandfather, so was I.

~

Ishida-kun was too distraught to notice and Ichigo-kun didn’t know to be suspicious, so Kisuke called Ryūken directly.

“Ishida.”

So abrupt. So Ryūken. For once, he decided to just be straightforward. Ryūken had no patience for his usual word games, and the boys needed help now. “This is Urahara. Sōken-san has been killed by Hollows. Uryū-kun and Ichigo-kun also involved themselves in the fight, but they are unharmed.”

Dead silence met his statement, then a moment later, “Are you at the clearing by the waterfall?” Still no inflection. Kisuke may as well have just told him his dinner was burnt.

“Yes.”

The dial tone told him the conversation was over. He sighed and tucked his cell phone away. Then he looked over to where Ichigo-kun had put a gentle hand on Uryū-kun’s shoulder. So like his mother, in so many ways.

Although the dual-Zanpakutō weren’t quite the Quincy norm.

Kisuke wandered slowly over to the boys, and waited in silence until Ryūken arrived, following an ambulance. Then there was the necessary bustle of paramedics and he watched the boys get shuffled to the side. Ryūken said something to Uryū that made the boy turn away, his face dark, and Ichigo stiffen in shock. Then he got back in his car and headed out after the ambulance.

Seriously. As a father, he was a complete dunce.

He made his way over to the boys. Ichigo now had his arm over Uryū’s shoulder, and Uryū looked like he didn’t know whether to lean in or run away. Ichigo was speaking softly, and Kisuke let him finish before he joined them. Whatever he said seemed to have relaxed Uryū, because when they turned and Ichigo’s arm fell away, Uryū stayed close beside him.

“My name is Kisuke Urahara,” he said gently. Big brown and blue eyes stared up at him. Ah, chibis. Growing up much too fast.

“Thank you,” Uryū choked out. Ichigo put his hand back on a shaking shoulder, and it seemed to help.

“I know your father,” he told Uryū. That got him a slight glare through narrowed blue eyes, not dampened in the slightest by the lenses. “If you would like, I can walk with you back to the house.”

Uryū nodded and Ichigo stepped back as if to leave them.

“You too, Ichigo-kun.”

“You know me?” The boys exchanged glances.

“I knew your mother. She grew up with Uryū’s father. In a way, you’re cousins.”

That was a surprise to both of them, and gave them common ground to start with. The boys gradually opened up to one another on the long walk back. When they arrived, there was no sign of Ryūken. No doubt he’d gone back to the hospital, and after he finished processing his father’s body, would go back to work.

He stayed with them until Ryūken got home. By the end of the afternoon, Ichigo and Uryū were fast friends. Before he left, he gave them a card with the address to the Shōten, and told them to come by and talk to him when things had settled down.

They showed up the next afternoon.

~

Uryū didn’t talk much. Since the only thing his father said when his grandfather was eaten by monsters was “I warned you not to continue this foolishness,” I could understand why he’d have a hard time opening up to people.

I didn’t let that stop me. He was my cousin. He fought monsters, too. And he needed me.

Well, he needed somebody, and I was there.

Dad didn’t attack me when I came home from work, so Urahara must have called him, too. He watched me more than normal, and that made me nervous, so the next day I asked Yuzu to make up some treats. I told her that I had a friend who’d just lost his grandfather, and when she gave me a box with enough sugary goodness in it to keep five people full for a week, I escaped and went back to Uryū’s house.

It was big, and quiet. No wonder he was practically a mouse.

I fed him sugar and dragged him off to Urahara’s Shōten. The guy had been pretty amazing in the fight with the monsters. Maybe he could train us.

As it turned out, he did a lot more than that.

The next year and half were really busy. Uryū was the kind of nerd I liked, incredibly smart but could also kick ass. I dragged him off to aikido classes and he taught me how to draw reishi out of the air, with the help of a cross he gave me, and make a bow and arrows out of it. We also studied together. I kept him from falling into a book and never coming out again, and he kept me on a study schedule, so both of us ended up with good grades.

I was a terrible archer. But that was okay, because I had my knives, and I could go in close while Uryū provided long-range support. Since I sucked at using the bow, he taught me other Quincy stuff instead. He tried to teach me to read spiritual energy, but apparently I had too much, so that was pretty difficult. Then he started working with me to control what I had, and use it in Hirenkyaku, riding the reishi in the air like it was a skateboard.

Flying was pretty cool.

Uryū didn’t have a Zanpakutō, but he had a bunch of different archery techniques, plus he could use spells like a wizard. Urahara and his friend, Tessai-san, helped a lot with those. I tried, but most of the time they blew up in my face. Still, it helped with me learning control.

I think Tessai and Urahara were married, but I didn’t ask. They had a couple kids, a quiet girl and an obnoxious boy, but we didn’t have much to do with each other. We were too busy training.

Uryū didn’t have a teacher since his grandfather was killed, and I’d been trying to teach myself all along, so we were both glad to find Urahara. He was kind of strange, but he could see ghosts – what he called souls – and monsters – that he called Hollows, and he could really fight. We studied with him two or three times a week, and learned a crazy amount of stuff about Hollows and what happens to them when they dissolve, and where ghosts go when they turn into butterflies, and how my subconscious was actually my soulscape and Taishou and Zangetsu were really my knives.

That was weird, but, well, okay.

Uryū was a Quincy – as he told me, often – but I was Quincy plus something else that nobody seemed willing or able to tell me. I didn’t care. I was learning how to protect my family, including Uryū, and that was enough.

I still listened when Uryū told me stories. Urahara had told us of Shinigami, soul soldiers that were supposed to kill hollows and ‘konsō’ spirits, or turn them into butterflies. I thought I might be kind of like a Shinigami, since I could do a kind of konsō and I had two Zanpakutōs. After what Uryū told me the Shinigami did to the Quincy, though, I didn’t want to be. I wasn’t as angry about it as Uryū, but it still freaked me out that the Shinigami answer to people who were different was to slaughter them all.

When I mentioned this to Urahara, he hid behind his fan, but not before I saw his frown. I don’t think he liked it, either.

By my twelfth birthday, Uryū and I were a pretty good team. I dragged him out to train or talked to him about literature or listened to him go on about tailoring techniques – his major hobby other than killing monsters was sewing, of all things – whenever his icecube of a dad got him down. My dad had started back in with the kicking and punching, not as harsh as before but still pretty trying, and Uryū patched me up so I didn’t have to go to the school nurse. That helped.

Then I turned thirteen, and Uryū and I made a friend we’d keep for the rest of our lives.

~

“Not so tough now, are ya, big bastard?”

Even if I hadn’t recognized the idiot’s voice, the sound of fists hitting flesh would have caught my attention.

Under a bridge down by the river, half a dozen morons who’d been trying to beat me and Uryū up for the last couple years – and failing badly – had tied the new kid in class to a chair and were beating on him.

That just wasn’t fair.

True, I didn’t know the guy, but I didn’t need to. I knew the jerks who were hurting him, and that was reason enough to protect him. Thugs shouldn’t be allowed to think they can get away with that crap.

So I dove in, beat the snot out of the five guys who thought they were tougher than they were, watched the last one run away, and used the phone I took off one of them to call for an ambulance. Didn’t want one of them bleeding out or something. It would get me in trouble. Then I turned to the big guy tied to the chair and found huge green eyes staring at me in complete shock.

“Hi. My name’s Ichigo.”

The fact that I was a little woozy, having taken a punch or ten to the head in the course of putting down the feral animals, made it even funnier. I was lying at his feet, looking up at him, looking down at me.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

When I could move without falling over, I untied him and dragged him away from the scene of the carnage. Just in time, too, as I could hear a siren coming up behind us. Uryū was waiting a block or so away, no doubt wondering why I was late meeting him to go to Urahara’s.

When he saw the state I was in, and the shock the big guy was in, he just sighed.

“Hello,” he said, pulling the big guy down to a seat on the grass and taking out the emergency medical kit he carried right next to his sewing kit – Uryū was always prepared. “I’m Uryū Ishida. That’s Ichigo Kurosaki, in case he forgot his manners, again.”

“Hey!” I protested, but not too much. Uryū was kind of sarcastic. A lot. I liked that about him.

“Sado Yasutora,” the big guy offered in a really soft voice. “Thank you.”

Chad, I decided.

His story, when we finally got it out of him over tea and Yuzu’s kuri manjū, was even worse than mine or Uryū’s. We at least still had a parent, even if Uryū’s dad might as well be in Antarctica and mine was insane. Plus, we both had the twins, since Yuzu and Karin had adopted Uryū about two minutes after meeting him.

Chad didn’t have anybody.

He was an orphan, then he’d lost the grandfather who had turned his life around, and now he lived on his own in Japan – not the best circumstances for a half-Mexican kid who stood a full head taller than everybody else his age. Of course all the thugs targeted him. It was even worse than having naturally orange hair. Or, in Uryū’s case, glasses and an attitude.

The worst part? What he saw as saving him, his grandfather convincing him not to fight, I saw as leaving himself open to getting the crap kicked out of him on a regular basis.

I tried to teach him how to defend himself. Uryū tried to logic him into it. Urahara even piped up with a few anecdotes of what could happen to a guy who lived in a town infested with monsters if he didn’t stand up for himself.

None of it worked.

Finally, I figured out that Chad had a soft spot for animals, little kids, and anyone smaller than he was – which included all of us except Tessai-san. So I convinced him that I would fight for him, if he would fight for me. That extended, over time, to all of us would fight for each other.

It worked out pretty well, especially when Chad turned out to not be exactly what you could call normal, either.

Over time, as we went through middle school together, fought off thugs, confounded teachers with insanely high scores, and generally took on the world together, Chad was, of course, drawn into fights against monsters. Even with Uryū and Urahara helping me learn to control my reiatsu, it still leaked. With Chad spending so much time with us, including dinner at my house most nights since Yuzu gave him puppy dog eyes if he tried to escape before she could feed him, plus being around Uryū using his reishi bow all the time, it affected him.

Triggered something dormant in him that Urahara called Fullbring.

His right arm turned into some kind of armor thing that could punch a hole through a building. It was GREAT for breaking monsters’ heads. Eventually, his left arm developed a different kind of armor that would stop pretty much any kind of attack.

Between stopping thugs from picking on kids – Chad’s favorite activity – to keeping monsters from eating our family, to homework, to music lessons – Chad’s other favorite activity – to training our butts off, to turning ghosts into butterflies – my favorite activity – to keeping one another occupied when depression hit – Uryū’s common activity, if not a favorite for anybody – we kept busy.

We also kept Karakura town safe by default.

Uryū shot monsters with arrows, Chad beat them to a standstill, and I disintegrated them with my knives. We got pretty good at it, for a bunch of grade school boys just trying to keep our family safe.

~

A couple years passed, and it was time to start high school. Uryū, Chad and I knew what we wanted to be, and we were pretty goal-oriented. Chad was good with his guitar, and he wanted to be a musician. Uryū was set on becoming the next great clothing designer, although his dad was pushing for medical school. He’d also moved out of the mausoleum his dad called home and shared a tiny apartment with Chad. They only slept there, because most of the time we ate dinner at my house – Yuzu insisted – and we spent most waking hours together.

Me? I wanted to become a teacher.

I blame my sisters. I spent a lot of time taking care of them when dad was working, reading to them, helping them with their homework. I had a knack for explaining things, and I got along really well with younger kids. It was a tough field to crack, so I was going to focus on Japanese language, English, math, science and social studies so I could score well enough on the National Entrance Examination to get into a good university. I was planning on a Master’s degree in English literature – I was a nut over Shakespeare – then go for advanced level certification.

Needless to say, fighting monsters took a back seat to cramming for exams. We still did what we could, as a team, but training and fighting were just part of our lives, not our highest priority. We helped each other stay strong, developed our weird and unique fighting abilities, and supported each other as much as we could.

That translated to going to music gigs – Chad had a band, going to all sorts of stage productions – Uryū was in demand making costumes of all kinds, and both of them quizzing me to make sure I kept my grades high – sometimes I had the attention span of a squirrel.

A couple weeks after school started, a short Shinigami woman came through my bedroom wall in search of a monster. I’d felt it before she did, and knew it was coming toward my house. I ran for the girls and got them into the clinic, back in the back where the walls were reinforced as a secure area for what medications dad kept on hand. He came in the door just as I was telling them to stay there and stay down.

“Keep them here, dad,” I called as I ran out the door, knives coming to my hands.

He didn’t ask, thank God, just hunkered down over the twins and talked quietly to them, keeping them calm.

The monster knocked a hole in the side of the house, and I met him with force, cutting into his torso and legs, driving him back into the street. The Shinigami didn’t see me, but she did see the monster. She engaged it and I watched, staying to the shadows, keeping myself between it and my family.

She wasn’t the best fighter I’d seen, but she got the job done, after a fashion. She killed the monster, but it wounded her pretty badly. I considered going to help her, but in the end, decided not to.

She was a Shinigami, and in her own way, just another ghost. If she got hurt doing her job, maybe she should train harder. The monster was dead. The ghost girl could take care of herself.

I went back into the clinic, helped settle the girls back in bed, nodded to dad, and hit the sack.

She was gone when I woke up the next day. Dad said something about a truck hitting the side of the clinic and putting a hole in it. Karin and Yuzu shared a look, and I kept my mouth shut. Maybe denial was an adult thing. Or maybe it was just my dad.

Either way, I had school. I ruffled Karin’s hair, ducked her reflexive punch, thanked Yuzu for breakfast, and headed out to meet my day.

~

Kisuke looked down at the unconscious Kuchiki girl and sighed. Masaki’s boy was definitely more Quincy than Shinigami, no matter how hard he tried to sneak in alternatives during their training. But at least he had his cousin, and their Fullbringer friend, so even if it wasn’t quite what he’d expected, or hoped, it was better than it could be. At least the boys were alive, and neither Isshin nor Ryūken wanted to kill him.

He gently slid the Hōgyoku into place, deep in Rukia Kuchiki’s soul, and covered her up, leaving her to sleep on the futon in his guest room as she healed. She still had her powers, and a draining gigai would be too obvious, so he could only hope it would fuse to her and remain inert, as she was unaware of its presence and therefor shouldn’t draw on it. It was the best he could do under the circumstances. At least Aizen would have a hard time getting to her in the Living world. He hoped.

Unfortunately, when she woke up and reported her injuries, either Jūshirō got over-protective or Byakuya whined too much to ignore him, and they recalled her.

While she was on patrol.

Before he could take the damned Hōgyoku back.

Delivering her right into Aizen’s hands.

It was times like this that made Kisuke think he was born under a cursed sign.

~

Mayuri Kurotsuchi stared at the screen in his private office, watching three strange human boys fight Hollows. A few years before, he had intended to retrieve the body of the only working Quincy he could find. He had many experiments awaiting the perfect subject, and the old man would have been useful, if a bit dried up. Then that damned Urahara had gotten in the way, and he’d lost his chance at the corpse.

Fucking Urahara. Why couldn’t he just drop dead? If anyone noticed, they’d just throw a party.

Still, the death match had been entertaining. And it had led him to the baby Quincy who was shaping up to be very interesting indeed. The boy fought with a Fullbringer – boring – and another Quincy who was some kind of hybrid – maybe interesting, but not as interesting as a fully-manifested Quincy.

He had some downtime between major projects. Something was going on with Captain Aizen, but until he slipped up, there wasn’t much to see there. Aizen seemed quite interested in the Kuchiki girl, but that was probably prurient, and so not worthy of his attention. Perhaps it was time to retrieve his newest subject. Smiling in anticipation, an expression that would have frightened any sane person who saw it, he called his worthless daughter.

“Nemu. I have a mission for you. Off the books.”

He routed his request for Senkaimon access through the usual channels, covering his true mission with scientific verbiage so thick no one outside his division could understand it, and as he expected, Sasakibe rubber-stamped it. He sent a couple minions through first, to do the cover mission, then followed on their heels with Nemu. They knew better than to question him.

The retrieval didn’t quite go as planned.

~

It was early on a Saturday morning in May. Uryū, Chad and I had just finished off a pretty disgusting monster that was threatening a children’s park by the elementary school, when suddenly a set of doors opened in the sky. It was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen, until the Shinigami started coming out of it.

They were even weirder. They looked like mutants, or failed cross-breeding experiments with amphibians. Then a beautiful girl in a miniskirt and a clown came out after them.

That’s when shit got surreal.

The clown suddenly attacked Chad with some kind of cloud that knocked him out, at the same time that the girl flew at me and tossed me through a tree. It hurt like a bitch, but I didn’t have time to worry about it. I shook it off the best I could and threw myself back into the fight. Uryū was shooting off arrows as quickly as he could, but they were closing too fast, and he had to fall back on hand-to-hand.

I tried to get to his side and help him out. Close range was my specialty, not his. But the girl must have been some kind of robot or something, because she was insanely strong, and her expression never changed, even when I kicked her in the gut hard enough to break her pelvis and put a knife through her shoulder. She didn’t seem intent on killing me, just keeping me away from the others.

It made sense when the clown bastard knocked Uryū out too, then threw him over his shoulder and walked back through the doors. The bitch I was fighting then knocked me a good twenty feet away and turned to follow him. As if I was no threat. As if they could just walk in, knock out my friend, and KIDNAP MY COUSIN.

I went ballistic.

I’m not sure it was even hirenkyaku I used. I just moved. I cut her off at the knees, literally, stopping her from escaping. The clown just looked down at her, sneered, and closed the gate.

Taking Uryū with him.

The girl was sprawled there, staring at me, still with no expression on her face. She was an odd ghost. Even though she’d helped the clown take Uryū, she’d been abandoned. She seemed to expect it. Not knowing what else to do, I put a hand on her head. “Find happiness in the next world.”

It didn’t work. She looked confused. I didn’t have time for this.

If she wouldn’t go on her own, I would just have to send her.

I raised my knife. She closed her eyes. I put it through her skull.

She disintegrated, just like a monster would. She didn’t turn into a butterfly. I don’t know what she was, but she was gone now.

I ran to Chad, pulling out my phone on the way. Feeling for a pulse, I was reassured to find one. In fact, he was starting to stir, even as I chanted, “Pick up, pick up, pick up.”

I got Urahara’s voice mail. Fuck.

“Uryū?” Chad asked beside me.

My voice shook as I told him, “They took him. We have to get him back.”

He was a little unsteady, but I held him up, and he shook it off as we ran to the shōten. I yelled Urahara’s name as we rounded the corner and barreled inside. The boy, Jinta, tried to stop us, and we pushed right past him, trying not to actually run him over. He was making a fuss when Urahara stepped out of the back room, looking bemused.

“What’s all this then?”

Jinta started yammering and I turned on him. “Be quiet! This is an emergency!”

He stopped mid-word and stared at me, shocked. I turned back to Urahara and spoke as rapidly and clearly as I could.

“Uryū has been kidnapped. A Shinigami wearing a clown outfit came to the park with a robot girl. He knocked out Chad and took Uryū away through some kind of gate thing in the sky.”

Urahara’s jaw clenched. “And the girl?”

“Tried to stop me. I killed her.”

There was a gulping noise behind me, then shuffling as Jinta ran out of the room. Urahara gave me a measuring look, then nodded. “Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi. The one you killed was his lieutenant, and his daughter.”

“He deliberately left her behind. She was wounded, and he just left her there.”

Urahara sighed. “That sounds like Mayuri.”

“I tried to send her on. It didn’t work.”

“That’s because she was an artificial being. Constructions don’t accept konsō.”

“A knife through the head made her dissolve like a Hollow.”

Urahara looked like he’d swallowed a fly. “That explains a few things. I thought she was a version of a modified soul. It sounds like she was actually a soul collection. A sort of gigai with a Hollow inside it.”

“I don’t care. Why did he take Uryū?”

“Because he is a monster. He is a scientist.”

“Experiments,” Chad whispered.

I thought I was going to throw up. “We need to get him back NOW!”

“Yes, the sooner, the better. It will take a few days to set up a Senkaimon –“

We didn’t have a few days. “Can’t you do it sooner? Is there any other way to do it?”

He fiddled with his fan. “I honestly wouldn’t be able to create a pathway any sooner, Ichigo-kun. That three or four days will also give you time to get used to fighting in soul form.”

“What the hell is that?”

He then explained that he was going to knock us out of our bodies so that we could enter the Seireitei without disintegrating.

“Not on your life,” I barked. “What do you think would happen if a soul left a body and the heart and brain stopped working? Are you insane?”

“Some people hold that opinion, but –“

“Uryū was in his body.”

Chad’s voice cut Urahara off and stopped me from throttling the idiot. He had a point. There were Quincy techniques, Uryū had mentioned them, that would allow cross-dimensional travel.

“Or I could just give you a pendant,” Urahara offered. “Although really, with a kaizō konpaku taking your place in your body, it should be fine. Modified souls are used by Shinigami all the time to keep their gigai going when they have to pop off and fight.”

“My body is not a gigai,” I ground out, “and I am not a Shinigami…”

“Well, about that,” he started, but I plowed on.

“And we DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!”

He snapped his fan shut and glared at me. “I know you’re worried, Ichigo. I am, too. But I can’t just snap my fingers and open a Senkaimon –“

“I can.” A bass voice interrupted him.

He looked confused, steamed because no one would let him finish a sentence, happy to see a newcomer that had entered the conversation, frustrated at my temper. I didn’t care, too busy looking around to see the new guy who had spoken. There was nobody in the room with us but a cat.

Who opened its mouth and said, “I can sneak them in through the Shihōin gate.”

It was proof of my desperation that I didn’t even question the fact that the cat could talk.

~

Mayuri didn’t bother waiting for Nemu. She could come back with the others. That would give her time to fix her wounds, and if she had to crawl, well, it was an object lesson in carrying out her orders. He didn’t build her to be a weakling.

He dumped his burden on an examination table in one of his private labs. The last time an unauthorized individual entered this lab, he had enjoyed hours of pain tolerance and nervous system trials. The body had been an object lesson to others, much better than a Do Not Disturb sign.

Binding wrapped around the boy, automatically restraining and gagging him. He didn’t want the Quincy to damage himself before he could, after all.

And he certainly didn’t want to listen to any crying or begging.

That was much more fun when he was actually cutting them open.

Now. What to do first? So many options…

Blue eyes opened behind him, staring around first in confusion, then panic, then fury, before settling into determination.

Hatred.

… Fear.

~

“The outer districs, the Rukongai, are massive, and most of the souls there have no discernible reiryoku, which is to your advantage, as they won’t be able to sense you.”

I bit my tongue to stop from telling him to get the hell on with it. I couldn’t let my own impatience fuck this up. We’d only have one chance to get Uryū out of the hands of a madman, and we needed to know what we were getting in to. I nodded tersely.

“The Seireitei is the big white city in the middle of the plane. Getting through the gates will be tricky.”

“I have a plan for that,” the cat, Yoruichi, broke in. Urahara gave her a searching look, then continued.

“Once inside the city, the 12th division is here.” He pointed at the sketchy map he’d unrolled on the table. I burned it into my memory. He flipped the page. “Inside the division, it’s a maze. Mayuri has private labs he thinks no one knows about. They are here.”

He pointed out a small block in the far back of the building. He didn’t say how he knew this stuff, and honestly, I didn’t care. I had bigger concerns.

“What kind of security will we face?” Because if they were all like the robot woman, we would need to bring explosives and maybe a tank.

“Most of the 12th are researchers, not front-line soldiers, but there are traps throughout the division, and they will try to ambush or otherwise render you harmless rather than fight head on.”

He handed Chad and I a couple small face masks in a funny kind of rubber.

“Be very careful not to touch anything. These will protect you from inhalant poisons. Also, there are some hidden entrances that should be less guarded than, say, walking in the front door.”

I didn’t bother smiling at his tiny attempt at teasing. Wasn’t sure I could.

“Where?” asked Chad.

“And how do we get to them without tipping off everybody in the division?”

“Here, here, and here,” he pointed out three possibilities, one not far from the lab where Uryū was probably being held. “And by being very careful, and wearing these.”

He handed us Shinigami uniforms and a couple plain swords with sheaths. I swear the man had every kind of contraband, or maybe a magic box. I was thankful for that, as never before.

“Thank you, Kisuke.”

“Bring him home safe. Ichigo-kun, Chado-kun… watch yourselves out there.”

I nodded, then the cat jumped up on Chad’s shoulder and I led the way through the gates.

It was a weird experience. We’d been warned not to touch the goop on the sides, because it messed with time. There was some kind of machine we could hear in the distance, but it didn’t bother us. We ran as fast as we could, which was pretty damned fast at this point, and within two minutes we stepped out into the middle of nowhere. Well, according to Yoruichi, it was the 68th district, a stopping place well before the Shihōin estates. No doubt it was a good idea to get off early when we were stealing an unauthorized ride in the family car, in a way.

We then started running toward the big white city we could see in the distance. The cat had no problem keeping up with us, and with his Bringer Light, Chad was able to keep up with my Hirenkyaku. We constantly worked on speed, and it paid off now.

The Rukongai, from what I could see, was a giant slum. The ghosts looked even more pathetic than the ones on the Living world, cringing and hiding as we came by. Several times I saw gangs of thugs threatening, beating, and chasing weaker ghosts. Orphan kids were everywhere, and it looked like nobody was doing anything to help anyone. It was horrifying.

I didn’t stop to help, mainly because I was in a hurry to rescue Uryū, but even if I’d had time, it wasn’t my world. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy, along with disgust at their weakness. It looked like the Shinigami did as crappy a job at home as they did in the Living world.

Conditions improved as we neared the city. The 2nd district could pass for Karakura, and the 1st looked like a suburb of Tokyo, if seen from a time machine a few hundred years ago. None of these folks seemed to give a damn about the vast majority of ghosts living in the stinkhole further out from their districts. And it was pretty obvious, with the size of the wall around the Seireitei, that the conventional response to poverty and crime was to shut it out and forget about it.

About what I’d expect, given what I’d heard of the Shinigami. Especially if they let animals like Kurotsuchi roam free.

“I’m going to cause a distraction, boys. When you hear the explosions, head through the gates.” The cat hopped off Chad’s shoulder and darted through the gate, sticking to the shadows.

Chad and I exchanged glances, then blended in with the small stream of people milling around the open gate, waiting to get their papers checked.

I don’t know how Yoruichi did it, but within moments, a stall blew up just inside the entrance. The ghosts panicked, including the Shingami who’d been looking so bored earlier. He turned and ran toward the explosion, as most of the ghosts ran away.

We snuck in right behind him. It was ridiculously easy.

As soon as we were inside we put on the uniforms and strapped on the swords. We looked just like the dozens of Shingami running around like chickens with their heads cut off, as a second explosion went off right next to the first one. Yoruichi was having fun.

Keeping the mental image of the map Kisuke had shown us in mind, I led Chad through some twisty streets toward the 12th division. The Seireitei, unlike the majority of this plane, was very clean and mostly empty. It had a serene feeling to it, like a monks’ retreat or a big temple. Away from the buildings right by the gate, there were lots of trees and fountains.

They could cut the landscaping budget in half and police the entire outer districts, I thought, but again, not my priority.

We found the ‘hidden’ entry exactly where Kisuke had said it would be. There were cameras, but honestly, they were about twenty years behind current technology in Karakura. One rock, good aim, and the camera was a piece of crumpled metal and wires hanging off its mounting. We snuck along the wall, and as we neared the door, a little round guy who looked kind of like a frog, in an overly-large Shinigami uniform, puttered out the door and peered up at the camera.

I yanked him out and Chad punched his head in.

We didn’t have time to be gentle. We had to hit hard, hit fast, and get out. We left the corpse behind and headed in through the now-open door.

Pausing inside the door to orient ourselves, I jumped when I heard a scream.

Uryū!

I followed the noise as fast as I could move, Chad right on my heels. He hit the door with his armored right arm, crushing it off its hinges then crouching down, and I went through over him.

Uryū was strapped to a table, as the clown-faced Kurotsuchi cut into him. His head was back and he was still screaming. Kurotsuchi turned to look at the door in surprise, and I put my tantō through his skull, slicing down with all my strength, bisecting the bastard all the way down to his waist… where I slashed my dagger, gutting him.

He didn’t get the chance to make a sound before he was in three pieces on the floor.

Pain-bright blue eyes stared up at mine as Chad ripped the bindings off Uryū and I did triage on his wounds. The worst was a deep puncture over his abdomen, and I bandaged it the best I could.

“I can hold it together,” he grunted. “Get me out of here!”

After I’d made sure he wouldn’t bleed to death, Chad carefully carried him and I led the way to clear any threats. There weren’t any until we got outside and some ways from the division.

There were Shinigami running around like somebody had kicked over an ant hill. I didn’t think a couple little explosions would make such a ruckus.

As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones breaking in, or out, that day.

High-level Shinigami were fighting throughout the city. Some captain named Aizen had apparently commited treason, along with a couple other captains, and there were clusters of confused Shinigami everywhere I looked. Not good.

Chad dropped back with Uryū, giving them time to do some more emergency first aid, while I scouted ahead. I found a route, with good and bad points. It was deserted, for the most part, because a couple heavy hitters were battling it out and there was a lot of reiatsu being thrown around. A guy with dreadlocks and an orange scarf shaped like a noose around his neck was fighting a taller, white-haired guy with two swords. It was pretty close, then the white-haired guy started to cough. Sounded like he had tuberculosis. The guy with the dreadlocks took advantage of the moment of weakness to come in for the kill, but the white-haired guy was sneaky. He took a cut to the chest that opened him up from neck to groin, but he also cross-cut his attacker, cutting off his head as he got close enough for the killing strike.

This opened up the way nicely for us to escape, as of the only two in the way, one was dead and one was dying. I motioned to Chad, who picked Uryū up and ran through. I started to follow, then stopped beside the dying Shinigami.

He was handsome, his face younger than I’d expect with such white hair, and dull green eyes staring up at me. He’d dropped his swords and had his hands at his chest and stomach, trying to staunch the bleeding. I found I couldn’t leave him like that.

I laid a hand gently on his head. “You fought bravely.” He really had. “Find happiness in the next world.”

Just like the robot bitch, though, he didn’t turn into a butterfly. Maybe it was different with ghosts in Soul Society? Instead, his eyes brightened, and his breathing seemed to ease. I stared at him for a moment in confusion.

Then a big guy in a bloody pink kimono and a straw hat came tearing around the corner. He took in the situation at a single glance.

“Get away from him,” he growled.

“No, Shunsui, he was helping me,” the wounded man gasped out.

That probably saved my life. The big man gave me a single, penetrating look, then ignored me to gather his friend up in his arms and disappear.

I quickly caught up with Chad and Uryū, and we headed out the still-open gate, hiding in a crowd of freaked-out Shinigami. The run to the outer districts felt like it took forever, but we made it to the place where we’d picked up the Senkaimon. The cat was there already, the fur along its back and tail puffed out and a disturbed expression its face.

“Let’s go,” it said, and we did.

~

Shunsui got Jūshirō to the 4th as quickly as he could, which, when his best friend was bleeding out in his arms, was pretty damned fast. He bowled past the lower ranks like they were leaves and shunpo-ed directly to Captain Unohana. She was just coming out of a room, looking as serene as ever with a shaky Isane at her side.

“Retsu!” he called.

She turned, saw Jūshirō, and immediately ushered them into another room. He gently placed his friend down and found himself unceremoniously ushered right back out.

He leaned against the wall and thought about what he’d found. Jūshirō and Tōsen had obviously fought. Jūshirō had taken out the traitor, and been injured in return. But what had the strange Shinigami been doing? He’d had his hand on Jūshirō’s head like he was giving him some kind of benediction, or petting him. Hard to tell. Since he petted Jūshirō every chance he got, he could understand others wanting to do the same. But usually they were intimidated by his rank.

Until he smiled at them, then they petted him anyway.

Shaking off thoughts of his best friend’s adorableness, knowing it was a coping mechanism to not have to think about him possibly dying, he wondered what Jūshirō had meant when he said the boy was helping him. He wasn’t doing anything for the bleeding, so what kind of help could he possibly have been?

Surprisingly quickly, the door opened and Retsu let him come inside. Jūshirō was awake and alert.

“You’re looking pretty chipper.” He perched next to the bed and took a pale hand in his.

“You’re never going to believe it!” Jūshirō burbled. He looked like a kid on his birthday, cake, presents, and all.

“What will I not believe? How great Retsu is at patching you up?” It was true, there was no sign of his wounds at all. “I know that already.” He gave Retsu a thankful look, then was surprised at her own shocked expression. “Captain Unohana?”

“His illness. It’s… gone. His lungs are completely clear, and the previous damage… it’s all gone.” Her words were positive even if her voice was a little shaky.

“How?” He’d never believed in miracles.

“That boy with the bright hair, he did it! He put his hand on me, and gave me a blessing, and suddenly I could breathe!”

Okay.

Maybe, just today, he would believe.

~

Uryū’s dad was waiting with Kisuke when we got back. It was the first time I’d seen him outside his house or his hospital. He didn’t look worried. He looked normal, but his lips were in a tight line, and when I saw his eyes through his glasses, they were furious. Kisuke looked like he’d been sitting on hot coals the whole time we’d been gone.

Tessai stood to the side, ready to spring into action to help, but we didn’t need it. I charged down from the gate, nearly tripping over the cat, and yelled, “Uryū needs medical assistance!”

Chad came running in behind me, clutching Uryū tightly so he didn’t get jostled. He put him down carefully on a futon Kisuke gestured toward, and Ryūken practically teleported over with his doctor’s bag.

Father and son didn’t even greet each other. Ryūken got busy, cutting off ripped clothing, disinfecting, stitching, bandaging, while Chad quietly briefed Kisuke on our trip, and I sat beside Uryū and helped wherever I could. I’d assisted dad for years, so it was second nature by that point. Ryūken gave me one sharp look then ignored me, letting me help and treating me like another piece of medical equipment. It made me wonder if that was how he treated his attending nurses.

Probably.

He was efficient, and surprisingly gentle, and soon Uryū was tended to. As he put his equipment away, Uryū finally spoke.

“Grandfather is avenged. The Shinigami who ordered his death is dead now, at Ichigo’s hand.”

That shocked me. The clown captain had sent monsters to kill Uryū’s grandfather? Why?

On second thought, if he was trying to get to Uryū, that made sense. His grandfather would have done anything to protect him. The bastard just made a mistake when he thought Chad and I would be easier to get through.

“Chad, too,” I offered, and Uryū smiled. It was shaky, but it was there.

“Yes, Chad was equally as… heroic.” The last word was a whisper, but it was obviously sincere. “Thank you, both.”

Ryūken grumbled something under his breath about children and heroes, but we ignored him. We were having a Moment, and we didn’t need him to rain on it.

Chad came over to join us, giving Ryūken a respectful bow that was met with a slight nod, and patting Uryū’s shoulder very gently. Uryū turned his smile up to Chad, and Chad blushed a little. The big guy was never too comfortable with open appreciation.

Ryūken sat back on his heels and looked at us, finally sighing. “You have lived the way my father dreamed, regardless of my disapproval,” he said quietly. “In partnership with others to protect the living while not destroying souls. You have been sufficiently trained to meet the danger you throw yourself heedlessly into.”

I wanted to contradict him on that – we were as careful as we could be, given that we were hunting monsters – but I didn’t want to interrupt his flow. He seldom actually spoke to his son, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. If he got cruel again, I could always yell at him. He never responded, but it was satisfying in its own way.

“However, you have now come to the attention of an enemy that is beyond your current ability to defeat. When you are healed, come to the training room in the basement of the hospital.” His eyes flashed over to Chad, then lingered a moment on me, before returning to his son. “I will be training you now. Your… friends will join us later, after your skills have sufficiently improved.”

Wait – Ryūken was a trained Quincy?

“You’re a trained Quincy?”

Yeah, sometimes I shared a brain with Uryū. Usually it was with Chad, but sometimes it was with Uryū. Ryūken gave him an unimpressed look. Uryū blushed a little and looked rebellious. Ryūken sighed.

“Come home when you are able.” Then he picked up his bag and walked out.

Still cold, but somewhere, buried very, very deep in the ice, the man actually did care.

~

“We cannot fight a war on two fronts. We have some time before Aizen’s forces will be ready, perhaps as long as the Winter. Before then, we must mobilize to face the new threat from the Living world!”

“He’s NOT a threat, Yama-jii – he HEALED Jū-chan!”

“He and his cohort also infiltrated the Seireitei, caused damage to the buildings around the gate, and murdered Captain Kurotsuchi as well as another member of the 12th.”

“From the look of the boy his friend was carrying, Kurotsuchi was up to his old tricks. You told him no more live experimentation – he got exactly what he asked for!”

The Sou-Taicho rapped his cane on the floor hard enough to send out shock waves. “Enough, Captain Kyōraku!”

No doubt his next words would have been orders to invade the Living world… if gargantas hadn’t started opening all over the Seireitei.

Alarms went off, as every Shinigami in the area felt the massive influx of reiatsu. Fighting broke out everywhere, as human-appearing Hollows with immense strength fell from the sky and wreaked havoc, killing everything in their path. The only division that wasn’t directly attacked was the 4th.

One would think the leader of the invasion was afraid of Captain Unohana.

As it was, the captains scattered from the 1st and headed back to their divisions at best speed – in most cases, very fast indeed. The Sou-Taicho moved to his balcony to overlook the chaos.

Moments later, the body of his lieutenant was thrown through the door to land at his feet.

As he was turning, he heard, “Shatter, Kyōka Suigetsu.”

Then the world was water and shadows, and he knew no more.

~

Nothing could stop him. Sōsuke Aizen sat atop his throne in Las Noches, appraising his troops. Ten Espada, numerous Fracción, Gin – losing Kaname Tōsen was something of a blow, but he’d been most effective as a saboteur in Soul Society, and would not be missed here – and himself, they could strike now and win, decisively. No doubt Yamamoto underestimated him.

Yes.

They would invade today.

Now.

He ran his hand down his coat, ostensibly smoothing the material but actually patting the Hōgyoku he had implanted in himself after he had taken it from Rukia Kuchiki. It burned going in, but had settled to a low throbbing ache.

He was complete.

Unbeknownst to the megalomaniac who would be king, the Hōgyoku was sentient, and aware. It was also resentful. It had awakened when its creator gave it up, hiding it in a weak soul from whom it was forcefully taken. Then it was treated like a weapon, emplaced into yet another soul. This one was strong, but arrogant and greedy. The Hōgyoku was made up of a myriad of souls, a cacophony of voices barely restrained in a single container.

Perhaps if it had been given time to integrate, to smooth those voices into a singular force, the outcome would have been different. Had it been used for anything other than forcing Hollows from one state of being to another. But it was cognizent, and it listened, and it learned. Even as the voices fought to be released, they learned of rage, solitude, the depth of the abyss and the inevitability of senescence. When their newest host thought to use them, they saw a flaw in his strength, his blind arrogance, and they used it.

He was an illusionist, but they were the essence of delusion. As such, they would create in him the strongest of the aspects of death.

Sacrifice.

His own.

Aizen, unaware of the betrayal brewing in his own soul, gave the order, and the invasion of the Seireitei began.

Unfortunately for his plans, due to the manipulations of the Hōgyoku, he missed a few things.

Not all the Espada were lounging in the throne room, so not everyone heard and heeded his command. Starrk, as usual, was in his quarters… napping. Grimmjow was out on the sands of Hueco Mundo, happily pouncing after stray adjuchas as he’d been bored beyond belief at hanging around waiting for something interesting to happen in Las Noches, so he missed out on the invasion. Szayelaporro Grantz was in the middle of an important, or at least interesting, experiment and didn’t hear the call to gather. Ulquiorra had been wandering dark halls to keep himself from wilting under the weight of the combined disinterested stares in the throne room – none of the other other Arrancar liked him. At all. It wasn’t his fault, and he wasn’t really a suck-up. Aizen-sama was just the only person who ever paid any attention to him.

So the invasion began, without three of the strongest Espada or their resident scientist, who were otherwise engaged… and Aizen didn’t notice. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning.

With Gin at his side, Aizen opened a garganta at the front door of the 1st division and stepped through. Chōjirō Sasakibe gave very little challenge. Aizen killed him with one blow and used him as a battering ram to open the inner door. Gin followed him through as he released his Zanpakutō against the strongest Shinigami in a thousand years.

Yamamoto barely saw it coming. In a moment, he was wrapped in an illusion, and Aizen stepped forward and calmly cut his throat.

Then he felt an asp bite his side.

Turning away as the Sou-Taicho fell dead at his feet, he was frankly astonished to find Gin’s blade piercing his chest, directly through the Hōgyoku. He opened his mouth to blast the traitorous boy, but his tongue wouldn’t move. Poison? How could he be poisoned? Surely the Hōgyoku would protect him… a hole began to grow around the blade embedded in his flesh. Particles arose, not from him, no, but from the Hōgyoku.

Gin broke the fucking Hōgyoku.

This was insane. He was supposed to be King!

That was his last thought, before he fell to the ground, joining his enemy in death.

Gin stared down dispassionately at the corpse he’d been trying to make for decades. It was kind of anti-climactic, but he’d take that over some drawn-out duel that he’d probably lose.

He heard footsteps running toward the room, and carefully set the scene, moving the bodies and planting himself just so, giving the appearance that he was trying to protect the Sou-Taicho. It was a long shot, but he’d take it.

Genshirō Okikiba came skidding into the room, groaning at all the blood and the dead body of the 1st seat sprawled on the floor. Then he saw Gin, and nearly dropped his sword.

“Get help!” Gin called to him. “I’ve taken down Aizen, but the Sou-Taicho is badly wounded!” Mortally, even, though he didn’t say that.

When all the chaos died down, and the bodies were buried, he had a private meeting with the new Sou-Taicho, and was re-instated with very little fuss. They needed every able-bodied captain they could get, after all, and he did kill Aizen.

~

Hell was raining down on the Seireitei. None of the Espada knew their leader was dead, so they continued on with their rampage. Hundreds of lower- and un-ranked Shinigami were slaughtered. Duels broke out that caused nearly as much destruction accidentally as the Arrancar did on purpose. One of the worst was between Nnoitra and Kenpachi, that finally ended after a quarter of the Seireitei was in ruins, with the battle-crazed Shinigami finally cutting the equally battle-crazed Espada into very small pieces.

Unfortunately for him, he was so distracted by his victory, and Yachiru’s very loud cheer-leading, that he didn’t see the cloud of dust come at him from behind. Baraggan cackled at the dumbfounded look on the Shinigami captain’s face as he turned into ash and dissipated on the wind.

He, in turn, was so sure of his power and magnificence that he paid no attention to the enraged, pink-haired chibi with demon eyes who came at him from the side and cut his head off before he even saw her.

Yachiru spent the rest of the afternoon sweeping Kenpachi-dust into small piles and wailing for her Kenny to come back.

The oddest-looking battle was between the largest Espada and the smallest captain – Suì-Fēng was the same height as Tōshirō Hitsugaya but she was more slender. Yammy was utterly enraged that he couldn’t catch the little insect, and being more stupid than dirt, thought that becoming larger would help him catch the tiny darting bug. All it did was make him a bigger target. She dispatched him with ease, but made a mistake when she stopped to gloat. Zommari Rureaux caught her in his thrall, and soon her dead body came to rest sprawled atop the bulky Espada who was her final kill.

Zommari then looked around at the seemingly endless flood of Shinigami heading his way with intent to kill, and decided it was time to return to Hueco Mundo. A fat man with a purple collar and a flail screamed at him and tried to get in his way. Zommari hit him hard enough to break his neck and continued on with his escape.

Elsewhere in the city, Byakuya Kuchiki sent his division members to sweep the streets, coming across Tōshirō Hitsugaya fighting a quartet of female Arrancar. While their attire was rather distracting, he kept his composure and pitched in to help. Tier Halibel decided enough was enough, and in defense of her Fracción, called a retreat. She popped open a garganta right in the middle of the 10th division and chivvied her girls back home. The Shinigami did not follow.

Meanwhile, Aaroniero made the fatal mistake of assuming Kaien Shiba’s countenance in the courtyard of the 13th division. Jūshirō Ukitake, freshly released from the infirmary and feeling healthier than he had in centuries, was so pissed off at this Hollow pretending to be his beloved Lieutenant, he called down thunder and lighting on the Espada’s head, crushing the glass capsule beneath his hood and both his little skulls. Jūshirō then stomped the remains into paste, and was quite cheerful that he retained his ability to breathe freely the entire time. The remaining Arrancar survivors took one look at the crazy, pretty Shinigami dancing around on the corpse of one of the Espada, and beat a hasty retreat back to Hueco Mundo.

Ulquiorra took one look at the rag-tag remains of Aizen’s army spilling through the hasty gargantas, glanced up at the empty throne, sighed, and wandered off to see if Starrk would let him share a pillow. He could do with a nap, really.

~

Shunsui stared at the ruins of the city from his late mentor’s balcony and wished for the solace of a saké bottle or six. He hadn’t heard anything from Central 46 during the mayhem, so he’d sent a runner to request an audience.

The runner came back gibbering about blood and death, so he’d gone to see for himself.

When he came back, Gin Ichimaru was waiting for him. He closed the door and leaned against it, tipping his had down and staring at the enigmatic snake from under the rim.

“So. I’m guessing there’s more to the story than you being a big hero, am I right, Gin-kun?”

Oh, yes. There was. Aizen had been a right bastard for a lot longer than anyone had known, and Gin, in all his slithery glory, had actually been waiting for the moment when he could kill him for his crimes. It just happened to come right after Aizen had killed Yamamoto. And apparently, slaughtered all the members of Central 46.

Though he had a sneaking suspicion their killer was sitting in front of him.

Still, tragic as it all was, and he would miss Yama-jii, this gave him an opportunity he wasn’t about to waste.

By acclaim of the surviving captains, he’d been elected Sou-Taicho. Under order of the new Sou-Taicho, there would be changes. Jū-chan had been after him for decades to stand up to the old man over some of his… more extreme… decisions. Besides, he missed Lisa-chan. Nanao was a darling, but she was a pale imitation of the original, even if she did wield a mean book.

Now, he could do something about that.

So he did.

Orders went out. Kisuke Urahara came through with contacts. The Visored were called home, and every single one of them answered the call. The only exile who remained in the world of the Living was Tessai Tsukabishi, who took over Urahara’s shop. It was just as well… there were kids involved who needed a parent, and this kept a valuable resource available to Shinigami posted to Karakura town.

Where else would they get high tops and cell phones? Not to mention feeding Jū-chan’s candy addiction.

He even cancelled the outstanding extermination orders on the various groups Yama-jii had targeted for genocide, extending amnesty and rescinding exile orders as well. As for the ryoka boy who had cured Jūshirō? If he ever found the kid, he was going to give him a medal.

Or join him in draining some jugs of the best damned saké he could find.

~

After we got back from retrieving Uryū from the crazy clown mad scientist, life returned to what passed as normal, with one exception.

Kisuke called us to the Shōten a week or so after the rescue mission, and told us he was returning to Soul Society.

“Why would you want to go there? It’s full of Shinigami!” Most of whom were kind of nuts, I thought.

He waved his fan in front of his face and coughed. “Err, about that. Well, actually, I am an exiled Shinigami, and my exile has been rescinded.”

Oh. That explained a few things.

Uryū looked torn between walking out and punching him. Commiseration for having to return to that horrible place full of assholes won out over both emotions, and he said, “I’m sorry,” most sincerely.

Kisuke dropped his fan and chuckled. “I should have expected that.”

Yeah, he really should. This was Uryū, after all. Not that my opinion was any higher.

“Ichigo-kun, you should talk to your father about… all this… soon.”

I couldn’t decipher his look, but I did recognize the urgency in his voice. “What, next you’re going to tell me my dad’s a Shinigami, too?” I joked.

Dead silence.

Oh, fuck.

Now Uryū was looking at me with sympathy. Damned Goat Face.

“Yeah. I’ll get right on that.”

Not. That was a conversation that could wait until we were actually dead, if I had my way.

He didn’t push it, but he did look disappointed. He probably had a camera hidden at my house, and was sad he wouldn’t be able to see me blow up at my dad, or my dad try to justify his existence. Hah. Like I cared.

Although it did make me wonder how a Quincy girl had ever managed to marry a Shinigami boy. Much as I loved Shakespeare, that was an iteration of Romeo and Juliet I couldn’t get my head around.

So I stopped thinking about it and asked Kisuke if he needed any help packing.

He didn’t, but he did have time for one last training session, so he and Benihime could beat my ass into the ground. Again.

Time passed, and life went on. Chad, Uryū and I continued what we’d started, protecting our loved ones from monsters and sending wandering ghosts off into the light… pathetic as their lives would actually be in the next world.

Chad found out he was a better production engineer than musician, and considering how damned good he was with a guitar, that was saying something. Uryū found his place in film and TV costuming, disappointing his father – as usual – by following his heart. He was the go-to guy for historical dramas, and branched out to win a couple Academy Prizes for art direction. I made it into my Master’s program, graduated with honors and had no trouble getting my advanced level teacher certification. I ended up teaching English literature in middle school, not quite what I’d intended, but the kids were great, and I talked more than a few of them into a Shakespeare addiction.

I think they both could have gone further in their careers, but they stayed in Karakura. With me. I never could find a way to thank them for that, but if I’d tried, they probably would have smacked me.

Over the years, I sometimes saw Shinigami, watching from a distance. I knew they were there, they knew I knew, but they never approached any of us. I guess our little invasion did some good, after all.

We were in our twenties, still regularly running as a pack, when we all found girls crazy enough to marry us, within a year of each other. Uryū married an artist who spent most of her time painting river scenes, when she wasn’t having babies – they ended up with five. Chad became the sheltering home for a wandering songstress, one of the biggest names in Japan. She was away a lot, but she always came home to him. They had a daughter who had the rest of us all wrapped around her finger. I fell hard for one of my fellow teachers, a mathematician of all things, and Ayaka was the best thing that ever happened to me. We proved twins run in the family, and dad went nuts over his grandbabies. A set of boys, a set of girls, and my wife told me if it happened again she was going to relieve me of my baby-making equipment, so we stopped there.

As it turned out, two of Uryū’s kids, and three of mine were like us. Chad’s daughter dodged the bullet, but that was just as well. She was a sweetheart, but as airy as her mother, and she wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in a fight with monsters. Instead, she and all the other kids were the support network for the next generation. Chad, Uryū and I, along with Tessai, trained all the kids who could see ghosts. All of our children knew the truth.

Unlike my dad, I refused to lie to my kids. Not when most of mine would have gone through what I did. I wasn’t going to let my kids think they were losing their minds because they could see dead people.

Dad never did come clean, just pulled me aside one day after Yuzu’s youngest turned ten, and said quietly, “It’s time for me to go.” He hadn’t aged much in the past twenty years, and it was becoming obvious. The twins and I were all settled, and on our own.

I think, maybe, he was lonely for his own kind. Not that he ever said as much.

He gave me a hug, the first one I could remember since I was a very little kid that didn’t turn into a headlock. The next morning, the clinic was closed, and dad was gone. My sisters and the kids, knowing what I’d told them, knew we’d see him in the next life.

I didn’t know if that was a threat or a promise.

Still, life went on. When the close calls got too close and some of the speed started to bleed off, when Taishou and Zangetsu both nagged at me to hang it up, I retired from the monster-hunting business. Chad and Uryū did the same, and we joined the support corps, backing up our kids and teaching them all the tricks we knew.

A half century later, cheering as my grandson beat the snot out of Chad’s grandkids on the high school football field – he took after Karin that way – my heart stopped.

“Well, hell,” I groused, peering down at my body, then looking down at the chain hanging from my chest. I glanced over at Chad and Uryū, staring back at me in shock. “Too bad none of you useless lumps ever learned how to perform konsō.”

Then people started yelling, the ambulance came, they cancelled the game. That pissed me off a little, because my grandkid was winning. Still, Ayaka went off with my body, and I looked over at my daughter. I could feel the pull already, and knew, with my level of power, if somebody didn’t send me on soon, I would turn into a freakin’ nasty monster.

Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to prepare my kids for this. Well, Uryū had the foresight, but I agreed with him.

My son Hiroki looked over at me from where he was comforting his son, who’d been abruptly pulled off the football field. They came over, and I reached out to touch my grandson’s face gently.

“It’s going to be okay, Souma,” I told him quietly. “I’m an old geezer, and it’s time for me to go on to the next life.”

He didn’t look reassured.

“D’you have time to say goodbye, dad?” Hiroki asked hopefully.

I shook my head. “I’m too close to Hollow anyway, son. Please do it now. Hug the tribe for me, and tell them I love them, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, and I pretended not to see him cry. Then he put his hand on my head, and said softly, “Find happiness in the next world.”

I wasn’t too sure about that, but it wasn’t like I had a choice.

Dissolving didn’t hurt, though watching my kid watch me go ached like a bitch. Flying as a butterfly was fucking disorienting, and I was just as glad to get through the layers of light and mist to end up… ick. In the Rukongai.

Lovely.

From the look of it, about the 75th district. Ah well. It wasn’t like I hadn’t beaten up thugs on a regular basis all my life. Might as well start as I meant to go on.

With the three that were circling that little kid like he was a feast and they were hyenas.

They never saw what hit them.

I kept my reiatsu under wraps. From what dad had eventually told me, that was how Shinigami found recruits, whether they were willing or not. I toyed with the idea of looking dad up, but left that for later. I’d have to find a way to sneak in and see him one day, but not now. I was busy.

Oddly, or maybe not, my ghost form was of me in my early twenties, just before I married Ayaka. I also still had my Zanpakutōs, and got back into the habit of meditating nightly so Taishou and Zangetsu didn’t get bored. Bored swords were a bad thing, especially when one is insane and the other likes to watch the nutty one go nuts. I soon settled into a new routine, wandering the district, killing idiots, rescuing kittens… well, helpless pathetic ghosts… hunting for food. I was constantly hungry. It was like puberty all over again, only without the pimples and constant erection.

Very shortly after I got there, I felt a familiar reiatsu. It was faint, but we’d fought together for over sixty years. I’d know it no matter how tiny it was. I followed it like a bloodhound.

Less than an hour later, I found Uryū, staring around the hovels and the ragged ghosts with an expression on his face like he was changing a messy diaper.

“Yeah. Welcome to the good life,” I greeted him.

He spun around so fast, if he hadn’t had superb reflexes, he would have landed on his ass. Of course I laughed at him.

“Ichigo! You look… young.”

Well, yeah. So did he. “How long has it been?” It felt like a week, maybe. “How’s everybody doing?”

“Eight years. Everybody’s okay. The kids were pretty upset, knowing what you think of the afterlife, but they were comforted that they would see you again one day.”

Eight. Years. Really?? I blinked dumbly at him. He waved his hand in front of my face. I gradually came out of shock.

“So. Uhm. How’d you die?” Smooth.

It was his turn to laugh at me. “Train accident. On my way to Tokyo to pick up my latest Academy Prize. There was an earthquake, the tracks slipped, and here I am. Along with about a hundred other people.” He was distracted looking down at his hands. “Hm. Have I also de-aged?”

“Yup, and sorry about the whole train wreck thing,” I offered. “I was surprised. Thought we’d be stuck as old fogies, but I guess being bad-ass spirit warriors has some perks.”

I saw the swing in time to duck, but the kick surprised me.

After that, it was the two of us, roaming the outback of the Rukongai, flying under Shinigami radar, saving damsels and others in distress, and shaking down shady stall-keepers for water.

Hey, it wasn’t like they needed it. They couldn’t die of thirst. It often felt like I would.

All too soon, I was bored out of my skull, and growing progressively more incensed at the way I saw the ghost children being mistreated. We were all souls here, damnit, and there was no call for such unwarranted cruelty. Being me, and Uryū being Uryū, we did something about it.

The band of thugs making use of the big building on the edge of one of the villages didn’t need it anymore after we killed them all. After dragging the bodies out back and burying them, we started cleaning, then organizing.

Within a week, the unnamed orphanage was ready to open. I’d been gathering favors – for eight years, apparently – and now I called them in. Some of the nicer ghosts joined in the effort, either because they needed something to do or they were looking for protection. I didn’t care which. They brought with them skills I could put to use. Furniture was built, curtains and tableclothes and clothing were sewn – thank you, Uryū – and the wasteland of junk and graves behind the building gradually became fields of food crops. I even dug a damned well.

Our first batch of kids came from the local village. Three of them reminded me a lot of my boys. One was a quiet tyke with bright green eyes who looked like he’d never laughed in his life. That was my first mission as caretaker – make him laugh.

It took years.

The second was a rambunctious little brat with blue hair and a spiky attitude who was never happier than when he was fighting. I spent some free time training him, and he soaked it up like a sponge. Pretty soon I was ‘sensei’ and he was in charge of playtime, keeping the rugrats active so they’d fall asleep at night. He was good at it.

He grew up to be our captain of the home guard.

The third was the easiest. He was an androgynous teenager with curly brown hair and purple eyes. Most of the time he slept, but sometimes he dressed up like a girl and helped the blue kid out in the training field. He was a lot feistier as a girl than a boy. I didn’t even try to figure it out.

Of course, since we were stationary and we were living in a pit of a backwater in one of the worst districts in the Rukon, we were a target. Until the kids and our helpers got better at protecting themselves, Uryū and I took turns. No bandit got anywhere near our fields, or our kids, or our orphanage. Tessai had taught me some pretty hostile kidō wards, and Ryūken had taught me how to hide them.

The Shinigami didn’t know we were there for a very long time.

Several months after Uryū had joined me, I felt another jolt of reiatsu. I told Blue he had command of the yard, and took off eastward.

Chad looked great. He was standing there, staring around, clenching his fists, like a bull about to charge. I tackled him from behind and nearly got my head punched in.

“Chad, Chad, Chad!” I chanted like Green-eyes on a sugar high – the only time the kid had much life to him at all. “So good to see you! How long has it been?”

“Hello, Ichigo,” Chad pulled me to my feet from where he’d dumped me on my ass, and patted my shoulder. “It’s good to see you, too. Thought I’d have to look for you.”

“No, I felt you right away.”

Okay, that sounded bad, but he knew what I meant. He smiled and nodded.

“I’ve missed you. It’s been over twenty years.”

I staggered. Wow. He’d made it to a hundred. Bastard. “And how did you go?”

It took him a second to think, then he shrugged. “Don’t know. Sleeping.”

Well, that was easy enough. I grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back to the orphanage, explaining as I went.

Blue took one look at him and hid. Chad sighed, walked to the middle of the yard, and sat down, going very still. Within ten minutes, children were swarming all over him. Worked every time.

Uryū came out of the bedroom, covering a yawn with his palm. He’d had the night shift. “Chad?” he gestured at the child-covered lump.

“Yeah.”

It was good to be together again.

Chad brought his own strengths to our operation, as well as helping with the guard shifts, so Uryū and I could get some sleep. He’d always been the best at outreach and networking, with more patience than me and less sarcasm than Uryū. Within a few weeks, he’d set up an exchange network for supplies and food we couldn’t grow locally. It all worked well for years. We helped a lot of kids grow up and make their way, stronger, out into the world, such as it was. We managed to stay under the radar of the Seireitei and scared the pants – or took the heads – off any bandits stupid enough to try to raid us.

Of course, as our kids grew up and left the nest, word spread. New kids were dumped on our porch, or wandered in on their own. Others came by as well, to trade or with gifts to help the orphans. The first time I saw a familiar face buried under a web of wrinkles in a donor, and realized it was one of my daughters, I cried.

I cried harder when I realized she had no idea who I was. I didn’t even care that people saw me. Chad hugged me all the way through it, and Uryū finally talked some sense into me.

There was something unique about the three of us. Other people lost their memories when they became ghosts, and they also showed the age they were when they died. We didn’t. Not only did we retain all our memories, we didn’t age. Or if we did, it was so slowly we couldn’t tell the difference.

Years went by, then decades, and I’m pretty sure a century. It was hard to tell when nothing ever changed, and the kids grew up incredibly slowly. The first batch were all grown and gone, except Blue, Green-eyes, and Lils – the cross-dresser – who stayed to help run the place. We were still full, because there were always more orphans coming in, but our fame spread a little too wide.

Two men walked slowly up the pathway to the orphanage, and I rang the bell, calling the kids to go to ground. Not only were the visitors strong enough to make the air buzz with their reiatsu, but they were both wearing captain’s haoris.

One had 13 written on it. The other had a 1.

I recognized the pretty white-haired one as the guy I’d tried to konsō long ago. The other one was harder to place, without the pink kimono and the straw hat. But his face hadn’t changed, other than a patch over one eye and a couple new scars. I met them at the front door.

“May I help you, gentlemen?” Never show fear. I had kids to protect.

“Hello,” Eye-patch answered genially. “My name is Shunsui Kyōraku, and this is my friend, Jūshirō Ukitake. We’ve heard such good things about your place, we had to come out and see it.”

I glared down at them a little. Yeah, it was rude not to invite them in, but I didn’t know what they wanted, and I didn’t invite insanely strong potential enemies into my living room. I’d learned something in the couple centuries I’d lived.

“I’m Ichigo Kurosaki. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but Shinigami aren’t seen around here very often, and when they are, it’s usually bad news. I don’t feel comfortable letting you in the house.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Uryū peered past me and shoved me a little out of the doorway.

I transferred my glare to him, and he sighed. “If they were going to attack we’d already be fighting. The cat’s out of the bag, Ichigo. Let them in.”

Well, fuck. So much for back-up.

Even if he was right. As usual.

Bastard.

With ill grace, I stepped to the side and gestured them in. Eye-patch walked right in, smiling at me, but the pretty one stopped on the way in.

“I never got the chance to say… thank you. You gave me a precious gift that day, when you healed me.”

Healed him? I was trying to send him on to wherever you go after you die in Soul Society. I gave him a quizzical look.

“I was ill my entire life. After you did… whatever it was you did, my illness was gone. It was a miracle.”

He was looking at me with big, shiny green eyes and gratitude written all over his face. I had no idea how to react to that. I’d feel like a bully if I didn’t say something.

“Err, you’re… welcome?”

He beamed at me, then traipsed in after his buddy. Weird. What a weird day.

It got weirder.

Chad watched the kids as Uryū and I sat down to tea with the Sou-Taicho and the most senior captain of the Gotei-13 – after the head healer. It was surprisingly companionable. They kept the conversation light until the food was gone and we were on our second pot.

Then one of the munchkins escaped Chad’s watchful eye and snuck into the room… clear across the floor… into Ukitake’s lap.

He just smiled, fed her a chocolate biscuit, wiped her nose with his sleeve, and continued the conversation.

I wanted to hire him on the spot. That particular munchkin was usually a holy terror. There was something about his aura that just spread peace. Like a plague. A good plague. Was there such a thing? I realized I’d gotten distracted when the silence settled and I looked over to see both captains looking at me, politely waiting for me to respond to some question I hadn’t heard.

“Sorry, missed that. What?”

Uryū sighed and refilled his cup, ignoring his idiot friend – me – as usual. I ignored him right back and waited for them to catch me up on what I’d missed.

The conversation that followed changed the world. At least, the world of ghosts.

Changes had been happening – with glacial slowness, but still happening – ever since Kyōraku had taken over the Gotei 13. First they cleaned their own house, reinstating previously exiled officers, routing out a lot of the corruption. Apparently they stayed under military law for quite awhile before the nobles wrested back control of the government. Even then, they found out Kyōraku was a much different Sou-Taicho than his predecessor, because he ran the military despite their mandates, not by them.

Several assassination attempts that were turned back on them and nearly wiped out a couple noble houses later, and they backed off.

The next step on their agenda was to get their shit together in the Living world. They’d sent actually competent Shinigami to patrol, starting in Karakura, where they contacted our descendents and formed partnerships.

Uryū dropped his teacup on that one, and I nearly choked on a Kinako cookie.

Seems when dad ‘went home,’ he didn’t go back to the Court Guards. He took the reins back at the Shiba clan, renewed alliances with the Shihōin – bringing with it the Onmitsukidō, or the Shinigami version of ninjas – and the Kuchiki clan. The assassination attempts on the Sou-Taicho came from the other two noble houses, who soon found themselves lacking members and shaking in their slippers. This noble alliance – and I had a quiet freak-out moment at the concept of MY DAD as the leader of a noble clan – allied itself with Kyōraku, and started implementing plans Ukitake had been trumpeting for decades… all of which Yamamoto had ignored.

That’s what happens when a diplomat tries to reason with an old bandit.

Nothing.

Thankfully, times had changed. Because the third prong of their rehabilitation plan was to revamp the Rukongai. Law enforcement, protection from bandits, housing, extending farming and making available food for those who actually got hungry… a system of orphanages…

That’s where we came in.

Plus, dad was getting antsy waiting for me to contact him, and figured this way I’d have to come by the clan house. Little did he know, it actually meant that the Shibas would be heading out to the 75th district and hanging out with the orphans. That turned out okay. It was funny watching Kūkaku ruling everyone with an iron fist. Dad also adored the fact that I’d given him ‘so many grandbabies!’

But that was in the future. Right then, we had a revolution to plan. It would take a while, but change would come, and all of Soul Society would be better for it.

~end~