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Makoto - Sincerity in the Heart

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They say a person’s personality, barring severe trauma, is set by around the seventh birthday.

By the time Ichigo Kurosaki was nine, he was a chatterbox, a ball of sunshine, who firmly believed the sun rose and set in his mother, who adored his little sisters and thought his dad was very funny. He got grumpy sometimes, when he wanted to run and play instead of doing his spelling or his sums, but for the most part, he took life as it came, and it was pretty darned good.

Some of it was weird. His first teacher called his parents in to speak with them about her concern for his mental state, since he spent a lot of time talking to his imaginary friends. He soon learned that some of the people he could see were actually dead, and others couldn’t see them. Sadly, he hadn’t gotten to the point where he could tell which were dead and which were alive, until his mom helpfully pointed out the chains hanging out of the dead ones’ chests. After that, he got fewer strange looks, pointing fingers, and teacher conferences about his ‘imaginary friends.’

But mostly it was sunny, even when it rained, because his mom would protect him, and his sisters would play with him, and his dad would make him laugh.

Until the day it rained, and he saw a dead girl from the back so he didn’t see her chain. He ran to help her, thinking she was going to fall in the river, not hearing his mother call for him to stop.

After all, his mom had said his name meant he was the protector, and he was flush with victory at actually landing a punch in his karate match that day, and he was on top of the world.

Then the ghost girl disappeared, and a monster was in her place, and his mom was lying on top of him. Bleeding to death.

He couldn’t make any noise, his voice frozen in his throat, as he watched, helplessly. His mom’s spirit was torn from her body, and she was eaten by the monster, fighting the entire time.

Only he could hear her screams.

Only he could see her last frantic look, over her shoulder. She was staring at him, in terror and determination, as she disappeared into the monster’s jaws. Then she was gone.

The only thing left was the shell she left behind. The only thing he could see was the side of her face. Her mouth was a little open. Her eye was open, too. It was dark. There was no light in it, any more.

Then there was only the rain, and the weight of her body growing cold as it covered him, pressing him into the muddy grass along the river bank.

He was still trying to scream when the police came.

He kept screaming for years, but no one heard it, since it was always frozen, there in his throat, right above where his heart had died.

~

Ten silent days after his mom’s death, Ichigo stared at the incense, smoke curling up to trace along the gravestone. His dad was somewhere behind him, and his sisters, with some of the adults. He didn’t pay any attention. He was lost in his mind, caught up not just in memories, but in trying to figure out what it all meant.

He knew it was his fault. She wouldn’t have been caught by the monster if he hadn’t come running after the bait. That’s what the ghost girl must have been… bait. And he’d fallen for it.

That made him partly stupid, and partly impulsive, and partly naïve.

He was almost ten years old. He’d never been one to think too deeply, there was always too much going on to waste time stuck inside his head. But reacting without thinking had gotten his mom killed, so it was past time he started. She had protected him. Now it was his turn.

He had two little sisters. There were monsters out there. He had to find a way to keep the girls safe.

It wasn’t like he was a great fighter. He’d hit Tatsuki once, then she’d beaten him in the match, but his high from landing that one hit had made him cocky. And stupid. Gotten mom killed, and left him alone, with no sun, and little sisters to protect. He had to find a way.

He had to think, first.

His body stilled, as he examined that thought from all angles.

Think. First.

Don’t throw himself into something without knowing what was going on and hope for the best, because the best wasn’t likely to happen.

So, think. Train himself to see things, to understand things, to make good judgement calls. Make sure, with everything he had, to never make the same mistake again.

~

Over the next few weeks, he spent all his spare time on the riverbank. It made him feel close to his mother, while at the same time torturing him with memories of losing her. Maybe it was his penance.

Or maybe, watching the water made it easier to think.

One day, a couple weeks after his mom was killed, Tatsuki found him there. At first, she didn’t say anything. She just sat down, in arm’s reach, and shared his silence.

Eventually, he looked over at her. She was staring at him. She looked solemn. It was a strange look on her. He wondered what he looked like. He hadn’t looked in the mirror in days.

She didn’t ask if he was okay. He appreciated it. He looked back at the river.

“I hate to fight,” he finally said, very quietly. She shifted a little closer, but didn’t say anything. “I feel like I have to. Gotta protect people.” He swallowed, and forced out the last few words. “I failed with my mom. Got her killed.”

Tatsuki threw her arm around his shoulder and gave him a quick, rough hug, then sat back beside him, close enough he could feel her warmth. He was cold. All the time.

“You’re ten,” she grumbled.

He shrugged.

“Your mom was an adult. You couldn’t have protected her.”

He could have argued, but he didn’t think she could see the monsters. He didn’t want his best friend to think he was insane, so he kept quiet.

“But if you want to be able to protect people you should come back to the dojo.”

He wasn’t sure how much good punching would do against monsters, but it was better than nothing.

The next day, they went to the dojo together.

He won the match. Because it didn’t matter how hard he got hit, he didn’t stop. He kept his eyes open, pinned on the boy who thought he could beat him. Watching every move. Looking for an opening, until he found one, and took it. Hard.

Then he went to the restroom and threw up.

He lost the second match, but it was close.

He didn’t give up. Tatsuki wouldn’t let him.

~

On the morning of his tenth birthday, his dad did something bizarre. He yelled, “Good morning, Ichigo!” then kicked him out of bed.

Ichigo hit the wall, stunned, then slid down it to land in a heap on the floor. He stared up at his father, wondering what on earth that was all about. Also, ouch!

“You need to fight back next time, Ichigo.” His dad beamed at him and wagged a finger in his face. “Or at least duck!” Then he bounced out the door and down the stairs, hollering, “Yuzu has breakfast ready and you must hurry down to eat before the food gets cold!”

After a few moments sitting there, stunned, Ichigo dragged himself to the bathroom and got ready for school.

When he got to the table, Yuzu and Karin were eating. They looked okay, if a little quiet. He kissed each one on the head, grabbed some toast, and headed for the door.

His dad punched him before he got there, knocking his backpack off and sending him careening into the wall again.

“DADDY!” Karin screamed, appalled. Yuzu clapped her hands over her mouth and teared up.

“Defend or duck, Ichigo, my son!” his dad practically sang.

Ichigo scrabbled for his bag, keeping a sharp eye on his deranged, and now apparently violent, father, then scuttled out the door.

When his teacher asked about the bruises on his face, he told her he walked into the wall. It was more like ‘impacted with’ than ‘walked into’, but still, they were from the wall. She didn’t look like she believed him, but she didn’t push.

He thought about it all through math, all through social science, and into reading. As they were given their chapter questions for the week, he came to a conclusion.

His father knew he was to blame for getting his mom killed. Either he was trying to toughen Ichigo up, so he could be a better protector and not fail again… or this was his punishment for his part in her death. Maybe both. Probably mostly the latter.

Only much later in his life would he realize that moment was the beginning of his loss of faith in Isshin.

~

That day at lunch he sat alone under a tree and ate his bento. He’d been working with Yuzu on her cooking, and she was a fast learner. She was already starting to do things he didn’t know how to do, after only a month. He finished his juice and leaned back, the bark rough and somehow comforting against his back. He stared down at his hands.

Little hands. Short fingers. Weak arms.

Chubby legs. Not very strong. Not fast at all.

Karate was okay, and Tatsuki was sure good at it. She was teaching him all sorts of things at the dojo, mainly that he wasn’t very good. She encouraged him, told him it would come with time and practice.

But it didn’t feel right. She was a natural. She was fierce, and aggressive, and had a punch like a kick from a horse. He… didn’t.

Honestly, he didn’t like fighting. He liked the physical work-out. He liked the sparring part, watching Tatsuki and trying to anticipate her moves, meet them with his own. But the best part, for him, was when it was over.

That wasn’t great, for a protector.

So he sat, and he thought, until the teacher called them in. Then he thought some more, and nearly got detention for not paying attention.

On the way home, a couple idiot boys from the grade above made fun of his hair color, and tried to beat him up. He used some of the moves Tatsuki had showed him. He didn’t beat them up, but he did get away from them. And he kicked one of them in the knee, and made the other one’s nose bleed, so maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to come after him again.

That got him thinking on a different track.

When he got home, his dad let him get as far as the stairs before trying to punch his head off. This time, he ducked. It didn’t help much, as the second punch came out of nowhere and bounced his head off the railing.

“Good job! You’re starting to pay attention! Work on that, my boy!”

Right. As soon as the ringing in his ears stopped. He’d get right on that.

The next day after school, he pulled Tatsuki away from the other kids in the dojo, and asked for some advice.

She stared at the fresh bruises on his cheek and jaw, and clenched her teeth. “You need to be able to defend yourself before you can worry about beating anyone else up.” She stared around the dojo, then nodded, once, decisively. “Come on.”

He followed along as she brought him over to one of the adults watching the matches. The man wasn’t very big, but he seemed to Ichigo to be very still. There was something about him that was very calming. He glanced down at the two children at his elbow and gave them a friendly smile.

Tatsuki bowed and Ichigo followed her lead, a little bewildered. “Sensei Shimizu, please may I ask you for your assistance?”

“Of course, Tatsuki-chan.” His voice was as calm as his aura. He turned to face them and waited.

“Ichigo, this is a friend of my father’s. He’s an aikido master, and I think he can help.”

A warm hand came down to tilt his chin up. Ichigo blinked up into grey eyes that seemed to look all the way into his soul. They looked sad for a moment, then smiled down at him. The light behind them reminded him of his mom.

“Are you all right, little one?” he asked.

Ichigo squared his shoulders and tried to smile. “Yes, sir, thanks, I’m fine!”

Tatsuki snorted. “Sensei, Ichigo needs to learn how to defend himself. Can you help him?”

The hand left, and with it the warmth. Ichigo wanted it back. He refused to act like a baby, though, so he just stood there and tried not to lean into the man. The smile he got made him smile in return, the first real one since his mom died.

“I believe, if Ichigo-kun will try, that I can.”

And he did.

~

Ichigo became a fixture at the Haruhiro Shimizu’s dojo. If karate had felt fundamentally off to the boy, everything in aikido felt natural and right. It wasn’t about being the strongest or hitting the hardest. It wasn’t about attacking and winning.

It was about control and evasion.

He never attacked first. The one who attacked was the one who lost. He learned how to hold his body, how to combine his emotional and physical strength into a fluid whole, and he learned how to be very, very fast. He learned to control his opponent’s energy and redirect the attacks as they came at him. He learned how to break and switch holds, how to fall with his attacker or throw his attacker then pin him down. It wasn’t about punching, or grabbing, or pulling, it wasn’t fists or clutching hands… it was a loose hand in an open hold that flowed with the incoming attack, that focused his strength in a single point to stop even the largest opponent in his tracks, or use his attacker’s momentum to send him to the ground.

He learned how an entire confrontation could coalesce into a single moment, and in that single moment, a match was won.

Tatsuki had a blast trying to fight him, karate against aikido. As Ichigo got faster, and Tatsuki got stronger, the matches became incredible to watch. But that happened later.

For the moment, it was about learning to defend. Learning to evade.

It was about other things, too. Aikido was as much, if not more, about his mind than his body. It was about thinking, which was perfect, because that was exactly what he’d set himself to do. The consequence of not-thinking was a world of pain. So he went deep inside himself, and he set off on the path to learn.

Learning who he was, and where he fit in the world. As much as he learned about self-defense, he learned more about himself. He immersed himself in the tranquility that came with the study of aikido, and worked constantly on keeping his equilibrium and his calm… not the easiest thing for a boy with all the temperament found in any redhead. Meditation quickly became his friend. The more he learned, the more he tried to understand, the calmer he felt, and the more in harmony he became with the universe.

When he tried to explain this to Tatsuki, she blinked at him. “Are you taking drugs?”

“This is why you love karate and I love aikido,” he laughed.

A year into his training, Sensei Shimizu recommended he expand his horizons. During his matches, the sensei had noted how well he took to weapons, particularly the bokken. Ichigo followed his sensei’s advice and added kendo training to his routine. As it turned out, he was a natural.

He loved it almost as much as he loved aikido.

It also gave him the opportunity to go to tournaments. Sensei Shimizu was old school, and didn’t believe in aikido competition, although he did encourage his students to participate in demonstrations. He was much in demand for those, himself, being one of the foremost acknowledged senseis of the Yoshinkan style. But Ichigo excelled at kendo, and was third-dan by the age of fifteen. He might have gone much higher, but war intervened. That was yet to come… at the moment, at the age of ten, Ichigo was content to throw himself into his training, and begin his journey toward self-understanding.

His speed increased immensely. His anticipation of his opponent’s movements got to the point that it seemed to the onlookers that he was reading their minds.

Tatsuki had a hell of a time landing a punch.

Ichigo learned to disarm and counter single attackers and groups. He fought in kendo tournaments individually and as a member of the dojo team. He steadily climbed the ranks and was all-Japan kendo champion in his age group by the time he hit twelve.

He also spend a lot of time dodging his dad’s flying kicks.

While Isshin was quite happy Ichigo learned to duck, he despaired of the boy ever learning to fight back. He seemed incredibly happy about the swordsmanship, though.

Ichigo was fine with that.

~

One decision to come from chronic soul-searching was to let his hair grow out. He had gotten picked on for years because of his orange hair, but he’d always been proud of it, because he got it from his mom. Refusing to cut his hair was an homage to Masaki, his own way of remembering her.

This, of course, led to a lot of fights.

He lost, at first. No one really noticed the extra bruises and scrapes, considering the regular injuries he received from his father’s ‘training.’ As he learned aikido, the fights got shorter and shorter, and he won them faster and faster. He quickly gained the reputation of being unhittable.

Not that it stopped the idiots from trying.

Still, he sent them on their way with bruised backs, bruised butts, and numb wrists where he caught their punches, deflected them, and turned their forearms and knee joints into pretzels. The standard reaction, after the bullies found themselves face-first in the dirt or flat on their backs with their heads spinning, was to wonder, ‘what the hell was that?’ or ‘what just happened?’

Ichigo didn’t say much, but he smiled a lot.

Most of the time, the smile had teeth.

~

As meditation became as routine as breathing, shortly after his eleventh birthday, he made a startling discovery.

He had an inner landscape, and it was sideways. Even the trees and lakes were sideways, and it was bizarre to see water flowing vertically.

Also, he wasn’t alone in there.

Early on, his meditation was an attempt to ameliorate the depression he fell into after his mom was killed. The lack of support and increasingly severe attacks from his dad, his need to keep up a positive front for his sisters, the sudden influx of violence from the bullies, and his heartbreak and guilt over Masaki’s death, taken together, nearly crippled him. The only way he made it through some days was to stop thinking and simply move, in either aikido or kendo, until he could get home, in the privacy of his room, and lose himself in meditation.

Later he realized, when he spoke to the Visored, that made his relationship with his inner hollow unique. Long before he found out what hollows were, all he knew was that he had a soul twin, who was hurting as much as he was, and took it out on him just like his dad. With his fists.

Until he realized he couldn’t actually touch Ichigo, and stopped punching long enough to talk.

The first time he met his soul twin, he slid into meditation, landed on the side of a skyscraper, and instinctively ducked an incoming fist.

His dad’s ‘training’ was good for muscle memory, even if it constantly stoked his paranoia.

Ichigo slid to the side, caught the wrist as he leaned and flowed with the incoming attack. A deflection, a twist, a shift of his hip to move his center of gravity, and the stranger who attacked him landed on his face. He slid his hand over the other’s forearm and ended with his elbow locked around his attacker’s throat.

“Hi. Who are you and how did you get here?” he asked calmly.

A garbled choking sound answered him. He sighed.

“If I let you up, will you attack again?”

A nod, a headshake, a shrug. He sighed again.

He let the attacker up. The other boy barely bounced to his feet before he attacked again.

Ichigo put him flat on his face again, and planted a knee in the middle of his back.

The other boy snarled. Ichigo smirked. Let him up.

The boy attacked, a blur of white.

This time, Ichigo flipped him flat on his back, hard enough to drive the air from his lungs, then sat on him, making sure to lock those punch-happy fists under his shins.

“I can do this all day,” he muttered, smiling that toothy smile that freaked the thugs out.

Strange black eyes with bright yellow irises glared up at him.

“Or we could talk,” he offered.

The snarl softened and the eyes, full of malice, now also showed some confusion.

“What’s your name?”

“Don’t got one,” the pinned boy growled. His voice sounded strange, like an echo.

Ichigo stared at him. “I can’t just call you boy, or albino. I think albinos have pink eyes, anyway.”

His adversary blinked at him. The confusion grew, dimming the malice.

“How about Mushoku?”

“I got color!” The snarl was back. “Look at my eyes!”

“Kinda hard to miss. Kinda pretty, too.”

“Huh?”

Ichigo’s grin slid into a smirk. “You look like somebody smacked you with a fish.”

That, of course, led to the recommencement of hostilities. The newly-named Mushoku got in a couple hits – Ichigo was still new to aikido, and it showed – but for the most part, he only hit air, and ended up with his face pushed into concrete or sideways window panes. A lot. Eventually it got repetitive and a bit boring.

“If this is all we’re going to do, then I have homework,” Ichigo huffed.

That got him another snarl and another punch, that led to another throw and another pin, and he woke himself up.

The next few times he fell into his landscape it happened the same way. By the fourth visit, Mushoku had picked up some aikido himself, so that led to the two of them spending a lot of time staring at each other.

“What the hell kinda fightin’ is this?” He sounded disgusted.

Ichigo gave him a half-smile and shrugged. “It isn’t about fighting. It’s self-defense.”

“Well, that’s fuckin’ boring!”

Then he pulled a sword out of nowhere and tried to cut Ichigo’s head off.

Ichigo brought up his arm in an automatic defense, and a sword appeared in his own fist. “Huh,” he said absently, staring at the huge cleaver he was swinging around like it was a bokken. Mushoku had one, too, only it was white instead of black. That got him to thinking, as they clashed swords all over the landscape, breaking glass, rending concrete, and killing a few trees along the way.

“So, I’m black, you’re white, and we’re mirror images of each other. What does that mean?”

“I’m your sword,” Mushoku informed him, then tried to cut him off at the knees. “You’re my King.”

Ichigo jumped, rolled, and did his best to bisect his opponent. “This is my soul, you’re my sword, and I’m obviously insane. Okay. I can work with that.”

It took several visits, hours of swordplay, and quite a few sniping arguments for the two to come to an accord. At least, if he was going to be nuts, it was good training.

It wasn’t a textbook cure for depression, but it worked as a great distraction, at least.

~

A few months after he met Mushoku, Ichigo noticed another presence lurking in the depths of his soulscape. Always standing just far enough away to be a little blurry, a man about his dad’s age stood on a pole, his hair and coat blowing in a nonexistent wind, and stared at him.

It was weird, but that was normal.

As time went on and he felt more at home in the sideways city, the man on the pole got a little closer. Ichigo could see some of his features, that he wore sunglasses and needed a shave, that he was very slender, that he looked gloomy. But the man on the pole never spoke, just stared.

He figured the guy needed his space, so he gave it to him. When the man felt like talking, he’d talk.

Ichigo hadn’t talked much since his mom died. He understood the need for, and value in, silence.

~

He knew he was different. Other than Tatsuki, who knew him before, he didn’t really have any friends. His classmates thought he was that strange quiet boy with the girly bleached hair and the scary smile who nobody could beat up. His kendo teammates didn’t care what he was like as long as he kept winning, so there was a distance there. His dad stared at him like he was a specimen under a microscope when he wasn’t trying – and failing – to land a punch or kick on him.

Only around his sisters could he relax. They were precious, and he dedicated himself to them.

He kept an eye on everyone around him. Nobody else seemed to have anything strange happen when they meditated, so he began to think his fractured soul was because of what happened to his mom. He was still functional, in fact, he was excelling in school and at the dojo, so he accepted it and went on with his life.

One thing that had changed was, along with the ghosts, he saw monsters now. Everywhere. Some were small, as tiny as a cat. Others were taller than houses.

Nobody else could see them, and he had no one to ask about the weirdness in his life. So he followed Sensei Shimizu’s teachings, and accepted, tried to understand, did his best to protect.

Even if the monsters were invisible, they would still kill people.

So he left them alone, until they started a fight, then he ended it.

Aikido moves worked just as well on monsters as they did on people, and if they hit the ground hard enough, the creepy masks over their faces would break, and they would disappear into particles that floated up into the sky.

One day, a throw failed, and the monster that had him in its claws brought him up toward its serrated teeth, slavering and cackling. Ichigo threw his arm up in defense just as he had with Mushoku, and for the first time, a sword showed up in his hand in the real world.

It was blue, and looked like it was made of lightning. If this was Naruto, he’d’ve thought it was Chidori, but there was no crackling sound. Not letting himself get distracted, because he really didn’t want to get eaten, he slashed upward with the sword.

It went through the monster’s face mask like a hot knife through butter.

Ichigo was dropped and tucked himself into a ball to roll out on landing, so he didn’t break his legs – it had been a long drop. To his surprise, the air seemed to thicken around him, slowing and cushioning his fall. He stared at the blue sword pulsing in his hand, then at the last of the particles of monster disappearing into the dusk, then nodded once.

This would work.

He shook his hand, and the sword disappeared.

His smile got a shade more feral.

This would work very well.

When he got home from school and fighting monsters that afternoon, he ducked his dad’s kick, jumped behind him and took him down, an arm locked around his throat. Isshin shuddered and tapped his arm, and Ichigo let him up. As he walked off to the kitchen to grab a bottle of water, he asked over his shoulder, “Dad, can I talk to you?”

He then waited out the theatrical sobbing at the feet of his mom’s poster before his dad came back and perched on the arm of the sofa. “What can I help you with, son? Homework? Girls, perhaps?” he leered. “Of course! It is time I gave my son the TALK! Oh, you’re growing up so quickly!”

“Dad,” Ichigo cut in firmly. “What do you know of ghosts?”

Isshin abruptly went silent. He stared seriously at Ichigo for a long moment, and Ichigo knew his dad knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Perhaps I hit you a little too hard, son,” his dad finally said. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

Ichigo stared at him for the longest time, then silently rose from the chair, walked up the stairs, and into his room. Staring out the window, he looked sightlessly at the clear sky.

So much for that.

He didn’t try to ask his father again, not wanting to get lied to his face. His disillusionment with his father grew.

~

Shortly before New Year’s when he was twelve, he was out fighting monsters, and losing. There were too many. He also couldn’t escape, as they seemed to be in a pack, and they were hunting him.

Before he could panic, fighting off three at a time as five more circled looking for an opening, a shower of arrows in the same electric blue as his sword came streaming toward the hungry monsters. They screamed in pain and confusion, and died instantly. This eased the pressure on Ichigo immensely, and distracted the trio he was fighting so that he could move in and finish them.

Afterward, he knelt on one knee, head hanging, breath coming in pants, wiping the sweat out of his eyes. A slender boy dressed in white with an odd little cape came over and stood in front of him. Ichigo looked up at him.

His hair was so dark it looked blue. His eyes actually were blue, seen through glasses that flashed with the sun. He had a bow that was made of lightning, just like Ichigo’s sword.

“Hello. My name is Uryū Ishida. I have seen you fighting hollows. Who are you?”

Getting his breath back, Ichigo rose easily to his feet and shook his hand, making his sword disappear. Uryū’s sharp eyes tracked the movement.

“I’m Ichigo Kurosaki. What’s a hollow?”

Uryū pushed his glasses up his nose and stared at Ichigo. “You just killed several of them.”

Oh. Monsters. “Why are they called hollow?”

That led to an explanation about ghosts, called plus souls, and what happens to them when they hang around too long and get hungry. They turned into hollows, tried to eat everyone they loved, then went on to eat every soul they could find.

Ichigo sat on a handy rock and patted the surface, inviting Uryū to join him. He dug an extra water bottle out and tossed it to his new friend, who was still looking at him like an entomologist examining a newly-discovered species of bug.

“What?”

“I am trying to ascertain what, exactly, you are.”

Okay, that explained the look. Ichigo shrugged. Let Uryū think about it, drank some water, kept an eye out for monsters. Eventually Uryū sighed.

“I am a Quincy, a type of human who can see hollows and souls,” he began, then explained some more. The world that was invisible to regular people was pretty complex. There were Quincies, or at least Uryū, who could kill hollows with arrows made out of spirit energy, like Ichigo’s sword. There were souls, who were food for hollows, unless they were able to escape to heaven. There were hollows, who were monsters. And there were Shinigami, who apparently were genocidal assholes.

They were also supposed to protect living people from hollows and send souls on to heaven.

“Not doing a very good job,” Ichigo offered.

Uryū snorted in disgust. “They are also absent or incompetent. But still dangerous.”

Given the number of souls wandering around the living world instead of up in heaven where they belonged, and the hollows Ichigo fought on a daily basis, that seemed like a pretty good description to him.

“So I think you’re a Quincy, because you can manifest a spirit weapon, but you can’t be a pureblood. Perhaps an ancestor was a Quincy and something in your past experience activated the dormant gene. I have never heard of a Quincy using a sword.”

Ichigo crushed the empty water bottle in his fingers and stared at it. “Mom could see ghosts. She was killed by a hollow three years ago. She died saving my life.”

Uryū shivered next to him, and scooted a tiny bit closer. “You have my most sincere condolences.”

He nodded once, then stuffed the bottle back in his bag.

“Hollows also killed my grandfather, my sensei. He believed that Quincies and Shinigami should fight together to protect the living. When he was attacked, he waited for Shinigami assistance. None arrived.” Uryū’s voice was cold, but his face was pinched, and his eyes, behind their shield of glass, were haunted.

Ichigo winced. “Sorry.” He could definitely relate.

Uryū sat there and twisted his hands together. He didn’t say anything. After a while, Ichigo looked over at him.

“Want to hunt together?” And maybe study together, because as good as Ichigo’s grades were, Uryū talked like a freakin’ genius.

That got him a determined nod and a frown.

It was the start of a strange but beautiful partnership.

~

Middle school started, and all the idiots who had learned not to mess with Ichigo in grade school either forgot or regained their belligerence as they met new idiots and formed gangs. Fights started again, and this time, they came in packs.

Ichigo and Uryū were in the same class, tied for first from the beginning. The first time a gang tried to beat up Ichigo for having ‘girly bleached’ hair, Uryū took down one while Ichigo took down five in the same amount of time. After that, Uryū started going to the dojo to study aikido with Ichigo.

Uryū had a lot of rage in him, and he struggled with the philosophy. But he picked up the physical elements pretty quickly. As far as Ichigo was concerned, it was nice to have a partner who could study with him, fight beside him, and battle hollows at his back. Tatsuki could fight with him, but books frankly bored her, and she couldn’t see the monsters. The first time she met Uryū was hilarious.

Ichigo had dragged Uryū to the karate dojo to watch the competitions. Uryū whined the whole way, as he did, and Ichigo silently ignored him and brought him along, as he did. When they got there, Tatsuki’s final match for the championship had just begun.

She, of course, kicked ass.

Uryū stood there, entranced, staring at the whirling, punching, kicking demon that was Tatsuki winning another title. When she bowed her way off the floor, Ichigo handed her a towel and congratulated her. She beamed at him and caught him in a sweaty hug that would have broken his ribs if he hadn’t been used to it.

“That… was… amazing,” Uryū stuttered.

Tatsuki looked him up, looked him down, looked him up again, and gave a lopsided grin. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re cute and obviously appreciate greatness when you see it. I’m Tatsuki! We’re going to be great friends!”

Uryū looked a little overwhelmed and off-balance. As the two got to know one another better, that never changed.

So Ichigo’s little family of friends became two, and a few months later, grew a little more.

Uryū was at the crafts club meeting, and Tatsuki was at the dojo, when a gang of ten decided that one of them was going to land a hit on Ichigo, damnit, and when they did, they were going to beat him to death.

They couldn’t, and didn’t, of course, but from the outside, it looked like it could be nasty. A new kid to the school, a tall, bulky teenager who was even more quiet than Ichigo – meaning he never talked – waded in and started punching.

He knocked out three of them while Ichigo took down the other seven, using them as shields to knock each other off balance then spinning, throwing, and pinning the rest. Between Ichigo running through them like a buzz saw and the new kid smacking them around like they were tennis balls, the gang quickly gave it up as a bad deal. The ones left conscious grabbed the ones who weren’t and took off, escaping from the bad decision they’d made to take on the Untouchable.

Ichigo grinned up at his new friend. “Ichigo,” he said, sticking his thumb in his chest. “Thanks.”

The new kid mumbled something that Ichigo heard as Chad, then ducked his head and started to walk away. Ichigo danced around in front of him. “Lunch?”

Wide green eyes peered down at him through a fall of brown hair, then Chad smiled gently and nodded.

It was a good thing Uryū and Tatsuki joined them, or it would have been a completely silent lunch. Still, it was a friendly silence.

A week or so later, Ichigo was walking home from kendo practice, down along the river. He heard the sounds of fighting, and was startled to see Chad, surrounded by half a dozen thugs. It wasn’t strange that Chad was in a fight – he was a foreigner, and brawny, and bullies saw him as a challenge. No, the strange thing was that he wasn’t fighting back. And unlike Ichigo, he wasn’t using aikido to defend himself without attacking, either.

He wasn’t defending himself at all.

Ichigo was moving before he consciously made the decision. He went through the gang like a whirlwind, and moments later they were all groaning, face first in the dirt. Ichigo may have stepped on a few heads on his way over to untie Chad from the ropes that held him to a chair. It looked like the bastards were going to drown him!

“Why?” Ichigo asked, knowing Chad would understand.

“My abuelo. He taught me, never use my strength against others, fighting is useless unless I am defending others. I got into many fights. I tried to prove myself, my strength. I was in the wrong, and he saved me.”

Ichigo threw the rope into the river, then helped Chad up the bank, ignoring the idiots scrambling to get away behind them. “You need to defend yourself, too.”

Chad looked like he didn’t believe him.

“Your grandfather wouldn’t have wanted you to throw your life away by not defending it,” Uryū’s voice came from the footpath above them.

Ichigo flashed him a warm smile as he pulled Chad up alongside him. They walked slowly back toward Chad’s apartment, Uryū fussing a little to make sure he was all right. He could see that Chad was resisting the concept of fighting for himself, and that gave him an idea.

“We’ll fight to protect you. You fight to protect us.”

Chad smiled, and Uryū stared at them both like they were crazy. He tried convincing Chad all the way home that he should fight back to defend himself, but even he gave up in the end. Muttering about self-sacrificing idiots, he stomped home, and Ichigo laughed under his breath.

Yeah. They were all nuts, in their own ways, but they suited each other.

~

Over the course of the next two years, Uryū taught Ichigo everything he could about being a Quincy, even if he was a weird one who couldn’t draw a bow but kept manifesting a sword. Learning to run on air was amazing. Learning to control the energy that leaked from him like a sieve? Not so much.

In return, Ichigo taught Uryū about deep meditation, and shared with him the fact that he had a soul twin and an old man living in his soulscape. Uryū thought he was imagining things, until Mushoku suddenly looked out at him through Ichigo’s eyes.

Seeing the calm brown eyes turn black and gold freaked him out completely. Hearing the strangely echoing voice cackle at him? Also not the highlight of his life. Coming to terms with the idea that his friend had a form of multiple personality disorder that caused actual physical changes sent him to his father’s library for the first time since his grandfather died.

Eventually, he accepted the fact that Ichigo was just weird, and got over it. He never did get used to Mushoku, though.

Ichigo also trained with both Uryū and Chad, now. To their surprise, Chad could see the monsters, too, although they were more transparent, not solid the way the other two could see them. Still, it was enough to allow him to escape them when Ichigo and Uryū fought them.

It surprised all of them when, one day, Chad couldn’t escape fast enough and punched a hollow right in the nose. Hard enough to break its mask and cause it to disintegrate. Chad dropped down to a crouch, looking up at there the monster disappeared, while Ichigo and Uryū stood there, jaws agape.

“Well, that will come in handy,” Uryū finally managed to stammer.

Ichigo just nodded, eyes wide.

It wasn’t the only new development for Chad. As they fought more hollows and trained together, he manifested his own kind of weapon. Red and black armor grew from his fist up over his arm into a spiky shield at the top of his shoulder that protected his face without interfering with his line of sight. The punches he could land with the armored fist were incredibly powerful, as many hollows learned. It was their last lesson before dying.

He wasn’t a Quincy… they didn’t know what he was… but it was effective, and the duo of hollow hunters became a trio.

~

Near the middle of their second year, a fight spilled over into a park, and a couple innocent bystanders got involved. Chad blew over to stand in front of them, Ichigo put down the majority of the attackers, and Uryū knocked out the rest. When the threat was over, they turned to find a short, slight boy with big, calm eyes staring up at them, next to a gangly, motor mouthed boy in complete panic mode. Chad finally put his hand over Keigo’s face to get him to stop rambling, and nothing seemed to faze Mizuiro. While the two new boys, already best friends, didn’t become tight with the trio, they were still casual friends, orbiting around Ichigo, Uryū and Chad in their own way.

Tatsuki found a new friend as well, a sweet if ditzy girl who was being harassed because she was developing early. Tatsuki punched out several boys, and a few girls, who tried to take advantage of Orihime. Uryū also hit it off with the girl, as she was as interested in crafts as he was, if not nearly as talented. She also might have had a small crush on Ichigo, but he honestly didn’t notice, just as she didn’t notice Chad’s small crush on her.

By the time high school started, the group was comfortable and stable. Each had their own interests, with Ichigo, Chad and Uryū still fighting hollows, Orihime and Tatsuki having sleepovers, and the whole gang going to see fireworks or to the beach together. Between his friends, his kendo and aikido training, his homework, and his adored little sisters, Ichigo’s life was full and as content as it could be. He still missed his mom, and he still dodged his dad, but life was going pretty well.

Of course it couldn’t last.

~

Kisuke Urahara watched from the shadows as Rukia Kuchiki tried, and failed, to slay a huge hollow. He knew better than to wait for Ichigo to step in, because the boy was off hunting hollows with his Quincy and Fullbringer friends… apparently Aizen hadn’t noticed that. He tapped his foot impatiently as the girl fought, her inexperience in real combat taking its toll, and fell.

“Sing, Benihime.” He hated having to do this, but it had to be done.

The hollow was the work of a moment to destroy, then he picked Rukia up and carried her to his Shōten. Once there, he busied himself with her specialized gigai, hiding the Hōgyoku deep inside her soul.

It would drain her, and keep her powerless, but it would also drain the Hōgyoku. It was the only way he could think of to destroy it, before it landed in Aizen’s hands, and he destroyed them all.

~

Uryū felt it first, as he always did, and led the charge toward his father’s hospital. Ichigo had met Ryūken once, and hadn’t been impressed. If Isshin was a violent nutcase, at least he was caring in his own odd way. Ryūken was an ice cube. Ichigo was glad Uryū had found friends, if nothing else, to keep him from turning into an ice-zombie like his father.

The hollows led them on a chase that night that ended up, frighteningly enough, at the Kurosaki Clinic. There was a hole in the side of his house, and a tall, round hollow with way too many teeth had Yuzu in its paw, about the eat her, when they arrived.

Ichigo yelled, getting its attention, while Uryū started shooting precisely aimed arrows to distract it and cause it to drop Yuzu. Chad caught her before she hit the ground and shot away with her, taking her to a terrified Karin and standing guard in front of them. Ichigo and Uryū tag-teamed the hollow until Ichigo finally got a clear shot, cleaving it in two. It fell to pieces, then dissipated, and the boys tore into the house to make sure everyone was okay.

It was a long time before the Kurosaki siblings got to sleep that night. Karin and Yuzu piled in Ichigo’s bed with him. Uryū slept on Ichigo’s floor, and Chad slept on the sofa.

The next morning, Isshin cheerfully informed them that a truck had hit the house and they’d all slept through it. The boys stared at him blearily. Yuzu cooked, happy to have more mouths to feed, and nobody questioned why Ichigo’s friends stayed over.

It was bizarre, but that was the way life went in Karakura.

~

Ichigo didn’t notice any upsweep in activity with the on-site Shinigami being out of commission, because the previous Shinigami had been so utterly incompetent no one had ever noticed his presence, so no one noticed Rukia’s absence.

Sadly, that winter saw the first tragedy among the friends.

Tatsuki was sleeping over at Orihime’s house, trying not to choke on her cooking and listening to her babble about giant killer robots and red bean paste. She seldom understood anything Orihime was talking about unless it was homework, as Orihime was smarter than she was and a surprisingly good tutor, considering how often she went off on tangents.

That night was different. Something… huge, and scary, and invisible, came into the apartment and blew them into the walls. She found herself outside her body, attached to it by a thick grey chain, as Orihime pleaded with a horrible monster she called Sora, not to kill them.

She was in shock, wanting to fight, not knowing how to protect her friend, when Ichigo of all people came flying through the broken window, holding a big-ass sword in one hand that looked really out of place with his jeans and hoodie jacket. Uryū was flying – yes, flying – beside him, shooting arrows from a buzzing blue bow, and Chad was there, too, gathering up her and Orihime’s body and getting them out of the way of the fight that followed.

Tatsuki had to follow her body, as the chain still bound them together, but Orihime’s chain was broken, so she still stood in front of the monster and tried to reach it with her words.

She failed, and the monster was torn between fighting off the three boys, and eating the crying girl. Tatsuki reached out as far as she could toward Orihime, screaming, “Get away from it!”

Then Ichigo grabbed Orihime and tossed her toward Tatsuki, who caught and held her, hugging her close and letting her cry. The boys continued the fight, trashing the apartment, before finally cornering the monster. It had arrows sticking out all over it and wounds from Ichigo’s sword, but it was determined to get to Orihime. Finally, Ichigo cut it across the face with his sword, slashing deeply, and the monster gave a sickly cry before turning into a dust cloud and drifting away.

Ichigo and Uryū came over to the girls, exchanging sad glances with Chad. Then Uryū gently separated them, and they all stared at the broken chain hanging from Orihime’s chest. A small mouth had formed at the end, starting to eat the links, and from the way Orihime was clutching her ribs, it must have hurt like hell.

Tatsuki looked over at Ichigo. “We’re dead, aren’t we.” It wasn’t a question.

“Well,” Uryū said slowly, “You’re not.”

Ichigo took a deep breath then moved in front of Orihime, within touching distance. She looked up at him, pain written on her face, tears in her eyes. “Please make it stop,” she begged him.

“I’m sorry, Orihime. It will be all right.” He instinctively reached out and cupped her cheek with his palm. He didn’t casually touch anyone, but for some reason he felt impelled to do so. Light sparked where they touched, and Orihime’s body began to turn into dust, just as the monster’s had.

“Thank you for being my friends,” she said quietly, glancing at Tatsuki and smiling. Then she looked back at Ichigo. The last thing she said was, “I loved you.”

Then her body turned completely to dust, and a white butterfly appeared. It slowly fluttered out the window and up into the sky, where it disappeared into the light of a star.

Tatsuki was fighting back sobs when she felt a pulling sensation and the world tipped. When she opened her eyes again, she was back in her body. The chain was gone, and she had a tremendous headache. Giving up the battle, she let the darkness take her.

When she woke again, she was in a bed in the Ishida hospital. Her mom was sitting beside her, holding her hand. Her dad was standing by the window, staring out, looking sad.

“Mom?” she asked, her voice little more than a croak.

“Oh, sweetie,” her mom cried, “I’m so sorry.”

The official story was that there’d been a home invasion robbery, and the girls had been attacked, with Orihime being killed and Tatsuki beaten unconscious. The next day, she was out of the hospital and on Ichigo’s doorstep. He met her there without a word, and they walked to the park.

The ensuing conversation changed her life.

It was a kind of relief to know that Orihime wasn’t really gone, that there was an afterlife and she was there, and Tatsuki might see her again someday. It was a gut-wrencher to know that monsters lived among them, and she couldn’t see them. Couldn’t fight them. Had to rely on her friends to keep her safe, because she was helpless.

She hated it.

The boys added a girl to their training. If she could fight blindfolded – and she could – she could fight with them.

So she did.

~

A few weeks after Orihime’s funeral, his dad attacked Ichigo as he came home from school. As usual. The unusual part came afterward.

“This isn’t working,” Isshin growled. “Dodging, ducking, walking away – useless! You lack fire, boy! You’ll never win this way!”

Ichigo calmly put his book bag on the table and turned to face his father, keeping his eye on the man’s fists. “Fire? As in reacting?”

“Yes! Fighting back, damnit. I know you have fighting instincts. Use them!”

“Instincts. Acting without thinking.”

“It’s got to be second nature, son! You see a fist flying, you fight back! You don’t just knock your attacker over and walk away. He’ll get up and gut you before you know it’s coming!”

Ichigo wondered where the hell his father thought they lived, the jungles of Honduras? It’s not like strangers with machetes popped up out of nowhere and tried to kill him on a regular basis. Besides… “Acting without thinking got mom killed.” His voice was heavy with guilt.

His dad backhanded him. He honestly hadn’t seen that coming.

“Masaki gave her life to protect you, Ichigo. Stop blaming yourself. She’d be angry that you do.” He sounded as tired as Ichigo felt.

“Why do you keep attacking me, if you don’t blame me for her death?”

Isshin looked at him like he was speaking gibberish. “I am TRAINING you. To make you STRONGER. If you get hurt, it’s because you’re weak!”

Ichigo narrowed his eyes at his indignant father, then turned his back, grabbed his bag, and headed up the stairs to his room. For once, Isshin didn’t try to punch him again before he got there. He sat and meditated, thinking on his father’s words.

It sounded like bullshit to him, but maybe he was too close to the situation.

The next day before school, he wandered over to lean against the railing where Uryū perched, reading his physics book.

“Question,” he said.

“Answer,” Uryū absently replied.

Ichigo snorted. This was their routine. “Dad says he beats me to make me stronger. Training. If I get hurt, I’m just weak.”

Dark blue eyes stared at him over rectangular lenses. “That sounds like the sort of justification Ryūken would make.”

“So. Bullshit?”

Uryū nodded. “Bullshit. It’s the abuser blaming the victim. He’s been hurting you for years. You never let me report him. Now you’re skilled enough in aikido that you’re not getting sprained limbs and concussions, but it still doesn’t make it right.”

Ichigo nodded. That was the conclusion he’d come to, as well.

“What would you do if your father tried to ‘train’ your sisters the way he has with you?” Uryū’s head tilted and his glasses flashed, so Ichigo couldn’t see the expression in his eyes.

“Kill him,” he immediately replied. No thought necessary.

“Which should tell you how insane your father is. You allow him to attack you in such a violent manner, hurting you under the excuse of training, but you would kill him if he tried the same with your sisters. Does this not tell you he’s wrong?”

Well, yeah. But he’d kill anyone who hurt his sisters. He could protect himself. Besides, he did still love his father. Plus, while Uryū would rather put Isshin in jail for the way he treated Ichigo, that would see the girls taken away and put into care, and then he wouldn’t be able to protect them anymore. He shrugged one shoulder, and was thankful the bell rang before he had to find a way to answer Uryū.

Uryū sighed, closed his book, and headed for the classroom. They’d had this same argument for years. It wasn’t going to change. “I’ll still look after you, even if you won’t look after yourself.”

Ichigo nodded at him. Yeah. That went both ways. Always.

~

Near the end of term, Chad came to school looking like he’d tried to fight an oncoming truck and lost. He staggered to his seat and Ichigo exchanged concerned looks with Uryū.

“Are you all right?” Uryū asked.

Chad nodded. Ichigo didn’t believe him.

That afternoon, they were introduced to the source of his troubles. A parakeet.

That could hold up its side of a conversation.

That was not normal.

Uryū stared at it for the longest time, then turned to Ichigo. “It’s possessed. Please purify it.”

They’d discovered by accident, with Orihime, that Ichigo had the very odd ability to send souls to heaven by way of sparkly white butterflies. He practiced on random wandering ghosts between fights with hollows. He used it as a way to cut down fights and keep the town safer.

It made sense. The less food there was for the monsters to hunt, the fewer monsters there were hanging around trying to kill people.

Chad looked at him like he’d lost his marbles, but Ichigo did what he was told – only with Uryū could he ever say that. Poking one finger through the bars of the birdcage, he stroked the soft feathers on the bird’s head, the pushed gently directly above the beak.

The bird coughed.

The image of a boy of about five years of age formed around it, then gently disintegrated. A small white butterfly flew through the top of the cage and upward, disappearing into a shaft of sunlight.

“You bastards! Taking my bait, and cutting it loose!” a hollow shrieked, then attacked them.

In the scuffle, the birdcage was kicked over. The door sprung loose, and the now not-possessed bird escaped into a nearby tree. The fight careened over the town, ending up in the play yard of the school where Yuzu and Karin were in class. Tatsuki met them there, and the four of them harried and cornered the hollow. For the first time, what appeared to be flames wrapped around Tatsuki’s fists as she struck out at the hollow, and also for the first time, she could see its outline.

That made it easier to destroy.

When it was down, and not quite out, being evil, it had to give a monolog. It turned out to be the soul of a serial killer, who had first murdered the little boy’s mother, then killed the boy before dying himself. His soul then came back as a hollow, and captured the child ghost, using him as bait to draw in more victims, while promising the boy that if he helped he would be reunited with his mother. It was a lie, of course.

That day, they learned what happened to hollows who didn’t get purified, who were evil while still human, even before they became actual monsters. Huge, tall black gates shrouded in chains and bones came down from the sky. They opened, and a skeletal hand shot out, dragging away the screaming, sobbing soul of the murderer. They snapped shut, and reeled back into the sky.

Uryū and Chad exchanged wide-eyed glances.

“What the hell?” sputtered Tatsuki.

Ichigo was pretty sure it was hell, itself.

~

Not long after the odd adventure with the parakeet, it was once again time for the Kurosaki family to head to Masaki’s grave to honor her on the day of her death. Ichigo couldn’t believe it had been six years.

For once, he was alone with his father and sisters. Chad, Uryū, and Tatsuki stayed away, respecting their privacy. Half an hour after they got there, the same nasty hollow that killed his mom showed up at her graveside, and Ichigo really wished he had his friends with him.

The damned thing went right for his sisters, and he had his sword out and flashing as quickly as he could move. Then it tried to distract him by showing him a false image of his mother, which only pissed him off completely. He fought for his calm after he missed a couple openings in the fight, then it flanked him.

Caught Karin, and nearly ate her.

There was a flash of black and white in the corner of his eye, and for an instant he could have sworn he saw his father, dressed like some monochromatic Edo-era kendo cosplayer. Then the monster cackled, dropped Karin, and Ichigo had the choice of saving his sister or killing the monster.

He saved Karin, of course. He would always save his sisters. There would be another chance at the hollow. They always came back. And this one seemed to have a taste for Kurosakis, the bastard.

He carried Karin back to the graveside where Yuzu had the picnic set up, and gently laid her down. His dad was nowhere to be seen, so he stayed there, deflecting Yuzu’s confused questions and pretending that Karin had just had a little too much sun. A while later, their dad returned, looking grimly satisfied, and Ichigo narrowed his eyes. Isshin avoided him until they got home.

Once the dishes were washed, the girls were in bed, and he was curled up on the end of the sofa with a volume of Shakespeare’s tragedies for light reading, he glanced over at his father.

“Anything you want to tell me, dad?”

Isshin shook his head and immediately headed off into the clinic. “Paperwork! So much work to do!” he threw over his shoulder.

Right.

Ichigo stared with blind eyes at King Lear’s railing against his fate and wondered. His father’s secrets were his own, of course. But every time he asked, he got lies or silence for answers. His faith in his father took another hit.

Whatever he was hiding, it must be awful.

The next day was Saturday, and he took the morning off, spending an hour sitting on the grass watching the river as he had when he was small. As he was preparing to leave, a strange man in a green striped hat and coat, with geta on his feet, came up beside him. He looked funny, but he felt… powerful. Ichigo glanced over him.

No chain. He wasn’t a ghost.

But he wasn’t just a regular human either.

“Hello,” the stranger said, giving him a plastic smile.

Ichigo couldn’t see his eyes for the shading from his hat, and that made him feel unsettled. He nodded a greeting.

“Ah, the strong, silent type. Never been one for that, myself. My name is Kisuke Urahara. I know of you, young Ichigo Kurosaki, and of the work you have been doing to keep Karakura town safe. I, also, am interested in such an endeavor. I have unusual talents that I believe would be quite useful to you. I offer myself as your trainer to assist you in your quest to keep us all safe from the hollows that would devour us.”

Ichigo froze when he heard his own name come from the strange man, then gave him a suspicious scowl by the end of his little speech. “Why?”

Urahara cocked his head and whipped a fan out of… somewhere, giving him a coy glance over the top of it. Frankly, he gave Ichigo the creeps.

“While I am but a simple shopkeeper, I have at my fingertips various methods known only to the Shinigami. I believe you would benefit greatly from learning them. They would keep you, your family, and your friends safe in future conflicts.”

Ichigo didn’t trust this guy at all. “You’ve been watching me?”

“For years,” Urahara nodded. “I admit to finding myself quite impressed.”

“I fight with my friends. They’d come with me.”

“Ah, as to that… the techniques I would teach you are not really appropriate for Quincies and Fullbringers, unfortunately. In point of fact, were you to take me up on my generous offer, it would have to remain between us –“

“No.” Ichigo turned and walked off. He didn’t know who this guy was, but if he was trying to get Ichigo to do things behind his friends’ back, then he didn’t trust him. Also, what was this Fullbringer thing? He must be talking about Chad. Maybe Tatsuki, with her fists of fire.

Yeah, this guy might have answers… but if his fighting partners couldn’t hear them, then he could get along without them.

“Think carefully, Ichigo Kurosaki,” Urahara called after him. The lightness was gone from his voice, and he sounded like he was sending a warning. Or a threat. “When the time comes that you need me, and it will… come to my Shōten. I will not turn you away.”

Ichigo glanced over his shoulder. Urahara was standing there, watching him. For some reason, the sight of him there felt ominous. Ichigo didn’t want anything to do with him.

He felt like death.

~

Urahara watched the young hybrid walk away and worked to unclench his teeth.

That could have gone better.

He probably shouldn’t have been so brazen in his approach, but he was running out of options. The four teens worked together extremely well, and he hadn’t had to step in to save them, so he couldn’t introduce himself in any heroic way. Isshin refused to allow him around the clinic, so he couldn’t play the ‘old friend of the family’ card. Ichigo hadn’t even manifested soul reaper abilities, really, remaining in his human body and relying solely on his uniquely bastardized version of Quincy powers.

It was intensely frustrating. He was running out of time.

Any day now, Soul Society would realize there was something off with the Kuchiki princess, and everything would blow up in their faces. They would investigate, secrets would come to light, and given Yamamoto’s knee-jerk reaction to anything that wasn’t purely Shinigami, he’d no doubt put out an execution order on the entire Kurosaki family, one which Suì-Fēng would quickly and enthusiastically carry out. Ichigo Kurosaki was the closest thing they had to an effective weapon against Aizen, and as he was, he was useless.

He had to think. Plan.

Figure out a way out of this clusterfuck, before it killed them all.

~

Shortly after his unsettling encounter with Urahara, Yuzu and Karin begged, guilt-tripped, and whined at him until Ichigo agreed to go with them to the taping of an idiot show about ghost busters. He had the feeling Don Konanji wouldn’t know a ghost if it bit him, but his sisters – and his dad – loved the stupid show, so he was being a good big brother and suffering through it for their sake.

Not that he suffered alone, of course. He roped the others into going with him. To his disgust, Chad and Tatsuki actually liked the damned show too. At least Uryū didn’t.

Of course, between schoolwork, clubs, student council, training, fighting, avoiding his father, and all his craft and sewing projects, Ichigo wasn’t sure Uryū actually ever watched tv.

It was a madhouse when they got there. Huge spotlights, a crush of people, everyone clutching their chest and HO-HO-HOing like demented Santa Claus wannabes… needless to say, when the Jibakurai screamed out from the hospital, and Ichigo realized there actually WAS a hollow there, it was a bit of a shock. He took off, vee formation with Chad on his right, Tatsuki on his left, and – as soon as they cleared the mundanes – Uryū flying, providing cover.

The screams made it pretty clear exactly where the monster was, and while Don Konanji was hamming it up under the spotlight on the roof, the true spiritual defenders of Karakura surrounded the hollow, purified it, and got the hell out of there as quickly as they could.

Thankfully, they got in and out before they became the feature story on Weird News of the World that night.

Don Konanji was sadly disappointed in the utter lack of spirits in Karakura, and left empty-handed, never noticing the four teenagers panting in a heap behind the crowds. The twins were disappointed that their adventure in tv-land wasn’t more exciting, and didn’t notice how sweaty Ichigo and his friends were when they rejoined them. Everyone else was just relieved nothing crazy was captured on camera.

And Ichigo discovered Karin could see ghosts, when she wandered over to his door later that night. She knocked once, slipped in the room, and asked, “Was everyone okay after killing the scary monster?”

Ichigo dropped his calculus book. On his foot. Then bit his tongue to keep from cursing in front of his little sister.

While he was having a miniature breakdown, Karin perched on the side of his bed and peered up at him. “I know about the monsters,” she whispered. “And the ghosts.”

“How?” he finally managed to squeeze out through a throat too tight to breathe.

“They’ve been around forever. There was a monster that nearly got me at Mom’s grave, and another one that Tatsuki beat up at school one day. And ghosts are everywhere.”

“Please be careful,” he begged her.

“Yeah. I don’t fight monsters. I leave that to you guys, but when I get older you’re going to have to train me. One day they might find me when you’re nowhere around…”

Ichigo closed his eyes and prayed. That was his personal worst nightmare.

“I have to be able to take care of myself, too. As for the ghosts… I just ignore them. Otherwise my life would be too weird to live.”

He gave her a quick hug, then took a deep breath. “Best way to handle it. Come to me if you have questions, okay?”

“I will. The old man’s useless.”

Ichigo raised an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged.

“I saw him dressed up like an old-time warrior. He killed the monster at Mom’s grave. When I asked him about it he told me I was seeing things. I can’t trust him with this.”

As relieved as he was to hear that the hollow that killed their mom was dead, hearing his father’s reaction to Karin’s questions, mirroring the way he reacted to Ichigo, made his faith in Isshin crumble completely.

“Trust me,” he told her softly, and hugged her again.

She hugged him back, quickly, fiercely, then gave him a tiny grin. “Always do. Night, big brother.”

“Night.”

Later, he snuck into their room, tucked them in, and vowed, once again, to do anything and everything he had to do to keep them safe.

~

Two figures walked, unnoticed, down a dark street in Karakura. One, tall, forbidding, elegant, moved as if his feet didn’t touch the earth. The other, larger, tattooed, with brilliant red hair tied in a spray behind his head, prowled forward like a predatory animal.

The Gotei 13 was calling their wayward warrior home, and sending her brother and her best friend to do it.

Byakuya Kuchiki refused to allow his trepidation on behalf of his sister to show. Rukia hadn’t called in, hadn’t reported for over a month, and Captain Commander Yamamoto had ordered her superior officer to go to the Living World and retrieve her. Unfortunately, Captain Ukitake was suffering from a severe bout of his illness, had no lieutenant to take over for him, and had two incompetent idiots as his third and fourth seats. Upon hearing this, Byakuya had volunteered.

She was his pride, after all. His responsibility.

As it turned out, finding her was relatively easy. The exile Urahara was caring for her. There was something… off… about her gigai, but Byakuya couldn’t tell upon initial examination what it was. When she shed the artificial body, she seemed to retain a strange weakness. With a barely-perceptible sniff, he gestured for her to follow, and for Renji to bring up the rear.

She knew better than to address him as they walked. They would speak after they returned home, after her debriefing, and after she had finally made her long-overdue report.

He wondered who had been carrying out her duties while she had been indisposed, and why she hadn’t contacted her commander before this. It never occurred to him that Urahara had a hand in her silence, as the exile hadn’t been in the Shōten when he and Renji arrived. As if his thoughts had conjured them, he heard the sounds of fighting and hollows shrieking in the distance.

The fight found them before they found the fighters.

A small pack of hollows, no more than five or six, fought a freewheeling battle against four young humans. Byakuya raised a hand, and an eyebrow, as his group stopped and watched the action. It was not his duty to protect this area of the Living World, but he would protect his sister if the battle came too near. Still, this was… unusual. Humans couldn’t even see hollows, much less fight them so… efficiently.

Then he saw the arc of blue flying, en masse through the air, and narrowed his eyes.

Quincies.

He’d thought they’d been driven to extinction decades before he took up his command. They were under an execution edict directly from Captain Commander Yamamoto.

These looked very young… well, one was very young and was a Quincy. As he watched closely, he noticed that one seemed to be a hybrid of some sort, as he wasn’t using a Quincy bow, although his sword did look as if it were composed of reishi. The hollows split into two smaller packs, and the attacking humans followed. The Quincy and the hybrid took the nearest group while the other children chased after the escaping hollows.

The larger boy and the small girl looked to be Fullbringers. Disgusting perversions of humanity they were, but they weren’t on the execution list, so he would not be bothered by them. As soon as the Quincy and the hybrid purified the last hollow in their battle, he called quietly over his shoulder.

“Lieutenant Abarai. Execute the Quincies.” They may as well take out the hybrid while they were here, and save possible complications later.

“Nii-sama?” Rukia asked, her voice shaking.

“Not now, Rukia,” he dismissed her, and concentrated on the fight.

The Fullbringers were still working on their hollow prey, getting further away in the distance. The Quincy was surprisingly fleet in the air, and the hybrid was, frankly, rather astonishing given his physical limitations. They were still slow, but they were fast enough to give his lieutenant a decent battle.

Pathetic. Abarai should be able to handle these two with ease, but he let his ego get in the way of his understanding, and underestimated them. This proved to be unfortunate, because the hybrid moved like water. None of his lieutenant’s blows struck home, and he looked to be frustrated enough to go to bankai, when the Quincy came from behind, the hybrid came from the side, and they knocked Abarai completely off his feet, impelling him several yards to embed himself in a brick wall.

His sigh was unseen, as was seemly for a nobleman. Still, it was vaguely irritating. Resigning himself to do the job himself, the only way to get it done, Byakuya attacked. He knocked the hybrid aside, flickered so quickly none of them could follow his movements up to the Quincy and knocked him out of the sky. With an abrupt order to Abarai to return with Rukia to the Seireitei, he flickered again.

The hybrid, somehow, managed to block his attack. His sword, then his following blow, slid off the boy as if he had some sort of force field around him. Byakuya found himself on one knee, unsure how he got there. Nevertheless, the middle of a battle was not the time to try to figure out ‘what the hell just happened?’ so he redirected his own attack.

Only to find his Zanpakutō clashing with a sword made of energy that morphed, mid-strike… into a Zanpakutō itself.

His eyes widened, but he didn’t have time to figure out the mystery of the hybrid. He had a powerless sister, an injured lieutenant, and a Quincy prisoner in his care.

“Next time,” he murmured as he cut so quickly the hybrid couldn’t dodge all his strikes, then took advantage of the youth’s distraction with his wounds to scoop up the unconscious Quincy and flash step to catch up with his lieutenant as Abarai ran through, carrying Rukia over his shoulder.

Byakuya looked back only once, to see blazing amber eyes staring at him from the ground as the doors of the Senkaimon closed. The hybrid was down, but not dead, and he had no doubt that his failure to kill the youth would come back to haunt him.

Those eyes did not lie.

~

Ichigo held his gut to keep from bleeding out as the fucking bastard Shinigami kidnapped his best friend. A stoic face with dead grey eyes stared at him over one shoulder, then the paper doors hanging in mid-air closed behind him. He wanted to scream, but as always, he couldn’t make a sound, his rage and fear locked in his throat.

Then he heard the click of geta coming toward him from the shadows, and Urahara was there, kneeling next to him, strange green energy coming from his hands. Ichigo could feel the blood flow stop, and wasn’t that weird?

Moments later, Chad and Tatsuki came running up, out of breath, covered in shallow cuts. Chad had the satisfied half-smile he got when he’d done a good job of protecting someone, and Tatsuki was practically bouncing with energy, a grin on her face, her fists still clenched.

Until she saw Ichigo, on the pavement, lying in a pool of blood, with a stranger kneeling over him.

“Stop!” he managed to force out, before they attacked the man who was trying to stop him from bleeding out. “Friend. Maybe.” He didn’t want them to attack the man, but he also didn’t want them to think he trusted the guy, either.

“Oh, definitely, Kurosaki-kun. Yasutora-kun, Arisawa-chan.” He sat back on his heels, frowned at the now-closed wounds on Ichigo’s abdomen, and sighed. “I fear that is the best I can do at the moment. You will need to rest and recover from the shock and blood loss to-“

“Fucking Shinigami took Uryū. Have to get him back,” Ichigo gritted out.

“What?” Tatsuki hissed. “Uryū’s gone? There was a Shinigami here? What the hell happened? Are you okay? How do we get him back?”

Chad put a hand on her shoulder, calming her a little. Ichigo forced himself to sit up, ignoring the blood coating his clothes and arm, and narrowed his eyes at Urahara.

“Can you help us?” He’d offered. Said he knew Shinigami techniques. Maybe he’d know a way to open a set of doors to wherever that bastard had taken Uryū, so they could break some necks and get him back.

“I take it you mean all of you?” Urahara sighed.

Ichigo just looked at him. Tatsuki took a step forward, Chad at her side.

“Of course you do. Not now-“ he put up a hand to stop Ichigo’s immediate protest. “You must have some rest, and replenish your energy. You’ve lost a lot of blood, and trying to train right now for a rescue mission would hurt you more than it would help you.” He took a card from out of nowhere and handed it to Tatsuki. “Tomorrow. Six a.m. Come to my Shōten. I will do what I can to help you regain your friend from the clutches of the Gotei 13.” He swallowed and looked away. “Hopefully before my replacement has gotten too far in his work.”

That didn’t sound good at all.

Urahara dipped his head in a casual bow and clacked away. Tatsuki hauled Ichigo up, taking care with the still-tender places he’d been cut, and Chad half-carried him home. From there, Tatsuki called home and said she was spending the night with a friend, and she took Ichigo’s bed, while he and Chad shared the spare futon on the floor.

He healed insanely quickly, something he could thank his soul twin for, and by the time the sun rose he was feeling ready to go. He hadn’t slept much, had passed out for a few hours then got up about three in the morning and drank a gallon of orange juice before returning to lay on the futon and stare out the window until the sky began to lighten. At five thirty, he was up, Tatsuki and Chad at his heels.

They hadn’t slept much, either. Everyone was worried about Uryū. And they were also worried about Ichigo.

He wasn’t worried. He was enraged. Determined.

Strangely, ice cold.

They left the house before his dad woke up, so he didn’t have to dodge, or explain, anything. The Shōten was an easy ten minute walk away, and when they arrived, Urahara was already sitting on the steps, a tray with a teapot and cups waiting for them. When he offered, they all shook their heads.

“Let’s get this thing started,” Tatsuki growled.

Urahara stared sadly at his half-full cup then politely put it away and led them into his shop. A tall man with dreadlocks and a ferocious mustache stared at them through his sunglasses, but he didn’t say anything. Near the back, Urahara led them to a trap door, which opened into something that looked like an alternate dimension.

The training grounds below the Shōten seemed to stretch forever. There were rocks and cliffs and sand and hot springs. It was ridiculous. It was also very useful.

They didn’t leave for the next six days.

Later, Ichigo would be thankful it was summer break, that Chad didn’t have anyone to report to so no one missed him – he would never be thankful his friend was an orphan, but it certainly was convenient at times – and glad that Tatsuki’s parents never kept up with her bouts, so when she phoned them to say she was out of town for a few days for a title match, they told her good luck and forgot about it. He didn’t even think about his own dad… his sisters would worry, but they also trusted him, and he’d make it up to them when he got home.

With Uryū.

At the time, though, he was too busy having his world expanded and his body trained into the ground.

The first morning, Urahara introduced him to the concept of deliberately leaving his body in order to fight in soul form. He did this by forcing a marble down Ichigo’s throat. The marble turned out to be a modified soul. As horrifying as the idea of a fabricated soul was, Noba, the mod soul he was given, was actually a pretty nice guy. He was as quiet as Ichigo himself, and very shy, but he kept Ichigo’s body functioning normally so it didn’t die while Ichigo’s soul wasn’t inhabiting it, and he helped train them, so it was all good.

Two other marbles were introduced, and Chad and Tatsuki also entered the astral plane, because apparently human bodies couldn’t survive in Soul Society, which is what the Shinigami called heaven. That idea made them all panic, as Uryū was still in his body when he was kidnapped. Urahara quickly explained that Quincies weren’t normal humans, so their bodies didn’t die when they crossed over to the other world.

Ichigo thought on that for a second, then pointed to himself. “Quincy.”

“None of us are regular humans,” Tatsuki added.

“Err,” Urahara popped his fan out again and peered at them from the shadows of his hat. “You’re what’s known as Fullbringers, or humans touched by hollows while in your mothers’ wombs. Actually, you could also fight in Soul Society, being augmented as you are.”

Chad immediately gave back his marble. Tatsuki punched her body in the diaphragm, ejecting her marble, and tossed it to Urahara as well. Ichigo did the same thing.

Urahara deftly caught all three mod soul marbles, and sighed. “I see. Well, I suppose we can work around this. However, you are actually stronger in your spiritual form than in your physical form. You can take greater punishment, move faster, strike harder…”

Tatsuki grabbed her marble back and swallowed it. When she popped out, she was dressed all in black, and looked like a ninja, with flames painted on her gloves and shoes. Urahara grinned a little.

Chad also reached for his marble, and Ichigo, with a silent growl, reached for Noba. If the damned shopkeeper would just tell them shit right up front, instead of messing around and drawing it out, they wouldn’t have to play these stupid games.

When Chad popped out of his body, he was wearing armor. He looked like a storm trooper from Star Wars, only black streaked with red, and without the helmet. Ichigo, oddly enough, was wearing normal-looking clothes, black jeans, a white jacket with gold collar and cuffs, with a red shirt underneath it, and blue high tops, the same color as the crosses Uryū sewed onto everything he wore. The only weird thing was the material the clothing was made from. It was a strange kind of mesh, and he instinctively knew it would be incredibly hard to cut.

“Oh, and Kurosaki-kun?” Urahara broke into his self-examination. “You’re not just a Quincy. Which you get from your mother’s side, but that’s a story for another day. As is your relationship to Uryū, through his father and your mother, but that’s really something Isshin should tell you.”

Ichigo snorted. Never gonna happen.

Urahara sighed. “Fine. Please don’t allow this to upset your mental equilibrium, but the truth is that your soul is a true hybrid, a combination of human, Quincy, Shinigami, and hollow. Your fighting style reflects this hybridity and it gives you an advantage over any who are solely any one of those beings.”

Everyone froze. Ichigo looked at Urahara with huge eyes. He was part hollow? Part monster?

‘Yo, King, don’t call me that. It ain’t nice,’ his soul twin’s voice came to him.

His soul twin was a hollow… Oh.

Well, he wasn’t a monster.

‘Thanks. I think.’

Sarcasm. Yeah, that was Mushoku. Ichigo shrugged. “Okay.”

Tatsuki and Chad looked at Ichigo, then Tatsuki grinned and Chad nodded. He smiled at their support, teeth showing, then turned back to Urahara.

“Advantage?”

Urahara gave him a measuring look, then let it go. “Kurosaki-kun, you have an immense amount of Reiryoku, or spiritual pressure. Arisawa-chan and Yasutora-kun have a lesser but still discernable amount. This is the power of your soul, aligned with your sensitivity and your determination. As it rises, the movements of your spiritual body become sharper and faster. In your physical bodies,” he looked around at all three of them, “your speed and strength are impressive. In your soul forms, as you progress in your training and hone your reiryoku, the speed and strength of your fighting will rise accordingly.”

“Stop lecturing and let’s do this,” Ichigo said quietly but firmly. “There’s not much time.”

His instincts were howling at him. They had to go, soon, or it would be too late. A sense of urgency was driving through him.

“If you attack before you are ready, not only will you fail to rescue your friend, but you will be slaughtered like animals,” Urahara told him solemnly.

“We all learn by doing, sensei,” Tatsuki told him. “So let’s get to doing!”

Ichigo manifested his sword, now a matte black with a polished electric blue edge, and Chad clenched his fists, powering up his armor. Tatsuki’s fists began to show flames, and she bounced on the balls of her feet. Urahara put away his fan and picked up his came. Which turned out to be a sword.

What followed was an entire day, with sparse breaks for food and water, of Urahara kicking all their asses while Noba gave pointers and the other two mod souls napped in the artificial sunlight.

They started again the second day, already seeing improvements. Tatsuki was so fast she was practically a blur, while Ichigo was even faster, leaving after-images. Chad wasn’t as fast, but his punches were by far the most powerful. Shortly after mid-day, Ichigo felt a strange surge of power along his spine, and shivered.

The world slowed down.

For the first time, he was able to actually track Urahara’s strikes. Until they stopped, and Urahara stared at him like he was seeing an apparition.

“What?” Ichigo asked, then stopped. His voice sounded like Mushoku. And his face felt strange. He lifted a hand, and found that he was wearing a mask.

Huh.

“Kurosaki-kun?” Urahara sounded like he wasn’t sure Ichigo was still in there.

“S’okay,” Ichigo assured him. “Mushoku and I’ve worked together for years.” Well, maybe not worked together, but certainly sparred together. Talked together. Had come to an understanding in the days following his mom’s death that had only gotten deeper as the years had gone by. Shared a soul since before he even knew it. Was his partner, and while not to be taken lightly, not something to fear. He fought the urge to cackle, and lifted his sword again. The black of the blade was now striated black and white.

It was beautiful.

And fast, very, very fast.

Training changed up after that. The man with the dreadlocks, Tessai, worked intensively with Chad, while a dark-skinned woman with purple hair, introduced as Yoruichi, took over training Tatsuki. By the afternoon of the third day, they began breaking off into teamwork training, then back to individual training, mixing it up. They were working feverishly.

The night after he’d manifested a mask for the first time, Ichigo waited until Chad and Tatsuki were asleep, then slipped into meditation and woke up in his soulscape. This time, the old man wasn’t standing on a pole. He was right there in his face.

Ichigo blinked at him.

“My name is Zangetsu,” the old man intoned. “I am your Zanpakutō.”

Ichigo blinked at him again.

“That means he’s yer sword, King.” Mushoku came up beside him and slung an arm over his shoulder.

His sword. Has a name. He thought his hollow was his sword. So confusing.

Apparently he had not gotten any less insane over the years. He shrugged and said, “Hi.”

The newly-dubbed Zangetsu gave him a look, then drew a sword and tried to cut his head off.

That was familiar. He drew his own, and Mushoku drew his, and they had a lively free-for-all. When they finally collapsed in exhaustion, they talked.

It turned out that, not only was Mushoku a hollow, but Zangetsu was a Quincy. And just as Mushoku had given him gifts – the ability to heal very quickly, frankly incredible speed, and flexibility that had served him well in aikido, kendo, and fighting hollows – so too did Zangetsu have gifts. The ability to tread air, to slow blood from flowing when he was wounded, and even the power to strengthen his skin to the point where it was nearly impenetrable. That, combined with the healing and the mesh-armor of his soul-clothing, made him light, fast, and nearly impossible to hurt even if someone could land a hit on him.

He thanked them. They promised to fight with, and through, him. Then they sparred again, and with every fight, inside his soulscape and outside with the others, he learned. Improved. Honed his skill and polished his natural talents. Driven, all the time, with the sure knowledge that they were running out of time.

On the sixth day after they’d arrived at the Shōten and began their training, Ichigo knocked Urahara’s sword from his hand. They both froze, then Urahara called the spar. Ichigo caught his breath, then straightened from his bow and sheathed his sword across his back.

“We have to go. Now.”

Urahara tried to argue. They weren’t ready, he needed them to train longer. Ichigo pinned him with a look.

“Can you get us there?”

He got a narrow-eyed look in return, but he didn’t back down. Finally, Urahara relented.

“As it so happens, yes, I do have a Senkaimon. It’s a gateway between the worlds. When I open it, you must run very quickly through, or you will be caught between this world and the Soul Society, and be killed.”

Ichigo exchanged looks with Tatsuki and Chad. Yeah, they could run. No problem.

“I’ll be going with you, as your guide,” Yoruichi piped up.

Ichigo nodded thanks, and she smirked at him. “Just try to keep up!”

She wasn’t smirking when he beat her to the other side.

Once she got over staring at Ichigo like he was an alien, she laid out her plan. At first, she just ordered them to follow her. When they stood there and stared at her, she huffed in impatience.

“Come on! I thought you were in a big hurry to rescue your friend.”

Three glares answered her silently, then Tatsuki spoke for all of them. “If you think we’re following you, or anyone else, blindly, think again. Do you have a plan? If so, what is it? If not, then we need to make one. Rushing in blindly…”

“Gets people killed,” Ichigo finished, his voice barely a whisper.

“We’re not your soldiers,” Chad added.

“But you’re the expert in this area, so tell us what you’re planning, and don’t expect us to head in under a cloud of ignorance.”

Yoruichi peered at them, obviously not used to children – or anyone – questioning her. They stared back, obstinately. She scratched her head. Shrugged. Then she laid out her plan. It involved heading out into the Rukongai, or outer reaches of Soul Society, meeting up with friends, waiting at least another day, then making a big splashy entrance to the central city via a huge ball of spiritual energy shot from a cannon that would break the shield overhead and alert every Shinigami in the city that they were being invaded.

“That’s stupid,” Ichigo finally said.

“Insane,” Chad agreed.

“Why don’t we just sneak in?” Tatsuki asked.

So they did.

Yoruichi argued, sulked, and eventually gave way when the three started to leave her behind. They didn’t have time for standing around arguing. Not only would someone eventually see them and report them, ending their infiltration before it began, but Ichigo’s gut was shrieking alarm. Uryū was running out of time. Then she dropped the bomb on them.

After pointing out the way to the city and showing them the a secret entrance she’d used in the past, she informed them, grudgingly since she ‘didn’t want to get them all worked up,’ that her intel had gotten chatter about a new exotic brought from the World of the Living to the 12th division.

The division that did experiments on people, apparently.

Their captain, who sounded like a nightmare, was called Kurotsuchi. He was very excited to get ‘another branch from the same tree – only this one isn’t old, dried up, and dead, so he’s much more interesting to work with.’

Chad and Tatsuki barely managed to hold Ichigo back from tearing straight through the main gates of the Seireitei and killing them all.

~

Since they didn’t make the aforementioned ridiculously flashy entrance, the gates were busy with the usual traffic. The Shinigami weren’t on high alert. They mingled with the crowd until they could flash over to the entrance to the underground tunnel that led beneath the wall. A short person dressed like a ninja, nothing but her eyes showing, met them there. She bowed to Yoruichi, was given a hug in return, and the three soon followed them down into the sewers.

It stank, but it was secure.

Shortly inside, the ninja woman disappeared, and Yoruichi led them through a maze of tunnels until they stopped directly below the 12th division. The stench was worse there, and Ichigo wondered what kind of crap they were running down the drains to pollute it so much, then shook off the distraction and led his friends, old and new, up through a manhole and into an unused alley behind a building that looked just exactly like every other building around them.

It was a good thing they’d had a guide or they never would have found it.

Moving like shadows, they clung to the walls, then one by one slipped into the dark, echoing cavern that was the main building of the Research and Development division. Ichigo thought it looked like a set from an old horror movie, complete with the cobwebs in the corners and the smell of blood catching at the back of his throat. Strange noises echoed, nicely covering any sound they made as they crept toward the center of the building.

Where the laboratories were.

There were massive computers that looked like they were from the 1950s everywhere, which gave them cover to hide behind as they snuck in. There were also shelves with jars of what looked like body parts suspended in clear, green, blue, and light red fluids. It was disgusting. A few times they caught sight of oddly deformed Shinigami in white lab coats. Some had more eyes than they should, some more arms, none of them had normal skin colors, and some even had horns.

By the time they made it to the labs Ichigo wasn’t sure if he wanted to puke or burn the place down. From the expressions on Tatsuki and Chad’s faces, they were thinking along the same lines. Then he heard muttering in a happy tone from a room to their right. Followed by a scream.

A scream he recognized from a few times Uryū had been badly injured by hollows, though never as full of terror and pain as it was now.

Chad broke through the wall with his armored fist literally an instant before Ichigo plowed through, Tatsuki at his heels. None of them noticed that Yoruichi didn’t follow until it was all over.

Uryū was strapped to a table, surrounded by deformed Shinigami who were holding various instruments of torture. Leading them was a painted freak who was cackling worse than Mushoku and digging into Uryū’s abdomen with what looked like a power drill. A very large power drill. Blood was spattered on all of them, and puddling on the floor.

The worst part? Uryū was wide awake.

Ichigo was a blur. Tatsuki and Chad were right behind him.

A scientist with four arms found himself nothing but a torso, bleeding out under a shelf on the far side of the lab as Tatsuki landed on him like a whirlwind. Two others, one with horns and another who looked like an egg with spindly limbs, found themselves flung against the walls, in paste form, as Chad descended on them.

Ichigo took the leader head-on. He looked like a hollow, with a black and white skull face and sideways horns. Ichigo treated him exactly like one. He grabbed the drill, yanking it out of Uryū’s body with a precision movement, while wrapping his other arm around the animal’s face, ignoring the face paint that smeared on his clothing, and at the same time using his legs to propel them both away from the table.

Away from Uryū.

Tatsuki immediately started first aid, ripping the straps off Uryū’s arms and having him hold bandages against the deepest of the wounds while Chad ripped off the other restraints and pounded anyone who came near the table into mulch with his armored right fist. Meanwhile, Ichigo was trying to contain the leader, who was apparently part octopus, because he moved like he had no bones.

So Ichigo treated him like the worm he was. His Zanpakutō served to pin the bastard to the floor, then Ichigo used every bit of force he could bring up to stomp on the head with both feet.

He sank nearly eight inches into the ground. Blood, other fluids and sticky chunks of brain and bone, covered his feet to nearly his ankle. It was incredibly disgusting, but it worked.

Alarms were going off now, and screams were coming from everywhere except the lab, where the aftermath of the fight left them in eerie silence. Ichigo grabbed his sword in one hand and ran to Uryū’s side, gently pushing sweaty hair away from a pale face with the other. Uryū was wild-eyed, but keeping a lid on his hysteria, and Ichigo nodded once in approval. They stepped back for Chad to gather Uryū up in his arms. Tatsuki checked the makeshift bandages, then they headed out. Ichigo took the lead, Chad with Uryū in the center, then Tatsuki covering their backs.

That’s when they noticed Yoruichi, in the next room near a small side door. She waved them over and they ran as fast as they could.

Which was fast enough she had to hurry to catch up.

Once she was in the lead, she took them down a different path than the one they’d taken to get in. It was shorter, and led them to an anteroom, where their luck seemed to run out.

A short brunet with big eyes was bandaging one of the scientist Shinigami that Ichigo had run over on his way into the lab. As soon as the Shinigami saw Ichigo, he fainted, leaving the medic looking confused. Then he saw Uryū, bleeding and nearly dead, and completely ignoring the blood-covered warriors surrounding him, he immediately went over and started to heal him.

Ichigo stared at him in confusion.

“Hello,” the medic said, not looking up from the bandages he was cutting through nor letting up on the healing green energy he was directing toward the gaping wound in Uryū’s gut. “My name is Hanatarō Yamada, from the fourth division. Your friend is badly injured, but whoever did the triage work on him saved his life. Excellent job! He’ll need a few days rest to replenish the blood he lost, and you should keep him warm, make sure he drinks plenty of fluids, and watch for any swelling or discoloration in the wound areas. Make sure that he doesn’t over-exert himself, and come see a healer if he shows any seepage from the area or if his pain doesn’t decrease within the next one to three days. There!” He stepped back and smiled at the newly-knit skin. “That should do it.”

Then he looked up, saw that he was surrounded by the invaders who’d damaged everyone else he’d been working on since he responded to the call for an emergency healer, and passed out cold.

Ichigo caught him before he hit the pavement and gently laid him down. “Thanks,” he muttered sincerely, even if the little healer couldn’t hear him.

“I will be sure to relay your gratitude to Third Seat Yamada when he regains consciousness,” a light soprano voice came to them from the corner of the room, surrounded by Shinigami scientists in various degrees of bandage-mummification. A beautiful girl in a very short skirt with a completely calm face stared at them, her hands clasped in front of her.

“Err, thanks?” Ichigo asked, tossing Chad and Tatsuki questioning glances. From the clueless looks he got back, they had no idea what to think of her, either.

“You have my thanks as well, Lieutenant Kurotsuchi,” Yoruichi added, making Tatsuki jolt in shock.

“Wait, isn’t that the same name as the scientist guy who was cutting up Uryū?”

That brought a pained sound from Uryū and confusion from Ichigo, who sucked at remembering names at the best of times.

“Then why aren’t you attacking us?” Tatsuki asked, bringing her fists up, flames licking at her knuckles.

Ichigo steadied his sword, but all the lieutenant did was lower her head in a respectful bow, then lift her eyes to meet Ichigo’s.

“Captain Kurotsuchi was my creator.”

She sounded like a robot. Ichigo looked closer. Oh, god. She WAS a robot. A sexy one, with the legs and the boobs and the… but still, a robot!

“But he is dead. Vengeance is a human concept, and not one to which I ascribe. He was also working outside the parameters of the mission, and against the stated long-standing orders of the Gotei 13 against experimentation on living sentient subjects. As such, I cannot defend his actions. I am also currently in command of this division, which is in disarray and demands my attention.” She bowed politely once more, then stepped aside and let them see another door.

“If you continue along this path for fourteen meters, then take the path that leads to the left on a thirty degree angle, it will take you beyond the walls surrounding the Seireitei. Approximately twelve hundred eleven point six one meters past that, the path curves up to reach the surface of an unpopulated area of the Second District of the Rukongai. From there you may make your escape. This is an unauthorized emergency exit for the captain and lieutenant of the twelfth division only.” She paused, then dipped her head again. “And, of course, any guests the acting captain should decide to make aware of it.”

“Thank you,” Ichigo bowed to her, then blasted past her, his rescue group in tight formation behind him.

Echoing for a moment, he heard a gentle, “You are quite welcome, Ichigo Kurosaki,” behind him.

The tunnel went exactly where the nice robot woman had told them, and they came out to sunlight and trees. It was not, however, uninhabited.

A huge man with enough spiritual pressure to make the air thick and heavy stood in front of them. He looked like an escapee from a pirate ship, with his black hair done up in spikes topped by bells, of all things, and an eyepatch over one eye. He held a ragged-edged sword up and roared a challenge at them as they bolted out of the tunnel.

The tiny pink-haired girl clinging to his shoulder just added an air of unreality, or perhaps idiocy, to the dangerous situation.

Ichigo brought his sword up with his right hand, then gestured with his left. Chad and Yoruichi edged around them, but the pink-haired girl suddenly bounced off the pirate’s shoulder and stood in their way, her own sword in her hand. For all her lack of height, there was something chilling about her eyes.

They didn’t have TIME for this. Hanatarō did a good job of healing Uryū, but he was still in shock and under stress, and they needed to get OUT of there.

Fuck it, Ichigo thought, then sheathed his sword. Ignoring the pirate ranting about wanting to have a great fight and killing each other, Ichigo fell back on pure aikido. When the pirate attacked, Ichigo flowed around him. One hand redirected the crushing blow, leaving the blade buried halfway in the ground, while Ichigo ducked and slid with the move, ending up behind Kenpachi. With a little leap to equalize their heights, he had his arm around the pirate’s neck and used the man’s own weight against him. They toppled together, the pirate helplessly pawing at the elbow crushing his throat, as Ichigo choked him out.

“That wasn’t much of a fight,” the little girl squeaked, sounding disapproving.

Ichigo disentangled himself from the now-unconscious pirate, and stepped back over to his friends. “People who fight to the death for fun are stupid.”

Then he left her there, staring at him with her mouth hanging open, as the five picked up the pace and headed back out into the depths of the Rukongai, where Urahara’s Senkaimon was waiting.

~

“He’s got a point, there,” Shunsui Kyōraku looked at the screens monitoring the exit from the command room of the 12th division. He and Jūshirō Ukitake were there with Nemu, who had just finished her briefing of the events of the morning.

As she had been ordered by her captain not to tell anyone of the unsanctioned experimentation on the Quincy, they didn’t hold her responsible for it. They also didn’t punish her for letting the invaders escape. As far as they could see, the boys, girl, and Yoruichi, had simply come in, retrieved their friend, and run away again, with the least damage they could cause.

The stomped state of the late captain and the maiming of his support staff in the lab were considered sufficient punishment for Kurotsuchi disobeying orders. At least old man Yamamoto wouldn’t have to give execution orders. Looking at it from that perspective, the invaders had simply done the Shinigamis’ job for them. When he explained it to Jūshirō that way, he got a skeptical eyebrow, but no argument.

He loved his best friend.

With that tacit approval, he simply reached over and turned off the monitors after Yachiru picked up Kenpachi’s unconscious body and headed back to the 11th division. The two old friends agreed without saying a word that nobody needed to know about Yoruichi’s participation in the raid. After all, she hadn’t killed anyone, or even hurt them. And it wasn’t like they could catch her, anyway.

Jūshirō’s report was a masterpiece of creative writing with just enough facts to keep the brass off their asses.

It helped, sadly, that the attention of the Gotei 13 was distracted by much larger events than the justified death of the most despised captain in the court.

~

At the Kuchiki compound, treason was afoot.

Rukia Kuchiki had been feeling exhausted since her return from the Living World. Captain Unohana, unable to find a cause, sent her home to rest and recover.

Sōsuke Aizen found her there.

He, along with his fellow traitor Tōsen, had come to the main building of the compound under the pretense of visiting Byakuya. Instead, they took a detour to the heir’s quarters. Rukia, knowing them both as respected captains, was confused by their appearance, but politely let them in.

Tōsen watched the door as Aizen knocked Rukia unconscious, then reached into her soul to extract the Hōgyoku .

It was bad luck in timing that led Renji to Rukia’s door as this was happening. He saw through the window that Aizen was putting his hand INTO Rukia’s chest, and screamed his alarm as he burst through the door to help his old friend.

Tōsen gutted him before he could reach her.

Aizen was forced to be much less delicate than he would have liked, and wrenched the Hōgyoku from its resting place, disrupting Rukia’s spiritual pressure to the point that her system ruptured, and she died before he was finished. He tossed the girl’s corpse over on top of Renji’s, friends joined once more in death, then turned to go.

However, Byakuya was also in the compound that morning, and heard his lieutenant’s cry. Moving swiftly, he arrived in time to witness Aizen murder his sister. His eyes widened and he hissed, “Scatter, Senbonzakura!” only to be met, not by Aizen, but by Kaname Tōsen.

The battle that followed destroyed most of the building and drew the attention of the compound guards. Due to the disturbance at the 12th, the response from the surrounding Shinigami was delayed. By the time support arrived, Byakuya had managed to severely wound Tōsen, but the traitors had a snake for backup. Ichimaru flanked Byakuya and cut him down in turn, as Aizen secured the Hōgyoku and made for the courtyard to escape. Byakuya was barely breathing when the emergency medic arrived at his side.

Once in the open area, a cone of light surrounded Aizen, Tōsen, and Ichimaru, as a Negación took them from Soul Society into Hueco Mundo. On the ground, helplessly watching through the shattered wall, Byakuya heard the three conversing as if they were sitting over morning tea.

“It didn’t go completely to plan, but I’m willing to play, even as the game changes.” Aizen sounded amused.

As he finally allowed himself to give in to the darkness taking over his vision, Byakuya Kuchiki vowed on the honor of his clan that he would wreak vengeance for the murders of his sister and his lieutenant.

When he awoke two days later in a private room at the 4th division, that was the foremost thought on his mind. Everything else fell by the wayside, and he was willing to work with anyone he had to in order to destroy those who had destroyed his pride.

~

Ichigo led the charge back home through the Senkaimon, to find Uryū’s dad and his own father there waiting with Urahara. Not taking the time to question his dad, knowing he wouldn’t get any sensible answers even if he did, he ignored him and moved aside so Chad could rush up with Uryū in his arms.

The next few hours were a little confusing, as the exhaustion set in. Uryū was settled in a bed at Ryūken’s hospital, and as soon as Ichigo, Chad and Tatsuki got back in their human bodies, they were at his side.

Ichigo tried not to think about the muck of brains and blood on his spiritual feet. Hopefully if he had to pop back out of his body again, they’d be clean.

Then he remembered stomping a man’s head flat, and headed for the bathroom at a run so he could puke in peace.

Tatsuki joined him a moment later, ignoring the fact that they were in the men’s room.

“You okay, there, Ichigo, or is that a stupid question?”

He gave her a watery stare, then ducked back over the toilet.

“I know you probably don’t want to hear this right now. I probably don’t have any business saying it. But I have to.” She took a deep breath. “Thank you for doing what had to be done to bring Uryū back alive, and to stop that creature from ever coming after him again. Because you know if you’d left him alive, he would. If you hadn’t killed him, Uryū would never be safe.”

“She’s right,” came Ryūken’s voice from the doorway. He walked a few steps into the room, staring from the girl propped against the sinks goggling at him to the miserable boy hunched over the toilet. “You are too young to have to kill anyone. Or do any of the insane fighting you do. But you saved my son’s life, and ensured his security, and for that I am grateful.”

Then he turned on his heel and walked out of the room before either had a chance to say a word.

Eventually, Tatsuki got some paper towels and ran cold water on them, then handed them to Ichigo, who staggered a little as he got to his feet. He wiped his face, then wandered to the sink and washed out his mouth, splashing more water on his face. Catching sight of his expression in the mirror, he was honestly shocked at how old he looked.

“It’s going to be okay, Ichigo,” Tatsuki told him softly.

He tried to believe her.

~

The Fall term started and brought with it a strange new student. The tall, skinny, bottle-blond guy with the pageboy haircut and the picket-fence teeth freaked Ichigo out the first time he saw him.

Probably because the new guy, Shin-something, wouldn’t stop staring at him. There was something… predatory in his eyes.

Ichigo might have told him to back off, because he didn’t swing that way, but recent urges he got around Uryū ever since they brought him back from Soul Society gave lie to that defense. So instead, he watched the new guy back just as hard as he was being watched. This seemed to meet Shin-whatever’s approval, not really what he intended.

Then Shin-whoever started following him on hollow hunts.

It was bad enough that the beady-eyed bastard dismissed Chad and Tatsuki, but when he looked at Uryū like he was something to be scraped off the bottom of his shoe, Ichigo very nearly punched his face in. Only reminding himself that he who struck first, lost, that he respected his friends’ ability to defend themselves if needed, and that he may not start any fights, but if Shin-whosit started one, he’d finish it, kept him calm.

That, and a whole lot of meditation with Old Man Zangetsu, and a whole lot of free-for-all sparring with Zan and Mushoku.

At least it kept him calm enough to train with Uryū, Chad and Tatsuki when they weren’t off killing monsters and he wasn’t busy blessing souls up to heaven. The healing little Hanatarō did was a great start, but Ryūken still had to do follow-up surgery – soul techniques weren’t very compatible with physical bodies – and Uryū needed work to heal the damage Kurotsuchi had done.

Things were hanging in an uneasy balance, with Ichigo simply living his life and keeping his eyes open while watching over his friends, when some midget girl with blonde pigtails ambushed him from an alley and tried to knock his head off with her shoe.

Now, given that he’d been fighting partners with Tatsuki since he was five, he didn’t believe in the bullshit about not fighting back against girls who were obviously ass-kickers. Still, he reacted as he always did to an unprovoked attack.

He used her movements against her and planted her face-first into the concrete.

Shin-grin came out of the shadows and tapped his foot, crossing his arms over his chest like a pissy schoolgirl and glaring at them both.

The blonde girl tried to yell but her words were muffled by the sidewalk. The blond boy babbled something about Ichigo being part of his tribe or some such shit. Then he tried to knock Ichigo off the girl.

Which ended with both of them balled up on the ground at Ichigo’s feet with ‘what the hell just happened?’ written all over their faces. So, really, the usual.

Ichigo turned and began to walk away, then a weird flying girl with green hair came out of absolutely nowhere and kicked him into the wall.

When he dug himself out of the broken bricks, there was a riot in progress. A big boxer with white hair was having his ass handed to him by Tatsuki, while Uryū and the green-haired girl swirled around one another in aerial combat like the personifications of jet fighters. A tall, pretty guy with long wavy hair and a guy in a track suit with an afro shaped like a star were fighting Chad – it was a pretty even match-up. A round guy in a suit with vibrant pink hair seemed to be holding some kind of shield up, and none of the pedestrians outside the alley noticed anything happening in the fight, so it must be some kind of kidō, like Urahara was trying to teach them.

Ichigo sucked at it because, even with all the work he and Uryū had done to calm the chaos of his spiritual power, it was still pretty immense. And leaky.

The pink guy looked like he was doing a good job, though it kept him out of the fight.

Waiting for Ichigo as he clambered to his feet were the blond, the blonde, and a cutie in a sailor suit that he’d totally go for if he swung that way.

Then they attacked.

Wearing hollow masks.

Okay. If trying to hurt his friends didn’t already mark them as enemies, this did. As far as he knew, he was the only human-hollow-Shinigami-Quincy-kitchen sink hybrid around. Apparently these guys were part hollow… and they were attacking humans.

ICHIGO’s humans.

Mushoku came out to play.

The fight didn’t last long after that. Chad, Tatsuki, and Uryū had all trained with him when he went hollow, and they knew how to support without getting in the way. That showed in the way they scattered from their fights and took up a perimeter, front, back, and above. Ichigo gave a little laugh with an echo to it, allowed his usual feral fighting smile to expand into batshit-crazy territory, and partnered with his hollow to show the idiots how it was done.

None of them had any idea how to counter aikido. They kept expecting him to duel them, and when he didn’t bother bringing out his blade, they grouped together and jumped on him. Only to immediately find themselves used as shields and taking each other’s hits, while Ichigo pressed a wrist here, a knee there, took one out with a chokehold, put four more down at the same time in one swirling move. They kept getting up, he kept putting them down. With his mask on, he was even faster and stronger than ever.

Plus, admittedly, the psychological advantages of gold and black crazy eyes, a constant high-pitched cackle, and the sheer creepiness of his masked appearance helped.

They started getting up more slowly and staying down for longer periods of time. The guy with the afro was the first to stay down. The green-haired girl was the next, when Ichigo knocked her out of the sky and plowed her into the ground using her own kinetic energy against her one too many times. He was momentarily distracted by the Brahms coming from the tall guy with the long hair – he liked Brahms – but he shook it off. The musician was the third to fall and not get up.

He used the sailor girl as a shield against the boxer, and that knocked her unconscious. It also pissed off the boxer, and Ichigo used that to his advantage and sent him face-first through the pavement for several feet, finally putting him out. Meanwhile, Chad was bouncing the pig-tailed blonde like a basketball with his armored hands until she got too dizzy to keep fighting. Tatsuki harried Shin-who and kept him out of the fighting although he appeared to almost be humoring her, too distracted watching Ichigo.

In less than ten minutes, the entire gang was either unconscious or groaning and unable to keep fighting. Ichigo calmly wiped his mask away, silently thanking Mushoku for his help. One last cackle, and his eyes faded back to their natural warm brown.

Not that it was warm at the moment. Ice was practically forming on his eyelashes as he glared at Shin-whoever.

“Talk,” he commanded.

Shin-teeth did.

The history lesson was a little boring, as most of it didn’t pertain to Ichigo and his friends, and frankly, he didn’t care. What he got out of it was that some dick called Aizen had used some magic rock to crack their souls and infect them with hollows. The Soul Society government had then proved both incompetent and bigoted, and tossed all of them, plus Urahara and Tessai, out of heaven into exile in the Living World.

“Why would I care?” Ichigo finally asked.

“Because you are one of us,” Shin-whoever proclaimed.

Ichigo looked at him like he was nuts, because he was. “My inner hollow is part of my soul, not some kind of weird graft. We’re fine. Thanks. Go away.”

Shin-whosit tried to rush him, and Chad punched him in the face.

Pinky dropped the barrier, by necessity, when Ichigo plowed right through it, his friends beside and above him. To his relief, Shin-whatever didn’t come back to class. He still got that creepy feeling he was being watched, but as long as they left him alone, he wouldn’t have to plant them all in the ground again. It was not bad training, but still kind of a pain in the ass.

The next afternoon at the Shōten, Ichigo waited for a break in training. When Urahara tossed him a water bottle, he drank half of it, then capped it and stared solemnly at the exiled Shinigami shopkeeper trainer stalker person. Urahara looked away shiftily, then sighed.

“So. You’ve met the Visored, then.”

Ichigo raised an eyebrow.

“The Shinigami Aizen infected against their will with hollow energy who were then exiled here. Friends of mine, in a way.” He peered at Ichigo from under his hat, judging his reaction. “Nice job in taking them all down, by the way. I believe they’ve been getting a little slack in their training. The time may come, quite soon in fact, when they are forced to face their nemesis. It won’t do for them to be rusty. Your reaction to their invitation to join them was precisely the wake-up call they needed.”

“Invitation?” More like a gang beat-down that failed dismally, but whatever.

“Well, they don’t get out much,” Urahara demurred. “It would do them good, and you as well, if you and your nakama dropped in to train with them. Keep them sharp, and give you a different style of opponent against whom to train.”

That sounded like a good idea. Ichigo shrugged, drained his water bottle, and got back to work. Not his problem, as long as they kept their distance. He’d bring it up with the others, and if they agreed, they’d head over to the Visoreds’ place and spar with them.

Urahara fidgeted like he wanted to add something, but eventually he shook his head and wandered over to work with Chad for a while. Ichigo wondered what that was all about, and decided to keep his eye on his trainer. There was something going on there, some kind of guilt, and a hint of despair.

~

As it turned out, the hollow Shinigami weren’t the worst of his worries, and he didn’t have time to find out what was bothering Urahara. More beings who didn’t belong in the world of the living invaded, and this time, they left death in their wake.

Tatsuki and Chad were fighting a small pack of hollows in a park early one Saturday morning, as Ichigo and Uryū tag-teamed a much larger monster over near the river. Ichigo had just finished breaking the hollow’s mask, when Uryū nearly tumbled from the sky. Ichigo caught him, trying not to be distracted by how good it felt to have his best friend in his arms.

Uryū broke him out of his increasingly naughty thoughts with a harsh, “What the hell is THAT?”

That, as it turned out, was a ragged tear in the sky. Directly over the park where Chad and Tatsuki were fighting. Then a wave of oppressive spiritual pressure hit them, so strong it rattled their bones. Wide brown eyes met narrowed blue, and in tandem they streaked through the air toward their friends.

They were too late.

Tatsuki was sprawled in a heap on the grass, one arm obviously broken. She was unconscious, but still breathing. They were running toward her when they heard a scream of pain and rage. Uryū gestured for Ichigo to go forward, then he caught Tatsuki up and carefully, quickly, pulled her back to cover behind some trees. Then he rushed forward to back up Ichigo and Chad.

A huge hollow in human form, at least fifteen feet tall, had clenched its fists around Chad and squeezed him until his armor cracked. Chad bellowed, then choked, as blood gushed from his mouth and leaked from cracks everywhere in his armor. His head fell forward as his body stilled.

In that moment, for the space of a heartbeat, the world stopped.

Then the hollow made a derisive sound and threw Chad’s body away, looking around for his next victim. Chad landed with his limbs splayed, open eyes staring sightlessly up at the sky. There was no movement of his chest, as he was no longer breathing.

A large black butterfly formed above him, then swirled on the wind, up into the sky, to disappear into the sunlight.

A much shorter hollow with green streaks on his face and half a horned helmet on his head watched apathetically, murmuring something about trash.

Ichigo took a breath, and the world starting moving again. His sword was in his hand, his mouth was open in a silent scream, and he moved so quickly he left afterimages. The big hollow had even less chance than he’d given Chad. Cutting him was like cutting through iron, but Ichigo was fighting in a pure state of rage, supplemented by the tactical genius of Zangetsu and the homicidal instincts of Mushoku. His cleaver sliced through the murderous hollow smoothly, powered by the pain in Ichigo’s heart and the sure strength of every part of his soul.

The big hollow was trying to bat at Ichigo, but his right arm was sliced off at the shoulder. As he was shrieking, Ichigo came in low and gutted him. Then as he tried to hold his guts in with his left hand, Ichigo came in from behind and hamstrung him. Before his body hit the ground, Ichigo’s fourth and final strike beheaded him.

The smaller hollow had tried to intervene, but Ichigo was moving too quickly. In addition, Uryū was moving as fast as he could, shooting barrages of arrows at him from different angles, succeeding in keeping him out of the fight.

The assorted pieces of the big hollow falling to the ground, literally seconds after Ichigo first engaged him, provoked a new response from the green-eyed hollow. A pale hand came up, forefinger spearing out, and a translucent green ball gathered at the tip.

“I have wasted enough time with you trash,” the surviving hollow said, his voice a dull monotone that matched his stoic expression and dead eyes. Then the ball of light flew from his hand toward Ichigo and nearly tore him to pieces when it exploded.

Through a pale green haze, crumpled next to a boulder that had shattered when he hit it, Ichigo stared up at Uryū shooting so many arrows it looked like a sparkling blue curtain. It still wasn’t enough. He wanted to tell him to retreat, to get the hell out of there, to save himself, but he couldn’t say a word. He was completely exhausted, and his insides felt like he’d swallowed broken glass. All he could do was lie there and watch, refusing to turn away no matter what happened.

Then a red shield sprang into place just as Uryū fell from the sky, at the end of his strength. The last thing Ichigo saw before he finally passed out was the green-eyed hollow gathering up the pieces of the big hollow. He then tapped another crack in the sky and walking away without so much as a single glance back.

War had come to Karakura, and claimed its first casualty.

~

A handful of people had died at the park, a couple families with small children who had been playing, a few courting couples, an older man sketching the trees. And Chad.

Chad was the last of his family by blood, but had more friends than he’d ever realized in life. Urahara and Isshin had pitched in to pay for the funeral, and while Uryū hadn’t said it directly, he implied that Ryūken had as well. Unlike Orihime’s funeral, when her aunt had swooped in and taken her away, the friends were able to say their goodbyes surrounded by classmates, musicians Chad had played with in various garage bands since he came to Karakura, and people from his apartment building he’d quietly helped with small handyman jobs or carrying heavy groceries over the years.

Several days after his funeral, Ichigo found himself lingering at Chad’s tombstone, telling him of the hollows he, Uryū and Tatsuki had killed that day. He touched the coin now hanging around his neck, and vowed to carry on with protecting those who were unable to protect themselves.

“Your abuelo must have been so proud of you,” Uryū’s voice came from behind him, speaking Ichigo’s thoughts aloud as he so often did.

“I hope you meet each other in Soul Society,” Tatsuki added quietly.

“Take up the good fight there.” Ichigo bowed respectfully, thanking his big friend for having his back for so long.

He made a vow, not of vengeance, but of determination that no one else would end as Chad had, not while he had breath left in his body to protect them. Outsiders had no right to the land of the living, whether they were the size of buildings and looked like animals or his size and looked like humans. Hollow or Shinigami, if they came to his town and hurt his people, he would stop them.

His resolve was tested that very night.

Taking a walk to clear his head, trying to decide if he should actually ask Uryū out, wondering if he should ask Tatsuki for advice, wishing Chad were there, Ichigo felt a huge spiritual pressure shatter over Karakura. It split into a half dozen different directions.

One landed right in front of Ichigo.

It was another hollow that looked like a tall, very muscular human, if you ignore the bright blue hair and face markings, and the piece of jawbone stuck to his face. Oh, and the hole through his torso. Ichigo didn’t have much time to look, as with a wild grin and a wilder war cry the hollow attacked.

He met it with his own inimitable style, making himself part of the motion, turning it against the force of the attack against the attacker. Blue-hair hit the ground so hard the pavement shattered and he was buried a few inches into the surface.

“The fuck?” mumbled the hollow into the ground.

“You want something?” Ichigo asked him, then hopped on his back to keep him down when he started to rise.

“To kill you!” All that muscle wasn’t for show, as he managed to buck Ichigo off and spin around to attack him again. Ichigo came up under the sword strike, close enough to see those sky blue eyes widen in shock, then wrapped a loose hand around the hollow’s elbow, another around his hip, and tossed him right back down on his belly. Again.

“Why?” he asked seriously.

The hollow dug himself out of the new hole he’d made with his face, and howled as he threw himself at Ichigo. “It is why we live! To prove who’s strongest! To be the king!”

‘What a clown. Kick his ass, King.’

Much as he’d like to follow Mushoku’s advice, he had friends in trouble and no time to get into a prolonged kendo match. This time when he put the hollow down, he put him down so hard his face cracked the curb. He was still trying to dig himself out of the broken concrete when Ichigo muttered, “Anyone who defines his life by killing others is sick.”

Then Ichigo sighed, kicked the hollow in the head to knock him unconscious, and stole his sword. The hilt felt unfriendly, like cat fur when you rub it the wrong way. He chucked it down the nearest manhole into the sewer and sped to where his friends were battling, to back them up.

Tatsuki was moving so fast she was letting off sparks, and Uryū was zipping around like some kind of lethal firefly, arrows coming from everywhere. There were five hollows, a fat guy with half his face covered in bone, a tall red-headed guy, and three skinny guys with different bone helmets. They all had swords, and they were good enough with them to be giving his friends a tough time.

Ichigo barreled into them like an ice plow after a heavy winter storm. Bodies went flying everywhere, and it ended as it often did, with Ichigo and Tatsuki back-to-back and Uryū providing air support to weaken their foes. Ichigo pulled out Zangetsu, and his eyes turned bright gold as Mushoku joined the fight.

Even going full out, they were losing, because while each hollow was strong on its own, they were extremely good at hunting as a pack. Unlike the hollow packs they’d fought before, these five were very coordinated. Ichigo couldn’t keep them down long enough to take the pressure off Tatsuki, her punches weren’t doing enough damage, and Uryū was having a horrible time trying to get a clear shot.

For once, the Shinigami actually showed up and did their job.

Five showed up, a short guy with a shock of white hair that called out an ice dragon, a woman whose skill was more than one would expect given how she was falling out of her neckline, a bald guy who cackled louder than Mushoku, a pretty guy with feathers pasted to his face for some weird reason… and the bastard who’d kidnapped Uryū.

If he hadn’t had his hands full trying to keep Tatsuki’s back covered, Ichigo might have foregone his normal refusal to strike the first blow, and cut that fucker’s head off.

As it was, the Shinigami were just as strange as the hollows, and instead of coordinating their attacks, they each peeled one off and fought an individual duel. It wasn’t the most intelligent way to fight small-unit combat, but at least it was a distraction.

Most of them were doing okay, but the big-breasted woman was losing against the fat guy with the half-mask, so Tatsuki teamed up with her to take him down. The pretty feathered guy was holding back, stupid against fighters of this caliber, and drawing the fight out – and losing. Ichigo slid in, hit a couple pressure points, and the hollow dropped his sword. The pretty guy gave him an appreciative look, either for the help or because he was a natural flirt, and in moments, all the hollows were defeated.

The five Shinigami watched the hollow dust ascend, then Ichigo planted himself between Uryū, now standing on the ground, and the Shinigami. Tatsuki stood beside him, fists flaming.

“Try to take him again and we will kill every last one of you,” she threatened.

Ichigo stared directly at the kidnapper, letting his own killing intent shine from his eyes.

“We are not interested in the Quincy,” the bastard said, turning his back on all of them.

“Thank you for your assistance,” the short guy added. “Our work here is done.”

The pretty guy winked at him. Ichigo’s smile slipped from feral to confused. Then the gang of Shinigami melted back into the shadows.

He kept a close eye on their surroundings as he walked first Uryū then Tatsuki home. He didn’t trust them. Any of them. At all.

None of them noticed the small crack in the sky directly above the fight, nor the dull green eyes watching until the end.

~

Ulquiorra stared down at the corpses before they disintegrated. Aizen-sama would need to know. Tōsen-san would not need to retrieve anyone, as there was no one left to retrieve.

~

Knee deep in filthy water beneath the streets of Karakura, Grimmjow peered through the murk for Pantera. He could hear his sword yowling at him in humiliation and disgust. He was going to find it, clean it – thoroughly – then stay in this shit town until he found that orange headed punk again, and he was going to cut him into very small pieces then piss on them.

If he could ever catch the slippery fucker.

And find his poor, abused sword.

~

A few weeks passed, and nothing of note happened. There seemed to be a few more hollows around than normal, but they didn’t see any more of the man-shaped hollows. They also didn’t see any more of the Shinigami, so, as usual, the three friends spent their evenings protecting Karakura, killing hollows, and Ichigo blessed souls. All the things Shinigami would do, if they ever did their job in the Living World.

Ichigo wasn’t holding his breath on that ever happening.

~

A month after Grimmjow’s ill-fated journey to the World of the Living to prove his manhood, Aizen called Starrk from his beloved nap and gave him orders.

“The hybrid Ichigo Kurosaki is, in a way, one of my greatest experiments. It is time to retrieve him. You will bring him here to Las Noches, where he will take his rightful place under my command. Or die. Go now, Primera, and return quickly.”

Starrk held in a sigh, bowed respectfully whether he felt that way or not – it was simply too much trouble to cause trouble – and meandered out onto the sands to open a garganta. Lilynette was beside him, pestering him and bouncing around with her normal energy, and he was tired already.

Stepping out into quiet, dark streets, he sniffed out the largest source of reiatsu around, and made his way toward it.

Then Grimmjow, who he’d thought dead, popped up in front of him. Starrk flinched, and Lilynette gagged.

“Oh my GOD, what is WRONG with you? Do you NEVER take a bath?” she screamed.

Starrk flinched again. Grimmjow smelled like waste water, and his uniform was stained in several places. What had they done to him?

With an insane snarl, he flung himself at Starrk. Starrk sighed. Raised his spiritual pressure and directed it at the pissy cat. Grimmjow fell to his knees, eyes wild with rage, and Lilynette punched him in the face, knocking him unconscious.

“We must remember where he fell, so we can take him with us to Hueco Mundo upon our return,” Starrk mused, then stepped over the unconscious body and continued on his way. Lilynette pranced beside him, still waving the befouled air away from her nose with exaggerated movements.

Neither of them noticed Grimmjow blearily pull himself to a crawl, then accidentally fall right back down through the open manhole into the sewers. Nor did they hear the muffled scream of despair that ended in a gurgle.

Starrk compressed his spiritual pressure as Gin Ichimaru had taught him, until he gave off no more presence than a ghost. It was what allowed him to be around other hollows without them immediately dying from his strength. It was also what Aizen promised him, but had not given him… rather, he had collared him, like an animal.

Gin had stepped forward, eventually, and taught him the techniques that allowed him to remove the hated collar. Still, Aizen was strong, and like any other defeated warrior at the feet of a successful invader, Starrk would follow him until he found something better to do… far enough away that Aizen wouldn’t kill him, or more to the point, hurt Lilynette in order to control him.

He shook off the depressing thoughts, longed for a nap for a bare moment, then continued on with his mission.

They eventually stopped at a derelict building with an impressive kidō barrier around it. Starrk paused to admire it, one hand on Lilynette’s shoulder to stop her from running into the situation blind. He then carefully slid between the warning and blinding shields, wandering into the open space, much more alert than he appeared. Lilynette, quiet for once, followed him closely.

He could hear the sounds of battle, not intense, but training. Swords clashed, bodies tumbled, grunts and cries and challenges. It felt like a more friendly and less lethal version of the arena at Las Noches. He paused in the shadows, keen grey eyes watching the activity.

There were eight strange arrancar-type beings, only predominantly Shinigami rather than hollow, with no bone fragments and no holes. There were two humans with the flavor of hollows in their spiritual pressure.

And there was his target.

Given the number of opponents, his preference would be to wait until the hybrid was alone and take him then. But reports from Ulquiorra and Gin, watching via spy cameras over Karakura, were that the boy ran in a pack. Catching him on his own would take time Aizen was not giving him.

‘Quickly,’ in Aizen-speak, meant ‘now.’ After the loss of Yammy, the debacle with Grimmjow and his Fracción, and having to put Luppi back into the Espada ranks, Aizen was as short tempered and impatient as he ever allowed himself to be seen, which was frankly disturbing.

So he would rely on his speed. Sonído was quicker than shunpo, and he doubted the human-hollows or the hybrid could match his own admittedly impressive speed.

There was a reason he napped so much. He was storing energy. When he had to move, he could make a cheetah blush with shame at losing the race.

Of course, pride goeth before a fall. This batch of opponents was unique, and the more human they got the more unique they became.

Starrk was literally a breath of wind as he went past the Visored too quickly for any of them to see. He came up to the Kurosaki boy and reached out for him.

And found himself eating concrete.

That hurt. Plus, he now had rubble-burn on his face, and debris in his hair. Rather than immediately pull himself up and throw himself back into the fight, he let Lilynette attack and attack and attack, while he lay there and thought.

Blinking dirt out of one eye, he saw a bright blue arrow an inch from his face. A stern human boy, eyes unreadable behind his spectacles but face set in an unhappy frown, guarded him. Past him, Lilynette was passing from one opponent to another, as they guarded themselves and watched the hyperactive girl in astonishment.

She couldn’t hurt them, but she could give him time to think. He also felt they wouldn’t hurt her, as the only ill intent he could feel was coming from a short blonde girl who was being sat upon by a tall blond fellow, and the rest just appeared to be confused.

After a few moments, he came to a few conclusions.

His control on his spiritual pressure had slipped when Kurosaki had managed to plant his face in the floor with some kind of magic, but none of the Shinigami-hollow hybrids were dying just by being around him.

Going by how quickly he was taken out of the fight, and how forcefully he was face-planted into the concrete, Kurosaki was going to be troublesome to take down. More trouble than he was worth, to Starrk, at least.

He really didn’t want to kidnap a boy and take him to the World of the Hollows. Even if he had some hollow in him, Hueco Mundo was not a fun place to live. Las Noches, even less so.

Honestly, Aizen was unacceptably creepy, and had not kept his promises. If not for Gin, he’d still be roaming around like a collared dog with no control over his own life.

He didn’t want to hand the boy over to Aizen for whatever fell purposes the Shinigami traitor intended to use him.

The gritty floor of the building was surprisingly comfortable.

And he’d really rather just take a nap.

So he folded his hands beneath his abused face, ignored the arrow in his face – and Lilynette’s noise, from long practice – and did just that.

~

The hyper little girl with the horn saw her hollow companion apparently pass out from Ichigo’s defense, and screamed something about him being lazy. She looked like she would go kill him, so Kensei passed her off to Mashiro, and the two crazy green-haired girls began a game of tag that got them out of the way while the adults talked.

Well, Mashiro was playing tag. Lilynette was trying to kill her, and failing massively.

Distractions out of the way, the Visored, sans Shinji who was keeping Hiyori under control, converged upon their human sparring partners. The Quincy had put his bow away as the Arrancar made no further move to attack. Ichigo and his Tatsuki were standing a few feet away, staring at the Arrancar with disbelief.

“Is he… sleeping?” his Tatsuki asked, torn between amazed and annoyed.

Ichigo nodded, eyes wide.

They stood there, staring at the completely non-threatening Arrancar for a while, not sure what to do next. Finally Rose came forward and went down on one knee beside him.

“He’s cute. Can we keep him?”

The gathered Visored collectively shrugged and decided, eh, why not.

Mashiro cheered and took her new little sister to the kitchen to give her ice cream. Lilynette screamed all the way there, until she actually tasted ice cream. Then she informed them all that she and Starrk would be staying there from now on. As long as there was ice cream.

Kensei ignored all of them to stare at Tatsuki, and wonder when he’d started thinking of her as his. This required further thought.

And maybe a dinner date.

~

Back in the throne room at Las Noches, Aizen was getting antsy. Not that he’d ever show it, of course, but he felt like he was losing some control over his Espada.

Yammy was dead, not that he was worth much except as a berserker, but it was the principle of the thing.

Grimmjow was dead, and if he wasn’t, he soon would be, for being so stupid as to get his entire Fracción slaughtered on an unsanctioned mission to the World of the Living that gave the Shinigami much more information about their strengths than Aizen wanted them to have yet.

Barragan was constantly trying to undermine him and take command. Please. If he wasn’t so useful, Aizen would have squashed him like the desiccated insect he was. He’d be a good sacrificial distraction over Karakura when the time came.

He just knew Szayel was doing unsanctioned experiments. That snake was sneaky, and Aizen had taken to surreptitiously checking his tea before drinking it. He’d learned back when he was dealing with the demon child from the Eleventh to never trust anyone with pink hair.

The only one who actually carried out his orders was Ulquiorra. The bat appeared to be devoted, but his eyes were always watchful. What he was watching for, Aizen didn’t know, but he kept one eye on the Espada anyway, in case of knives coming for his back.

He sighed. Why couldn’t they all be like Momo? Well, without the incompetence but with the very useful Aizen-worship.

Where the HELL was Starrk??

“Ulquiorra,” he intoned, not letting his impatience show. “I have a mission for you.”

The lazy ass was probably taking a nap somewhere.

“Go to the World of the Living. Retrieve our wayward Primera if you find him. But your first priority is to bring me Ichigo Kurosaki. Alive.”

If Ulquiorra looked vaguely disappointed, he couldn’t tell. He always looked depressed.

Aizen settled back on his throne to wait, plot, and plan. The usual. He was looking forward to this.

~

It was the work of moments to pinpoint the Primera’s power signature. He was surrounded by several Shinigami, and possibly some hollows. The spiritual pressure was mixed, but high level. Ulquiorra left it up to him to rescue himself. If he could not do it, then he would die. He was not Ulquiorra’s primary objective.

That was the annoying, rather competent, quite fast hybrid that had slaughtered Yammy. Not that Yammy was any loss. But it was unusual for trash to act in an interesting fashion. Obviously Aizen-sama found him interesting as well.

The hybrid was leaning against a railing on the top of a building, and he was all alone.

He knew from their previous encounter he could not rely on his strength, as Yammy had failed. He could not rely on his stealth, as Starrk had failed. Which left him his speed.

Ulquiorra fired a cero to the right, drawing the hybrid’s attention, then cracked the boy across the back of the head to render him unconscious. Hoisting him over a shoulder, he tapped the sky to create a garganta, and returned to Las Noches. From behind and below him, he heard an angry cry. He glanced over his unoccupied shoulder.

The Quincy was coming toward them at a great speed, bow forming on his arm, screaming as he came.

Ulquiorra shot another cero at him, knocking him off course, then closed the garganta.

Once back in the throne room at Las Noches, he dumped his catch at Aizen-sama’s feet. The boy was stirring – he had a hard head to have wakened so soon. Aizen-sama waved a dismissal at him and Ulquiorra left the room without looking back.

His mission was complete.

Deep inside, a hint of misgiving uncurled.

He ignored it. Emotion was a weakness, fit only for trash.

~

Uryū picked himself up from the ground where the green energy ball had thrown him when it exploded. He stared at the sky, ignoring for a moment the rush of Visored and Tatsuki who streamed out onto the roof, talking loudly, wondering what was going on.

Ichigo was gone.

He dragged himself over to them and allowed Tatsuki to fuss over him in her brusque way. Then he cleared his throat.

When the noise continue, he snarled, “Shut up!”

They did, and stared at him in various stages of disbelief. He’d never raised his voice to them before.

“Ichigo was kidnapped. By that hollow with the green streaks on his face that nearly killed us in the park.”

More babble, but he focused on Tatsuki’s face and shut it out.

“We’ll get him back,” she promised, “just as we got you back.”

“Yeah, but we could get into Soul Society. How are we supposed to get into Hueco Mundo?”

“We do what we did then. We go to Urahara.”

They did, and all the Visored followed. He noticed, as they ran, that Tatsuki slipped her hand into Kensei’s, and a part of his brain wondered about all those extra training sessions she’d been having one-on-one with the boxer, but the thought quickly fell away. The only thought he could hold in his brain was about Ichigo, and what that bastard might be doing to him, and how they had to get him back. Immediately.

As it turned out, getting to Hueco Mundo was a bit tougher than getting to Soul Society, and it would be awhile before he got what he wanted.

The scene at the Shōten was chaotic and distracting. The five Shinigami who had helped them kill the hollow intruders were there, in some kind of conference with Urahara and Tessai. When Uryū and Tatsuki arrived, along with Kensei, Shinji, Love, Rose and Hachi, the tension in the room ratcheted up to lethal.

The Visored hated the Shinigami, or liked them and were mad at them, depending on the individual Visored. The bastard who had kidnapped him and dumped him with the torturer in the Twelfth sniffed at Tatsuki, and Kensei nearly broke his skull open. Shinji and the kid captain were trying to torch each other with their glares. The bald one was mouthing off to Love, while the pretty one and Rose stood quietly next to each other and waited for some sanity to come to the situation.

Uryū listened to competing egos and idiotic assholes for as long as he possibly could under the circumstances – less than ten minutes – then fired a concussive arrow into the middle of them.

The small explosion shut them up at least. Uryū glared at them all equally. “Shut the fuck up!” he snarled. “We have a rescue to plan!” He turned to Urahara. “Get us to Hueco Mundo!”

The snotty one with the curlers in his hair, forever and always ‘bastard kidnapper’ in Uryū’s mind, opened his mouth. Probably to protest.

Tatsuki put her fist in it.

That nearly started a brawl, but this time it was Urahara that stopped it, a red shield springing to life and splintering to isolate every individual.

“Ishida-kun has a point. We have a two-fold mission here, one that each of us has a stake in. We must rescue Kurosaki-kun,” he put up a hand to stop the short Shinigami from speaking, “and kill Aizen.”

Even the ones who didn’t give a damn about Ichigo’s fate were a hundred percent behind killing Aizen.

With civility enforced by Benihime’s shield, which stung if people got too rambunctious, they hashed out a plan.

Starrk refused to return to Hueco Mundo, but his input was invaluable, as he gave them everything from schematics of the city to profiles of all the Espada and the major threats among the Arrancar, which he gave to Lisa who brought them to Shinji who passed them over to Urahara. Uryū noticed that Urahara had reservations, but for once, the kidnapper was siding with the Quincy, the Visored looked predatory, and Yoruichi piped up that she thought it sounded like fun. So he found a way to Hueco Mundo.

Of course, if any of the Visored had been on speaking terms with their inner hollows, one of them could have figured out how to open a garganta, and they would have gotten there much faster. But the only hybrid who had a decent relationship with his hollow was Ichigo, and he was the one who was missing, so that didn’t help.

Starrk could have helped them out there, too, but he was in hiding. He didn’t want the Shinigami to find out about him, and when he realized that high-ranked, powerful Shinigami were in town, he and Lilynette vanished into the World of the Living. They wouldn’t return until the Shinigami were gone. The Visored supported him in that decision, given their own experience at the hands of Yamamoto and the Central 46.

The week it took to figure out the science behind opening a way to the hollow world nearly killed Uryū. If he’d had any doubts about his feelings for his best friend before, they were put to rest. He loved the idiot, and he was going to get him, and tell him, and chain him up in a secure basement so nobody would ever take him away again.

He wondered if Ichigo had felt this way about his own kidnapping. Considering the unusual show of force, and the sheer brutal effectiveness of Kurotsuchi’s death… probably.

Uryū found that oddly encouraging.

~

Ulquiorra found himself assigned the task of being the hybrid’s jailor. When Aizen-sama called him to the throne room, the boy was awake, defiant, and bleeding from several slash wounds on his body. Tōsen stood to the side of the throne, his sword bloody, a satisfied look on his face.

The thought whispered through Ulquiorra’s mind that, for a man dedicated to justice, Tōsen-san certainly like hurting those under his control. He often damaged or even maimed arrancar, and Aizen-sama called it punishment. Ulquiorra didn’t think much on it, because trash often misbehaved and needed to be punished – but Tōsen did derive unneeded satisfaction from delivering that punishment.

And Kurosaki might have been insolent, but he was also a helpless captive, with a reiatsu-limiting collar and his hands in manacles, so Ulquiorra couldn’t see where he could do anything that would require physical chastisement.

Still, it wasn’t his place. He gathered Kurosaki up by the chains, waited just long enough for the boy to find his balance, and hauled him along to his cell.

It was Spartan but sufficient to his needs. There was a couch, a small table, a futon, a toilet, a barred window that showed the crescent moon in the starless black sky. He pushed Kurosaki into the room and shut the door behind them. Then he unlocked the manacles and carried them with him as he left. The boy questioned him the entire time, and he ignored him completely.

It got harder to ignore his words as the hours passed.

The boy refused to eat, the first time Ulquiorra brought him a meal. He attempted to force it down his throat, but even without his spiritual power, Kurosaki moved like an eel, and Ulquiorra found himself in the unusual position of being frustrated at his inability to complete a task. Finally, he remembered the panicked shout from the archer, and tried logic instead of force.

“You now belong to Aizen-sama,” he told the recalcitrant captive. “You will maintain your health.”

“I don’t belong to anyone,” Kurosaki fired back.

Ulquiorra stared at him for a moment, then took a different tack. “The archer. If you starve yourself to death, you will never see him again.”

Kurosaki went pale, his eyes stricken. “Aizen will kill me before he’d let me go, anyway.”

“But if he kills you, you will not have given up. If you kill yourself through starvation, then the fault will be yours, not his.”

Wary brown eyes stared into his as if they were reading his nonexistent soul. Finally, Kurosaki conceded, and sat down to eat. He even invited Ulquiorra to join him.

“I have no need for food,” he informed the oddly polite boy.

“If you don’t have anything else to do right now, maybe we could talk.”

“You do not appear to be the talkative type,” Ulquiorra noted.

Kurosaki wrinkled his nose, then gave a half-smile. It held shadows, this time, not the usual teeth. “Anything else to do around here?”

He made a good point.

That was the first of several conversations Ulquiorra held with his charge. The monotony of eternal night, broken into false days by Aizen-sama, was broken by increasingly interesting interactions with the boy, in between visits from various arrancar sent either by Aizen-sama or Tōsen-san to beat Ichigo in an attempt to break his stubborn mindset.

When the mandated beatings were finished, Ulquiorra would bandage Kurosaki’s wounds, bring him food, and they would once again converse.

On the evening of the second day, Aizen-sama called him to his presence.

“You appear to be getting along with Ichigo-kun quite well, Ulquiorra.”

He couldn’t think of any response other than the truth, so he gave it. “He is trash. You commanded me to guard him, and I am doing so, Aizen-sama.”

His leader looked unaccountably pleased with this, and allowed Ulquiorra to leave. The encounter confused him, and caused him to wonder.

That confusion, and the musings it provoked, also became more common as he spent more time with Kurosaki.

Their conversations ranged over many topics, as Ulquiorra found himself becoming increasingly curious about the hybrid. Ulquiorra gave his opinion that everyone else in the universe except Aizen-sama is trash; Ichigo rebutted that Aizen qualified pretty well as trash while most of the things he believed in are anathema to any man with honor or given to independent thought.

Ulquiorra unexpectedly found he lacked the urge to skewer Kurosaki for his opinion of Aizen-sama. He was more inclined to quiz him on what things he believed that Aizen did not.

That led to deeper conversations on ethics, something Ulquiorra had an instinctive bent toward. Empathy, an utterly alien concept. Liars, with which he had some experience, and aspirations, of which he’d never realized he had any.

They debated fate versus free will, and the idea of independent thought aligned with individual responsibility.

Ulquiorra’s mind felt like it was caught in a whirlwind.

He watched, blank-faced, as several of Barragan’s Fracción tenderized Kurosaki, trying yet again – and failing – to break his spirit. He stopped them before they did any permanent damage, per Aizen-sama’s orders.

When they left, he treated the boy’s wounds again, bandaged him up, and waited for him to regain consciousness. They had been speaking of Kurosaki’s preferred martial art, Aikido, and the philosophy behind the self-defense. He found it strangely attractive, the concept of a larger whole, of connection to a greater universe.

Ulquiorra had been isolated and alone his entire existence. He didn’t understand the concept of a heart, but from observing the strength of Kurosaki’s, he found himself desiring to do so. Kurosaki was connected, to his friends, his family, his world, in a way Ulquiorra had never been. Growing within him was the first desire he had ever felt… to emulate that state of being, to attain some form of true connection for himself.

He served Aizen-sama, but that devotion, stunted as it was, only went one way.

None of the Espada were anything he could call friend, with the possible exception of Starrk, whose very inertia made him easy to be around.

He pondered this, and many other things, as he waited for his charge to regain consciousness. When Kurosaki finally woke, Ulquiorra presented him with fresh water and hot tea. He stared at them, and Ulquiorra saw something disquieting.

Helplessness.

Leaning over, hiding his words from the watching camera, he placed a steadying hand on Kurosaki’s shoulder. Under the pretense of holding a cup of water for him, he whispered, “Do not give up.”

Wide brown eyes flashed to him, and the hopelessness faded, replaced by determination, and a glint of gold.

By the end of the fifth day, Ulquiorra knew it was a war of attrition between Aizen-sama’s need to control and Kurosaki’s iron will. He feared Kurosaki would lose in the end, worn down over time, and wondered at his own fear.

~

When Ichigo woke up, every inch of his body aching from the beating he’d gotten, he wondered if he was ever going to get out of there.

He knew his friends would try, but it would be nearly impossible for them to cross over into this world. No doubt they’d go to Urahara, but it was only the two of them. The Visored were becoming friends, but he didn’t see them risking their necks for him.

Well, maybe Kensei, if Tatsuki asked.

The Shinigami wouldn’t help. This bitch Aizen had a ton of soldiers, and if Uryū and Tatsuki did try to rescue him… it would get them killed. It was up to him to get himself out of this, and he honestly couldn’t think of a way to escape.

Ulquiorra never stopped watching him, and as interesting as their debates had been, he was still loyal to Aizen.

For a moment, he felt lost. He wanted to live, but he didn’t want his friends to die for him. He wanted to hug his sisters again, and spar with Tatsuki, and listen to Rose play Chopin, and finally kiss Uryū. He didn’t see a way to make that happen.

Then Ulquiorra leaned over him, handed him some water to drink, and whispered, “Do not give up.”

Hope flashed through his heart, and on its heels, fresh determination to survive.

Maybe, given time, he might find an ally here, and a way out.

He fell back asleep for several hours, recuperating from his injuries. When he woke, Ulquiorra gave him food. They talked, and Ichigo finally convinced the Espada to call him by his first name. His throat was actually getting sore. It was the most he’d spoken in years.

This time, they spoke of power, and what it meant to hold it, and be held under it. Then Ulquiorra was called away.

When he returned, his face was its typical stoic expression, but his eyes expressed distress. Ichigo sat up, concerned.

“I…” Ulquiorra trailed off, then took a deep breath. “Aizen-sama has given me orders. I must carry them out.” He still made no move toward him.

This was bad.

“You have resisted the persuasion he ordered for six days. It is now my duty to… punish you for your intransigence.” He looked ill.

This was some kind of breakthrough! Ichigo knew if the bitch had ordered Ulquiorra to torture someone a week ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated a moment. He could work with this, and maybe break the bitch’s brainwashing. Free Ulquiorra, at least a little, and maybe free himself.

“If you don’t, he will hurt you, right?” Ichigo asked softly.

Ulquiorra didn’t respond, but he could see the answer in his eyes. “I obey my master.” He was holding a whip.

Ichigo nodded, rose, and shucked his jacket. It was nearly shredded anyway, but he might as well spare it. He positioned himself next to the couch, so if or when he collapsed he wouldn’t go face-first into the stone floor. Then he turned away from Ulquiorra, watching him over his shoulder. His permission was implicit.

For the first time, Ulquiorra honestly looked like he was going to puke.

When the first lash struck, it drew blood, but it didn’t actually hurt too much. He relaxed into it, and let the pain flow over him. Several strikes later, when his knees started to give, Ulquiorra caught him, and lowered him over the back of the couch.

The whipping continued, but Ichigo noticed something important. Ulquiorra had positioned them so that his back blocked the camera. All anyone watching could see would be the rise and fall of the whip, not where or how it landed.

Most of the lashes hit the couch.

Eventually, with much less pain and blood loss than he expected, Ulquiorra slung him over his shoulder. Scooping up his jacket along the way, he announced, “I will now take you to Aizen-sama,” and marched out the door.

Carefully ensuring he didn’t smack Ichigo into the frame or any of the walls along the way.

This would have been the nicest torture session he could ever imagine, if he’d ever been sick enough to imagine one.

Once they got to the throne room, Ichigo played along as Ulquiorra gently threw him at the bitch’s feet. Collapsing as if he’d been beaten half to death, he looked around, hiding his action behind the hair falling in his face.

A tall, skinny Shinigami with eyes narrowed into slits and bright silver hair was watching him intently. For a moment he nearly panicked. But although the guy’s smirk widened, he didn’t say a word to Aizen. If anything, he looked amused. The bitch didn’t notice.

Ichigo didn’t have time to worry about the weird reaction before Aizen spoke.

“The boy’s friends have come on a doomed mission to rescue him. I wish to watch as Kurosaki-kun gives into despair, as they meet their deaths.”

Okay, first – melodramatic much? Even Ulquiorra was rolling his eyes a little at that, though it was a tiny movement Ichigo wouldn’t have caught if he hadn’t been watching closely. Next? His friends were here. They’d found a way, and now they were facing an army of arrancar.

Shit.

~

It was a full week since Ichigo was taken, and they were finally on their way to get him back. The combined forces of human/Quincy, Visored and Shinigami were forged through shared objectives, holding an uneasy truce. If the week had done anything, besides drive Uryū to the point of screaming more than once, it had broken them into smaller fighting units by style.

It was the epitome of irony that the best fit for Uryū and Tatsuki was the kidnapper bastard.

Whose name turned out to be Byakuya, and who had apparently recently lost family members to Aizen. So he was much less contemptuous of Tatsuki, and didn’t care at all about the fact that Uryū was a Quincy. He didn’t give any apology for landing Uryū under the mad scientist’s knife, but he also didn’t blame any of them for killing the fiend either, so Uryū chalked it up to a soldier doing his duty and let it go.

Besides, he was also a nobleman, with the requisite pole up his butt and nose in the air, so even if Uryū had wanted to beat him to a pulp, the chilling resemblance to Ryūken would have put him off the idea.

Other groups formed as well. Love, Mashiro, Lisa and Shinji were a strike force of their own. Hitsugaya and Rangiku, with support from Hachigen, were a formidable team. And Kensei, with Ikkaku and Yumichika, made for an excellent shock troop. Urahara had rigged together a pseudo-garganta that looked just like a Senkaimon, muttering about impossibilities under his breath as Uryū stood there and handed him tools every time he wasn’t training.

There was no slack given when they were under such a deadline. Who knew what those bastards were doing to Ichigo? If Ichigo was even still alive?

He stamped on that thought and led the way up the ramp. They didn’t know what they would be facing, so they were ready for the worst.

They flew through the darkness, Uryū laying a steady, wide white field of power at their feet. Some of the Visored and all of the Shinigami – except Byakuya, of course – were making impressed noises behind him, but he didn’t care. They’d never seen what a worried, pissed-off, delayed Quincy could do. No doubt this would not be the first time they were shocked during this mission.

Unlike the way he fought in the Living World, he wasn’t seeking to injure so Ichigo could purify. These sons of bitches took Ichigo.

Anyone who got in his way was going to die.

~

They landed in a dead world of pure white sand, a pitch-black sky, and an unmoving crescent moon that never changed phase. It was like a living shadow box.

There were hollows around, but not nearly as many as they would have expected. In the distance was a white-walled city under a dome. They moved forward at all speed. For hours. It never seemed to get any closer.

Then a sand worm the size of a football field nearly buried them, and they made the acquaintance of a tiki idol, a stick, and a child who could control the sand worm.

The Shinigami would have killed the hollows, but Tatsuki got in the way, scooping up the little girl who called herself Nel. The other two were childish, no threat, and with their permission, the entire group clambered onboard the sand worm and rode the rest of the way to the city. The hollow child called it Las Noches, and shuddered every time she looked at it.

Thanks to their unexpected new allies, they were rested and ready to fight when they got to the city. The only challenge had been a giant sand monster. After Hitsugaya’s attempt to freeze it failed, and neither Kensei nor Tatsuki’s fists made any difference, Rangiku’s Zanpakutō infused it with dust. It lost its ability to cohere, and they simply rode over the top of it and on their way. She was prone to crow, a little, but when she saw the intensity on Uryū’s face, she quieted down.

Intensity, disgust, rage, whatever. It was enough to get her back on task. After dealing with Uryū’s temper for a full week, they all now had a healthy respect for it.

They attacked in full force, storming through the gate Starrk had mapped out for them. They came out into a courtyard of sorts, and were met by three beings. The strange bug-like arrancar with several arms, a spoon-like collar, and a grin to rival Shinji’s for sheer toothiness was Nnoitra, with his Fracción Tesla.

Just beyond them, standing sentinel to the side of the gate, was Kaname Tōsen.

Kensei, Ikkaku, and Yumichika immediately moved to engage, while the others went around them and ran further into the city. The last thing they heard was Kensei’s anguished roar of “Traitor!” as he cut Tōsen down.

Uryū discovered later that Tōsen had been the one to slaughter many of Kensei’s officers, then betrayed Kensei himself, and his lieutenant Mashiro, to be hollowified by Aizen.

Pushing on, the attacking group slew a variety of unnamed arrancar, those who didn’t die from the force of their combined spiritual pressure or run away in fright. Their second challenge came from a quartet of females, the Espada Harribel and her Fracción, Apacci, Mila Rose, and Sung-sun. Love and Lisa took on the three beasts, while Shinji and Mashiro cornered Harribel. The remainder of the rescue party plowed through the opening that gave them, and continued running along the white stone halls.

Two of the strangest Espada came at them from different directions, and Hitsugaya took on Aaroniero while Rangiku fought Zommari, with Hachigen throwing kidō around like a wizard, helping out in both battles. That left only Uryū’s trio of fighters, who made it to the throne room.

When they burst through the door, coming in low and fast, Uryū took in the composition of the battlefield at a glance. Aizen was on a tall throne, gloating and starting some driveling monolog. Gin Ichimaru stood on the platform beside him, still as a snake. The bastard Espada that kidnapped Ichigo, Ulquiorra, stood at the foot of the throne, in what looked like an oddly protective position over Ichigo.

Ichigo, who lay, half-naked, his back covered in whip marks and blood, although not as much blood as Uryū would have expected given the damage. Ichigo, who was awake, staring at him in concern, and more alert than Uryū would have thought, under the circumstances.

These observations took a fraction of a second, which was all he had before he exploded in rage.

That motherfucker hurt his Ichigo.

Uryū headed for Ulquiorra like the hounds of hell were snapping at his heels. To his shock, and apparently Aizen’s if the hiccup in his monolog was anything to go by, Ulquiorra threw himself bodily over Ichigo, as if to protect him.

Leave it to Ichigo. A week in enemy hands, and he subverts his captor.

Since his Ichigo was safe for the moment, Uryū redirected his attack between one step and another.

Only to see Ichimaru stab Aizen through the chest with his Zanpakutō, then zoom away so fast he left an afterimage.

Right. This was getting weird. Was everyone betraying Aizen? And couldn’t they have done it days ago, before Ichigo got caught up in the madness?

Unfortunately, the sneak attack from his subordinate didn’t kill the bastard. Uryū swept back, guarding the retreat as Ulquiorra picked Ichigo up and moved them both out of the way of a wave of creepy purple energy coming out from Aizen’s chest. Something was triggered by Ichimaru’s strike.

Aizen began to change. His eyes turned completely purple and faceted like an insect. He started to leak white ichor and hollowify.

Ichimaru, now standing next to Byakuya, who was looking between him and Aizen as if he didn’t know who to stab first, muttered, “Crap.”

Then Aizen sprouted wings and came at them like a Greek fury. Only purple. And sparkling. It would have been ludicrous if it wasn’t so damned hard to defend against.

“Scatter, Senbonzakura,” Byakuya intoned, and Uryū began the dance of the petals he’d been working on for the last few days. It was hard to coordinate avoiding the tiny lethal blades while attacking a third party, but he managed.

As they fought, he noticed an occasional green orb of fire that he recognized… Ulquiorra had definitely turned on his master, just as Starrk and Lilynette had.

Then there were the flashes of flame from Tatsuki’s fists, as she flew in trying to flank Aizen, as well as fending off what attacks she could in order to defend their backs. Ichigo helped out there, as well, throwing off any incoming attacks he could deflect, somewhat shakily using his Zanpakutō as both shield and sword.

Uryū himself was feverishly firing arrows at every opening he could see, and now and then a whip-like Zanpakutō would fly past and sting Aizen to no discernible effect.

They were losing.

Suddenly, a hazy purple mist descended on the battlefield, and everyone but Aizen stopped, for fear they would accidentally hit an ally. Oddly, Aizen appeared to be taken ill, dropping his sword to shatter on the floor below, and clutching his chest with both hands as if he were having a heart attack.

Then a child’s voice rang out in the impenetrable mist, a young boy asking, “Why do you fight?”

“To be the best,” came Tatsuki’s answer, sounding as if it was being torn from her throat.

“To avenge my sister.” Byakuya’s voice was low, but carried through the room.

“To survive.” Ichimaru sounded surprised at himself.

“To be God.” Aizen, as expected, as arrogant as always.

“For the Pride of the Quincies,” Uryū gave the standard answer, then was shocked to hear himself say, “but really for my Ichigo.” Under different circumstances, he would have blushed hard enough to spontaneously combust. He was too busy trying to stay alive to care that he’d just outed himself.

“To protect those I love,” Ichigo’s voice came through, and Uryū was reassured by the strength in it.

“I simply want to feel,” came Ulquiorra’s low tone, and the sadness in it was undeniable.

“I want to be safe. To be loved. To grow. To live,” the little boy’s voice answered them all.

Then the haze suddenly broke. Aizen began screaming bloody murder as his back arched so far it was a wonder it didn’t break, and a deep purple light shone in a beam from his chest. In the center, a marble-sized globe surrounded by a latticework of light levitated out of Aizen’s chest.

When it was completely free, the beam broke off, and Aizen collapsed. He tumbled all the way down from his throne to the floor, head over heels like a rag doll thrown by a child in a temper tantrum. When he landed, he made one last wounded noise, then was still. Blood poured from the hole through his chest where his heart used to be.

Where the Hōgyoku had been implanted, then freed itself.

Everyone stood in shock and watched as it floated through the air and settled on Ichigo’s shoulder, then slid down to his mid-chest.

Uryū tensed. If it thought it was going to burrow into Ichigo like some kind of parasite it should think again. He’d turn it into an arrow pincushion first.

However, it didn’t make any hostile moves. Instead, it began to change, morphing into a child, a boy of no more than three or four years old. It settled in Ichigo’s arms, cuddled up to his chest, and with no further fuss, fell asleep.

They all stood there like idiots for quite some time, staring at the new life form who’d adopted Ichigo. He stared down as well, tightened his arms around the little boy, and sighed.

“That was different,” he spoke for all of them. Then he passed out.

Uryū caught Ichigo. Ulquiorra stabilized the child, then wrapped his arm around Ichigo from the other side, preparatory to helping Uryū carry him. Deep blue eyes met intense green eyes for a long moment, then Uryū nodded.

They’d talk things out once they were home, Ichigo’s wounds were tended, and he’d heard the whole story. Until then he would reserve judgment and accept help when it was given. For Ichigo.

Next to them, Byakuya strode forward. He deftly beheaded Aizen’s corpse and carried it, by the hair, as he turned on his heel and marched out the door. “Come along, Ichimaru,” he commanded.

With a bemused look at the carnage and the survivors, Ichimaru ambled along in Byakuya’s wake.

Uryū and Ulquiorra, with Ichigo between them still clutching the child, even unconscious, followed behind. Tatsuki brought up the rear, protecting their retreat from any last-minute arrancar attacks.

On the way out, they gathered up the bloody, battered but alive remainder of their attacking force. While everyone survived, they each sported wounds. The worst were blood loss and broken bones, arms, ribs, and in Ikkaku’s case, a fractured skull, but everyone was ambulatory.

Every Espada and arrancar they had fought lay dead. As was Tōsen, in the hollowified form of a giant fly.

Thankfully, Nel was waiting with her sandworm when they staggered out the gate. She shrieked when she saw all the blood, and Shinji nearly back fell off the sandworm when she drooled copiously all over his gut wound… until the wound speedily healed up. After that, all the ones with open wounds took turns having the little arrancar heal them. It was kind of gross, but better than bleeding out on the way to the Senkeimon. All the drooling eventually healed the cuts, and most of the crushing wounds, but wore her out completely.

By the time they arrived at the gate, Ichigo was conscious again, propped up on one side by Uryū and the other by Tatsuki, with Ulquiorra leaning lightly against his now-healed – if slightly slimy – back, and the sleeping forms of Nel and the boy-Hōgyoku cuddled up together on his lap.

Once at the gate, Nel’s friends gently took her from Ichigo, and with a wave, took off back into the desert to play tag with their sandworm. Ichigo looked over at Ulquiorra.

“I would continue our conversations, if you are agreeable,” Ulquiorra said quietly.

Uryū tightened his hold on Ichigo, who gave him a sideways look that screamed, ‘we’ll talk later.’ He damned sure hoped ‘conversation’ wasn’t an euphemism, or he’d have to kill the depressed Espada, and Ichigo might not like that.

“Sure. Come along.” Ichigo sounded as calm as usual.

Hitsugaya started to protest, but Shinji gave him a noogie, shocking him into silence.

“Yeah, we got room. It’s not like you’d be the first.” For a moment, he manifested his own mask, and sphinx-smiled at the Shinigami in the group.

Nobody said a word against him after that.

~

In the echoing halls of Hueco Mundo, an old man came out of the shadows and began to laugh. He had been king before the interlopers came from Soul Society, and he would be King again. Calling his surviving Fracción to his side, Barragan returned to his abandoned stronghold on the sands of Hueco Mundo, satisfied with his lot.

In the depths of his laboratory fortress, Szayel Aporro stared up at the mess in the throne room from his monitors, and shrugged. He had his Fracción, he had his equipment, he had plenty of corpses to play with, and he had science. He also had Las Noches, or at least his corner of it. He was content.

Luppi spent his time hiding from Szayel and hoping Grimmjow stayed missing in action.

~

Back at the Shōten, Ichigo would have kissed the ground in thanks to be home, if not for the fact that he still had his arms full of little boy. And he’d much rather kiss Uryū.

He listened with half an ear as the bastard who’d kidnapped Uryū, then apparently partnered up with Uryū to rescue him – he had a lot to catch up with – thanked Urahara for his assistance in a snooty voice. Then, still carrying the bitch Aizen’s head in one hand like some kind of grotesque purse, he opened a Senkaimon and headed off to Soul Society. Ichimaru trailed along, too busy making cow eyes at the tall busty redhead to pay attention to anyone else. The rest of the Shinigami followed, with the short one staring at Ichigo holding the child Hōgyoku for the longest time before he shook his head and left.

Once the doors closed on the last of the Shinigami, Shinji turned to Ulquiorra.

“Hey, wanna come home with us?” Before Ulquiorra could answer, he turned to the rest of the group milling around in the beginning stages of a post-battle adrenaline crash. “Party time at the warehouse! Everybody follow me!”

“I should probably let my sisters know I’m not dead,” Ichigo muttered, staring blankly down at the sleeping boy clutching his shirt like a lifeline. “And introduce them to their new… brother? Nephew?”

“You don’t want to inflict Isshin on that innocent soul,” Tatsuki told him. “Make it nephew. Not that anyone else could see him, but you’d be a great father. Plus, I don’t think he’s ever going to let go of you, so it’s not like you have a lot of choice.”

Urahara stared at the boy and asked, “Who’s the kid?”

“The Hōgyoku ,” Uryū answered, and Urahara nearly dropped his fan.

Then he got a calculating look on his face, and Ichigo growled at him. He put his hands up and tried to look innocent.

“No experiments, just observation. Better to be on the safe side, yes? I can also do something about the invisibility issue. I’ve been working on a more organic version of the gigai, one that can age in a way that mimics normal human development, ever since I started working with teenagers… and Captain Hitsugaya. It won’t take much to recalculate on a smaller scale.”

That won him an honest smile from Ichigo, and a nod of thanks.

“Bring your sisters to the party!” Mashiro burbled on her way past him out the door.

He considered that thought for about two seconds, then shook his head. Yuzu wouldn’t be able to see most of them, and Karin made it a point to ignore ghosts. That would probably apply to Visored too, given they weren’t wearing their gigai, and the Espada didn’t have any.

No doubt Urahara was working on that, too.

Mind made up, he followed the rag-tag bunch out the door and headed to the warehouse. As Tatsuki and Kensei took care of food and Rose started up the music, Ichigo found a quiet corner and pulled out his phone. Karin answered on the first ring.

“Hey, sis, it’s Ichigo.”

“You’re alive!”

“Don’t need to make me sound like Frankenstein,” he teased, then sobered. “I’m fine. I’ll be home in a few hours. Let Yuzu know, okay?”

“I’ll expect an epic tale of grand adventure from you when you get here,” she demanded, knowing from experience that getting more than a couple dozen words out of her beloved older brother was harder than getting blood from a rock. “Or at least a detailed summary.”

He snorted. “Bye,” he said, and listened to her hang up.

The party turned out to be a hell of a mixer. Starrk stared at Ulquiorra, who bowed, then he blinked lazily and grabbed a plate. Ulquiorra stared at Uryū, who glared back for a moment before quietly thanking him for protecting Ichigo. Ulquiorra looked guilty, Uryū looked intent, and the following conversation required Ichigo to place himself bodily between them to prevent bloodshed.

Lilynette and Mashiro danced around like maniacs. Tatsuki and Kensei spent a lot of time cuddled up together, and they looked very comfortable with one another. Hiyori only tried to start a fight a dozen or so times – Shinji shut her down when Hachigen didn’t – and Starrk lasted nearly an hour before he curled up on a handy chair for a nap. Everyone generally had a very good time, gradually coming down from the intensity of a week of constant training and an afternoon of bloodshed and death.

Somewhere after the hour mark, they called for a speech. Lisa pulled Ichigo to the front, and he looked at all of them. A family of friends, old and new, stared back at him. He took a deep breath.

“Thank you,” he told them sincerely. Then he raised his glass of juice to toast them, “to you!”

It wasn’t wordy, but it was from the heart, and it was vintage ‘Ichigo, the silent.’

The toast was roared back at him, juice and sake and fizzy drinks and everything in between lifted and imbibed, and the party went on.

It was another hour or so when the door opened, and Urahara stepped in.

“Where you been, man?” Love poked at him. Love had been enjoying rather a lot of sake.

“Good news!” Urahara called out, catching everyone’s attention. Rose lowered the volume on the music and the all stared at him. “Captain Commander Yamamoto, upon being presented with the evidence that the traitor has been executed –“

“Wonder if they ever got Bya-kun’s fingers unclenched from his hair? Must’ve dripped all over the meeting hall. That’s just disgusting,” Shinji mused. Shinji had also been enjoying the sake quite a bit.

“Given new evidence, that Captain Ukitake forced him to actually pay attention to this time, our sentences have all been commuted! We’re free to return to the Seireitei and the Gotei 13 if we so choose.”

That announcement sparked a round of some cheers and a lot of bitching about it taking so long, as well as a general toast to Ukitake. They all started to discuss what they would do next, and Ichigo took it as his cue to head home.

A few days later, he’d get the news from Tatsuki that Kensei was staying in the World of the Living, because she was there. That Rose had hooked up with Starrk, and they were staying. That Shinji didn’t trust the bastards, plus he was having fun teasing Ulquiorra, so he wasn’t going anywhere. Urahara, though, was returning to take up the captaincy at the Twelfth, since Kurotsuchi was dead.

Ichigo would then spend the next several minutes trying not to think about how Kurotsuchi got dead and randomly shaking phantom muck off his shoes.

But for the moment, it was time to go home.

Uryū walked him there, and they didn’t speak much. They never had, and never needed words to understand each other. Uryū could read him like a book, and had no trouble speaking his mind. When they got to the stairs leading up to Ichigo’s house, he shifted the sleeping Hōgyoku boy – they’d need to find a name, soon, because no son of his was going to be nicknamed Hogie – and turned to face Uryū.

He was being kissed before he could think to ask for one.

It was warm, and Uryū’s lips were soft, and it felt like he was falling when he was standing still. They didn’t stop until Uryū’s glasses fogged up.

Breathing through the nose was a wonderful thing when the lips were otherwise engaged.

“Tomorrow,” Uryū said, and Ichigo thanked god it would be a Saturday. They had to talk, and decompress, and figure out how to raise the miracle boy, and kiss.

Mostly kiss.

And maybe other stuff.

His brain was still a little floaty when he climbed the stairs and entered the kitchen.

His father was standing by the table in full Shinigami gear. From the look of it, he’d just returned from killing some hollows. He showed a few scrapes and bruises on his exposed skin, but nothing serious.

“I’m proud of you, son.” He sounded like he meant it. Like he somehow had a hand in it.

Ichigo stared at him in disbelief, then nodded toward his outfit. “You’ve been lying to us.”

Isshin looked away for a moment, then muttered, “I have my reasons.”

Ichigo shrugged. It’s not like he cared, by this point. Isshin gestured at the child sleeping in his arms.

“What’s with the boy?”

“My new son,” Ichigo told him, then headed up the stairs. It had been a long day, a long week, his dad hadn’t even asked where he’d been, and if he’d known, hadn’t given any indication he was worried. It was time to sleep. He’d think about the rest of this crap in the morning.

Or maybe evening. After he spent the day with Uryū.

He felt his dad’s stare burning into his back all the way up until he turned in the hallway and lost sight of him. It was a damned good thing he hadn’t done anything stupid, like attack.

Settling the little boy, his little boy now, under the covers, Ichigo stripped off, rinsed off, and wandered toward the bed. On the way, his attention was caught by how clear the sky was, seen through his bedroom window. A great feeling of relief came over him.

They’d survived.

His crazy, wonderful friends had come for him, and they had all survived.

He renewed a vow he’d made a long time ago, when his mom died. The determination was fresh again as he thought of the people he cared about, old friends and new. He would be watchful. Be a shield that would not break. And he would protect the ones he loved. With all his heart.

~

End