The word was breathed with such heartfelt relief that Ichigo almost dropped his sword as he whirled around and tried to pinpoint where the female voice was coming from. A few feet away, the Hollowfied Zangetsu had stopped as well, blade lowered as the spirit watched on with heartbreak in his eyes.
Ichigo didn't know what to make of any of this.
“Who are you?” He demanded out loud instead. “Where are you?”
“I am here. Can’t you see me? I have always been here, but you have not been able to hear me.”
Ichigo spun again, struggling to ignore the growing headache building in his head. What was happening?
He tried again. “Who-”
He gasped as images flooded his mind, and this time, he really did drop his sword, falling forward as a tidal wave of memories – and yes, they were memories – crashed into his skull, echoing words he knew, words like Metastacia and Miyako and Ukitake-taichou.
He didn't feel himself hit anything as darkness swept away his surroundings, but he did feel a gentle pair of arms circle around him, wrapping him in a protective hug that instinctively made him relax.
He knew this person, knew her like he knew the back of his hand. She had been his constant companion for centuries, loyal to a fault and always there when he needed her.
He knew, he knew, he knew-
His eyes flew open and zeroed in on the face above him. “Nejibana?”
The spirit hovering over him – blue eyes, pale skin, long white hair streamlined with trails of water, and wearing a flowing navy kimono patterned with white blossoms – instantly brightened, pleasure lighting her expression as one cool hand rested against his forehead.
“You remember,” Nejibana said, and the distant echo from before was gone, replaced by an underlying murmur that reminded him of a lazy stream flowing under the summer sun. “Welcome back, Kaien.”
Ichigo pushed himself up into a sitting position, careful not to move too quickly.
“Ichigo now,” He corrected gently even as he rearranged the last of the memories that had been dumped in his head into the proper order. Ichigo felt right, even if he had been Kaien once upon a time. “What- How did this happen?”
Nejibana tilted her head. “I haven’t the faintest idea. I do not know how reincarnation works, only that it does, and I have followed you from one life to another. You are mine, after all.”
The possessive edge spiked her voice like an oncoming storm at sea and it made Ichigo smile. It was good to know he had been missed.
However, he didn't miss the sharp, disdainful glance that Nejibana tossed over his shoulder, and he didn't need to crane his head around to know that Tensa Zangetsu was still standing a few feet behind him.
“Nejibana,” Ichigo reproached, and it almost startled him when he voice came out stern instead of brash, authoritative instead of just loud.
Nejibana pouted at him. “You are my wielder, my partner.”
“Yeah, you are,” Ichigo glanced behind him, catching Zangetsu’s downcast gaze. “But I guess I'm his too now. I think you're gonna have to learn how to share.”
Zangetsu’s eyes flew back up, the resigned expression giving way to surprise and fragile hope.
Ichigo raised an eyebrow, levering himself onto his feet with Nejibana’s hand cupping his elbow to steady him. “What? You didn't think I was just gonna throw you away, did you?”
A flash of quicksilver fury entered Zangetsu’s face. “You were about to do just that before she interrupted, Ichigo.”
“‘She’ has a name,” Nejibana retorted swiftly, blue eyes flaring with warning.
Zangetsu ignored her. Ichigo could see this becoming a problem in the future.
At the moment though, he could only grimace, running a hand through his hair. Now, even the thought of losing his powers and effectively cutting himself off from his spirits made him cringe. “Yeah, sorry about that. I guess I really didn't understand that attack.”
He paused, the threat of Aizen surfacing in his mind, it having been momentarily pushed aside from the flood of memories still broiling at the back of his thoughts.
“I still need to stop Aizen though,” He said out loud, watching guiltily as Zangetsu’s jaw tightened and Nejibana’s grip on his arm increased in strength. “And I don’t think I can stop him as I am right now.”
Nejibana suddenly extended a hand and a swirl of water later, a familiar three-pronged crystalline Zanpakutou appeared.
“Do not think for one moment that I will allow you to learn the Final Getsuga Tenshou,” Nejibana said scornfully, holding out the trident. “Now that you can finally hear me, I will not let you go again.”
She looked again at Zangetsu, and while she still gave the impression of being slightly miffed at having to share soul space now, it was overshadowed by the accompanying determination in her expression. The two seemed to hold a silent conversation for a moment before Zangetsu straightened with a slow nod, firm and resolute as always.
“We will give you everything, Ichigo,” Nejibana said as she turned back to him, a hint of steel entering her delicate features. “All the power that you need only to find within yourself. But in return, let us remain where you can hear us. Let us stay by your side.”
Ichigo stared from one Zanpakutou to the other, neither looking like they would be yielding any time soon now that they had agreed on a different path.
“And how would I go about defeating Aizen without the Final Getsuga Tenshou?” Ichigo asked at last, crossing his arms. “I assume you have a plan of some sort?”
The trident was thrust forward again and Ichigo automatically curled his hands around it, expertly twirling it once with ease. Nejibana looked highly pleased.
“I will teach you Bankai,” She informed him, folding her hands into her sleeves. “In this life as Kurosaki Ichigo, your potential for growth is even greater than it was when you were purely Shiba Kaien; learning Bankai will not be a problem for you, and we still have two months in the Dangai before we must leave.”
She paused and her eyes gleamed with innate strength. “Do you not remember, Ichigo? I am the strongest water-based Zanpakutou in all of Soul Society. The very air itself is my domain. In Shikai, you can create water even in the middle of a desert. In Bankai, well...”
A mischievous smirk flitted across her face and a second trident appeared in her hands. “You’ll just have to find out for yourself.”
Ichigo eyed her for a long moment before glancing over at Zangetsu. The teenaged version of his Zanpakutou stared back, unruffled, yet Ichigo caught the tense line of his shoulders and the rather tight grip he had on his blade.
Ichigo dropped his gaze to his own weapon, closing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath to ground himself.
He was Kurosaki Ichigo but he was also Shiba Kaien. There were a million and one things he would probably have to take care of after this entire Aizen fiasco was over – Rukia might cry, Ukitake might refuse to let him out of his sight, the Captain-Commander might try to reinstate him – and a few personal things he’d have to see to – he’d like to visit Miyako’s grave, and he couldn't allow himself to think about his siblings or he’d most likely rush off to find Kukaku and Ganju right this instant.
But he now had the chance to keep his Shinigami powers and he had Nejibana back. Two Bankai were certainly far more powerful than just one, and even Aizen couldn't destroy water itself. Water was patient, water could wait – Aizen couldn't hope to hold off an advancing tsunami forever, and once Ichigo reached the Hogyoku and destroyed it, the overlord would undoubtedly fall.
Ichigo raised his head and opened his eyes. He hefted his Zanpakutou.
“Let’s do this.”
Ichigo crouched on top of a nearby building, hiding his reiatsu as he watched Gin skewer Aizen through the chest and seize the Hogyoku before shunpoing away, evading a broken arm by a hair in the process.
Stupid kid, Ichigo huffed, keeping a wary eye on Aizen as he leapt over the rooftops after the one Shinigami who had shattered his record at the Academy. He should know better. The Hogyoku’s fused with Aizen by now. The thing needs to be destroyed first.
A white blur sped past him before and he spat out a curse, hastily picking up his pace as he darted towards the alleyway Gin had disappeared into.
His right hand dropped to one of the sealed Zanpakutou now attached to his waist on his left side. He drew Nejibana just as he flipped over the edge of the last building, letting gravity drag him downwards and landing him right in front of Gin just as Aizen lashed out with his blade.
Metal sparked against metal as Ichigo deflected the deadly strike, shoving a startled Aizen back several steps before spinning around, grabbing the equally surprised Gin by the collar of his hakama, and disappearing in a blur of flash steps, speeding away from the overlord as fast as possible.
Ichigo only stopped two blocks down, dumping the former captain amongst a pile of rubble before rounding on him.
“Honestly, use your head!” Ichigo barked, keeping his senses on high alert as he felt Aizen advance on them. The power of the Hogyoku at least was unmistakeable. “Where’s that genius intellect you were lauded for? Aizen’s fused with the Hogyoku; taking him head-on like that is just asking to get killed!”
He paused, taking in the muted shock on Gin’s face. The former captain hadn't made any move to get up even as his eyes remained open. They drifted down to the katana in Ichigo’s hand and said eyes got significantly wider as recognition dawned in them.
“You-” Gin’s head jerked up to stare hard at Ichigo. He couldn't seem to make up his mind on which question to ask first.
Ichigo quirked a mildly amused smile. “Still remember me then? I'm flattered.”
Gin scanned his face. “You’re... Shiba Kaien?”
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” Ichigo glanced over his shoulder before holding out Nejibana, blade pointed downwards. “I'm still Kurosaki Ichigo in some ways and it’s who I am now, reincarnation aside.”
He turned away, sparing only one last glance at Gin. “It was a good try, but stay put now, got it? I’ll take care of things.”
Almost dumbly, Gin nodded somewhat robotically, gaze still flickering between Ichigo’s face and his katana.
Ichigo shook his head, idly wondering whether or not everyone was going to react this way.
And then Aizen’s butterfly form was abruptly visible and fast-approaching, and Ichigo had no more time for humorous speculations.
His eyes narrowed and he began twirling Nejibana, the golden glow sending a rush of warmth coursing through him.
“Rage through the seas and heavens, Nejibana!” Ichigo called out, and some of the joy in his voice was reflected by Nejibana herself as they slipped seamlessly together in their first real fight since before Metastacia.
The katana lengthened into the unique combination of trident, spear, and Chinese halberd, and as the golden light washed away to reveal his Zanpakutou, water gushed out from both ends and exploded around him just as Aizen descended, a maniacal gleam in his eyes as he bore down on Ichigo.
Ichigo didn't back down, and with an upward sweep of Nejibana, an arc of water followed, colliding against Aizen’s blade with all the force of a typhoon.
Ah, he’d missed this.
“Impossible!” Aizen snarled out as he regained his footing, arms drenched with water after cleaving the wave in two. “What have you done, Kurosaki Ichigo?”
Ichigo shrugged calmly even as he slammed the spear-point of Nejibana against the ground, forcing Aizen to leap into the air as geysers of water erupted underneath his feet.
“I woke up,” He replied offhandedly as he followed up his previous attack with an upward stab of his trident, shooting three snaking columns of water in Aizen’s direction. The overlord sliced through two of them before taking the brunt of the third, his expression twisting into an ugly sneer as he pushed back against the attack.
Ichigo didn't waste this opportunity. He needed to take their fight out of Karakura.
Tilting his Zanpakutou towards the sky, he hurled it straight up into the air. “Soar, Nejibana!”
The trident vanished inside a whirlpool, and seconds later, a sea serpent made entirely of water burst out, slithering through the air in all its majestic glory as it honed in on Aizen. Its jaws yawned open and clamped around the overlord before he could react, and as the serpent glided past, Ichigo took a flying leap into the air and landed on its head.
He crouched down, feeling the rush of water beneath his feet, every ripple and current thrumming against his senses.
“Get us outta here, Nejibana,” Ichigo instructed, and Nejibana took off, streaking through the air above the buildings as the serpent carried them away from the town.
Gin glanced up, making no move to get to his feet as a familiar blonde hurtled towards him, always so damn worried about a snake like him. Rangiku really shouldn't bother.
“Are you- Are you alright?” The woman babbled as she skidded to a halt beside him and dropped to her knees, already reaching for his injured arm. “You’re not badly injured, are you? I didn't bring any healers with me.”
Gin sighed, leaning back against the rock behind him. “I'm fine, Rangiku. ...Why’re ya here? Didn' I tell ya ta stay away?”
“Since when have I ever listened to you?” Rangiku shot back, tearing off a piece of her Shihakushou and proceeding to wrap his arm. “I'm taking you back to Seireitei, even if I have to drag you all the way there. And you're going to explain to me right now just why you betrayed everyone!”
Gin heaved another sigh, glancing off in the direction where the Kurosaki boy – no, Shiba Kaien, more powerful than Gin could ever remember the former lieutenant being – had stormed off with Aizen.
“Well, guess there’s no point hidin’ it now,” He peered up at Rangiku. “I jus’ wanted ta get back what was taken from ya, Rangiku. I though’ I could do it this way.”
And slowly, quietly, he explained his actions and his motives and his near brush with death when he had tried and failed to kill Aizen Sousuke.
Rangiku was near-white by the time he finished. Gin attempted a smile but it faltered when tears welled up in his childhood friend’s eyes.
Inwardly, he panicked. He’d never been good with Rangiku’s tears. Outwardly, he cautiously offered, “I'm sorry, Rangiku.”
“You idiot,” She hissed, seizing him by his collar and giving him a rough shake. All things considered, that was rather light. “You did all this when you could've just told me and we could've thought of a different way where it wouldn't end with you getting killed?!”
Gin frowned. He’d never put Rangiku in direct danger like that. He didn't say this out loud, of course.
“I didn' get killed,” He pointed out instead, and received another violent shake for his efforts.
“That’s not the point!” Rangiku snapped. “If Ichigo-kun hadn't arrived when he did, you would’ve been! And now we have to convince the Captain-Commander that you aren’t really a traitor!”
“Technically, I am,” Gin said unhelpfully. “I jus’ wasn't on Aizen-taichou’s side.”
“Well, we can work with that,” Rangiku nodded resolutely. “And Ichigo-kun saved you; I'm sure he’d be willing to speak on your behalf if he knew the whole truth. If I ask-”
“We... probably shouldn’ ask ’im fer anythin’, Rangiku,” Gin interrupted, apprehension welling up inside him. “He’s not... who he appears ta be.”
Rangiku frowned, visibly confused. “What do you mean? Ichigo-kun can be a real sweetheart; you just haven’t gotten to know him when you're not on opposite sides of the battlefield.”
Gin didn't reply as he glanced once more to where the reincarnation of one of Soul Society’s most respected lieutenant had gone. He had never really talked to Shiba Kaien before, but even he knew that the man had been popular – much like Kurosaki Ichigo – and would’ve grown into as terrifying a Shinigami as captains like Ukitake and Kyouraku if he hadn't died prematurely.
Probably why Aizen had indirectly killed him off.
And now, Kaien had a second chance to become said powerful Shinigami.
Gin recalled the taste of reiatsu that had surged into the open the moment Kaien – or was that still Kurosaki? – had released Nejibana.
So that was what the combined force of two potential Bankai of two powerful Zanpakutou coupled with the Shinigami’s own unnaturally high level of reiatsu felt like. It was a mystery why the man hadn't made captain when he had still been alive. Surely Shiba Kaien could've achieved Bankai even back then if he had worked on it?
Still, Kurosaki Ichigo had the combined strength of both his current and past incarnations now.
Gin might’ve pitied Aizen if he didn't hate him so much.
“How is this possible? A reincarnation process should erase all memories!”
Ichigo scoffed as he ducked the ridiculously overpowered blow that Aizen threw at him. He’d been nicked with one earlier and his side now hurt like a bitch. “How would I know? I've always been an anomaly that no one’s ever been able to explain.”
Whirling in midair, Ichigo danced between the multiple white spikes Aizen sent his way and launched three successive waves in the overlord’s direction, following up the assault with deadly thrusts of his trident. It was immensely satisfying when he managed to score a deep gouge in Aizen’s side.
Not so satisfying when the Hogyoku instantly started healing the injury.
“Tch, now that’s just unfair,” Ichigo muttered darkly, pulling back a good distance away as he regrouped.
“Now, Ichigo!” Nejibana interjected urgently. “While he is still healing. Let’s hit him with everything we have.”
Ichigo tightened his grip on his Zanpakutou and nodded silently. He held out his trident, horizontal to the ground tens of feet below, and let go.
Nejibana only fell as far as his feet before seeming to slip into an invisible puddle, sinking soundlessly beneath its surface and out of sight.
Ichigo raised his head and saw Aizen speeding towards him, energy blasts already forming on the top of his wings.
“Bankai,” Ichigo intoned, just before Aizen’s attack struck. “Kishin no Mizuhana.”
Ichigo didn't feel the globes of energy hit as his entire body melted into liquid, slipping away into the pool of water beneath his feet that had spread for miles around when he had activated Nejibana’s Bankai.
“Looking for me?” Ichigo enquired cockily as he reformed behind Aizen, inwardly exhilarated that his Bankai had worked and he alone could see the currents of water extending outwards from their position every which way. In his mind, Nejibana laughed, wild and untamed as the ocean.
Aizen spun around, eyes widening with rage as his gaze landed on Ichigo.
“Do not be so arrogant, boy!” The overlord snarled and fired off several spheres of blue-black energy, all of them careening towards Ichigo at alarming speeds.
Ichigo was already slipping away by the time the attacks reached his position, and as he dove underwater, following the tug and flow of the tide and finding the best paths through the network of intertwined rivers, he reached for his second Zanpakutou at his waist.
Ready, Zangetsu? Ichigo unsheathed the black-hilted katana.
The reply was swift and sure. ‘Always, Ichigo.’
Ichigo smiled, and then allowed Nejiana to push him upwards, raising him on a pillar of water and placing him directly behind Aizen once more.
“Divine Flower: Imprisonment,” Ichigo murmured, holding out his free hand towards Aizen, and the widespread sea beneath him moved.
As if a storm had struck, the water rose up with a vengeance, peeling upwards to form monsoons on all sides as Nejibana roared towards the trapped overlord.
The waves smashed together with a thunderous crack, sealing Aizen off in a sphere of water as a liquid flower bloomed above it, every petal serving as a second layer of confinement as they wrapped around the outside of the cage.
“Hurry, Ichigo!” Nejibana called out as dark flashes of energy slammed against the inside of the cage, Aizen already attempting to force his way back out.
Ichigo raised Zangetsu, silver tip pointed straight down as he held his Zanpakutou parallel to his body.
“Darkness falls and the heavens weep,” He murmured, and then rotated the katana so that it now pointed upwards. Pure black strands of reiatsu began coiling around the blade. “Blood moon rises and the skies are torn asunder, Tensa Zangetsu!”
His signature red-rimmed black reiatsu flooded the area, and even he had to struggle to reel it under some semblance of control. The longer command, Zangetsu had told him, would jump him straight to Bankai, which would certainly waste less time than going through each step, especially when Aizen was thrashing inside the cage, tearing at the water with deafening explosions of the Hogyoku’s power.
“Ichigo!” The strain was evident in Nejibana’s voice.
Open it, Ichigo swept his black daitou to the side and raised a hand to his face, throwing on his Hollow mask. But keep him still!
The front of the water cage buckled and collapsed, but just as Aizen tried to shunpo out, chains of water snagged him by the wings and arms and legs, locking him down for several precious seconds.
Ichigo let his reiatsu flare as he dashed forward, Zangetsu drawn back.
Ichigo barely paid any mind to the resulting blast that shook the very foundations of the earth below them. He didn't relent, didn't let up until he saw the tip of Zangetsu pierce the Hogyoku, felt the desperate resistance as its power struggled briefly against his Zanpakutou’s onslaught, and finally sensed the Hogyoku break under his full frontal attack, the orb shattering into countless pieces as Zangetsu ran the Hogyoku clean through.
Ichigo never heard it as his Hollow mask splintered away and exhaustion crashed into him with the force of a freight train, toppling him out of the sky.
Kisuke didn't waste any time as he shunpoed forward and dove into the mess of smoke and falling debris and the white remains of Aizen’s transformation, diving down to catch Ichigo before the teen could hit the forest floor, as well as snaggin the two blades plummeting through the air beside them. Another burst of Shunpo brought them safely back to flat ground, and Kisuke carefully laid the Shinigami down before peering up at the remnants of the explosion caused by both Ichigo’s attack and the destruction of the Hogyoku.
This was something Kisuke honestly hadn't expected in all the scenarios he had planned out. Best case was would be Ichigo slowing Aizen down enough with the Final Getsuga Tenshou for Kisuke to step in and seal the traitor away.
Yet Aizen was now probably dead or critically injured at the very least, the Hogyoku was destroyed, and...
Kisuke shifted his gaze back to the bright-haired teen he was crouching next to. He absently took off his hat just to have something for his hands to fiddle with as he took in Nejibana lying beside Zangetsu.
This was... unheard of.
Then again, everything about Kurosaki Ichigo seemed unprecedented. The teen did everything his own way. Given an option, if he didn't like it, he’d make another, no matter how impossible.
Let Seireitei execute Kuchiki Rukia. Unacceptable, so Ichigo had invaded Soul Society and saved her instead, turning half the Gotei 13 onto his side in the process.
Let the more experienced Shinigami save Inoue Orihime. They were too slow, so Ichigo had gone and taken Hueco Mundo by storm instead, and his friends, Human and Shinigami alike, had followed him without hesitation.
Learn the Final Getsuga Tenshou to take down Aizen.
And somehow, Nejibana had appeared.
Kisuke sighed and rocked back on his heels. He’d known Shiba Kaien – the man had been several decades older than Kisuke who was even younger than Shinji and around Kukaku’s age instead; not a close friend but more than just passing acquaintances too – and frankly, Kurosaki Ichigo had always been a lot like the dead lieutenant; loyal, stubborn, and charismatic, though Ichigo tended to take it several steps further and had raised all three to an art form, to the point where even enemies would falter and align their blades with him.
So if Ichigo was the reincarnation of Kaien and had regained his memories, what would happen now?
Kisuke just hoped Ukitake wouldn't have a heart attack.
A groan pulled him out of his musings and he quickly replaced his hat as Ichigo stirred, eyes fluttering open and looking wholly disoriented.
“Kurosaki-san, how do you feel?” Kisuke enquired cautiously as he reached out to help the teen into a sitting position.
Brown eyes scrutinized him for a moment, focusing only after a few seconds of examination. “Urahara-san, what are you doing here?”
Kisuke snapped open his fan and motioned at the wreckage still tumbling out of the sky. “Well, I was going to help you take care of Aizen-san but you seem to have handled that well enough all by yourself, Kurosaki-san.”
Ichigo blinked, and then his head jerked around, hands already reaching for his Zanpakutou before he had completely twisted around. Kisuke observed the way one hand landed possessively on Nejibana while the other curled protectively around Zangetsu. Both were sealed once more – something Kisuke hadn't thought he would ever see Ichigo manage.
He cocked his head, and then said casually, “Or would that be Shiba-fukutaichou now?”
Slowly, Ichigo turned and looked at him again, expression settling into something less brash than his usual temperament. “...Not a lieutenant anymore. I died, remember? Think that counts as retirement.”
Kisuke released his next breath in a soft whoosh. “So it’s true. Reincarnation has a funny way of working out.”
Ichigo snorted. “Tell me about it. I'm gonna get killed when Kukaku hears about this.”
Kisuke smirked at the thought but shook his head. “Maa, I don’t know about that. She’s missed you.”
Ichigo’s brow furrowed. “Yeah, I remember that. She’s got a shrine for me and everything. Bit creepy now that I think about it.”
Kisuke chuckled. “That’s what happens when you die, Kurosaki-san. ...Or would you prefer Shiba-san?”
“I'm Kurosaki Ichigo now; I’ll stick with that name,” Ichigo paused and gave him a sharp once-over. “You've changed. I still remember how nervous you were when you first took up captaincy of the Twelfth.”
If Nejibana and the fierce battle Ichigo had waged against Aizen hadn't been enough to convince Kisuke, this definitely was. He quirked a wry smile in Ichigo’s direction. “It’s been over a century, Kurosaki-san. And I’d like to think I got better after ten years as a captain.”
“Yeah, guess so,” Ichigo stopped again and rubbed a hand over his face. “Okay, I am disgustingly tired right now but I’ve got shit to do. Help me up, would ya?”
Kisuke hauled the Shinigami to his feet, steadying him when a momentary sway threatened to drop Ichigo to the ground again.
“What now?” Kisuke enquired as Ichigo bent down and scooped up his Zanpakutou, sliding them through the sash at his waist.
Ichigo stared up at the dissipating smoke. “Well, I'm gonna go find Gin. That little runt almost got himself slaughtered by Aizen.”
Kisuke paused, tugging at the brim of his hat. It was bizarre to hear Ichigo call Ichimaru Gin a runt, but to Kaien, Gin really had been practically a kid way back when. “Gin? Isn't he with Aizen-san?”
“No, apparently, he got close to Aizen so that he could kill him,” Ichigo shook his head. “That didn't work out so well.”
Kisuke could imagine. Aizen wouldn't take betrayal kindly; quite hypocritical of him in Kisuke’s opinion.
“Think you could pick up Aizen?” Ichigo asked, scanning their surroundings. “I'm not sure if he’s still alive but...”
He shrugged, and Kisuke nodded. If Aizen was alive, then they’d have to bring him back for trial. If he wasn't, then producing a body would put a lot of people at ease.
“I’ll get right on it,” Kisuke confirmed. “And while we’re on the subject of finding people, where’s Isshin-san?”
“Ah,” Ichigo waved a hand in the general direction of Karakura. “He’s unconscious right now. I dropped him off on one of the rooftops. ...And that’s just weird – my uncle is now my father. Anyway, could you grab him as well? I don’t think he wants Soul Society knowing he’s alive.”
Kisuke hummed and tucked his fan away. “Alright then, but don’t overdo it yourself, Kurosaki-san. The last thing we need is Soul Society’s hero in a coma.”
Ichigo made a face, so reminiscent of both his current self and his last incarnation that Kisuke almost did a double-take.
“Ugh, don’t call me that,” Ichigo’s features were sombre. “There are no heroes in a war, Urahara-san, you know that.”
Kisuke inclined his head in both acknowledgement and apology. He had meant it as a joke, but it probably would've made just-Ichigo scowl and Kaien-Ichigo wouldn't stand for it.
He shunpoed off once Ichigo had left, the teen’s steps slightly shaky at first before picking up speed.
Once he found Aizen, he hoped the Captain-Commander would allow him back into Seireitei long enough to see the other Shinigami’s faces when Ichigo arrived with Nejibana. Maybe he could bring a camera.
Ichigo landed a few feet away from Gin and Matsumoto – Tenth Division lieutenant now, his mind supplied as a reminder; his memories were still a little jumbled as everything he knew as Ichigo tried to fit itself with everything he knew as Kaien – and, ignoring the slight wobble in his steps, he strode forward towards the two Shinigami.
“Ichigo-kun!” Matsumoto greeted him semi-cheerfully, looking like she could use a trip to the Fourth and a week’s worth of bed rest. “How did the battle go? Where’s Aizen?”
Ichigo gestured back the way he had come. “Dead or dying; Urahara-san is looking for him now. And the Hogyoku’s been destroyed.”
For a moment, both Shinigami looked mildly stunned. Matsumoto had clearly not expected Aizen to have been completely defeated just like that, and Gin had slitted open his eyes to inspect him more closely.
“He’s- He’s gone?” Matsumoto asked faintly. “He’s really gone?”
“Yeah,” Ichigo crouched down in front of them, assessing their injuries. “Now I think I should get you both to a healer as soon as possible. You look like crap.”
Matsumoto pouted, crossing her arms under her breasts. “I'm offended! That’s no way to talk to a lady, you know.”
Ichigo smirked back. “I’ll be sure not to when I'm in the company of one.”
The blonde looked taken aback for a second. Ichigo knew why – he’d probably be stammering an apology right now if he hadn't regained his memories; his teenaged self had been hopeless with women like Matsumoto when they teased him.
Surprise gave way to delight as Matsumoto laughed. “You're learning, Ichigo-kun! Too bad; here I thought I could get in at least a few more years of...”
She trailed off when she finally caught sight of the two swords at his waist, and puzzlement entered her expression. “That’s not Kyouka Suigetsu. And I can’t sense any reiatsu from you. Have you done something, Ichigo-kun?”
Ichigo blinked and then eased back on the suppression of his reiatsu. “Ah, sorry about that. Habit.”
Matsumoto cocked her head. “Habit? You've always gone around with no reiatsu control! And you've never sealed your-”
She stopped again and stared hard at the second blade at his hip, a vague, distant memory stirring in her eyes. “Wait, isn’t that...? Ichigo-kun, what-?”
Ichigo swept a mock bow. “Shiba Kaien at your service, Matsumoto. Kinda late, but congrats on making lieutenant. I don’t think you were quite there yet when I was still in office.”
Ichigo highly enjoyed the gobsmacked look on Matsumoto’s face. He heard Nejibana’s chime-like giggles and even a low chuckle from Zangetsu. He thought even his Hollow might’ve cackled in the distance.
The blonde stared for another five seconds as if waiting for the punch line, but when none was forthcoming, she rounded on Gin.
“Is this what you meant?” Matsumoto demanded, jabbing a finger in Ichigo’s direction. “When you said Ichigo-kun isn’t who he appears to be? Why didn't you tell me?!”
Gin offered a slightly strained smile. “Would ya have believed me?”
“Yes! No!” Matsumoto huffed and glanced back at Ichigo. “Maybe. ...How did you...?”
Ichigo patted Nejibana’s hilt. “Heard Nejibana’s voice. Finally. I’d be out cold and on my way to losing all my Shinigami powers if it wasn't for her.”
Matsumoto shook her head, looking dazed. “Well, either all this is true or that concussion Kira-kun warned me about is actually as serious as he made it sound.”
“Ya have a concussion?” Gin interrupted, slanting a sidelong look at Matsumoto.
Matsumoto waved a dismissive hand in the air, still watching Ichigo intently. “I'm fine; don’t worry about it. ...Prove it.”
Ichigo arched an eyebrow. A challenging glint entered Matsumoto’s eyes. “Prove you’re Shiba Kaien. Summon your Hell Butterfly.”
Ichigo’s eyes narrowed. Hell Butterfly. Those were the black butterflies used for communication and travelling between Soul Society and the Human World.
He frowned and half-turned away, the knowledge of how floating just out of reach.
“You know how,” Nejibana admonished. “Stop trying to push for knowledge you already have. Just reach out and do it.”
Slowly, he unsheathed Nejibana and slid the Zanpakutou forward into the lock between worlds, the way the blade clicked echoing in the depths of his memories.
Yes, he knew how.
A set of shouji doors appeared, sliding open to reveal a waiting room. Another door beyond it opened, and a single midnight black Hell Butterfly fluttered through, elegant wings beating a path towards him.
Easy as breathing.
He lowered his sword and watched in silence as the butterfly flapped once around his head in a lazy swoop before landing on his shoulder, one wing brushing against his cheek as if welcoming him home.
Up to this point, a part of him had remained detached from the very real fact that he had once been Shiba Kaien. Oh, he knew it in his mind – after all, he had Nejibana as hard proof, and his fight with Aizen had told him that he was her true wielder – but a part of his heart had pushed that knowledge away, because if it was true (and it was, because this Hell Butterfly proved that he had once been and technically still was registered in the Gotei 13, even if he had taken a rather long leave of absence), then it had been over half a century since Metastacia had killed him (because no matter what anyone said, it hadn't been Rukia, and he’d have to make sure that his old protégé didn't still blame herself even though Kukaku had forgiven her), over half a century since he’d been lieutenant of the Thirteenth, over half a century since-
Since Miyako had died.
Something stung in his eyes as he stared sightlessly ahead, the gate waiting patiently in front of him.
Over half a century.
It felt longer than that and much shorter at the same time.
Ichigo blinked, forcing back the tears that had involuntarily crawled their way into his eyes before turning to face the other Shinigami in the vicinity. He’d forgotten about them.
Matsumoto was standing now, Gin slightly slouched beside her but also on his feet. The blonde’s expression had taken on a mildly apprehensive cast as if she had just realized that maybe borderline-accusing a former lieutenant – who had been a seated officer before she had even left the Academy and probably would've gone on to become a captain if he hadn't been killed – of not being himself had probably not been the greatest of ideas.
Lucky for her, Ichigo had never placed much stock in proper etiquette when they were outside of battle.
“Ichigo,” He reminded her, letting a smile cross his face. “I'm Kurosaki Ichigo now. And don’t bother with anything else. I'm not exactly a lieutenant anymore either.”
He paused and grinned. “Rukia's almost ready to take my place. I think I’ll ask her for a spar later.”
The line of Matsumoto’s shoulders relaxed and she smiled back. “You've seen her fight, Ichigo-kun.”
“Not full-out, I haven’t,” Ichigo denied, glancing back at the gateway. “Let’s get going. What’s our story here?”
Matsumoto noticeably brightened, and she towed Gin forward as she hastily summarized everything her childhood friend had presumably told her.
“Ya don’ have ta do anythin’,” Gin interjected when Matsumoto finished, ignoring the way she glared at him. “I was prepared fer the consequences a long time ago.”
Ichigo waved a hand, one foot already in the gate as his butterfly took flight once more. “Oh there’ll be consequences alright, you don’t have to worry about that, but a lifetime’s sentence in Muken is going a bit far, don’t you think? And you’ll have a one-way ticket there if we let Central 46 and the old man think you were completely on Aizen’s side.”
Even Gin paled imperceptibly at this and Matsumoto looked almost sick.
Ichigo tilted his head at the gate. “Now come on. I still have to help with cleanup, and I need to make sure Taichou’s alright. Last I heard, that shitty brat impaled him with an arm.”
“That’d be Wonderweiss,” Gin told him, stepping carefully through the gate after Ichigo. The former captain’s own Hell Butterfly had obviously been revoked so without an official Shinigami with him, the Dangai would undoubtedly suck him in. “I never did like that kid. He just wouldn’ shut up. And Tousen liked him.”
Ichigo grunted, stifling a startled bark of laughter. Still, it rubbed him the wrong way that his captain had been attacked from behind and he hadn't been there to watch the man’s back. He probably would've rushed off to hunt that particular Arrancar down right now if the Captain-Commander hadn't already killed him.
And speaking of the Captain-Commander, he’d have to continue his personal campaign on making the old man’s life hell. He’d never agreed with the decision to exile Urahara, imprison Tessai, and execute the Hollowfied Shinigami, but he hadn't found out about it until after everything had gone down. Kyouraku had been distraught when he had woken up the next morning and had discovered what had happened to his lieutenant, but he and Ukitake were Yamamoto’s former students and hadn't been able to put up much of a fight beyond several heated arguments that had all been swiftly shot down by the Captain-Commander, not to mention that all the convicts had been long gone by then. Yamamoto had insisted that they were most likely dead already and the only search party that he had agreed to send out had been a group sent to assassinate the runaways. That had quickly made Ukitake and Kyouraku back down.
But Ichigo had had no such bonds with the old man, not to mention he had been good friends with Lisa, and on speaking terms with the rest of the Visored. He had only been a lieutenant though so it wasn't as if he could take Yamamoto head-on.
In the end, he’d tried digging into Aizen’s testimony of what had happened that night, even going so far as to track down and break into Aizen’s secret labs in North Rukongai, and then snoop through some of the captain’s papers that he’d been able to get his hands on.
It had taken him a grand total of forty-two years of clandestine investigation and meticulous compilation of all the facts and theories he’d put together himself, and shortly before the mission that had killed his wife, he’d stumbled on a gold mine of information on the Hogyoku and the Hollowfication process that corroborated all the proof he had accumulated over the years, as well as a list of the Shinigami-turned-Visored’s names, all tabbed with Aizen’s assessments and data of the experiment they had unknowingly been forced into.
Frankly, it had been horrifying to read.
He’d made copies though, and he’d planned to deliver the notes straight to Ukitake, but the assignment Miyako had received had distracted him, and then she’d come back dead and any thoughts besides revenge had fled his mind after that.
But now that he was level-headed enough to think about it, everything had been way too convenient. Aizen had probably learned about what he’d been up to and had set plans in motion to get rid of him.
His hands clenched as the light of the Senkaimon grew brighter up ahead. That bastard had just had to pull Miyako into it too. Ichigo should’ve been more cautious.
Heck, he had been cautious. He hadn't told anyone about what he’d been doing, not even his own captain, partly so that there would be no chance of anyone eavesdropping, but also so that all the people he cared about would be able to truthfully deny any involvement in his not-so-legal activities if he was ever brought up on charges.
Ichigo was supposed to have fallen alone if Aizen or anyone else had ever found out.
Yet he’d still dragged Miyako down with him.
With effort, he yanked his thoughts away from the pit of guilt lodged at the bottom of his heart. It was over now, and he’d even gotten to kill Aizen with his own two hands. He’d gotten his revenge.
Nobody ever said revenge made everything okay again though.
“It’s fine, It’s fine, don’t worry about it! I’ll keep a close eye on him, but he can’t stand trial if he’s dead, you know?”
Rangiku watched with no little astonishment as Ichigo clapped a hand on Gin’s shoulder and charmed his way through the group of unseated officers scattered out in front of them and currently serving as their welcoming committee.
The Kurosaki Ichigo she knew would've yelled most of the Shinigami down and threatened the rest by waving his sword in their faces.
But this was no longer just Ichigo; Shiba Kaien was in there too, and wasn't that mind-boggling to think about? Rangiku knew how the reincarnation process worked; souls weren’t supposed to remember their past lives once they’d been cycled through. It was supposed to be a brand-new start.
“We’ll be going now!” Ichigo cheerfully saluted the bewildered officers around them with two fingers before marching off towards the Fourth.
Rangiku sent a wink and an appreciative smile in the direction of a few who still seemed torn between standing back and stopping their progress, and like she’d expected, all of them flushed red and remained in their spots.
As she fell into step beside Gin, confused whispers of why Ichigo now had two swords followed them down the street.
“Ichigo-kun, don’t you think you should hide Nejibana?” Rangiku suggested.
Ichigo blinked at her, one hand dropping onto said Zanpakutou’s hilt as his expression turned indignant. “Why? I'm not ashamed of her.”
Rangiku smothered a laugh. “That’s very sweet of you but you need to work on your subtlety. We’re going to bump into someone who will recognize Nejibana sooner or later, and word will be all over Seireitei before you can get to Ukitake-taichou.”
Realization dawned on the former lieutenant’s face but he only scratched his head. “Good point, but I don’t have so much as a coat to throw on top. I’ll borrow something from the Fourth once we get there.”
Rangiku nodded, and didn't speak again for a while as she watched Ichigo stare at everything with an expression that would've seemed more fitting on a man dying of thirst before being presented with a glass of water.
She couldn't imagine what it would be like to die and then be reborn as someone else but also the same person several decades later.
“Coming through!” Ichigo suddenly spoke up as they reached the entrance to the Fourth.
The Shinigami on gate duty, unfortunately short and looking increasingly nervous as Ichigo loomed over at him, stuttered out, “We- We can’t just allow an enemy to enter.”
Ichigo frowned, which only served to make the officer shrink back. “If Unohana-san gets mad at you, just say it’s my fault and I bullied you into accepting him. Now we need a private room, and don’t go gossiping about this with your friends, okay?”
The Shinigami hesitated, and then jumped and scurried away when Ichigo barked, “Go!”
Rangiku gave up and burst into giggles. “Ichigo-kun, I think he was just about to salute you.”
“I don’t need him to salute me,” Ichigo grumbled, scowling harder than ever. “You’re barely staying on your feet and Gin over here’s injured too. You’d think Unohana-san would've drilled it into their heads by now that lives come before regulations. At least that was how it worked half a century ago. Most of the time.”
Rangiku took a heartbeat longer than necessary to reply, a spontaneous smile curving her lips. “That’s why they’re unseated officers. The seated ones know better. Unohana-taichou runs a tight ship, but she believes that the newer blood in her Division should figure out what’s most important for themselves.
“Learned that from Isane-chan,” She added when even Gin raised an eyebrow at her.
A different officer from before hurried up to them as they rounded a corner and ushered them to the requested private room, two beds already made up.
“We can wheel in a third for you, Kurosaki-san,” The Shinigami said earnestly, but Ichigo shook his head. “It’s fine; I don’t need it. Could you bring some food for these two though? And as soon as someone’s free or your captain gets back, please send them here to look them over.”
The officer bobbed his head and scampered off with a “Yes, sir!” thrown in for good measure.
Rangiku sighed in amusement at the somewhat bemused expression on Ichigo’s face as she pushed Gin onto one of the beds before sitting down on the other one. “You may not be a lieutenant anymore, Ichigo-kun, but you’re giving off that vibe.”
Ichigo threw his hands up. “Whatever. Matsumoto, how were the captains and Visored doing after I threw Aizen out of there?”
Rangiku blinked at the sudden turnabout but answered after a moment of fishing through all the fighting that had been going on above her in the fake Karakura Town.
“They were still moving,” She recalled. “All of them were injured but alive. That female Espada might’ve survived too. I'm not sure what happened after Aizen attacked her.”
Ichigo hummed noncommittally as Gin sprawled out on the bed, legs dangling over the edge and looking for all the world like he wasn't a Captain-Commander’s return away from being thrown in jail.
“Hmm, Starrk died after all,” Her childhood friend smiled up at the ceiling. Rangiku could tell it was fake. Most of his smiles were. “Pity. He was one of the few who didn’ get on my nerves.”
“Which one’s Starrk?” Ichigo enquired, leaning against the wall by the door.
“The Primera,” Gin shrugged. “Ah well, he was goin’ up against Kyouraku, so I'm not surprised.”
Rangiku couldn't argue with that. She didn't know of anyone besides the Captain-Commander who could defeat one of Soul Society’s strongest Shinigami.
Except maybe Ichigo. She’d felt the tremors from the battle he had engaged in against Aizen, and Gin had told her that Ichigo had brought the fight entirely out of Karakura. Not to mention-
“Ichigo-kun, are you injured?” Rangiku straightened, scanning the bright-haired Shinigami with concern. “I forgot to ask.”
Ichigo waved a flippant hand. “Cuts and bruises, already healing. I'm mostly just tired.”
“Then you should sit,” Rangiku insisted, casting around for a chair.
“If I sit, I don’t think I'm gonna get up again for a week,” Ichigo said dryly, and Rangiku got the feeling that he wasn't exaggerating by much. There was a strain around his eyes that was only visible once she looked at him more closely. “And I don’t wanna conk out before Taichou gets back. Do you know how he was before you left?”
Rangiku bit her lip. She had been so worried about Gin that she’d hurried off without really checking her surroundings. “I'm not sure, but Ukitake-taichou is strong, and Kyouraku-taichou didn't seem too worried after his fight with the Primera.”
“Brings up the question of why they aren’t back yet then,” Gin pointed out, and Rangiku would've whacked him for his insensitivity if Ichigo didn't look like he actually wanted the cold hard truth right now. “Ya brought Unohana-taichou back with ya, and she was healin’ that Visored girl. She should’ve gotten around ta Ukitake-taichou already.”
Ichigo scrubbed a hand over his face, his exhaustion accentuating for a moment as his forehead scrunched as if warding off a migraine. Rangiku was suddenly struck by the question of whether or not remembering everything about a past life would have adverse effects on the mind, especially when Ichigo probably hadn't had much time to sit down and process it all.
But she could also understand the worry almost all lieutenants would have for their captains when they were injured. If Hitsugaya had been run through by some snot-nosed kid who had almost taken them all out with Ryuujin Jakka’s flames, she wouldn't be able to rest either until she had, preferably, Unohana’s guarantee that he would make a full recovery.
(At the back of her mind, she thought it rather strange that she was already treating Ichigo like a fellow lieutenant – stranger still because he could easily make captain right now what with taking down Aizen and all – but it was hard not to when she could actually see the reincarnated version of Kaien slipping back into his role as if he had never stopped.)
“Go,” Rangiku motioned at the door when Ichigo arched a questioning eyebrow at her. “You haven’t really seen your captain in over fifty years now so you might as well go see that he’s alright. And I suppose you don’t have to worry about covering Nejibana up now.”
Oddly enough, Ichigo continued to linger, and Rangiku only realized why when a knock at the door sounded and Ichgo’s hand instantly dropped to his swords.
“Yeah? Oh, is that the food? Great, thanks!” Ichigo had positioned himself squarely in the doorway after opening the door and received the tray of food from whoever it was on the other side, closing to door again all without letting the Shinigami get a good look inside.
Ichigo was protecting them. Or, more specifically, Gin.
Because he had said he would.
Rangiku really shouldn't be surprised. That was a universal fact for both Kurosaki Ichigo and, from what she’d heard from the people who used to know him, Shiba Kaien.
But that was unfair to Ichigo.
“You don’t need to stay, Ichigo-kun,” Rangiku said firmly as she accepted the tray and placed it on the bedside table. “Get going. I won’t let anyone make it past that door. I am a lieutenant, you know, and nobody at the Fourth is going to come in here and arrest Gin. It’s just not the way they do things.”
Ichigo straightened, glancing at Gin and evidently weighing his options.
Gin cracked open one eye. “I can see why those friends of yours invaded Soul Society with ya and followed ya all the way ta Hueco Mundo. And Orihime-chan was always very adamant that ya were goin’ ta save her.”
Ichigo looked thrown for a moment, and then embarrassment tinged his features as one hand rubbed the back of his head. “Well my friends are Inoue’s friends as well; they all wanted to get her back.”
“And Rukia-chan?” Gin half-taunted. Rangiku kicked him. Gin shot her a long-suffering look but left off and leaned back again. “We’ll be fine here. I'm sure I can defend myself against a few unseated officers.”
The last bit held a mocking edge to it but Rangiku figured it was the best anyone was going to get out of Gin. She turned back to Ichigo who was in the process of rolling his eyes.
“Shoo!” Rangiku waved at the door. “We may be injured but we can take care of ourselves.”
Ichigo studied her for a second long before nodding at last. “Thanks, Matsumoto. Gin, don’t do anything stupid. Listen to what Matsumoto says.”
And then he was gone, leaving Rangiku to smirk widely at the exasperated expression on Gin’s face that her long-time friend couldn't quite hide behind his signature smile.
“You heard him. Now eat; and you're to stay in bed until Unohana-taichou or Isane-chan gets here.”
“Have ya both forgotten that I'm actually a captain?”
Rangiku scoffed as she dumped the tray into Gin’s lap. “Not anymore. Now eat.”
Grudgingly, Gin sat up and reached for the soup spoon.
All things considered, Matsumoto thought as she picked up her own bowl of soup. Today could've gone a lot worse.
Ichigo waited impatiently for the shouji doors to materialize, leaping out before they were even fully opened. He dropped several feet to the ground, staggered as a wave of vertigo washed over him, and then regained his footing a second later, shaking his head to clear it.
Shit, he really needed to rest, and his side was killing him. It was lucky that he wore a black Shihakushou.
Ichigo breathed in through his nose, steadying himself before turning to face the familiar voice. “Hirako, good to see you’re alive.”
Hirako was alive alright, and he, along with most of the other Visored, were staring from Ichigo to the gateway above them and then to the Hell Butterfly disappearing back into it now that it’s job was done.
“What are you doing with that Zanpakutou?” Lisa’s voice was as sharp as her katana and suddenly ten times more venomous than Gin’s blade.
But Ichigo was far too used to her more vicious moods to get fazed by this, not to mention too damn tired.
“I'm carrying it,” He replied evenly, gaze shifting to take her in with new eyes. Before he had remembered, Lisa had just been the manga-loving Visored with a violent temperament when provoked. Now all he saw was his paperwork buddy when they had been forced to pull all-nighters because Ukitake had been sick and Kyouraku had just been too lazy. “Seeing as it’s mine.”
Lisa shot to her feet, eyes blazing. “Kurosaki, that’s Nejibana! I’d know that Zanpakutou anywhere! You-”
In one smooth motion, Ichigo drew Nejibana and twirled it in his right hand. “Rage through the seas and heavens, Nejibana.”
For the second time that day, his Zanpakutou sprang to life in his hands, water curling around him through the air as he summoned his trident.
Thunderstruck silence met him as he hefted Nejibana, balancing it casually against his shoulder as he watched the rapid-fire emotions flash across Lisa’s face.
“That’s impossible,” When she finally spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. She shook her head. “I don’t believe-”
Ichigo sighed, closing his eyes for a moment as he dredged up memories from over a century ago.
“There was that day,” He said at last, opening his eyes again to stare steadily at the former lieutenant. “Summer I think, and it was the one time Kyouraku-taichou tried to hide his sake in the back of your closet thinking you’d never check there when you cleaned out his stores, and, of course, when you did, you beat his head in with Haguro Tonbo because one of the bottles had spilled onto your clothes. You even managed to send him to the Fourth, though I think he keeled over on purpose after the first ten hits just so he could get out of doing the paperwork. Again.”
Lisa’s eyes were huge behind her glasses and her mouth had dropped open. The others all seemed to be holding their breaths, still trying to register what was going on.
“...Only Kaien was there at the time,” Lisa said at last, voice croaky now. “Besides Kyouraku-taichou, and I never told him about the sake spilling onto my clothes either. I just yelled at him for going into my room at all-”
Her voice cracked and she clapped a hand over her mouth.
Ichigo nodded, eyes softening as Lisa visibly struggled to keep her tears at bay. She’d been like a younger sister to him all those years ago; it had been wholly impossible not to grow close what with their respective captains being best friends.
He absently sealed Nejibana again as his gaze drifted to the others. Rose and Love had never been friends exactly but he’d shared more than a few words with them over the years. He knew Kensei and Mashiro slightly better, especially Mashiro, along with Hachi whom the former had always been good friends with.
Hiyori – and Ichigo could breathe a sigh of relief when the volatile blonde looked to be resting now instead of in pain – was the amusing lieutenant who tended to give both Hirako and Urahara a whole lot of grief during their tenure.
And Hirako he knew better than all the rest sans Lisa because the former captain had often visited the Eighth to share a bottle of sake with Kyouraku and sometimes Ukitake, and Ichigo had probably spent almost as much time in the Eighth Division barracks as he did in the Thirteenth.
Most of them still looked stunned, though Mashiro only looked inquisitive and about two seconds away from bouncing forward to poke at Ichigo or something, while Hirako was staring at him with shrewd brown eyes, none of his usual humour anywhere in sight.
“How?” It was Kensei who spoke next, still somewhat dumbfounded but recovering. “How’s this possible? When did you realize?”
Ichigo shrugged. “I have no idea how – I guess I can’t even go through reincarnation the proper way. And I heard Nejibana calling me right before I...”
He trailed off, automatically glancing down at Zangetsu. “Right before I was going to learn something that I’d probably regret sometime down the road, a technique that would've lost me all my reiryoku.”
More than one person blanched.
“Why the hell would you learn something like that?” Kensei demanded.
Ichigo gave him a pointed look. “Aizen? War? Hogyoku? Ring any bells?”
Kensei glowered at him. “Then what the hell did you do instead?”
Ichigo smiled faintly. “Nejibana taught me Bankai. It’s really cool.”
A snort came from Hirako, and Ichigo glanced at him in time to see the sobriety melt back into a carefree grin. “Careful, your teenaged self is bleedin’ through, Ichigo.”
Ichigo rolled his eyes. “Technically, I'm still Kurosaki Ichigo, which means I'm only sixteen. Give me a break.”
Hirako snickered but his grin faded and the seriousness returned. “And Aizen? Did ya win?”
“Would I be here if I didn't?” Ichigo retorted, running a weary hand through his hair. “Yeah, I won. Bastard’s either dead or dying. Urahara-san’s looking for him right now. And the Hogyoku’s been destroyed.”
Mashiro whooped as relief descended on the group, all of them suddenly standing taller as if a weight had dropped from their shoulders.
Ichigo only had time to quirk another smile before it abruptly dropped off his face when a hand came out of nowhere and slapped him, the resulting smack sending him sprawling to the ground.
“The hell, woman?!” He bellowed, one hand probing at his throbbing cheek as he scrambled back from the enraged woman towering over him. “What did I do?!”
“You idiot!” She spat out, hands on her hips as she all but breathed fire. “You brainless, moronic imbecile! I survived Hollowfication and exile while you got yourself killed by a Hollow! What’s your excuse?!”
Ichigo stared up at her, understanding dawning on him. His back had hit a large piece of rubble, and figuring that he wouldn't be getting anywhere fast without Lisa chasing him down, he settled for slumping against the rock.
“You heard about that, did you?” Ichigo started resignedly. “...It was a tough Hollow.”
Lisa gave him a thoroughly unimpressed look. She wasn't the only one.
“Shiba Kaien – you were one of the strongest lieutenants Soul Society had ta offer,” Hirako commented, taking a seat on another broken piece of debris. “It came as a surprise for all of us when Yoruichi heard from your sister that you’d been killed.”
Ichigo’s mouth twisted into a bitter line. “You could say I wasn't at my best when I fought it.”
“Bullshit!” Lisa snapped, crossing her arms. “You can be a hothead when you're dealing with your subordinates or getting into a fight with someone at the Eleventh but you’re always reliable in battle.
“And I don’t mean that as a compliment,” She tacked on irritably when Ichigo arched an eyebrow at her. “I'm just stating a fact.”
Ichigo sighed, scowling off to the side. “...It’s name was Metastacia.”
“What does that have to do with-”
“It was the same Hollow that killed Miyako two days before she was brought back to me,” Ichigo finished quietly, his gaze focused somewhere on the horizon.
Lisa closed her mouth so fast that Ichigo would be surprised if she hadn't bitten her tongue.
“Who is Miyako?” Rose enquired tentatively when even Hirako’s expression sobered with sympathy.
“Ichigo’s- or, well, Kaien’s wife,” Hirako clarified when Ichigo didn't respond. The former captain caught his eye. “I didn't know she’d died as well. I'm sorry.”
Ichigo grunted noncommittally, shaking off the bout of melancholy threatening to drag him under. “I'm still coming to terms with it myself. Half of me felt like it happened half a century ago, which I think is the normal part of me. The other half feels like it happened a few days ago.”
“Understandable,” Hirako nodded briskly. “Ya need time ta actually sit down and think about it. What with Aizen runnin’ around, I'm sure ya haven’t had the chance. ...By the way, I'm guessin’ ya wanna go by Ichigo now instead of Kaien?”
Ichigo shrugged. “If that’s alright, yeah. I've been going by Kurosaki Ichigo for sixteen years now. I'm used to it. Mostly. Might still answer if you call me Kaien but that’s going to get confusing fast.”
Hirako smirked. “I can imagine. Ichigo it is then; think it’ll be harder for most people ta get used to you bein’ Kaien more than the other way around. Ya still look like Ichigo after all, though you've probably heard people sayin’ ya look a lot like Kaien too.”
Ichigo nodded in agreement, and then flicked his gaze up warily when Lisa advanced on him. “Uh, if you’re gonna hit me again, could I have a three-second head-start?”
Lisa glared at him. “No.”
And just as Ichigo braced himself for another slap, the former lieutenant surged forward and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a tight hug.
Ichigo froze in surprise, arms hovering over her back as he shot an alarmed look in Hirako’s direction. The blond only grinned widely and mouthed, ‘You’re on your own.’
Ichigo sighed and forced the tension from his frame before slinging an arm around Lisa’s waist. “Missed you too, Lisa.”
Lisa said nothing – it wasn't her way to be overly emotional; the hug was already cutting it close – but her arms tightened around him and it was several minutes before she released him.
“Right, so,” Ichigo patted Lisa on the shoulder and pretended not to notice the way she was blinking rather rapidly. “I came here to find my captain. Is Unohana-san still working on him?”
“Last we heard, yeah,” Hirako nodded to the left. “They're down that way. Kyouraku’s still here as well, but the old man left with the rest a few minutes before ya got here. Think they needed ta get back and check the damage in the real Karakura.”
Ichigo nodded. “Better for me then. I don’t want to hash out my identity here.”
He braced a hand against the floor and made to push himself to his feet, only to swear when his limbs betrayed him and he collapsed back to the ground again, gasping for breath as his entire left side seared with blinding agony.
“I'm fine,” He wheezed, trying to ward off all the hands plucking at his Shihakushou. “Aizen got in a lucky shot earlier.”
Hirako’s voice, firm with the expectancy of obedience, overrode everyone else’s. “Alright, give him some air. Ichigo, I need ta check that over. Hands off.”
Ichigo attempted a feeble protest which was easily batted away by Hirako before the former captain’s deft fingers peeled back the torn folds of his Shihakushou.
Hisses sounded from all around, and Ichigo heard Hirako inform him in sardonic tones, “If this is what ya call fine, I’d hate ta see what ya’d call fatal.”
“Hey, I died,” Ichigo rasped as lightly as he could under the circumstances. “I know fatal pretty damn well.”
“Point taken,” Hirako snorted, and Ichigo managed to peel his eyelids up enough to watch as the former captain began pouring healing Kidou into the bloody gash in his side.
“I'm nowhere near as good as Unohana-san; I only know the basics,” Hirako warned. “But I doubt you’re gonna hop off ta the Fourth if I tell ya ta.”
Ichigo instantly objected, struggling to sit up even as Lisa whacked him upside the head and told him to stay still. “No! I have to get to Taichou!”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Hirako groused, pressing harder against Ichigo’s injury and making him wince. “This’ll have ta do for now so stay still! Geez, you’re still as stubborn as ever.”
“Kurosaki Ichigo alone has stubbornness to spare,” Ichigo reminded him loftily.
Hirako scoffed. “Ya got that right. Whoopee for the rest of us who’ve gotta look after your ass. Take better care of yourself, idiot.”
Ichigo subsided at that, scowling silently instead. Technically, he was around Hirako’s age but the former captain had a way of reprimanding him that made him feel like an unruly kid.
“Alright, that’s the best patch job you’re gonna get from me,” Hirako announced a few minutes later. “C’mon, I’ll shunpo ya over.”
Ichigo made a face but allowed Hirako to help him to his feet as Lisa came up onto his other side and clamped a secure arm around his waist.
“Kensei, carry Hiyori,” Hirako instructed. “We’re stickin’ together.”
And before Ichigo could do more than glance at Hiyori, Hirako and Lisa were shunpoing away, supporting Ichigo on either side.
Shunsui glanced up distractedly, hand automatically falling to his Zanpakutou when he felt a group of people approach. He was tired, he had killed someone today that he hadn't particularly wanted to kill, he wished for nothing more than to crash on his couch with a good bottle of sake, and his nerves were just about stretched to their breaking point because Retsu was taking a damn long time to stabilize his best friend.
Yeah, it had been a long day.
And then Lisa was there (which was pretty much the only thing that Shunsui had been happy about over the past twenty-four hours), along with the other Visored and-
“Ichigo-kun,” Shunsui quickly scanned the boy draped between Lisa and Shinji, looking for any signs of injury. The left side just below the rib cage looked bad but not critical. “What happened? Where’s Aizen?”
“Gone,” Ichigo grunted, squirming away from his two live crutches. “Dead or dying. Urahara-san’s looking for his remains. Hogyoku’s gone too. War’s over.”
And before Shunsui could fully process the startlingly prompt but certainly appreciated answers, Ichigo had lurched forward, almost falling flat on his face as he half-crumpled to the ground beside Shunsui, one hand extending but not quite touching as it hovered above Juushirou’s shoulder.
“Taichou?” Ichigo barely seemed to notice anything else as his gaze darted frantically between Retsu and Juushirou. “Is he gonna be alright? You’ll be able to fix him, right?”
Retsu glanced up, clearly puzzled by the boy’s degree of worry. Shunsui was as well. Since when had Ichigo gotten so close to Juushirou?
“He is already stabilizing, Kurosaki-san,” Retsu confirmed serenely. “For the most part, he is out of danger.”
Ichigo’s shoulders slumped with overwhelming relief and his hand finally dropped to Juushirou’s shoulder. His face was still paler than usual but some of the strain seeped out of his features.
Shunsui frowned in consternation, examining the boy more closely, and then did a double-take when he finally registered what was different besides the longer hair.
There were two swords at Ichigo’s waist.
That wasn't the shocking part.
One of them was Nejibana.
He opened his mouth with absolutely no clue what he was going to say when a kick to the head almost made him face-plant to the side, and his concentration shifted to Lisa instead.
“Leave him alone,” She ordered, glasses flashing when a ray of sunshine reflected off of them. “He’s worried enough about his captain that he dragged his ass all the way here after his showdown against Aizen.”
With tremendous effort (like he’d said, it had been a long day), Shunsui dragged his thoughts together, shifted a little ways away from the group of three, and glanced at each of the Visored’s faces. “‘His captain’?”
“He’s the reincarnation of Shiba Kaien,” Shinji revealed bluntly and without fanfare.
Shunsui waited several seconds to see if the former captain was being serious, and then, when everyone remained unsmiling, he turned shakily back to Ichigo. He noticed the unnaturally still expression on Retsu’s face and knew that she was probably as shocked as he was.
The reincarnation of Shiba Kaien.
Ichigo was Kaien.
They’d all thought that the similar looks were just coincidence, that the identical moral traits and the parallel physical habits were just-
There was no faking the look of single-minded concern on Ichigo’s face though. Kaien had worn that same expression whenever Juushirou’s illness had taken a turn for the worse. Half the time, the lieutenant had even brought his paperwork to Juushirou’s bedside whenever the captain had been laid out and suffering, keeping one eye on the man’s condition while he had gone through sheet after sheet of forms and notices and reports, not all of it his either. Kaien had done both the lieutenant’s work and half the captain’s work as well.
“Kaien?” Shunsui murmured almost without thought.
Ichigo blinked and glanced back at him, looking slightly bleary-eyed. “I prefer Ichigo now, Taichou, but yeah. It’s been a while.”
What exactly was he supposed to say to that?
Shunsui shook his head and laughed a little, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. “Juu-chan is going to have a heart attack.”
Ichigo snorted softly, a small grin stretching his lips.
Kaien’s grin. Ichigo’s grin.
Shunsui had been wrong. Lisa alive and well wasn't the only thing he was happy about today.
Though Aizen’s downfall merited a footnote too.
“Welcome back,” He said warmly. He didn't need to know the hows or whys; all he could think of was how happy Juushirou and Rukia were going to be. Hell, the entire Thirteenth Division would probably throw a party.
Now if only there was some way he could convince Yama-ji to rescind the whole Visored being executed sentence so that Shunsui might get a chance of convincing Lisa to come back after begging for forgiveness (he wasn't below grovelling, especially when it was necessary). Nanao would undoubtedly step aside for her – his second lieutenant had always idolized Lisa, and Hollowfication had never changed that.
If they managed all that, Shunsui would be the happiest man in the world.
“Everyone! Y- You must get away from here quickly! Kurotsuchi-taichou is going to activate the Tenkai Kecchu any minute now! It’s dangerous here!”
Ichigo, still huddled beside Ukitake but chin dipping against his collar bone as he dozed off, jerked awake at the sound of Sasakibe’s voice.
Across from him, Unohana glanced up with a slight frown, her hands still glowing green. “I would much prefer it if I could finish stabilizing Ukitake-taichou first. Can Kurotsuchi-taichou not be convinced to wait?”
Sasakibe shook his head. “I'm afraid not. His subordinates are already trying to distract him for as long as they can but he’s started threatening them with dissection. It is only a matter of time.”
Ichigo scratched his head, mindful of his injury as he shifted on the spot. “Kurotsuchi used to be Urahara-san’s Third Seat, right? He’s worse than I ever remember Urahara-san being.”
Hirako snorted. “Kisuke’s a puppy compared ta what Kurotsuchi does with his test subjects.”
Nobody there could argue with that, even if they were inclined to.
“Can he be moved, Retsu-chan?” Kyouraku asked, adjusting his slightly cutup sakkat.
Unohana looked subtly displeased, not a good sign for anyone her ire was directed at. “I would rather not. Ukitake-taichou recently had a hole in his chest. If I release the Kidou holding the wound together now to summon Minazuki to carry us, it will worsen again immediately.”
Sasakibe looked conflicted. “Perhaps I could go back and talk to Kurotsuchi-taichou again.”
“And he’ll probably start threatening to turn you into an experiment, right?” Ichigo interjected, pulling himself to his feet and stretching out the aches in his muscles. “I’ll do it. I can get us outta here. Unohana-san, you just need something to transport Taichou with, right?”
Unohana leveled a thoughtful gaze on him. “Yes. So long as I can continue supplying Ukitake-taichou with healing Kidou, it will be fine.”
Ichigo nodded, and, ignoring the astounded look he received from Sasakibe as he unsealed Nejibana once more, he stepped away from the group, taking two steps forward before flinging it into the air again.
Nejibana’s serpentine form rushed out of the resulting whirlpool with a rumbling cry that shook the skies. It snaked once around them before looping over to Ichigo and coming to a standstill beside him.
Ichigo placed a hand on the serpent’s head, the water never soaking him as he glanced back at the others with a tiny smirk. “First class, serpent-style. Coming?”
And then Kyouraku was laughing, less amused and more nostalgic as he took in the sea serpent. “I’d almost forgotten about this, Ichigo-kun.”
“Well I've never seen it,” Hirako cut in, eyebrows raised. “Ya didn't learn this recently?”
Ichigo shook his head. “No, I knew this technique even back then. There was just never much of an opportunity to show it.”
“Well I’ve seen it,” In three strides, Lisa had leapt onto the serpent the same way she’d always had on the occasions that Ichigo had given her a lift somewhere whenever they’d been thrown on a mission together. “Hey Shinji, I guess we’re heading back to Soul Society?”
Hirako grimaced. “Not like we have much of a choice. There’s no time ta leave through the damn barriers surroundin’ this place. If the old man tries ta arrest us, we ain’t gonna be responsible for the damage we’ll cause.”
Half the Visored suddenly looked rather hopeful in that someone would try to arrest them.
“Talk about making an entrance,” Ichigo muttered under his breath as Kyouraku and Hirako carefully manoeuvred Ukitake onto the back of Nejibana. He’d chalk up the fact that it had taken him until now to realize that riding into Seireitei on the back of a giant sea serpent wasn't the epitome of subtlety to blood loss.
“Well, there’s no better way ta get the news out,” Hirako said cheerily, looking utterly entertained.
Ichigo shot him a dirty look before focusing on Sasakibe, who had, true to his nature, not asked a multitude of questions regarding Ichigo’s sudden change in Zanpaktou and currently looked to have figured out the key points all by himself if the amazed expression on his face was anything to go by.
“You coming with us, Sasakibe-san?” Ichigo jabbed a finger along the length of Nejibana. “Plenty of space.”
Sasakibe wavered, and then, when the atmosphere seemed to tremble around them, nodded curtly in acceptance. “If you don’t mind, Kurosaki-san. My thanks.”
“Alright, arms and legs tucked in? Seatbelts on?” Ichigo called over his shoulder as he hopped up onto Nejibana’s head.
“There ain’t any seatbelts on here, Kurosaki!” Kensei griped, looking highly uneasy. Of all of them, Kensei seemed the most anxious about sitting on a Zanpakutou-turned-serpent-made-entirely-of-water.
Ichigo bit back a snicker, almost losing control when he caught Hirako’s eye. The former captain was already grinning broadly.
“Let’s go, Nejibana,” Ichigo crouched down, patting the serpent fondly as Nejibana crooned a growly purr that sounded a lot like mischievous laughter before shooting up into the air, almost throwing nearly everyone off her back. The only exceptions were Unohana and Ukitake, whom Ichigo had ensured that both were grounded firmly against Nejibana’s back.
Swearing erupted from the back while Mashiro cheered loudly, sounding as if she was having the time of her life.
As they flew higher into the sky and Kyouraku busied himself with summoning his own Hell Butterfly, a very faint, very weak reiatsu signature brushed against Ichigo’s senses and he turned to peer down at the ground below.
He frowned when he caught sight of a vaguely familiar figure lying broken amongst the rubble, looking for all the world like he was dead. Judging by the rapidly fading reiatsu signature, he almost was.
“Sasakibe-san,” Ichigo called above the whistle of the wind around them. “When this place is switched back with the real Karakura Town, what would happen to anyone who was still here?”
“Most likely, they would be torn apart,” The lieutenant divulged. “Is there a problem?”
“No, no,” Ichigo hesitated, glancing down again. The guy was mostly dead anyway, and he was an enemy. Or had been anyway. Even if Ichigo saved him, he’d probably die before they were halfway through the Senkaimon. And if they made it all the way to the Fourth and Unohana was willing to heal him, it’d be a chore and a half to smuggle him back out of Soul Society.
But the one thing that had stuck out in Ichigo’s memory about this particular Espada – he was pretty sure that this guy was the one Gin had mentioned; Starrk or something – was the way he had looked genuinely sorry when he had snatched Inoue right after Nnoitra had been taken down. That by no means absolved the Espada but it certainly placed him quite a bit higher than the, say, Fifth Espada in Ichigo’s books, not to mention being torn apart sounded pretty damn painful.
“I’ll be right back!” Ichigo shouted as he leapt from Nejibana, shunpoing down towards the broken figure in the wreckage.
Up close, Starrk looked even worse. Kyouraku had definitely done a number on the Espada. The entire front of the Arrancar’s body was a mess of crimson, and his Hollow hole was cracked and leaking even more blood that didn't seem like it would be stopping any time soon.
Uncertainly, Ichigo quickly shoved away some of the debris surrounding the Espada before ripping off a large piece of his Shihakushou and wrapping it as best he could around the worst of the injuries.
A muted sound of agony slipped from Starrk’s mouth but the Espada didn't wake. Grimacing in apology, Ichigo scooped the Arrancar up as carefully as he could manage and grabbed the fractured katana lying half a foot away before shunpoing back up to Nejibana.
He was met with multiple looks of disbelief.
Ichigo shrugged, gently setting Starrk down before tearing off another strip of his Shihakushou and pressing it against the Espada’s sternum. The first piece of cloth was already soaked through.
“He’s not dead yet,” Ichigo bristled defensively. “And I'm not leaving him here to get torn apart.”
“He’s not dead yet but he looks seconds from death’s door, Kurosaki,” Love observed, eyeing the Espada guardedly. “Wouldn't it be kinder to just finish him off now?”
“That’s not something for me to decide,” Ichigo said stubbornly. “If he wakes up later and tells me to put him out of his misery... I’ll think about it.”
He reached for the hem of his Shihakushou again; it was a good thing his clothes reached his ankles.
A hand caught his wrist before he could shred more of the material and he looked up to find Kyouraku shrugging off his prized kimono. “Kyouraku... -taichou?”
“Maa, we wouldn't want you to end up naked, Ichigo-kun,” Kyouraku heaved a mournful sigh before tearing apart a piece of his kimono. The action looked like it physically pained him.
Ichigo sweatdropped. “Um... thanks, Taichou.”
“Ichigo,” Hirako looked both exasperated and resigned in turn. “Why are ya doin’ this? Ya realize this guy’s an Espada, right?”
Ichigo fumbled for a nonexistent answer, none that really explained why coming to mind.
“Why not?” He countered at last. “It’s not like he’s the enemy anymore. He’s injured, he’s suffering – that’s enough for me.”
Hirako stared at him for a long assessing moment before releasing a gusty sigh and moving forward. “Scoot over; this guy’s gonna die before we even get ta Soul Society at this rate.”
Obediently, Ichigo shuffled over to give the Visored leader some room. Basic healing Kidou was better than no Kidou at all.
Checking that Kyouraku and Hirako was handling the situation, Ichigo glanced over at Unohana who was watching them between healing Ukitake.
“Would you be willing to help him, Unohana-san?” Ichigo ventured warily.
Again, Unohana turned a pensive gaze on him, one that Ichigo didn't know how to interpret.
“You have not changed at all,” She finally said. “Back then and right now, you are still very much the same.”
Ichigo rubbed the back of his neck. Was that a compliment or a reprimand?
“If you can keep him alive until we reach my Division, Kurosaki-san,” Unohana continued, her attention diverting once more to Ichigo’s captain. “I will heal him to the best of my ability.”
Ichigo blinked, and then dipped his head gratefully. “Thanks, Unohana-san.”
He shifted and turned back just as the shouji doors slid open, wide enough for Nejibana to race through just as the entire town behind them rumbled a warning before folding in on itself.
Well, Ichigo mused as Nejibana swooped towards the Senkaimon and the light up ahead grew brighter. At least the next few days won’t be boring.
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Kishin no Mizuhana – Fierce God’s Water Flower