It has been a very, very long time since anyone called Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni a fool. Six hundred and twenty-seven years, if Yamamoto remembers correctly, and of course he does. A millennia as Captain-Commander and longer as a shinigami, and he left foolishness behind him long ago.
It would be the height of idiocy to let such power as the young substitute has go untapped, untamed, and Yamamoto is many things, but an idiot is most certainly not one of them.
He stares out the wide window overlooking the Seireitei, watching as the sun slowly sinks below the horizon. At this time of day, the white stone is washed with gold and crimson light and lavender shadows, turning the city into something magical. Yamamoto has seen it many, many times, countless times in his life, but somehow every sunset manages to be unique, memorable. Perhaps it’s a sign that he’s getting a bit too old, thinking like this, but he’s been old for the majority of his life and isn’t about to let it stop him.
“Captain?” Chojiro asks politely from the door, carrying a dinner tray. The Captain-Commander’s work never ends, and this will hardly be the first long night Yamamoto has spent at his desk.
Yamamoto sighs a little, wondering if he would have taken this position at the beginning had he known he would still be holding it a thousand years later. Depressingly, the answer is an immediate yes. His sense of duty is too strong to ever do otherwise.
“Leave it here,” he orders. “Thank you, Chojiro. And can you ask Kurosaki Ichigo to see me in the morning?”
His request doesn’t surprise the lieutenant; by now, very little ever does. He simply settles the tray on the desk and bows. “I will attempt to pry him away from Captain Zaraki,” Sasakibe murmurs.
Yamamoto snorts a little, because all of Seireitei knows about Kenpachi’s obsession with the substitute by now. “Tell Kurosaki that the First is a good place to hide,” he suggests with faintly wry humor. “Even Zaraki knows better than to cause a fuss here.”
Sasakibe chuckles as he slips out the door, but Yamamoto is well aware he’ll be back in a few hours to check in and try to bully his captain out of the office.
It takes effort not to sigh again as he glances out the window at the deepening dusk. Yamamoto drums his gnarled fingers on the desk and hums thoughtfully under his breath. His mind is already turning back to the enigma that is Kurosaki. To go from a human soul forcibly endowed with shinigami powers to a full shinigami capable of bankai in such a short time is truly incredible, regardless of what teachers the boy managed to gather. And what a bankai it is! Speed and accuracy and power, all streamlined and condensed into a slim nodachi and a lean body that has yet to reach adulthood. Kurosaki is nothing if not exceptional, and Yamamoto has always had a soft spot in his heart for those who excel.
Now, with Aizen a traitor and three captains out of thirteen gone, Soul Society is badly weakened. The Third, the Fifth, and the Ninth were all pillars of Seireitei, bastions of strength, and something in Yamamoto's chest aches at the thought of those three talented men—who, like all of his captains, are as close as any will ever come to being his children—turned away from what is right and following only the lure of power.
It is not Aizen he mourns most, however, despite the man’s undeniable genius. It is Tousen, misguided on his path to justice, blind to the true meanings of the word. It is Ichimaru, a prodigy and an ever-calm, ever-cheerful face among the insanity that is the Gotei 13. He mourns them deeply, and it is a wound that is grave and bleeding in a place no blade could ever reach.
But there is strength in those remaining, as well, he reminds himself, casting his gaze in the direction of the Fourth, where Retsu has no doubt corralled her wayward charges with a smile and that singularly terrifying bedside manner she’s managed to cultivate. So many were wounded in the traitors’ escape, but they are healing. They will heal. Soul Society will recover, just as it always has, and Yamamoto will do what he must to build it up once more. Some tasks will be more tedious than others, admittedly, but—while he will never admit it aloud—the loss of the Central 46 is a blessing in disguise. Until another council can be elected, Yamamoto is the sole power in the Seireitei, and he can move with far more freedom now.
There will be no red tape to block his path towards the future, a future that he will ensure includes the unusually powerful and brave young man who now dwells among them.
Settling back in his chair, Yamamoto closes his eyes and wonders how tomorrow will go. He is capable of being cunning, when he must, but for all the politicking that his position requires, he is himself a blunt and straightforward man. Somehow, he suspects that Kurosaki will appreciate that much more than any careful maneuvering.
That suits Yamamoto perfectly well.
Ichigo follows the straight-backed lieutenant into the spacious office, trying not to look as nervous as he feels. He’s seen the old man before, if only briefly on the battlefield and then slightly less briefly when Yamamoto had come to his hospital room to thank him for his help with the traitors, and the Captain-Commander is more than a little intimidating. He’s got enough spiritual pressure that even Ichigo, half-blind as he is to such things, can feel it like a lead-lined shroud over his skin.
He’d thought the man would be content with that one face-to-face meeting, a brief and altogether awkward encounter where neither had quite trusted the other not to make some violent move, but apparently he was wrong. Lieutenant Sasakibe had come to him this morning, just as he was sneaking out of the Fourth, with a summons and—more importantly—the offer of a sanctuary that even Zaraki won't invade.
Since Ichigo has spent the last five days getting chased around the Seireitei by a murderously gleeful captain who apparently never learned the meaning of the word no, he’s more than willing to take the Captain-Commander up on his deal, even if he has to endure what’s probably going to be a longwinded, boring meeting with a man older than sin to fulfil his part of it.
Then the old man behind the desk stands up, watching Ichigo enter with utterly calm eyes, and says, “Kurosaki Ichigo. I have an offer for you.”
Well. Ichigo rocks back on his heels, eyeing the man. Apparently longwinded just went out the window, because Yamamoto isn’t saying anything more, just watching Ichigo closely. A little warily, Ichigo halts a few paces away and echoes, “Offer?”
Yamamoto smiles, just faintly. It’s hardly visible beneath his beard, but warm nevertheless. “Indeed,” he affirms, taking a step around the desk and then heading out the door at a surprisingly fast clip. “Come. It is a shame to speak of business indoors when the sun is so bright.” He casts a glance over his shoulder, something close to a dare in his gaze, and asks, “How is your shunpo, Kurosaki?”
Ichigo can recognize a challenge when he hears one, and he’s never been the type to back down, no matter the odds. “Good enough,” he shoots back, before he can think better of it.
Apparently Yamamoto takes him at his word, because he’s gone in an instant, almost as fast as Yoruichi and not even attempting to give Ichigo the chance to catch up. That’s fine, though, because Ichigo learned shunpo from the Goddess of Flash and he’s following in half a second, chasing the old man out into the city, through one of the gates, and up a thickly wooded hill. It’s hard—the bastard might be holding back, but not a lot, and Ichigo's only been a shinigami for a few months now. He catches up eventually, but it has more to do with recognizing the destination after Yamamoto stops than it does with Ichigo keeping pace.
Nevertheless, the Commander looks pleased when Ichigo lands lightly in front of him, barely stirring the dust. He had his gnarled staff planted in front of him, but certainly not for support, and there's a new weight of purpose to his power.
“Good,” he says, “but you are slow without your bankai; the majority of the lieutenants could catch you easily. You are well-versed in the steps but not yet a master, and you have never been taught kido or tactics, much less a way of utilizing the full potential of your bankai. This leaves you vulnerable.”
Ichigo wants to bristle, because he managed to break in to the Seireitei and beat everyone who faced him, all the way to the Sokyoku. But then he remembers Aizen’s speed, the feel of a blade cutting straight through his flesh to scrape his spine, and stops. A moment to regain composure, another to carefully pick out the words he needs so as not to sound like a petulant child, and then he asks, “Why the sudden concern? I'm not one of your shinigami.”
Yamamoto looks grave, suddenly, and curls his fingers just a bit more tightly around the handle of his staff. “You are not,” he agrees without hesitation. “However, Aizen has plans, and I greatly doubt that he will leave the World of the Living out of them. Our worlds are connected, and if he manages to take Soul Society, your home will follow shortly.”
It makes sense, and since Ichigo's been thinking along those lines, he nods. He’d planned to start training when he got home, but apparently the old man has other ideas. He raises a brow, and Yamamoto inclines his head, recognizing the silent question.
“I offer training,” he says formally. “I will instruct you in the ways of a shinigami, and in return, you will help us defeat Aizen, whether he strikes tomorrow or well after your human death.”
Ah. So that’s the catch. Ichigo chews on the inside of his cheek for a moment before deciding to lay his cards out on the table. There's really nothing to lose at this point, after all.
“I've already died,” he counters, and it takes little effort to keep his voice from cracking. He’s accepted this already. It was the price he paid to regain his power. “Urahara gave me a gigai to replace my body. Apparently tossing your soul in and out a few hundred times isn’t good for your health.”
If anything, Yamamoto looks even more solemn at that. “I see,” he says, bowing his head a little, and that’s a surprise. “You sacrificed so much for a near stranger?”
“For Rukia.” It’s a point Ichigo has made before, and in this he’s entirely firm. “For a friend and the girl who saved my family’s lives.”
Yamamoto sighs, but there’s an undercurrent of amusement in it as he nods his acceptance. “Do we have a deal, Kurosaki Ichigo?” he asks.
Ichigo lifts his chin, and this is another thing—like retrieving Rukia, like becoming a shinigami in the first place—that he doesn’t even have to think about. If the human world is at stake, if Karakura and all the people there are in danger, then his decision’s already been made.
“Yes,” he answers, and Yamamoto smiles.
“Very well then. We will start with reiatsu control. I hope you are prepared, Kurosaki.”
Ichigo gives him the look that that deserves, but nods, and when the Captain-Commander settles himself cross-legged on the grassy hilltop, Ichigo joins him without hesitation.
Just after daybreak, ten days after the traitors’ departure, Sasakibe Chojiro enters the First Division with a light step, humming softly under his breath since there's no one else around to hear it. He stands in the doorway of his office for a moment and surveys the neat, cleared desk with satisfaction. He’s never been one to let his work build up, and it certainly pays off at moments like this. As it is, he can start the day with a bit of free time and no pressing matters to attend to until later, when the day’s paperwork will start pouring in.
Normally, when he’s all alone in the office like this, he’ll pull out one of his top secret, incredibly well hidden cheesy action novels and indulge himself for an hour or two, until Yamamoto wanders in closer to eight o’clock.
Except, for some reason, the light in his commander’s office is on, and there's a faint scent of green tea lingering in the air. Sasakibe raises a quizzical brow, because he’s known Yamamoto for longer than just about anyone, and the man is a creature of habit more than anything else. To break one of his long-standing traditions and make tea this early in the day, to -even be in the office this early…
Well. That’s interesting.
With a quick, brusque knock to announce his presence, Sasakibe opens the door and steps in, eyebrows rising even higher as he takes in the sight of his captain all but face-down on his desk, three drained teacups lined up on the edge of the wood. It takes a moment—Sasakibe is not immune to surprises, and this most certainly is one—but the lieutenant finally remembers that he last saw Yamamoto with the Kurosaki boy, back on that hilltop for their fourth training session, when he’d ghosted past to check that neither was dead. From the state of the Captain-Commander, he takes it that their meeting lasted well into the night, if not the early hours of the morning.
“The boy is progressing, I hope?” he asks, with only the faintest wry edge to his words.
Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni, oldest and most powerful shinigami in existence, mutters something that sounds perilously close to a curse. A pause, and then he pushes himself up with a groan and tacks on, “Getting that boy to control his reiatsu is akin to using a funnel and trying to channel a waterfall into a sake bottle.”
Perhaps so, but in that case, the Captain-Commander is likely the best—maybe the only—person to train Kurosaki. Yamamoto's reiatsu is even more immense, and he’s learned enough control to use it as a pinpoint weapon when he must. Sasakibe chuckles softly and collects the precariously positioned teacups, then steps back. “You didn’t answer my question, Captain,” he chides gently.
Yamamoto sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Progressing well enough,” he admits, almost grudgingly, after a long moment. “He is…a surprising diligent student, even if the subject matter does not appeal to him.”
Sasakibe thinks back to the reports of Kurosaki's progress, even in the brief handful of days between when he invaded with less than a lieutenant’s power and the moment he appeared with a bankai that could bring Kuchiki Byakuya to his knees. Yes, he can see that easily. The boy knows what he’s fighting for, that at least is certain, and it gives him unimaginable strength of will.
“Good luck,” he tells Yamamoto with utmost sincerity, utterly certain that the old man will need it.
Yamamoto's groan says he agrees entirely.
Renji lolls indolently on the couch in his quarters, fully content with a lazy evening at home, just him, his secret stash of expensive booze, and a book. Captain Kuchiki’s been pushing the whole division hard, these last couple of days, regardless of the fact that he’s just come off bed rest and still has Captain Unohana breathing politely down his neck. Renji himself is still a bit tender at times, and so this night off—all paperwork done, all patrols sorted, every duty attended to if only for the moment—is a godsend.
He tucks a hand behind his head, not quite paying attention to his book. Rukia is on his mind again, her strength in going to die, her sorrow, her few regrets, and, as ever, his inability to save her. It is…depressing, even if she doesn’t seem to blame him for his weakness. But then, Rukia has always been a host of contradictions, what with her tough-ass exterior and the immense heart she hides behind it. Renji's always adored that about her, even when he was too young to even really know what adoration was, and since then, the feeling’s only grown. Rukia is—
And then his door slides open with a violent snap, and his temporary roommate—also his partner in crime in escaping Captain Unohana’s terrifying grasp—stalks in. He’s wound tighter than a violin string, his face—what of it that Renji can see at least, because his head is ducked— set into a sharp scowl and his clothes lightly smoking.
Renji stares at him for a moment, because he knows Ichigo's getting private lessons from the Captain-Commander, but this…
“Learn anything good?” he manages after a moment, carefully testing the roiling cloud of anger and barely contained frustration around the other redhead. Then Ichigo's head comes up, and Renji loses his train of thought as a cackle of delighted, helpless laughter escapes his mouth.
“Yeah,” Ichigo snaps, glaring at him. “Hado 31: Shakkahō, and that eyebrows aren’t necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face. Especially when one’s learning freaking fire kido. This what happened to yours?”
Renji whoops with laughter, and it’s entirely worth it, even when Ichigo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that, regardless of his grasp of Shakkahō, Sōkatsui is most definitely within his abilities.
Chad waits with the others in front of the Senkaimon, ignoring Inoue’s rambling about what she plans to make for dinner once they get back to Karakura and Ishida’s increasingly frantic attempts to persuade her that chocolate sauce and pickles are not a good idea. He’s healed by now, fully and completely thanks to the shinigami at the Fourth Division, and he’s more than ready to go home.
He also wants to see Ichigo, who’s been increasingly absent the past two weeks, ever since one of the captains here offered him private training.
Chad is a bit suspicious by nature. He tends to be a loner unless pulled into a social situation, and of all the people he knows, Ichigo is just about the only one he can claim a close friendship with. Most people are intimidated by his height, his coloring, his silence, or a combination of the three. Only Ichigo isn’t, and that makes him…special. Special, in Chad’s mind, makes him family, even if they aren’t blood. It’s natural to worry, then.
Rukia stands with them, the girl they did all of this for, and she looks far more at peace than Chad has ever seen before, dressed in a neat kimono and perfectly groomed. But she’s starting to look annoyed, too.
“Where is he?” she mutters crossing her arms over her chest and narrowing her eyes at the landscape around them. “I swear, if that moron got lost on his way here—”
“Oi. Watch who you're calling names, midget.”
Rukia, Ishida, and Inoue all jerk around, clearly surprised, and Ichigo raises a questioning brow at their expressions. Chad does, too, until Rukia splutters, “But—you're—I didn’t even feel you coming!”
The brow goes back down, and Ichigo closes his eyes, clearly concentrating. There's a whisper of reiatsu in the air, just a trickle at first but it grows quickly, like a crack in a dam giving way to a raging river of power that floods the air. Then, just as quickly, it dies away again, fading to only a bare hum on the warm breeze.
The noble girl gapes, eyes wide, and Ishida looks equally flabbergasted. Chad, however, studies the air of purpose Ichigo carries around him like a robe, the forest-green yukata he’s wearing instead of the shinigami shihakusho, and makes the makes the connection.
“You're not coming with us,” he says quietly.
Ichigo looks at him evenly. A long look, holding so many of the words they’ve never needed between them, and Chad accepts it for the explanation it is. He dips his head just once, even as Inoue asks plaintively, “Kurosaki-kun, you're not…?”
“No.” Ichigo shakes his head, stepping back to stand next to Rukia, who has already broken the news that she isn’t accompanying them, either. “Kon can keep up the act for a few more weeks, and if I need longer than that, I’ll tell my family everything. Aizen’s planning something, and I'm going to help stop him. He got away once. It won't happen again.”
Chad knows the look that Ichigo's wearing, the same one he always does when someone close to him is in trouble. Regardless of whether he has the power to do anything or not, Ichigo has never been the type to let those dear to him remain in any sort of danger, no matter the risk to himself. The big man studies his friend for a long moment, then nods and claps him on the shoulder with a murmured, “Good luck.”
Ichigo's return look isn’t a smile, isn’t anywhere close, but it’s a blaze of grim determination and burning intent, and reassures Chad more than anything else could have. He steps back, knowing Ichigo will train his hardest, knowing that Ichigo knows Chad will be doing the same back in Karakura.
Neither needs to say any more.
“Stand still so I can hit you, damn it!”
Ichigo smirks in Ikkaku's face, darting back just in time to avoid a blow that would have shattered a good number of his ribs, had it connected. Yumichika whirls in, eyes narrowed with concentration, but Ichigo leaps right over his head with a flicker-flash of movement and neatly takes off one of the feathers on his eyelashes.
Yamamoto is watching from the edge of the training grounds, leaning on his staff, and Ichigo has gotten to know him well enough over the past month and change to see the amusement he hides at the carefully-aimed attack. The substitute flash-steps away from yet another attack by the two, entirely pleased with his ability even as he focuses on evading the officers’ clearly well-practiced teamwork. They’ve been sparring for almost an hour now, and Ikkaku's landed a grand total of three hits, Yumichika two, while Ichigo's managed to decorate the third seat’s torso and arms with a number of shallow scratches and cut the fifth seat’s shihakusho to ribbons. Yamamoto's been focusing on his speed outside of bankai for the past few weeks, and the payoff is already obvious. Ichigo feels a bit like he’s got wings on his feet, and it’s exhilarating.
He ducks back, darts forward too fast to see, and Zangetsu flashes as another red-beaded line appears on Ikkaku's shoulder. Speed’s the focus here, not power, and proving he can move quickly even when his attention’s split between two opponents. He’s never trained quite like this before, one thing at a time and each step building on the previous. Advancement has always been a sort of jump-straight-into-the-deep-end-before-you-can-swim thing for him, but this—
This is almost fun.
At the edge of the dusty circle, Yamamoto curls his hands around his staff and smiles, just faintly.
Ichigo flickers away from Yumichika's four-bladed zanpakuto, sets his teeth, and thinks, faster.
By now, Sasakibe has become used to the Kurosaki boy appearing at all hours, ducking straight into the Captain-Commander’s office to growl at him in frustration or report a triumph, in various stages of personal disarray. Once he even came in with his hair still smoking and his clothes fried crispy, having failed to properly channel a lightning kido. So it’s easy enough to sidestep the young man when he staggers in under a load of books straight from Yamamoto's personal library, coated with dust to the point that his orange hair has turned a light brown.
“Would you care for some tea, Kurosaki-kun?” he asks politely, not even glancing up from the papers he’s filing.
“No thanks,” Kurosaki says, tone just polite enough to pass muster, even if he makes Sasakibe itch to correct his way of speaking. “I was promised lunch if I got through all of these in a week, and I'm going to make him pay through the nose.”
Sasakibe spares half a glance for the books he’s carrying, recognizes a certain title in the stack, and winces. He’d had that book for a year once, and rarely used it for anything but a paperweight or a sleep aid, it was so dull and needlessly longwinded. Whatever Yamamoto has to pay to fulfil his part of the bargain, it’s likely not enough to make up for the immense, mind-numbing boredom of that particular volume on obscure division protocol.
“I’ll cancel his afternoon appointments, shall I?” he offers conspiratorially, and Ichigo growls his thanks as he pushes into Yamamoto's office.
Shunsui regards his old teacher from beneath the brim of his hat, the look three part humor and one part bemusement. There's a tray of cups and sake between them on the low table, and on the other side of the room, a certain orange-haired boy is passed out on the couch with a book on tactics open on his chest.
Yamamoto regards him right back, dignity firm irrespective of the shinigami snoring away in his sitting room.
On the third side of the table, Juushiro raises a hand to cover his smile, and says politely, “I heard he managed a Hado in the fifties today. At this rate, he’ll be able use kido without an incantation in a matter of weeks.”
“Mm.” Yamamoto glances over at Kurosaki, and there's something in his eyes that Shunsui remembers from his own Academy days, from graduation, from a hundred little points all throughout his life where he succeeded and this wily old man was there to see it. “He is a much better student than I ever suspected, and he has a good mind.”
Juushiro and Shunsui trade fond looks, because another gifted stray has fallen under the Captain-Commander’s eye, and he won't escape it easily. Then Shunsui offers, “Rukia-chan mentioned that he was highly ranked in his school, academics-wise. And he was able to stay almost entirely concealed in the Seireitei for days, even with all of our forces on the alert.”
Another shared look, and then Juushiro asks what they're both wondering. “Are you going to offer him a place here? He already has bankai, and with your tutelage…”
Yamamoto looks at the sleeping boy again, quietly contemplative, and then murmurs, “We shall see.”
That’s another expression Shunsui knows, though, and were he a betting man, he’d lay solid odds on Kurosaki Ichigo becoming the Gotei 13’s newest captain within a matter of months.
Yamamoto is waiting at the Senkaimon when Ichigo returns from his brief trip home to the world of the living. Although he’ll never admit it, he feels a sudden surge of concern when the boy staggers out of the gate, pale and rather alarmingly glassy-eyed.
“Kurosaki-kun?” he asks, taking a step forward. Ichigo had decided to tell his family about becoming a shinigami, and Yamamoto hadn’t exactly expected it to go well, but there's no blood that he can see, and—
Ichigo stops in his tracks, shakes himself hard, and then looks up. He meets Yamamoto's eyes, still appearing startlingly dazed, and asks, “Does the name Shiba Isshin mean anything to you?”
Yamamoto blinks, slowly. Then again. The pieces of the puzzle that is Kurosaki Ichigo come together with a snap, and he pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs.
(Day One Hundred and Ten)
“What we do here is very likely the most important thing anyone will ever do, or has ever done,” Yamamoto says, watching Ichigo pace in front of his desk. “We stand at the center of the circle of death and rebirth, as guardians and guides. Without us, the shinigami and the Gotei 13, the cycle would fall into chaos. Of course I will uphold the rules and traditions that govern us, and expect no less from the other captains, because they are our strength.”
“But the rules aren’t everything,” Ichigo retorts, coming to a halt and glaring. “You would have executed Rukia for nothing.”
“Nothing except a thousand years of honor and strength, a millennia of secrecy shattered in a moment of reckless compassion.” Yamamoto doesn’t lift his gaze from the boy, wanting him to understand. Few ever do, even Kyoraku and Ukitake, and he has little hope. But perhaps, if his luck holds, he can at least make an impression. “Should you accept, it will also be your duty to uphold these laws, Kurosaki-kun.”
Ichigo looks at him, and then looks away. He walks to the window, staring out over the Seireitei, shining in the noon sun. Beyond its walls, the green-and-brown expanse of the Rukongai stretches away and out of sight. “I know,” he says grimly. “That’s why I'm hesitating.”
With a sigh, Yamamoto heaves himself to his feet and goes to stand beside the boy, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Would it be so terrible?” he asks softly. “To uphold the honor of a division, to see to the protection and growth of those who serve with you? To take something broken by treachery and forge it into something strong and whole again? We fight for life, Kurosaki Ichigo, and the preservation of souls. Perhaps our ways have grown staid, but beneath the stagnation the pillars upon which the Gotei 13 were founded are still strong.”
A heavy sigh shakes the shoulder under his hand, but Ichigo doesn’t turn to look at him, even as he murmurs, “No. Not terrible. But…”
Yamamoto hears the word that remains unspoken, but he has no comfort, only his own conviction. He knows he will die, will lay down the lives of those under him, to preserve Soul Society and all within it. Already he has seen Ichigo willing to do the same for those he considers under his protection. Should he take the command offered him, Yamamoto has no doubts that he will continue to do the same for his division, for every shinigami. It is the very reason he is making such a request of a boy not yet out of his teens, barely into his teens. This boy has the same force of conviction that Yamamoto himself does, and that is a rare thing. Of course he would want that within the Gotei 13, another titanium pillar to support it even as it lists.
He pats Ichigo's shoulder and steps back. Regardless of his own feelings, this is a decision that must be made alone.
(Day Two Hundred and Forty-Nine)
The Hollow mask is unnerving, and Yamamoto surveys it with narrowed eyes for the full four seconds that it lasts. As it shatters and falls away, Ichigo sags in front of him, breathing hard, and the sand-rough reiatsu snaps back to Ichigo's normal, if immense, power.
“The Vizards,” Yamamoto says heavily. “I see.”
It’s clear at a glance that Ichigo wants to know the story, and Yamamoto has to steel himself to even consider telling it, because with Aizen, Tousen, and Ichimaru gone, things are suddenly much clearer than they ever have been, and the Commander berates himself for never seeing the treachery before. So many captains and lieutenants lost to one man’s hunger for power, for Aizen’s quest to be a god, and truly, hindsight is all-seeing.
The silence stretches between them, careful and tenuous, and then Yamamoto sighs. He grips his staff and asks, “Your time holding the mask is increasing?”
Ichigo nods. He hesitates, and says quietly, “It’s…all right?”
Yamamoto wonders how many people Ichigo respects enough to ask such a question, to hesitate rather than simply expect his status as half-Hollow to be accepted. Not many, he is sure, and it is a mark of the time they have spent together and the rapport that has grown between them that Yamamoto knows he is counted among that scant handful. He reaches out, clasps Ichigo's shoulder again, because if Juushiro and Shunsui are his sons, Ichigo might well be a grandson, slightly more wary but just as gifted, just as in need of approval.
Perhaps he would never have allowed this before, but times are changing. Have changed. They are at war, even if it is a cold war right now, and any power that will defeat Aizen is necessary, regardless of its source. He has also known Ichigo for months now, and he likes to think that he can see the boy’s heart, regardless of the bone-white mask he wears. It’s a good heart, a strong one. And because of that, Ichigo's question can only have one answer.
“Yes,” he says solemnly, and that’s enough.
(Day Two Hundred and Seventy-Two)
“Aren’t you going to draw your sword? Or are you scared?” Renji taunts, tightening his grip on Zabimaru.
Across the sparring ring from him, Ichigo just arches a brow, feet set steadily in the sandy earth and hands loose at his side. Zangetsu is across his back, like always, but he hasn’t even reached for it yet, and it’s making Renji a little nervous. They haven’t sparred much lately, not since a few days after the other humans went back to Karakura, but surely Ichigo can't have improved that much.
Then he remember that this is the boy who learned bankai in three days, and swallows.
Ichigo just snorts, and Renji feels his patience snap. “Howl, Zabimaru!” he orders, and the blade extends. Just before it hits, though, Ichigo blurs out of the way, too fast for even Renji, who spars with Captain Kuchiki, to see. A feather-light footstep behind him is his only warning, and he spins just in time to block a kick to the head before the orange-haired shinigami is gone again.
Another footstep, but before Renji can attack Ichigo calls, “Bakudo 21: Sekienton!”
No incantation, Renji thinks in horror, diving to the side. He hadn’t known the bastard had gotten that far in his training yet.
Red smoke explodes over the training grounds, obscuring everything, and Renji tries to focus on his opponent’s reiatsu, but it’s still controlled. The smoke is fairly weak, already shredding, because regardless of his power levels Ichigo is still mostly a beginner in kido, but it’s still enough to block Renji's sight and put him on edge.
Fighting a green shinigami to a standstill is one thing. Ichigo has spent the last nine months being trained by the Captain-Commander himself, and that means something. It helps nothing at all that Renji is primarily a strength-focused swordsman and hand-to-hand fighter, and Ichigo's been focusing on speed and long distance techniques. He’s at a disadvantage here.
But Abarai Renji isn’t the type to give up, so he tightens his grip on Zabimaru and plunges into the heart of the drifting red smoke, calling out his bankai as he goes.
If Ichigo wants to do this the hard way, he’s all for it. It’s been a while since he had a good workout, after all.
(Day Three Hundred and Seven)
When the alert goes off, Ichigo and five other shinigami go to Karakura, and they all come back, leaving a swathe of defeated Arrancar in their wake.
Ichigo even brings a captured traitor with him, and when he dumps an unconscious Tousen Kaname at Yamamoto's feet, for all the world like a cat bringing a live bird back to its master, Yamamoto could not be more proud.
(Day Three Hundred and Sixty-Four)
The examination is more a formality than anything else. Nearly every high-ranking member of the Gotei 13 has seen Ichigo's bankai at this point, Yamamoto has no doubt that the boy could get the necessary six personal recommendations and three subsequent approvals just by asking, but he agrees to oversee the test nevertheless. Ukitake is one witness, and to Yamamoto's faint surprise, Kuchiki Byakuya asks to be the third. He allows it, because Ichigo does not protest, and because the two have a connection that he does not quite understand. Their sisters, he thinks, though it is likely far more complicated than that.
But the test goes smoothly, and when Ichigo emerges from the First Division and steps into the sunlight, he’s wearing a white haori with a pale turquoise lining and the kanji for five within the Gotei 13’s rhombus. Yamamoto walks with him to the Fifth’s barracks, even though he rarely does so with new captains. Ichigo is quiet, which is to be expected; for all the boy’s reputation as a hothead, he is surprisingly serene most of the time.
At length, just before they reach the Fifth Division’s gates, Ichigo halts. Yamamoto pauses as well, watching the new captain expectantly. Ichigo meets his eyes and says, “Lieutenant Hinamori. She’s…not well.”
Not sane, Yamamoto corrects in the privacy of his own thoughts, and with a faint twinge of regret. Yet another thing to be laid at the traitor Aizen’s feet. “No,” he agrees simply. “She is not. Until now, the third seat has taken care of most day-to-day matters, and I believe Lieutenant Kira and Captain Hitsugaya have been assisting when they are able. You have your work cut out for you, I am afraid.”
The expression on Ichigo's face makes Yamamoto remember their conversation about honor and strength, taking something broken and remaking it into something stronger and lasting. The boy takes a step away, towards his new division and the two hundred souls now under his command, and then turns back. He bows to Yamamoto, fully inclining his body and lowering his head, and then he straightens up.
“Thank you,” he says simply, and strides through the gates without a single hesitation in his step.
Aizen is still out there, still scheming, but with another captain in place, with Kurosaki Ichigo trained and tempered into the fearsome warrior that Yamamoto knows he will be, they will defeat him.
Yamamoto watches Ichigo walk forward into his future, into Gotei 13’s future, and smiles.
This time, it isn’t faint at all.