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Swinging Pendulum

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                “Ichigo, listen ta me – if ya find a way out, take it.  Don’t come back for us, ya hear?”

 

                “I can’t do that!”

 

                “Yes ya can, and ya will!  For once in your life, kid, don’t be a hero!”

 

                “I'm not trying to be a hero!!  But what kinda person would I be if I left you guys behind?!”

 

                “A sane one.  I mean it, Ichigo.  Ya got a long life ahead o’ ya; don’t go wastin’ it on has-beens like us.  We’ve lived long enough; we’ve had centuries.  You've barely lived two decades.”

 

                “Like that fucking matters!  I'm not letting those Central 46 bastards execute you!”

 

                “For god’s sakes, we’ve been clapped in chains and ya can’t even sit up straight!  Now is not the time to worry about anyone else!  Shit, the least they coulda done was get ya a healer first.  You're gonna bleed out at this rate.”

 

                “Hey, I'm not the only one- the only one injured here, you hypocrite.”

 

                “I'm not critically injured; there's a difference, idiot.  Dunno what the hell ya were thinkin’ when ya ran ahead ta fight Aizen.  Ya shoulda known ya’d be seriously wounded after ya killed him.”

 

                “As if I knew Central 46 was going to- to send in Shinigami to arrest me afterwards!  Soul Society is really- is really fucked up.”

 

                “You're tellin’ me.  It’s run by corrupt bastards after all.  ...Ichigo?  Oi, stay awake.  No sleepin’.  Didn't know ya still needed naptime at this age.”

 

                “Screw you, Shinji.  ’m just resting my eyes.  For a while.  I’ll be fine.  When I wake up, I’ll get us all outta here, ’kay?”

 

                “Not okay.  Stay awake, Ichigo, ya hear me?”

 

                “Mm...”

 

                “Hey, ya-”

 

                “Hirako Shinji, you are to come with us.”

 

                “Tch, do we get at least a farce of a trial this time or are ya people gonna skip right on ta the execution?”

 

                “You and the other... Visored will be treated as Hollows.  There is no need for a trial.”

 

                “No!  You can’t-”

 

                “Ichigo, shut up and stay still!  Ya look out for yourself, ya understand?  Don’t do anythin’ stupid!”

 

                “Do not worry, Hirako.  He won’t have that opportunity.  As acknowledgement towards his final efforts in killing Aizen, Central 46 has decided that he will be incarcerated instead of executed.”

 

                “What kinda fucked up acknowledgement is that?!  Death is better, ya thrice-damned Shinigami!”

 

                “Shinji!  You-”

 

                “Ichigo, remember what I said; don’t ya dare-”

 

{1}

 

                Ichigo opened his eyes.

 

                The wooden ceiling stared back at him.

 

                It took him a moment to register the sunlight streaming in through the curtains and the fact that, had he still been in Muken, light would've been the last thing reaching him.

 

                For a long minute, he didn't move, allowing the memories of darkness and desperation and hopelessness fade into the back of his mind.

 

                He simply concentrated on breathing.

 

                It had come as something of a surprise when Ichigo had finally succumbed to the welcome pull of painless oblivion after who knew how long only to hear the echo of a smooth rumbling voice in his ear, edged with power but somehow giving no sense of danger.

 

                Ichigo hadn't been able to see anything; he hadn't even been sure if his eyes had been open at the time, but the voice had introduced itself as the Spirit King, something Ichigo had only heard of in passing from Aizen and Kisuke.

 

                “Balance must be maintained.  Central 46 has overstepped its bounds.  I myself am no longer in any position to put a stop to it.  However, I can give you another chance, a chance to save your Visored friends.  But in return, I require your assistance.

 

“Soul Society must not be allowed to drown in its own prejudice and laws once again.  If the Spiritual World is to continue to flourish, changes must be made.  Shinigami cannot remain strong if they do not accept change.  Visored or Arrancar or even Quincy, there will be no future if the Shinigami continue solving their problems by killing all of them and vice versa.

 

“This is where you come in, Kurosaki Ichigo.  I have witnessed your potential for growth, and I approve of your tolerant disposition towards Shinigami, Hollows, and Humans alike.  Because of this, I will trust your judgement.  I will grant you one chance; any changes are yours to make.  But make them you must, and I pray you make the right ones.”

 

And without so much as a by-your-leave, Ichigo had abruptly jolted awake the next second, shooting upright and finding himself sitting in a bed not his own, his Zanpakutou beside him, and both Zangetsu and Shiro’s voices back inside his head where they belonged.

 

Ichigo had been completely bewildered at first.  It hadn't taken long to realize that he was still in Seireitei, but he was definitely not in the Fourth or any of the other division barracks that he was familiar with so that ruled out the arrest and Muken and watching Shinji and the other Visored being dragged away and the Spirit King’s voice all being just a nightmare.

 

Ichigo had cautiously ventured out of the room he had been in, Zanpakutou sheathed but hand wrapped securely around its hilt.  He’d almost gaped when he had stepped into the hallway and promptly found himself in the midst of at least several dozen Shinigami, all bustling about with books or scrolls or Zanpakutou of their own.

 

Ichigo had hastily retreated back into his room after that, wondering if perhaps Aizen had done something to him in the final battle and he was stuck in some sort of illusion, but illusions usually made a person forget the more important things, and Ichigo could remember every detail of the war perfectly fine.

 

Halfway through his mini panic attack and agitated pacing (in a room with three beds, not one, but with seemingly only one set of books and other necessities stacked in drawers and shelves), he had caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror and found his reflection wearing the same white and blue attire as the male Shinigami he had seen outside instead of his usual black.

 

He had tried asking Zangetsu and Shiro what was going on but both had only known as much as he had.  Of course, Ichigo hadn't been so clueless as to not recognize the Shinigami Academy uniform once he had calmed down.  Renji and Rukia had provided him with an overview once when they had been giving him a proper tour of Seireitei.

 

Except, last he’d checked, Shin’ou Academy had been destroyed in one of Aizen’s raids.

 

But it wasn't as if he would've been able to get his answers by staying inside the room so ichigo had gone outside again, not missing the adoring looks from some of the students and the equally antagonistic sneers from others.  They obviously knew him well enough to pick him out from a crowd.

 

When he had finally made his way out of the Academy and into the courtyard out front, he had found Seireitei in all of its unmarred glory, looking like it had never seen hide or hair of Aizen’s army.

 

Another half hour of inwardly hyperventilating, carefully recalling his last moments before he had blacked out and the so-called Spirit King’s words, and meticulously turning what looked to be his dorm room upside-down later, Ichigo had dug up name tags tucked inside the other two sets of uniforms in the closet, a class schedule with his name written on top, and a selection of course books and scrolls that also had his name written inside them in his familiar semi-neat scrawl.

 

They had all read ‘Shiba Ichigo’.

 

Technically, if his dad hadn't been in hiding, Ichigo would've grown up with the surname Shiba instead of Kurosaki.  He hadn't though so it had been somewhat strange to see his name connected to his father’s Clan name, but that had been the least of his worries.

 

Ichigo wasn't stupid, no matter what some people thought.  The Spirit King had told him that he would be granted a second chance, and at the time, in a small part of his mind that hadn't felt hazy and half-asleep, he had thought that the King had meant that Shinji and the others hadn't been dead yet, and that he would free Ichigo so that he’d be able to save them.

 

Clearly, Ichigo had misunderstood.

 

His digging had also turned up a lunch invite slipped inside one of his books.  He had been more perplexed than anything else when he had read the message.

 

‘Morning, cousin!  Join me for lunch today, okay?  I’ll swing by at noon to pick you up.  Your favourite big bro, Kaien^_^’

 

Ichigo had stared uncomprehendingly at the note for a good two minutes before putting it down and checking the clock on the wall.  It had read eleven-forty-five.

 

Now, some things did tend to fly over Ichigo’s head from time to time but he had been fairly certain that he was the eldest in the family and that he didn't have any brothers, older or otherwise.

 

However, he did have a famous dead cousin by the name of Shiba Kaien, older brother to Kukaku and Ganju.

 

And if the note was real and Ichigo wasn't dreaming, then it meant that the son of a bitch Spirit King had dumped his ass in the past.

 

Ichigo could move pretty fast when he wanted to (which, considering the war, that had been most of the time) so he had flown around his room and shoved everything back in their proper places in the span of ten minutes, a little messier than before but nothing he couldn't work around or clean up later.

 

He had been giving his room a last once-over just as a knock sounded at his door, and when he had opened it, he had found himself staring at an almost lookalike of himself.  The only differences had been the hair and eye colour, the half-inch of height that the other man had had on him, and the good-natured grin on Kaien’s face.

 

“Yo, cousin!  Ready to go?”

 

After that day, Ichigo had vowed to stay away from Shiba Kaien as much as possible from that point onwards.  The guy wasn't as hyper as Isshin was but he definitely had that Shiba exuberance that everyone except Ichigo seemed to have inherited.  Ichigo had always been all frowns and the occasional smile or laugh ever since his mother had died.  Every Shiba he had ever met (granted, that was just Kukaku and Ganju, along with his father and sisters) had all been much more cheerful overall.

 

Kaien had been no exception, talking to Ichigo like they had known each other since forever.  The older man hadn't seemed to mind that Ichigo had only answered with grunts, nods, and a sparse handful of stilted sentences.

 

But the lunch had been informative since Kaien had, on the way back to the Academy, asked Ichigo if he was doing alright since he had entered the Academy two weeks prior, and Ichigo had managed to subtly glean a few facts from his cousin such as how Kaien had apparently found him in one of the outer districts in Rukongai about two months ago, grievously injured and unconscious but looking so much like Kaien that Ichigo had just had to be a Shiba, and that had apparently been how he had been inducted into the Clan as a long-lost cousin.

 

Ichigo had already had his Zanpakutou with him though – in its sealed state of course – so Kaien had signed him up for the Academy as soon as Ichigo had been back on his feet, much to Kukaku’s disapproval who, Kaien had told him with a conspiratorial wink, had enjoyed doting on Ichigo when Ichigo had woken up confused and conveniently amnesic.

 

Ichigo had bade his cousin a quiet goodbye after that, ducked away from the hair-ruffling and hug that Kaien had attempted to glomp him with, and then returned to his room and tried to wrap his mind around the fact that he was now in the past.

 

Like, way in the past.  At least a century because Ichigo had picked up Hirako Shinji’s distinctive reiatsu signature when they had passed by the Fifth earlier.

 

It had taken everything he had not to storm that place and make sure that the Visored – future Visored? – was okay.  It was probably lucky that he hadn't picked up Aizen’s reiatsu as well or he might’ve snapped and gone after the traitor right then and there.

 

And now here he was, three and a half months after that lunch date and still struggling to adjust to this new world.  For all that he had been a regular visitor to Soul Society since saving Rukia that first time – and a resident of the place since the start of the war – it was a whole other matter to actually attend school and interact with his peers and not give anything away.

 

The last was actually not that hard.  Ichigo had quickly discovered that half the school idolized him for his connections to his genius cousin and the Shiba Clan, and the other half hated him for the same things.  As a result, none of them had been all that interested in genuinely befriending him.

 

That was alright in Ichigo’s books.  At this point, he had no desire to befriend anyone either.

 

And while he had thought it to be somewhat unfair, Ichigo was also grateful for his ties to a Clan because it gave him a few benefits, such as his very own room even though it was big enough for three.  Ichigo had taken to setting up a privacy seal to soundproof the place – it was about the only bit of Kidou he could manage (along with some very basic healing) since it had been a requirement anytime an impromptu meeting had had to be held in Hueco Mundo – because there were times he still woke up screaming from nightmares of blood and death and the claustrophobic darkness of Muken.

 

On the other hand, there were also quite a few downsides, the worst being the way his teachers all compared him to Kaien, which consequently turned some of the other students against him with insults and jeers.  Ichigo didn't really mind too much – it was really more of an annoyance than anything else – but he did wish that they would stop.  From what he had learned once upon a time courtesy of Kukaku and Ganju, Kaien was not a show-off or an arrogant snob; he was the exact opposite – hardworking and kind to the people around him, and disliked standing out – which only served to frustrate Ichigo even more because he knew that if Kaien ever caught wind of the flak that he was taking because of the older Shinigami’s reputation, his cousin would not be happy.  Kaien already seemed ridiculously protective of Ichigo for some reason and looked out for him in his own exasperatingly sociable way; Ichigo didn't want to give Kaien any reason to get upset on his behalf.

 

But other than the school drama around him, the Academy was mostly very boring.

 

The school taught four main subjects: Zanjutsu, Hohou, Hakuda, and Kidou, along with some history, mathematics, and the art of filling in paperwork properly (Ichigo had very nearly laughed when he had seen this, though its proper name was ‘Professional Office Duties’).

 

There was less than nothing that the teachers at the Academy could teach him about the first three.  Ichigo was one hundred percent certain that he could take out every instructor inside the school with one hand tied behind his back and blindfolded.  He was already at captain level and was even stronger than most captains, present and future, not to mention he had been taught Shunpo by the Goddess of the Flash herself.  Even the accelerated classes did nothing to alleviate his boredom, especially since he had to tone it down several hundred notches; he was already powerful enough when he was holding back.

 

Mathematics was a breeze; he had worked hard back in high school before the war, and had, at Ishida’s urging, kept up with his studies between skirmishes after the war had started.

 

And filling in paperwork – pointless crap like duplicates of past mission reports and income statements – was nothing new.  War, instead of putting paperwork on hold, actually generated more of the cursed stuff, and whenever Ukitake had been bedridden and Rukia had been swamped by mountains of it, Ichigo had graciously lent a hand.  And then Shunsui had unfortunately found out and added his workload to Ichigo’s pile, claiming that Ichigo had to do at least some of it since the captain was teaching him how to wield his dual blades more effectively.

 

(Ichigo had later retaliated by spitefully pouring all of the man’s sake down the drain, much to the utter delight of both Lisa and Nanao.  Regrettably, this had only earned Ichigo an ass-kicking during their next sparring session; for such a lazy guy, Kyouraku Shunsui was no pushover, and was a shockingly dedicated mentor after Ichigo had managed to convince the man to teach him.)

 

So really, the only challenging courses that Ichigo could look forward to were history and the Kidou classes.

 

He had always liked history so that at least kept him decently occupied.  Kidou on the other hand made him want to yank his hair out.

 

That privacy seal that Kisuke had taught him?  It had literally taken Ichigo an entire three months to learn it.  Granted, it was a fairly tricky bit of Kidou, especially since he had never been taught the basics, but still.  Everything else came easily enough to him when he worked hard enough at it so it had been beyond aggravating when Kidou simply didn't work out as naturally for him.

 

And his father had even had the gall to tell him that Kidou was something that Shibas in general excelled at.  Renji and Rukia certainly hadn't helped when they had sat on the side and laughed at him.

 

But learning that one seal had at least given him enough of a handle on controlling his reiatsu to seal his Zanpakutou and hide his reiatsu signature from those around him so Ichigo had been somewhat mollified when he had finally succeeded at the end of the three months.

 

Still, it didn't help him now whenever the instructor told him to pull off a low-levelled Kidou.

 

You have too much reiatsu, Kisuke had sighed more than once.  The lower-levelled Kidou spells will never come easily to you simply because your reiatsu is too powerful to contain within the weaker spells.  Normally, stronger reiatsu make the spells themselves stronger, but your reiatsu only overwhelms them and makes them explode.

 

Ichigo had asked what he should do.

 

Stick to the harder ones, Kisuke had advised with a cheerful snap of his fan.  Or better yet, don’t use them at all.  Knowing you, you’re more likely to take out your own hand than hit what you’re aiming at.

 

Yeah, like that was at all helpful.

 

Ichigo’s instinctive scowl deepened as his thoughts took a darker turn down memory lane.  He didn't like thinking about the past – future – too much.  It inevitably led to remembering his old friends.

 

At least half of them had died.  His father and sisters had gone the same way, though that had been almost three years ago now, and the memory of it was more of a deep-seated ache in his chest than the choking agony that had gripped his heart for months afterwards.  His old man should actually be alive right now but Ichigo hadn't been able to bring himself to swing by the Shiba compound even though Kaien had tried numerous times to coax him ‘home’ for dinner.

 

He had gotten rather adept at not thinking about the other timeline.  It helped a little.  During the war, whenever his mood teetered on the brink of depression, he would throw himself into battle and fight and fight until he had exhausted himself to the point where he had just been too tired to think.  Unohana hadn't been happy about it, to put it mildly, citing mental and physical health issues, but it wasn't as if she had been able to do anything about it either; Ichigo had been one of their strongest fighters and nobody had been able to afford him taking any downtime.

 

Now was no different, but instead of life-and-death battles, Ichigo concentrated on his studies.  He was fairly certain that the librarians at the Seireitei Library all recognized him by now, and not just because he was Shiba Kaien’s cousin.  He had taken to holing up there to avoid migraine-inducing fans, irritating bullies, and Kaien (who always insisted on being open and friendly and trying to cajole Ichigo into being more social).

 

Hiding out in the library worked amazingly well.  Kaien hardly ever thought to look for him there, and when he did, the place was big enough for Ichigo to sequester himself away in a dusty corner without anyone the wiser.

 

He avoided thinking about things like Aizen and what the hell he was going to change and not change as well.  The Spirit King had implied that Visored were needed so that was one thing Ichigo couldn't really do anything about, especially since if he managed to save Shinji and the others from being Hollowfied, Aizen would undoubtedly find another group of unsuspecting Shinigami to experiment on, and that would throw everything out of whack, leaving Ichigo with a completely unpredictable future to deal with.  What’s more, Shinji had once confessed to Ichigo that being a Visored really wasn't so bad, especially since the power boost coming from his Hollow powers had saved many a life including their own time and time again.

 

So Ichigo would leave that alone.  Besides, there wasn't much he could do about anything at this moment.  Graduating should be his first order of business, and nothing truly disastrous had really kicked off until around four years from now.

 

Ichigo shifted when a knock came at the door, automatically cancelling the Kidou spell as he involuntarily tensed, ready to move at a moment’s notice.  He didn't recognize the reiatsu signature outside.

 

Rolling out of bed, he padded to the door, opening it to find a fellow student shifting nervously from foot to foot in front of him.  She was a full head and a half shorter with dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and a katana tucked through a sash around her waist.

 

Her eyes widened when she caught sight of him, and for a moment, she seemed lost for words, looking terrified and self-conscious at the same time.

 

There were students like these too, the shyer ones who kept their heads down and didn't really speak to students on the higher rungs of the political or social ladder.

 

Ichigo mentally heaved a sigh and cursed Kaien for inadvertently putting him in situations like this before prompting bluntly, “What is it?”

 

The girl actually jumped a bit before ducking into a low bow and stammering out, “G- Good afternoon, Shiba-dono.  I- I'm not sure if you've been informed b- but Koyonagi-sensei has assigned me some extra tutoring sessions with- with you for- for Zanjutsu.  He told me to give you this.”

 

Cheeks flushed with palpable embarrassment, the girl thrust a small piece of paper forward, gaze focused anywhere but Ichigo.

 

Ichigo’s eyebrow twitched in annoyance as he snatched up the note and scanned it.  As far as he could remember, he had never agreed to tutor anyone.

 

‘Shiba-kun, consider this extra credit.  Your Kidou instructor tells me that you’re not up to par in her class but, having reviewed your progress in the rest of your courses, I believe it would be a shame if you did not graduate early because you lacked the marks in that one area.  Continue working hard at your Kidou and tutoring this student will make up for any deduced marks.  ~ Koyonagi Senzou.’

 

Ichigo gritted his teeth and forced down the urge to Bankai Koyonagi’s ass to kingdom come.

 

Koyonagi Senzou was the Zanjutsu branch head at the Academy, and the man had unfortunately caught Ichigo wiping the floor with his classmates during his first week at school.  Koyonagi had instantly hauled Ichigo away for a few practical tests and had quickly come to the conclusion that Ichigo was just as much – if not more so – of a genius as Kaien and Ichimaru Gin (who had graduated five years ago in the span of one year).

 

After that, Ichigo hadn't been able to escape the man’s persistent resolve in getting him to realize his full potential and graduate in a year as well, two on the outside.  It was lucky for Koyonagi that Ichigo had absolutely no intention of sticking around in the Academy for more than one year; he’d die of boredom otherwise.

 

Still, he was convinced he could pass his Kidou course perfectly fine without tutoring someone for ‘extra credit’ but he wouldn't put it past Koyonagi to slap him with something even more irritating.  The older Shinigami was forever going on about how Ichigo had to get out more.  Ichigo wasn't sure whether Koyonagi liked him or hated him what with the man’s continued efforts at pushing Ichigo to do his best.  It certainly made Ichigo’s life harder since he was trying to hide his best.

 

Outwardly, he exhaled with a wordless grumble that made the girl in front of him flinch.  He rolled his eyes, not in any mood to coddle her as he asked impatiently, “What’s your name then?”

 

The girl squeaked a little before stuttering out, “I- I’m Fujiwara Asuka.  I- It’s an honour to make your acquaintance, Shiba-dono.”

Ichigo grimaced at the formality.  Was this what his cousin and people like Byakuya and Yoruichi have to put up with?  He wasn't even out of the Academy yet for god’s sakes!  “Right, well, first things first – if I'm gonna tutor you, you have to drop that ridiculous suffix, okay?”

 

The girl, Fujiwara, looked a bit horrified but nodded meekly and intoned, “Sh- Shiba-san then.”

 

Ichigo sighed.  Well, he supposed that was moderately better.  Inoue and a few others had once called him something along those lines too back in the day.  Or... would call him that one day.

 

Whatever.

 

“And second rule,” He continued, glowering down at her.  “Could you at least look at me while we’re talking?”

 

Fujiwara reddened and hastily raised her head, barely meeting his eyes before her gaze dropped back to the floor again.

 

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair.  Wonderful.  He wasn't good with females in general – Rukia being one of the few exceptions; she had just clicked with him and they had become friends almost instantly – and now he was stuck teaching a girl who would probably prefer to be tutored by someone less... intimidating than Ichigo.

 

Too bad Ichigo had used up most of his patience during the war.  Unless it was patience for leading troops or planning strategy, he really couldn't give enough of a damn to indulge anybody with sympathetic words and meaningless reassurances.

 

“Alright, when are you free?”  Ichigo enquired, deciding to move on.  What the hell was Koyonagi thinking sending some shrinking violet of a chick to him?  The man should know what Ichigo’s personality was like by now.

 

“U- Um, I- I've set aside Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the afternoon if- if that’s alright with you?”  Fujiwara ended on an upward questioning lilt.

 

                Ichigo mentally went over his schedule.  He didn't have anything on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and more time occupied over the weekend meant less time for Kaien to pester him.

 

                “That’s fine,” He said curtly.  “You need help specifically in Zanjutsu, right?”

 

                He ignored the ashamed wince that wracked the girl’s body and waited for an affirmative instead.  “Okay then; do you have a particular place you want to hold these sessions in or will anywhere do?”

 

                “...” Fujiwara mumbled inaudibly, face steadily heating up.

 

                Ichigo prayed for patience and hoped he didn't end up emotionally scarring the girl after these extra lessons.  “A bit louder please.”

 

                Alarms rang in his head when Fujiwara took on an expression that suggested that she might be near tears but at least she managed to force out, “I- I’d prefer s- somewhere private, Sh- Shiba-do- Shiba-san.”

 

                Ichigo rubbed a weary hand over his face.  “Alright, you know that abandoned training area near the Eighth Division that nobody goes to because it’s too swampy?  Meet me there at four starting next Tuesday.”

 

                Fujiwara jolted a bit, evidently startled.  “W- We’re leaving school grounds to train?”

 

                “There’s no rule against it so long as we’re back by curfew, and I plan to make it back for dinner so no worries on that front,” Ichigo pointed out.  “Besides, you can’t get any privacy in the indoor training rooms here; they all have an observation deck attached.  The outdoor training areas are even worse; people crossing school grounds can see them anytime.  Unless you have a better idea?”

 

                Fujiwara hurriedly shook her head and bowed again.  “N- No, Shiba-san.  Th- Thank you for agreeing to tutor me.  I- I won’t be late and- and I’ll work hard.”

 

                Ichigo grunted and waved a dismissive hand in the air, already turning away.  “Whatever.  I’ll see you later.”

 

                He glanced back in time to see the girl flee in a rush of Shunpo.  Well, it looked like her Hohou didn't need any assistance.

 

                He sighed once more as he closed the door behind him.

 

                He just knew he was going to regret this.  What did he know about teaching anyway?  The extent of his experience in that area was helping his sisters do their math homework.

 

                And why the hell had he suggested the swampy training field?  It was practically in the Eighth Division’s backyard even though it was free for public use.

 

                But Shunsui had trained him there, and the captain’s methods had been gruelling yet effective.  For such a laidback guy, he had put Ichigo through hell with his workouts, more so than Kisuke or Shinji had ever managed.

 

                So Fujiwara was going to hate him by the end of... well, Ichigo would give her a week.  She seemed fairly sweet-tempered in addition to her timidity so she’d probably put up with him for three sessions or so before going to Koyonagi to beg for a tutor change.  Ichigo would probably get in trouble for being too harsh but it would be better for Fujiwara in the long run not to get stuck with someone like him.

 

                Nodding decisively, Ichigo retreated into the interior of his room and pulled out his books.  He rarely ever got more than a handful of hours of sleep every day, and he tended to snatch naps whenever he felt tired since he could never sleep through the night, so he might as well get started on his homework now.

 

{1}

 

                “Taichou, I have a conundrum,” Kaien announced as he meandered into the room where his captain often relaxed with a pot of tea and Kyouraku’s company.  Sure enough, the Eighth Division captain was sprawled on a tatami mat across from Ukitake on one side of the table, sake and meat buns set out in front of him.  Both captains were friendly enough that Kaien felt comfortable being somewhat less formal around them when they weren’t in public.

 

                As if on cue, Kyouraku waved lazily at Kaien in greeting, and Kaien sketched a short bow and a grin in return before turning back to his own captain.

 

                Ukitake smiled rather indulgently at him, obviously already knowing what Kaien was going to say.  “Yes, Kaien?  Is this about your cousin again?”

 

                Yeah, okay, Kaien had been talking on and off about his baby cousin for going on five months now, so sue him.  He was worried.  After all, how many other long-lost cousins turned up out of nowhere crippled with near-critical injuries and waking up with amnesia?  What if Ichigo keeled over from a relapse or something?

 

Not to mention Kukaku had threatened to behead him if Kaien didn't look out for their newest addition to the family.  He was a lieutenant, sure, but nobody in the Shiba Clan defied Kukaku and got away with it when she was in one of her moods.

 

“Yes, Taichou,” Kaien sighed heavily as he took a seat and tried not to sound like he was sulking.  “He’s avoiding me.”

 

“Well, he doesn't really know you, does he?”  Ukitake pointed out gently, but Kaien would have to be blind to miss the amused smile flickering at the corners of his captain’s mouth.  “He’s bound to be a bit wary, though I’m sure you’ll wear him down eventually.”

 

Kaien just sighed.  “Yeah, I know, but Ichigo’s just so... closed off for a Shiba.  I mean we’re a pretty loud bunch overall.  When it comes to Ichigo, I’d consider myself lucky if I can get three full sentences from him in one sitting.”

 

“He didn't grow up with your Clan though,” Ukitake reminded him.  “He would certainly be different in terms of personality.”

 

Kaien scratched his head.  “Yeah, I suppose.  I'm just worried.  I dropped by the Academy a few days ago and visited one of the instructors.  He says Ichigo’s pretty isolated, that he doesn't have any friends, and my reputation there doesn't help him at all.  Ichigo hasn’t complained of course but Koyonagi-san says he’s a bit of a loner.”

He perked up a bit when he recalled a few other things Koyonagi had revealed.  “But Ichigo’s also a genius.”

 

Ukitake arched an eyebrow.  “Oh?  Another one?”

 

Kaien grinned proudly.  “Yeah.  Apparently, my cousin’s already climbed to the top of the top in Zanjutsu, Hohou, and Hakuda.  After Koyonagi-san noticed, he paired Ichigo up with a sixth-year and Ichigo kicked his ass.  Koyonagi-san suspects that Ichigo can already unseal his Zanpakutou too but Ichigo hasn’t said anything on that.  His other studies are advancing at a terrific rate as well.  The only thing he has any real problems with is Kidou.  Ichigo doesn't have the control for it.”

 

His captain’s expression became thoughtful as he shared a glance with Kyouraku.  “Will he graduate by the end of the year then?  Students are not required to perfect every aspect of the four combat forms before they join the Gotei 13 after all.”

 

Kaien nodded eagerly.  “Koyonagi-san’s betting on it.  He’s just working on getting Ichigo to socialize more right now so that he’ll play nice with his fellow Shinigami later when he joins a squad.  He mentioned something about having Ichigo tutor someone for extra credit.”

 

“Hmm,” Kyouraku spoke up for the first time since Kaien had entered the room.  The captain eyed Kaien contemplatively from underneath his sakkat.  “Just a thought, Kaien-kun – does your cousin realize you’re... well, stalking him?”

 

Kaien huffed indignantly before rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.  “Ah, not really.  He knows I stop by a lot to see how he’s doing but he always hides whenever I go visit.  How does he expect me to know how he’s doing if he doesn't even spend time with me?”

 

Kaien scowled a little when this only served to make both captains laugh.

 

“Maybe you're a bit overprotective, Kaien,” Ukitake suggested with a smile.  “Perhaps Ichigo-kun feels uncomfortable with all the attention you've shown him, especially with the other students watching.”

 

Kaien paused, feeling his mood drop.  “I really don’t think Ichigo cares about that.  From what I’ve seen, he just doesn't seem to care what anybody else thinks of him.  He’s...”

 

Kaien stopped again, hesitating over his next words.  To be honest, he really didn't know what to make of his newest relative.  Ichigo was so...

 

Distant.

 

That didn't sound quite right but it was the best Kaien could come up with.  His cousin felt... sad, maybe.  Sometimes, when Kaien managed to corner Ichigo and drag him out for lunch, there were occasions where he felt like the bright-haired Shinigami was grieving or something, and at other times, it almost felt like Ichigo was plain tired of... everything.

 

Tired.  That might be it.

 

Either way though, it was the main reason why Kaien kept going back.  There was just something brittle about the younger Shinigami that sparked an instinctually protective side in him.

 

“Kaien?”

 

Kaien blinked out of his thoughts at his captain’s voice and nailed a winning smile on his face.  “It’s nothing, Taichou.  Ichigo just seems a bit... lost, I guess.”

Lost.  Yes, that was it.  Distant and tired and most of all lost.

 

And Kaien didn't know why, and he hated that because it meant he didn't know how to help.  He was the Clan Head; it was his responsibility to take care of those in his Clan, and it frustrated him to no end that their newest family member couldn't seem to find any peace with them.  Ichigo hadn't even stepped foot back in the Shiba compound since he had left it four months ago to attend the Academy.

 

                “Give him some time, Kaien,” Ukitake interrupted his thoughts.  “Being afflicted with amnesia can’t be easy.  It would be akin to being dropped off in the middle of a foreign land and struggling to adjust to living his life there.  It would take a while.”

 

                “I guess so,” Kaien agreed grudgingly, and really, there wasn't much else he could do.  Even the Shiba Clan doctor had said that it would take time.

 

                Still, that didn't mean Kaien couldn't keep trying.  Ichigo was a Shiba and Kaien’s own little cousin to boot (okay, so the ‘little’ was debatable but that was beside the point); there was no way Kaien was just going to hang him out to dry.

 

{1}

 

                “A- Are we really g- going to use this place?”

 

                Ichigo smirked briefly.  “Yeah.”

 

                He surveyed their surroundings.  Besides a small patch of elevated dry land on the far left, everything else had dipped down to form a rather marshy area.  Some parts had even flooded.

 

Most Shinigami wouldn't even think to train here.  Slogging through the muddy water while practicing katas and sparring against somebody else wasn't exactly something one would enjoy.  A single misstep or stumble would see you face-plant straight into the swamp.

 

                Ichigo would know; he’d tripped over more half-submerged shrubbery than he’d care to remember, and splashed gracelessly past the push of reluctantly yielding water more times than he’d care to count.

 

                And that bastard Shunsui hadn't even allowed him to use Shunpo to stay above the area.

 

                That would defeat the point of this training method entirely, Ichigo-kun, Shunsui had said with far too much good cheer as he’d lounged on a goddamn deck chair with a bottle of sake in hand while Ichigo had glowered at him, soaked from head to toe.

 

                If Ichigo hadn't respected the man so much, he would've ended up hating him for the rest of eternity.

 

                “Okay, I have to know what you can do, so...” Ichigo studied his temporary student with a critical eye, ignoring the way she fidgeted.  “Go through all the basic Zanjutsu katas.  You can do it on dry land.  For now.”

 

                He smothered the urge to snicker when Fujiwara’s eyes widened in trepidation at the last bit.  Inside his head, Shiro’s cackles echoed with sadistic glee.

 

                As Fujiwara obeyed, tentatively drawing her katana and beginning her first kata, it soon became clear to Ichigo that the problem wasn't that she didn't know the steps.  The problem was that there was little to no power behind each of her movements.  Upon facing a real opponent, her strikes would be more comparable to soft taps than anything that would actually hurt.

 

                Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose.  This was going to be tough.  Or more accurately, he was going to have his work cut out for him to toughen her up.

 

                Now, if Fujiwara had just entered the Academy this year, Ichigo might’ve been inclined to go a little easy on her.  However, Ichigo couldn't recall her in any of his classes, accelerated or otherwise, which meant that she had to have been here for at least two years or more now.

 

                Which also meant that, clearly, the methods that the Academy was using to teach Fujiwara wasn't working.  One thing Ichigo had discovered during the past few months in that school was that everything that the instructors taught there was... bland.  There was no variation, just a set routine of exercises that wouldn't do shit against enemies like Aizen’s Hollow armies.

 

                Ichigo exhaled shortly and then flickered forward in a blur of Shunpo, drawing his own blade as he moved and barely giving Fujiwara any time to react before he had smashed into her, metal screeching against metal as the girl just managed to raise her katana in an awkward block to defend herself.

 

                Fujiwara yelped even as Ichigo easily shoved her backwards, flinging her off her feet with a deft twist of his wrist and watching impassively as she landed in the water with a gigantic splash.

 

                She came up spluttering, looking shocked and frightened and downright bewildered, floundering for words as she blinked the water out of her eyes.  “Sh- Shiba-san?  W- What-?”

                Ichigo stepped calmly into the swamp, unmindful of the water now lapping at his legs.  He had had the foresight to change out of the bulkier uniform of the Academy and exchange it for a plain kimono instead.  Fujiwara wasn't as lucky; Ichigo was sure she would correct her attire for next time.

 

                “Get up,” He ordered without fanfare, levelling his blade at her.  “If we’re going to do this, we’ll do it my way.  You have no strength behind your attacks, and your reflexes are absolute crap.  At the rate you're going, you might graduate from the Academy but you wouldn't last two minutes in a real battle.”

 

                Fujiwara gaped at him for a moment, and her eyes might or might not have filled with tears, but Ichigo was privately impressed when she only pressed her lips together and hauled herself to her feet, staggering a little as she regained her balance before raising her katana once more.

 

                She didn't complain.

 

                Huh.  That was a pleasant surprise.

 

                However, out loud, he only instructed, “No Shunpo.”

 

                And then he struck.

 

                The first blow sent Fujiwara reeling backwards but Ichigo didn't relent.  He slowed down just enough to let her retaliate against his onslaught but he didn't let up, only pausing when she fell over into the swamp every few minutes.

 

                Of course, Ichigo was holding back quite a bit.  He would've eviscerated the girl in half a second if he didn't but he made certain not to give her too much leeway.  He could feel her muscles straining whenever their blades connected, and he was careful not to push too hard and risk muscle strain on Fujiwara’s part.

 

                Fujiwara only lasted half an hour, quite literally collapsing at the thirty-minute mark as she gulped in air, her entire frame trembling from exhaustion as her blade skittered out of her hand.

 

                Ichigo, not even winded, lowered his Zanpakutou as well, examining her closely before sheathing his blade.  “I guess that’s all we’ll manage today.  Can you stand?”

 

                Fujiwara didn't even have breath to answer, face red with exertion, strands of escaped hair hanging in her eyes, and clothes soggy and in need of probably more than one good wash.  Nevertheless, under Ichigo’s measured gaze, the girl pushed herself shakily onto her feet, only for her knees to buckle as soon as she tried to straighten.

 

                Ichigo’s hand instinctively shot forward and grabbed her by the back of her uniform before she pitched face-first back into the marsh.

 

                There was a moment of silence, broken only by Fujiwara’s ragged gasps.  Ichigo made a face at the situation in general before swinging her onto his back, disregarding the immediate dirt and water that stained his own clothes.  The girl’s fingers automatically clutched feebly at his shoulders even as she stiffened a little with startled uncertainty.

 

                “Hang on,” Ichigo muttered, leaning down to scoop up her Zanpakutou before making his way off the training grounds.  “If you let go, I'm not stopping to pick you up again.”

 

                This saw to Fujiwara’s hands tightening around his shoulders as Ichigo began trudging back to the Academy.

 

                For a long while, neither of them spoke.  Ichigo was perfectly content with the hush as he mentally catalogued all the things that he would need to work on with Fujiwara - stamina, speed, the increasingly sloppy forms, the occasional useless movements in between attacks...

 

                It was a rather long list.

 

                “A- Are all our sparring sessions g- going to be like this?”  Fujiwara’s voice quavered unsteadily right behind Ichigo’s left ear.

 

                Ichigo’s mouth twisted a little in sardonic amusement.  “Pretty much, yeah.  You have a problem with it, go see Koyonagi.”

 

                His eyebrows shot up when the only thing he received was an instantaneous refusal.

 

                “No!”  Fujiwara seemed to choke on her own outburst for a second before forging on unevenly, “I- I mean, this- this is fine.”

 

                Ichigo stopped in the middle of the road, shooting a dirty look at a few gawking passersby that sent them scurrying away, before craning his head around to peer at his student.  “Are you serious?  You were dead on your feet, and you can’t even walk; I'm not gonna go any easier on you in the future, you know.”

                Fujiwara just nodded mutely and said nothing more.  Her eyes skittered away from Ichigo’s probing gaze but there was a certain brightness in them that had nothing to do with tears this time.  The exact opposite in fact.

 

                Ichigo’s eyes narrowed as he started moving again.  What the hell was wrong with this girl?

 

                Idly, as the Academy came into sight, he figured he should stop by Koyonagi’s office and ask him just what kind of person the man had dumped on Ichigo.

 

{1}

 

                “You dumped a noble on me?”

 

                “You actually care?”

 

                Ichigo glared furiously at the serene-looking man sitting cross-legged on top of his desk.  Koyonagi was weird like that, and with an x-shaped scar over one cheekbone and wild tawny hair, most students found the man somewhat daunting.

 

                Ichigo just found him aggravating beyond belief.

 

                “No I don’t,” Ichigo growled.  “But I would've appreciated a bit of a heads-up.  I worked her to the bone today and she looked happy when I told her that every session with me would be just as hard.  And while we’re on that subject, let me tell you, she’s soft.  What the hell are you people teaching your students these days?”

 

                Koyanagi had the nerve to look amused.  “First of all, Ichi-kun-”

 

                “And when did we get so familiar with each other?”  Ichigo interrupted crossly.

 

                “-you’re also a student here,” Koyonagi continued on blithely.  “Don’t make it sound like you've already graduated, you arrogant brat.  And secondly, Fujiwara-chan is what some people would call the runt of the litter.  From what I know, she would've been better suited to staying at home and spending her days sewing or something but I believe she managed to talk her Clan into letting her sign up for the Academy.  Even worse, she's a bastard child.

 

                “Because of that,” Koyonagi’s expression became wry.  “She’s not really accepted in any circle here at school, not amongst the nobles, nor amongst those from Rukongai.”

 

                Ichigo stared at him.  “I’m a bastard child.”

 

                Kind of, he amended in his head.

 

                Koyonagi scoffed.  “Yes, but you’re a Shiba.  Only a fool would alienate one of the five Noble Families in Seireitei in any way, and while there are plenty of fools at the Academy, none of them are foolish enough to commit political suicide.

 

                “Fujiwara-chan on the other hand is from a branch family of a Lower Noble House; granted, the Noble House is fairly prestigious but it doesn't change the fact that it holds lesser weight than one of the main Clans, not to mention she’s a branch member to boot.”

 

                Koyonagi’s features soured.  “Even some of the instructors ignore her for the most part.  They don’t think she’ll make it very far even if she does manage to graduate so they don’t want to waste time teaching her in vain.”

 

                “Well at the rate she’s going, she won’t last a month in any division,” Ichigo predicted harshly.

 

                Koyonagi smirked.  “Which is why I sent her to you, Ichi-kun.  I dare say she was ecstatic to meet someone who actually paid her some honest attention.  And who better to whip her into shape than someone who’ll train her seriously?”

 

                Ichigo squinted suspiciously at the Shinigami.  “Flattery’s not gonna get you anywhere, you bastard.”

 

                Koyonagi snorted with laughter.  “You’re a rude brat.  I’ve kicked a student’s ass for less.”

 

                Ichigo scoffed loudly, pushing off the wall he had been leaning on and striding for the door.  “We both know if you could do that, you’d have done it already.  I'm stronger.”

 

                He tilted his head and expertly snatched the paperweight that Koyonagi had just thrown at him out of the air before hurling it back.

 

                The two of them had a rather odd relationship, less instructor-and-student and more acknowledged-soon-to-be-allies once Ichigo graduated.

 

Koyonagi had been displeased the first time they had fought when he had seen right through Ichigo’s plan to let the other man win.  The instructor had refused to let Ichigo leave the room until he had stopped holding back.  Ichigo had still held back in the end but, after six hours of glowering at Koyonagi and an increasing need to go to the bathroom, he had finally stepped up and disarmed the older Shinigami in three minutes flat.

 

                Koyonagi had been absurdly satisfied with the outcome.

 

                “You’ll keep her with you?”  Koyonagi called after him as Ichigo made to leave.  “She’s weak now but she’s got good work ethic.  Her Kidou’s not half-bad either.  Might even be able to give you some pointers.”

 

                Ichigo rolled his eyes at the deliberate taunt.  “So long as she doesn't come crying to you, I guess I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

 

                He paused just inside the doorway, curiosity stirring a question in his mind.  “What Noble House is she from anyway?  I mean most of those Families wouldn't really allow ‘runts’ to attend the Academy, would they?  Might bring shame to their reputation, etc, etc?”

 

                Koyonagi shrugged.  “A few are a bit more lax, gives a little more freedom to their members.  Her being here at all means she’s from one of them.”

 

                “Which one?”  Ichigo prompted impatiently.

 

                Koyonagi sighed dramatically and reached over to fish a file out of the pile stacked on one corner of his desk.

 

                “Mm...” The instructor stopped several papers in, swiftly scanning the page.  “Ah, here it is.  The Fujiwaras are a very small branch of the Kyouraku Family.”

 

                Ichigo almost gave himself whiplash as his head snapped around to stare at Koyonagi in disbelief.  And then he looked skyward and cursed the Spirit King with every swearword he knew, simply because this just had to be its – his? – fault.

 

                Talk about cycle of irony.

 

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Chapter Text

                “Again.  You’re so slow it’s actually painful to watch.”

 

                Ichigo scowled as Fujiwara lunged for him again, brow creased in a focused frown as she tried to get past the defense he was putting up.  Her strikes had at least strengthened over the past four weeks, though there was still hesitation in each of her movements, and Ichigo was still blocking each blow with ease.

 

                He inwardly winced as Fujiwara tripped over some shrubbery again, resulting in a headfirst collision with the swamp as she fell down once more.

 

                Heaving a sigh, he absently rested his blade against one shoulder as he waited for the girl to right herself again.  The only improvements they had managed to work out had been a slight increase in stamina (Fujiwara now lasted forty-five minutes against him), more natural reflexes, and somewhat stronger attacks.

 

                The latter was still iffy because Ichigo had noticed that her strikes were only moderately strong against him.  He had stopped by one of her classes last week, surreptitiously stationing himself in one corner of the observation deck overlooking the training room that her Zanjutsu class was taking place in, and he had been less than pleased with the way the other students she was partnered up with overpowered her.

 

It wasn't even because she didn't have the skill to push back – some of the idiots there were weaker than her – but Fujiwara always subconsciously held back in her spars.  The instructors weren’t helping matters either, turning a blind eye on the blatant bullying or simply scolding Fujiwara for getting this or that stance wrong.

 

Normally, Ichigo wouldn't have cared.  Arrogant bastards looking down on the meeker population was a universal issue in any school; if Ichigo went around stopping every case he had ever seen, he’d never get anything else done.  The bullies would be in for a rude awakening sooner or later when they realized that their condescending posturing wouldn't help them in the real world forever.

 

But this time was different because as reluctant as he had been in taking her on, Fujiwara was still his student now, and any slurs against her was an affront against Ichigo, especially when she continued losing so abysmally against people that he knew she could defeat.

 

“Let’s take a break,” He grumbled out loud, shunpoing out of the water as Fujiwara waded out after him.

 

“What do you think the problem is, Fujiwara?”  Ichigo enquired once they were settled on dry land and he had passed a water bottle over to his student.

 

Fujiwara fidgeted in place, eyes glued on the bottle in her hands.  She had calmed a little over the past four weeks but the girl still seemed to find it difficult to meet his gaze.

 

“P- Problem?”  She echoed, sounding as surprised as she did uncertain.  Ichigo couldn't blame her; this was the first time he had actively sat her down during a training session and talked to her.

 

“With you,” Ichigo clarified bluntly.  “You’re improving; I can see that much, even though it’s slow-going.  But you're still getting your ass kicked in class, and I know you can beat at least a third of those morons with your skill level.  So what’s the problem?”

 

Fujiwara had flinched at his frank assessment and her head ducked even lower, shoulders hunching protectively around her ears as she shrank into herself.

 

Ichigo rolled his eyes and reached out to whack her upside the head, only hard enough to startle her out of her funk.

 

“Would you stop that?”  Ichigo snapped impatiently.  “Look, I agreed to these tutoring sessions, which means I'm not gonna quit until you're at least top of your class.  Anything less is an embarrassment to both of us.  So tell me why you can’t do the same thing you’re doing here with those idiots knocking you around in class.”

 

Fujiwara spluttered a little, blinking up at him uneasily before blurting out, “I just- They call me- They say things to me and I just- I forget the things I've been learning- with you.”

 

Ichigo narrowed his eyes and then curled his left hand into a fist and threw a punch in his student’s direction, slow enough for her to see but fast enough that she wouldn't be able to catch it in time with anything save the reflexes he had been drilling into her.

 

The resulting smack as Fujiwara’s own hand instinctively flashed up to block his fist was even more satisfying than Ichigo had thought it would be.  The wide-eyed look of astonishment on Fujiwara’s face was icing on the cake.

 

“Forget my ass,” Ichigo snorted derisively as he lowered his hand again.  “You don’t forget reflexes; they stay with you for the rest of your life once you learn them.  You better come up with a better excuse, Fujiwara.”

 

Fujiwara stared at him for a second longer before her gaze shifted to her own hand as if she couldn't believe what it had done.

 

“I- I guess I just- I just can’t,” Fujiwara admitted at last, shoulders slumping in resigned defeat.

 

“Why not?”  Ichigo prompted when she made no move to elaborate.

 

Fujiwara tugged dejectedly at one wet sleeve, looking so much like a drowned kitten for a moment that even Ichigo felt fleetingly guilty for dumping her in the water so many times.

 

He shook it off.  If anything, he was going easy on her.  The weather was nice so the swamp wasn’t even chilly, plus he always called a stop to their training sessions when it looked like she had hit her limit.

 

Shunsui on the other hand had done no such thing for him, pushing Ichigo above and beyond with uncharacteristic insistence (I won’t see you die in this war because I didn't train you properly, Ichigo-kun).  Wartime had been a perpetual winter all year round – they had considered themselves lucky if it hadn't rained or snowed – and the notoriously laidback Eighth Division captain had been merciless in running Ichigo ragged for hours on end.

 

“They always say things,” Fujiwara confessed at last, voice tiny.  “Not- Not just about my skills or- or my studies; they say things about- about my family too, how they'd be- how they’d be better off without- without me tainting their reputation.”

 

Fujiwara looked utterly miserable by the time she finished.  Ichigo studied her for a long moment before enquiring offhandedly, “Do you agree with them?”

 

Fujiwara’s head snapped up and a desperate sort of fire flared briefly in her eyes before she deflated again.  “They- They think-”

 

“Fujiwara,” Ichigo cut in unsympathetically.  “I'm not asking what they think; hell, I couldn't care less what they think.  I asked what you think.  Do you agree with them or not?”

 

Fujiwara’s hands clenched, tight enough that her knuckles turned white.  Still, she couldn't seem to find any words.

 

Ichigo, never one for holding back, pressed on relentlessly, “’Cause if you do, then I gotta say, there’s no point in you being here at all.  You’re weaker than your average Shinigami, and a bastard child from a Noble House to boot.”

 

He ignored the hurt distress that surfaced on Fujiwara’s face, focusing instead on the glimmer of defiance he could scarcely sense behind all the timidity and bleak despair.

 

“People look down on you for something you can’t avoid being,” Ichigo continued mockingly.  “And if you agree with them, then your fate’s practically set in stone.  You've either got a one-way ticket back to your home as a disgraced Shinigami who wasn’t even good enough to graduate, just like everyone says you already are, or you’ll end up dead before you get anywhere in the Gotei 13.  Cannon fodder, basically.  Is that what you think you are?  Scrawny, weak, nervous to the point where you can’t even look anyone in the eye for more than a few seconds – how the heck do you expect to earn anyone’s respect when you act like a mouse all the time?  Your own shadow scares you, doesn’t it?  You wouldn't be good for anything except acting as bait for Hollows; pretty useless for anything else.  I mean maybe the other students are right; you should just run along home and spend your days tending to the household-”

 

Ichigo very nearly smiled when Fujiwara’s tolerance almost audibly shattered and the girl literally launched herself at him, fists flying wildly as tears flooded her eyes and fury blazed high in her cheeks.

 

“That’s not true!”  She screamed, not seeming to care that her blows were being fended off easily as she swung at any part of Ichigo she could reach.  “That’s not true!  I chose to become a Shinigami!  That’s what I want to do!  I'm going to become useful, and I'm going to make my family proud, and anybody who says I’m just a worthless bastard child can shut up because I’ll prove all of them wrong!!  I'm going to be strong and there’s nothing you or anyone else can say to STOP ME!!

 

Ichigo simply batted aside her flailing fists, staring her straight in the eye as he challenged, “Your words don’t match your actions, Fujiwara, so who are you trying to convince?  Me?  If I didn't already see the potential in you, I wouldn't have agreed to these training sessions no matter what Koyonagi said.  You trying to prove yourself to your tormentors then?  Why the hell would they care in the long run?  And why should you waste your time caring about what a bunch of lowlifes think?

 

“The only one you have to convince, Fujiwara,” Ichigo finally snagged one of her delicate wrists and tossed her none-too-gently to the ground, glowering down at her as she trembled from the force of her emotions.  “The only one you have to convince is yourself, and the only thing holding you back from doing that is your own fear.  Fear of failure, fear of letting your family down, fear of realizing that you really are as weak as everybody thinks you are.”

 

Ichigo leaned forward and poked her forehead, glaring fiercely at her tearstained face.  “Get rid of that fear.  It’s not going to help you get strong.  Right now, whether you’re on offense or defense, I can still sense your hesitation in your blade.  You don’t have any real desire to actually hit what you're aiming at when you attack, and when you defend yourself, you’re so afraid of getting cut that you trip yourself up anyway.  How is any of that going to help you?”

 

Ichigo paused, watching his student digest his words with a frozen expression, lips quivering but no longer crying.

 

“You lack conviction,” He said at last, and for a moment, he heard the echo of Kisuke’s voice in his head when the shopkeeper had once helped him find his own strength a lifetime ago.  “You lack resolve, and maybe that’s just you, or maybe it’s years of letting those bullies get to you.  Either way, I don’t care.  If you want to get strong, you need another mindset.  Get rid of the one you have now; it’s filled with way too much fear.  When you attack, you should think ‘I’ll hit them’.  And when you defend, you should think ‘I won’t let them hit me’.  No in-betweens.  No thinking ‘my sword won’t be able to cut them’ or ‘I'm scared of getting hit’.  That’ll just hold you back.

 

“I can help you with your reflexes and your speed, improve your stamina and your accuracy, and even help you develop your own sword style – I can do all that too,” Ichigo straightened as he came to a finish.  “But everything else, your determination to succeed, to become strong, to find your own strength as a Shinigami, all the truly important things that’ll make or break the kind of person you want to become one day – that’s something only you can help yourself with.  No one else.”

 

The clearing fell silent.

 

Ichigo didn't particularly mind.  His mouth twisted a little in distaste.  He had just said more in the past two minutes than he had in the past two months, especially all in one go.  The only people he usually talked to nowadays were Koyonagi (he had to go to someone to complain about life in general, and Koyonagi was frequently the one who gave him something to complain about) and Fujiwara (whom Ichigo ordered around more than actually talked to).  The few times Kaien had managed to wrangle him out for a lunch date, his dear cousin often talked enough for both of them.

 

Actually, speaking of Kaien...

 

Ichigo stiffened when, at the very edge of his senses, he became aware of three familiar reiatsu signatures, lingering just behind the Eight Division walls several feet away and muted to the point where Academy students would never pick it up.  Too bad Ichigo was no mere Academy student.  He would've felt them nearby earlier if he hadn't been so engrossed in shoving some hard-learned wisdom down Fujiwara’s throat.

 

Ichigo swore up a storm in his head.  Just his luck.  Stupid cousin and his stupid meddling ways.  What the heck was Kaien doing at the Eighth Division compound anyway?  Just because Ukitake had undoubtedly been visiting Shunsui didn't mean his damn cousin had to tag along.  And Ichigo couldn't even be sure how long they had been eavesdropping on him and his student.

 

He almost released a startled noise when, half a heartbeat later, he found a pair of arms wrapped around his waist and a face pressed against his chest.

 

He froze.

 

What the hell?

 

“Oi!”  Ichigo barked in alarm, trying to shrug her off.  Where had the shy girl who couldn't even look at him gone?  “Get off!  What do I look like, a giant stuffed animal?”

 

When it became clear that she wasn't going to let go any time soon, Ichigo patted her back awkwardly, inwardly panicking when he heard a few sniffles coming from Fujiwara as well.  Upset tears were infinitely harder to deal with than angry tears.  “Okay, Fujiwara, either let go or tell my why the hell you’re crying on me.”

 

And please, for the love of god, make it quick, he mentally tacked on.

 

Fujiwara pulled back at last, much to Ichigo’s relief, but while she seemed embarrassed as Ichigo whipped out a tissue and roughly thrust it at her, she stayed huddled by his side, looking far more relaxed in his presence than she had at any other time over the past four weeks.

 

“...Do you think I can do it?”  Fujiwara finally piped up after mopping her face free of tears, and for once, she managed to look straight at him, grey eyes hopeful.

 

Ichigo rolled his eyes and scowled in annoyance.  “Don’t tell me everything I just said went right over your head.  Does it matter what I think?”

 

“Yes.”  The honest, point-blank reply made his scowl falter.  For once, Fujiwara’s gaze was unwaveringly calm and equally determined, and for a split second, Ichigo was reminded of Kyouraku Shunsui.

 

It disappeared as abruptly as it had come when Fujiwara squirmed in place under Ichigo’s scrutiny but she didn't look away as she stammered out, “It- It’s important to me.  I just- Do you think I can do it?  If I try hard enough?”

 

Ichigo eyed her critically for a few seconds longer before scoffing, “Like I said, I can already see your potential.  If I thought you couldn't do it, I wouldn't waste three afternoons a week training you.  And since that’s exactly what I'm doing, you damn well better not just try.  You’re going to do it, clear?”

 

For the first time since Ichigo had met her, Fujiwara smiled.  It was small and tremulous and a little lopsided like her face wasn't used to accommodating such an expression, but it was genuine and it made her puffy-eyed, tear-blotched features brighten.

 

Ichigo snorted and shoved her in the general direction of the training area.  “Now, if we are finished with this overt display of emotions, get back to work.  I expect you to kick some ass in your next Zanjutsu class so you better start telling your self-esteem issues to take a hike.  You’re getting better every day; there’s no reason for you to continue losing to half the brainless twits in your class, understand?”

 

Fujiwara scrambled to her feet and nodded vigorously, eeping and darting away back towards the swamp when Ichigo levelled his sword at her.

 

“You can start on your laps!” Ichigo hollered after her.  “Your stamina is so appalling it makes me wanna drown myself.  And if you don’t finish all thirty in the next ten minutes, I'm doubling it.”

 

For the next few minutes, Ichigo remained in place as Fujiwara jogged around the swampy grounds, each step lifted high as she sloshed through the water.

 

And then he stood up.

 

“Keep going,” He instructed when Fujiwara glanced over.  As she continued on, Ichigo casually meandered over to the high white wall that surrounded the Eight Division barracks.  He halted a step away, considering his next move, and then his more impulsive side won out.

 

Shiba Kaien was going to get a piece of his mind.

 

In one smooth movement, Ichigo leapt up in a rush of Shunpo, one hand grasping the top of the wall as he vaulted himself over and landed inside the compound on silent feet, directly in front of two captains and a wide-eyed lieutenant.

 

“Hello, cousin,” Ichigo greeted with deceptive cordiality.  “Fine weather we’re having, aren’t we?  Perfect for...”

 

He flicked a glance at the bushes that his cousin was crouching beside as he had spied on Ichigo and his student.  “Outdoor recreation.”

 

{2}

 

                Kaien almost jumped out of skin when a blur of orange and grey landed in front of him, and his cousin’s formidable glare was suddenly pinning him in place.

 

                Aw, crap, he sighed mournfully.  Why’s he only mad at me?  I'm not the only one here!

 

                “Eheh,” He grinned sheepishly as he levered himself to his feet, catching a quicksilver smile on his own captain’s face out of the corner of his eye.

 

                Traitor.

 

                “Hey, Ichigo!”  Might as well start on a cheerful note because with the way things were going, it certainly wasn't going to end on one.  “How are you today?  I had no idea you were training your student outside of the Academy.  Imagine my surprise when Taichou and I saw you from one of the upper floors.  We just had to check it out.  And then Kyouraku-taichou told us that that girl’s his cousin so...”

 

                He trailed off, ceasing his babbling when his baby cousin’s left eye twitched.

 

                “Uhh...” He wracked his mind and seized the nearest change of subject, waving a hand at the two captains beside him.  “I don’t think you've met these captains yet, have you?  This is my captain, Ukitake-taichou, and this is the Eighth Division captain, Kyouraku-taichou.  He’s like third cousins with your student or something.”

 

                To his credit, Ichigo didn't balk like most students would when facing even just one captain.  The bright-haired Shinigami flicked a glance first at Ukitake and then at Kyouraku.

 

                Kaien blinked.  He could've sworn there was something a lot like pain in his cousin’s expression for a fraction of a second when Ichigo had looked at the latter.  He glanced briefly at Kyouraku himself but it was impossible to tell what the captain was thinking behind that languid expression.

 

                “Good afternoon, Kyouraku-taichou, Ukitake-taichou,” Ichigo dipped his head politely, which was a first because Kaien had never seen his cousin show even that much respect for the Academy instructors.

 

                To Kaien’s heartfelt relief, Ukitake stepped up with a friendly smile, no longer leaving him to take the brunt of Ichigo’s passive irritation.

 

                “Hello, Ichigo-kun,” Ukitake greeted warmly.  “I apologize for our intrusion; I suppose our curiosity got the better of us.  Kaien has told us much about you.”

 

                “I have no doubt,” Ichigo grumbled, and Kaien had to give his little cousin props.  Not many Shinigami in general had the balls to talk to a captain with so little propriety.

 

                He froze again when Ichigo narrowed his eyes at him once more.  His baby cousin looked two seconds away from cracking his knuckles ominously and decking him.

 

                Kaien hastily raised his hands in the universal sign of placation.  “Now, now, Ichi-kun-”

 

                “Since when did I give you permission to call me that?”  Ichigo growled.

 

                Kaien couldn’t help puffing up indignantly.  “You let Koyonagi-san call you that!”

 

                Ichigo bristled.  “That shitty geezer never listens to a word I say.  It’s always Ichi-kun this or Ichi-chan that; he’s probably made it his life’s goal to make me snap and strangle him one of these days.”

 

                Kaien sweatdropped as a cough that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle came from his captain.  In contrast, Kyouraku didn't even bother hiding his quiet huff of laughter.

 

                “That ‘shitty geezer’ is your sensei, Ichigo,” Kaien reminded him.

 

                “Technically, he’s the Zanjutsu department head,” Ichigo corrected evenly.

 

                “Same difference,” Kaien argued back, more for the sake of keeping Ichigo talking than anything else because this was the most his cousin had ever said in his presence all at once.

 

                “Don’t care,” Ichigo retorted brusquely.  “Now was there anything you actually wanted or are you just here to avoid doing your paperwork?”

 

                Kaien reached out and flicked the hard frown marring his little cousin’s forehead.  “Ichigo, show some respect for your superiors.”

 

                Ichigo looked positively enraged at the finger-flick Kaien had delivered but refrained from saying anything as he seemingly digested Kaien’s reprimand.  And then, blatantly ignoring Kaien, the orange-haired Shinigami turned a bland stare on both Ukitake and Kyouraku and repeated, “Was there anything you actually wanted, sirs?”

 

                Both captains exchanged a glance, looking utterly bemused.  Kaien almost fell over, and then lunged for his cousin with the partially mischievous intention of putting the younger Shinigami in a chokehold as retribution.

 

                Too late, Kaien spotted the evil smirk that suddenly curled at Ichigo’s mouth.  “What-”

 

                Within the span of one and a half seconds, his baby cousin had sidestepped his hands, grabbed one of his arms, turned, jammed a slanted shoulder into his chest, shifted his center of gravity, and lifted Kaien clean off the ground, flipping him over Ichigo’s head.  Another quarter of a second later found Kaien losing all the air in his lungs as he thumped heavily onto the ground, spread-eagled and staring up at the blue sky, completely speechless even if he had had enough breath to speak with.

 

                “Ah, my bad, cousin,” Ichigo’s face appeared above Kaien as the younger Shiba apologized in a wholly unapologetic tone.  “Reflexes, you know.”

 

                “You-!  You-!” Kaien spluttered, gaping at Ichigo.  “You threw me!”

 

                “Astute observation, Kaien,” Ichigo deadpanned sardonically.  “I can see why you’re widely lauded for your genius intellect.”

 

                Kaien gawked for a moment longer, stunned.  Was his cousin...?

 

                “You’re teasing me!”  Kaien exclaimed gleefully in a brilliant leap of insight.  He ignored the sudden horror on his cousin’s face as he rolled to his feet and, successfully this time, caught Ichigo in a tight one-armed hug as his free hand balled into a fist and drilled affectionately into the Shinigami’s bright mop of hair.  “See?  I knew you’d warm up to me eventually!  Now you’re starting to act like a real Shiba!”

 

                “Get the hell off me, you crazy bastard!”

 

                “Aw, don’t be shy, cousin!”

 

                “Who the fuck are you calling shy, you brain-dead-”

 

                “Um, Sh- Shiba-san?”

 

                Kaien turned in the direction of the muffled voice, and then winced when Ichigo took this opportunity to jab a sharp elbow into Kaien’s gut to free himself.

 

                “Yeah?”  Kaien automatically answered just as Ichigo barked, “What?”

 

                Ichigo rounded on him with a glower.  “She’s talking to me, idiot; why in the world would she be talking to you?”

 

                His cousin turned back to the wall.  “What do you want?”

 

                “Um, I- I’m finished my laps, Sh- Shiba-san.”

 

                Ichigo’s scowl deepened.  “Go run some more then.”

 

                “E- Eh?  More?  U- Um, why?”

 

                A deaf man could've picked up the dismay in the girl’s voice.  Evidently, stamina training wasn't something Fujiwara liked doing.  Kaien winced in sympathy at the adamant expression on Ichigo’s face.

 

                “Because I say so,” Ichigo began listing.  “Because your stamina sucks.  Because you obviously didn't run fast enough before if you still have breath to complain right now.  Because I haven’t finished dealing with my thick-headed Neanderthal of a cousin yet.  Take your pick and get back to work!”

 

                On the other side of the wall, Fujiwara squeaked, “Yes, sir!”, and scurried off at once.

 

                Kaien ran a hand through his hair.  Inwardly, he smiled with some bewilderment; Kukaku often dubbed him, Ganju, and Isshin ‘thick-headed Neanderthals’.  Either Ichigo had picked it up somehow or the Shiba genes were choosing to appear in a rather odd way.

 

                Outwardly, he poked Ichigo on the shoulder.  “Geez Ichigo, remind me to give you some lessons on how to treat a lady!”

 

                Ichigo snorted, crossing his arms.  “Right, you treat her like a lady.  I’ll treat her like I want her to live past her first battle.”

 

                Ouch, that was below the belt.  Kaien blinked dubiously at his cousin.  He  remembered the pep talk Ichigo had given Fujiwara earlier, and he’d agreed with the surprisingly impressive advice that the younger Shinigami had imparted, but Ichigo was still quite tough with the girl overall.   “She’s an Academy student!  Just a fifth-year too!”

 

                “She’s a dead body is what she is if she doesn’t get stronger,” Ichigo countered swiftly and actually gave him a hard stare.  “She’s also my student so back off, Kaien.”

 

                Kaien almost took a step back, startled.  How the hell had the conversation gone from relatively light-hearted banter to... this?

 

                Kaien straightened, the last of his smile sliding off his face when he caught the weary darkness in Ichigo’s eyes.  He instinctively reached out for the younger Shinigami’s shoulder.  “Hey, cousin...?”

 

                Ichigo blinked and the darkness disappeared, shielded from sight as the bright-haired Shiba neatly evaded Kaien’s hand.

 

                “I should get back to Fujiwara,” Ichigo stated instead, expression settling into the typical closed off mask that Kaien was most familiar with.  “It was nice meeting you, Kyouraku-taichou, Ukitake-taichou.”

 

                Kaien mentally slapped himself.  He had all but forgotten the two captains, and judging by Ukitake’s knowing look, the older Shinigami knew it too.

 

                “Yes,” Ukitake returned amicably, an amused glint in his eyes coupled with a thoughtful edge to his features as the man smiled at Ichigo again.  “Best of luck in your studies, Ichigo-kun.”

 

                Ichigo nodded tersely.  “Thank you, sir.”

 

                The orange-haired Shinigami nodded at Kyouraku as well, who inclined his head in lazy response.  Kaien blinked when he realized that the captain hadn't said a single word throughout their entire impromptu conversation.  It was something he had noticed about Kyouraku; for all that the man could be very sociable and easy to talk to (and was more than willing to drink just about anyone under the table at a party), half the time, he also preferred staying silent and subtly attentive on the sidelines instead, virtually fading into the background with practiced ease even when he was in plain, pink-clad sight.

 

                One day, Kaien really wanted to learn how to do that.

 

                For now though, Kaien jumped in, not quite ready to let his cousin go just yet.  “Wait, Ichigo, I’ve been meaning to ask you – again – do you want to come home for dinner tomor-”

 

                “No,” Ichigo cut him off candidly.

 

                Kaien drooped with disappointment but rallied, “Well, maybe next time then.  You know you're always welcome, right?  The Shiba compound is your home too now.  You have your own set of rooms there, which is just sitting there collecting dust by the way, and Kukaku’s been asking after you.  Even Ganju and Isshin-ji and a couple of the others have been wanting to know how you’re holding up.”

 

                Ichigo stilled and a peculiar look that Kaien couldn't quite decipher flitted across his features, lightning-quick.

 

                “You can tell them I'm fine,” Ichigo muttered.  “They- You guys don’t have to worry.”

 

                Again, that flash of exhausted despondency passed over his cousin’s face and Kaien thought, how can we not when you look like that?

 

                “Well, I'm sure I’ll see you later,” Ichigo grimaced at him.  “Unfortunately.”

 

                Kaien just grinned.  His baby cousin was so grouchy all the time.  “Aa, until next time, cousin.”

 

                Ichigo scoffed and made to Shunpo back over the wall again, only to pause two steps forward, a conflicted expression furrowing his brow for a second before he turned back rather abruptly, gaze zeroing in on Kyouraku with puzzling intensity.

 

                The Eighth Division captain arched a questioning eyebrow, grey eyes inquisitive.

 

                Ichigo coughed.  “Um, I just wanted to say, I’ll take good care of your cousin.  I promise.”

 

                Even the usually unruffled Kyouraku looked momentarily taken aback.  Kaien’s jaw almost dropped open again at the unexpected turnabout while Ukitake watched on with a faint air of surprised approval.

 

                And then Kyouraku’s features relaxed into a smile, one hand reaching up to tilt his sakkat forward in acknowledgement.  “Mm, train her well.  She just needs someone who’ll believe in her.”

 

                They had all heard Ichigo’s lecture earlier, and if that wasn't Ichigo believing in Fujiwara, then Kaien didn't know what was.

 

                Ichigo nodded and ducked his head in a curt half-bow once more before finally shunpoing away.  Half a second later, they heard him yell, “Fujiwara, why in the name of all that’s holy are you running like that?!  If you sprain something, you better be prepared to sleep here tonight because there’s no way I'm carrying you back!”

 

                “But- But you always- always carry me ba-”

 

                “That’s not the point!  And for god’s sakes, regulate your breathing!  You look like you just ran the Tokyo Marathon!”

 

                “W- What’s the Tokyo-”

 

                “Nevermind!  Just... Hey, watch out for that-”

 

                Splash!

 

                “-bush.  Fujiwara, have I mentioned recently how clumsy you are?”

 

                “Um, half- half an hour ago?”

 

                “Not recent enough then.  Get up.  We’re going to start sparring.”

 

                Kaien snorted.  Those two were a comedy act all on their own.

 

                Idly, he glanced over at the two captains.  “So... what do you think of my baby cousin?”

 

                “I think ‘baby’ is extremely misleading, Kaien,” Ukitake remarked mildly.  “There is... wisdom in Ichigo-kun’s beliefs.  And...”

 

                Ukitake tilted his head, expression sombre as he shared another weighty glance with Kyouraku before looking back at Kaien again.  “Are you certain he does not remember anything of his past before you found him, Kaien?”

 

                Kaien stiffened.  Well, he couldn't say for sure.

 

                “He has old eyes,” Kyouraku commented quietly but made no move to expand on his observation.

 

                Kaien looked between them and then shifted his gaze in the direction of the training grounds.  Somehow, he got the feeling that his little cousin was juggling a lot more than just schoolwork and an apprentice.

 

                This thought did nothing to alleviate his growing concerns.

 

{2}

 

                With a sigh, Ichigo leaned back against his closed door, closing his eyes as he slid down to sit on the floor.

 

                Well that could've gone better.

 

                He sighed again, resting his forehead on his raised knees.  When he had chosen to confront Kaien and bite his head off for eavesdropping, he had known he would also be facing Shunsui and Ukitake.

 

                He hadn't expected it to hurt quite as much as it had.

 

                So far, he hadn't actually seen anyone from his old timeline.  Oh sure, he had sensed some of them whenever he was out and about the rest of Seireitei but he had, consciously or unconsciously, avoided the areas where they would have the most chance of being found.

 

                Clapping eyes on his old mentor today had felt like a punch in the gut.  He had felt a pang of sorrow at seeing Ukitake again – there had been very few of the older Shinigami that he had truly respected; Ukitake had been one of them – but Ichigo had always considered the white-haired captain as ‘Rukia’s captain’ and ‘trusted comrade’ and, of course, ‘must be protected’; however, Ukitake had never really entered the category where Ichigo had placed all of the people he had truly known and cherished.  Ichigo would've certainly given his life for the man – he would've done it for any of his allies – but Ukitake hadn't been on the same level as Rukia or Renji or Toshirou.

 

                Shunsui on the other hand had been his teacher and surrogate uncle.  Whenever Ichigo had freaked out about another several dozen deaths on their side or had witnessed a particularly gory massacre on the sands of Hueco Mundo, it had usually been Shunsui, Shinji, or Kisuke who had forcibly dragged him out of whatever mood he had worked himself into.  God forbid he actually went to his own father; Isshin was a lot of things and Ichigo loved him no matter how exasperating the man got, but the former captain had never really known how to take care of Ichigo.  Isshin had always been significantly better with daughters than sons, and since that had meant that at least Karin and Yuzu would always have a parent to turn to, Ichigo had accepted this fact without fuss.

 

                Still, it had done him no favours today.  He had barely been able to look at Shunsui throughout the entire – admittedly short – exchange that afternoon.  His only saving grace had been Kaien who had successfully redirected most of the conversation to something more entertaining.

 

                And god, he hadn't meant to snap at Kaien like that when his cousin had joked about treating Fujiwara like a lady, about going a little softer on her.  But Ichigo had personally witnessed what had happened to Academy graduates who only had the traditional basic training under their belts.

 

                He hadn't been kidding.  They were cannon fodder.

 

                During the war, when there hadn't been enough hands to deal with all the skirmishes and raids, some of the Shinigami, either fresh out of the Academy or even with a few decades of experience in the Gotei 13, had been sent out to fight.  Most of them hadn't come back.  It had gotten to the point where everybody knew that to send a lower-levelled Shinigami out onto the battlefield was equivalent to handing them a death sentence.  With only Academy training, they were weak, and they’d been helpless against Aizen’s Hogyoku-empowered armies.

 

                Ichigo had no desire to see Fujiwara go the same way.  The girl was troublesome but she was still his student.  So he would train her with Aizen’s Hollows in mind, and if that meant a tougher regimen than all the other students at school, then so be it.

 

He had promised Shunsui  too that he’d take care of Fujiwara, and even if the captain didn't know that this promise was partially made as something of a thank-you for Shunsui’s own dedication towards Ichigo when the man had been training him, Ichigo had meant every word.  Come hell or high water, he’d make Fujiwara into a damn good Shinigami.

 

{2}

 

                Shunsui leaned back in his chair, staring idly up at the ceiling as he tuned out yet another one of Lisa’s dressing-downs for not doing his paperwork.  He was very fond of her but if Yama-jii couldn't make him sit down and willingly fill out the cursed stacks of paper, Lisa’s sermons certainly weren’t going to work.

 

                His gaze slid absently over to the open window.  If he concentrated, he could sense his young cousin and her new tutor’s reiatsu signatures beyond the back wall of his Division compound.

 

                Every afternoon on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, like clockwork.

 

                “Kyouraku-taichou, are you listening to me?”

 

                Shunsui bit back a sigh and offered a rueful smile in his lieutenant’s direction.  “Maa, Lisa-chan, why don’t we take a break.”

                This was clearly the wrong thing to say because if Lisa looked ready to wring his neck before, she now looked like she was itching to whip out her Zanpakutou and skewer him.  “Taichou!  You’ve been ‘taking a break’ all day!  It’s almost six and you haven’t even started!”

 

                Shunsui waved a hand and got to his feet.  “Don’t worry, Lisa-chan, the paperwork will still be there tomorrow.  It’s too good a day to stay indoors.”

 

                Lisa threw up her hands.  “You have got to be joking!  Where are you going?”

 

                “For some fresh air,” Shunsui tossed back over his shoulder as he ambled towards the door.  “The paperwork will keep, Lisa-chan.  Why don’t you go find Nanao-chan and see how she’s doing?  She’s always happy when she gets a visit from you.”

 

                Shunsui grinned to himself when Lisa huffed and pointed out that the window was open and there was plenty of fresh air in the office but didn't protest any further.  His lieutenant loved Nanao like a little sister and was always happy to go seek her out for a social call.

 

                That taken care of, Shunsui made his way outside, swinging himself up onto a shadowed portion of the roof that had a good view of the swampy training area behind the Eighth Division barracks.

 

                To be honest, he had already known about those two training in the Eighth’s backyard for a few weeks now; he simply hadn't seen any need to tell anyone about it, especially since they were supposed to be training outside of class.

 

                The first time he had caught a glimpse of them, Shunsui had been surprised to see his reticent cousin fighting for her life against a bright-haired unknown Shinigami.  For a brief moment, he had thought that Asuka was being bullied or attacked and had been all set to hurry outside to make sure she wouldn't get badly injured or killed.

 

                But when he had drawn nearer, he had instantly recognized the physical attributes of a Shiba, not to mention, upon a second, closer look, he had realized that the boy was only sparring against Asuka, fixing an elbow here, adjusting a stance there.

 

                The sheer speed and intensity of the training session had been ridiculous but Asuka hadn't been complaining and his cousin had already been reacting to each of her sparring partner’s strikes faster than Shunsui could ever remember her moving.

 

                Asuka was improving.

 

                So he hadn't said anything, hiding his reiatsu signature and stationing himself as far away as possible without losing sight of them instead.

 

                And over the span of four weeks, he had seen considerable improvement on his cousin’s part.  The boy – Shiba Ichigo; Kaien’s much-talked-about baby cousin – was a tough but effective teacher.  Shunsui often heard the orange-haired Shiba taunting Asuka with various insults as well but his cousin seemed to take it all in stride, unaffected in a way that differed vastly from her usual reaction to the verbal abuse that her regular bullies heaped on her.

 

                But it wasn't until last Thursday that Shunsui had seen exactly why Asuka had taken to Ichigo like she hadn't anyone else.

 

                “You lack conviction, you lack resolve, and maybe that’s just you, or maybe it’s years of letting those bullies get to you.  Either way, I don’t care.  If you want to get strong, you need another mindset.  Get rid of the one you have now; it’s filled with way too much fear.  When you attack, you should think ‘I’ll hit them’.  And when you defend, you should think ‘I won’t let them hit me’.  No in-betweens.  No thinking ‘my sword won’t be able to cut them’ or ‘I'm scared of getting hit’.  That’ll just hold you back.”

 

                Shunsui leaned back, idly watching the practice taking place in the distance.  How could a first-year Academy student, no matter how much of a prodigy, understand the very core of a Zanpakutou’s power and a Shinigami’s strength?  The kid was right, fear wouldn't take you anywhere but down.  Conviction in one’s own beliefs was the true key to winning any battle, and there were seated officers in the Gotei 13 who didn't understand that concept.

 

Yet Ichigo had spoken with the sort of confidence borne from experience.  He hadn't been spouting empty words or reciting from a textbook.

 

                “Your determination to succeed, to become strong, to find your own strength as a Shinigami, all the truly important things that’ll make or break the kind of person you want to become one day – that’s something only you can help yourself with.  No one else.”

 

                Shunsui huffed a wry laugh.  No wonder Asuka hadn't so much as protested at the harsh training.  He knew that the Academy instructors all dismissed her readily enough, and on occasion, he’d tried to put a word in here and there to urge them to take his cousin seriously, to train her properly, but, suffice it to say, it hadn't worked.  If anything, it had done the exact opposite, leaving most of the instructors convinced that Asuka was only barely floating through the Academy on the Kyouraku Clan’s reputation alone.  Shunsui had expected this of course, and after putting down some of the worst rumours, he had backed off and hoped for the best.

 

                For someone else to come along and take her under their wing, Asuka must've been thrilled when Ichigo had treated her no differently than anyone else.  Shunsui had made a few enquiries and had found out that yes, Ichigo was always that gruff and sharp, with both students and instructors alike.

 

                Heck, if anything, Ichigo was soft on Asuka, punctuating their training sessions with awkward encouragements hidden behind sarcastic provocations, and never failing to carry her back if she was too tired to even stumble towards the Academy.  From what Shunsui had learned, Ichigo typically didn't give anyone else the time of day.

 

                Shunsui turned his focus back to the present, studying Ichigo’s own fighting style.  The boy was good – excellent – no doubt about that.  Even just watching these tutoring sessions, Shunsui could see that the young Shiba far outstripped Academy level.  He’d need to see Ichigo in actual combat first but he was fairly certain that the bright-haired Shinigami could easily rival a seated officer.  Shunsui genuinely wanted to see just how strong this kid was.

 

                And Kaien had said that Ichigo would be graduating within a year.  Some battle experience would certainly look nice on paper.

 

                Of course, the kid looks like he’s already seen battle before, Shunsui mused to himself, and not for the first time, he wondered what Shiba Ichigo had gone through before Kaien had found him.  he knew Rukongai could be a hostile place but not to the extent of putting that lost, desolate look in the younger Shinigami’s eyes.

 

                There was something very strange about that kid too, weariness aside.  Shunsui wasn't so unobservant as to not notice the way Ichigo hadn't seemed to be able to look his way for more than a few seconds until the very end.  The young Shiba hadn't struck him as excessively shy like Asuka was so that ruled out the anxiety of facing a superior.  Besides, Ichigo had been fine with Juushirou, and he hadn't minded fooling around with Kaien in front of both of them.

 

                “Kyouraku-taichou!”

 

                Shunsui stifled a doleful sigh as he peered down over the edge of the roof.  “Yes, Lisa-chan?”

 

                Lisa frowned at him, unmistakably annoyed, but she only tossed a missive and a file up towards him.  “This just came in from the Captain-Commander.”

 

Shunsui caught it easily, setting his sake down as he scanned the note.

 

                ‘Fifth Division captain Hirako Shinji requests reinforcements for ongoing mission in District 64 of North Rukongai.  Eighth Division captain Kyouraku Shunsui is to dispatch a team to support them.  This will be a joint effort between the Eighth and Thirteenth Divisions.  Gather at the North Gate in half an hour’s time.’

 

                Shunsui frowned, quickly flipping through the file next.  Two teams?  And the Eighth and Thirteenth at that?  Hirako was no pushover; for the Fifth Division captain to request assistance, whatever Hollows they were facing must be the tougher sort.  Their mission was supposed to be a simple recon too; from the looks of it, something must've gone wrong.

 

                “Lisa-chan,” He called down, foregoing his usual teasing.  Lisa straightened to attention.  “Assemble a team of six; you’ll take point-”

 

                He cut himself off, gaze flickering back to the distant training grounds where Asuka and Ichigo were just leaving, grabbing their coats and shunpoing away.

 

                “Taichou?”

 

                He glanced back at Lisa, mind racing.  If he was quick about it, he would have time to stop by the Academy and request a student or two to accompany his squad on this mission.  It wasn't uncommon for officers to bring along a few Academy undergraduates if they had the approval of both captain and a school supervisor.  The student was usually at least a fifth-year but there had been cases where truly talented younger Shinigami would be allowed to go – Kaien and Ichimaru Gin came to mind.

 

                Kaien might take his head off though if Shunsui only requested the lieutenant’s ‘baby cousin’.  It would be better if he brought along another one so that he could at least claim that he was giving a few Academy students some experience in battle instead of just wanting to test Ichigo’s abilities and satisfy his own curiosity.

 

                Nodding decisively to himself, he rose to his feet and leapt back down onto the balcony below.  “Nevermind, Lisa-chan, I’ll lead this one.  Just go assemble a team.”

 

                Lisa stared at him, looking torn between delight that he was actually doing something and incredulity that he was... well, actually doing something.

 

                Shunsui very nearly rolled his eyes and patted his lieutenant on the back.  “Come on, Lisa-chan, you know I'm not that bad.”

 

                Lisa did roll her eyes, sketching a quick salute even as she reached out and snagged his sake bottle.  “Oh I beg to differ.  Team of six, right?  On it.”

 

                She shunpoed away in the direction of the barracks to round up the necessary officers, and Shunsui spared a second to lament the loss of his alcohol before shunpoing off as well, the Academy being his next destination.

 

{2}

 

                Bang!  Bang!  Bang!  Bang!  Bang!

 

                “Alright, alright, I'm coming!”  Ichigo shouted as he stormed out of the bathroom, hair still damp with a towel slung around his shoulders and a grey kimono draped loosely around his frame.  He fumbled with the sash, loosely tying it around his waist just before he reached the door.

 

                He knew it was Koyonagi on the other side.  Nobody else had the guts to come knocking, and Fujiwara had only stopped by that first time, not to mention she would never bang on his door in a million years.

 

                And because it was Koyonagi, Ichigo had been determined to ignore it, especially since he had just stepped out of the shower, but the bastard hadn't given up for a full two minutes and the noise was giving Ichigo a headache.

 

                Bang!  Bang!  Bang!  “Ichi-chan!  Open up!”

 

                Jaw tight and more than ready to stab Koyonagi a couple hundred times, Ichigo threw open the door.  At the same time, having swiped up his Zanpakutou when he had been halfway across his dorm room, Ichigo swung his katana up and thrust it forward even before he had fully opened the door.

 

                “What the hell do you want, you shitty geezer?!”  Ichigo snarled, only minimally satisfied when Koyonagi had to bend backwards to avoid getting beheaded.  “There better be an apocalypse on the horizon and Hollows lined up at the front door ready to slaughter us all or so help me-”

 

                His voice died in his throat when he finally registered the fact that there were two people at his door, not just the usual aggravating one.  More importantly, the second man was also his once-upon-a-future-time mentor.

 

                Who looked exceedingly amused.

 

                “Maa, I'm afraid we haven’t quite reached the apocalypse yet, Ichigo-kun,” Shunsui told him cheerfully.

 

                Instinctively, Ichigo lowered his blade and straightened in place, inclining his head in the shallowest of bows.  “Uh, Kyouraku-taichou, good evening.”

 

                “Oh, so he gets a ‘good evening’ and I get a sword to the throat?”  Koyonagi interjected indignantly as he unbent his spine.  “How is that in any way fair?”

 

                Ichigo turned a flat stare on the lion-like man.  “Life’s not fair; for an old geezer, I would've thought you’d know that by now.”

 

                Koyonagi rolled his eyes and threw up his hands.  “You’re hopeless.  I should open a class at the Academy – ‘Manners For Snot-Nosed Brats’.  Clearly, you need it.”

 

                Ichigo glowered at him.  He knew how to be polite; his mother had taught him his manners.  He just didn't use them very often.

 

                As infuriating as Koyonagi was though, Ichigo didn't shoot back a retort, turning to face Shunsui again instead.  The captain wouldn't be visiting him if it wasn't for something important.

 

                So, without further ado, he prompted, “Taichou, is there something I can help you with?”

 

                Shunsui’s genial smile never wavered but a more solemn note entered his voice, one Ichigo recognized as the tone that the captain typically adopted when handling serious business.

 

                “A team from the Eighth and Thirteenth respectively have been summoned as support for a Fifth Division squad on an ongoing mission; Hollows in District 64, North Rukongai,” Shunsui summarized succinctly.  “I want to take a few Academy students with me to give them some real battle experience; you’re one of them.  Do you want to come?”

 

                Ichigo instantly frowned as he wracked his mind.  Kyouraku Shunsui could be whimsical on a good day but the man didn't do things without reason when it came to the more dangerous aspects of his job.  So why invite Ichigo when he was only a first-year, not even finished six months of school?  There were a whole slew of fifth- and sixth-years no doubt hoping for a chance to accompany a squad into battle to witness some real action.

 

                The answer came easily enough.  Acting had never been Ichigo’s strong suit.  Shunsui had probably picked up a few oddities in his behaviour and had gotten curious.  And after hearing – and possibly seeing – Ichigo train Fujiwara, the captain most likely wanted to know what he was like in a fight as well.

 

                Well, Ichigo had to show some of his skill sometime, especially if he didn't want to be relegated to a low-rank position even after graduating early.  He had to hide most of what he could really do, but also be good enough to attract some interest.

 

                “Sure,” He found himself consenting readily.  “I just need a minute to change.”

 

                Shunsui smiled and nodded, reminding him, “Not your school uniform though.  Pick something more comfortable and easier to move around in.”

 

                Ichigo nodded in agreement and shut the door, zooming towards his closet and pulling out a custom-made black, long-sleeved Shihakushou with a ragged hemline and a thin white trim at the bottom, one that greatly resembled his old attire back in his time.  Kaien had continued sending him pocket money every month but the only thing he had spent some of it on had been this uniform, and Ichigo fully planned on paying Kaien back once he entered the Gotei 13 and started getting his paychecks.  He was no one’s charity case even if he was a Shiba and was sort of entitled to some of the money.  Accepting any funds from the Shiba Clan made him feel uncomfortable.

               

                He quickly changed, finding socks, sandals, and a pair of black fingerless gloves as Shiro, sounding tremendously excited, cackled happily about finally getting the chance to let loose a little.

 

                Ichigo couldn't blame him.  Academy spars were only slightly more stimulating than watching grass grow.

 

                Securing his Zanpakutou through the black sash around his waist, Ichigo strode for the door again, slipping seamlessly into a more focused mentality as he mentally reviewed the mission parameters.

 

                District 64, North Rukongai – wasn't that where a few of Aizen’s secret labs were located?

 

                And support for a team from the Fifth Division.  Ichigo inwardly grimaced and started praying that Hirako Shinji wouldn't be the one leading it.  He wasn't ready to see his old friend yet.

 

                Then again, better Shinji than Aizen.  Who knew?  Ichigo just might accidentally on purpose shove the would-be traitor into the path of a hungry Hollow, and that would definitely get him in big shit, especially since the madman would undoubtedly survive.

 

                Stepping outside, Ichigo closed and locked the door behind him, arching an eyebrow when Koyonagi actually did a double-take.

 

                “Well, you take ‘Shinigami’ to a whole new level,” The instructor commented, eyeing his dark clothes.  It contrasted greatly with the usual half-white attire of the Academy uniform.

 

                Ichigo’s mouth twisted into a sneer, feeling unreasonably protective of his chosen outfit.  After all, before he had been able to seal his Zanpakutou, his Shihakushou had been much like this one and that had been a manifestation of Zangetsu’s power.

 

                “I like black,” Ichigo defended shortly.  “Even my Zanpakutou is black.”

 

                “Only the hilt,” Koyonagi pointed out, a calculating gleam suddenly entering his eyes.

 

                Ichigo silently scoffed.  The bastard had been trying to discover whether or not Ichigo had achieved Shikai yet for months now.

 

                “Exactly,” He returned vaguely before turning to Shunsui and paying no mind to Koyonagi’s disgruntled huff.  “Sorry to keep you waiting, sir.”

 

                “We still have time,” Shunsui assured, nodding a passing farewell to Koyonagi and gesturing for Ichigo to follow.  “Koyonagi suggested one other student – a sixth-year – so we’ll be meeting up with her at the front.”

 

                Ichigo nodded and fell into step behind Shunsui, only to pause when Koyonagi unexpectedly called after them, “Ichigo, be careful.”

 

                Ichigo cocked his head.  What, no ‘Ichi-kun’ or ‘Ichi-chan’ or something equally irksome this time?  Heck, this had to be the first time Koyonagi had ever addressed him properly.  The man had started out with ‘Shiba-kun’ five months ago for all of five minutes before switching to the butchered versions of his first name ever since.

 

                He glanced back, softening a little when he spotted the uncharacteristically sombre cast shadowing the older Shinigami’s features.  “...Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

 

                Koyonagi stared unblinkingly at him for a moment longer before a smirk curled at his lips.  “Good; you still owe me for getting you that extra credit and recommending you as a tutor for Fujiwara-chan.  Imagine the trouble you’d be in without me looking out for you, Ichi-kun!”

 

                Ichigo spluttered, any feelings of goodwill dissipating instantaneously.  “The only thing I owe you is a broken nose, you smug bastard!”

 

                He whirled away and stalked off when Koyonagi just waved at him with a “Bye-bye, Ichi!  Don’t get eaten!”

 

                Ichigo fumed as Shiro laughed his ass off inside their shared mindscape, and Zangetsu’s deep chuckles joined in.

 

                “Come on, Taichou,” Ichigo growled, temporarily forgetting himself as he stomped past the Eighth Division captain.  “Before I murder someone in the Academy halls.”

 

Trailing after him, Kyouraku laughed out loud, and for a startled heartbeat, Ichigo’s frustration ebbed and he could almost imagine himself back in his own time, hanging out with his friends between skirmishes, relatively content even with the war raging around them, before everything had gone south.

 

And then he shoved those memories aside and concentrated on being irritated.  Now was not the time to take a trip down memory lane.  He had a mission to complete and a mangy lion of a Shinigami to cold-cock afterwards.

 

{2}

 

                Shunsui didn't see many Shinigami like Ichigo anymore, the sort that didn't bow low to every authority figure in sight, and subconsciously challenged every man he met to prove that they were worth respecting.

 

Granted, Koyonagi wasn't big on protocol either but most students overlooked things like that and skipped right on to trying to score points with their superiors in any way they could.

 

Shunsui had personally never seen anyone who could insult someone so many times in one conversation and still maintain an underlying thread of respect throughout the entire exchange but Ichigo had managed to pull it off just fine.  The kid had snapped and growled at Koyonagi but Shunsui recognized genuine regard when he saw it.

 

And it had been entertaining to watch.  Nowadays, the only people who didn't sweep reverent bows in his presence were the other captains and maybe half the lieutenants.  The rest always carried an undercurrent of nervousness when speaking to him or even one of the other captains.  Yama-jii would never agree of course but Shunsui sometimes wished that they weren’t all such imposing figures; it put something of a wall between the upper echelon and everyone else, admiring whispers of their strength embellished in ways that put them on too-high pedestals in comparison to many of the lower-ranked Shinigami.

 

After all, as the saying went, the higher one stood, the harder they fell, and on occasion, when Shunsui felt poetic and took the time to really look around, it made him feel faintly uneasy to see the way the Gotei 13 seemed to be unravelling at the seams.

 

Once upon a time, when he was still climbing the ranks with Juushirou, Shunsui had always known that they would be able to turn to Yama-jii or even Retsu-senpai for guidance and assistance.  Now though, with law after law piling up and the captains and even lieutenants garnering only distant awe-filled respect from the lower ranks, Shunsui had noticed that there weren’t many Shinigami who would think to ‘bother’ their superiors with any personal concerns.

 

And that bothered him.

 

“Taichou, is that the other Academy student coming with us?”

 

Shunsui blinked out of his ruminations, absently noting the slightly peculiar expression crossing Ichigo’s face before he nodded in confirmation.

 

“Yes, that would be her,” He verified as they pulled up beside the blonde sixth-year who hastily ducked into a bow.  Shunsui stifled a sigh and quirked an amicable smile instead when she straightened.  She was quite a looker too, curves in all the right places coupled with the beginnings of a coy edge in the way she tilted her head and smiled.

 

Lisa would slap him and Juushirou would scold him if they found out he was... admiring an Academy student though.

 

“Ichigo-kun, Matsumoto Rangiku,” Shunsui introduced as the blonde peered up at Ichigo, recognition dawning in her eyes.  “Matsumoto-chan, this is Shiba Ichigo.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Shiba-kun,” Matsumoto greeted with a playful wink.  “Not too shabby in the looks department for a first-year.”

 

Shunsui hid his amusement when he detected some leftover apprehension in her outgoing flirtatious demeanour.  She was learning at least.  Matsumoto would certainly have a devastating effect on the male population of the Gotei 13 sooner or later.

 

On the other hand, Ichigo only nodded back curtly.  “Nice to meet you, Matsumoto-san.”

 

Shunsui fought the urge to facepalm.  Kid wasn't all that good at flirting back, that was certain.

 

“Alright, you two, follow me,” Shunsui instructed, deciding to spare Matsumoto the need to respond to Ichigo’s rejection or plain obliviousness – even Shunsui wasn't quite sure which it was – when her cheeks pinked in subtle embarrassment as she fumbled for something to say.

 

“We’ll be facing an unknown number of Hollows in District 64 in North Rukongai,” Shunsui expounded as they shunpoed towards the North Gate.  “Teams from both the Fifth and the Thirteenth will be there as well.  You two will have to fight but you are to stay within a few feet of me at all times, understand?”

 

“Yes, sir!” came the chorused answer, and Shunsui nodded in approval.

 

A captain requesting backup wasn't a frequent occurrence but Shunsui was positive that the missive would've been much more urgent if the mission had taken too many turns for the worse.  Both students would be fine with so many experienced Shinigami coming along as well.

 

{2}

 

                Rangiku was a little more nervous than Ichigo remembered but this was over a century ago.  The blonde hadn't even graduated yet.  Still, it was a bit weird to not see the woman flirting expertly with every male in the vicinity.  It was good to see her alive and healthy and happy again though.

 

                He took a quick peek at Haineko clipped on Rangiku’s waist obi.  He wondered if she had achieved Shikai yet.  Either way, he’d have to keep an eye on her just in case.  She had been one of his friends in the other timeline; one of the closer ones too.  She hadn't survived to see the end of the war though, cut down by one of Aizen’s strongest Arrancar, and Gin had gone the same way after he had found out about her death.  The creepy fox of a double spy had snapped and gone on a rampage, slicing a line straight for Aizen.  Needless to say, the idiot hadn't come back alive.

 

                “Ichigo?”

 

                Ichigo craned his head around at the familiar voice.  Ah, it looked like the team from the Thirteenth Division had finally arrived.

 

                “Kaien,” Ichigo acknowledged stiffly, knowing that, in front of so many lower-ranked, possibly impressionable Shinigami, it would be bad to forego the proper military etiquette and pick a fight with his cousin again.  Kaien was both a lieutenant and a clan head after all.

 

                Kaien was also frowning harshly though, and Ichigo could see the quicksilver deductions in his cousin’s expression as the lieutenant turned to give Shunsui a narrow-eyed stare, none of his typical teasing nature anywhere in sight.  Even Shibas – Isshin came to mind – knew when to put a hold on their usual bullshit routine.

 

                “Battle experience, Kaien-kun,” Shunsui explained mildly.

 

                “He’s a first-year,” Kaien protested, voice pitched low so that only the captain, Ichigo, and Rangiku, standing beside him, could hear.

 

                “He’s also slated to graduate next spring,” Shunsui reminded Kaien.  “You had your fair share of missions when you were a second-year.”

 

                “Yes, but that’s-” Kaien cut himself off, shooting an unreadable look at Ichigo before exhaling shortly and nodding in grudging acceptance.  “Alright, fine, I guess that’s a fair call.”

 

                Shunsui nodded, and with the matter settled, the captain scanned the area with sharp eyes.  “You’re in charge of your squad?”

 

                Kaien nodded again, brisk and efficient this time.  “Ukitake-taichou’s feeling a bit under the weather again.”

 

                “Alright then, fan out,” Shunsui ordered, voice rising as the gate was pushed open.  “We move out in two groups.  Usual formation, Kaien-kun.”

 

                Kaien nodded sharply once more, and with a flick of his wrist as a gesture towards his subordinates, the Thirteenth squad moved out.  However, the lieutenant did tack on in a voice that brooked no arguments, “Ichigo, with me for a moment.”

 

                Ichigo automatically scowled.  Did his cousin think he couldn't handle himself?

 

                Nevertheless, now was not the time to spout contradictions.  Ichigo glanced questioningly at Shunsui who nodded his permission, waving him away before calling Matsumoto to his side instead.

 

                Ichigo bounded ahead and pulled level with Kaien, keeping up with the general speed without difficulty.

 

                Kaien didn't beat around the bush, though he did continue keeping his voice down.  “Are you alright with this?”

 

                Ichigo glared at him.  “Of course.”

 

                The lieutenant rolled his eyes, countenance softening.  “That’s not what I mean, idiot.  I found you in District 64, North Rukongai, remember?  Are you sure you want to go back there so soon?”

 

                Ichigo almost did a double-take.  The Spirit King had dumped his... background story’s ass in District 64?  What were the odds?  The King had a twisted sense of humour.

 

                “I- Yeah, I’ll be fine, Kaien,” Ichigo hurriedly assured.

 

                This earned him a sidelong look of concern.  “Are you absolutely certain, Ichigo?  There’s no shame in turning back now if you don’t think you're ready.  When I found you, you were bleeding everywhere.  Even now, I'm still surprised you didn't die.  I actually had to call in Unohana-taichou; the Clan doctors couldn't do shit.  And even then, Unohana-taichou of all people said it was a miracle you survived.”

 

                Ichigo said nothing for a moment, concentrating on each flash step instead.  Had Kaien – and whoever else had been involved – been given the memories of Ichigo’s injuries after his confrontation against Aizen?  It would explain the worry; even Ichigo could admit that he had been far too close to death after that final battle.  That point had been further driven home when even level-headed Shinji had panicked at the end over his wounds when they had been incarcerated together.

 

                “I'm fine, and I’ll be fine,” Ichigo repeated at last.  “Stop worrying; I know what I can handle.”

 

                Kaien levelled him with an assessing look.  Ichigo glowered right back, daring his cousin to order him away.  Kaien might be older than him but Ichigo was definitely stronger, and he’d faced down wannabe gods and monsters for several long years and come out on the winning side; no one else here could claim that much.

 

                Kaien finally heaved a sigh of defeat.  “Alright, alright, but take it easy and try not to do anything rash.”

 

                “I don’t do rash things,” Ichigo shot back.

 

                Much, anymore, he amended in his head.

 

                Kaien snorted.  “You’re a Shiba; recklessness is in our blood.”

 

                The lieutenant punched him lightly on the arm before jabbing a finger back in the direction of Shunsui.  “Get back over there, cousin.  Keep a cool head and you’ll be fine.”

 

                Ichigo suppressed the knee-jerk impulse to roll his eyes at Kaien’s obvious concern as he shunpoed away.  It was rather disconcerting if anything.  Back in his time, there hadn't been many people who had actively worried about him, mainly because Ichigo had never needed worrying about.

 

                The school bullies and town thugs who had once harassed him over his hair or his reputation?  They got beaten up and sent to the hospital.  His father had certainly never had to step in and discuss with the teachers any victimization on Ichigo’s part.

 

                (At least not after Ichigo’s mother had died, though before that, it had been Masaki who had handled that sort of thing.)

 

                Likewise, Soul Society and unfair laws, rogue Shinigami and traitorous bastards?  Ichigo had always been able to deliver an ass-kicking when need be.  Sometimes, it took him a while, but he always got there in the end.

 

                He was strong, had gotten stronger every time someone had turned around, and it had soon become a given that Ichigo would always be able to stand up to whatever new crisis had been hitting Soul Society at the time.  And if he didn't manage it the first time around, then he would indubitably grow strong enough to do so the second time.

 

                That was the way of the world.

 

                Kaien didn't know that though so Ichigo supposed it was only logical for his cousin to fuss over him, especially if Ichigo had apparently been found in that particular district.

 

                As he fell back to Rangiku’s side, Ichigo caught Shunsui’s eye and, upon reading the silent question in the man’s expression, nodded distractedly to signal that he was okay.

 

                He glanced to the side when he felt another pair of eyes on him.  “What is it?”

 

                Rangiku flushed a little but pressed on boldly, “Is it true that you’re really graduating in a year?”

 

                Ichigo studied her for a moment.  “Yeah.”

 

                In front of them, Shunsui, for some reason, shook his head in an exasperated manner.  Rangiku however looked a bit put out at his one-word answer but forged on doggedly.  “My friend, Gin; he also graduated in a year, and he was given a seated position in the Fifth when he joined the Gotei 13.  Do you have a particular squad in mind?  One you want to join when you graduate?”

 

                Ichigo squinted at her.  Well, Rangiku had always been chatty.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shunsui’s head tilt a little, clearly listening in as well.

 

                “I haven’t really thought about it,” Ichigo said.  That wasn't completely true.  There were only three captains he would be willing to serve under – Ukitake, Shunsui, and Shinji.  Kisuke was pushing it; he’d die for the guy in a heartbeat but working for the future shopkeeper would drive him around the bend.  Or to an early grave.

 

                “Probably not the Thirteenth,” He added when it looked like the blonde really wanted him to at least hold his end of the conversation.  Rangiku nodded in quick comprehension.  Entering the Thirteenth would undoubtedly put him in Kaien’s shadow, whether either of them wanted that or not.

 

(Not to mention being in the Thirteenth wasn't going to help Ichigo much with the whole Aizen issue.  They hadn't been all that involved with the whole Visored debacle as a whole.)

 

                “Not the Twelfth,” He continued practically, thoughts turning briefly onto Kisuke.  “I'm not much of a scientist.”

 

                Even though I’ve watched Kisuke work on one experiment or another for over half a decade, he mused with sardonic amusement.

 

                “And not the Fourth or the Second,” Ichigo concluded.  “I'm pretty crap at Kidou, and I'm not assassin material.”

 

                “That still leaves quite a few divisions open for you to choose from,” Rangiku returned enthusiastically, looking delighted and relieved that Ichigo actually possessed the ability to make small talk.

 

                “It depends on whether or not the captain accepts me,” Ichigo pointed out.

 

                Rangiku eyed him dubiously.  “You’re a genius, the second ever Shinigami to finish the Academy in a year.  Somebody’s going to want you.”

 

                Ichigo shrugged, feeling a little awkward now.  To his perplexity, Rangiku suddenly giggled.

 

                “Ah, I get you now!”  Rangiku snapped her fingers and grinned at him.  “You’re not stuck-up; you're just shy!”

 

                Ichigo almost tripped mid-shunpo.  He rounded on the blonde with a fierce scowl, ignoring the suspicious-sounding cough that came from Shunsui.  “Why the hell would I be either?!”

 

                Rangiku tapped her chin with one well-manicured finger.  “Don't you listen to the rumours at the Academy?  They say you’re an arrogant bastard riding on your Clan Head’s reputation.  Because you ignore everyone at school.”

 

                Ichigo scoffed loudly.  “If they had something other than ‘do you think you can put in a good word for me to Shiba-fukutaichou’, I might be inclined to talk to them.”

 

                Rangiku’s grin widened.  “But now I know you’re just shy!  And really antisocial!”

 

                Ichigo shot her a blistering glare.  “I am not.  Don't go making things up.”

 

                Rangiku had the gall to give him a thumbs-up and another wink.  “Don’t worry, Shiba-kun; I won’t spread your secret around.”

 

                “It’s not even true!”  Ichigo objected before pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration.  He knew from experience that Rangiku was harder to deter than a bulldozer.  ...Then again, that might not be a good comparison.  After all, he could cut a bulldozer in half with one swing of his sword.  “Oh whatever.  Think what you want.”

 

                Rangiku laughed, eyes warm.  “You know, you're not so bad, Shiba-kun.”

 

                Ichigo just sighed.  Up ahead, Shunsui chuckled quietly.

 

{2}

 

                The clearing was a free-for-all Hollow melee.  As soon as Kaien got rid of one, another replaced it a second later.  He had already activated his Shikai, and water flew around him in graceful arches as he cut down another line of Hollows.  Large groups like these were rare but it did happen, and it was damn troublesome to deal with.

 

                There was a new kind of Hollow too, mixed in with the normal ones.  They flickered rapidly in and out of existence like one of those static-y videos from the Human World, as if they were trying to turn invisible or something but couldn't quite accomplish it.

 

                Thank god for small mercies.

 

                Spinning and spearing another Hollow through its mask, Kaien spared a fraction of a second to seek out his cousin again, ensuring that the younger Shinigami was holding his own.  However, Ichigo didn't even seem winded, even though they had joined the battle half an hour ago.

 

                At this rate, the captains would have to unseal their Zanpakutou, and you knew things were bad if that had to happen.

 

                Kaien glanced again at Ichigo.  His baby cousin was frowning even more than usual, expression steadily darkening as he swiftly and expertly reduced the Hollow numbers around him, standing back to back with the other Academy student.

 

                Kaien wondered if that was Ichigo’s reaction to facing Hollows or his reaction to the place in general.

 

                A Hollow shrieked from somewhere behind him and Kaien whirled around, slicing it in half.  As he threw himself into the thick of what appeared to be a small army once again, Kaien took a quick inventory of everyone.  None of his own men had died yet, and Kyouraku’s squad was doing well too.  Hirako’s team on the other hand had already lost three members before they had arrived, leaving only two unseated officers, that young Third Seat Ichimaru, and Hirako himself.

 

                Speaking of the Third Seat, Kaien flicked a surreptitious glance at the kid once more.  Ichimaru was doing a good job covering Hirako’s back but he was still smiling away in that mildly disturbing manner.

 

                Ah well.  People coped in different ways, and the best Shinigami were a quirky bunch.

 

                Kaien cut down yet another Hollow before shouting for his men to tighten their formation.  It wouldn't do to let a Hollow slip through their ranks and attack from behind.

 

                This was going to be a long night.

 

{2}

 

                This wasn't supposed to be happening.

 

                Ichigo didn't really know whether this had happened the first time around in the other timeline or if this was a deviation due to his arrival in this time.

 

                Either way, the flickering Hollows looked awfully like defective prototypes of the invisible Hollows that Aizen had perfected and unleashed on Soul Society during the war.  Even now, they each held a pulse of power that Ichigo would've recognized even if he had been blind, deaf, and dumb; these things undoubtedly carried traces of the Hogyoku.

 

                He threw a swift glance over his shoulder.  Rangiku was holding up well enough, though she was also tiring.  She hadn't activated her Shikai so he guessed that she probably hadn't achieved it yet.  Her swordsmanship was sharp and clean though, albeit a bit too conventional for his tastes, but she would eventually throw in some variation once she gained some experience.

 

                He carelessly batted away three more Hollows coming in from his blind spot, cutting them down with barely a thought even as he searched the clearing, making sure Kaien was doing okay before moving on to the long-haired form of Hirako Shinji thirty feet away.

 

                The Fifth Division captain was more than standing his ground but it was the Shinigami watching his back that Ichigo was eyeing mistrustfully.  He knew that Gin was technically against Aizen but that didn't necessarily mean that he was on the Shinigami’s side either, and right now, the Third Seat would undeniably trying to weasel as far as possible into Aizen’s good graces.  At this point in time, if Aizen said jump, Gin would be in the air before he asked how high.

 

                Absently, Ichigo slashed down another Hollow, gaze finding Shinji once more.  Something in his gut twisted painfully but he disregarded the ache.  The blond looked... less burdened even in the midst of battle.  Being Hollowfied and exiled would harden the captain even more in ways that several centuries spent in the relative safety of Seireitei would never do.

 

                Ichigo’s lips thinned and he took out a sudden burst of irritation on five oncoming Hollows, two of them flickering with migraine-inducing speed.

 

                It wasn't fair.  No matter what they eventually said in the future, wouldn't Shinji and the others be happier if they avoided being Hollowfied?  And if Ichigo could stop it... what then?

 

                No, he had to stick to the plan.  The creation of Visored was one of the few stipulations that the Spirit King had laid out after all.

 

                Ichigo shook himself out of his thoughts and speedily stepped into the path of a Hollow that had Rangiku in its sights.

 

                “Thanks, Shiba-kun,” Rangiku panted as she fended off another Hollow coming at her from the front.  “You’re really good at this.”

                “Meh,” Ichigo calmly shattered another Hollow’s mask with the hilt of his katana when it lunged at him.  “You're not too bad yourself.  It’s just a matter of getting used to this sort of thing.”

 

                “And you are?”  Rangiku huffed, ducking under the claws of a Hollow before driving her Zanpakutou up into its head.  She didn't sound annoyed or demanding, more envious and inquisitive than anything else.

 

                Ichigo grunted an affirmative.  “Guess so-”

 

                His head snapped around.  One of the flickering Hollows had just completely disappeared.  Ichigo could still see the faint outline of reiatsu delineating the Hollow of course; it was the only way one could tell where these Hollows were when they became invisible.  Anyone who didn't know to look for it in the first place would miss it anyway.

 

                And the thing was heading straight for Shinji from behind.

 

                Shinji’s unprotected back, because Gin had suddenly moved out of the way, silently shifting to stand several feet off to the left as he dispatched a few more Hollows, smile wide and eyes slitted open.

 

                Now, it could be a coincidence.  At first glance, Gin looked to be engaged with a particularly bothersome Hollow.  Too bad Ichigo had long since stopped believing in coincidence.

 

                So what the hell was that snake doing moving even further away?

 

                Within the span of one heartbeat and the next, Ichigo digested the scene across the clearing and ran through all the possible scenarios that could happen in the next few seconds.

 

                These Hollows showing up was fishy enough but Aizen didn't do things without at least half a dozen reasons behind it.  He wouldn't set these Hollows on a group of Shinigami just for the heck of entertainment or something equally revolting.

 

So did Aizen want to test how effective a Shinigami would hold up against a Hogyoku-empowered Hollow in battle?  And not just that but a captain-class Shinigami to boot?

 

Not to mention with Shinji unaware of the danger most likely until the invisible Hollow was all but on top of him, the captain would almost certainly have to unseal his Zanpakutou to deflect the Hollow’s up-close-and-personal, indiscernible cero, revealing his Shikai to Aizen pre-emptively.

 

And if this was what had happened the first time around, was that how Aizen had known how to counter Shinji’s Zanpakutou?  Ichigo refused to believe that one of the strongest captains’ Shikai ability could be so easily defeated no matter what bullshit explanation Aizen had given.  Having a century to sit on the information was certainly an advantage.

 

And hell, if nothing else, if the Hollow was ludicrously lucky and Shinji was outrageously unlucky and got himself killed, that was one less captain for Aizen to deal with.

 

Several birds with one stone.  All bases covered.  That was Aizen’s style.

 

Another heartbeat.  Blood roared in his ears as time seemed to slow even more.

 

Ichigo’s foot twitched in the captain’s direction, a surge of instinctual protectiveness welling up in his chest.

 

Shinji.

 

The noise of battle and screeching Hollows around him guaranteed that a warning shout wouldn't be heard.

 

But if Ichigo left his position now, Rangiku would be left wide open and there were dozens of Hollows bearing down on them.  The blonde would be dead meat, or at least critically injured, especially with Shunsui busy with his own surrounding circle of Hollows several feet away, and Kaien also preoccupied.

 

Ichigo could pull it off though.  If he released his Zanpakutou.  The resulting outburst of his reiatsu would wipe out every Hollow within at least a ten-foot radius, giving him plenty of time to leave Rangiku’s side and rush to Shinji’s aid since Gin certainly had no intention of doing so.

 

One last heartbeat.  Time seemed to stand still, holding its breath as the future remained uncertain.

 

Ichigo made up his mind.

 

“Darkness falls and the heavens weep,” He started in a tight murmur, angling his blade in front of him.

 

                “Shiba-kun?”  Behind him, Rangiku sounded confused.  On the side, Kaien suddenly glanced over, falling back a little against six Hollows coming at him from all sides.

 

                “Blood moon rises and the skies are torn asunder!” Ichigo’s voice rose as he felt his reiatsu stir.  He could almost taste Shiro’s eagerness and Zangetsu’s own composed anticipation.  “Step forward, Zangetsu!”

 

                And the world exploded.

 

                Ichigo’s signature crimson-edged black reiatsu erupted around him for the first time in over half a year, the immense amount of energy swirling around him and eviscerating all the Hollows it touched as it stretched out as if stretching its wings after months of keeping them strapped away.

 

And inside the dark cocoon circling around him, his katana separated into two, his lighter trench knife dropping into his left hand while his larger Khyber knife formed within his right.  The comforting weights of both blades – Zangetsu at his left; Shiro at his right – felt perfect in Ichigo’s grasp.

 

                It felt like freedom, and for the first time since Ichigo had landed in this time, he felt like he had regained a bit of what he had once called home.

 

                For now however, Ichigo was moving even before his reiatsu had died down, flying over the forest floor with the wind howling in his ears as his Shunpo hit his usual blurring speeds.

 

                He didn't hesitate, his battle-hardened instincts and skill urging him onwards as he slid fluidly between the invisible Hollow and Shinji.

 

                He sensed more than saw Shinji whirl around, evidently startled, but Ichigo paid him no mind, concentrating on the task at hand instead.

 

                His eyes narrowed on the near-imperceptible form of the approaching Hollow, and without wavering, he brought up Zangetsu to block the downward lethal strike of the Hollow’s steel-like claws, blocking the attack effortlessly.

 

                It flickered into existence again with a scream of rage.  Huh.  Still faulty.  The perfected invisible Hollows stayed invisible even after it was hit.  Sometimes, they had even dissipated without anyone ever seeing their forms at all.

 

                Ichigo didn't wait around for another – futile – assault.  In the blink of an eye, he swung Shiro around in an upward arc, cleaving straight through the Hollow from bottom to top.

 

                Blood sprayed in the air, and Ichigo automatically crowded backwards to herd Shinji away as the Hollow toppled, crashing to the ground even as it began to dissolve.

 

                Ichigo watched it dispassionately as he released a quiet breath and rolled his shoulders.  Black reiatsu continued looping around both his blades, not quite ready to fall completely under Ichigo’s control again after having been unable to cut loose for so many months.

 

                Ichigo didn't mind.  He had never kept his reiatsu under such a tight lid for so long since he had discovered reiatsu back when he had been fifteen.  At the moment, he felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.  Hollows were naturally destructive beings after all so it wasn't all that healthy for Ichigo to keep his reiatsu under wraps for such a long time.  It made him restless and tense.

 

                He blinked, and then finally registered the fact that aside from a handful of Hollows shrieking in the distance, the clearing was dead silent.

 

                Ichigo inwardly cursed, and then hastily took a few steps to the left when he realized that he was unknowingly standing right next to Shinji.  He was used to the man’s presence in his own timeline, but right now, the blond was supposed to be both a stranger and a captain.  Ichigo was only an Academy student.

 

                Don’t look at him, he told himself, avoiding eye contact with the blond captain while trying to make it look like he wasn't doing it on purpose.  Seeing him’s one thing; you’d probably slip up and blurt something you should definitely not say if you talk to him.

 

                So he focused on clamping down on his reiatsu instead.  It had to be done sometime, and while he had learned how to hide his reiatsu signature over the years, it still didn't come as naturally for him as it did pretty much everyone else.

 

                Unfortunately, in the ensuing ringing silence, the whispers started.

 

                “Oh my god, did you see that?”

 

                “See?  Did you feel that?  That guy’s reiatsu is crazy powerful!”

 

                “And it’s black!  Who has black reiatsu?”

 

                “Nevermind that; look at his Zanpakutou!  He’s a dual-blade wielder!  There hasn’t been one since Kyouraku-taichou and Ukitake-taichou!”

 

                “Isn't he just an Academy student?”

 

                “He’s a Shiba though.  I hear the newest one that entered the Academy is also a genius.”

 

                Ichigo’s mouth tilted down.  Wonderful.  Just what he needed.  It wasn't like he was the only one wielding two blades.  Just because the other two happened to be captains, people just had to blow it out of proportion.

 

                His hands tightened around his Zanpakutou, hefting Shiro up to rest the large blade against one shoulder.  Largely disregarding the mutters around him, he inspected the clearing, noting that the only Hollows left were hovering beyond the far tree line, subdued and cowed.

 

                Heck, some of them were ripping open Gargantas and fleeing for their lives.

 

                His gaze paused on Shunsui who was studying him with great interest from under the brim of his sakkat, a surprisingly pleased smile curving his lips as the man took in both Ichigo and his two blades.

 

                Rangiku was gaping openly, eyes wide with shock.

 

                And Gin was no longer smiling, eerie blue gaze settled directly on Ichigo.

 

                Yeah, go tell your boss, Ichigo prodded silently.  I bet Aizen would just love to hear this.  I guess my life’s just been put on the line.  That bastard will either try to recruit me or kill me.

 

                Perhaps not so surprisingly, it was Kaien who stepped in to fill the stilted hush, Zanpakutou sealed again as he barked at the lower-ranked Shinigami, “Hey, if you have time to stand around and gossip, go make yourselves useful and chase down the last of the Hollows.  Hurry up!”

 

                The Shinigami booked it, scooting off to do as they were told under Kaien’s menacing glare and uncompromising stance.  Gin was the last to leave, eyes lingering on Ichigo for a moment longer before smiling once more and motioning for Rangiku to follow him.  At a nod from Shunsui, the two took off into the surrounding forest, leaving Ichigo to deal with two captains and a lieutenant by himself.

 

                In the next second, Kaien was striding over, agitation in every line of his body as he rushed over to Ichigo.

 

                “Shit, I told you not to do anything rash!”  Kaien halted in front of him, scanning him for injuries.  “And what do you do?  You go and do something rash!”

 

                “Technically, you told me to try not to do anything rash,” Ichigo couldn't help pointing out, relaxing a little now that there wasn't much of a need to maintain appearances anymore.  “And besides, I didn't.  That was a very calculated move.”

 

                “Calculated?!”  Kaien squawked.  “You blew across the clearing in half a second, and your reiatsu wiped out every Hollow within twenty feet of us.  And then you almost got yourself mauled by that... invisible Hollow thing!  Where in that did you have time to calculate anything?”

 

                Ichigo stared at him before smirking dryly.  “Well, cousin, not all of us needs to have a sit-down before their brain kicks in.  It’s called thinking on your feet.  I'm sure I can dig up a book about it for you somewhere.”

 

                “Oh, haha, very funny,” Kaien scowled.  “Look, I told you to take it easy.  Do you have any idea what Kukaku would do to me if you were to have a relapse or something?”

 

                Ichigo clicked his tongue in irritation.  “Do I look like I'm about to keel over?  I'm fine.  The only thing I did was unseal my Zanpakutou.  Now I might be wrong, but last time I checked, that’s a fairly common thing for a Shinigami to do.”

 

                “There’s a thing called reiatsu exhaustion!” Kaien said defensively.

 

                Ichigo snorted, idly twirling his trench knife in his left hand.  “Kaien, you felt my reiatsu just now.  It would take a lot more than a single Hollow to bring me to that point.”

 

                “You can never be too careful!”  Kaien lectured, crossing his arms stubbornly.  “And I can’t have you collapsing on my watch.  You’re my baby cous- oof!”

 

                Ichigo nonchalantly retracted Zangetsu from where he had just jabbed the hilt into his cousin’s stomach none too gently.  Kaien doubled over, wheezing.

 

                Ichigo smiled, brittle and deceptively serene.  “Don’t call me a baby ever again or I’ll drown you in the swamp.”

 

                Kaien sputtered, patting his torso gingerly as he straightened again.  “Isn’t that a bit harsh, Ichi?”

 

                Ichigo cocked his head in mock thought before nodding sagely.  “You’re right; the swamp hasn’t done anything to deserve getting you dunked into it.”

 

                Kaien puffed up indignantly even as a reluctant light of laughter glinted in his eyes.  But as he opened his mouth to argue back, someone clearing their throat interrupted their argument-turned-banter.

 

                “Kaien-kun, Ichigo-kun, perhaps you could leave the family spats for later,” Shunsui admonished mildly, amused but stern.

 

                Kaien rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly as he moved to stand beside Ichigo.  Ichigo grunted noncommittally.

 

                “That was nicely done, Ichigo-kun,” Shunsui remarked, coming to a stop in front of them.

 

                Ichigo nodded somewhat stiffly.  In his peripheral vision, he watched as Shinji sauntered forward to join Shunsui, Sakanade tucked away again.

 

                Adjusting to Shunsui was bad enough; having both of them in front of him was like a slap to the face.  Ichigo fought to keep the bitter grimace off his face, dropping his gaze to his Zanpakutou instead.

 

                Wistfully, he flipped the trench knife into the air, and as it descended again, it melted out of existence as he caught it with his Khyber knife.  A flick of his wrist later and only a simple black-hilted katana remained.  Without further fanfare, he sheathed it through the sash at his waist once more.

 

                Beside him, Kaien grumbled a little.  “You didn't tell me you achieved Shikai.”

 

                Ichigo rolled his eyes at the sullen tone.  “You never asked.”

 

                “I shouldn't have to!”

 

                “What, ’cause you’re Clan Head?  Deflate your head a bit, cousin.”

 

                “What?!  That’s not what I meant!  You should be the one skipping happily home to tell your family all about it.  And then we’d throw a party!”

 

                “Okay, one, I don’t skip.  And two, if the rest of the family is just like you, I'm not going anywhere near the Shiba compound.  I’ll be scarred for life.”

 

                “What’s that supposed to mean?  You realize you’re breaking our hearts by dissociating yourself from-”

 

                “Are they always like this?”

 

                Kaien abruptly shut up, and Ichigo’s muscles involuntarily tensed.  In front of them, Shinji was grinning a little, the Cheshire cat smile so familiar that Ichigo had to swallow hard and stomp down firmly on a wave of nostalgia and grief.

 

                Perhaps Shinji caught some of it because the grin faded just a little.  The captain didn't make any mention of it though, examining Ichigo closely instead.  “So you’re Shiba Ichigo.  I've heard good things about ya.  Good ta see it’s not all rumour.  Thanks for the save earlier.”

 

                Ichigo scrambled for a suitable response.  “I- Thank you for saying so, Hirako-taichou.  And it was no problem.”

 

                Shinji grinned again, disarmingly good-natured even as his eyes gauged Ichigo’s reactions.  “Heh, manners don’t suit ya for some reason.  You're an interestin’ kid; when are ya graduatin’?”

 

                Ichigo blinked.  “Uh, coming spring.”

 

                Shinji nodded thoughtfully, brown eyes glittering.  “Keep my Division in mind then.  I’ll even throw in a seated position as incentive.”

 

                Ichigo’s jaw almost dropped.  What?  Shinji was willing to offer him a seated position just like that?

 

                Shunsui chuckled from the side.  “Hirako, don’t you already have a prodigy on your squad?”

 

                Shinji waved a dismissive hand.  “Who cares?  That was more Aizen-chan’s choice really, not mine.  I like this one better.”

 

                Ichigo sweatedropped, and then immediately followed it up with a scowl when Kaien butted in mulishly, “Well wherever he goes, the captain better take good care of him.”

 

                Ichigo elbowed him hard.  “I can take care of myself, bastard.”

 

                “He’s right, actually,” Shunsui interjected.  “Captains have a duty to look out for their subordinates.”

 

                Except I’ve always done the looking out, Ichigo thought wryly but said nothing out loud.

 

                “Speakin' of which,” Shinji sighed, gaze finally turning away to the three dead Shinigami scattered around the clearing.  “I've got bodies to clean up and letters to their families to write.  It’s gonna be a long night.”

 

                Ichigo’s brow creased.  It was one of the nastier jobs of a captain.  He could attest to it.  It had once been one of his jobs as well.

 

                Still, it was a captain’s responsibility, and while Ichigo would've liked to offer to help out no matter how detestable the job, he also knew from experience that this was something captains had to do themselves.

 

                So, instead, he followed Kaien into the forest to track down anymore remaining Hollows.  It was a bit of a relief to be away from the two captains as well so Ichigo wasn't complaining.

 

                Kaien, thankfully, seemed to pick up on Ichigo’s mood because the lieutenant didn't start fretting or teasing him again.  He did speak though.

 

                “Ichigo?”

 

                Ichigo glanced to the side.  “Yeah?”

 

                Kaien’s gaze was sombre.  “Are you considering joining the Fifth?”

 

                Ichigo blinked.  “...I suppose.”

 

                His cousin ran a hand through his hair.  “Well, that’s your choice.  But... be careful.”

 

                Ichigo frowned.  “You don’t trust-” Not Shinji, moron.  “-Hirako-taichou?”

 

                Kaien looked at him again, eyes narrowed.  When he spoke, his voice was barely audible.  “Not him, Ichi.  Just... don’t take everything you hear about the lieutenant at face value, understand?”

 

                Ichigo stilled, slowly craning his head around to stare at his cousin.  Kaien had already moved ahead though, katana drawn once more.

 

                So even a century ago, Shinji hadn't been the only one who had been suspicious of Aizen Sousuke.  Was that perhaps why Kaien had eventually been killed?  Because he had somehow gotten too close to the hidden truth and Aizen had had to get rid of him?

 

                Ichigo set off after his cousin.  No matter.  Either way, Kaien was family now, annoying though he was.  Ichigo wasn't going to let Aizen get away with that murder again.

 

                He’d just have to be even more careful from here on out.

 

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Chapter Text

                Shunsui breezed in through the office door at eight-thirty in the morning.  “Juu-chan, guess what I found last night.”

 

                Juushirou took one look at the somewhat boyishly devious edge in his best friend’s smile and promptly wished he had something stronger than tea on hand.  The last time Shunsui had looked like that (decades ago), Juushirou had ended up with the mother of all hangovers the next day.

 

                “What did you find last night, Shunsui?”  Juushirou asked obligingly because Shunsui actually looking excited was both a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence and a potentially headache-inducing situation that would be best if it was over and done with as soon as possible.

 

                Shunsui, most likely ignoring Juushirou’s increasing trepidation, took a seat in one of the spare chairs, smile widening even further.  “You won’t believe this, Juu-chan.  You know the mission last night?”

 

                Juushirou nodded cautiously, reluctantly curious now at the genuine light of enthusiasm in Shunsui’s eyes.  “Yes, I sent Kaien out with a team, but he got back late last night, and he has some Clan business to take care of this morning as well, so I haven’t seen him yet.  Actually, his report should be...”

 

                Juushirou reached for one of the files that he had yet to look through, only for Shunsui’s hand to slap down on top of it, keeping it shut.

 

Juushirou glanced up, mildly alarmed.  “Shunsui, should I be concerned?”

 

Shunsui waved his free hand.  “Of course not; you worry too much.  But trust me – you’d rather hear this from me than read it from some boring sheets of paper that should’ve done the world a favour ages ago and flushed themselves down the toilet.”

 

Juushirou resisted the urge to roll his eyes; he’d probably strain himself trying to express the sheer depths of his exasperation.  Shunsui and paperwork had never gotten along.

 

“Okay,” He sighed, giving his best friend a pointed look.  “What is it then?”

 

Shunsui settled back in his seat, an air of triumph around him.  “On the mission last night, I brought along two Academy students; for field experience of course.”

 

“Of course,” Juushirou echoed wryly, already guessing Shunsui’s next revelation.  “Incidentally, one of them wouldn't happen to be Ichigo-kun, would it?”

 

Shunsui flashed an utterly unrepentant grin.  “You know me too well, Juu-chan.  But it was a good decision, and I brought along another one as well – Matsumoto Rangiku.  She’s not bad, all things considered.”

 

Shunsui paused and shook his head.  “I'm getting off-topic.  During the battle, a new type of Hollow – ones that can turn invisible, it seems, or attempting to anyway; I'm sure Yama-jii will hold a meeting about that soon – anyway, it attempted to sneak up on Hirako.  Ichigo-kun apparently saw but I believe he was unwilling to leave Matsumoto-chan alone so he chose to unseal his Zanpakutou.”

 

Juushirou’s eyebrows rose.  “He’s already achieved it?  I don’t think even Ichimaru-kun managed that until just before he graduated.”

 

Shunsui leaned forward, eyes gleaming.  “I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.  Ichigo-kun’s Zanpakutou is like ours, Juu-chan.  He’s a dual-blade wielder.”

 

Juushirou stilled, eyes widening with astonishment.  “Seriously?  There hasn’t been one since the two of us!  His Zanpakutou’s sealed form is a single katana, right?”

 

Shunsui nodded.  “Like yours, not mine, when it comes to that.  But it definitely separates into two blades, a trench knife and a Khyber knife, both entirely black.  And you should’ve seen his reiatsu when he activated Shikai.  It was coloured red and black, and it took out every single Hollow within a twenty-foot radius.  His reserves are insanely high.”

 

“He must have a tight control over his reiatsu then,” Juushirou mused thoughtfully.  “I didn't sense anything of the sort when I met him.”

 

“Neither did I,” Shunsui concurred.  “That aside though, he’s still a dual-blade wielder.”

 

Juushirou frowned, an inkling of where this was going forming in his mind, partly because he knew Shunsui almost better than his best friend knew himself, and partly because... well, because Juushirou was thinking it himself.  “And...?”

 

Shunsui’s gaze sharpened with the steely fire that most people never even glimpsed in their lifetime.  “We’re going to have to steal him.”

 

“What?!”  Juushirou couldn't help yelping.  He had expected something along the lines of ‘I want him for my squad’, not... “Shunsui, tell me you’re joking.  How do you propose stealing an Academy student?”

 

Shunsui, obviously seeing Juushirou’s impending refusal to take part in his newest scheme, threw in a sullen pout for good measure.  Juushirou pinched the bridge of his nose.

 

“Well, we don’t have any other choice,” His best friend insisted mulishly.  “HIrako already staked him out last night.  That guy even reserved a seated position for Ichigo-kun as a bribe!  And when Yama-jii finds out, even he might try to snatch up Ichigo-kun as another protégé, never mind the other captains when they hear about him.”

 

Juushirou heaved a long-suffering sigh.  How someone with as many centuries under their belt as Shunsui could be so childish at times, he would never understand.

 

“He’s already turned down your squad though,” Shunsui added, looking apologetic.

 

Juushirou nodded, unsurprised.  “I would be happy to have him in my Division but with his cousin as my lieutenant, I very much doubt Ichigo-kun would want to enter the Thirteenth as well.”

 

“He’s also ruled out the Second, Fourth, and Twelfth,” Shunsui listed.  “He hasn’t turned down the Eighth though.  What do you think?  Should I offer him a seated position too?”

 

Juushirou suppressed an amused smile.  “You usually don’t like accepting any of the male population into your squad; Lisa is normally the one stuck with convincing you to let some of them in.”

 

Shunsui waved a dismissive hand.  “Well I didn't particularly like any of their assets; women are so much nicer to look at.  But you know I’d snap Kaien-kun up in a heartbeat if you ever dumped him-”

 

The man snickered when Juushirou automatically scowled at this.

 

“-and I like Ichigo-kun as well,” Shunsui continued good-humouredly.  “I already have a lieutenant though, so I suppose I’ll have to make him my Third Seat.  It’s currently vacant right now.”

 

“It would be Ichigo-kun’s choice in the end if he gets offers from more than one division, Shunsui,” Juushirou reminded him.

 

“You’re right,” Shunsui agreed with suspicious ease.  Juushirou almost facepalmed when the other captain tacked on matter-of-factly, “So what else can I bribe him with?  It has to be better than Hirako’s offer.  What do you think he likes?  He doesn't seem the type to want a supply of sake.”

 

“You are not going to bribe him, Shunsui!”  Juushirou exclaimed in exasperation.  “Especially not with alcohol!”

 

“Books then?  Some adult reading material are often appreciated by Academy graduates,” Shunsui continued, the corners of his eyes crinkling with shameless laughter, and Juushirou knew that his best friend was simply teasing now.  “Undergraduates too for that matter.”

 

He really did roll his eyes this time.  “Even if you managed to wrangle him into your squad, Shunsui, I really can’t see Kaien letting you corrupt him.”

 

Shunsui chuckled, leaning back in his seat at last.  “No doubt.  Your lieutenant magically turns into a mother hen whenever Ichigo-kun is involved.”

 

Juushirou couldn't help laughing at that, a passing image of Kaien fluttering around a progressively more annoyed Ichigo, feathery and fretting, surfacing in his mind.  “Kaien is naturally protective of those he cares about, and Ichigo-kun is new to his family.  No doubt, he just wants to make sure his cousin is settling in smoothly.”

 

He paused, considering Shunsui’s scheming expression before suggesting firmly, “There will be no stealing or bribery or any other criminal activities involved, Shunsui.  If you want, perhaps we could talk to Hirako today.  He does likes his jokes, and Aizen-fukutaichou is usually the one who handles most of the new recruits entering the Fifth.  Maybe Hirako was just making fun.  He isn’t the type to offer rewards even if someone saves his life.”

 

Kyouraku sighed dolefully and shook his head, a mildly puzzled frown marring his features.  “Actually, I think he was completely serious.  I’ve never seen Hirako take a liking to someone that quickly.  He’s usually more suspicious.”

 

They exchanged a silent, weighty look.  Juushirou didn't need to be a mind-reader or Shunsui’s best friend to know that they were both thinking about the Fifth Division vice-captain.  They had never found any proof to support their misgivings – Aizen was kind, polite, intelligent, and well-respected; the role model for every up-and-coming Shinigami – yet there had always been something... off about him that rubbed Juushirou and Shunsui the wrong way even though they had never really discussed it.

 

Hirako was no different; the blond captain, behind his grin and taunts and laidback simplicity, had always been a man who instinctively triple-checked everything with shrewd insight and calculating practicality.  Hirako wasn't a genius but he was by no means stupid either; he was typically a good judge of character, a frighteningly nasty-minded tactician when he applied his brain, and a very powerful Shinigami in his own right.  Only idiots and madmen would cross Hirako Shinji.

 

So, one night, during which the three of them had been relaxing with sake and small talk, when Hirako had... implied that he had only taken on Aizen to keep a closer eye on him, Juushirou and Shunsui had both been understandably worried.

 

Captains and lieutenants were supposed to be close, a working pair who trusted each other both in battle and out.  No matter how good Hirako was, his reservations about Aizen would most likely put a wall between them, and if Hirako’s concerns were founded, that would only serve to alert Aizen of it.

 

Hirako had assured them – not in so many words – that he could handle it though, and in the end, it was Fifth Division business.  For now anyway.  There was nothing anyone could do until they had substantial proof.

 

“Do you think he distrusts Ichigo-kun as well?”  Juushirou enquired with a disapproving frown.  Perhaps he was biased what with Kaien being his lieutenant but Ichigo had never struck him as someone who would stab them all in the back at the first opportunity.  The boy chaffed at the bounds of authority and was more free-spirited than anyone Juushirou had ever met but there had been certain subtle aspects that had made liking Ichigo very easy, small things like training Shunsui’s cousin with more dedication than was strictly necessary, and bickering with Kaien like a pair of squabbling children.

 

“No,” Shunsui decided thoughtfully.  “Hirako seemed to genuinely like him.  Although come to think of it, Ichigo-kun was... surprisingly protective of someone he’s never met before.  I suppose Hirako might’ve responded to that subconsciously.”

 

Shunsui chuckled a little, the sound less humorous and more bemused.  “You should’ve seen Ichigo-kun; he wouldn't even let the resulting spray of blood touch Hirako.  Ichigo-kun herded him back like a... mother hen with her chick.”

 

Shunsui grinned at him.  “Do you think mother hen traits are hereditary in the Shiba family?”

 

Juushirou couldn't quite smother the laughter that welled up at that question.  “I wouldn't be surprised.  Try not to mention that in front of Ichigo-kun though.  He might lose his temper with you.”

 

“And he’d have no qualms yelling at a captain,” Shunsui said mournfully.  “You know, I think, as captains, we should care more about that.”  The glint of amusement in his eyes gave him away.  “Anyway, if you're not going to let me have any fun, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to meet up with Hirako later.  Anyone else would've jumped at the offer; Ichigo-kun never actually said yes.”

 

“Ichigo-kun is... different,” Juushirou agreed, reaching for his paperwork once more.  “Now I have work to do so no more socializing.  Out, now.”

 

Shunsui sighed dramatically but levered himself to his feet and headed for the door.  “Leave your afternoon open.  I'm going to talk to Hirako and see if he wants to meet up with us later.  Kaien-kun will probably want to come as well.”

 

And before Juushirou can remind him that this entire matter didn't really have anything to do with the Thirteenth Division at all, Shunsui had hightailed out of the office, not giving Juushirou a chance to object.

 

Juushirou nearly threw his hands in the air before shaking his head and focusing on the day’s work.  Shunsui wouldn't be Shunsui if he wasn't forever trying to duck out of doing his paperwork.

 

{3}

 

                “Good morning, Shiba-kun!”

 

                Ichigo froze, chopsticks halfway to his mouth.  A moment later, a slap to the back that almost jolted him forward and into the bowl of ramen in his hands and would've most likely caused him to choke made him very thankful that he had momentarily stopped eating.

 

                As a rule, Ichigo ate alone.  Most students got their food from the Academy cafeteria, and while it was nowhere near five-star, it was leagues better than the rations Ichigo had had to live off of more and more often over the course of the war when there hadn't been time to leave Hueco Mundo and get a decent meal in Seireitei.

 

                Still, just because he got his food from the cafeteria didn't mean he had to stay there.  It was too loud what with all the other students chattering with one another, and the first and only time Ichigo had sat in one corner of the canteen, people had either stared, pointed, whispered, or strutted up to him and boasted about something or other that Ichigo had tuned out before they had even uttered a single syllable.

 

                So he had taken to sitting outside instead, on a bench in a secluded corner of the wide courtyard under a cherry blossom tree.  And he didn't appreciate being disturbed.

 

                “What do you want?”  He growled, straightening and pinning the intruder’s bright smile with a glare.

 

                Rangiku paid him no mind, flopping gracefully down on the bench beside him, a tray of food in her own hands.  “So how has your day been so far?”

 

                “It was fine.  Now it’s getting progressively worse,” Ichigo muttered, not caring how rude he sounded.  He hadn't had a good night’s sleep last night, not after getting a full doze of Hollows and Shinji and even Rangiku.

 

                Rangiku just pouted before barrelling on without the slightest sign of discouragement.  “Don’t be like that, Shiba-kun.  My day hasn’t exactly been rainbows and sunshine either; my muscles were so sore this morning!  They still are!  And my Zanjutsu teacher was as merciless as always.  I swear you've gotten the better end of the deal with Koyonagi-sensei.”

 

                Ichigo inwardly sighed before glancing sidelong at his new lunch companion.  Clearly, she wasn't going to leave anytime soon.  “Koyonagi isn’t my Zanjutsu teacher.”

 

                Actually, he didn't even attend Zanjutsu classes anymore (and he was more a teacher than a student in his Hakuda classes).  Koyonagi had pulled him when Ichigo had gotten so damn bored that he had started deflecting the other students’ sword strikes with his bare hands just so Shiro wouldn't be able to goad him into taking them out with one sweep of his blade.  Now he was only required to spar with Koyonagi or another instructor during his Zanjutsu block, and on occasion, step in to one of the Zanjutsu classes as an extra sparring partner for the other students.

 

                “Yeah, but he likes you, and Koyonagi-sensei is famous for not really liking anybody,” Rangiku pointed out, and then hastily added, “I mean, not in a creepy pedophile way, of course, though I suppose he’s not that old, and we are all Shinigami, but the point is, he’s fond of you.”

 

                Ichigo frowned, ignoring the last bit because... well, as much as he hated to admit it, he respected Koyonagi enough to not even consider the man being a pedophile, not to mention he had never gotten that vibe from the instructor anyway, and age was sort of relative when you were a Shinigami.

 

                “What do you mean?”  He prodded dubiously instead.  “Koyonagi’s laidback as all hell.  He’s overly friendly with everyone.”

 

                Rangiku just laughed, eyeing him with sympathetic amusement.  “You really don’t interact much with the rest of the student body, do you?  Look, you know how you don’t even refer to him with an honorific?  And I think you call him other... less than polite names as well.”

 

                Ichigo shrugged and nodded.  True enough.  “So?  He doesn’t mind.  Bastard calls me Ichi-kun or Ichi-chan all the time too.”

 

                Rangiku giggled, amusement growing.  “Yes, exactly, but he’s not that lenient with anyone else, or that familiar.  Sure, he smiles all the time and he acts friendly, but the sixth-year students he teaches are all terrified of him and never speaks a single bad word about him because he always finds out and ends up humiliating them in class.  Even the other instructors are a little edgy around him.  He always gets his revenge if a student steps too far out of line or a teacher takes a too-hard jab at him behind his back – humiliates students and fellow instructors alike, and I hear the worst he’s ever gotten is a slap on the wrist.  And as far as anyone knows, you're the only exception.  Nobody understands it either since it’s obviously not just because you’re a prodigy; the people who entered the Academy with Gin all remember that Koyonagi didn't particularly like him more than anyone else.”

 

                Ichigo stared at her, teetering between incredulity that the Academy rumour mill is that well-informed and irritation over whatever the hell Koyonagi was playing at.  It wasn’t as if Ichigo was special or anything (that people knew of anyway; the time travel thing was pretty damn special); he was just more powerful, and Gin had been like that too (though granted, Ichigo was a lot stronger than that).  Still, Koyonagi didn’t spend time with him just because Ichigo was strong; he could see that much.  Half the time, the man hunted him down just for the heck of it, bothering him like an annoying fly that simply wouldn't go away.

 

                “You two...” Rangiku continued musing, tapping a finger against her cheek.  “When people actually see the both of you in public – because you’re a recluse like that and he’s... well, him – you two act more like you’re... like you're friends rather than teacher and student.  Somewhat violent friends, especially on your part, but friends nonetheless.”

 

                Well wasn't that just all kinds of fucked up.  He and Koyonagi weren’t friends.  They were... unfortunate acquaintances.

 

                “We’re not friends,” Ichigo felt he had to voice this out loud, but it didn't help anyway since Rangiku only grinned smugly at him, and Ichigo had to look away because she just looked so damn carefree all of a sudden, happy in a way he hadn't seen since Gin had returned to their side in the future war and had kissed her in broad daylight after she had beaten the crap out of him for his stupid double agent plan, and it was definitely screwing with Ichigo’s mind.

 

                “Say what you will but the evidence is there,” Rangiku sang sagely, oblivious to Ichigo’s sudden nosedive of depressing thoughts.  She paused to swallow a mouthful of her own ramen before glancing at him again.  “But never mind that; I hear you’re mentoring someone for extra credit?  Courtesy of Koyonagi-sensei again, of course.”

 

                Ichigo shot her a sideways glower but she had sounded playfully teasing so he dropped it in favour of grumbling, “My Kidou’s not quite up to par; I'm tutoring Fujiwara as compensation.”

 

                Rangiku frowned thoughtfully.  “Fujiwara... Asuka?  That girl from... um... one of the minor Noble Houses?”

 

                “Kyouraku,” Ichigo revealed shortly.  He glanced sharply at her.  Future friend and practically surrogate older (sometimes younger; Shinigami could be so immature) sister or no, he had enough trouble getting Fujiwara to stop talking crap about herself.  “Problem?”

 

                Rangiku blinked in surprise and quickly waved a placating hand.  “No, no, of course not!  You’re a really suspicious guy, aren’t you?  I don’t care that she’s-” Her voice pitched down to a low whisper.  “-a bastard child-” Her voice returned to normal.  “-or anything, but I’ve never talked to her either.”

 

                Ichigo grunted noncommittally and went back to his lunch.  “She’s a year below you, right?”

 

                Rangiku nodded, chopsticks absently picking out the few carrots in her ramen as she wrinkled her nose at them.  “But school gossip, you know?  Dirty laundry is aired laundry at the Academy.”

 

                Even Ichigo had to release a bark of sardonic laughter at this.  That was a universal truth in every establishment.  People could be so nosy.

 

                “So hey, about last night,” Rangiku rambled on after a sip of water.  “When did you achieve Shikai?”

 

                Ichigo grimaced, humour ebbing.  He had known this was coming.  It was just his luck that Koyonagi hadn't caught up with him yet.

 

“I've been able to do it for a while now,” He answered evasively.  “You haven’t yet?”

 

Rangiku huffed, looking dismayed.  “No, I haven’t, and it’s been six years.  Gin got his in a year, and you obviously have yours already.”

 

“Most people don’t achieve Shikai until after they graduate from all six years of school,” Ichigo offered in an awkward attempt at reassuring her.  “You weren’t bad last night.  ...Your style was sort of predictable though since you just stick with what the Academy teaches.”

 

The last bit was thrown in as an involuntary afterthought but Ichigo figured that making the problem known would only help Rangiku in the long run.

 

Rangiku looked mildly confused.  “What else am I supposed to stick to?”

 

Ichigo hesitated, and then waved a hand in the general direction of the districts for emphasis.  “Throw in some variation.  You know, improvise.  Sometimes, the enemy’s going to take you off-guard, and if you can’t think on your feet, you’re screwed.”

 

“Hmm,” A crafty smile made its way onto Rangiku’s face that instantly made Ichigo wary.  “Then maybe you can show me.”

 

Ichigo eyed her cautiously, alarm bells clanging in his head.  “Show you?”

Rangiku’s smile widened.  “Yup!  We can spar together in our free time.  In fact, I could just swing by when you’re teaching Fujiwara-chan, and then we can spar afterwards!  So you can correct me when I’m being too predictable.”

 

Ichigo mentally slapped himself.  He shouldn't have said anything to begin with; what was wrong with him?

 

“I don’t think-” He started.

 

“It’s agreed then!”  Rangiku chirped, hopping to her feet with her finished meal.  “Where do you train her?  Actually, I’ll just go ask Fujiwara-chan.  I wouldn't want you to accidentally give me the wrong place!  See you later, Shiba-kun!”

 

And the blonde waved and sped away, leaving Ichigo staring after her with open-mouthed horror.

 

“Why the hell can’t people just leave me alone?”  He asked no one in particular as he thought of Koyonagi and Kaien and now Rangiku.  He froze when he heard another familiar voice hollering from somewhere on his left.

 

“Ichi-chaan!  When were you going to tell me you had achieved Shikai?”

 

Speak of the devil.

 

Ichigo took no shame in his next actions.  He ran away at his fastest Shunpo.

 

{3}

 

                Today just wasn't his day.

 

                Ichigo gritted his teeth and picked up his pace.  His classes were finished for the day and he had decided to take a walk around Seireitei, maybe buy some dango on his way, instead of staying cooped up in his room or the library as he usually did.

 

                He hadn't expected to catch sight of Kukaku fifteen minutes into his walk.  Even worse, the woman had caught sight of him.  His orange hair really did him no favours.

 

                So now here he was, trying to outmanoeuvre his cousin through the crowded streets, but the woman had an uncanny knack for honing in on Ichigo’s muted reiatsu signature and enough obstinacy to keep his hair within her line of sight.  If Ichigo took off in a flit of Shunpo, then the woman would undoubtedly realize that he really was trying to avoid her.  While Ichigo would be able to dodge out of facing her this time, he would most definitely be in for an earful when she inevitably managed to corner him in the future, and that was just too troublesome to contemplate.  His best bet was to lose her amongst the other citizens out and about.

 

                He rounded a corner, and then promptly cursed his luck when he found himself on a street where the crowd was much thinner.  Wonderful.

 

                He glanced around frantically for somewhere to hide.  If it was just Kukaku, he could stand seeing her again.  But the woman would almost certainly drag him back to the Shiba compound where he would most likely have to lay eyes on Isshin.

 

                His damn father who hadn't been much of a father but had still been the only one he had, the one who had told Ichigo how proud he was to have him for a son, how proud his mother would be of him, that they both loved him very much, and that no matter what happened, he should live his life and live it well.

 

                The same one who, mere seconds after saying all that, had thoroughly bound Ichigo with Kidou and tossed him through a Senkaimon right before Aizen had shattered Engetsu and destroyed the entire block that the Kurosaki house had been part of, instantly killing Isshin and Ichigo’s two sisters who had already been trapped behind an impenetrable seal courtesy of Aizen himself.

 

                So Ichigo didn't particularly feel like meeting his father again anytime soon, especially this younger version who hadn't met Masaki yet, and probably hadn't even thought about the idea of having children; Isshin would either be more or less mature, and Ichigo didn't know which one would be worse.  Besides, Ichigo himself wasn't sure whether he felt more like crying or punching his old man in the face if and when he did bump into Isshin again.

 

                So, just, no.  No Kukaku.

 

                He squinted ahead, recognizing the Eighth Division barracks.  He blew out a frustrated breath.  It felt like he spent half his life coming back to this place; this compound was turning out to be his regular hideout.

 

                It wasn't as if he could go in though.  There were always guards posted at a Division’s main entrance twenty-four/seven, and there was no way a mere Academy student would be allowed inside.

 

And then he remembered the bar stationed practically across the road from the Eighth Division.  Ichigo had never gotten around to asking but he’d bet an arm that Shunsui had been the one to – at the very least – insist on having one built within a few steps of his Division’s main entrance.

 

It was more refined than the average rowdy bars in the city, a place where the older generation of Shinigami went for some down time rather than one where the younger Shinigami went to party.  Still, Ichigo had gone before, dragged along by Shinji or Shunsui or even his own father because, while Ichigo had inherited the Shibas’ high alcohol tolerance, he had never been one to drink very much, even during the rougher times in the war (his family dying had been an exception).

 

                However, technically, Academy students weren’t supposed to enter bars, at least not by themselves.  It wasn't as if students couldn't drink; there was actually a place that sold alcohol to anyone who weren’t outright children (Ichigo would know; he’d bought some himself).  But it was generally frowned upon when students went to class with a hangover.  Once they had graduated, then they had a license to enter bars and drink as much as they wanted to, but not before.

 

                Still, this was an emergency, and not many bartenders cared whether or not their customers were students as long as they were paying students.

 

                Ichigo glanced back, sensing Kukaku’s rapidly approaching reiatsu signature.  He heaved another sigh before heading for the bar.  With any luck, he could slip inside, wait for Kukaku to go away, and then head back to the Academy.  Clearly, wandering around Seireitei wasn't a good idea.

 

                He hurried to the bar – Paradise Rose – and without further dithering, pushed open the door and shuffled inside.  He cursed himself when, just before he let the door swing shut behind him, he caught a glimpse of Kukaku sprinting around the corner.

 

                Damn it, she had seen him, or at least she had seen the door close.

 

                “I...chigo?”

 

                Ichigo stilled, and then spun around.  Sitting at the far end were the only occupants of the bar.  Even worse, he knew them.

 

                Calmly, Ichigo flicked his gaze upwards to stare at the ceiling just so he wouldn't have to look at the four captains and lieutenant all staring back at him.

 

                “Someone up there hates me,” He murmured up at the wooden surface above him.  In his head, Shiro was howling with laughter.  He even felt a thrum of mirth from Zangetsu.

 

                Traitors.

 

                “Ichigo, is something wrong?  You look a bit nervous.”

 

                Ichigo took a deep breath and lowered his gaze to glower at the concerned expression on Kaien’s face.  Still seated, Shunsui was watching Ichigo with a very unhelpful look of amusement.  Beside him, Ukitake looked exasperated, the slightest of smiles twitching at his lips.  Shinji was already grinning.  The man had clearly cottoned on to the fact that Ichigo was some kind of daily source of entertainment.

 

                And last but not least, Urahara Kisuke was eyeing him with an air of bemused curiosity.

 

                Ichigo hastily glanced away.  Great; just great.  Someone seriously wanted to screw with his life.

 

                “Ichigo?”

 

                Ichigo shot a blistering scowl at his cousin, ignoring the fact that this was (most likely) not Kaien’s fault, and then craned his head around when he felt Kukaku’s reiatsu getting closer and closer.

 

                “Shit!”  He muttered, looking around desperately for somewhere to hide.

 

                Kaien looked even more confused now as he cocked his head in the direction of the door and came around the table he had been sitting at towards Ichigo.  “It’s fine, Ichigo, that’s just my sister-”

 

                Ichigo effectively shut him up with a whack over the head.  “That’s the point.  Your sister is relentless!  I’ve been trying to shake her off for half an hour now!  You're my Clan Head, and I’m in trouble; do something!”

 

                Kaien snorted with incredulous laughter.  “Ichigo, she probably just wants to coax you back home.  I do it all the time-”

 

                “Yeah, but unlike you, if I refuse, she’ll break my nose,” Ichigo snapped, catching sight of a nearby table mostly hidden in one shadowy corner.  “Alright, look, don’t tell her where I am, and I’ll- I’ll owe you one.”

 

                “What- hey-”

 

                Ichigo didn't give him a chance to finish as he hurtled across the room and dove under his chosen table, taking a deep breath and completely tamping down on his reiatsu.

 

Seconds later, the door slammed open.

 

Ichigo shrank further into the shadows, pulled a chair in front of him for good measure, and began threatening Kaien in his mind with bodily harm if his cousin sold him out.

 

His day had been bad enough.  It was about time it started looking up again.

 

{3}

 

                “Kukaku!”  Kaien smiled brightly at his fuming sister even as he silently lamented at his baby cousin’s antics.  Although hiding under a table was a very Shiba thing to do.  “What a surprise!  What are you doing here?”

 

                She scowled at him, looking quite a bit like Ichigo before her gaze flicked past him at the captains sitting around the table behind him.  Stiffly, she sketched a polite bow in their direction before rounding on him again.

 

                “Don’t ‘Kukaku’ me!”  She barked, crossing her arms.  “I saw him come in here!”

 

                Kaien hesitated for half a heartbeat before taking pity on Ichigo and enquiring with innocent cluelessness, “Saw who?”

 

                Kukaku’s features darkened ominously.  “Ichigo, of course!  Don’t play dumb with me!”

 

                “He’s not here, sis,” Kaien lied blithely.  “Why do you want to find him anyway?”

 

                If anything, this just riled Kukaku up even further.  Kaien inwardly winced.

 

                “Why do you think?!”  She all but yelled, frustration in every line of her posture.  “I haven’t seen him since he left for the Academy!  And you downright suck at bringing him home!  Clearly, I have to do it myself if I want anything done around here!”

 

                Kaien rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.  “Aw, you know I’ve been trying.”

 

                Kukaku rolled her eyes.  “Not hard enough, obviously.  You should just tie him up and drag him home.”

 

                Kaien heaved a sigh.  “He doesn't want to, Kukaku.  Hell, the first time I gave him his monthly pension – that every Shiba gets, remember – he tried to give it back to me.  What kind of self-respecting Academy student refuses free money?  As far as I know, he’s barely even used any of it.  All he eats is that crap they serve in the school canteen unless I manage to hunt him down for lunch.”

 

                He barely refrained from shooting a reproachful look at the far table where Ichigo was hiding under.  Honestly, his baby cousin’s attempts at distancing himself from them were ridiculous.  It wasn't in any Shiba’s nature to give up on something even after being turned away numerous times.

 

                “Well he wouldn't have that problem if you'd just wrangle him back to the compound for dinner,” Kukaku growled, scanning the bar suspiciously.  “Now where is he?  I’ve been following him for half an hour now and he’s either very lucky or very good at keeping half a street of people between us at all times.”

 

                Kaien bit back a fond laugh.  Out loud, he spun out, “Well, he must've given you the slip earlier because he’s not here.”

 

                Kukaku’s eyebrows shot up, blatantly calling him out on his bullshit.  “Oh really?”

 

                She ducked around him before he could counter her, fierce gaze settling on the captains.  “Taichou, sorry to interrupt your afternoon but have you seen our cousin?  He’s yay tall with brown eyes, looks exactly like Kaien here except with a mop of orange hair you can’t miss?”

 

                All the captains traded amused looks.  Behind Kukaku’s gaze, Kaien pressed his hands together and mouthed ‘LIE LIE LIE-’ only to shut up when Kukaku glanced back at him suspiciously.

 

                “Can’t say we have,” Kyouraku was the first to speak up in a lazy drawl, grey eyes lighting up with suppressed laughter.  “Sorry, Kukaku-chan.”

 

                The other captains followed his lead, shaking their heads with hidden and not-so-hidden grins of their own.  Kaien flashed an appreciative thumbs-up at them over Kukaku’s head.

 

                His sister huffed, scowling again, but she could hardly call out four captains for lying, so with a sour frown in their direction and another scan of the room, she turned a dead-eyed stare on Kaien again.

 

                “Bring him home, Nii-san,” She hissed, jabbing a finger into his chest.  “Or else.”

 

                Kaien cringed a little because when Kukaku said ‘or else’, they weren’t empty threats.  She meant business, and if Kaien didn't deliver, there would be hell to pay.

 

                Sometimes, he wondered just which one of them held the real power over the Shiba Clan.

 

                “Got it, sis,” He promised meekly.

 

                Kukaku only threw him another searing glare, bowed curtly at the captains again, spared an extra nod for Urahara (whom she knew through being friends with the Shihouin princess), before turning on her heel and storming out of the bar.  Kaien only relaxed again when her reiatsu signature faded into the distance.

 

                “She’s gone, cousin,” Kaien announced with a sardonic edge in his voice.  “Now stop hiding under that table, you wuss.”

 

                Ichigo glowered at him as he crawled out from under the wooden furniture and dusted himself off, already gearing himself up for another argument between them.

 

                “‘Got it, sis’,” Ichigo mocked.  “She’s totally got you whipped; don’t deny it.”

 

                “At least I don’t run away from her!”  Kaien defended grouchily.  “Half an hour, Ichigo?”

 

                “Hah!”  Ichigo sniped back.  “I bet you wouldn't even last half an hour, oh great lieutenant!”

 

                “Hey, I just saved your butt here; show a little gratitude!”  Kaien scolded, stamping down on the reluctant smile threatening to creep onto his face.

 

                To his surprise, instead of another retort, Ichigo opened his mouth, and then closed it again as recollection surfaced on his face.  With an irritated tick of an eyebrow, the orange-haired Shiba said instead, “Yeah, okay, I said owed you one now.  What do you want?”

 

                Kaien would've done a double-take if he hadn't already been looking at his cousin.  “You- What- Okay, you know what, cousin?  There is something seriously wrong with you.  Family do not owe family.”

 

                He paused as Ichigo blinked at him, evidently a little bewildered and not about to take no for an answer so Kaien forged on with a sudden smirk, “That being said, I do have something for you in mind.”

 

                Ichigo stiffened, a flicker of trepidation entering his features, and Kaien made a mental note to work on that.  After he had fulfilled his familial duty and dragged this idiot home for some good old Shiba tough love.

 

                “One dinner,” Kaien grinned slyly, holding up a finger.  “Anytime in the next month of your choosing, but you come home for one dinner, stay for the entire meal, and I’ll call us even.”

 

                Indignant horror blossomed on his cousin’s face even as several snickers and Hirako’s comment of “I definitely saw that comin’” came from somewhere behind him.

 

                Ichigo shifted, clearly reluctant (and was that a flash of pain in his eyes?), so Kaien cajoled, “You won’t even have to stay for the night if you don’t want to.  If Kukaku tries to make you, I’ll put my foot down and escort you back to the Academy myself.  One dinner, Ichigo, with your family.  That’s all I'm asking.”

 

                Ichigo stared at him for a while longer, really only stalling as his expression settled into one of resigned defeat.  “Fine, one dinner, anytime I want in the next month, and I get to leave as soon as it’s over.  And you keep your family-”

 

                “Our family,” Kaien interrupted.

 

                “-away from me when they inevitably pull their crazy shit,” Ichigo continued on heedlessly.

 

                “They’re not going to do anything crazy,” Kaien lied through his teeth even as he thought of Isshin and Ganju.

 

                Ichigo scoffed loudly, tension beginning to ease from his shoulders.  “If they’re half as bad as you, I should start making contingency plans now.”

 

                Kaien rolled his eyes, and then shunpoed forward to sling an arm around his cousin.  He had to do it quickly or Ichigo would undoubtedly duck away from him.  As it was, the younger Shinigami was already trying to wriggle away.  “Don’t trash our family; we’re the best clan out there.  Now enough of that; since you're already in a bar, you might as well come and drink.”

 

                “I don’t like drinking!”

 

                Kaien shot him an appalled look.  “You’re a Shiba; high alcohol tolerance is practically in our blood!”

 

                “I didn't say I can’t drink; I just don’t like it!”  Ichigo snarled, attempting to throw Kaien’s arm off, but Kaien could tell that it was a half-hearted effort.  “Besides, I'm a student; I'm not even supposed to go to bars!  Now get off of me!”

 

                “But here you are anyway,” Kaien said cheerfully as he wrestled his cousin into the chair that Kyouraku had generously pulled up.  “So you might as well enjoy yourself.  Don’t worry; nobody here will tattle on you.  And I think you know most people here already.  The one on the end there beside Hirako-taichou is Urahara-taichou, captain of the Twelfth.  Say hi.”

 

                Ichigo looked positively mutinous as he sulked in his seat but he heaved an I-can’t-believe-I’m-putting-up-with-your-bullshit sigh before flicking a glance over at the pale-haired captain seated across the table.

 

                “Nice to meet you, Urahara-taichou,” Ichigo muttered, and Kaien mentally frowned at the way his cousin’s gaze subtly skittered back and forth between Urahara’s face and the air beside the man’s left ear, not quite focusing directly on the captain in question.

 

                Kaien glanced down briefly.  Ichigo’s hands were balled into white-knuckled fists under the table.

 

                He looked up again as the younger Shinigami greeted the other captains with blunt borderline cordiality.  Did Ichigo have a problem with Urahara?  He hadn't been like that with the others, although, granted, Kaien had been distracted with arguing with his cousin when Ichigo had first been introduced to Ukitake and Kyouraku, and even more distracted by the life-and-death battle he had been in when Ichigo had laid eyes on Hirako.

 

                “Classes out for the day, I'm assumin’?”  Hirako, bless his cunningly manipulative heart, got the conversation going so that Kaien didn't have to keep an eye on his cousin anymore to make sure that the younger Shinigami wouldn't bolt out the door.

 

                “Yes, sir,” Ichigo nodded, the gesture looking slightly rigid.  “I finish pretty early on most days since I don’t have to take the full Zanjutsu classes in the afternoon.”

 

                Hirako’s eyebrows rose inquisitively.  “Your instructor withdrew ya from the classes altogether?  Ya must be good.”

 

                Kaien observed the minute pride mixed with even less noticeable sorrow flash through his cousin’s eyes with lightning-quick speed.

 

                “I just do my best,” Ichigo offered in somewhat stilted tones.  “But thank you for saying so, Taichou.”

 

                Hirako’s grin made another appearance, edged with light-hearted teasing.  “Ya said that last night too.  I think I'm complimentin’ ya too much.”

 

                There was still a hint of uncertainty in Ichigo’s expression but a smirk quirked his lips and the quick-witted response came without fear and maybe even a tinge of wry humour.  “I don’t mind, Taichou; you can compliment me as much as you want.  I promise you that it does only good things for my ego.”

 

                Hirako blinked once in surprise before snorting with laughter.  Beside him, Ukitake and Kyouraku exchanged amused glances while Urahara leaned forward with increasing interest.

 

“There’s the cheek I was lookin’ for,” Hirako declared with an even wider grin.  “Given any thought to my offer?  Fourth Seat’s yours if ya want it.”

 

“Now that’s just cheating, Hirako,” Kyouraku cut in, tone of voice as laidback as usual.

 

Kaien smothered the laughter threatening to burst out of him.  His baby cousin was the entire reason they were all here.  Or most of them anyway; Urahara had tagged along mostly because he had wanted to get away from his lieutenant for a while and had been curious enough about Ichigo to nose his way into the ludicrous – and Kaien really, really couldn't put it any other way no matter how much he wanted to – dick-waving contest between two of the oldest captains in Seireitei, and one of them being at least a few centuries older than the other too.

 

Hirako’s grin took on the faintest edge of a challenge.  “Not cheatin’ when we’re all tryin’ ta secure future prospects for our squad, Kyouraku.”

 

Kyouraku still looked completely unconcerned but Kaien had to stifle a snicker when the captain glanced over at a perplexed Ichigo with an easygoing smile and a prompt, “Ichigo-kun, consider my squad on the table as well.  You would be my Third Seat as soon as you graduate.

 

“And,” He added, motioning to the two blades leaning side by side against the wall beside him.  “As you can see, I'm also a dual-blade wielder.  If you want I can help you improve your sword style.”

 

“Oi!  That’s not fair!”  Hirako huffed.  “One-uppin’ me now, huh?”

 

“You already have a Third Seat,” Kyouraku pointed out almost smugly.  “You grabbed Ichimaru-kun before any of the other squads could move in last time.”

 

Hirako threw his hands in the air, exasperated.  “I told ya, that wasn't my decision.  Aizen-chan just hauled him into my office one mornin’ and started goin’ through the longest-ass spiel of reasons ya could ever dream of about why takin’ the brat in would be a good idea.  I distinctly remember I had a hangover that day and wasn't in any mood ta listen ta him go on about it, so I agreed.”

 

Kaien had tuned them out half a dozen sentences ago even as the two continued bickering with good humour.  Instead, he was watching his cousin again out of the corner of his eye.  Ichigo always had a perpetual scowl on his face but he wasn't yet capable of hiding all his emotions.

 

So Kaien hadn't missed the slight widening of Ichigo’s eyes when Kyouraku had implied a mentorship, and the way the younger Shinigami looked – just for a fraction of a second – like he had been slapped.  And then Ichigo had closed off completely, expression shuttering as his gaze shifted and stayed riveted on the cup of sake that Kyouraku had automatically poured for him earlier.

 

Across from Kaien, his own captain was busy trying to play mediator between Kyouraku and Hirako.  On the other hand, Urahara was watching Ichigo like a hawk, eyes shrewd and thoughts hidden behind a distracted smile.

 

Kaien had heard from Ukitake himself that Urahara was a certified genius, that the man would've graduated in a year tops from the Academy if he hadn't wanted to wait for Tsukabishi and the Shihouin princess to finish as well before ascending into the ranks of the Gotei 13.  And from Kaien’s own sparse observations of the man, Urahara was nothing if not perceptive.  And curious; scientists usually were.

 

But it was exactly that reason that made Kaien uneasy now.  That Third Seat that Urahara had taken on quite literally gave Kaien the creeps.  Kurotsuchi was the very definition of people that should be avoided at all costs, and Kaien had even overheard – once, when most of the seated officers had been gathered for something or other – the Shinigami muttering to himself about dissecting a live specimen while pouring over some notes.

 

If that was what the Third Seat was like, Kaien shuddered to think how much worse the scientist’s captain was.  Urahara had handpicked his Third Seat after all.  And at least Kurotsuchi’s disturbing tendencies could be read easily enough just by looking at him.  Urahara hid everything behind that carefree demeanour that Kaien’s fellow lieutenant Hiyori complained about at least three times a day, not to mention the man had been Onmitsukidou once upon a time, and head of the Detention Unit to boot.  Those assassins had little qualms about taking lives in the worst ways possible.  They took ruthless to a whole new level.  It was why he didn't particularly like the Second Division captain either even though Kukaku was friends with her.  All of the Shihouin princess’ jokes and comical teasing simply made most people forget the fact that she was the empress of the Onmitsukidou.

 

On the whole, Kaien just didn't like people who hid behind way too many layers.  Nor did he like those who left their comrades behind (because, hell, that was practically one of the Onmitsukidou’s official laws – allies were to be left behind to die if they could not save themselves), or carried out assassination of all things without question, most of the time without even being given the list of crimes that their targets had committed.

 

So really, in Kaien’s opinion, the Twelfth Division captain’s only saving grace was the trace of nervousness in his tone of voice and actions.  It had decreased over the years ever since Urahara had become captain but it was still there, lurking underneath the surface.  That, at least, was real, and showed that Urahara still had some humanity in him.

 

Nevertheless, Kaien didn't want the man anywhere near his baby cousin.  Not in the same squad and preferably not even in the same building.  However, the latter predilection couldn't really be helped so Kaien deliberately leaned forward just a little in the pretense of reaching for his sake cup, made sure Ichigo wasn't paying attention, and then tilted his head just a little and shot a hard stare directly at the Twelfth Division captain.

 

                Back off.

 

                Urahara started a little in surprise before the captain persona recovered and a pale eyebrow arched in question.  Kaien just thinned his lips and frowned harder.

 

In terms of age, Urahara was actually younger than him.  The man was Kukaku’s age, and had Kaien’s sister decided to become a Shinigami, she probably would've entered the Academy at around the same time as Urahara and his two childhood friends.

 

                But that was neither here nor there, except for the fact that Kaien wasn't at all intimidated by the younger Shinigami despite their respective ranks.  Heck, way back when Urahara had still been in the Academy, the blond – along with Tsukabishi – had tagged along on a few occasions with the Shihouin princess when she had visited the Shiba compound to play with Kukaku and even Ganju.  So right now, all Kaien cared about was making sure Urahara and his science-y wiles stayed far, far away from Ichigo.

 

                “So Shiba-san,”

 

                Kaien stiffened and stomped down on a glower when Urahara spoke up, gaze sliding past Kaien and concentrating on Ichigo instead.

 

                What.

 

                Did that idiot not understand Kaien’s stare of I’ll-kill-you-if-you-don’t-stay-away-from-my-baby-cousin-with-your-creepy-dissection-fantasies?

 

                Ichigo’s head jerked up, looking a little wrecked around the edges like he was barely holding it together.  And then Kaien blinked and Ichigo suddenly had his expression under control again.

 

                “Sir?”  Ichigo straightened as the other captains quieted and turned their attention to the impending conversation.

 

                “Do you actually have a squad in mind?”  Urahara enquired with a fleeting unfathomable smile that probably would've looked ten times more mysterious if his eyes were shadowed or something.  “Somewhere you want to go after you graduate?”

 

                Ichigo shifted, glancing briefly over at Kyouraku before replying, “Not the Second, Fourth, Twelfth, or Thirteenth.  None of those are really suitable for me.”

 

                Kaien felt a resigned sort of disappointment at hearing the Thirteenth being ruled out but he had pretty much already come to terms with the fact that there was no way Ichigo would be able to grow into himself if he was always standing in Kaien’s shadow even if Kaien would've done his best to make sure that didn't happen.

 

                In contrast, he brightened upon hearing the Twelfth and Second being discarded as well.  That was wonderful; his cousin was very wise.

 

                “Not the Tenth either,” Ichigo tacked on bluntly, glancing at Kaien this time.  It only took a moment for Kaien to realize why.

 

                “You have got to be kidding me!”  Kaien squawked indignantly.  “Just because Isshin-ji is the Tenth’s lieutenant, you’re not going to join?  He’s not that bad!”

 

                “I’ve seen him around,” Ichigo retorted.  “He’s worse than you, and I didn't think I would ever say that.

 

                “And not the Eleventh,” The bright-haired Shinigami continued before Kaien could decide whether or not he should be pleased that Ichigo at least liked him more than their admittedly insane uncle.  “I hear they’re a rough bunch, and they like fighting a bit too constantly for my taste.”

 

                Urahara actually pouted a little though his eyes glittered with unsettling interest.  “But not the Twelfth?  Being a scientist isn’t a requirement to enter.”

 

                Ichigo shrugged, and then – bless his heart – said in a matter-of-fact tone, looking Urahara straight in the eye without a hint of embarrassment, “I’ve seen a few Twelfth Division members walking around as well.  Your Third Seat is creepy as fuck, and while he might be loyal to the Gotei 13, he unsettles me and I’d probably spend my entire time in your squad looking over my shoulder to make sure he doesn't abduct me and cut me open to see what makes me tick.”

 

                A long silence followed.  Kaien was torn between beaming with pride and banging his head against the nearest wall.  The other captains’ expressions ranged from admonishingly amused to outright hilarity.  Kaien supposed it was a good thing that someone like the Sixth Division captain wasn't here; Kuchiki Ginrei would've most likely at least given Ichigo a stern fifteen-minute-long dressing-down.

 

                Urahara looked somewhat taken aback, as if he hadn't the faintest clue how to react to Ichigo’s brand of straightforward honesty, but that expression was quickly replaced with an easy smile and a cheery, “That’s too bad.  Kurotsuchi-san can be a bit offsetting though, even to me.”

 

                Kaien inwardly scoffed.  Clearly, Kurotsuchi wasn't offsetting enough if Urahara had chosen to keep the scientist in his squad.

 

                As if to reinforce Kaien’s viewpoint, the captain finished off with, “But he is very good at what he does so I believe he’s worth the... apprehension he causes.”

 

                Ichigo just shrugged again, finally reaching for his sake.  “To each his own, Taichou.”

 

Kaien raised an eyebrow at the ease with which his cousin downed his sake; it didn't take an expert drinker to realize that Ichigo had drank before even without the younger Shinigami alluding to as much earlier.

 

                How odd.  Ichigo didn't seem like those students who snuck alcohol back to their dorms to party and get drunk with their friends.

 

                Then again, Ichigo didn't seem to have any friends, none in his own year bracket anyway, or any bracket for that matter.  Fujiwara and Koyonagi didn't count, not really, or not yet.  Whichever.

 

                “Well, anyway,” Ichigo pushed away from the table and made to rise to his feet.  “This was... fun.  But I really should be going.”

 

                Kaien almost shook his head out of sheer amazement.  Most students would give an arm and a leg to stick around a bunch of captains for as long as possible to make a good impression.  Not only was Ichigo reluctant to stick around, the younger Shinigami hadn't exactly made a good impression.  An impression, certainly, but more of a...memorable impression than a standard good one.

 

                “I’ll walk you back,” Kaien announced, jumping up as well.

 

                Ichigo shot him a dirty look.  “I’m not a dog.”

 

                Kaien rolled his eyes.  “Not what I meant.  Can’t I just want to spend some time with my favourite cousin?”

 

                “You've known me for less than a year,” Ichigo snapped back almost scathingly.  “I can’t be your favourite anything.”

 

                This actually made Kaien pause because, now that he thought about it, he realized that he literally couldn't remember when Ichigo being his ‘favourite cousin’ changed from teasing to reality.

 

                That wasn't to say that Kaien didn't like his other cousins anymore – he cared about them and would protect any of his family fiercely if anybody tried to hurt them – but even within the Shiba Clan where there was no Council of Elders or particularly stringent laws like the Kuchikis or the Shihouins, Kaien was still shown more awe and deference than he was truly comfortable with.  He had grown up outside of Seireitei with Kukaku and Ganju, so in the beginning when they had first returned, it had taken some time to get used to leading an entire clan of people who, while friendly enough and would engage in casual conversation with him whenever Kaien wanted, also admired him too much to become close friends.

 

                But Ichigo, with his fearless wit and prickly insults and refusal to treat Kaien as anything other than a somewhat annoying older cousin, was like a breath of fresh air.  Not once had Ichigo ever bowed to him, only addressing him formally that one time in front of the other Shinigami officers when they had all been on duty, and despite how irritated Ichigo always seemed towards Kaien, the bright-haired Shinigami had never honest-to-god told Kaien to go away and leave him alone.

 

                So.

 

                “I mean every word,” Kaien emphasized once more.  “And because you’re my favourite cousin, I have a duty to make sure we spend more time together.  Don’t want you getting lonely, you know.”

 

                Much to Kaien’s delight, even Ichigo’s hair seemed to bristle as the younger Shinigami’s ire heightened.  “Why would I get lonely, you idiot?!  Leave me alone!”

 

                “What’s that?”  Kaien inwardly cackled as he Shunpoed forward and slung an arm around Ichigo’s shoulders again because riling up his baby cousin was pretty much his favourite pastime these days.  “You want to spend more time with me too?  I don’t mind at all.  In fact, I’m all but finished work for the day.”  He glanced over at Ukitake, ignoring the way Ichigo was fighting tooth and nail to dislodge Kaien’s arm.  “Hey Taichou, is it okay if I take Ichigo out for dango?  Do you need anything else for the next hour or so?”

 

                Ukitake just sighed and smiled indulgently at him (was it any wonder that Kaien respected and near-adored this man as a brother and father?).  “Just be back by six-thirty.  There are some reports I want to go through with you before we all head home for dinner.”

 

                Kaien grinned and saluted with his free hand.  “Will do, sir.”  And then added for the others, “Until later, Taichou.”

 

                Kyouraku raised his sake cup in a return salute, Hirako waved with his signature grin (though Kaien noticed that the captain’s gaze only lingered momentarily on him before drifting left and staying on Ichigo instead), and Urahara smiled amiably at both of them, grey eyes still retaining that strange mix of calculation and contemplation.

 

                Kaien reminded himself once more to steer Ichigo well away from this guy.

 

                “Give my offer some more thought, Ichigo,” Hirako called cheekily after them, not even bothering with an honorific.  The blond usually didn't, but most of the time, he also used surnames, but Kaien was there so it made sense.

 

                “Mine too,” Kyouraku was quick to follow up, a rare glint of competitiveness in his eyes.  “Third Seat, remember.”

 

                “Kyouraku, you underhanded bast-”

 

                Kaien let the door swing shut behind them, laughing under his breath at the captains’ antics.  “You’d expect them to be mature, wouldn’t you, Ichigo?”

 

                Ichigo had finally given up on throwing Kaien’s arm off, though his shoulders stayed stiff as they walked along.  “Shinigami are very rarely mature.  Mostly only in times of dire need, and even then, it doesn't happen often.”

 

                Kaien released a bark of laughter at that.  “Hey, you’re one of those Shinigami, you know.”

 

                The look on Ichigo’s face told Kaien that his cousin had actually forgotten that fact, and he had to huff another laugh as he eased up on the death clamp he had had around Ichigo’s shoulders.  Ichigo instantly ducked away with a scowl.  Kaien said nothing as he tracked his cousin’s hand when it moved up to rub subconsciously behind his right shoulder, just below the clavicle.

 

Kaien had seen Ichigo’s body when he had first found him and rushed him back to the Shiba compound, after Unohana had cleaned up all the blood and healed him as best as she had been able, so Kaien knew that his cousin had more than a few scars underneath his clothes, some from battles, others from – as Unohana had told him in private with the slightest twist of disgust in the line of her pursed lips – torture.

 

The scar running from Ichigo’s right shoulder blade to left hip in a diagonal line down his back, thick and slightly furrowed, had been deliberate and painful to even look at, and Kaien always tried not to think too hard about it, or any of Ichigo’s scars at all because that knowledge never failed to fog up his brain with a haze of red hot homicidal rage.  If, one day, he ever found out who had hurt his baby cousin that badly, Kaien had no doubt that he would be leaving a massacre behind when he ultimately hunted them down, trifling things like upholding the law and arresting them for justice be damned.  Nobody touched his family and got away with it unscathed.

 

(He might need a little help hiding the bodies though, just until they dissolved into reishi.)

 

It was also because of this that he was perhaps a little bit – okay, a lot – overprotective of the newest addition to the Shiba family, why Kaien always went out of his way to make certain that Ichigo didn't get too wrapped up in his head and pull away from social interactions entirely.

 

Kaien blinked back into the present, glancing to the side when he felt eyes focused on him.  “What’s wrong, cousin?”

 

Ichigo’s brow creased even further as he turned to face the front again.  “Nothing.  You were being suspiciously quiet.”

 

Kaien snorted.  “I can be quiet when I want to be.”

 

Ichigo eyeballed him skeptically but, surprisingly, didn't snark something back per usual.  Instead, he turned away again, an imperceptibly tired slump to his shoulders.

 

Kaien observed him for a long moment before remarking quietly, “It’s pretty exhausting pretending to be angry all the time, isn’t it?”

 

This earned him a sharp sidelong look and a scoff.  “You've never seen me angry; mostly just irritated, and trust me when I say that when it comes to you, I don’t need to pretend.”

 

Kaien hummed noncommittally and didn't press, didn't mention how Ichigo’s annoyance towards him sometimes rang false and never really reached the point of genuine resentment, and he didn't voice the fact that when it came down to it, Ichigo was a very straightforward person and lying would never be his forte.

 

Instead, as they turned down another street, Kaien asked, “Why won’t you come home anyway?  We’re a friendly bunch, all told.  Nothing to be afraid of.”

 

Ichigo’s shoulders rose an inch.  If Kaien didn't depend so much on those shoulders telling him what his reticent cousin was feeling, he’d point it out to Ichigo so that the younger Shinigami could fix it, but he did so the point was moot.

 

When Ichigo didn't say anything, Kaien pushed on.  This topic he was going to pursue.  “Come on, Ichi, give me something.  I'm your cousin; you can tell me anything.”

 

Another tension-filled silence.  Kaien took a not-so-wild stab in the dark.  “Do you... remember something from your past?”

 

                Ichigo’s shoulders rose another quarter-inch.  Bingo.  And judging by the wincing glower Ichigo fired at him, he knew it as well.

 

                “Do you-” Kaien started.

 

                “If that question ends with ‘need a therapist’, I swear Ukitake-san will be looking for a new lieutenant before the day is out,” Ichigo growled harshly.

 

                Kaien took this threat in stride as he did every other one that came from his crabby cousin.  “Actually, I just wanted to know if you wanted to talk about it.”

 

                Another look, unreadable this time.  “...No.”

 

                Kaien stared at him, blatant and patient and stubborn.  He didn't become a lieutenant by being impatient.  Unfortunately, Ichigo had him beat when it came to stubbornness.

 

                It was kind of sad, in Kaien’s opinion, and ironic in a weird irrelevant way.  All the Shibas had dark hair, ranging from black to the darkest of blues.  Ichigo on the other hand had bright orange hair (Kaien put that down to Ichigo’s non-Shiba parent) that stood out like the sun amongst the clan members, yet he was also undoubtedly the gloomiest one of them all.

 

                “Do you remember your family?”  Kaien prodded now.  “The Shibas are a bit scattered even if most of us reside in Seireitei so it wouldn't surprise me if you grew up in Rukongai somewhere.  Kukaku, Ganju, and I grew up in District 3 in West Rukongai.”

 

                More silence.  Most of their clan couldn't keep their mouths shut unless absolutely necessary, they liked to party and drink, and socializing was practically in their blood.  Ichigo was like the antithesis of everything that made a Shiba.

 

                Ichigo was looking at him again, measured and guarded as if he was weighing Kaien’s trustworthiness.

 

                Like Kaien had said before – he knew how to be quiet when he wanted to be, so he stayed silent under his cousin’s too-old scrutiny.

 

                He was rewarded a full minute and a half later.

 

                “...I had a mother, a father, and two younger sisters.”

 

                Kaien was caught between celebrating his first breakthrough with his enigmatic cousin and quelling the cold dread settling in his gut.  He was careful not to ask ‘what happened to them’ or something equally insensitive.  Instead, he enquired gently, “What were they like?”

 

                He almost smiled when Ichigo blinked at him with surprised but grateful eyes.

 

                “My mom was great,” Ichigo told him, and there was a softness in his voice that Kaien had never heard before.  “Best mother in the world.  She kept my dad in line and cooked the best meals you could ever imagine.  When I was a kid, she read tons of bedtime stories to me, and then later my sisters as well.  Helped us with anything we needed, treated us like we were her entire world.  She was-” He broke off to clear his throat.  “She saved me from a Hollow.”

 

                Kaien exhaled silently before taking a step to the side so that their shoulders brushed as they walked.  For once, Ichigo didn't move away.

 

                “My dad was insane,” Ichigo continued, and the words seemed to come easier now.  The younger Shinigami shot Kaien a dry look.  “Even worse than you.”

 

                Kaien quirked a grin.  Ah, so the father was unquestionably Shiba.

 

                “But he cared about us in his own idiotic way,” Ichigo expanded.  “Loved the girls; my sisters, I mean.  Spoiled them rotten but they were still the sweetest kids you could ever meet.  Yuzu took after Kaa-san, and Karin took after me but- you know, less...”

 

                He trailed off and gestured at himself with an encompassing hand.

 

                Yuzu and Karin, Kaien noted down in his head.  He’d make sure to go home and add those names to the family register.  Even if they were dead now, they had still been Shibas.

 

                “You said Isshin-ji was worse than me too,” Kaien said aloud, dragging the conversation back to something less depressing.  “Guess I'm nowhere near the bottom of your shit list, huh?”

 

                He raised an eyebrow when Ichigo glanced at him with a sardonically amused expression.  “What?”

 

                “Nothing,” Ichigo looked away again.  “...Academy’s up ahead.”

 

                Courteously refraining from commenting on Ichigo’s atrocious abilities in the subtle art of changing subjects, Kaien extended a hand, snagging his cousin’s arm to halt his steps for a moment.  Ichigo arched an eyebrow at him.

 

                “Listen,” Kaien started in a solemn murmur.  “We – me, Kukaku, Ganju, Isshin-ji, everyone else – we can’t replace your family.  We never can, and we don’t want to.  But we are your family, a different one than the one you knew, but family nonetheless.  So you can come to us for anything, anything at all.  A hot meal and a familiar face – Kukaku will get her ass out of bed at three in the morning and cook you a feast if that’s what you want, though she might throw a spoon at you first.  Some place to hide away from life for a while – you can pretty much get lost in the forests behind our main compound.  And if you’re ever in trouble, we’ll always have your back, even if your enemy is the rest of the world.  Us Shibas are big on family, understand?”

 

                Kaien didn't look away as his cousin stared back at him, wide-eyed and suddenly seeming so damn young that he wondered just how long Ichigo had lived.  People aged differently in Soul Society; for all Kaien knew, Ichigo could be younger than someone who actually still looked like a kid.

 

                Ichigo’s expression abruptly closed off again but he threw out in an almost overly offhand manner, “So, what, if I suddenly turn traitor and the Captain-Commander orders my execution or something, you’d still stand by me?”

 

                Kaien considered this without a hint of humour and answered without hesitation.  “Yeah, because you may not talk about yourself much, and like you said, we’ve only known each other for less than a year, but I’d like to think I know your character well enough.  If you’re ever declared a traitor, I’d know that there’d be a damn good reason for it, or someone made a mistake or was setting you up, and I’d do my best to help you any way I can.  We all would.”

 

                He paused, taking in the stunned light in his cousin’s eyes before pressing a loose fist against Ichigo’s arm.  “That’s a promise, Ichigo, and I’m a man of my word, clear?”

 

                Ichigo’s mouth twisted into a funny smile, looking like he wanted to believe Kaien but couldn't quite get to that point.  Kaien could deal; Ichigo would believe him one day.  Besides, his persistence had finally paid off today; Ichigo had opened up a little at last, and Kaien would take that as a hard-won victory.

 

                So for now, he merely grinned again and reached up to ruffle Ichigo’s hair.  “Go on back to school now.  And don’t forget – one dinner with us in the next month.”

 

                Ichigo swatted his hand away with a roll of his eyes.  “Yeah, yeah, I’ll remember, you lunatic.  Go back to work.  I swear, you only hang out with me as an excuse to skive off your lieutenant duties.  I don’t know why Ukitake-san puts up with you.”

 

                “I’ll have you know everybody loves me for my charming personality and genius intellect,” Kaien retorted with mock offense.  He grinned once more when Ichigo rolled his eyes again, more exasperated than annoyed.  “Careful, cousin, you don’t want to strain yourself.”

 

                He ducked the next half-hearted punch with a cackle before jogging out of range.  “See you later, Ichi.  Remember to eat a good dinner.”

                “You’re not my mom!”  Ichigo shouted after him, but again, there was no heat in his voice, and as soon as Kaien disappeared around a corner, he did a stupid little jig in place, ignoring the alarmed looks coming from a nearby group of civilians.

 

                Today had turned out better than he had ever expected.

 

{3}

 

                “We should go out for dinner together!”

 

                Ichigo wanted to groan.  Or run away.  Too bad Rangiku seemed to have predicted his train of thought and had hooked an arm around his, keeping him in place.  Her other arm had wound around a flustered Fujiwara’s left arm, stopping her from going anywhere as well.

 

                The last three weeks had been... hectic.  In a pull-hair-out semi-not-bad way, if that was at all possible.

 

                True to her word, Rangiku had shown up with Fujiwara at one of their training sessions three weeks ago and hadn't missed one since.  For someone who loved to look good and spent half an hour in front of the mirror (Ichigo knew this because the woman had made him wait outside her dorm room for her on several occasions) getting ready for the day, Rangiku wasn't at all afraid to get soaked and sweaty during a spar, and no matter how many times Ichigo knocked her down, she always got back up.

 

                He had always respected Rangiku, and had considered her a valuable friend, but he was only now realizing why Toshirou had kept her on despite her numerous vices when it came to drinking and doing her paperwork.  One of the reasons anyway.  Toshirou had also been fond of her in a long-suffering I-don’t-get-paid-enough-for-putting-up-with-your-antics sort of way.

 

                “Don’t you have friends to hang out with?”  Ichigo snapped crossly, trying to extract his arm without actually hurting her in the process.

 

                Rangiku made a passable impression of a doe-eyed pout.  Ichigo rolled his eyes.  “But you’re my friend!  And so is Asuka-chan!”

 

                Needless to say, Rangiku had adored Fujiwara on the spot, cooing over her at the end of every lesson like an older sister fussing over someone much younger.  Fujiwara had been justifiably confused, shooting wide-eyed looks of bafflement in Ichigo’s direction as the amber-haired Shinigami had chattered on a mile a minute about everything and nothing even as she’d instructed Fujiwara not to look down all the time, to keep her head up and chin high and walk like she owned whatever place they were passing through.

 

                Contrary to Ichigo’s moodier personality which was great for getting Fujiwara in shape and boosting her confidence in her skills, Rangiku’s brighter attitude and talkative nature just couldn't allow Fujiwara to stay silent, and the girl had soon began to respond, timid but willing enough.

 

                Ichigo was secretly very glad.  It wasn't as if he was shy (no matter what half the people he knew seemed to think) but he had never been all that good at small talk, especially since he was the sort of person to say exactly what he thought when someone asked him for his opinion.  Sometimes, people didn't like that.

 

                “Then you two go spend some- girl time together or whatever,” Ichigo urged caustically, still tugging at his limb, for God’s sakes.

 

                “Oh come on,” Rangiku’s eyes skipped past doe-eyed to puppy-dog.  Ichigo snorted.  Yuzu had been a master at wielding those and even she hadn't quite been able to influence him completely after years of building up immunity on his part.  “We’re sparring buddies, and sparring buddies should eventually advance to dinner buddies.”

 

                Ichigo stared at her, wondering if she had hit her head recently.  “Where the fuck did you hear that?”

 

                “It’s my own philosophy,” Rangiku told him loftily before turning to Fujiwara.  “Tell him, Asuka-chan.  Eating dinner together is a lot more fun than eating alone, don’t you think?”

 

                Fujiwara fidgeted in place for a moment before glancing up at Ichigo, anxious and heartbreakingly hopeful all at once.  “I- I wouldn’t mind, Shiba-san.”

 

                Ichigo glowered at her, unimpressed.  “You’re getting uppity, Fujiwara.”

 

                Fujiwara recoiled for a second before her spine seemed to straighten out and she sent a tentative, wobbly smile in his direction.  “Still, let’s- let’s eat dinner together.  We never do.  And we’re- we’re kindoffriendsright?”

 

                Ichigo wondered who he had pissed off in a past life.  It figured that the moment he had managed to pound some self-confidence into his student, the girl would turn it right back on him.

 

                He paused.  Actually, come to think of it, he had pissed off a hell of a lot of people in his past life, no joke.

 

                He squinted at Fujiwara once more, glanced at the expectant and scarily determined expression on Rangiku’s face, and then heaved a sigh of defeat.

 

                Rangiku released him and pumped a fist into the air without making it look at all awkward as she released a triumphant cheer.  “Okay, I suppose we’ll have to go back to the Academy for a shower and a change of clothes, and then we can try that new sushi restaurant that opened three blocks down from the school, agreed?”

 

                Fujiwara was already nodding, mouth curling in a helpless little smile and looking so happy over something so simple that Ichigo had to look away.  Instead, he nodded grudgingly, checking the position of the sun before grabbing Fujiwara and tossing her over one shoulder, ignoring her yelp of surprise.

 

                “Curfew’s at ten,” Ichigo grunted, taking off in a lazy flit of Shunpo.  A second later, Rangiku appeared beside him, brow creasing resolutely as she dogged his steps.  “It’s already seven-thirty.  Meet at the gates in twenty minutes.”

 

                He shot a reproving look over at Rangiku who huffed and rolled her eyes.  “I’ll have you know I only spend that long in front of the mirror to make you wait.  I don’t really need that much time.”

 

                Ichigo blinked, and then bared his teeth in a cantankerous growl, his Hollow fluttering just underneath the sound.  Rangiku didn't notice, letting out a gleeful laugh and taking off at top speed.  “You’re adorable, Shiba-kun!”

                Ichigo grimaced, shifted Fujiwara into a more secure position over his shoulder, and then sprinted after Rangiku, fast enough to push her to go at her top speed but slow enough not to overtake her.  An unbidden smile twitched briefly at the corner of his lips even as they bounded over rooftops and alcoves before bursting through the Academy gates at the same time, Ichigo arching a cocky eyebrow as Rangiku gasped for air.

 

                “Ooh, I hate you sometimes,” Rangiku grumbled good-naturedly as she straightened and Ichigo lowered Fujiwara back onto the ground.

 

                Ichigo ignored her.  Smugly.  “Go change,” He told Fujiwara instead, giving her a gentle shove in the right direction.

 

Rangiku had the gall to whack him over the head as she swept past him and placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders, sniffing imperiously at him.  “Oh honestly, speak like a normal person, Shiba-kun.  You bark at everyone like you’re giving orders.  Use words, not military instructions.”

 

And then, under Ichigo’s incredulous stare, she ushered Fujiwara away, gesturing widely at the air around her as she described the kimono that she was going to lend Fujiwara for the night because they were going to go out in style.

 

Ichigo scrubbed a hand through his hair.  Why he put up with this idiocy, he would never understand.

 

Some random students who had been close by eyeballed him with superior little sneers and jealous eyes as their gazes dart between him and Rangiku (or more specifically, Rangiku’s ass, which to Ichigo, was just wrong on so many levels, especially when they leered at the ignorant blonde).

 

Ichigo’s mouth twisted into a snarl and he allowed his reiatsu to flare with killing intent as his protective instincts surged.  The Shinigami students all choked and probably would've leapt back if they weren’t using everything they had to stay upright.

 

“Stay away from her,” Ichigo hissed venomously, reeling in his reiatsu again as they all nodded frantically.  He scoffed and stalked away, inwardly fuming.  It was one thing when Rangiku could hold her own and flirt back before humiliating or seducing her unknowing... victims; it was quite another when she was still this young, not as coy and less experienced with the way some perverts’ minds worked.

 

So Ichigo, because he was such a nice guy (not really, but Rangiku was insisting on spending time with him now so it was sort of his duty from this point on), would do it for her until she could fend for herself.  Mostly until she graduated and could Shikai the idiots who thought with their dicks and not their heads.

 

He scowled as he headed up to his dorm room.  His own emotions weren’t so great.  Shiro was nagging at him to release his Zanpakutou, he hadn't been getting enough sleep, and the people around him were all just so exhaustingly emotional.

 

He unlocked his dorm room and slipped inside, mind reluctantly slipping back to what Kaien had said three and a half weeks ago for the umpteenth time.

 

He laughed raggedly, a little bitter and a lot tired.  He wanted to believe his cousin, he really did because Kaien was nothing if not earnestly sincere, but the lieutenant might just be singing a different tune when everything with the Visored and Aizen came to a head in a few years’ time.

 

After all, Kaien had an entire clan to look out for, and even if Ichigo was a Shiba, he didn't fit with them.

 

He sighed and glanced at the calendar pinned on the wall by his desk.  One more week before he had to steel himself and eat dinner with the Shibas.  He had no intention of going until the very last day, but that day was drawing closer and closer.

 

Ichigo made a face, and then grabbed a change of clothes and headed for the bathroom.  He could think about all that later.  For now, he had a different dinner to suffer through.

 

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Chapter Text

                Ichigo tapped his pencil idly against one cheek as he eyed one of the far windows of the library he was studying in.  He had to give the kid (Ichigo just couldn't picture him as anything but, even with their age difference) props; it had taken Ichigo a week before he had located and identified his – no doubt – Aizen-sent stalker.

 

                Still, it wasn't an issue.  He was still undecided on what to do with the fox-like Third Seat.  It wasn't as if Ichigo was particularly attached to him after all, but for Rangiku’s sake, something would have to be done to hopefully keep the silver-haired Shinigami alive this time around.

 

                At the moment however, Ichigo could leave him be.  At worst, the kid was a mere annoyance hovering at the edge of his senses.  It could be ignored, and Ichigo was always careful to keep all his actions within the scope of a genius-level Academy student.

 

                Turning back to his work, Ichigo frowned hard at the sketch in his hands before dragging over one of the open scrolls scattered across his desk.  He was fairly certain he had theoretically tied the anchor correctly into the rest of this particular Kidou seal but-

 

                “Nobody would think you were a bookworm just by looking at you.”

 

                Ichigo closed his eyes.  Goddamnit, couldn't he go one day without any distractions from anyone?  “What do you want, Koyonagi?”

 

                Ichigo glanced up briefly as Koyonagi sauntered over.  The man hoisted himself gracefully onto an empty corner of the table, perching cross-legged on it even as he chuckled at Ichigo’s disgruntled expression.

 

                (Two tables over, a group of students glowered at Ichigo with jealous resentment.  Ichigo ignored them.)

 

“Oh nothing much,” Koyonagi assured brightly.  “I have no classes to teach at the moment so I thought I’d swing by the library.  Imagine my delight when I found you here.”

 

                Ichigo rolled his eyes (Koyonagi had Ichigo’s schedule and knew full well where he typically spent his free periods) and returned to the scroll in front of him, reluctantly used to Koyonagi’s antics.  “Don’t you have marking to do?  Or students to scare?”

                After Rangiku’s revelations all those weeks ago, Ichigo had kept an extra eye out for Koyonagi’s interactions with other people, and it hadn't taken long for him to realize that, yes, Rangiku was right; students and teachers alike skirted around Koyonagi like the man could turn into a demon from hell anytime, and for all his jokes and smiles and pranks and cordiality, the Zanjutsu department head really only used those things to keep everyone at arm’s length.  Everyone except Ichigo.

 

                Ichigo had had no idea how to take this eye-opener so he had done what he did best – he took it all in stride and didn't bring it up with anyone – not even Rangiku after she had smirked at him knowingly when she had caught him staring at Koyonagi who had been looming menacingly over three terrified third-year students down the hall – ever again.  Besides, it wasn't as if Koyonagi liked him more than anyone else; the man just liked to mock Ichigo more than anyone else.

 

                “I can do both of those things later,” Koyonagi was saying with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “There’s no rush.”

 

                He paused for a long minute – a minute that Ichigo was grateful for because he managed to review the entire scroll in the ensuing silence – and poked around at all of Ichigo’s study materials.

 

                “You know,” Koyonagi started again as Ichigo began pouring over a different book on Kidou barriers.  “You don’t have to be perfect in all four combat forms, right?  Most Shinigami would be satisfied with graduating with two above average forms.  Three at most.  Your Kidou’s not all that good but it’s still actually better than at least a quarter of the sixth-years.”

 

                Ichigo flicked a frown in Koyonagi’s direction before returning to the book.  “I don’t want to be perfect in any area; I’m not.  It’s impossible to be perfect.”

 

                He stopped for a moment and remembered Aizen and his desire to fuse with the Hogyoku to become a perfect being, and then he shoved all thoughts of that crazy (lonely) megalomaniac out of his head because he had time enough to think about the war during the long nights tossing and turning in bed.  He didn't need to torture himself with his memories during the day as well.

 

                “I still have a lot to learn,” Ichigo said tersely instead, narrowing his gaze on Koyonagi when the man continued staring at him with an odd smile and unreadable eyes.  “If I settle for how strong I am now and call myself ‘perfect’, I’ll never be able to get stronger.  I’ll just... stop, and thinking like that will get my ass kicked one day.  I’d rather not die because of something as pathetic as that.”

 

                Koyonagi cocked his head, smile widening just a touch.  “Still, concentrating on three combat forms should be more than enough, don’t you think?  Kidou really isn’t your strong suit, and it isn’t even because you don’t work hard enough or that you’re slow.  You just have too much reiatsu, and that’s not something you can help.”

 

                Ichigo scowled and set his jaw because if there was one thing he knew he was, it was stubborn.  Stubborn in his battles, stubborn in his loyalty, stubborn in never giving up on protecting the people he cared about.

 

                “That’s not an excuse,” Ichigo scoffed.  “What if something’s preventing me from getting to my Zanpakutou?  What if my legs are broken and I can’t fight back or run?  My Hadou spells have the tendency to backfire on me, I know; I’m working on that.  But Bakudou consists of seals and barriers, and I’m actually okay with creating those.”

 

He paused again and grimaced at the stack of books and scrolls in front of him.  “Or at least I'm getting there.  Which is why you should go away and leave me alone.”

 

Koyonagi didn't, of course; Ichigo didn't even know why he bothered wasting his breath these days.

 

“If you could, would you?”  Koyonagi asked out of the blue, green eyes intent.  “Be perfect?”

 

Ichigo stared at him, book temporarily forgotten as he blinked incredulously at the instructor.  “What?  Of course not!  Do you have any idea how-” – lonely – “-fucked up that would be?  Besides, it’d be damn boring with no one able to challenge you.  Perfection’s overrated.  I’d rather just be...”

 

He trailed off, not finding the right words to express himself and finally settling on motioning at himself and all the papers on the desk in an encompassing gesture.  “Just... it’s not like I want to be the strongest.  I just want to be strong enough to protect the people I want to protect.  And to do that, I can’t just settle for good enough and leave it at that.  I'm never going to be perfect, and I don’t want to be.  But...”

 

Without meaning to, he thought again of Aizen, and how even with that madman at the height his power, at the height of perfection, Ichigo had still defeated him in the end.

 

“But I don’t need to be,” Ichigo finished firmly.  “Perfection means you've stopped growing, means you can’t go any further.  Imperfection means you can keep on growing, keep on moving forward for as long as you want to.”

 

He fell silent then and fought back a heated flush, feeling his ears redden anyway.  He hadn't meant to be so openly honest but this particular subject was a touchy one for him.

 

To his bewilderment and mild irritation, Koyonagi just started laughing softly, head now propped in his palm as his elbow balanced against one thigh.

 

“What?!”  Ichigo barked, roughly yanking over another book in an effort to cover up his embarrassment.  This was what he got for attempting to hold a proper conversation with someone.  See if he ever did it again.

 

Koyonagi’s laughter faded away but that same odd smile remained, one that Ichigo finally managed to pinpoint the mixture of fondness and approval in it.

 

“And this is why you’re my favourite, Ichi-kun,” The man said, beaming at Ichigo with good cheer and an unwavering gaze.  “An idealist and a realist all in one; a paradox full of... mysteries.  You intrigue me.”

 

Ichigo just stared, completely at sea, somewhat mortified yet again, and not a little disturbed, because, what?  Who said that sort of thing just like that?  And with a straight face too?

 

“Okay,” He sighed out at last, deciding that this entire situation was getting dangerously close to surreal for him to handle.  “I can usually stand having you around – barely – but you are seriously creepy today, so either go away or shut up.”

 

(Out of the corner of his eye, Ichigo could see the same group of students from before gawking at his audacity.  Didn't those idiots have anything better to do?)

 

Koyonagi only grinned and chose nonexistent option three.  He stayed, but one sandaled foot extended to nudge at Ichigo’s shoulder before the man hopped down from the table.  “You’re a regular ray of sunshine, Ichi-chan.  Now budge up.”

 

“Why?”  Ichigo asked with long-suffering exasperation even as he grudgingly scooted over, allowing Koyonagi to draw up a chair and take a seat beside him.

 

“Because your Kidou is truly abysmal in comparison to your other combat forms,” Koyonagi replied breezily, picking up Ichigo’s rough sketches of various seals.  “And as my favourite student, I can’t have that.  Besides, I'm fairly decent at Kidou, if I do say so myself.”

 

Ichigo wanted to bang his head against the table.  He restrained himself only because that would mean clearing off some of the papers spread out on the desk, and there were a lot of papers.  “Teachers aren’t even supposed to have favourites.”

 

“No they aren’t,” Koyonagi agreed magnanimously.  “Yet all teachers do anyway no matter how much they pretend they don’t.  Teachers only say they don’t have favourites to make the students feel better.  I, for one, have never cared whether or not I hurt my students’ feelings so it doesn't concern me one way or the other.”

 

And with that said, Koyonagi craned his head around, and Ichigo’s eyebrows rose as the instructor’s gaze zeroed in on the group of students two tables over with frightening intensity.  The students all flinched and snapped their heads away, probably with enough speed to give themselves whiplash as they hunched over in their seats and frantically immersed themselves in their studies again, even going so far as to shuffle several feet away to put themselves out of hearing range.

 

Ichigo almost pitied them.

 

Koyonagi turned back, still smiling happily with the smallest glimmer of sadistic glee in his eyes.

 

Ichigo eyed him critically before grunting noncommittally and reaching for his pencil again.  “Now I really know why everyone’s so afraid of you.  You’re insane.”

 

Koyonagi near-pouted but didn't actually deny it.  “Don’t go spreading it around now, Ichi-kun.  I don’t feel like retiring to the Maggots’ Nest quite yet.”

 

It was just Ichigo’s luck that he had lowered his pencil at the same moment as that statement, only to jerk a little without meaning to and ended up leaving a dark blotchy line on the blank page.  He stared at it for a long moment, mind casting back to some of the... dirtier aspects of Soul Society’s military that Kisuke had once told him about, and then glanced sidelong at Koyonagi who looked highly entertained.  “Would they really do that?  Just for having a few screws loose?”

 

Koyonagi grinned just a little madly before it was curbed, and the man’s typical carefree expression resurfaced.  “Aw, Ichi-kun, are you worried about me?”

 

For once, Ichigo didn't shoot back a testy retort.  Instead, he recalled his own unreasonable imprisonment in Muken, the way their prison guards had, at first, left a few lights on inside that cloying darkness before eventually dousing those as well after Shinji – and presumably the others – had been hauled away.

 

Ichigo hated the dark nowadays.  Even at night, he never fully drew the curtains, always leaving a sliver for the moonlight to seep in.

 

He mentally snorted with derision.  Even if he closed the curtains completely, boarded up the window itself, and even stuck a towel under the door to block out the hall light, his room would still be brighter than that pitch black, hopeless prison, so damn silent that even his own heartbeat had blended into that vacuum eventually.  Hell, Ichigo was probably lucky that he had been bleeding out, causing him to drift in and out of consciousness and occasionally shutting out the searing agony of being cut off from the other parts of his soul and his untreated bloody injuries and that darkness always, always closing in around him and-

 

Ichi-kun.”

 

A sharp elbow jabbed into his ribs, and Ichigo doubled over a little, biting off the tail-end of a swearword before pinning Koyonagi with an automatic glare even as his hands trembled on top of his books.  He hastily thrust them underneath the table.  “What?

 

Koyonagi wasn't smiling anymore, green eyes focused and assessing.  “...Where were you?”

 

Ichigo swore he sometimes missed half the conversation when Koyonagi was talking to him.  “What do you mean where was I?  I was right here unless I somehow decided to sleepwalk all of a sudden.”

 

Koyonagi actually had the gall to give him an admonishing look.  “Don’t play dumb, Ichi-kun, it doesn't suit you.  Where were you?”

 

Ichigo’s brow furrowed, about to snap back that he wasn't playing dumb, thank you very much, and then he replayed the instructor’s question in his mind and his insides froze.

 

Koyonagi had said he was full of mysteries in his previous ramblings, and now... Well, the older Shinigami was certainly more perceptive than Ichigo would've preferred.  He would just have to be more careful from here on out or Koyonagi might actually pick up on even more damning hints to Ichigo’s past.

 

“I was just thinking about something,” Ichigo grumbled, inwardly shaking off the last of his latest flashbacks.  He had to concentrate on the here and now; he could spend his sleepless nights having mental breakdowns.

 

“Like what?”  Koyonagi prodded, eagle-eyed and patient.

 

Ichigo frowned at the man.  “Like nothing you’d be interested in.”

 

He considered his next words for a second before adding brusquely, just to put it out there (because there was something alarmingly suicidal about the way Koyonagi occasionally acted), “Most Shinigami have a few screws loose.  All the best Shinigami are.  Just don’t go overboard.  It’ll be troublesome if I have to break you out from prison or something.”

 

Koyonagi studied him for a stifling minute longer before exhaling shortly and smiling winningly at him again, graciously letting Ichigo change the subject.  “Ichi-kun, your skill at comforting people rank only slightly above your skill in Kidou.”

 

Ichigo rolled his eyes again but was too grateful that Koyonagi had dropped the issue that he refrained from snarking something back.  “Whatever.  You gonna help me or what?”

 

Koyonagi sighed dramatically.  “If I must, and since you ask so nicely.”

 

And before Ichigo could point out that Koyonagi was the one who had insisted on sitting down in the first place, the instructor had pushed a few of the irrelevant books aside, scooting an inch closer to pull out a fresh scroll for Ichigo to start over on.

 

“Forget that last seal,” Koyonagi said, flicking away the seal that Ichigo had been drawing before Koyonagi had arrived.  “You've complicated it too much.  Start with the basics and work your way up.  Each seal is always made by layers so, with that logic in mind, you wouldn’t pile something on top of a weak foundation.  The entire thing would just collapse.  This is the biggest difference between Hadou and Bakudou.  Hadou requires a sufficient amount of reiatsu, good aim, and control; no collapsing involved, and the control is really only for measuring the reiatsu output, as well as how much of it you can handle at once, before releasing a Hadou spell.  Bakudou on the other hand...”

 

The man trailed off and raised his eyebrows at Ichigo.  Ichigo wavered, and then suggested, “A steady output of reiatsu to maintain the spell?”

 

Koyonagi released a mournful sigh.  “Of course; textbook answer.”

 

Ichigo sulked just a little.  “It’s not just from about several hundred scrolls and textbooks; Aoba’s said it too, more than once.”

 

Koyonagi snorted at the mere mention of Ichigo’s Kidou instructor.  “Remind me to poison his lunch tomorrow since he’s clearly poisoning the minds of the next generation of Shinigami.”

 

Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose.  “The scariest thing about this is I don’t think you’re joking.  About the poisoning his lunch part.  You realize Aoba’s lessons are universally agreed upon by all the other instructors, right?”

 

Koyonagi looked offended.  “What am I then?  I certainly don’t agree.”

 

Ichigo threw his hands up.  “And why not?  What’s the answer then?”

 

Koyonagi smiled, holding up a finger.  “Creativity.”

 

Ichigo stared at him in disbelief.  “‘Creativity’.”

 

Koyonagi chuckled, reaching over to pluck the pencil from Ichigo’s hand before setting it against the blank page.  “Watch.”

 

And Ichigo watched as Koyonagi sketched out a traditional Japanese house in the next five minutes before snatching up the drawing, cramming all of Ichigo’s belongings back into his bag, offered a disarming smile at one of the librarians that sent her scurrying over to their table to clean up after them, and then dragged Ichigo back to the Academy and into an empty training area.

 

“Bakudou,” Koyonagi spoke up at last, handing Ichigo the drawing before raising his hands.  “Is all about picturing what you want to create in your head.  Most people boast of their competency in Hadou, that Hadou is harder to perfect than Bakudou because of their destructive abilities in battle, but this is untrue.  Most Shinigami simply have not explored the full extent of Bakudou.  They only know the binding spells taught at the Academy, and they spend their lives improving those alone.  They largely forget or ignore the barriers and seals that are also classified under Bakudou, and those are the ones that can be extremely tricky to create.  However, at the same time, they can be much... more... powerful.”

 

Ichigo remained silent as reiatsu gathered in Koyonagi’s hands before shooting out and surging upwards, expanding every which way in an explosion of golden light before receding and solidifying into the Japanese house he had drawn earlier, the only differencesbeing the shimmer of reiatsu pulsing in the walls.

 

Ichigo could admit to being a little impressed because Hachi and Tessai had been the only ones he had ever seen manage something even remotely similar to this (though theirs had been more along the lines of high-walled prisons), but he still had to ask, “How exactly would this help in a battle though?”

 

Koyonagi’s mouth quirked up into a smirk, and twitched a finger.  One of the shoji doors slid open in an eerie invitation for someone to step inside.  Ichigo couldn't see anything but dark empty space through the door.  You couldn't pay him to go in there willingly.

 

“Like I said, Ichi-kun,” Koyonagi said softly, moving his hands with the flighty elegance of an orchestra’s conductor.  The door slid shut again, only for it to morph into hundreds of writhing gold snakes formed completely out of reiatsu.  Another twist of Koyonagi’s wrist and the serpents poured inside, straight through the house and out the other side, shattering one side of the house and most likely would've obliterated whoever had been trapped in this deceptively peaceful-looking setup.

 

“It’s all down to creativity,” Koyonagi repeated as he waved his hands and the Bakudou spell – Barrier?  Seal? – dissipated into the air.  “It’s your reiatsu; it’s up to you to do with it what you will.  For someone like you, with your vast reserves of reiatsu, your only limitation is...”

 

Koyonagi poked him on the forehead, and Ichigo was still a bit too stunned to swat the provocative hand away.  Holy crap, not even Tessai had ever pulled shit like that with Kidou.

 

“Be creative,” Koyonagi advised once again as Ichigo blinked dazedly and focused on the instructor.  The older Shinigami looked amused again, and more than a little pleased with Ichigo’s reaction.  “Seals like the one I just performed require a certain flexibility in your reiatsu, not the rigidity and steady suspension of your Bakudou spells that most Kidou instructors would teach.  Let your reiatsu flow; don’t try to dam it up or lock it in place even after you release it.  And start out simple; don’t layer so many seals together when one will do.  It’s not even really about the spells or the incantations or the seals themselves; they’re just guidelines for you to work with.  The real trick is to hold the type of seal you want to create in your mind and just let your reiatsu build it for you. Sketching it out usually helps you hold the image in your mind more easily but true masters don’t have to; they wouldn't have time to do that on the battlefield anyway.”

 

Ichigo just glanced back at the now empty plot of land once more before demanding, “Why aren’t you teaching Kidou?  And why aren’t the other Kidou instructors teaching this?”

 

Koyonagi shrugged.  “Well, for one, what I just did requires quite a bit of stamina, something you absolutely do not have to worry about, unlike practically every other student at the Academy, who are still increasing their reiatsu levels to an acceptable degree.  And secondly, this sort of Kidou is normally too... complicated for Shinigami-in-training.  Most don’t learn this stuff unless they have enough potential to be selected for the Kidou Corps, but again, it’s not that you lack potential, it’s just that you have too much reiatsu.  This type of Kidou is perfect for you.”

 

Ichigo frowned.  “And you aren’t teaching it because...?”

 

Koyonagi side-eyed him before shrugging again, the motion easy and relaxed.  “I prefer Zanjutsu, Ichi-kun.”

 

Ichigo knew a deflection when he heard one but Koyonagi had been kind enough not to push earlier with Ichigo’s momentary relapse so Ichigo didn't say anything now.  He was curious but if Koyonagi didn't want to talk about it, that was fine too.

 

“Well personally,” Ichigo started off lightly instead.  “I think you've got a better chance of beating me with Kidou than a blade, but hey, whatever.  You gonna teach me how to build a fancy house with reiatsu now?”

Koyonagi huffed a laugh and began ushering him back into the Academy, lecturing him about the importance of meditation and starting simple first before firing off something as advanced as an entire trick-house.

 

Ichigo thought it was kind of unfair because it was ridiculously hard to dislike Koyonagi when the man was in teacher-mode instead of spending his time teasing Ichigo.  The older Shinigami was a good teacher, and pretty much the only instructor that Ichigo actually put in the effort to get along with.

 

Sort of.  Well no, not really, but Ichigo tolerated Koyonagi’s migraine-inducing presence; that alone had to count for something.

 

Later, back in his own dorm, Ichigo paced the length of his room, griped wordlessly at Koyonagi’s actions in general, scowled at nothing in particular, and then finally relented and pinned the picture of the traditional Japanese house on one piece of the wall beside one of the bookshelves instead of throwing it out.

 

He swore that would be his goal in his Kidou studies from now on.

 

{4}

 

                It was time.

 

                Ichigo swallowed hard as he leaned against one side of a random building.  All he had to do was walk three steps to the right, turn a corner, and the Shiba compound would be straight ahead.

 

                He had shucked his school uniform for the night, and while he had brought his Zanpakutou (it would be a cold day in hell before he would even consider leaving his sword behind), he wasn't wearing his black Shihakushou either.  Instead, he’d chosen a dark blue kimono with a shower of white fireworks sewn down one side starting at his left hip; classic Shiba clothes.

 

                He had left early too, just in case Kaien decided to come pick him up.  Ichigo could walk there by himself, and he was anxious enough about the impending dinner without having Kaien beside him the entire way as well.  He had used the unhurried stroll from the Academy to the Shiba compound to calm his nerves.  Somewhat.

 

                He had taken the long way around – as well as circled back three times but nobody ever needed to know that – and now he was hiding – yes, he was fucking hiding – around a street corner, trying to somehow psych himself up for the next three hours.

 

                Part of him wanted to just say screw the whole thing and flee, but he had never been the sort to run away from his problems, nor was he the type to break his promises, so.

 

                So, he was going to man up and go.

 

                Ichigo drew in a deep breath, grimaced one more time at the bottle of sake he had bought, and then forced his feet to move.

 

                He could tackle madmen and monsters, live through torture and literally even Hell itself; a family dinner should be a freakin’ cakewalk.

 

                Except it really wasn't.

 

                Ichigo approached cautiously, jaw clenching involuntarily as he came within sight of the main entrance.  The guards on either side recognized him straight away, swiftly straightening to attention and bowing to him once Ichigo was within a few steps of them.

 

                “Welcome home, Ichigo-dono,” They chorused with such genuine – if formal – delight that Ichigo almost did a double-take.

 

                “Uh, yeah, thanks,” Ichigo murmured lamely, bobbing his head in a semblance of a mini-bow of returned acknowledgement before sweeping past their suddenly scandalized expressions.

 

                Huh.  Weird.  But whatever.

 

                The front courtyard was empty but Ichigo knew that most large meals were held outside behind the main house.  Kukaku had told him that in his own timeline.

 

                He slipped around the large building, ears already picking up the sound of laughter and chatter.  Hesitantly, he ducked around the last corner, sticking to the shadows as he surveyed the scene before his eyes.

 

                Holy shit.

 

                He had a lot of family.

 

                Ichigo watched various children running around playing tag, and other adults milling about sharing drinks and conversation.  Only some of them were retainers; the rest were definitely Shibas if their physical features were anything to go by.

 

                Kukaku had given him a basic rerun of the Shiba Clan’s history, told him that they were once a pretty large family even if they weren’t as big as the other Noble Clans.  But the fall of their clan had seen most of the retainers either dismissed or killed, and most of their family either scattered on the wind throughout Rukongai or... well, killed.

 

                By the Onmitsukidou.

 

                Kukaku had never given Ichigo the details, just that after Kaien had died, Aizen had fabricated enough evidence to condemn most of the Shiba Clan for a list of long-ass crimes that they had had nothing to do with.

 

It had been a massacre, Kukaku had said with burning rage and bitter resentment.  Most of the children had been spared (and Ichigo had been horrified to hear the ‘most’) but most of the adults had been assassinated practically overnight.  That was how the Onmitsukidou worked; they were given orders for this or that assassination, and then they were allowed to carry it out without any explanation to any related parties of the targets.

 

For the good of Soul Society.

 

Ichigo’s own father had been made Clan Head after Kaien, but the Shiba Clan had been stripped of their prestige and privileges also overnight, and had been booted out of Seireitei at the first opportunity.

 

The only reason Isshin had remained with the Gotei 13, as Kukaku had revealed, had been because of his squad; Isshin hadn't wanted to desert them.

 

It wouldn't happen this time around, Ichigo swore as he watched a pair of dark-haired twins run by, giggling between themselves and sharing glances filled with silent words the way only siblings and old friends could.

 

“Oh, Ichigo, you’re here!”

 

Ichigo was torn between dread and relief as he shifted his gaze and saw Kaien hurrying towards him, grinning broadly with Kukaku a step behind him.

 

“Finally!”  Kukaku huffed, bounding forward and, before Ichigo could even blink, threw her arms around him in a bear hug as if they had known each other for decades.  “And here I was just about to send Kaien off to fetch you.  How have you been?  Enjoying the Academy?”

 

“Um, yeah,” Ichigo stammered out, giving Kukaku an awkward pat on the back to make her let go.  “I’ve been fine.  And the Academy’s... fine too.  Uh, here.”

He thrust out the bottle of alcohol, ignoring the way Kaien was snickering under his breath at Ichigo’s expense.

 

Kukaku rolled her eyes even as she accepted the wine.  “Oh for goodness’ sakes, you’re coming home for dinner, not going to a party.  You didn't have to bring anything, Ichigo.  Plus, this is definitely not enough to go around.”

 

Ichigo just shrugged, scanning the yard again, eyes lingering on the various Shibas all peering over at him with curious but friendly eyes.  “It’s actually just for you.  An... apology for not coming around for the past six months.”

 

Actually, Rangiku had been the one to nag him into it after she had wrangled the details out of him, and Ichigo had finally relented just to shut her up.

 

He glanced back in time to catch the affectionate quirk of Kukaku’s mouth before the woman smirked at him and reached up to ruffle his hair.  “You’re adorable, Ichigo, though remind me to work on expanding your range of adjectives if you can only come up with ‘fine’ to describe your wellbeing and education.  Ooh, you managed to guess my favourite type of sake too, so I’ll forgive you just this once.  Don’t be a stranger from now on.”

 

And then she swept away, no doubt to open the bottle of alcohol.  Kaien sidled up to him, elbowing him playfully.  “So where’s my gift?  I distinctly remember being brushed off for months as well.”

 

Ichigo snorted.  “And I spent months being annoyed by you; we’re even.  Now where’s the food?  The sooner I eat, the sooner I’ll be able to leave.”

Truth be told, all the inquisitive gazes focused on him was just making him even antsier.  It was mind-boggling to realize that almost everyone here would've been his older cousins or aunts or uncles had they actually still been alive by the time he had been born.

 

And Ichigo had thought once upon a time that his only family had been a dead mother, Goat-Face, and two sisters.

 

“Don’t be like that,” Kaien was chiding exasperatedly.  “Come on, I’ll introduce everyone.  Don’t worry if you don’t remember everybody’s names by the end of the night.  No one expects you to; there’s just too many of us.”

 

And that was how Ichigo was integrated into the Shiba family; into his family.  For the next half hour, he went around being bombarded by claps on the back and even more hugs, with the occasional bow thrown in.  Nobody looked like they wanted to boot Ichigo out the door, and everyone seemed to have at least a handful of welcoming words and a smile ready for him.

 

“And there’s Akio and Tomoe,” Kaien was pointing over at a couple sitting on the porch, both dark-haired and sharp-featured as they talked in low tones, their eyes either on each other or on a group of children tossing a ball around.  “They've got two kids – our something cousins something times removed; I’ve never bothered memorizing it all – over there; a girl and a boy – Kazue and Akihiro.”

 

Thankfully, Kaien seemed to have picked up Ichigo’s discomfort and had finally relented, not dragging him over to go through another round of hugs and small talk.

 

“Oh, and there’s my brother!”  Kaien brightened up, latching onto Ichigo’s arm and dragging him over to the house again just as Ganju stepped outside, a plate heaped with food in his hands.  “Hey Ganju, over here!”

 

Ichigo took a fortifying breath and stomped down on the wedge of pain in his chest.  As far as interactions went, he actually hadn't been as close to Ganju as he had been to Kukaku in the end, especially since the former had died three years into the war.  And overall, both Ganju and Kukaku hadn't been as close to him as Rukia or Renji or some of Ichigo’s other close friends.

 

So he could do this.

 

“Ganju, you remember Ichigo,” Kaien started, smiling between his brother and Ichigo.  “And Ichigo, I think you only sort of glimpsed Ganju last time.  Anyway, this is my baby brother; even Kukaku’s older.”

 

Ganju (not wearing a bandanna, shorter hair, features not as hard or guarded) rolled his eyes in that oh-my-god-don’t-embarrass-me-I’m-not-a-kid way only younger siblings knew how to pull off before grinning at Ichigo.  “Hey, man!  Good to see you again.  Honestly, Nee-san was storming around ranting about you going AWOL, so good on you for coming back and stopping her rampage.  Want some food?  You can have my plate; I’ll go inside and get another one.  Nii-san, I’ll grab you one too.”

 

And with that cheerful note, Ganju shoved his plate into Ichigo’s hands and ambled back into the house for more grub, leaving Ichigo staring dumbfounded at the load of food dumped on him.

 

Kaien just laughed, hooking a hand around Ichigo’s elbow and leading him to a nearby table.  “Ganju likes his food, and he’s actually a better cook than our cooks; drives the staff up the wall whenever he decides he wants to whip up a three-course meal.  I think it gives them a complex or something when he shows them all up.  He made at least two-thirds of the stuff on your plate today.”

 

Ichigo quirked a wry smile.  That sounded like Ganju; even in the future, Koganehiko and Shiroganehiko had always looked downright depressed whenever Ganju had volunteered to cook a meal.

 

“So... what about you?”  Ichigo prompted, sticking a mouthful of fish in his mouth.  One of his... aunts?  Looked like she wanted to come over and talk to him.  Talking to Kaien was at least less awkward.  “You’ve got everything from cousins to great-uncles.  Don’t you have a wife or something?”

 

Kaien looked equal parts pleased and self-conscious.  “Never thought I’d ever hear you ask about my love life, but for your information, no I don’t.  Just haven’t found the right woman yet, I guess.”

 

Ichigo mentally frowned.  Kaien had had a wife – Miyako – but perhaps not yet?

 

“And what about you?”  Kaien continued, grinning evilly now.  “I’ve seen you around with that blonde – Matsumoto?  Very nice figure, and she’s got enough patience to put up with you.  You have good taste, cousin.”

 

Ichigo glared, swallowing another bite.  “It’s not like that, moron.  We’re just... friends, I guess.”

 

If anything, that just made Kaien look thrilled.  “You’re finally making friends, thank god!”

 

Ichigo scoffed, pausing when Ganju materialized beside them with two plates, handing one to Kaien before waving and making a beeline for a black-haired woman several dozen feet away.

 

“Ganju’s latest girlfriend, Yuina,” Kaien explained when Ichigo frowned a little in puzzlement.  “Daughter of one of our retainers, so not related, or if we are, very, very distantly related, just in case you’re wondering whether or not I promote in-breeding.  I think the Kuchikis have done that a few times; would explain the stick up their collective asses.”

 

Ichigo smothered a snicker but Kaien caught it all the same, smirking wickedly back at him.

 

“Anyway,” Kaien tipped his head in his brother’s direction.  “Think this one might be a keeper, as soon as Ganju decides he wants to settle down anyway, and that’s probably gonna take another few decades.  They’ve been dating for going on ten years now.  Or, well, dated for three years, broke up for one, and then got back together again.  And let me tell you, that year was horrible.  Ganju walked around with a perpetual cloud of depression hanging over him, pining.  It was cute at first but it got old fast.  Kukaku got fed up one day, tied Ganju up, dumped him on Yuina’s doorstep, and told them not to show their faces again until they had worked out their problems.”

 

This time, Ichigo couldn't help barking out a laugh even as he wracked his brain for a Shiba Yuina on the memorial stone that Kukaku had had, every single Shiba name carved into the surface.  Had he forgotten?  But then, Ganju had never mentioned any wife or even fiancé.  Maybe Yuina had been one of the ones assassinated?  Or Kaien was wrong and they had broken up and parted ways?

 

“You don’t have elders, right?”  Ichigo mused thoughtfully.  He knew Shinigami in general dated longer than Humans did, but clan members, especially the ones at the top of the hierarchy, usually married after a year or so for political reasons.

 

We don’t have elders,” Kaien corrected.  “Which is why our courtships always make the Kuchikis and even Shihouins turn up their noses.  No arranged marriages or anything stupid, so we actually have breakups, and our married couples don’t consist of two strangers smiling politely at each in public and giving each other the cold shoulder in private.  We’re actually allowed to fall in love.  Or stay single.”

 

He grinned at Ichigo.  “I love this clan, and that is definitely one of the reasons why.”

 

Not for the first time, Ichigo counted himself lucky for being born into the Shiba Clan and not a more stringent one.

 

“I’m home and I’m starving!  Get me some of everything!”

Ichigo froze when he heard the familiar voice float out from inside the house, chopsticks halfway to his mouth.  Around him, no one really reacted besides the occasional brief glance.  Across from him, Kaien perked up.

 

“Oh, Isshin-ji’s home!”  Kaien half-rose from his seat.  “He had to work late today but he promised to be back in time to meet you.  Guess he managed to finish faster than expected.  Oi, Isshin-ji!  Over here!”

 

Ichigo didn't turn around, even when his father – his father – called back a greeting, the man’s reiatsu signature making its way towards them.

 

Right, he had to stay calm.  Stay calm, and preferably not freak out and make everyone think he was some sort of head case.

 

“It’s plain unfair how soft Ukitake-taichou is on you, Kaien,” Isshin complained from less than five steps behind Ichigo.  “I bet my captain wants to work me to death one day.”

 

Kaien snorted.  “You’re just lazy, Ji-san.  Anyway, come meet Ichigo.  Last time you saw him, he was still unconscious.”

 

Breathe,’ Zangetsu whispered in the depths of Ichigo’s mind, and Ichigo obeyed without protest when he realized he wasn’t breathing.

 

A large hand landed on his shoulder, and it took everything Ichigo had not to jump a foot in the air.  Biting the inside of his cheek, he braced himself and looked up.

 

His father didn't have any facial hair.

 

Ichigo almost dissolved into hysterical laughter when that turned out to be the first thought that popped into his mind.  Apparently, one century ago, Shiba Isshin had no facial hair, kept his hair shorter, and seemed to have grown sideburns instead.

 

Overall, he looked younger, less weighed down.  It wasn't as if Ichigo’s father had looked particularly old in his time, but that Isshin had still had a few more lines creasing his face.  This Isshin didn't.

 

“Hey there!”  Isshin beamed down at him jovially, and Ichigo’s breath hitched again, something vice-like squeezing his heart.  “Looks like I’ve gained myself another nephew, huh?  Bit late, but welcome to the family.  Feel free to call me Isshin-ji; all my cute little nephews and nieces do.”

 

Ichigo nodded back stiffly, trying his hardest not to throw up.  Or tear up; whichever.

 

“Hi,” He managed to mumble back, digging his nails into the palm of his hand and concentrating on the pain there instead of what felt like a knife through his heart.  “Nice to meet you.”

 

A curious expression passed over Isshin’s face as he slid into the empty seat beside Kaien (Ichigo cursed in his head).  “A quiet one, aren’t you?  Well, spend more time with us and we’ll soon break you out of that habit.”

 

Ichigo attempted a smile, failed, and went for the vegetables just to occupy his mouth.  Isshin didn't seem to mind as he rambled on about his day, about the Tenth Division’s Sixth Seat dropping an entire armful of paperwork in the hallway today which resulted in two hours of reorganizing all of it, and basically jumping from topic to topic between bites of his dinner, keeping up a steady stream of conversation with Kaien even as they both tried to coax Ichigo into participating.

 

Ichigo just really wanted to leave.

 

And because Ichigo had shitty luck, that – of course – didn't happen.  Even worse, the conversation had somehow circled back to Kaien reiterating the chat that he and Ichigo had been having about clan laws and family.

 

“You asked him if he had a wife?”  Isshin cackled, reaching out to ruffle Kaien’s hair.  “I think at least three-quarters of the women in Seiretei would riot if that ever happened.  Our Kaien-sama here is very popular with the ladies.  The rest of us might as well be road kill for all the attention women pay us when he’s around.  Actually, we don’t even rank road kill; at least women would notice that.”

 

Kaien rolled his eyes and heaved a long-suffering sigh, evidently having heard things along these lines before.  “Well if you didn’t act like a pervert every time some girl comes up to you, they might actually give you the time of day.  Might even agree to marry you one day if you’re exceptionally lucky and she’s exceptionally patient.  Like, one-hundred-saints patient.  And doesn't take any of your shit.”

 

Ichigo’s breath caught in his lungs.

 

“Meh,” Isshin waved his chopsticks in the air.  “I’m not looking to get tied down anyway, not right now at least.  If I did though,” He paused in thought, and the rarely-seen solemn side of Isshin surfaced for a split second.  “I’d want a couple children to go with the woman of my dreams.  Maybe one or two girls to spoil rotten.  And definitely a son I can be proud of-”

 

Snap!

 

Ichigo stared uncomprehendingly at his broken chopsticks for several seconds, more aware of the ringing sound in his ears, the bile rising in his throat, and the image of his blood-soaked, weary-looking father still – still – grinning at Ichigo like the proudest man in the world than the twin startled looks he was receiving from across the table.

 

“Sorry,” He muttered at last, avoiding eye-contact as he got to his feet.  “Strong grip.  I’ll go get another pair; carry on without me.”

 

And without waiting for Isshin or Kaien’s acknowledgement, Ichigo turned tail and fled, walking as quickly as he could towards the house without making it look like he was running away.

 

He stumbled into the house, earning alarmed and worried looks from various retainers all keeping a large table of food fully stocked.

 

“Um, could you- point me to the bathroom?”  Ichigo enquired shakily as he accosted the nearest employee.

 

“Yes, of course, Ichigo-dono,” The woman pointed through one door.  “Out that way, turn right, third door on your left.  Are you okay, sir?”

 

Ichigo nodded feverishly and lingered long enough to thank the woman before Shunpoing away at top speed, barely managing to clatter into the bathroom and slam the door behind him before he was on his knees and throwing up into the toilet, shuddering and choking and trying to forgetforgetforget-

 

“Easy,” A familiar voice murmured as a warm hand settled on his back, rubbing soothingly even as another hand smoothed back his hair from his sweaty forehead.  “You’ll be alright.  Deep breaths when you can.”

 

Ichigo gasped raggedly, focusing on Kaien’s voice as he beat back the surge of distressing memories, dragging his mind back to the here and now instead of that other lifetime.

 

By the time he had stopped heaving up his dinner, leaning back into the well-muscled arm wrapped around his shoulder, Ichigo didn't even have enough energy to feel humiliated.

 

He let Kaien help him up to rinse out his mouth before settling him against one wall of the bathroom, watching silently as his cousin flushed the toilet before producing a clean cloth from one of the drawers, putting it under the tap and then returning to Ichigo and crouching down to wipe gently at his sweat-damp face.

 

Like I'm a child, Ichigo thought scornfully, but he couldn't bring himself to push Kaien away or kick the man out.

 

When he finished, Kaien simply tossed the towel into the sink before taking a seat beside Ichigo, shoulder to shoulder.

 

“Wanna talk about it?”  Kaien spoke up after five minutes had ticked by.

 

“Talk about what?”  Ichigo spat back cagily, and then instantly regretted it because Kaien really was just trying to help.  Problem was, Ichigo couldn't talk about it.  And if he was honest, he was crap at lying too.

 

“Do you want to know the trick to telling a good lie, Ichigo?”  Kisuke’s voice suddenly echoed in his head.  “It’s very simple; stick as many truths into it as you can.  Never tell an outright lie, especially if you're an honest person.  One whole lie will only lead to another, and before you know it, you’ll be entangled in a web that you won’t be able to talk your way out of.  Half-truths are always better.”

 

Ichigo stared at the ground.  On one hand, he could just brush Kaien off per usual.  It wasn't as if his cousin could actually do anything to make Ichigo talk.  But on the other hand...

 

Ichigo had never had an older brother figure, but he wondered if this was sort of what it was like, to have someone come back again and again, worrying when something was wrong, always ready to help.  In his own time, Ichigo had been the protector, the one who looked after everyone else, and neither he nor anyone else had really thought that Ichigo would need protecting.  Things just didn't work that way.

 

And maybe that was part of why he was so easily annoyed by Kaien all the time.  Ichigo’s old friends knew he wasn't much of a social butterfly and left it at that.  They would invite him to the arcade or something, and sometimes he went, but if he refused, they were okay with that too.  Kaien however didn't seem to understand the meaning of ‘no’.  His cousin was always, always pushing, never letting Ichigo shut him out, and it was confusing and irritating and-

 

“He reminds me of my father,” Ichigo blurted out before he could censor it.

 

Kaien cocked his head, eyes sharp and soft at the same time.  “Isshin-ji?”

 

Ichigo shrugged and nodded, forcing a sardonic smile.  “Some facial hair, get rid of the sideburns, maybe let the hair grow a little, and you’d have my old man.”

 

He stopped, absently picking at a hangnail on his thumb.  “...He was- He wasn’t the best father in the world, but he tried his best, after Kaa-san died.  Kaa-san balanced the family out, you know, and without her, the scales tipped, and my dad’s never been- well, he’s better with girls.  Doesn't do so well with a son as... independent as me.”

 

He paused again, one hand moving up to press against his eyes when they started stinging.  “...But that bastard, the last thing he ever said was that he was proud of me.  And then that son of a bitch had the balls to tie me up and dump me- hide me away from- from the person who was attacking us, and I never saw him again.  Or, well, I did; had to go back for what was left of the body.”

 

He hesitated once more, and then tacked on just in case, “Don’t really remember everything that happened after that.”

 

Not exactly a lie.  Ichigo didn't remember some of the time he had spent in Aizen’s tender loving care when he had been captured later on in the war, not to mention after the war when he had been bleeding out in Muken, closer to dead than alive.

 

“I mean, I’ve seen him around,” Ichigo blathered on when Kaien remained silent.  He hated walking around with so many secrets all of a sudden, and if he couldn't get rid of those, then he could at least clear his head of a few of his worst memories.  “Your uncle, I mean.  I guess he’s my uncle too now.  But he looks like- And I didn't mean to flip out earlier-”

 

“That’s why you didn't want to come home,” Kaien interjected at last, quiet and sad and understanding.  “I noticed that.  You were okay with the rest of the family, even Kukaku and Ganju, and I think I was even getting you to relax when we sat down for dinner, but the moment Isshin-ji came home, you looked like someone had knifed you in the back.”

 

Ichigo shrugged again, not denying it, and letting Kaien form his own conclusions by himself.  He felt drained and exhausted, but a little... lighter, perhaps.  He didn't want to discuss this any further though, didn't want Kaien to pursue this topic anymore because it was enough that the lieutenant had listened, and that really was all Ichigo had wanted, and he certainly didn't want to hear apologies or condolences.  He just wanted this night to be over.

 

Fortunately for him, Kaien really could be shrewdly tactful when he wanted to be.

 

“Alright, come on,” The lieutenant levered himself to his feet before holding out a hand for Ichigo to take.  “Up you get.”

 

Ichigo squinted up at his cousin before warily accepting the hand, still feeling slightly light-headed and wobbly on his feet.  “Where are we going?  I don’t really feel like eating anymore.”

 

“I can see that,” Kaien ran a hand through his hair before herding Ichigo towards the closed door.  “So I’ve got two options for you – one, I can’t cook as well as Ganju but I make a mean pot of tea.  I can whip up something to soothe your stomach and calm your nerves, and then get you back to the Academy when you feel up to making the trip.”

 

Ichigo didn't really feel like tea.  Truthfully, he just wanted to curl up in bed and forget the shitstorm that his life had been thrown into since he was fifteen.  Maybe even since he was nine and his mother had died.

 

“What’s option two?”  Ichigo asked suspiciously.

 

Kaien quirked a dry smile at him.  “I break out the alcohol and we both get drunk off our asses.  Ukitake-taichou can manage without me for one day so I can call in sick tomorrow and give you a pass for your classes as well.  No need to work with raging hangovers, and we’ll both stay cooped up in my room all night drinking if you want, and be miserable together in the morning.”

 

Ichigo stared at his cousin.  The man was offering to skip work and play hooky just to keep him company.  Just because Ichigo was stupid enough to have a highly uncalled for meltdown in the bathroom.

 

“Can we go with option two?”  He attempted a feeble half-smile, half-smirk.  He didn't like drinking, but some good old alcohol in his system might be just what he needed.

 

Kaien slung an arm around his shoulders, drawing Ichigo in until his cousin had all but wrapped him in a one-armed hug.

 

“Yeah,” Kaien glanced at him, gaze warm and steady.  “We can do that.  Nothing like an evening with alcohol and family to help lighten your problems.  Always there when you need it.”

 

The second to last thought Ichigo recalled clearly before he reached for his first cup of sake that night was that he was pretty sure that Kaien had meant the family part and not the alcohol part.

 

The very last thought, troublingly enough, was that Ichigo really, really wanted to believe him.

 

{4}

 

                “Shiba-kun, where were you?  Asuka-chan and I couldn't find you yesterday.”

 

                Ichigo slowed his pace just enough for Rangiku to catch up.

 

                “Family stuff,” He grunted, mind casting back to the hammering headache he and Kaien had shared.  An unbidden smile twitched at his lips when he remembered how he had shown his cousin how to manipulate his reiatsu in that way that only Unohana and her seated officers could to get rid of their respective hangovers.  Apparently, that trick that Unohana had shown him during the war wasn't widely known.  Kaien had promised not to spread it around, all while grinning gleefully at the newfound knowledge.

 

                “Wow, that family stuff must’ve been something else.”

 

                Ichigo glanced to the side.  Rangiku was peering up at him now, astonishment and curiosity colouring her features.  “What?”

 

                “You’re smiling,” Rangiku pointed out, and Ichigo immediately made an effort to plaster his typical scowl back on his face.  “I’ve known you for like, a month, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen you genuinely smile.  Weren’t you angsting for weeks about going home?”

 

                “I wasn’t angsting,” Ichigo groused.  “And the dinner and my family didn't turn out to be that bad.  I had a... satisfactory time.”

 

                Rangiku just laughed and shook her head, shifting her arms to get a better grip on the books she was holding.  “Only you would call spending time with your family ‘satisfactory’.”

 

                Ichigo grumbled a little under his breath but said nothing else.  True to his word, Kaien had gotten them both drunk that evening, and then they had spent the entire next day lazing about the house like a couple of jobless bums, not really doing anything but eating, reading, playing shogi (or Kaien teaching Ichigo how to play shogi), and washing all the dirty laundry in the house (because Kukaku had decided that they needed punishing for ditching the family; in Ichigo’s humble opinion, he was fairly certain that Kukaku had just been miffed that he and Kaien had polished off half the liquor cabinet without her consent).

 

                “Oh look!”  Rangiku interrupted his thoughts, finger pointing at a knot of students crowded at one end of the study hall.  “It’s the tournament signup!  Are you going to participate?”

 

                Ichigo followed Rangiku towards the board where what looked like a third of the school population had converged on.  He was more than a little perplexed.  “Tournament signup?  What tournament?”

 

                Rangiku blinked at him.  “The yearly tournament for fourth- to sixth-years?  They announced it at the opening ceremony at the beginning of the year.”

 

                Ichigo shrugged.  “I wasn't there.  Only reason I got in this year was because Kaien pulled a few strings for me.  I was sitting my exams during that assembly.”

 

                Or so he had been told anyway.  Kaien had mentioned it in passing four or five months ago.  Ichigo certainly hadn't sat any entrance exams, much less passed them, though he was sure he would've breezed through those too if he had.

 

                “Oh, well that would explain it,” Rangiku nodded to the mass of students again.  “It’s a ranking tournament for the higher-levelled students, nothing serious – it’s just something to encourage the students to work harder and let us show off our skills to the Shinigami officers who might drop by and watch.  But anything goes – Zanjutsu, Kidou, Hadou, Hohou, everything.  Obviously, you can’t kill anyone; a battle ends when the opponent is knocked out or forfeits, and the entire tournament takes place over two weeks.  All classes are put on hold, and the only requirement to enter is that you have to be in your last three years at the Academy, or if you get special permission from a department head.”

 

                Ichigo arched an eyebrow.  “So it’s basically an organized series of fights where people get to kick other people’s asses in front of important and not-so-important people and hopefully get noticed.  In a good light.”

 

                Rangiku grinned, giving him a thumbs-up.  “Yup, that’s basically it.  Winners advance, losers drop out, and at the end, there’s a first, second, and third place winner for each year group.  There’ll be different money prizes for them, and the first place winner graduating that year is guaranteed a place in any squad of their choice.  Of course, that doesn't mean they won’t be demoted or kicked out, but the captain won’t refuse them entry.”

 

                Rangiku looked somewhat wistful at that.  “I’ve participated in the last two but I never lasted, though I did get third place last year.  I’ll try my hand at it again this year though.  What about you?  You’d probably sweep the entire thing.”

 

                Ichigo couldn't deny that, and he had no interest in fighting against – for all intents and purposes – children.  So he shook his head, a plan forming in his mind and a smirk growing on his face.  “No.  I have someone better in mind.”

 

                Rangiku wasn't stupid.  Two seconds later, an answering smirk graced her features as well.

 

                “You better help me step up my training too, Shiba-kun,” She announced adamantly.  “If you’re going to be signing Asuka-chan up.  She’s going to destroy the competition.”

 

                Ichigo’s smirk widened.  His student was going to freak out.  But it’d be worth it.

 

{4}

 

                “Sh- Shiba-san!  I can’t do it!”

 

                Ichigo ignored this as he had all the other times.  “Yes you can, and you will.  This is the perfect opportunity to boost your confidence.”

 

                “I’m already doing better in class!”  Fujiwara protested as she jogged to keep up with Ichigo’s longer strides.  Her bottom lip stuck out just a little in an involuntary pout.  Ichigo privately thought that the girl would be a force to reckon with if she ever learned to wield that consciously.  “I don’t have to- to fight in front of the entire school!  They’ll- They’ll laugh at me!”

 

                Ichigo scoffed, pausing at a food stall long enough to buy two plates of dango before passing one to Fujiwara.  He was feeling nice today (he swore Kaien had done something to mellow him out because it was getting annoyingly hard to stay brusque and irritable with everyone), and Fujiwara had actually managed to go two hours of nonstop sparring without falling flat on her face or needing Ichigo to carry her back.

 

                Improvement.  Huge improvement, and Ichigo would be lying if he said he wasn't pleased with her progress.  The girl wasn't even stuttering all that much anymore, though that was probably the result of Ichigo and Rangiku’s combined effort.

 

                “Why would they laugh at you?”  Ichigo demanded around a mouthful of dango.  “Nobody in their right mind would laugh at someone who’s going to take down at least two-thirds of the competition.  That’s your goal, by the way – reach the semi-finals at the very least.  I'm confident that you’ll make it that far.  Any further is entirely up to your resolve and skill, understand?”

 

                Fujiwara was silent for a long minute, and Ichigo was perfectly content with the lack of conversation.  As they turned a corner, his gaze flicked to the left at a store where he could sense his Aizen-minion-stalker hiding behind.  The kid had been following him around almost twenty-four/seven for about a month now.  Perhaps he should confront the Shinigami soon, get a feel for the information that the kid had compiled so far for Aizen.

 

                He turned his attention back to Fujiwara again when she spoke, nibbling nervously at her dango as she stared ahead.  “...What if I can’t?”

 

                Ichigo sent up a prayer for patience before nailing his student with a dead-eyed stare.  “What if you can’t?  Well I’ll be honest – I'm gonna be disappointed, you're gonna be disappointed, Matsumoto’s gonna be disappointed, and after the tournament is over, I'm gonna make the training menu you're going through right now look like a walk in the park.”

 

                Fujiwara blanched at the very real threat, and she looked like someone had killed her dog after Ichigo had reeled off that much anticipated disappointment.  “Can’t I just not compete?”

 

                “No,” Ichigo answered shortly as they reached the Academy gates.  “Now stop whining and eat your dango.  Meet back at the front gates in fifteen minutes; we’ll have to hurry.  You know how Matsumoto gets when we keep her waiting.”

 

                Fujiwara quirked a smile, a tinge of wonder edging it even now after a month of solid friendship as if she still couldn't believe she actually had friends to hang out with.

 

                “I- I still don’t agree!”  Fujiwara called back as she sped away towards the school.

 

                “It’s not up for discussion!”  Ichigo hollered after her, glowering fiercely at a group of students gawking at the exchange as he stalked after her.  They all cringed and looked away.

 

                Good.  He wasn't losing his touch.

 

                As he made his way to his room, Ichigo thought back to the family dinner (which had turned out to be less a dinner and more a two-person drinking binge because apparently, Kaien was awesome like that, not that Ichigo would ever admit as much).  Kaien had promised not to say anything Ichigo had told him to anyone else, not even Kukaku and Ganju, and especially not Isshin.  His cousin had asked whether or not Ichigo wanted him to tell their uncle to stay away for a while, but Ichigo instantly turned that offer down.  It wouldn't be fair to Isshin, and it wasn't as if Ichigo could avoid the man forever.  So while he wouldn't be going out of his way to seek his father out, he wasn't going to ask Kaien to order Isshin to stay away either.  That would just be running away.

 

                Come to think of it, Ichigo had been doing a lot of running away up until Kaien had tricked him into going... home.

 

                Ichigo heaved a sigh, shrugging out of his clothes and heading into the bathroom.  This time-travelling business was a lot harder than fiction books made it out to be.

 

                They never really went into detail about how much it hurt.

 

{4}

 

                “Follow him,” Aizen had said.  “Keep an eye on him.  See if he will become a potential ally or a thorn that needs removing.”

 

                And because Gin needed to be a good dog and bide his time, that was exactly what he was doing.  And had been doing for over a month now.

 

                In Gin’s humble opinion, the entire venture was a huge waste of time.  Even after five weeks, he still didn't have anything particularly incriminating to report back to Aizen.  As far as he knew, Shiba Ichigo hadn't even activated his Shikai again so Gin couldn't even figure out what the orange-haired Shinigami’s release command was.  And other than the sparring sessions with that fifth-year girl, not to mention those ludicrously long and astronomically boring study sessions in the library, Shiba Ichigo didn't actually do much else.

 

                Even worse, Gin wasn't so ignorant as to not notice the Thirteenth Division’s lieutenant’s overprotective attitude towards his younger cousin, as well as the way Gin’s own captain favoured Shiba Ichigo.  He had overheard Hirako talking – more like arguing – with Kyouraku one day about who would get their hands on the upcoming genius.

 

                A Shinigami-in-training with the patronage of at least two of the strongest captains – probably three since everyone knew that Kyouraku and Ukitake came as a package deal; where one was headed, the other was never far behind – in the Gotei 13 was not, if Gin was honest, someone to be messed with.  He had, of course, told Aizen this, but the madman had predictably dismissed it in favour of his Hollow experiments.  If the megalomaniac wasn't as insanely powerful and cruelly devious as he was arrogant, always believing himself to be above everyone else, Gin would've attempted an assassination by now.

 

                The absolute worst thing about this entire mission however was the glaring fact that Shiba Ichigo was Rangiku’s friend.

 

                And god, that just gave Gin a whole new slew of headaches to contend with.  Why couldn't Rangiku befriend any one of the other non-geniuses at the Academy?  Why did she have to stick to the one person who, as Gin had observed at the beginning, didn’t actually seem to want any friends in the first place?

 

                Of course, that was just Gin’s frustration at the situation in general speaking.  He knew – at least partially – why Rangiku liked spending time with Shiba.  From what Gin had seen, the genius Shinigami was the only one in the entire male population at the Academy that kept his damn eyes on her face, never once drifting down below her chin unless it was to fix her stance during a training session or check her for injuries after a spar.  The bastard even had the decency to snarl at any and all students who leered at Rangiku.

 

                Gin honestly didn't know whether he should be grateful or pissed about this.

 

                Because Rangiku was his, damn it.  She was the entire reason that his short-term plans and long-term plans all coincided with Aizen’s now, right up until he could find the madman’s weakness and stab him in the back, preferably without the consequences of imprisonment or execution after the deed was done but he was prepared for those things too if need be.

 

                So this... prodigal Shiba was doing a good job at throwing a wrench in his plans, mostly because Aizen was interested in the student.  The moment that had happened, Gin had known that Shiba Ichigo’s life would have only two outcomes – he would either join Aizen’s cause or die for not joining.

 

                Which would make Rangiku sad, as in upset-tears kind of sad because she truly seemed attached to Shiba Ichigo.

 

                Gin heaved an uncharacteristically aggravated sigh as he peered around the corner he was loitering behind to check on the three Shinigami eating and chatting inside the restaurant.  Or at least Rangiku was chatting with that Fujiwara girl while Shiba looked to be brooding on the side.

 

                He grimaced, leaning back against the wall behind him.  Tailing someone for a month while making sure Hirako didn't notice he was missing more often than not was not in his job description (it was lucky the Fifth Seat was so easy to bribe so that Gin could foist his paperwork onto the idiot).  At least not in his Third Seat job description.  He supposed ‘anything Aizen wants’ was in the job description for Fellow Traitor Who Had Pledged Their Loyalty to Aizen.

 

                He took another quick look around the corner, eyes slitting open when he realized that only Rangiku and Fujiwara were still sitting in the booth.  Shiba was gone.  And neither girls looked particularly concerned so...

 

                “Bathroom?”  He muttered to himself, scanning the restaurant’s interior carefully.

 

                “Not quite,” A voice behind him replied, and Gin almost jumped out of his skin, whirling around as his hand dropped to his Zanpakutou.

 

                Shit.  He knew this entire venture was a Bad Idea.  Damn Aizen.

 

                Gin mentally cursed but hastily plastered on that fake smile that he usually used to charm (intimidate) other people as he stared up at the taller figure of his target.  He allowed his hand to drop away from his Zanpakutou.

 

                “Ah, ya took me by surprise,” Gin hoped that sounded complimentary.  It probably didn't; he wasn't used to dishing out compliments (the last time he’d tried, commenting on how Rangiku’s hair was frizzing nicely in the summer heat, the blonde had punched him in the shoulder and stormed off in a snit).  Shiba certainly didn't look at all flattered.

 

                “Uh-huh,” The taller Shinigami scowled at him.  (Then again, Shiba had already been scowling at him so Gin didn't see that much of a difference.)  “I can see that.  Mind telling me why you've been stalking me?”

 

                Inwardly, Gin bristled at the stalking accusation (even though it was sort of true) and a spark of worry lit in his gut as he wondered how long Shiba had known that Gin had been following him.  Outwardly, his smile widened and he shrugged in a – hopefully – sheepish kind of way.  Judging by the unimpressed arch of Shiba’s eyebrows, Gin didn't do sheepish very well either.  He went with Plan B.

 

                “Maa, ya’ve been hangin’ out with Rangiku,” Gin explained.  “She’s a friend; I wanted ta make sure ya weren’ takin’ advantage of her.”

 

                True enough, except Gin had figured out that Shiba wasn't taking advantage of Rangiku within the first two weeks, but nobody else needed to know that.

 

                Shiba didn't look like he believed that was the only reason either but at least the other Shinigami didn't call him out on it.

 

                Instead, Shiba closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose as if Gin was a child who had done something naughty, before releasing a resigned sigh.  What he said next wasn't anything along the lines of what Gin had been expecting.

 

                “Fine then,” Shiba jerked his chin in the general direction of the restaurant.  “You wanna join us for dinner?  You know, so you can keep an eye on me?”

 

                The last bit had an almost mocking edge to it, and Gin was inexplicably reminded of his old Zanjutsu instructor all of a sudden.  And yes, Gin had seen Shiba hanging around Koyonagi (or maybe it was Koyonagi hanging around Shiba; who knew that was a possibility?) so it wasn't so unexpected that something of their personalities had probably blended.

 

                Which, from what he remembered of the Zanjutsu teacher, was a rather disturbing and slightly frightening thought.

 

                But this was an opportunity to get closer to Shiba, which would give Gin more chances to weasel out all of the other Shinigami’s hidden abilities.  It would make his job easier, and Aizen would be happy.  At this point in time, that was about the only thing Gin cared about.

 

                Plus he could make sure Rangiku didn't get too attached to Shiba.  It was a win-win all around.

 

                So Gin forced himself to duck his head in apology.  “Sorry ’bout that; I worry about Rangiku sometimes.  I’d be glad ta join ya for dinner; I haven’ had my own yet.”

 

                Shiba snorted, shaking his head at whatever he had gleaned from Gin’s words before waving a hand for him to follow.  “Yeah, okay, come on then.”

 

                For a moment, as he followed the other Shinigami inside the restaurant, Gin considered reminding – because surely the student had forgotten – Shiba that he was the Fifth Division’s Third Seat, about a million ranks higher than a mere Academy student, and therefore should be treated accordingly.

 

                And then he dismissed this idea.  Perhaps if Shiba saw Gin as more of a peer than a superior officer, the other Shinigami would be more liable to lower his guard.

 

                “Gin?”

 

                Gin glanced up, and this time, his smile came more easily as he caught sight of Rangiku’s surprised expression.  “Rangiku, I was...”

 

                He paused.  If he said he was dogging Shiba’s steps and had been more or less spying on them, Rangiku would be disappointed with him.

 

                “Bumped into him when I stepped out for some fresh air,” Shiba cut in, sliding into the empty seat beside Fujiwara.  “I remembered you saying that you knew him, and he mentioned that he hadn't eaten dinner yet, so I said he could join us if he wanted to.”

 

                Gin’s eyebrows twitched as Rangiku beamed first at Shiba and then at him.  “Shiba-kun, that’s practically saintly of you!  Gin, come sit down; we’ve already ordered but I still have the menu.  What do you want?”

 

                As Gin slipped into the free spot next to Rangiku, smiling pleasantly at Fujiwara (and snickering mentally when she shifted uneasily), he glanced once more at Shiba.

 

                The orange-haired Shinigami was staring back at him, sharp-eyed and knowing, mouth twisted into a speculative line.

 

                It occurred to Gin, at that moment, that while accepting this odd arrangement where a seated officer would spend time with three Academy students might help Gin assess his target better, the opposite could also be true.

 

                After all, Shiba Ichigo didn't look like he had believed Gin’s excuses, and keeping an eye on Gin would be much easier to do if they spent time with each other.

 

                And Shiba was a genius.  Gin should’ve known that both their thoughts would run along the same lines.

 

                How troublesome.

 

                Still, it had to be done.  Worst came to worst, Gin would simply tell Aizen that Shiba was a liability, and the megalomaniac would make Shiba disappear.

 

                Easy.

 

{4}

 

                “And that’s another win for Fujiwara!  Not a single loss, and she’ll be the first to reach the semi-finals!”

 

                Ichigo quirked a satisfied smile as Fujiwara sheathed her Zanpakutou and made her way down from the arena amidst the crowd’s shocked murmurs and confused exclamations.  As he had predicted prior to the tournament, his student had ripped through her competition with relative ease, all the way up to the semi-finals.

 

                Fujiwara all but bounced up to him, expression glowing and eyes bright with adrenaline.  Ichigo’s smile widened almost imperceptibly but his student seemed to catch it as she grinned up at him, accepting the towel he handed her to wipe her face.

 

                “Not bad,” Ichigo acknowledged as he led her to a quieter corner of the courtyard where the tournament was taking place.  Like the past week and a half, disbelieving eyes followed their every move.  Clearly, no one had been expecting competition from the quiet fifth-year runt, even if they had noticed she was doing a lot better in class (and Ichigo wouldn't put money on that; Shinigami could be outrageously oblivious).

 

                “Watch your left side,” Ichigo instructed quietly as he passed Fujiwara a water bottle and watched her heal a gash on her arm.  He knew basic healing Kidou but Fujiwara was better at it even now.  “You're still leaving it open for attack when you go in for a strike.  That’s how you got that injury.  Otherwise, you're doing well.  Keep it up.”

 

                And that really was the extent of his ability at giving compliments; anymore and he’d probably start sounding more insulting than approving.

 

                Fujiwara just smiled at him though, nodding determinedly as if Ichigo had been openly cheering her on.  Girls; he’d never understand them.

 

                “Shiba-san, can we go watch Rangiku-senpai now?”  Fujiwara was already scanning the courtyard, craning her head around all the students and Shinigami officers surrounding the various arenas.

 

                “Mm,” Ichigo acquiesced with a nod, and guided her to the right where he could see Rangiku’s amber hair flashing in and out of sight between the audience’s heads as she fought.  Ichigo had been semi-coaching both of them so he knew that Rangiku would also make it into the semi-finals if she won this battle.  Her opponent however was really giving her a run for her money.

 

                Big and muscular, and wielding his Zanpakutou like it was a battle axe or something, Rangiku’s opponent went after the blonde with a vengeance.  Ichigo thought this might have something to do with the fact that Rangiku had turned him down several weeks ago when he had asked for a date.

 

                Ichigo’s eyes narrowed as a sideways swipe and a follow-up punch made Rangiku stumble back, coughing out blood as she narrowly evaded a third blow that probably would've knocked her clean off her feet.  Beside him, Fujiwara gasped, teetering onto the balls of her feet as apprehension flooded her features.

 

                Around them, the students egged both parties on, some whistling for Rangiku while others mocked her crumbling defense, pointing it out to her opponent as the burly student lunged forward again, a nasty grin on his face.

 

                Well, more than one could play that game.

 

                “If you know where to strike, he’s wide open, Matsumoto!”  Ichigo barked, and his voice carried effortlessly over the catcalls of the others.  Rangiku rolled out of the way, evading another slash as she glanced over at him, eyes wide.  “Duck, pass, and take the enemy down, just like we practiced!  I’ll be pissed if you don’t remember!”

 

                Rangiku leapt up to avoid another sweep of her opponent’s blade, recognition dawning in her eyes before grim resolve hardened her expression.  She landed, and without missing a beat, she hurtled forward, subsequently twisting at the very last second, ducking under the other student’s raised arm as she used Shunpo to aid her.  Spinning on her left foot and bringing up Haineko, she attacked without hesitation, slashing smoothly in one downward swipe and drawing a diagonal line of blood down the length of her opponent’s back.

 

                It was lucky Ichigo hadn't taught her how to put her back muscles into that assault.  Any stronger and the other student would've had his spine severed.  Ichigo would know; he’d delivered that same attack enough times himself during the war.

 

                As it was, the student still howled with pain, staggering forward.  Rangiku didn't wait for him to regain his footing as many Shinigami, student or otherwise, tended to do (that type of foolish honour only got you killed in battle; they weren’t samurai after all), and without mercy, she jumped into the air, tucking in her feet as she rose into position behind her opponent, and then uncoiled her entire body like a spring, using her momentum to slam her feet as well as her entire weight into the other student’s head and upper back, simultaneously and quite effectively flooring her opponent and knocking him out.

 

                A stunned silence momentarily fell over the audience as Rangiku flipped forward gracefully and landed on the ground once more, triumph etched all over her face.  And then a roar of surprise and admiration rent the air as Rangiku blew a kiss at them before vaulting out of the arena and making a beeline towards Ichigo and Fujiwara.

 

                “Gah!”  Ichigo clicked his tongue in annoyance as Rangiku flung her arms around his neck in a hug, waiting until he had patted her clumsily on the back before letting go to seize Fujiwara’s hands and doing a silly five-step dance with her, both of them giggling like they had been drinking.

 

                Ichigo rolled his eyes.  What exactly had he done in a past life to deserve this?

 

                “You do realize neither of you have even reached the finals, right?” Ichigo interrupted gruffly, ushering both of them away from the majority of the school population.  “You can celebrate later; Matsumoto, you need to patch up those injuries.”

 

                Rangiku pouted excessively, and Ichigo inwardly despaired when Fujiwara followed suit.  Change the hair and eye colour so they’d match and the two could be sisters.

 

                “Oh lighten up, Shiba-kun,” Rangiku scolded, linking arms with Fujiwara.  “Being gloomy all the time is no good.  You should be happy whenever you can.”

 

                Fujiwara, much to Ichigo’s exasperation, nodded agreeably, albeit still somewhat timidly.  “Yes, Shiba-san.  Both of us made it to the semi-finals; that- that should be cause for celebration, don’t you think?”

 

                “Absolutely not,” Ichigo retorted instantly, recalling with some nostalgia of a time when Fujiwara couldn't even look him in the eye much less talk back to him like this.

 

                “Hmph!”  Rangiku tossed her hair back and turned her nose up in a mockingly haughty gesture.  “Don’t mind Grumpy-Face, Asuka-chan; we’ll make him take us out for dinner tonight to make up for his utterly appalling lack of delight on our behalf.”

 

                Ichigo heaved a sigh as he trailed after them.  “I’m not made of money, woman.  Pay for your own meals.”

 

                Rangiku craned her head around and batted her eyes at him.  “You get to have two beautiful women on your arms when you go out; that should be payment enough, Shiba-kun!”

 

                Ichigo snorted as Fujiwara blushed.  “Not interested, Matsumoto, and your bodyguard would skin me alive if I ever did anything of the sort.”

 

                “Oh Gin’s not my boyfriend,” Rangiku dismissed, but Ichigo was astute enough to catch the hint of melancholy darting through her eyes like quicksilver.  “He wouldn't mind.  Besides, I’ve seen more of him in the past month than I have in the past five years since he graduated.”

 

                Ichigo frowned but didn't comment.  That stupid kid was going to drown himself in Aizen’s plans and get himself killed – again – if Ichigo didn't do something drastic.

 

                Killing Aizen was pretty drastic.  He’d just have to do that before there were any serious casualties.

 

                “Maybe it just took him some time to get settled in his division,” Ichigo suggested offhandedly before tilting his head towards the gates several dozen feet away.  “He seems like he wants to hang around you more often now.”

 

                Rangiku blinked, and then her head snapped around, her entire face brightening when she caught sight of Gin loitering at the entrance.  Calling out a greeting, one that her childhood friend returned (with far less exuberance), Rangiku veered off and headed in his direction, pulling a flustered Fujiwara behind her.

 

                Of course, Ichigo knew that at least half the reason for Gin’s active presence amongst their small group – as of two and a half weeks ago – was Ichigo himself.  Whatever orders Aizen had given him, the Third Seat evidently wanted to stick as close to Ichigo as possible.  But there was no need for Rangiku to know that, and Ichigo knew that Gin appreciated spending time with her as well.

 

                “You've trained them well,” A voice remarked from behind him.

 

                Ichigo glanced to the side as Koyonagi came to a stop on his right.  “I train Fujiwara; I just gave Matsumoto a few tips.  She’s pretty good already.”

 

                Koyonagi inclined his head in concurrence, studying the two female Shinigami-in-training currently standing by the gates.  “Still, even just a few months ago, Fujiwara-chan wouldn't have competed for anything, and Matsumoto-chan wouldn't have done nearly as well as she has right now.”

 

                Ichigo shrugged uncomfortably, not really knowing what to say.  He eyed Koyonagi warily when the man turned a calculating gaze on him.  “What?”

 

                “Hmm,” Koyonagi hummed speculatively, tone misleadingly light.  “I wonder, Ichi-kun, just who taught you how to fight.”

 

                Ichigo stiffened subtly.  “What do you mean?  I've been learning at the Academy.  I pick things up pretty quickly.”

 

                Koyonagi shot him a half amused, half reproachful look.  “Both those things are true, but neither answers my question.  You're a terrible liar, Ichi-kun, but again, someone’s been good enough to teach you how to avoid lying outright.  Someone who seems to know you fairly well.”

 

                Ichigo had to force himself to keep his breathing steady even as his heartbeat hammered in his chest.  Too close; Koyonagi was too close.

 

                The man in question chuckled softly.  “You don’t fight like any other student here; you don’t even use a modified version of the fighting styles that the Academy teaches.  You obviously didn't learn combat here.  And watching Fujiwara-chan and Matsumoto-chan fight over the past week and a half, it’s easy to see – if you know what to look for – that you've been instilling battle instincts into them instead of the standard tactics that are taught at the Academy.  You're not just teaching them how to fight; you're teaching them how to win, how to survive.

 

                “Which is a very good thing,” Koyonagi assured.  “But that’s not what the school teaches, is it?”

 

                Ichigo stared stonily ahead, brow creasing even further when Koyonagi grinned cunningly, patting Ichigo’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Ichi-kun, I'm only curious.  You're an enigma, and really the most interesting thing I've come across in decades, arguably centuries.  I'm not looking to sell your secrets, just figure them out, that’s all.”

 

                Ichigo wanted to shake the instructor.  Figuring his secrets out was a horrible idea.  For both of them.

 

                “And while we’re having this wonderfully one-sided conversation,” Koyonagi continued serenely as he turned to leave, green eyes meeting Ichigo’s hard gaze with easygoing mischief.  “I should say, just for the record, I don’t believe you have amnesia, Ichi-kun.”

 

                And still chortling quietly to himself, the instructor meandered away again, leaving a secretly panicking Ichigo behind.

 

                Ichigo watched Koyonagi leave, dread pooling in his stomach as he imagined anything and everything that could go wrong if and when the instructor found out.

 

                Because Koyonagi could be just as bullheaded as Ichigo if something caught his attention.

 

                And it looked like Ichigo had caught it permanently for the foreseeable future.

 

                Fuck.

 

{4}

 

                “Taichou, hurry, or we’ll miss it,” Kaien urged, picking up his pace.

 

                Ukitake looked somewhat exasperated but obligingly quickened his steps as well.  Beside him, Kyouraku and Hirako looked equally amused.

 

                Kaien just huffed.  It had taken some time to work through all the paperwork so that they’d have a free afternoon but after Ichigo had – voluntarily, holy shit – told him that Fujiwara would be competing, Kaien had promised he would come watch if she made it to the finals.  And of course, he had told his captain, who had told Kyouraku, who had been talking to Hirako at the time, so all three captains had decided to come along after bullshitting through their deskwork in record-breaking time (actually, that was just Kyouraku and Hirako; Kaien was pretty sure that Ukitake had never bullshitted anything in his entire life).

 

                They rounded into the Academy, and Kaien ignored the instantaneous awareness and whispers that zeroed in on them.  Three captains and a lieutenant were bound to attract notice.

 

                As students parted like a wave in front of them, all bowing low before straightening to attention with awe and respect on their faces, Kaien searched for his cousin’s bright hair.  It was fortunate that Ichigo was fairly tall too.

 

                “Ichigo!”  Kaien waved, and he couldn't hide his exhilaration if his life depended on it when Ichigo glanced over without his usual fierce glower or curt brush-offs, nodding in a polite but almost friendly manner.

 

                “Kaien,” Ichigo’s perpetual scowl actually softened a touch.  “You made it.”

 

                His gaze flickered past him to the three captains.  “Hirako-taichou, Kyouraku-taichou, Ukitake-taichou, good afternoon.”

 

                Ukitake smiled as the other two waved and nodded.  “Hello, Ichigo-kun, you seem to be in a good mood today.”

 

                To Kaien’s surprise, Ichigo’s mouth curled up in a smirk, and he nodded towards the arena.  “Fujiwara’s holding her own.”

 

                Kaien swung around, and his jaw slackened for a second when he realized that the blurred figure wielding the katana with an elegance and expertise that some Shinigami officers would've been envious of was indeed his cousin’s student.

 

                She was still rough around the edges, still had a long way to go before she would become strong enough to be offered a senior officer rank.  She seemed good enough for a junior one though, perhaps at Twelfth Seat level, maybe even Tenth.

 

                Fujiwara was giving her all in this battle though.  Her opponent was heavier-set and taller – not a hard feat – but she was using her superior speed and faster reflexes to counter the other student’s longer-ranged strikes and brute strength.

 

                “She has improved significantly,” Ukitake remarked from beside Kaien.  There was a quiet note of astounded amazement in his voice, and Kaien beamed with pride at the implied praise towards his cousin along with Fujiwara.

 

                “Mm, she’s getting there,” Ichigo responded absently, arms crossed in front of his chest and wholly focused on his student.  “She’s still leaving her left side open; that’s her biggest problem, and on the occasion that she overreaches...”

 

                Kaien winced when Fujiwara did just that, and her opponent came in swinging from her left, a roundhouse kick slamming into her and successfully dislocating her shoulder.

 

                “...that happens,” Ichigo finished with a grimace of displeasure when Fujiwara couldn't quite suppress a cry of pain even as she hastily shunpoed away to a safer distance.  For a moment, Kaien thought Ichigo looked like he dearly wanted to storm the arena and bash the male student’s smirking face in.

 

                Enthusiastic jeers echoed around the courtyard, all calling for the student – Hanamiya – to take Fujiwara down.  Kaien frowned, glancing around.  “Fujiwara... isn’t that popular, I'm guessing?  I mean this is a bit much even for a... erm, an illegitimate child.”

 

                “Fools, the lot of them,” Ichigo scoffed, and even Kaien was startled by the amount of venom underlying his cousin’s words.  “What does lineage matter in the end?  On the battlefield, when they’re bleeding out on the ground, the only thing they’ll be praying for will be that the person their life is in the hands of will be both an ally and competent enough to save their ass.  I highly doubt they’d have enough wits about them to remember whether their fellow officers are proper nobles or bastard children or even Rukongai trash.  Honestly, these idiots are only pissed ’cause Fujiwara’s risen from last to one of the top twenty students in her year group.”

 

                A brief dumbfounded silence followed this vehement opinion as even the captains looked taken aback.  Ichigo simply stared straight ahead, gaze tracking the ongoing fight in front of them and giving no sign that he had just stated a few of his ideals with frank and unapologetic aplomb.

 

                “Ya definitely don’t hold back,” Hirako was the first to speak up, head tilted in a considering but appreciative manner.  “Personally, I agree.  Nice way of puttin’ it too.  I’d pay ta see ya rip inta one of those... ‘idiots’.”

 

                Ichigo glanced back at the blond, amused and puzzlingly wistful at the same time before he smirked again in acknowledgement and turned away once more.

 

                “And last to top twenty, you say?”  Kyouraku commented offhandedly, and Kaien watched out of the corner of his eye as Ichigo seemed to straighten just a little at being addressed by this particular man.

 

                Odd.  It was near imperceptible but the instinctive and very genuine respect was there if you knew to look for it, and for some reason, Ichigo had given it to Kyouraku.  Oh, he held the other captains with his own version of blunt regard too but there was just something... more – just a bit – when it came to the Eighth Division captain.

 

                “Yeah,” Ichigo nodded (of course, Ichigo’s sort of respect didn't come with the typical bowing and deferential etiquette), turning to face Kyouraku.  “History’s giving her a bit of trouble so that’s bringing her overall grade down, but her Zanjutsu and even Hakuda have improved a lot over the past three months, her Hohou is decent, and her Kidou’s better than mine, so she’s now near the top in all her combat classes.”

 

                Kyouraku tipped back his sakkat, studying Ichigo with thoughtful grey eyes before a leisure smile spread over his face.  “Thank you.”

 

                Kaien blinked at this roundabout – and slightly vague – response, and then had to stifle a snicker at the flash of embarrassment flitting across Ichigo’s features.  His cousin shifted on the spot, discomfited and pleased at the same time.

 

                “You should just give up, runt!”

 

                Ichigo’s head snapped back around so fast that Kaien was almost surprised that his cousin didn't give himself whiplash.

 

                Up in the arena, Fujiwara seemed to waver at the taunt as it was carried throughout the crowd, and her blade dipped.  A student – either another fifth-year or a sixth-year – prodded Hanamiya to take her down, pointing out her widening defense as her left elbow dropped an inch.

 

                Hanamiya grinned maliciously and lunged.  Fujiwara just managed to dodge, though her opponent’s Zanpakutou sliced a line through the cloth of her uniform.

 

                Gasping for breath and trying to balance her dislocated arm, Fujiwara’s gaze darted past Hanamiya for a moment, bypassing Kaien and the captains as if she didn't even notice them.

 

                Ichigo didn't say anything, staring back evenly with narrowed eyes and a challenge blazing within them.

 

                It was always like that, Kaien realized, recalling the handful of times he had spied on their sparring sessions.  Ichigo was always pushing Fujiwara, always challenging her to improve, daring her to get stronger.

 

                And for some unknown reason, Fujiwara had always answered, even back when she had been that ridiculous shrinking violet of a girl.

 

                This time was no different, and Kaien watched as Fujiwara’s jaw firmed and her focus returned to her opponent, stance confrontational once more.  Not even her shoulder or the blood trickling down her temple distracted her.

 

                And then she struck.

 

                Kaien’s eyes widened as Fujiwara blurred in a flit of Shunpo once more, streaking towards Hanamiya like a gust of wind, blowing past him even as she raised her Zanpakutou and an upward arc.  The battle started again, the two students clashing in a whirl of metal.

 

                “Why isn’t she using Kidou?”  Ukitake enquired.  “That is her strong suit, is it not?”

 

                Ichigo grunted.  “I told her not to.  Zanjutsu, Hakuda, and Hohou only during this tournament.”

 

                Kaien did a double-take.  “You handicapped her?!”

 

                His cousin glanced sharply at him.  “Yes.  She has improved in leaps and bounds after I started tutoring her, but a part of her’s still holding back.  But now she’s made it to the finals without Kidou.  Granted, all her opponents have underestimated her; they all thought her wins have been flukes even after they saw her abilities with their own eyes.  That’s their problem; she should simply take full advantage of it.  If she wins this tournament, it’ll be a major boost for her confidence.”

 

                Kaien faltered.  “But if she loses-”

 

                “She won’t,” Ichigo cut him off adamantly.

 

                Kaien frowned, still concerned.  “But she could-”

 

                “She won’t,” Ichigo repeated a second time, and the amount of conviction and faith in his expression was overwhelming.  “She’s my student; I know what she’s capable of.  I've helped her hone her skill; all she has to do now is believe in herself and not give up.”

 

                And Ichigo truly believed that, Kaien could tell.  His cousin’s certainty held a steel-like quality to it that seemed utterly indestructible.  Maybe it wasn't so surprising then that Fujiwara was throwing every last scrap of determination she possessed into a mere school tournament.  Disappointing someone who believed in you that much would not be a pleasant feeling.

 

                Another roar of noise swelled amongst the audience as Fujiwara suddenly back-flipped away before shooting forward again, ignoring the glancing blow that her opponent delivered to her right ribs as she spun sideways and slammed her elbow into his solar plexus, making Hanamiya double over.  But as she withdrew, and Kaien knew that all green Academy students were indirectly taught to pull back and wait for their opponent to recover, Ichigo interrupted.

 

                “Follow through!”  Ichigo’s voice sliced through the clamour all around them like a knife through melted butter, sounding almost furious all of a sudden.  “Don’t you dare give him even an inch to advance!  Finish your assault!”

 

                And just like that, Fujiwara’s instincts seemed to kick in, and her feet, instead of stepping backwards, twitched forward instead. She blew past Hanamiya’s wheezing form, swiveling in place as she reappeared behind him.

 

                Kaien knew how this was going to end.

 

                In a lethal dance of metallic silver and swirling grace, Fujiwara pushed off of one foot and twisted in midair, bringing down the hilt of her sword to crack against the base of her opponent’s skull, hard enough to knock him out and probably give him a mild concussion to boot.

 

                Hanamiya dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, and Fujiwara landed several steps away, panting as she stared wide-eyed at the crumpled figure of her downed opponent.

 

                Almost the entire courtyard fell into a staggered silence, so Kaien had no trouble hearing the hum of approval from Ukitake, or the low impressed whistle from Hirako, or even the contented huff from Kyouraku.

 

                But it was Ichigo who caught Kaien’s attention because there was a strange smile on his cousin’s face, one he had never seen before, and it took a moment for him to identify the unspoken pride in the slightly crooked expression, as if Ichigo’s face wasn't really used to accommodating smiles like that.

 

                And then Ichigo was gone in a whoosh of flash-steps, breezing over the crowd and into the arena just as the referee stuttered out the battle’s results and Fujiwara’s adrenaline ran out.  The girl swayed on her feet, but Ichigo caught her around the shoulders, his murmur of “well done; you should be proud” reached Kaien’s ears without difficulty.

 

                For such simple praise, Fujiwara looked more like Ichigo had just broken into raucous cheers.  Her entire expression lit up like the sun.

 

                Kaien glanced to his left when he heard the clapping start.  Kyouraku was still smiling languidly, but there was no mistaking the admiration in his applause.

 

                Kaien grinned and began clapping as well, followed by Ukitake and Hirako.  He tried not to look too gleeful at the blanching faces on the other students as they hurried to do the same, all looking like throwing insults was the last thing on their to-do lists.

 

                Fujiwara was receiving the open approval of three captains and a lieutenant, and she had done it all on her own merit; there was no better way to rub her fellow schoolmates’ faces in the very real fact that she had bested them all.

 

{4}

 

                “I'm so sorry I missed it!”  Matsumoto wailed, all but smothering the still-recovering brunette in her arms.  “Shiba-kun, you should’ve dumped a bucket of water on me to wake me up!”

                Ichigo rolled his eyes from where he was leaning against the doorframe.  “Then you would've complained that I messed up your hair or something.”

 

                Matsumoto huffed.  “I wouldn't have!  This is all your fault!  I'm depressed and it’s all your fault!  I would've felt better if I had seen Asuka-chan win!”

 

                Ichigo snorted.  “You finished second place; how can you be depressed?  You did fine.”

 

                The blonde pouted unrepentantly.  “Hah!  Says the guy who could've taken the entire tournament blindfolded with one hand tied behind his back!  You're not making me feel any better!  I want food!  Your punishment is to take me and Asuka-chan out for dinner!  And you're footing the bill!”

 

                Ichigo just shook his head instead of arguing.  “I was already planning that.  Shower, get changed; your boyfriend’s got reservations for us at the sushi place down the street.”

 

                “He’s not my boyfriend!

 

                Shunsui smothered a laugh as he watched Ichigo throw up his hands and stalk out of the room, closing the door behind him with a plaintive sigh.  There was no real ire behind it though.  Hell, Shunsui hadn't seen any of the usual tense irritation simmering underneath Ichigo’s skin since he had caught sight of the younger Shiba earlier.

 

                “Juu-chan was right,” Shunsui commented from the piece of wall he had commandeered.  “You're in a good mood today.”

 

                He waited as Ichigo surveyed him once before shrugging noncommittally.  “Fujiwara won the tournament, and Kaien wasn't as annoying.  That’s a good day in my book.”

 

                He paused, cocking his head.  “Was there something you needed, Taichou?”

 

                Shunsui waved a hand.  “Nah, just didn't quite feel like returning to my leftover paperwork yet.  I’ll be heading off now.  Mind accompanying me to the gates?”

 

                Ichigo blinked in obvious mystification but nodded all the same, falling into step beside Shunsui as they headed down the hall.

 

                “Given my offer any thought?”  Shunsui prodded idly as they ambled outside.

 

                Ichigo arched an eyebrow.  “There are others, you know, maybe not as... capable as I am, but still talented.”

 

                Shunsui quirked a grin.  “Oh don’t worry, I will put in a request for Matsumoto-chan as well.  I wouldn't mind having her in my squad too.”

 

                Ichigo actually rolled his eyes at this (fearless, really; people like Kuchiki would've written him up for that alone).  “If she complains about harassment, Taichou, I’m gonna be pissed.  And Fujiwara adores her so she’ll give you those disappointed doe-eyes and you’ll feel horrible afterwards.”

 

                Shunsui couldn't help the huff of laughter that escaped him.  He had congratulated his cousin earlier, and while her greeting of “good evening, Shunsui-nii-sama” had been shy, there hadn't been so much as a quaver in her voice, and she had even exchanged some small talk with him without the conversation dwindling into meek silence on her end with Shunsui doing all the talking.

 

                He didn't think Ichigo knew just how grateful Shunsui was when it came to Asuka these days.

 

                Which was part of the reason why he was still pushing.  Teaching the bright-haired Shiba and taking him under his wing was a good way to repay the boy.

 

                “You didn't answer my question,” He prompted out loud as they drew even with the gates.

 

                Ichigo glanced at him, and then gazed out down the street at the rest of the city.  “...I’ve thought about it, Taichou, but...”

 

                Shunsui eyed the younger Shinigami for a long moment before sighing ruefully.  He couldn't say he hadn't seen this coming, or noticed it at least.  “You've taken a liking to Hirako, hmm?”

 

                Ichigo scratched his head and offered another nonchalant shrug.  It looked a bit forced this time.

 

                “Well, I’ll keep asking until the deadline,” Shunsui said cheerfully, choosing not to ask what Hirako had done to make Ichigo’s favourites list when they had only interacted a handful of times.  From what he had seen of the kid’s interactions with Kaien, Ichigo wouldn't answer anyway.  For such a straightforward person, the younger Shinigami was very good at deflecting.  “I should warn you though – Hirako can be a handful.  Just ask Aizen-kun...”

 

                Everything stopped, just for a fraction of a second, and Shunsui zoomed in on the abruptly darkened expression staring back at him, shadows skulking through the kid’s eyes like haunting ghosts.

 

                Ichigo’s features smoothed over again in the blink of an eye, but Shunsui knew what he had seen.

 

                “I’m sure I'm up to the challenge,” Ichigo shot back, voice slightly strained.

 

                They bid each other goodnight soon after that, but Shunsui couldn't stop a frown from creasing his brow as soon as he had turned a corner.

 

                Did Ichigo know Aizen?  Know something about Aizen?  Something implicating?

 

                And if so, would that mean that Aizen knew something about Ichigo?  Something potentially harmful to the young Shiba?

 

                Shunsui’s frown deepened as he tugged his sakkat down.  He would have to keep a closer eye on Aizen from now on, no matter how confident Hirako was about being able to take care of his lieutenant problem by himself.

 

                And perhaps it was time to dig a little into Aizen’s pastimes.  Just to make sure the seemingly genial lieutenant wasn't a danger to Ichigo.

 

                Because from what Shunsui had heard, not even Kaien knew where Ichigo had been or what he had gone through before Kaien had saved him.

 

                Amnesia and torture-inflicted injuries didn't come from nowhere after all.

 

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Chapter Text

                Ichigo sighed in frustration as he looked over all the paperwork in front of him once again.  Who knew graduating required this much paper?

 

                To be fair, not everyone did, but ever since December had rolled around, the instructors had been stuffing applications down his and the sixth-years’ throats, giving them overviews about each division, telling them to get a move on with signing up for the scheduled tours with various captains into their compound (and strongly recommending that they sign up for more than one tour to get a better feel for the workings of each), and – of course – reminding them to buckle down and study and train harder than ever before because their final exams and evaluations were coming up, and those grades would be forwarded directly to whichever division or divisions that they hoped to get accepted into.

 

                However, some – like Ichigo – also received an assortment of requests from more than one division, promising them a position for when they graduated should they choose to enter that squad.

 

                Ichigo had heard the envious whispers in the hallway when yet another batch of requests had been delivered to him in the breakfast hall, how it was an honour and a privilege, but to be honest, it was more of a troublesome hassle.  For some reason, each division felt the need to bombard him with offers no matter how many times he had already declined.  And he had to decline.  Koyonagi had talked him through it, explaining that it was only polite to at least send back a thanks-but-no-thanks letter for every request he received, and Kami, his hand was beginning to cramp with the number of flowery letters he had had to write.  They had to be worded just right too, and there were no photocopiers in all of Soul Society, so Ichigo couldn't even scribble one note and be done with it.  He had to write out every single one even if they all essentially said the same thing.

 

                It was stupid because right now, the only two squads he was still on the fence about was the Fifth and the Eighth; the other squads weren’t even up for discussion.  Sure, the Third, Seventh, Ninth, and Twelfth all had future Visored captaining or vice-captaining them (Twelfth – again, Kisuke, enough said), but all those other Visored had always been peers to him, never authority figures.  It would be weird, and he’d probably slip up if he had to defer to them on a daily basis.  Shunsui had been his teacher though, and Shinji – while Ichigo had considered him a close friend – had also been someone he had looked up to, had been one of his mentors at the beginning, and he’d gone to the blond for advice more than once throughout the war.  Shinji, he could follow.  The others, not so much.  Hell, quite a few times, they had followed him onto the battlefield.

 

                So, Fifth or Eighth.

 

                In truth, it was kind of strange to have both captains coming after him with so much enthusiasm.  Ichigo had gotten more offers from the both of them than all the other Gotei 13 divisions combined.  He hadn't replied to any of them yet but they still kept coming.  It was as if Shinji and Shunsui were trying to outdo the other, and whoever persisted the longest would land Ichigo in their squad.  It was ridiculously childish in Ichigo’s opinion but he did have a few theories about that.

 

Contrary to popular belief, at least back when he had been in his own time, Ichigo was not in fact so thick that he couldn't figure out what the people around him were feeling.  He had known about Inoue’s crush on him (it had been pretty damn obvious), and how Ishida did consider him a friend no matter how much he denied it, and even how Byakuya silently worried over his younger sister like a mother hen but hid it all behind a cold facade.  The little bits and pieces that people thought he missed.  Ichigo considered himself to be a fairly perceptive guy; he just didn't see any reason to show it unless it was necessary, usually in a fight, which – coupled with his exponentially high potential – was why he had been known as a battle genius.

 

So from what he had observed, he was pretty certain that Shunsui did genuinely like him even in this era, which was part of the reason that the female-loving captain wanted Ichigo in his ranks.  However, the much bigger part of the reason was probably because Ichigo was teaching the man’s cousin – and teaching her well if he did say so himself – and Shunsui was looking for a means to repay that perceived debt.  What better way to do that than to personally train Ichigo and have him in the relative safety net of the Eighth Division where Shunsui could keep a protective eye on him?  Not to mention that the captain was best friends with Kaien’s captain, which was just icing on the cake.

 

On the other hand, Shinji was debateable.  One of the few things that Ichigo was sure would never change about the past-future Visored leader was that Hirako Shinji could be a massively underhanded bastard if he wanted to be.  His Zanpakutou revolved around an illusory world after all, and the blond often had a reason within a reason for doing something.  So all in all, as much as it made Ichigo feel just the slightest bit hurt, he wouldn't be surprised whatsoever if it turned out that part of the reason Shinji wanted Ichigo in the Fifth Division was so that the captain would be able to keep an eye on him.

 

Because Shinji suspected Ichigo.

 

Of what, Ichigo wasn't sure, but perhaps it was because the blond thought that he was somehow connected to Aizen.  Perhaps Ichigo had given too much of himself away, shown to be too protective of Shinji in those costly seconds against that new brand of Hollow that had almost forced Shinji to show his Shikai, or too familiar with certain people, or too different from his fellow Shinigami, or simply too off.

 

In any case, the Fifth Division captain didn't trust easily – the man had been even worse about extending his trust after being Hollowfied and sentenced to death by his own comrades and the government he had served and protected so faithfully for so long – and Ichigo knew that there was no way that Hirako Shinji would want Ichigo in his squad so damn much that he was fighting Shunsui for him just because he had stepped in front of a Hollow for the man that one time in a skirmish.  Oh, maybe Shinji did like him – Ichigo knew that the captain found him amusing at the very least – but it could never be just that.

 

Besides, Shinji seemed to have a penchant for letting suspicious people into his division – first Aizen, then Gin, and now Ichigo.  The man was in way over his head no matter how cunning and subtle he was being, and he didn't even know it.

 

This was another reason that Ichigo was leaning towards the Fifth.  It was a logical decision.  Lisa was in the Eighth but it was Shinji he had to look after most.

 

...He wanted the Eighth though.

 

Personally, he wanted the Eighth.

 

He was comfortable with Shunsui as his superior officer, more so than Shinji, and while Ichigo trusted both of their future selves, he didn't fully trust either of them right now, so if he had to pick one, he’d at least like to choose the captain who would be more genuinely interested in looking out for his wellbeing, alongside putting more effort into watching Ichigo’s back instead of watching his every move.  Ichigo thought he had secured at least some of Shunsui’s trust; so far, he had had no opportunity to do the same with Shinji.

 

With a low groan under his breath, Ichigo leaned back in his chair, scrubbing a hand over his face.

 

The Spirit King hadn't sent him back into the past for personal wishes though.  Ichigo was here to help the future Visored, to prevent a war, and to fix an entire freaking government – the least he could do was make it easier on himself as much as possible.  Besides, Aizen was in the Fifth right now too (ugh, the guy would be his superior officer), and over the next few years, there would a bigger chance of Ichigo catching Aizen in the act of something criminal if the two of them at least saw each other.  Right now, Ichigo still hadn't clapped eyes on the Fifth Division lieutenant yet.

 

He’d have to make other plans too.  He’d never been very social (everyone who knew him could attest to that) but in the long run, he knew he would need allies, people who would back him to the hilt when his own Visored status came out, as well as when Shinji and the others became Visored and Ichigo might need to commit treason to save them.  He needed people who would trust Ichigo to still be Ichigo no matter what powers he had, people whom he could trust to choose him over the organization they served when it came down to it even if it meant imminent death.

 

Everything would be so much easier if he still had his own set of friends who had all run headlong into invasions and war with him just because he’d felt it had been necessary.  He had never doubted their loyalty, and their faith in him had been humbling and gratifying.

 

He didn't have any of that anymore.

 

...Then again, he might have Kaien, and he might have Asuka, and even Rangiku.  But Kaien had to do what was best for his clan, Asuka had her own family to consider, and Gin would flip out if Rangiku was dragged into the crossfire.

 

The difference between the friends he had made in this era and the friends he used to have was that all of his old friends had been misfits of a kind, and all of them had banded together through Ichigo.  Chad, Ishida, Inoue, Rukia, Renji, Kisuke, the Visored, and several others – they’d had other ties to other people obviously, but Ichigo had been the one to pull them together.  Kisuke had even once told him with thoughtful amusement that Ichigo’s do-what-I-want attitude had had the strange ability to draw in the people around him and make his cause their cause as well.

 

In this time though, Ichigo wasn't someone any of his current friends – while still misfits of a sort – needed to latch on to, not really.  In a way, Ichigo had come in late.  Kaien already had the Shiba Clan, Asuka already had her desire to grow strong for her clan, and by Ichigo’s own hand, Matsumoto had reconnected with Gin so she now had her childhood friend back.

 

None of them necessarily required Ichigo to be in their lives, not in the way his old friends had when they’d all spent their days waiting for the next monster to appear, looking out for each other, placing their faith in Ichigo and adding their strength to his whenever disaster struck.

 

The people in this time had their own lives to live, and Ichigo couldn't depend on them the same way he had depended on Chad and Ishida and Inoue and everyone else, especially since they didn't even know the truth about him.

 

                He was isolated here in a way that he had never been back in his own time.

 

                A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts, and Ichigo released a short exhale before twisting around in his seat.  “What?”

 

                Koyonagi’s voice – of course it was – crowed from outside, “Mission request, Ichi-kun!”

                Ichigo growled irritably even as he stood up and headed to the bathroom to change.

 

                This was another thing – he’d started getting missives from various divisions requesting his presence on a wide range of missions ever since that first one that Shunsui had offered to him, even more now that graduation was coming up in a few months.

 

                On one hand, he was rather glad they kept coming.  He hadn't even realized how restless and stressed he was becoming without an outlet for his Hollow side, and while he obviously couldn't go all out, regular missions at least let him get some more serious exercise in.  Plus, missions paid damn well, and every last ryou he had used from the money that Kaien had given him had been replaced and shunted to the back of his closet.  He didn't care what his cousin said – it was already bad enough that Ichigo was lying to his clan; to take their money as well, even though he was a Shiba, just didn't sit well with him.  It was a warped sense of honour, he supposed, but he had always preferred the independent way when it came to supporting himself anyway.  It was how his father had raised him, and it wasn't like he was short on cash anymore either.

 

                On the other hand however, all the missions were also drawing unwanted attention, even more so than before, plus, Soul Society was pretty damn big so even missions within this world took some time on travel alone, much less missions in the Human World, and it was taking up a lot of his free time.

 

(And speaking of which, it was actually somewhat disturbing to see Japan a hundred years before his time.  Soul Society hadn't changed at all and half the people in it were more or less still the same; going to the world of the living had really driven home the fact that he was in the past.)

 

“What is it this time?”  He grumbled as he opened the door, scowling at the scroll immediately being waved in his face like a flag.  “Stop that, you moron.  Give it here.  ...Routine backup... why do they need me?”

                “They don’t,” Koyonagi assured him with an annoying amount of good cheer as he leaned against the door frame.  “But you're the resident genius; everyone wants a piece of you.  Now off you go, Ichi-chan; remember to play nice with the other kids and be back in a week before bedti-”

 

                Koyonagi cackled as he ducked under the punch that Ichigo threw at him.  The man waved fleetingly before taking off back down the hallway, whistling cheerfully as he left a fuming Ichigo in his wake.

 

                “Bastard,” Ichigo muttered, locking the door behind him as he retreated back into his room to pack, simultaneously scanning the scroll one more time.

 

He’d be joining a team made up of officers from the Fourth and Ninth this time.  Bodyguard work basically – he’d have to protect the group of medics with three others from the Ninth Division, essentially accompanying the Fourth to another team of Shinigami officers from the Ninth who had been wounded in the outer districts.  Nothing special, but it would give him a break from his paperwork so that was something.  It would be a week round trip to District 78 in South Rukongai too so he’d get some reprieve from all the familiar faces around him.

 

                Now and again, that was definitely a good thing in his books.

 

{5}

 

                “Aa-ah, it’s so boring without Ichigo-kun around!”  Rangiku complained as they strolled down one street.  “When is he due back again?  He never tells me this stuff!  Seriously, I have to corner him and nag it out of him every time!  He’s so troublesome!”

 

                Asuka suppressed a giggle, absently adjusting one of her gloves.  It was going to be a cold winter this year.  “He’ll be back in five more days, Rangiku-senpai.  It’s a week-long mission, remember?”

 

                Rangiku blew out her cheeks in an exaggerated pout, her gaze idly drifting from the stores and market stalls around them.  “Five days is such a long time, though I suppose it’s for the best.  Do you have anything in mind to give him for Christmas?  I've got nothing.  It’s so hard to shop for a guy who doesn't seem to particularly like anything.”

 

                Asuka shook her head ruefully.  “I can’t think of anything at the moment either.  We’ll, um, just have to look around and see if anything jumps out at us?”

 

                She inwardly berated herself for the upward lilt at the end of her sentence.  Her self-confidence was so much better these days but she still had the frustrating tendency to slip back into her old insecurity on occasion.

 

                Rangiku took it in stride though, pointing at a nearby shop as she hooked an arm around Asuka’s.  “Sounds great; let’s look in there first.”

 

                Asuka smiled and let her pseudo-sister drag her off for what was promising to be a hectic shopping spree.

 

                Honestly, even now, over half a year since Ichigo had taken her under his wing, Asuka still couldn't believe how lucky she was.  When Koyonagi had first brought up the tutoring sessions, she had been terrified.  She’d seen the newest Shiba stalking around, scowling and keeping everyone at arm’s length, and she’d heard the rumours.

 

Dangerous, people had whispered.  Arrogant and not at all sociable or friendly like the rest of the Shiba Clan.

 

                Asuka had wanted to run and hide when Koyonagi had suggested it, but when she’d timidly – desperately – asked if there wasn't someone else who could tutor her, Koyonagi had just laughed at her without sympathy before sending her off with the message for her soon-to-be mentor.

 

                That had only scared her more.  Even back then, everyone had known that Shiba Ichigo was the infamous Koyonagi Senzou’s favourite student despite the fact that the Zanjutsu department head didn't actually teach any of the orange-haired prodigy’s classes.  She had been certain that Ichigo would either sneer at her for wasting his time before going to complain to Koyonagi (something she had actually hoped for) or reluctantly take her on and do as little as possible so that he wouldn't have to be stuck with her all the time.

 

                But then...

 

                Things hadn't gone quite as Asuka had imagined they would.

 

                Her new mentor was gruff and brusque and a merciless teacher, yet at the same time, he never ignored her or taught her with anything less than his full effort.  And while he was prone to yelling at her and demanding absolutely every last ounce of energy she had out of her during every single training session, he was also patient when she needed to be shown how to do things more than once, he assessed her carefully and drew up training menus for her in his spare time, and he never failed to carry her home at the end the day if she was honestly too exhausted to walk back to the Academy by herself.

 

                And slowly, Asuka had improved, not just in her classes but outside of that too because Ichigo was apparently someone who wouldn't stand for any acquaintance of his having anything less than steel for a backbone.

 

                Stand up straight!  He would snap crossly whenever Asuka hunched in on herself.  You look like you want the ground to open up and swallow you whole!  How can you expect to earn respect from other people if you don’t even respect yourself?

 

And while Ichigo wasn't an especially talkative person, he did give encouragement (mixed with insults) when appropriate, advice (mixed with pointed what-would-you-do-in-a-situation-like-this questions) when necessary, and sometimes, Asuka even managed to wring an awkward compliment out of Ichigo, something she always strived to do because Ichigo rarely gave praise, and when he did, it always meant that she had truly earned it.

 

                And then, one day, Matsumoto Rangiku – a sixth-year – had accosted her in the hallways, rambling on about how she’d like to join their training sessions from then on because she found Asuka’s mentor interesting and nice, and Asuka could admit that – at first – she had instinctively felt rather jealous and resentful of the taller blonde who had come out of nowhere and had managed to secure Shiba Ichigo’s attention.  Rangiku was popular and beautiful and had an in already with the Gotei 13 through the Fifth Division’s Third Seat – for all intents and purposes, she wasn't the type of person whom Ichigo usually gave the time of day for.

 

                Yet he had, grumbling whenever Rangiku had joined them – more and more with each passing week – but allowing her to stay, and that alone had spoken volumes.  Asuka had personally seen Ichigo stare down anyone who approached him with fangirl eyes or sycophantic schmoozing (which practically consisted of at least three-quarters of the school), glowering death at them until they had fled.

 

                But Rangiku was naturally bubbly and outgoing, and she’d soon grown on Asuka once it was clear that the blonde wouldn't dismiss her and turn Ichigo against her.  Besides, it was nice to have another female for a friend.  Ichigo was an effective teacher and a wonderful friend, and Asuka wouldn't give that up for the world, but Rangiku had fast become an older sister figure to her.

 

                And after Asuka had seen the minor harassment that Rangiku sometimes received due to her rather generous figure, she had been glad that Ichigo had accepted the blonde into their group, if only because nobody wanted to piss off Shiba Ichigo.

 

                The one time someone had been stupid enough to comment within Ichigo’s earshot that Asuka and Rangiku were only allowed to hang out with the Shiba prodigy because they were ‘spreading their legs for him’ (Asuka had flinched, momentarily hurt beyond belief because no one had ever implied something like that about her before, while Rangiku had taken it moderately better, only paling until her blue eyes stood out in stark contrast to her face), Ichigo had flipped.

 

                Typically calm even though he was prone to growling and arguing with them whenever they annoyed him, it had been an eye-opener to see Ichigo truly angry.  Asuka’s mentor got exasperated – often – and irritated – even more often – with them, but neither Asuka nor Rangiku had ever honestly seen Ichigo furious.  Apparently, under his genius and scowl and enormous strength, the orange-haired prodigy had a temper to match.

 

                The – for lack of a better term – one-sided ass-kicking that Ichigo had delivered to the group of five offending students about half a second after the insult had been issued would go down in Shin’ou Academy history as the most epic, frightening, excruciating beat-down that anyone had ever witnessed.

 

By the time Ichigo had been done with them (it had barely taken five minutes, and Ichigo hadn't even unsheathed his Zanpakutou), the students had been a twitching, whimpering, sobbing mess on the ground, broken and bleeding from countless places, and Ichigo hadn't even broken a sweat.  He’d cracked his knuckles as he’d stepped away from his handiwork, hooded amber gaze scrutinizing the hushed crowd that had gathered to watch the brawl, and his eyes had glittered with the sort of burning intensity that nobody had had the guts to meet.

 

“Does anyone else have shit to say about my friends?”  Ichigo had enquired with the casual drawl of someone who was talking about the weather.  His voice had been quiet and measured but everybody in the vicinity had heard him.  Not a single person had uttered even half a syllable, and Asuka’s throat had been so tight that day that she’d been sure she had been about two seconds away from bursting into tears because no one had ever openly defended her before, and it had also been the first time that Ichigo had claimed that the three of them were friends.  Rangiku hadn't looked much better, and Asuka suspected that that had been when Ichigo had cemented the sixth-year blonde’s place at his side.  From that point on, even though she still talked to a large variety of people in the school, Rangiku no longer ate lunch with the other popular kids or spent her free time with any of them.

 

In the end, the students that Ichigo had beaten up had had even more misfortune heaped on them.  The altercation had taken place in one of the side courtyards, and no instructors had been around at the time.  Since the whole thing had taken five minutes, not to mention no one had wanted to miss the fight, nobody had run off to fetch a teacher.  It had been entirely coincidental that Koyonagi had been the one to wander by mere seconds after Ichigo had established himself as alpha male, and pretty much spread the word to the entire student body that harming Asuka or Rangiku in any way, shape, or form would be suicide.

 

The students had automatically parted ways for the – everyone agreed – somewhat deranged and sadistic Shinigami, and Koyonagi had taken one look at the situation – a cursory, disinterested glance at the wounded students, an appraising scan of the crowd, a fleeting look in Asuka and Rangiku’s direction who were both standing a few feet behind Ichigo, and then a head-on, considering examination of Ichigo himself – before the tiniest of smirks curled at his lips, a brief, dark blend of approval and cruelty that everyone had seen but no one could prove flitting across his features before they had smoothed out again, his signature winning smile appearing in its place even as he’d turned and began sauntering away.

 

“Better clean that up,” The instructor had suggested lightly, waving an unconcerned hand at the students on the ground.  “Take them around to... the chutes?  No, wait, that place is for trash.  Maa, figure it out.  It’s unsightly to leave them there.  This courtyard used to be pretty.”

 

And without looking around to see the numerous terrified faces he had left behind, Koyonagi had meandered away again, smiling cheerily all the way as if everybody hadn't realized exactly what the man had been implying.

 

And that had been that.  The crowd had shifted uneasily, and even the wounded students’ friends who had remained on the sidelines hadn't darted out to collect them until Ichigo had turned his back and walked far enough away with Asuka and Rangiku in tow that it had been a clear sign from the Shiba prodigy that it would be okay to help the morons off the floor.

 

From that point on, nobody had ever dared say or do anything that might be construed as an attack – verbal or otherwise – towards Asuka or Rangiku again.  And while Rangiku had never had much of a problem with that, Asuka had been astounded at how she had suddenly been able to walk down hallways without being purposefully jostled or having jeers and nasty taunts thrown her way or muttered behind her back.

 

However, it hadn't been until the tournament that everything had really turned around.  For some reason, Asuka’s favourite cousin – fourth cousin, yes, but he was still her favourite because he was the only one in her clan who often had a kind word for her no matter how pathetic or lacking her responses usually were – had come to see her, along with the Thirteenth Division’s captain and lieutenant, as well as the Fifth Division captain.  Asuka hadn't been so blind as to not have noticed how all three captains – through Shiba Kaien in some way or another – had all taken an interest in Ichigo, so she’d suspected that her mentor had had something to do with all the important people showing up to a mere school tournament.

 

Still, she had been quite pleased – if a little embarrassed – with herself at the fact that she hadn't actually noticed any of those very important people until after her match had been over.  The only one who had stood out in the audience had been her mentor.  Everyone else could've turned into toadstools and she probably wouldn't have realized until after her fight.

 

But from that point on, after receiving a standing ovation from three captains and a lieutenant, people had been tripping over themselves to get into her good graces.

 

In truth, after the first week, she had wanted to pull an Ichigo and stab the very next person who smiled unconvincingly at her and tried to strike up a conversation about how amazing she was.  It had almost been better when she had been bullied.  No wonder her mentor went around with a perpetual scowl day in and day out if that was what he had to put up with.

 

Of course, she couldn't actually stab someone, and she definitely hadn't had enough nerve to threaten other people either, so she’d done the next best thing – avoid the masses like crazy and stick close to Ichigo because when it came to the Shiba prodigy, everyone respected his boundaries on pain of death.

 

“Ooh, what about that?”

 

Asuka blinked out of her thoughts, cocking her head at the item that Rangiku was pointing hopefully at – one of those sword knots – and this one was admittedly elegantly made in dark red laced with gold – that some Shinigami attached to their Zanpakutou.

 

“...For Ichigo-senpai?”  She couldn't picture her mentor wanting any ornaments for his weapons.  Ichigo preached practicality.

 

Rangiku’s shoulders slumped.  “Good point; never mind.  Moving on.”

 

Asuka huffed a laugh as they drifted off to another store.  “I think he’d probably like something useful.  Although, would it make him feel uncomfortable if we got him gifts and he didn't get us anything?  He might feel embarrassed.”

 

“Oh, he better be if he didn't get us anything,” Rangiku declared loftily, though a grin softened the haughty expression.  “Don’t worry, Asuka-chan; I dropped enough hints to him about Christmas presents that a blind, deaf, and dumb person would've understood.”

 

Asuka laughed out loud at this.  “You are shameless, Senpai.”

 

Rangiku winked cheekily.  “How else would it get through that thick skull of his?  That guy might be a genius when it comes to academics and training but he’s an idiot about everything else.  Oh!  Let’s go to that bookstore.  It’s Ichigo-kun; can’t go wrong with a book.”

 

Asuka grinned and hurried after the excited blonde.  “Have you thought of what to get for Ichimaru-san?”

 

Rangiku glanced back at her.  “You know you can just call him Gin, right?  Even Ichigo-kun calls him that, and god knows it was a chore and a half to get him to use our first names.”

 

Asuka tinged pink, glad that the cold air nipping at her cheeks hid her blush.  Rangiku had been the one to start it a few months back, insisting that they were all good enough friends that it was just stupid to use each other’s surnames, and she’d gone around carrying a fan and whacking Ichigo over the head with it every time the orange-haired Shinigami had used their family names until he had gotten fed up with the abuse and reluctantly capitulated.  On occasion however, it still made her feel a bit flustered whenever Ichigo referred to her by her first name.  It was probably because nobody but family – and then Rangiku who didn't put much stock in formalities between peers – had ever called her by her first name before.

 

Yet there was always something about Ichimaru Gin that rubbed her the wrong way.  She hadn't said anything because the Third Seat was Rangiku’s best friend – and probably future boyfriend – but... maybe it was the creepy smile or the way he always seemed to watch them – especially Ichigo – with the predatory stare of a cobra lying in wait; either way, Ichimaru scared her.

 

And Ichigo kept a close eye on him too.  Other people most likely wouldn't even pick up on that but Asuka had spent enough time around her mentor to know when the prodigy had his guard up, and it was always up whenever Ichimaru was in the vicinity.  And if Ichigo of all people was wary of the Fifth Division’s Third Seat, Asuka should’ve logically grabbed Rangiku and hightailed off in the opposite direction ages ago.

 

The only thing that stopped her from doing exactly that was the fact that Ichigo – though wary – had never made any move to stop Ichimaru from joining them for a meal or just to hang out when the Third Seat wasn't working.  It was strange because – if anything – Ichigo sometimes almost seemed to go out of his way to include Ichimaru, as if the Third Seat was one of the handful of people Ichigo had taken under his wing despite not really trusting the Shinigami officer in the first place.

 

So she put up with it because Ichigo had proven to be an excellent judge of character, and he always had a reason for everything he did, even if it wasn't obvious at the time.  Asuka trusted him, explicitly, and if he wanted to keep Ichimaru close, who was she to make waves?

 

“I really haven’t,” Rangiku was saying now, pouting absently in thought.  “I was thinking... maybe a scarf?  It can get pretty cold, especially out in Rukongai, so Gin could wear that on his missions.  What colour should it be though?  Not white; his hair and skin colour and uniform are already white enough, and I know he covers that up with darker shades when he has to for a mission.  He’d probably never wear red.  Maybe grey or blue?”

 

“A dark blue?”  Asuka suggested, picturing the Third Seat in her mind.  Silver came to mind, but that might just be because of the man’s name.  “I think he’d like an evening sky blue.”

 

“He’d look nice with that,” Rangiku agreed thoughtfully.  “Alright, I’ll see what I can find.  Maybe a blue with silver lining that doesn't catch too much attention in the dark.  He’ll hate it if it gives him away in a battle at night.  Now let’s go look over at that section.  Hey, d’you think Ichigo-kun could benefit from some porn?”

 

Asuka’s face flooded red.  “Rangiku-senpai!”

 

Rangiku cracked up.  Asuka sighed and just hoped that the blonde wouldn't really give Ichigo porn.  Ichigo would kill Rangiku, and then he’d kill her for not stopping the sixth-year.

 

{5}

 

                It was official – Ichigo hated this mission.  He hated everything about this mission.  There was absolutely nothing about this mission that he could say he even remotely liked, much less enjoyed.

 

                First, there was the asshole captain of their team, Hisakawa, the Seventh Seat of the Ninth who was condescending enough to put Aizen to shame and didn't even have the megalomaniac’s strength to back it up.  The man just wouldn't shut up about how Ichigo was just a lowly Academy student, and that just because he was a genius didn't mean that he was allowed to disobey orders.

 

                Ichigo had had no intention of disobeying in the first place!  So long as things got done and the mission was a success, he wouldn't have complained at all, no matter how much he wanted to wipe the floor with this idiot.

 

                Nevertheless, no matter how much the bastard – or his two friends – ridiculed him, Ichigo had kept silent and hadn't descended to their juvenile levels, concentrating on the mission and the Hollows that had jumped out at them from time to time during their trip to District 78.  He hadn't whined when Hisakawa gave him the longest night shift, and hadn't done more than give the team captain a stony look even when the man had continuously sent him off to deal with the surrounding Hollows alone.  It wasn't like he would have trouble with them, though every time he returned without so much as breaking a sweat only seemed to make Hisakawa dislike him more.

 

                Secondly, there was also the issue of the Fourth Division members whom Ichigo and the Ninth Division officers were in charge of protecting.  Now, Ichigo respected them as much as he did any other division.  He knew that most people thought that the Fourth Division contained a bunch of incapable wimps but he had known Hanatarou once upon a time – shy, yes, but he had been one of the few who had assisted Ichigo out of kindness even back when he had still been an enemy of the Gotei 13, had had balls of steel even when facing down Aizen’s armies, and anyone who had called Hanatarou a wimp had soon found themselves eating dirt.  Plus, there was Unohana Retsu, and she alone had been scary enough to make Kenpachi sweat.

 

                So Ichigo could guarantee with all honesty that he wasn't biased when he said that the Fourth Division officers he had been tasked with protecting were frustratingly weak to a hair-ripping degree.  There were four of them – three of them below Fifteenth Seat and the highest a Twelfth Seat – and yeah, maybe they were kickass healers but they also cowered away from the Ninth Division officers taunts and leers – three of them were female – and they barely said a handful of words every day no matter what happened, not to mention their Shunpo was even slower than Hisakawa and his cronies.

 

                The onetime Ichigo had been sent on yet another patrol and a Hollow had attacked from the opposite direction and had managed to slip past Hisakawa, three of the medics had frozen and the only one who had moved to defend had only managed to block the first set of claws before Hisakawa had distracted her by ranting about how she shouldn't interfere in his fight.  The Hollow had almost crushed her, would've if Ichigo hadn't come back just in time and dispatched the monster before it had been able to kill the Twelfth Seat.

 

                Ichigo had tuned out the following resentful dressing-down from Hisakawa in favour of making sure the medics were alright.

 

                Especially the Twelfth Seat.  After all, Kotetsu Isane would one day become Unohana Retsu’s lieutenant, and she couldn't do that if she died here.

 

                The three days it had taken to get to their destination had pretty much followed the same pattern.  If that had been the only problems, Ichigo could've been okay with it.  Attitude problems, he could tolerate.  Weaklings, he would protect.

 

                But damn if he didn't curse out the Spirit King with every swear word he knew when they arrived at where the injured Ninth Division members should’ve been and only found one out of the six officers that should’ve been waiting for them.

 

                That had been when everything had pretty much turned to shit.  Especially after Hisakawa had given the order to track down the other missing members.

 

                Now normally, Ichigo wouldn't have a problem with that.  Hell, he’d be all for it if it hadn't been for the tiny fact that they had four medics, one wounded officer, and three fighters no higher than a Seventh Seat in their group.

 

                Still, Hisakawa was their team captain, and Ichigo hadn't really been able to do anything about it when the man had been supported by the other two and Ichigo hadn't even had his own Jigokuchou to send back to Seireitei for backup.  When he had gritted his teeth and asked Hisakawa to send one (because they only had one injured officer’s assurance that his teammates were scattered in the nearby districts but not dead, and the reasonable next step would be to send for reinforcements so that a wider area could be covered in a shorter amount of time since the outer districts were hellishly treacherous and the missing officers’ locations were unknown), the captain had just laughed and called him a coward.

 

                Seriously, Ichigo was never going on another mission with anyone from the Ninth Division ever again.

 

                So here they all were, at the end of the week that they had been given to complete this mission, squatting in the newest clearing they had found in one of the wild forests in District 78 after fleeing the last one because there were too many Hollows gathering around them, with three new officers recovered but unconscious, and two more still missing.  At this rate, he wouldn't even get back in time for Christmas.

 

                “Ano, Shiba-san?”

 

                Ichigo, leaning against the trunk of a tree, slanted a narrow-eyed gaze down at the silver-haired woman beside him.  While they hadn't exactly been close, Ichigo had worked with Isane and had known her fairly well during that future war.  The healer had always been quiet and reserved, opening up only to those who were closest to her.  This Isane seemed like that too, except there was an extra edge of timidity and meekness in her that Ichigo inwardly sighed at.

 

                “What?”  Ichigo grunted.  He had been taking more shifts – for both guard rotation for the wounded Shinigami and medics and the tracking group sent out to look for the missing officers (two out of the three recovered officers had been found by yours truly) – than Hisakawa and his two buddies combined, and while he couldn't exactly say he was tired (he could still go for a few weeks before exhaustion kicked in), the entire situation was grating on his nerves.

 

                Isane shifted nervously in place but forged on, hands clasped anxiously in front of her.  “It’s about the injured officers.  They... There is only so much that the others and I can do here with minimal supplies.  We thought it would simply be a quick patch job before we headed home and transported them to the Fourth Division barracks for further recuperation so we packed our equipment with that in mind.  However, we have already lingered out here for longer than the injured officers can safely endure, and we have fixed everything we can with our reiatsu.  One of them will be alright with time but the other three require a more advanced healing that neither I nor the other healers know how to perform.  I understand that there are still two other officers out there but- but bandages are running low, even food provisions will not last much longer, and if we do not start moving the wounded officers back to Seireitei soon, I'm afraid we’ll lose... we’ll lose at least two of them, probably three.”

 

                Ichigo inhaled through his nose, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them again.  “Why are you telling me this?  I'm not the team captain, I'm not even an officer yet; you should be taking your concerns to Hisakawa.”

 

                “I- I have!”  Isane swallowed hard, looking on the verge of tears for a moment.  “But Hisakawa-san dismissed my concerns.  He said that since we were medics, we should do our jobs while they did theirs.”

 

                Ichigo’s jaw clenched.  “Then send your own Jigokuchou for backup.”

                “I cannot do that either,” Isane explained, grey eyes dark in her pale face.  “Shinigami officers with the rank of Tenth Seat and below do not have sanctioned Jigokuchou unless we are specifically granted them by our captain, lieutenant, or the Captain-Commander himself.  In most missions to Rukongai, Jigokuchou are not typically given to the lower-seated or unseated officers.”

 

                Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose before sweeping the clearing with a look of disbelief.  “Are you freaking telling me that the only guy who has the means to send for backup is the major asshole who won’t send for backup because of his fucking pride?”

 

                Isane winced at his crude wording but nodded hesitantly after a moment.

 

                Ichigo suppressed the impulse to do violence.  “Oh my god, fuck my life; who the hell did I kill in a past life to deserve this crap?”

 

                Isane blinked at him as if she thought he was a bit on the crazy side.  Or maybe a lot on the crazy side.  Ichigo scowled at her before pushing off the tree he had been leaning on and stalking over to where Hisakawa was stationed on the other side of the clearing.

 

                “Oi, Hisakawa,” Ichigo barked, ignoring the instant look of contempt colouring Hisakawa’s face when the man laid eyes on him.  “Kotetsu-san said that if we stay here any longer, those guys are gonna die.  I'm all for continuing the search for the missing officers but can you at least send for reinforcements?  Sir?”

 

                As expected, Hisakawa only sneered, shoving past Ichigo and continuing past the tree line.  “We don’t need reinforcements, Shiba.  We’re handling it just fine.  The healers will just have to do something about the injuries.  It’s not like they're much good for anything else.”

 

                Ichigo’s temper roared.  He stomped down on it even as his Hollow spat curses in his head and Zangetsu rumbled his own displeasure.

 

                “Is your pride more important than the lives of your squad mates?”  Ichigo asked instead, quiet and steely, and Hisakawa froze mid-stride.  “I get that you don’t like me and you want to show me up or whatever.  Frankly, I don’t care.  What I do care about is getting everyone home alive.  I'm not against finding the other two; heck, I’ll scour every district from here back to Seireitei if I have to, but that doesn't change the fact that those guys need medical assistance.  Medical assistance that can only be found back at the Fourth.  Our food’s running low, we’ve been here long enough that every Hollow and their grandma within the vicinity have locked on to us and are tracking us even now, and if we stay out here any longer, even the medics are gonna run the risk of reiatsu depletion.  All missions are given at least an extra week of leeway before red flags are raised, so if you don’t summon backup, then it’ll be another week before anyone’s going to be sent after us.  Half of us won’t last another week, sir.”

 

                Dead silence filled the clearing.  Isane and the other healers didn't say a word, and Hisakawa’s two friends were combing the area at the moment.  Ichigo waited.

 

                Hisakawa spun, drew his Zanpakutou (in what must've been the slowest draw Ichigo had ever seen in his entire life, though maybe that wasn't entirely fair since he was used to facing people like Kisuke and Shinji), and lunged at Ichigo with an ugly snarl marring his features, clearly looking to dish out some physical punishment.  (What was this, the Eleventh Division?)

 

                Now, if Ichigo had been back in his own time, he would've retaliated and put the moron down in two seconds flat.  However, he wasn't in his own time, and even without Kaien telling him, he knew he had the reputation of the Shiba Clan to uphold now, not to mention he’d probably get written up if he – an Academy student – struck down an officer of the Gotei 13.

 

                So he dodged instead, stepping casually left and right to evade Hisakawa’s increasingly angry swings.

 

                What a moron.  Some people could hone their anger into a weapon in the midst of battle.  Others however didn't know how to control it, and lost whatever edge they could've gained from the emotion.  Hisakawa was undoubtedly the latter; Asuka could take him down in this state, though that wasn't much to boast about.  Honestly, he had no idea why Kensei had made this guy a seated officer at all.

 

                A shriek in the distance followed by frantic shouts made Ichigo glance up even as he absently sidestepped another slash.  “Your men are in danger.  Shouldn't you be doing something about it?”

 

                This at least seemed to deter Hisakawa long enough for Ichigo to glance back sharply at Isane even as he took a quick estimate of the number of Hollow reiatsus speeding towards them.  “Kotetsu-san, pack up; get ready to move.”

 

                “No,” Hisakawa interrupted forcefully, glaring at Ichigo.  “You’ll stay here.  That’s an order.”  He shot a scornful look at Ichigo.  “Shiba can protect you.  We’ll deal with the Hollows since he’s too scared to.”

 

                And with that said, the captain ran off in the direction of his teammates.  Ichigo could feel a migraine coming on.  He looked at Isane again who was still watching him, worried and surreptitiously panicking as she wavered between good sense and Hisakawa’s orders.

 

                “Pack up,” Ichigo commanded firmly once more, keeping his senses alert as the Hollows advanced.  “I don’t want us surrounded.  Be ready to move in five minutes.  I’ll clear a path for all of you to get out but you’ll need to move fast so secure the wounded to the stretcher and be prepared for a long run.  Understand?”

 

                And this time, Isane straightened and saluted – saluted, what the fuck – before scurrying off and tossing her own urgent instructions to her fellow healers.  None of them hesitated as they began bundling everything away.

 

                Ichigo exhaled shortly before taking off himself in the opposite direction of Hisakawa.  He knew how to prioritize, and right now, Isane and the others came first.  If he could, he’d come back for Hisakawa and his friends later, but at the moment, the larger group was his main concern.  He hated leaving anyone behind, even if it was a dick like Hisakawa, but he hadn't fought a freakin’ war and led his own squads without knowing when sacrifices had to be made.  Well, most of the time anyway.  If it had been Asuka or Rangiku rushing off instead of Hisakawa, then Ichigo’s plans would've had to change (though Asuka and Rangiku would never rush off and order the medics and injured officers to stay put like sitting ducks while Hollows were closing in on all sides and only one person – no matter how strong – had been left to defend them).

 

                The nearest Hollow crashed through two trees.  Ichigo sliced it in half without stopping and leapt at the next one.

 

                As few casualties as possible – that was his goal.

 

{5}

 

                “What- What should we do now, Shiba-san?”

 

                Why the fuck are you asking me?  Ichigo wanted to retort but restrained himself in the face of Isane’s apprehensive but expectant expression.  He was pretty sure that the only thing keeping their team from falling into hysteria was the fact that he was still as calm and collected as he had been at the beginning of this godforsaken mission.

 

                Things had gone from bad to worse.  They had escaped the last Hollow assault by the skin of their teeth, and Ichigo had led both healers and injured officers to an out-of-the-way cave he had found.  Implementing one of the basic but effective Kidou seals that would hide their presence from Hollows so long as they didn't lead one directly back to the cave, he had told all of them to stay put and wait for his return.

 

And then he had taken off after Hisakawa and his men, and it had taken Ichigo five hours to hunt them down.  Luckily, they had been alive.  Unluckily, all three had been unconscious and moderately wounded.  Two of them were currently – finally – stirring groggily, and the last – Hisakawa, just their fucking luck – was still completely out of it due to a really bad concussion, and looked to be staying that way for the foreseeable future.

 

And Hisakawa was the only one who could summon a Jigokuchou.

 

After Ichigo had brought the three back to their temporary camp for Isane and the others to heal as best they could, he had gone out again, and it had taken him another day and a half to track down one more lost member of the original Ninth Division party.  The man was badly wounded but – thankfully – still alive.  Now there was only one more left out there, a Shinigami with higher odds of being dead than alive.

 

“How much food do we have left?”  Ichigo asked instead of answering Isane directly.

 

The silver-haired Shinigami cast a quick eye back at their supplies before summarizing succinctly, “If we stretch it, there’ll be enough for all of us for another three days, but that’s it, and there are no towns nearby.  I've decided to put the injured officers into a healing coma so they’ll last a little longer.  However, I do not know how long I can keep it up without draining myself and the others-”

 

“Can you channel my reiatsu?”  Ichigo interjected, studying the healer avidly.  He had double-edged reiatsu now of course, what with his inner Hollow, but any adverse effects of his reiatsu would only come into play if he had his mask on so there would be no problems.  That is, if she knew how to transfer reiatsu in the first place.  Future Isane could but did this one learn it yet?  “Use it instead of your own?  I have a lot; enough to spare.”

 

Isane’s eyes widened with surprise, and her whole face seemed to brighten, but she bit her lip worriedly at the same time.  “I can do that, yes.  I would just have to drain some of your reiatsu into the patients every twelve hours, but are you sure?  There are six officers to sustain now that Hisakawa-san is hurt as well, and that will take a lot of reiatsu.  Even if we keep using our own as well as yours-”

 

“No, use as much of mine as you need,” Ichigo cut in once more.  Hm, once every twelve hours.  Isane in the future only had to do it once every twenty-four.  Ah well.  “And don’t use your own.  You and the other three are the only ones who know anything about healing.  If the four of you collapse, the injured guys are done for.  Use my reiatsu and conserve your own energy.  And the food... if I don’t eat, how far can you stretch it?”

 

Isane looked horrified and grateful in turn.  “You- It would last at least another two days, perhaps two and a half, but you can’t not eat, Shiba-san!  It’s not healthy, and we certainly can’t have you collapsing either!”

 

They both heard the unspoken we’d be easy pickings for the Hollows otherwise but Ichigo didn't comment on it.  Instead, he shook his head and nodded at the others.  “You guys need it more than I do; I’ve gone without food before so I’ll be fine.  Besides, I’ll be going out to look for that last officer anyway.  It takes at least three days to get back home.  Factoring in the injured party, as well as exhaustion, we’ll give it an extra day.  That gives me one day to find the missing officer, with half a day for error.  You can take my reiatsu now, and I’ll be back in twelve hours before heading out again for another twelve.  I’ll be back after that whether or not I find the last officer.  If I don’t...” Ichigo shoved his heart to the side.  “If I don’t, we’ll have to leave them behind.”

 

Isane flinched but anyone could see that that was the best option available to them now.  “Muguruma-taichou won’t be happy.  He cares for his entire squad but Kuna-fukutaichou is a close friend of his.”

 

Ichigo froze.  “...What?”

 

Isane blinked owlishly up at him.  “Ah, I suppose you wouldn't know the full mission details.  The one who was leading the Ninth Division team that we were supposed to provide assistance for is Kuna Mashiro-san, the Ninth Division’s lieutenant.  She’s the only one missing now.”

 

Ichigo stared for a moment longer before scrubbing a hand over his face.  Well, this was just great.  There was no way he could leave without everyone now.  “...I’ll find her.”

 

He would.  He had to.

 

But first...

 

“You bastards awake yet?”  Ichigo snarled, towering over Hisakawa’s two cronies as they slowly became aware of their surroundings.  “Listen up, you idiots, I’ve had it with your shitty attitudes!  Your stupid leader is out of commission so I'm taking over this mission now, got it?”

 

It didn't take long for one of them to shoot their mouth off.  “What?!  Hell no!  Just cuz Hisakawa’s down doesn't mean some measly Academy student gets to take his place!  If anything, I should-”

 

The guy who was talking nearly swallowed his tongue as Ichigo finally released his tightly reined reiatsu, letting it build but controlling it so that only the two morons in front of him could feel the brunt of his ire.

 

“I should’ve done this a long time ago,” Ichigo took a step closer, glaring frigidly at the two cowering officers.  “Hisakawa’s outta commission, which means the next highest-ranking officer gets to say what’s what.  That would be Kotetsu-san, wouldn't it?”

 

As if on cue, Isane moved forward as well, a resolute glint in her eyes that Ichigo had only ever seen in her future self now hardening her gaze as she too stared down at the Ninth Division members.

 

“We will be following Shiba-san’s lead,” Isane said firmly, voice soft but unyielding.  “Fall in line or I will report both of you to Unohana-taichou for dereliction of duty.  Both of you are unfit to lead.  Hisakawa-san wasn't any better.  Shiba-san has a good plan so we will follow him.  Do I make myself clear?”

 

The stunned chorus of “y- yes, ma’am” echoed in the cave, and Ichigo pulled in his reiatsu once more, satisfied.

 

“Okay then,” Ichigo began once more as he settled on the floor and held out a hand as Isane and her team of healers started getting ready for the transfer procedure.  “All you two need to know is that after this, I'm going out to look for Ma- Kuna-fukutaichou.  You two will be staying here.  The seal I’ve set up around this cave should protect you from any Hollows so stay in here as much as possible.  If you need to take a piss, try not to die while you're outside.  If you are gonna die, don’t draw attention to the cave.  Go die somewhere in a corner, preferably as far away from here as physically possible.  While I'm gone, I expect you two to act like actual mature adults and follow every word Kotetsu-san says.  If I hear about any bullying from her when I get back, if she so much as frowns when I ask her if you two gave her any trouble, I’ll rip out your spleens and feed you to the nearest Hollows, clear?”

 

And really, there was nothing they could say in the face of Ichigo’s terrifying glower that burned with the promise of following through with his threat.  Both officers nodded mutely.

 

“Fantastic,” Ichigo grinned at them, all teeth and no humour, before turning back to Isane.  He hid a grimace as the woman shot him an apologetic look before proceeding to extract his reiatsu.  He’d forgotten how queasy reiatsu-transfer made him feel.

 

It was going to be a long five days.

 

{5}

 

                “Where the hell is he?”  Kaien snarled as he all but kicked the door down and stalked into Koyonagi’s office.  “They should’ve been back two days ago!”

 

                Kaien twitched when Koyonagi only spun around lazily in his chair to face him.  “Shiba-fukutaichou, what a surprise.”

 

                Kaien crossed his arms and glowered at the man.  “Where.  Is.  He.”

 

                Koyonagi actually rolled his eyes.  “How would I know?  You’d probably know before me if any message was sent back.  Just because the boy amuses me doesn't mean I automatically know his whereabouts twenty-four/seven.”

 

                Kaien tamped down on his annoyance.  Normally, he had no real problems with Koyonagi – not until recently anyway – but sometimes, when the man talked about his baby cousin like Ichigo was an experiment or toy that the teacher was fascinated with, it just made Kaien want to lash out.

 

                “Which mission did you send him on?”  He asked tersely instead, reminding himself that he was both a clan head and a lieutenant.  Temper tantrums were beneath him now.  “All I know is that he was due back on Sunday, and that’s only because he left me a note.”

 

                Koyonagi sighed in that long-suffering way that made Kaien feel like a kid all over again.  “Why all the hostility, Fukutaichou?  You know all missions are given a week’s leeway, and Ichi-kun can take care of himself.”

 

                Kaien’s stance stiffened.  “I haven’t said anything because Ichigo hasn't complained but I’d have to be blind not to notice how many mission requests he’s been accepting.  Missions go through a department head first for clearance before it’s passed on to the student in question, and I’d bet my clan’s entire treasury that you’ve had them all redirected to you before you hand them to Ichigo.  He’s still a student; you're giving him too much to do!”

 

                Koyonagi smirked, a patronizing expression that made Kaien want to punch him.  He’d forgotten how aggravating this guy could be.  Back when he had still been in the Academy, he hadn't had much to do with Koyonagi, and the man hadn't taken much interest in him either even when all the other teachers had.  And after he had graduated, Kaien hadn't thought he would have anything to do with Koyonagi ever again.  Until now of course; how the hell could this guy be Ichigo’s favourite instructor (or maybe ‘favourite’ wasn’t the right word, but they had somehow bonded)?

 

                “You should stop coddling him,” Koyonagi remarked, and Kaien snapped back into the present.  “He doesn't need it.  Take care of him like a good big brother if you want but your stalking is going a little bit overboard.”  His smirk widened.  “People might start thinking you have some sort of complex.”

 

                Kaien’s reiatsu flared, whipping dangerously around the room.  Koyonagi didn't look at all fazed.  Not surprising.  With valiant effort, Kaien yanked his reiatsu back under control.  “I'm just worried about him.  You've been sending him on more missions than all the other students combined.  Any way you look at it, that’s just weird.  Even I didn't have this many missions back when I was attending the Academy.  I don’t know what you're playing at but if you try to harm any of my clan members, you’ll have me to deal with.”

 

                Koyonagi actually looked like he wanted to laugh.  “What exactly makes you think I want to harm Ichi-kun?  I like the boy; you know that.  He keeps me entertained.”

 

                Kaien’s eyes narrowed.  “I’ve read your file.”

 

                And all at once, Koyonagi’s smile took on a harder edge, suddenly looking more lethal than even just half a second ago.  Kaien’s arms dropped to his side, subconsciously readying himself for a fight.  “Ah, of course you have.  Now you're researching all the people who interact with Ichi-kun; as expected of a stalker.”

 

                Kaien almost growled out loud.  “Cut the bullshit.  Ichigo – for some reason – actually seems to tolerate your presence, but personally, I don’t approve.”

 

                Koyonagi’s smile didn't so much as falter.  “Well then it’s a good thing he doesn't need your approval.”

 

                Kaien scoffed.  “Technically, I could order him to stay away from you.  I'm his clan head after all.”

 

                The instructor huffed out a mocking laugh.  “But we both know you wouldn't do that because we both know he’d never obey you.”

 

                Kaien had no direct comeback for that, mostly because he knew his cousin, and he knew that Koyonagi was more than likely correct in his assessment.  If Kaien ever demanded more than Ichigo was willing to give (which included meddling with the orange-haired Shinigami’s private life), Ichigo would probably rather get himself disowned from the clan than obey, he was just that free-spirited, and Kaien would never willingly force his cousin to that point on any issue.

 

                Still, “I could show him your file,” Kaien said (threatened) quietly.  “I have that authority.”  I could even report you; that’s how far my authority extends.  And whose word do you think will be held in higher regard – the genius lieutenant serving under one of the oldest captains in the Gotei 13 or the former Kidou Corps Commander now demoted to a mere Academy department head, and not even the head of your strongest field?

                The words went unsaid but not unheard, and it was satisfying to see just the tiniest hint of pensive irritation in the way Koyonagi’s lips thinned.

 

                Kaien took a deep breath and reined in his emotions.  That was enough for now.  He wasn't here to have a verbal throwdown with Koyonagi.  “So what mission did you send him on this time?”

 

                Koyonagi blinked, and his features smoothed over into his usual laidback self as he reached over, rifled through a stack of files, before withdrawing one and handing it to Kaien.  “Here’s a copy.  It was supposed to be a routine mission out to South Rukongai, helping three others from the Ninth to guard a team of healers from the Fourth.  The mission objective was to retrieve a squad of injured Ninth Division officers out in District 78.”

 

                Seventy-eight?  Shit, that was one of the worst districts in all of Rukongai.  Anything could happen there!

 

                He sighed shortly before turning on his heel, file tucked under his arm.  “Thanks for telling me.”

 

                He bit his tongue and didn't say anything else as he ducked out of the office.  He was a lieutenant after all; he couldn't go around snapping at people no matter how much he wanted to.

 

                Still, if something had happened to Ichigo, nothing in the world was going to stop Kaien from beating the shit out of Koyonagi.

 

{5}

 

                “Fuck it, get outta my way!  I'm on a deadline here!”  Ichigo yelled as he killed five Hollows with one strike.  “Mashiro!  Mashiro!  Where the hell are you?!”

 

                He landed, spun on his heel, and eviscerated another Hollow.  These were all small fry to him, but he only had eight hours left to find Mashiro and get back to the others.

 

                Fortunately for him, he had managed to sense Mashiro’s faint reiatsu signature an hour ago, the only signature that didn't have the Hollow edge to it, and he had been moving towards it ever since.  Or in that general direction anyway.  The reiatsu signature was fading, and there were times when he almost couldn't feel it anymore.

 

                He bypassed three more Hollows, tearing through them like rice paper before continuing his sprint through the trees once more.

 

                “I’m not being paid enough for this mission,” Ichigo muttered, concentrating on the distant pulse of Mashiro’s reiatsu.  “I'm not being paid enough for this life.  Damn Spirit King; can’t even make everything easier even though I'm helping him with all his shitty problems.”

 

                It was rather cathartic, talking to himself as he killed Hollows left and right.  Still, the minutes were ticking down, and he had to hurry up and find one of his future friends.  Kensei would be devastated if Mashiro actually died. The two were like siblings to each other, and Ichigo would never forgive himself if the green-haired lieutenant was killed on his watch.

 

{5}

 

                “Is everything alright, Kaien?”  Juushirou enquired as he eyed his typically easygoing lieutenant powering through paperwork like it was going out of style, shoulders tense, and not a single smile all day.

 

                Kaien glanced up distractedly, shoving another completed stack to the side before starting on a new pile.  “Huh?  Yeah, fine, Taichou.”

 

                Juushirou frowned and exchanged a glance with Shunsui who had meandered over to the Thirteenth again, no doubt leaving the majority of his paperwork to poor Lisa.  Shunsui shrugged, equally confused.

 

                “Kaien?”  Juushirou pressed once more.  “You seem... worried lately.  Has something happened?”

 

                Kaien finally looked up, running a frustrated hand through his hair.  “...Ichigo’s not back yet.”

 

                Realization dawned in Juushirou’s mind.  “Ah, is Ichigo-kun on another mission?”

 

                Kaien scowled.  “Yeah, and he was due back five days ago.  Ichigo’s never been back late before.  That damn Koyonagi sending him all the way out to District 78, and with no one on the team higher-ranked than a Seventh Seat from the Ninth.  The next highest is a Twelfth Seat from the Fourth for god’s sakes!  I've got every respect for the Fourth but besides Unohana-taichou and maybe the senior seated officers, none of them are exactly combat ready!  What that idiot teacher was thinking, I don’t know.”

 

                “It sounds fairly standard though,” Shunsui pointed out mildly.  “Maybe they just ran into a snag on the way back.”

 

                “They better have,” Kaien glowered darkly.  “’Cause if it’s anything bigger than a snag, I'm gonna sic Nejibana on that grinning bastard until Hell will look like paradise compared to what I’ll do to him.”

 

                Juushirou sweatdropped.  “You're starting to sound like Ichigo-kun, Kaien.”

 

                Kaien grumbled under his breath, savagely signing another report before tossing it to the side.  “Christmas Eve is in two days too; my sister is gonna kill me if something’s really happened to our youngest so close to the holidays.”

 

                Juushirou arched an eyebrow.  “Technically, he’s not the youngest, Kaien.”

 

                Kaien waved a flippant hand in the air.  “I mean the youngest when it comes to Shinigami stuff.  Everyone younger than Ichigo is either actual children no older than forty years or civilians.”

 

                “He remembers how old he is?”  Shunsui chimed in, looking curious.

 

                Kaien blinked.  “...Huh, no, he doesn't, or at least he hasn't told me.  I just assumed he was a few decades younger than me by the way he acts.  Maybe a century at most.  ...Oh shit, what if he’s actually still a kid?  He’s got to be at least around two-hundred-fifty, right?  Two hundred?  He can’t possibly be any younger than one hundred!  Heck, there’s no one younger than sixty at the Academy, and Ichigo acts older than all of them!”

 

                “Well, he’s certainly mature enough, no matter his age,” Juushirou soothed.  “And I'm sure he’ll come home intact and alive.  The mission request was from the Ninth, correct?  I have not heard anything from Muguruma-taichou about a summons for backup.”

 

                Kaien’s shoulders slumped.  “Yeah, there is that at least.”

 

                “Look,” Juushirou sighed, relenting at the depression hanging like a thundercloud over Kaien’s head.  “Why don’t you put that paperwork aside until after Christmas.  I believe you have a party to help prepare for, don’t you?  You wouldn't want Ichigo-kun coming home to a nonexistent Christmas feast.”

 

                This at least made Kaien perk up a bit, and Juushirou smiled.  Each year, the Shiba Clan threw two parties for Christmas – a big one on Christmas Day where the entire clan and whoever they invited would celebrate, and a much smaller one on Christmas Eve where only Kaien, Kukaku, Ganju, and the handful of guests they invited would gather.  Juushirou would be going, Shunsui would tag along, Shinji might or might not come this year, Lisa usually came but would be spending it with Nanao and her family this Christmas, Yoruichi sometimes dropped by at the beginning before taking off to spend the evening with Urahara and Tsukabishi, and – for the first time – Ichigo would also be invited (manhandled) to the party.

 

                “Kaien-kun,” Shunsui spoke up.  “Would it be alright if I brought Asuka-chan along?  She usually spends Christmas by herself at the Academy but I'm sure she’d like to spend it with a friend this year.”

 

                Kaien grinned, the first real one Juushirou had seen all week.  “Of course!  Ichigo will want to see her too.  I cleaned out his room at the Academy yesterday – clothes and books and everything – just to make sure he’ll come home for the holidays-” (Juushirou gave his lieutenant a reproachful look upon hearing this.  Kaien looked utterly unrepentant.)  “-and there were a few wrapped presents at the back of his closet.  One of ’em had Fujiwara-chan’s name on it.  There was even one for me!”  He paused in a considering manner before his expression became devious.  “Which reminds me – I’ll need to drop a word to Kukaku so that she’ll remember to hang up mistletoe.”

 

                Juushirou sighed in exasperation at this implication, as well as the thought of the impending fistfight that would indubitably break out when Ichigo found out.  On the other hand, Shunsui just laughed, looking about as amused as Kaien, and no doubt already plotting how to trick the two Academy students into stumbling together under the mistletoe.

 

                “Isn’t Asuka-chan your cousin, Shunsui?”  Juushirou reminded.  “I thought older brother figures tend to get protective when the male population attempts a courtship.”

 

                Shunsui brushed this aside with careless ease.  “Maa, it’s not anything serious; just a prank of sorts.  At least for now anyway.”  A rare thoughtful expression crossed his face as he shared a glance with Kaien.  “Ichigo-kun’s a good kid though, and a marriage with someone from the Shiba Clan would only be beneficial to my family.”

 

                Kaien choked on an incredulous laugh.  “Really, Taichou?  You're gonna say that in front of me?  You know I won’t force anyone in my clan to marry for anything other than love.  ...Ugh, that sounds so sappy when I say it out loud.”

 

                Shunsui chuckled, inclining his head in acknowledgement.  “I wouldn't let my brother force Asuka-chan into a marriage either, but you have to admit, a match between those two is a possible eventuality.”  An uncharacteristically ominous gleam entered his eyes.  “And at the moment, Ichigo-kun is the only one I deem worthy of Asuka-chan anyway.”

 

                Juushirou sighed again as he watched his idiotic best friend and daft lieutenant begin a discussion about everything from getting Ichigo and Asuka to date, all the way up to the hypothetical future wedding.

 

                “I thought this was just a prank?”  Juushirou voiced wryly, shaking his head when he went completely ignored.  The two were like gossiping housewives.

 

                His gaze slid to the open window on his left.  It was true that no request for further reinforcements had reached one Muguruma Kensei but Juushirou had seen the Ninth Division captain growling at everyone around him for the past two weeks, increasingly agitated with every day that passed without any sign of his vice-captain or other officers.

 

                Juushirou hadn't known Ichigo had been sent as backup on that mission though, and now that he did, even he was slightly concerned about the absence despite his reassurances for Kaien.  District 78 was a dangerous place, and while Juushirou had heard from multiple sources time and again that Ichigo was prodigiously strong, it didn't stop the unease that crept into his heart.  Kaien had said that the strongest Shinigami officer on the team had been a Seventh Seat, and the next highest a Twelfth Seat.  He wasn't certain whether or not Kaien had remembered but Juushirou knew that that arrangement meant that only one person out of the entire team could summon a Jigokuchou.  If the team captain fell, then communication would most likely be cut off, unless someone in the injured party was aware enough to do so instead.

 

And no matter how one looked at it, it was a bad matchup for a team all around but Juushirou supposed that anyone higher-ranked than the Seventh Seat in the Ninth had been part of the original team or were out on other missions, and no matter how monstrously formidable Retsu could be, her subordinates simply weren’t up to par with the other divisions when it came to offensive power.

 

Perhaps he’d drop by the Ninth Division after work today, just to see if Kensei had received any news.  Juushirou was nowhere near as close to Ichigo as Kaien or Asuka were, or even as well-acquainted with the boy as Shunsui seemed to be getting, but the soon-to-be graduate had still grown on him over the past several months, and a dead Ichigo wasn't something Juushirou was particularly keen on seeing.

 

{5}

 

                “You should eat something, Shiba-san.”

 

                Ichigo glanced down from his perch on the branch of a tree.  “And you should be getting some sleep, Kotetsu-san.  Looks like neither of us is gonna get what we want today.”

 

                Isane’s brow creased, and while she continued looking somewhat uncertain, something a little more stubborn entered her expression as she held up half a bun.  “Please eat, Shiba-san.  It’s part of my own portion, not the others, and I’ll live even without half a bun.  Please.”

 

                Ichigo exhaled through his nose, leaning back into the shadows of the leaves so that he could clench his eyes shut and not show weakness in front of his temporary teammate.  Physically, he didn't have so much as a scratch on him but he didn't feel all that great either.  He could push hunger and exhaustion to the side but the reiatsu-transfer procedure that Isane had performed on him six times now always made him feel jittery under his skin, as if he was under the effects of a fever or something.  It didn't even matter that he still had plenty of reiatsu to spare; even going through that once made him want to throw up.  It wasn't a pleasant experience.  Most Shinigami on the receiving end of that procedure could only last through one transfer, especially when supporting more than one person at a time, usually three or four if they were at captain-level, maybe even up to six if their name was Zaraki Kenpachi.  Anymore than that and people started either keeling over or falling sick themselves even if they still had reiatsu left.  Reiatsu wasn't meant to be forcibly drawn out by someone else after all.  The only reason Ichigo could last longer was because of the absurd amount of reiryoku inside him.  It had far outstripped even Kenpachi’s by the end of the war.

 

                “Shiba-san!”

                Ichigo released an inaudible sigh.  “Get some rest, Kotetsu-san.  You were lagging today.  Not as much as the others but still lagging, especially after you used a chunk of your own reiatsu to heal some of Kuna-fukutaichou’s injuries.  So go to sleep and save the food for yourself.”

 

                Yes, he had retrieved Mashiro, thank god.  The lieutenant had been in bad shape, and it had been touch and go for a while, but Ichigo had managed to get her back to Isane and the others in time for them to stabilize Mashiro enough to put her into a healing coma as well.  That had been two days ago, and they were about halfway home now.  With the four healers and the two officers from the Ninth taking turns transporting the large stretcher currently carrying all the wounded men and women, and Ichigo himself warding off any Hollows and generally keeping a lookout at night, they were making good time.  So long as nothing else came at them from left field, Ichigo was fairly confident that they would all get home alive and in one piece.

 

                There was a long silence, and then a loud rustle sounded, and Ichigo was hard-pressed not to roll his eyes.  “What did I just say, Kotet-”

 

                “Isane,” Isane prompted as she hoisted herself up onto the branch below his.  Embarrassment tinged her voice but she forged on, “I have a sister – Kiyone; first-year at the Academy – and she spends a lot of time with me when she’s not in class and I am not working so most people I know just call me Isane unless we are in a really formal setting.”

 

                “Hm,” Ichigo grunted, and then grimaced when Isane once again extended food towards him.  “...Alright, alright, fine.  Just this once though; you need food more than I do.”

 

                Isane only smiled at him before biting into her own half of the meagre meal.  They had passed through a few towns by this point but the money they had on hand had been used to buy more bandages.  Idiot Number One and Two had suggested simply taking what they wanted; Isane had scolded them both for a good twenty minutes for that brilliant idea.  Sure, they were running low but it wasn't as if they didn't have anything to eat at all; Ichigo had already insisted that the food be divided between the others since he definitely had a stronger constitution.

 

                “My sister’s told me a bit about you,” Isane confessed tentatively.  Ichigo stifled the urge to sigh again.  Apparently, people around him all had the tendency to strike up conversations with him.  “She’s always admired Shiba-fukutaichou so she was really excited when word got around that another Shiba would be entering the Academy this year.”

 

                Ichigo silently groaned.  Terrific – another Kaien fan.  Then again, Kiyone – along with Sentarou – in the future had been fanatically loyal to Ukitake to the very end, had even taken a liking to Ichigo himself, and Ichigo had had to sit through more than one session of listening to the two Third Seats wax poetic about their former vice-captain.  He’d actually seen Kiyone around at school on occasion but he’d never been that close to her or Sentarou in his own time so he hadn't made any effort to talk to either of them.

 

                “She must've been disappointed then,” Ichigo remarked caustically.  He knew very well what most of the school thought of him.  He didn't act like a classic noble, not even a Shiba noble, but he didn't  quite fit in with the Rukongai ‘rats’ either.

 

                “Oh not at all!”  Isane denied instantly, and Ichigo arched an eyebrow at the earnestness in her tone.  The budding healer even managed a giggle.  “A few months back, I spent an entire day being regaled with the tale of how you openly defended your friends in front of the entire school from a group of bullies, and she’s been rather enamoured ever since.  When I tell her about this mission, she’ll probably replace Shiba-fukutaichou with you as her hero.”

 

                Ichigo stared at her, horrified.  Isane clapped a hand over her mouth, muffling helpless laughter.

 

                “Don’t tell her then,” He griped.  “I don’t need... fans.”

 

He shuddered at the mere thought. He’d had more than his fair share of those when he had somehow changed from ‘that weird hybrid guy who helps the Gotei 13 every time someone tries to end the world’ to ‘war hero’.  His friends had fallen over themselves laughing at his predicament when he had been propositioned that one time smack in the middle of the street.  Kisuke and Yoruichi and even Shinji had teased him about it for months afterwards, always bringing it up whenever Ichigo had begun forgetting the embarrassing incident.

 

                “It isn’t so bad, is it?”  Isane enquired inquisitively.  “Having someone admire you?”

 

                Ichigo surveyed the silver-haired officer with hooded eyes.  The woman stared back, features unmarred by stress or grief, still so visibly innocent compared to the Isane who had almost killed herself ripping through two dozen Menos Grande to save her sister who had obstinately stayed behind to give several other officers time to carry a sickness-stricken Ukitake away to safety.  Isane had ultimately failed anyway.

 

                “It’s just troublesome,” Ichigo answered at last, leaning back again to look up at the moon peeking between the foliage of the tree.  “I'm not really someone worth admiring all that much.  People talk because I'm not average.  They think I'm special because I stand out.  But they don’t know me.  If I actually had the patience to hold back and last all six years at the Academy, no one would give me a second glance.  They see prodigy and a Shiba Clan member; that’s all.  They don’t see me, and I don’t want attention from people who only see labels when they look at me.”

 

                Isane gazed up at him with wide speculative eyes that Ichigo ignored.  Instead, he recommended once more, “Go get some rest.  We’ll be Shunpoing all day tomorrow again.”

 

                And this time, Isane obeyed.

 

{5}

 

                “Th- Thank you for inviting me, Shiba-sama,” Asuka bowed as best she could from where she was standing beside her cousin.  It was a bit difficult since she was juggling Ichigo’s Christmas present as well.

 

                “Kaien is fine, Asuka-chan,” The Clan Head in front of her corrected, waving them inside his compound.  “Is that for Ichigo?”

 

                Asuka bobbed her head as she dogged Shunsui’s steps.  “Yes.  He’s not back yet so...”

 

                She trailed off, an unbidden frown making its way onto her face for the umpteenth time that week.

 

                It was difficult to not think about her mentor, if only because everything reminded her of his absence.  Aside from their training sessions, there was also the fact that – when Ichigo was home – they, along with Rangiku and sometimes Ichimaru on the weekends, would spend the better part of everyday together.  The space that Ichigo normally occupied yawned noticeably in his absence, and Asuka would swear on her grave that even Ichimaru had looked on the antsy side recently.  She had heard from Rangiku that the Third Seat had diligently taken to checking with the Ninth at least once a day for any news of the missing teams under the pretense of passing on finished paperwork to that squad.

 

                Heck, she’d even spotted Koyonagi leaving the school and ambling off in the general direction of the Red Hollow Gate four times in the past four days after classes had ended.  Koyonagi still scared her a bit when she saw him in the hallways subtly terrorizing the students, and he had gone about his day as he usually did, relaxed and seemingly without a care in the world, but Asuka would bet money that the man was at least a little worried too.

 

                As for herself, well, she knew better than anyone just how strong her mentor was.  Sure, she hadn't ever seen him so much as activate Shikai but even in a spar when Ichigo was holding back, Asuka had always been able to feel the sheer magnitude of strength that her mentor was constantly keeping in check.  She was fairly certain that it would take her decades if not centuries to climb anywhere near Ichigo’s level but that didn't stop her from getting more and more anxious by the day.  Today – Christmas Eve, go figure – would be the last day of leeway given to Ichigo’s team.  If they hadn't returned by tomorrow morning, other officers would be sent out to track them down, and without a doubt, there would be a team from the Thirteenth, perhaps the Eighth, and maybe even the Fifth being sent out in addition to another one from the Ninth.

 

                In spite of his rather socially awkward ways (though nowhere near as bad as she had been), Ichigo had still managed to gather quite a number of friends and acquaintances around him, and in less than a year at that.  That charisma was one of the many things Asuka admired about him.  Regardless of all his broodiness, Ichigo was a lot like the sun, and it was simply impossible not to get drawn in towards that brightness.

 

                “I'm sure he’ll be alright, Asuka-chan,” Kaien cut into her thoughts, offering a kind smile in her direction, and if Asuka wasn't so adept at gleaning Ichigo’s expressions, she would've missed the distress behind the lieutenant’s composed visage.  As it was, she caught it just fine, and it didn't go a very long way to reassure her.

 

                She nodded anyway, not bothering to contradict Kaien as the man led them inside the main house.

 

                “And if he’s not back by tomorrow,” Kaien added, something grim settling in his features.  “I’ll lead a team out myself to find him.”

 

                Asuka shivered, fingers tightening around the gift wrapped in dark red wrapping paper in her hands.  She wished Rangiku was here but the blonde hadn't exactly been invited, and she had wanted to spend Christmas with Ichimaru anyway.  Rangiku was equally troubled though, and the sixth-year had made Asuka promise that if she received word about Ichigo while she was at the Shiba compound, she would let her know as soon as possible.

 

                Especially if Ichigo-

 

Asuka reprimanded herself sternly for even considering the possibility.  Ichigo had to be okay; her mentor was way too strong to die on a measly mission into Rukongai.

 

{5}

 

                “Fucking morons!”  Ichigo bellowed as he watched Hisakawa’s two lackeys – Fukui and Matsuoka; he had finally learned their names – break away from the group and charge off in some random direction away from the Hollows descending on them, only to run straight into another group of Hollows coming in from the left.  They each managed to cut down one but the last Hollow’s clawed hand slammed into them with merciless force and sent them hurtling away out of sight.

 

Ichigo cursed up a storm in his head.  Ichigo had told them not to stray, to stay with the group so he could better defend all of them against incoming Hollows, but there was just no getting through to idiots these days.

 

                “Isane!”  Ichigo barked, unsheathing his blade.  “Seireitei’s right up ahead!  I’ll hold these Hollows back and go after those two dimwits; you guys keep going, and whatever you do, don’t stop, don’t even look back!  Got it?”

 

                Isane proved her intelligence by not arguing, clearly understanding the concept of ‘a time and place for everything’.  “Yes, sir!  Be safe!  I’ll send backup for you as soon as possible!”

 

                Backup wasn't what he needed, Ichigo mused with sardonic amusement as he cut down a Hollow.  He didn't wait, plunging directly into the throng of monsters and killing anything that moved.

 

                And as soon as everything within thirty feet of him was dead, he took off, sprinting after Fukui and Matsuoka.  God, he should just leave them to die.  Hadn't he done enough Good Samaritan shit in the past two weeks?

 

                He should activate his Shikai, he really should. But he knew that Aizen had camera flies planted just about everywhere, and he didn't want to show off his Zanpakutou more than absolutely necessary.  The first time had been something of an incentive to bait Aizen in just enough for the madman to take a peripheral interest in him, on top of saving Shinji from having to activate his Shikai.  A somewhat secondary goal had been an attempt to get Aizen to set Gin on his tail, and that had proved to be a fortunate gamble since it had worked out better than Ichigo had thought it would.  On that front, he now only had to somehow approach Gin and persuade the Third Seat away from his ultimately suicidal plan.

 

                 Besides, calling Shikai or even Bankai, especially Bankai, wasn't something a Shinigami officer did on a whim like Ichigo used to do practically all the time (though to be fair, that had partially been because he hadn't been able to seal his Zanpakutou for the longest time).  He had learned as much both during the war and at the Academy.  One didn't go around busting out their trump cards like party favours; only show-offs and imbeciles displayed their capabilities for the world to see all the damn time.

 

                So he kept himself in check.  It wasn't particularly difficult even if he was tired; he’d had far worse odds before, facing down entire armies by himself, and he’d still come out on top.  Low-level Hollows, even coming at him from every which way, was more troublesome than anything else.

 

                No, the worst thing of all in a situation like this was protecting two people who didn't even have the sense to do what he told them to.  Not only that, they had to run off like headless chickens as well.

 

                There.  Up ahead.  Fukui was on the ground, out cold most likely since he wasn't moving, but Matsuoka was still on his feet, Zanpakutou pointed at the closest Hollow surrounding them.

 

                And clearly out of his depth.  The guy’s sword was dipping with fatigue, and he was bleeding everywhere.  There was no way he would be able to defend against the Hollow’s next blow.

 

                Ichigo clicked his tongue in annoyance and upped his speed, covering the last fifty feet in two flash steps just in time to intervene and cleave the Hollow in half.

 

                He definitely wasn't getting paid enough for this.

 

{5}

 

                Kensei was alerted by the sound of rapid footsteps heading his way, and he instinctively knew what the news would be about.  He was already on his feet by the time the door was flung open and his Sixth Seat burst into his office.

 

                “Muguruma-taichou!”  Toudou gasped out, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder.  “They've returned, all of them!  The original team I mean!  I had a word with one of the healers from the team sent by the Fourth Division and she said Kuna-fukutaichou is the worst of the lot but that she’ll make a full recovery now that she’s home.  All of them are being transported to the Fourth right now!”

 

                Kensei allowed the knot in his gut to loosen at the assurance of his lieutenant’s wellbeing but he didn't relax as he strode out of his office, Toudou at his side, and demanded, “What about the second team I sent?  Why didn't I get any messages from Hisakawa?  He should’ve sent something a week ago if he had to extend the mission!  Hell, he should’ve sent something the moment things looked like they were going to take a turn for the worst!”

 

                Toudou was already shaking his head.  “Hisakawa received a bad concussion apparently.  He’ll be alright as well but he’s been out of it for days.”

 

“That doesn't explain why he didn't send something last week!”  Kensei snapped impatiently as they made it outside and hurried off towards the southern gate.

 

The Sixth Seat shrugged, evidently as unclear as Kensei was on the matter, before revealing, “I didn't stick around to get a very detailed overview since the healers were in a real hurry to get our guys to the Fourth but from what I saw, Fukui and Matsuoka weren’t there.  Neither was the Academy student that went with the second team.”

 

Kensei inwardly winced.  Aw hell, that was two of his subordinates right there, and to make matters worse, the kid was still a kid, one with a promising career if rumour and Shinji could be believed, and if he’d died this early on...

 

Not to mention the Shibas would be taking names and doing their utmost to kick Kensei’s entire squad’s collective asses if their newest Shinigami prospect and clan member had been killed on a mission for his division.

 

What a mess.

 

“I’m going on ahead,” Kensei said shortly, and sped off, shifting to his fastest Shunpo.  He wanted to make sure his men were okay, and there might just be a chance that he could still save his men and the young Shiba.

 

{5}

 

                “You!”

 

                Kensei found himself momentarily at a loss when silver and black whirled to a seething standstill in front of him, and eyes the colour of a thundercloud flashed menacingly up at him.  For a split second, he was chillingly reminded of a passively irate Unohana.

 

                And then he blinked, and it was a silver-haired woman who stood in front of him, delicate looks contrasting with the dark glower she was aiming at him, but with the ragged appearance of someone who had had a difficult two weeks in the wilderness.

 

                “I-” He managed to get out.

 

                “Why are you still standing around?!”  The woman shrilled, and in Kensei’s humble opinion, she really didn't seem the type to even raise her voice, much less scream at a captain.  “Shiba-san went back for your subordinates!  If your Seventh Seat had simply called for reinforcements last week instead of trying to outshine Shiba-san, none of us would have had to endure another week of being chased by Hollows while keeping the injured officers alive!  Shiba-san is the only reason we all made it back alive, and he’s still out there right now because two of your men ran off even though Shiba-san told them not to!  So go out there and help him before he gets hurt!”

 

                Kensei wasted a second to feel rather stunned at being criticized by a... was she even a seated officer yet?  And from the Fourth at that?

 

                He mentally shook himself out of his daze, nodded curtly, and Shunpoed off again.  She had guts, he’d give her that, and under the circumstances, he’d let the lack of respect slide.  But what was she talking about?  Had his subordinates been the reason for the delays and lack of communication?

 

                His expression darkened as he headed out into Rukongai.  If they were, heads would roll.  He didn't accept irresponsible attitudes from anyone, especially if they came from his own division, and especially if lives had been on the line.

 

{5}

 

                “Run!  Just run!  Go!”  Ichigo shouted, parrying the claws of a Hollow before severing its arms and then bisecting its entire body.

 

Behind him, Matsuoka clumsily slung Fukui onto his back before taking off towards Seireitei.  Ichigo flipped backwards to deflect another Hollow attempting to rush the two officers from the right.  Where the hell were all these Hollows coming from anyway?  He knew that a lot of them had been hunting them since District 78 because they had stayed too long and the Hollows had picked up the fact that their team was crippled from the weight of the injured officers but this was just ridiculous.

 

“Just keep running straight forward; don’t stop,” Ichigo instructed as he caught up with Matsuoka’s limping pace.  “No matter what happens, keep running.  Even if a Hollow jumps right into your path, keep running.  I’ll protect you.”

 

He only waited long enough for a weak nod in the affirmative (huh, nothing like staring death in the face to make people believe in you) before flitting off again, tackling another four Hollows and clearing the way for Matsuoka.  Jeez, he’d lost count of the number of Hollows he had killed in the past two weeks.  He was pretty certain it was somewhere up in the nineties by now.

 

Well, at least Shiro couldn't complain.

 

‘Oh yes I can,’ A snide voice interrupted his thoughts.  ‘It ain’t like I’ve been fightin’.  Ya haven’t put on the mask even once since we came back in time, and ya only released your Zanpakutou once, King.  I'm dyin’ in here.  Of boredom.’

 

Ichigo rolled his eyes and ignored his inner Hollow.  Now wasn't the time.

 

He rolled out of the way of a lethal swipe, and then flashed back towards Matsuoka to stab another Hollow in the eye.  The gate was within sight now, albeit in the far distance.  There was a beehive of movement coalescing there but Ichigo didn't have time to squint in that direction for long as several more Hollows screeched in outrage and closed in even further.

 

He twisted out of the way of another Hollow, and then Shunpoed backwards through the air to intercept yet another one seemingly hell bent on taking a chunk out of Matsuoka and Fukui.  Matsuoka stumbled, left leg sluggishly leaking blood as he seemed to want to veer off to the side and away from the looming monster that Ichigo was holding at bay.

 

“Keep moving!”  Ichigo hollered, slamming a free foot into the chest plate of the Hollow he was fending off.  “What did I say?!  Keep running, damn you!  If you don’t wanna die, move your ass!”

 

This seemed to kick-start Matsuoka once more, and the officer hobbled on as fast as he could as Ichigo kept one Hollow back with the sword in his right hand while simultaneously throwing out his left and hissing, “Hadou Number 4: Byakurai!”

 

A bolt of blue lightning snaked out from the palm of his hand, smashing into a second Hollow’s bone-white mask and shattering it.

 

Hallelujah; all those lessons with Koyonagi seemed to be paying off.

 

He grimaced when the angle of his blade caught on the serrated edge of the claw of the Hollow in front of him, just for a second, and he didn't even have to turn to sense another Hollow leaping in from behind in an attempt to ambush him.

 

Ichigo gritted his teeth and forced his Zanpakutou up to tear apart the Hollow’s entire arm before flipping his blade to a reverse grip and finishing it off.  He was already whirling around before the dying Hollow had crashed to the ground, urging his body to move so he could block-

 

Damn!  Ichigo snarled in his mind as he spun.  He knew he would be a nanosecond too late to block the entire assault.  And here I was hoping I could get home without a scratch-

 

“Blow it away, Tachikaze!”

 

Ichigo’s almost tripped over thin air.  His head snapped around as a swirl of deadly air currents whipped through the air and made mincemeat of the Hollow before it’s claws could sink into Ichigo’s unprotected shoulder.

 

He stared dumbly at the muscled figure of Muguruma Kensei as the captain made quick work of the rest of the Hollows, slashing his combat knife through the air and releasing a multitude of air blades that did devastating damage to both the area and the Hollows themselves.

 

Ichigo’s first coherent thought was, what the heck is up with your hair?

 

Because it flopped.  Forward.  Over his face.

 

Ichigo shook his head, sheathed his Zanpakutou, and headed back down to flat ground, biting back a bark of hysterical laughter all the while.  No time for random thoughts.

 

No time for grief either.

 

Because the guy in question was looking at him now.

 

Ichigo stiffened as Kensei landed as well, and he suddenly felt the last two weeks weighing down on him all at once.  Remembering who he was and where he was now, he fumbled a short, tense bow, just enough to show respect to a superior.  “Muguruma-taichou.  Thank you for the assistance.”

 

Kensei appraised him with a searching gaze, sharp eyes flicking from Ichigo’s face (probably lined with fatigue mostly due to the multiple reiatsu-transfer procedures that had kept the injured officers alive over the past five days; he had discovered a long time ago that there was no hiding the negative effects) to his undeniably dusty – and blood-splattered, although not his blood – Shihakushou.  “...You look like shit, Shiba.”

 

Ah, good old Kensei.

 

“Come on,” The captain cocked his head in the direction of the Red Hollow Gate.  Matsuoka had almost reached it by now, and a swarm of officers had run forward to help him.  “Home’s just a few steps away.  Don’t go collapsing now.”

 

Gruff and temperamental, Kensei had never been one for open concern, but Ichigo had known the man long enough to see the furtive way he made a conscious effort to move more slowly while pretending not to, letting Ichigo take as much time as he needed without making him feel like the captain was waiting on him.

 

Ichigo appreciated the understated gesture but he didn't need it.  He looked tired, and he felt it too, but he could last much longer than this.  Hell, this couldn't even be considered tired.  You didn't know tired until you had spent four months straight in the sand dunes of Hueco Mundo, fighting on the frontlines and spending far more hours killing the enemies than eating and sleeping combined.

 

They set off for the gate, and Ichigo spotted Kensei’s raised eyebrows out of the corner of his eye when he started moving at the speed of a lazy Shunpo.  The captain caught up with him easily, still examining him critically.

 

“You're fast,” Kensei commented as they neared the gate.  “I saw you fight earlier.  You're Shihouin fast.  That last attack notwithstanding.”

 

Ichigo made a noncommittal noise at the back of his throat.  What exactly was he supposed to say to that?  Certainly not ‘that would make sense because Shihouin Yoruichi was the one who taught me Hohou’.

 

He was lucky in that aspect.  Unlike pretty much every other Shinigami in the Gotei 13, Ichigo had gotten the best of the best when it came to teachers.  Urahara Kisuke, Shihouin Yoruichi, Hirako Shinji, Kyouraku Shunsui – four of the strongest captains Soul Society had ever produced; you couldn't ask for better instructors.

 

“You were protecting my subordinates,” Kensei continued, abruptly changing the topic.  “And one of the healers mentioned how you were responsible for getting them all home alive.  Is that true?”

 

Blunt as always.  Ichigo rolled his shoulders uncomfortably.  “...Isane and the other healers kept the wounded officers alive.  I just assisted them and kept the Hollows at bay, as was the purpose of the team I was placed on.  Escorting the medics and retrieving the injured team was the mission objective so I was just doing my job.”

 

Kensei scoffed, and Ichigo was hard-pressed not to do the same if only because he wasn't really one for spewing verbal bullshit.

 

“Okay,” Kensei gave him an I'm-not-buying-it look.  “That was nice to hear and all but I’d prefer you get rid of the diplomatic crap and answer my question again.”

 

Ichigo twitched, and then scowled irritably at Kensei when the captain smirked back.

 

“Fine,” Ichigo retorted flatly, beyond caring at this point, especially since he could feel the drag of exhaustion due to lack of food, lack of rest, lack of sleep, and the thrice-damned reiatsu-transfer procedure settling in.  “Fukui and Matsuoka were basically useless, Hisakawa needs to get that stick out of his ass, someone needs to knock him down a few hundred pegs – I mean how the hell did he even make Seventh Seat? – and the next time you send a request for an Academy student to join a team headed by that pompous bastard, don’t, because someone else probably won’t live to tell the tale, and I might let him die just on principle.”

 

Kensei snorted.  “Well aren’t you an outspoken rookie?”

 

Ichigo shot him a scathing look.  “You asked for it.  Write me up if you want; at this point, I don’t freakin’ care.”

 

And with that said, he stalked off, moving a little faster now.  All he wanted was to return to the Academy as fast as possible, shower, maybe eat something if he could be bothered to, and then crash for the next twenty-four hours.

 

But of course, since when had his own wants ever even been up for debate?  He was a week late, Kaien was probably worried, and if he didn't want an earful later that would probably last much longer than if he got the lecture over now, then Ichigo would have to head back to the Shiba compound to check in with his cousin first.

 

Not to mention it was Christmas Eve.  He had gotten presents for a few people but Rangiku was probably with Gin, Koyonagi had most likely retired to wherever he lived for the holidays, Asuka he had no idea, and Kaien, Kukaku, and Ganju were all at their home.

 

So.  Back to the Academy first, shower and change, pick up his presents, head over to the Shiba compound, listen to Kaien’s mother-hen fretting, hopefully be able to get away with dumping his presents on them without sticking around any longer than that, and then return to his bed for a well-deserved rest.

 

He’d leave off kicking Koyonagi’s ass for dumping this mission on him in the first place for later.

 

“Shiba-san!”

 

Ichigo bit back a sigh as he saw Isane rushing towards him.  Oh yeah, and he’d have to reassure Isane that he was alright and there was no need to haul him off to the Fourth.

 

{5}

 

                Well, Shinji had said that the kid had an authority problem the size of Soul Society.

 

                “He’s got the balls ta mouth off ta captains,” Shinji had warned him, eyes glittering with languid amusement.  “But he’ll follow orders well enough.  Still, there’s somethin’ about him that gives me the impression that he doesn't really fit inta the Gotei 13.  If push comes ta shove, I think he’ll do what he thinks is right, not what his superiors tell him ta do.  He’s the sort ta say fuck the consequences no matter how bad his odds are in any given situation.  He’s not your average Shinigami, and I don’t just mean his genius.”

 

                Kensei would give the boy that much.  No average Shinigami – especially an Academy student – would've put the mission first and personal feelings aside just to get everyone home alive.  Hisakawa had an arrogance streak, and on hindsight, Kensei really shouldn't have stuck an Academy student in with the team, especially a prodigy, but he’d been too worried about Mashiro to give it much thought, and it had been the Ninth Division’s turn to borrow Shiba Ichigo for a mission this time.

 

                So Kensei had no trouble believing that the orange-haired Shiba had probably been belittled every single day of that assignment, at least until the entire mission had gone belly up and Hisakawa had been too out of it to say anything more, and that silver-haired woman – Isane – being next in rank had probably threatened Fukui and Matsuoka into line with death via Unohana or something.

 

                Shiba had gone back for them though, and that alone was enough to earn Kensei’s respect.  He still had to get the full story from someone but the kid looked dead on his feet so Kensei would let the boy go for today.  The silver-haired healer was currently fussing over him though so it might take a while for Shiba to get away.

 

                Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and Kensei glanced sharply to the left just in time to spot a pair of shrewd green eyes focused intently on the orange-haired Academy student.  The tawny-haired figure lingered a moment longer in the shadows of the gate, gaze flicking up briefly to meet Kensei’s before Shunpoing away, disappearing without a trace.

 

                Kensei frowned.  Wasn't that... Koyonagi Senzou, the former Kidou Corps Commander?  He’d been demoted after that incident, hadn't he?  To... an instructor at the Academy.

 

                Kensei looked back at Shiba Ichigo.  What interest did Koyonagi have in that kid?

 

                He wavered, and then shook his head and put it out of his mind for now.  He wanted to see Mashiro and the rest of his subordinates to make sure they really would be okay.  Other issues could be mulled over later.

 

                Oh, and he made a mental note to give Shiba a bonus in addition to the standard paycheck.  Kensei didn't even need to hear the whole story to know that the kid deserved it.

 

{5}

 

                Kaien was dead.  Like, dead dead.  Six-feet-under dead.  Because there was no one else who would've had the desire and the balls to do this.

 

                Plus, there was a note.

 

                Ichigo glared furiously at his closet.  His empty closet.  Heck, his entire room was empty.  His clothes, his towels, the presents he had bought, his money, his books, his scrolls, even his toothbrush, even his freaking mattress (and the mattress didn't even belong to him!) – they had all been taken away.

 

                And on his desk was the aforementioned note:

 

                ‘Heya cousin!  You may have noticed the mysterious disappearance of your belongings.  Before you rush off to come and kill me, let me assure you that I haven’t thrown anything out!  I just helped you relocate them to your rooms at home; aren’t I just the nicest?  As soon as you get back from your mission, you can come home right away without packing!  No need to thank me!  ~ Kaien’

 

                Ichigo crumpled the note in his hand.  He was a man who cherished his privacy.  For Kaien to come in here and just go through all his stuff and take everything...

 

                He thumped a fist against the desk, trying his best to tame his temper.  Forget death threats – those he usually made in jest (mostly).

 

                Now he was just plain pissed.

 

{5}

 

                Bang!

 

                “Kaien-sama!”

 

                Kaien’s head jerked up from where he had been staring morosely into his cup of sake.  Around the table sat all the people he was supposed to be enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner with but even with Ukitake, Kyouraku, and Hirako leading the conversation and bantering amongst themselves, the atmosphere had been underscored with tension all evening.  He knew he wasn't being a particularly good host but he couldn't help it.

 

                However...

 

                “What is it?”  Kaien straightened, placing his sake down as he took in one of his clansmen – Hotaka – gulping in air in the doorway.

 

                Hotaka’s face split into a grin.  “We just got word, sir – the team Ichigo-dono was sent out with just got back with every member of the injured party they had been sent after, all alive and accounted for!”

 

                Kaien closed his eyes and exhaled long and slow.  And then he opened his eyes again and whooped.  “Yes!  I knew he’d be okay!  That’s my baby cousin!”

 

                Across the table, Asuka’s shoulders had slumped with relief, while Kukaku and Ganju cheered, clinking their sake cups together.  The three captains in the room smiled, none of them looking particularly surprised.

 

                “Where is he now?”  Kaien asked eagerly, rising from his seat.  “At the Fourth?  How badly injured is he?”

 

                Hotaka’s brow scrunched at this, and some of the elation Kaien was feeling ebbed away.  “Well, I personally went to the Fourth to find out what was going on after the rumours started flying, and I didn't see Ichigo-dono there.  From what I heard, the original team that Ichigo-dono was sent out to help had been scattered so it took them a while to find all of them.  Some guy named Hisakawa from the Ninth was the team leader but he had a pride problem and apparently refused when Ichigo-dono asked him to send a Jigokuchou back to Seireitei for reinforcements even after the end of one week.  Then the guy got himself knocked out – concussion or something – and his two buddies weren’t much better though all three would've been dead if Ichigo-dono hadn't gone back to save them, so Kotetsu from the Fourth – being next in the chain of command – delegated team captaincy to Ichigo-dono.  Ichigo-dono took over, and got the entire group home.  The four healers on the team are pretty taken with him.  Apparently, he barely slept, gave up his portion of the food for the last five days so it could be shared amongst the others, and fended off practically every Hollow that were on their asses the whole way back.”

 

                Kaien stared for a long minute.  He teetered between pride towards his cousin’s aptitude for leadership and horror at the fact that- “He didn't eat for five days?”

 

                Hotoka confirmed this with a grim nod.  “And he barely slept too, Kaien-sama.  They stayed too long out in District 78 so their food was running low, not to mention every Hollow in the vicinity had probably locked on to the smell of blood, tracking injured prey and all.  Ichigo-dono was most likely the strongest amongst the team and was the only one who could defend against numerous enemies all at once, especially with a bunch of wounded officers on hand.  And that’s not even the worst of it.”

 

                Kaien pinched the bridge of his nose.  “What could possibly be worst?”

 

                He regretted asking a moment later.

 

                Hotoka ran a hand through his hair, looking mildly bewildered and equally amazed.  “I'm not quite sure whether the healer I talked to was exaggerating or not but it seems that Ichigo-dono went through the reiatsu-transfer procedure several times over the course of the last five days to keep their patients in a healing coma.  The medics themselves were running low on reiatsu, and factoring in the amount of energy it would take to run home while carrying the stretcher, they wouldn't have made it if they had kept using their own, so Ichigo-dono offered his.”

 

Kaien’s heart thudded against his chest.  “How many times?  He’s got large reserves, comparable to a captain’s maybe.  Two or three, or even four times might be okay.”

 

Hotoka shook his head.  “The strongest healer on the team, Kotetsu Isane, had to perform the process every twelve hours.  Ichigo-dono donated enough reiatsu to keep seven people in a healing coma for five days.  According to the healer, he went through the procedure ten times.”

 

Kaien’s heart froze.  “...How the hell is he still alive?”

 

A distressed sound came from Asuka’s direction, and Kukaku abruptly rose to her feet, dragging Ganju with her.  “Oi, Nii-san, we’re gonna get more food from the kitchens.  The more food and rest Ichigo gets, the faster he’ll recover.”

 

Hotoka opened his mouth, and then closed it when a familiar but currently rather menacing reiatsu signature washed over the entire Shiba compound.  “I... think that would be him now, Kaien-sama.”

 

“And he still has this much reiatsu left,” Kyouraku murmured thoughtfully from his spot at the table.

 

“You're dismissed, Hotoka,” Kaien said briskly.  “Thanks for relaying the news.”

 

Hotoka bowed before ducking out, sliding the door shut behind him and slipping away even as a certain orange-haired prodigy’s reiatsu swiftly advanced in the direction of their dining room.

 

Kaien considered the incoming reiatsu for a second, briefly pushing aside Ichigo’s health condition as he muttered to the others, “His reiatsu feels kinda angry.  Have I done anything recently to piss Ichigo off?”

 

Hirako snorted, Asuka stared at him with wide eyes, and Ukitake facepalmed.  Kyouraku was the one to remind him with a rather inappropriate amount of good cheer, “I seem to recall you stole all his belongings from his room a few days ago.”

 

Kaien blanched.  Oh shit, maybe that hadn't been such a good idea after all.

 

Where is he?

 

“Er, in the second dining room just down this way, Ichigo-dono.  Uh, forgive me for saying so but you look terrible-”

 

“You can blame that on your Clan Head!  I'm gonna kick his ass into the next century!”

 

Kaien cringed and flailed his arms a little.  “He really sounds like he’s gonna kill me!”  He rounded on Asuka.  “Asuka-chan, go calm him down!”

 

Asuka balked, hands fluttering frantically in front of her.  “I- I don’t know how to calm Senpai down when he’s like this!  He’s never been angry at me!”

 

“Doesn't he snap at you too?”  Kaien pointed out distractedly, casting a wary eye back at the door.

 

“Yes, of course, but that’s just Ichigo-senpai getting mildly annoyed,” Asuka expounded earnestly.  “Senpai very rarely gets truly angry, and when he does, he doesn't shout.  He becomes very quiet instead.  I've only ever seen him get angry once, when some students at school went too far with their bullying against me and Rangiku-senpai.”  Her cheeks flushed pink.  “Ichigo-senpai doesn't take too kindly to people who try to hurt his friends in any way.”

 

Kaien softened for a second.  And then tensed up again when the door slid open so hard it banged against the doorframe and almost bounced back shut.

 

                “You.

 

                Well crap, that must be the quiet anger that Asuka had been referring to.  Normally, Ichigo would already be shouting at him by now.

 

                Kaien spun around, a sheepish, apologetic look already plastered on his face.  “Before you rip my head off, let me just say that I only moved your stuff to your rooms here.  I didn't remove any-... thing... else...”

 

                He trailed off as he got his first good look at his favourite cousin.  Behind him, Asuka gasped, and one of the captains made a noise of displeasure.

 

                “Holy shit, you look terrible,” Kaien whispered, and no, he wasn't exaggerating.  There were dark bags under Ichigo’s eyes, and his cheekbones seemed much more pronounced.  Ichigo had always been on the thin side (too thin sometimes, in Kaien’s opinion, as if his cousin wasn't eating enough), but coupled with the lack of colour in his face and the overall drained look he had about him, not to mention the dust and dried blood staining his clothes and hair, Ichigo did indeed look like he had been through a hectic two weeks.

 

                Ichigo smiled at him in a way that wasn't at all friendly, amber eyes narrowed to smouldering slits that reminded Kaien of a forge fire.  “Yes, thank you, I had no idea.  I planned on taking a shower but someone stole all my towels.  I planned on changing but someone stole all my clothes.  I could've bought new towels and new clothes but someone stole all my money.  I even planned on sleeping but someone stolemy bed sheets and even the mattress.”

 

                Ichigo took a threatening step into the room, and his reiatsu seemed to involuntarily expand and fill every corner of it.  The expression on his face was mostly blank but there was something darker lurking underneath it that sent chills down Kaien’s spine.  Apparently, an infuriated Ichigo was infinitely more terrifying than an irritated one, and Kaien had never seen it until now.

 

                “My belongings, Kaien,” Ichigo said softly (dangerously).  “They’re mine.  I bought them with my own paychecks, not the money you gave me, so you had no right.  I don’t appreciate other people touching my things.”  His eyes flashed.  “Don’t do it again.”

 

                And with that said, the orange-haired Shinigami turned on his heel and stalked out the door.

 

                Or tried to anyway.

 

                Typically, Ichigo had always been the epitome of grace.  Not in a feminine kind of way, but every stride he took, every motion he made, every gesture, every time he moved, always had a subtle edge of lethal elegance to it, an underscore of strength in all his movements that spoke of an enormous amount of tightly contained power hidden away inside him.

 

                However, not only did Ichigo not evade the doorframe as he made to walk out, his shoulder also bumped against it, and – to the entire room’s alarm – the newest prodigy of the Shiba Clan stumbled.

 

                As far as Kaien knew, Ichigo never stumbled.

 

                But for half a second, it looked like Ichigo would actually fall back on his ass, but then one pale hand clamped around the doorframe and yanked the Shinigami upright again.

 

                Kaien took a step forward.  “Ichigo-”

 

                “I’m fine,” Ichigo cut him off brusquely, not a hint of weakness in his voice.  “I'm gonna go take a shower.”

 

                And then he was gone, the door sliding shut behind him once more.

 

                Kaien remained standing for a long moment before dropping back into his seat and tossing back an entire cup of sake.  “Fuck, I'm getting too old for this.”

 

                This earned him three arched eyebrows from the captains in the room.

 

                “It’s your own fault, brat,” Hirako accused offhandedly.  “Ya should never take stuff from someone who’s already lost everythin’.”  Kaien stiffened in reflex, and then mentally slapped himself when Hirako smirked at him, obviously catching the kneejerk reaction.  “Ah, thought so.  He remembered somethin’ from his past?”

 

                “I'm not telling you anything,” Kaien said stoutly.  Ichigo had told him in confidence, and even though his cousin hadn't said to keep his past a secret, Kaien wasn't going to blurt it out for the world to hear.  “Why would you say that anyway?”

 

                Hirako shrugged nonchalantly.  “I can tell just by lookin’ at him.  People like him tend ta get a bit possessive about what they manage ta regain after losin’ their entire world, even if it’s just nonessential things, plus he trusts ya and ya... well, stole everythin’ out of his room.”

 

The captain stopped for a second, observing Kaien over the rim of his sake cup.  “A lesson for ya, Kaien, and ya too, Fujiwara-chan – people who’ve had somethin’ important taken from them, and I don’t just mean money or food; I mean people or even trust, whatever, they get this look about ’em.  They're broken, and they ain’t ever gonna heal, not fully.  Ya can fix ’em, or they’ll fix themselves, but the pieces won’t ever fit as well as before, especially if no one’s there ta help ’em pick those pieces up in the first place.  Your ‘baby cousin’ is broken, Kaien.  He hides it pretty well but he ain’t anywhere near fixed.”  The blond captain offered his signature grin but it held little humour.  “Take it from someone who knows; I ain’t ever lost somethin’ ta that degree before – all my friends are strong enough ta take care of themselves – but I've lived a little longer than ya have, and I’ve seen my fair share.  Your captain and Shunsui over here would know even better than I do.”

 

                Kaien blinked at Ukitake who inclined his head, and then at Kyouraku who looked a little more sombre than usual.  Kaien himself had lived for several centuries already but it wasn't as if he had been a Shinigami of the Gotei 13 for all those years.  His childhood had been spent within the safety of his compound, and then – like most Shibas – he had taken a sabbatical of sorts out in Rukongai for a few centuries, in the districts closest to the capital city, training and camping under the stars and just spending each day with Kukaku and Ganju.  He’d only become Clan Head and then entered the Academy a little over half of a century ago.

 

                He glanced back at the door as Asuka’s features became even more pinched with concern.  He meant this in the least insulting way possible but Ichigo was just so... troublesome.  Not that Kaien would ever trade the kid for anyone else but he wished his cousin could be happier, could have the innate liveliness that all Shibas had.  Whatever Ichigo had gone through (and Kaien was certain there was more to it than just the loss of his closest family members, though even just that was bad enough), it had changed him drastically.  There was no way any Shiba could be born like that.  It wasn't in their genes.

 

                He sighed, and then looked up when his siblings bustled back into the room, arms weighed down with food.

 

                “We heard him come in,” Kukaku remarked, setting down a tray.  “He okay?”

 

                Kaien shrugged.  “He’ll need food and sleep.  He’s gone to take a shower first.  Hopefully, he’ll have the good sense to come back and eat dinner before going to bed or I'm going to have to run the risk of getting impaled or something when I go get him.”  His brow furrowed.  “And who’s this Hisakawa guy?  He sounds like an ass.  How the hell did he make Seventh Seat?”

 

                “I'm sure Muguruma-taichou will get to the bottom of whatever went wrong on the mission,” Ukitake spoke up, casting a stern eye on Kaien.  “So there is no need for you to track down the officer in question.  If any punishment is necessary, Muguruma-taichou will deal with it himself.  He is not a man who would allow something like this to pass by without correcting it.”

 

                Kaien grudgingly subsided but that didn't mean he wasn't scheming in his head.  Nobody screwed with his family and got away with it, and this Hisakawa character’s arrogance had apparently cost Ichigo a chunk of his reiatsu and an extra week out in District 78.  Unforgiveable.

 

                Twenty minutes later, they all looked up when the door slid open once again, and Ichigo appeared in the doorway with a satchel slung over one shoulder.  Overall, he looked moderately better than before.  While his face was still lined with weariness, some colour had seeped back into his skin.  The shower seemed to have done him some good, and he was now wearing a forest green kimono secured with a black sash at the waist.  A towel was draped over his shoulders and his hair was still damp as he stepped inside.

 

                Kaien didn't waste any time.  “Ichigo, I'm sorry for taking your stuff without permission.  I shouldn't have done that no matter what my reasons were.”

 

                Ichigo grunted, and there was no trace of the anger from before.  “Don’t worry about it; I overreacted.  Just don’t do it again.”

 

                Kaien grinned, privately relieved.  He didn't need his cousin holding a grudge.  He had a sneaking suspicion that that wouldn't have ended well for him.

 

                “Well come on, sit!”  Kaien gestured to the cushion next to him.  “I bet you're starving.”

 

                “Ah, I just wanna go to bed,” Ichigo objected, gaze drifting over the other occupants in the room as if he had finally noticed that Kaien wasn't the only one there.  He dipped his head at the captains, nodded at Kukaku and Ganju, and managed a tired, crooked smile for Asuka.  The girl returned it with one of her own though she still looked somewhat worried.

 

                “No, you have to eat first,” Kukaku practically ordered.  “I hear reiatsu-transfer procedures suck, and you went through it ten times.  What were you thinking?  You're reckless to the point of suicidal!”

 

                “It was a logical decision to make,” Ichigo defended, reluctantly sinking into his designated seat upon Kaien’s insistent tugging of his wrist.  “I have large reiatsu reserves.”

 

                “You could've killed yourself expending too much,” Ganju pointed out, shoving some teriyaki across the table.

 

                Ichigo actually released a bark of sardonic laughter as he finally settled down, dropped his bag to the side, and reached for his dinner.  “It would take a lot more than a simple medical procedure to kill me.  I don’t die easily.”

 

                He stopped and frowned when the hand he extended to pick up a bowl of rice visibly trembled but he snatched up the bowl before Kaien could see how bad it was.  The ‘simple medical procedure’ affected the nerves of a person’s body because of the sudden reiryoku imbalance, even if they still had reiatsu to spare afterwards.

 

                “You don’t know that, idiot!”  Kukaku scolded.  “I know you're good but if you're not careful, you could really die out there!”

 

                Ichigo shrugged, looking wholly unconcerned.  Kaien hastily cut in when Kukaku took on a rather murderous expression.

 

                “The rumours are flying by the way,” Kaien voiced lightly.  “I think the healers are singing you praises, and you successfully led your entire team back to Seireitei alive.  You even saved that Hisakawa from what I hear.”

 

                Ichigo’s chopsticks paused halfway to his mouth.  “Saved him?  Well, maybe.  He survived long enough for me to go back for him anyway.”

 

                Kaien blinked.  “What do you mean?”

 

                Ichigo stared blankly at him.  “...We were in a clearing, dozens of Hollows were closing in on all sides, that idiot ordered the healers and the four injured officers we had retrieved to stay put of all things before he rushed off after his friends and left only me to guard them.  I'm good, but even I can’t defend a two-hundred-foot-radius clearing on all sides at once while trying to keep eight people safe.  So I cleared a path for them and accompanied them to a more secure location.  I left Hisakawa, Fukui, and Matsuoka behind.  I was fully prepared to let all three of them die.  They were just lucky that they survived long enough for me to go back, fetch them, and get them to the healers in time.”

 

                Kaien said nothing for a long minute in the wake of those borderline callous words.  He could picture it in his mind – two groups separating, and Ichigo having to pick between them.  A group of three Shinigami who could fight, or a group of eight Shinigami, half of them wounded and the other half not strong enough to fend for themselves.

 

                It was-

 

                “It was the right decision,” Kyouraku approved, and his tone was a mixture of gentle concern and firm resolve.  “A hard one, but the right one, under those circumstances.  For a Seventh Seat to leave behind the majority of his team in such a helpless position, knowingly or otherwise – I would recommend a demotion.”

 

                Kaien snuck a peek at the Eighth Division captain.  While he wholeheartedly agreed with Kyouraku, it still came as something of a surprise to hear how quickly the typically laidback womanizer supported Ichigo.  It sort of reminded Kaien of Ukitake when it came to himself.  His captain was always protective of him, though at the same time, if Kaien had done something wrong or made a mistake, Ukitake would also reprimand him.  Nonetheless, the Thirteenth Division captain always looked out for Kaien in any way he could.

 

                This cemented it – Kaien really wished that Ichigo’s ultimate choice of division would be the Eighth.  Not that he had anything against Hirako, but Kyouraku would look after his cousin, and Ichigo needed people he trusted to have his back.  The orange-haired Shiba had known Kyouraku longer than Hirako after all, not to mention... well, there was just something about Hirako’s nice, polite, mild-mannered, efficient, rainbows-and-sunshine-shone-from-his-ass lieutenant that made Kaien want to stab something.  Preferably the aforementioned lieutenant’s face.

 

                And that Third Seat was creepy too, though Kaien had seen the way Ichimaru seemed to be friends with Ichigo, and a possible boyfriend to that busty blonde.

 

                Come to think of it, Hirako himself was kind of weird as well.  Hell, there was something wrong with that entire division.  Hirako aside, the whole squad seemed to worship the very ground that Aizen walked on.

 

                Ichigo nodded curtly, and there was a hard glint in his eyes, one that Kaien had only ever seen in captains during missions when they had had to make a difficult choice.  Any superior officer worth his salt would want to protect his squad to the best of their ability but sometimes, there was simply nothing but bad options and worse options to choose from.

 

                “Still, you managed to save them,” Ukitake interjected with a nod of praise.  “Once a mission is completed, that should be all that matters.”

 

                Ichigo hummed a note of acknowledgement, and for a few minutes, there was only silence as Ichigo speed-ate his way through five bowls of rice and a countless number of meat and vegetables.

 

                I can’t believe he’s this hungry and he was going to go to bed without dinner anyway, Kaien thought, sweatdropping.

 

                “Asuka!”  Ichigo barked out suddenly, making Asuka jump.  The girl had been quiet so far, most likely uncomfortable with voluntarily speaking up in front of so many people she didn't actually know all that well.

 

                “Y- Yes, Senpai?”  Asuka shifted in her seat when Ichigo pinned her with a sharp look.

 

                Ichigo jabbed his chopsticks in her direction.  “What’s wrong with your wrist?”

 

                Asuka squeaked guiltily as every pair of eyes was instantly drawn to where the left sleeve of her red kimono had slipped down a little, partially revealing a thin strip of bandages.

 

                “Training accident,” Asuka confessed, hurriedly tugging down her sleeve again.

 

                Ichigo raised his eyebrows, staring at his student until she began squirming.  “I'm gonna take a wild shot in the dark here and say you were practicing something I specifically told you not to practice until I got back.”

 

                Asuka flushed red, shoulders hunching.  “I- I really wanted to be able to do that move you showed me so I thought I could practice it by myself just to try it out, but- but I messed up and slipped and landed too hard on my wrist.”

 

                Ichigo sighed in a long-suffering manner.  “I thought I asked Gin to make sure you didn't do anything stupid while I was away?”

 

                Asuka nodded hastily.  “He- He did!  When he could get away from work, he watched me train and even gave me some tips, but I was practicing when he wasn't there, and when he found out, he even scolded me.”  She paused before amending, “Well, not scolding, really.  He kind of just opened his eyes and stared at me for a while, and then he smiled and said if I ever did it again, he’d show me why you always get him to babysit me when you're not around.  And then he said he’d show me anyway, and he ended up sparring with me until I felt like dying.  But he did make sure not to come at me from my left side and make my wrist worse.”  She pouted a little.  “I don’t need a babysitter.”

               

                Ichigo snorted and gave her wrist a pointed look.  “I beg to differ.  Now I owe Gin lunch.”

 

                Asuka drooped even more.  “...Sorry.”

 

                “Are we talking about Ichimaru Gin here?”  Kaien interrupted when Ichigo looked like he was inwardly debating the best punishment for Asuka for doing something she apparently wasn't supposed to.

 

                Ichigo glanced at him.  “Yeah, when I have to leave for a mission, I usually ask Gin to oversee Asuka’s training so she doesn't trip and fall on her sword or something-”

 

                “I'm- I’m not that clumsy!”  Asuka protested indignantly.

 

                “-so when he doesn't have paperwork to do or errands to run or subordinates to scare,” Ichigo continued blithely.  “He helps me out by keeping an eye on her and making sure she doesn't work too hard.”

 

                “I don’t work too hard!”  Asuka huffed, and then wilted when Ichigo gave her flat don’t-bullshit-me look.

 

                “Wait, are ya talkin’ about my Third Seat?”  Hirako cut in this time, looking surprised.  “I didn't know ya knew each other.”

 

                Ichigo shrugged.  “We’re... friends?  Kind of.  He’s Rangiku’s childhood friend and they came to Seireitei together from Rukongai but he graduated early.”

 

                “Huh,” Hirako’s mouth quirked up with amusement.  “So that’s why he’s been volunteerin’ all week ta carry paperwork ta the Ninth.”

 

                Ichigo stilled, evidently taken aback.  Kaien mentally rolled his eyes.  If Ichimaru really was friends with Ichigo, or at least cared that Matsumoto was friends with Ichigo, then the Third Seat would obviously keep an ear out for news when Ichigo hadn't returned from his mission after a week.

 

                “Gin aside,” Ichigo continued, recovering.  “You better not have damaged your wrist too badly, Asuka.”

 

                Asuka smiled at this, hearing the unspoken words.  “I’ll be fine, Senpai.”

 

                Ichigo grunted and dropped the issue.  Kaien was still pretty sure that Asuka would be put through hell once she was healed though.  That was just the kind of instructor his cousin was.

 

                “I'm done,” Ichigo put down his rice bowl at long last.  Some of the exhaustion had finally fled his features, easing the faint creases that had lined his face.  “Thanks for the food.”

 

                Ganju grinned.  “Glad you liked it.  I made most of it.”

 

                Ichigo hummed, casting a thoughtful eye on Ganju before turning in his seat and opening the satchel he had brought in with him.

 

                “Sake,” Ichigo announced gruffly, pulling out three large bottles of alcohol with a dark red bow tied around the necks.  “For current company.”

 

                Kukaku lunged forward and whisked it into the safety of her clutches with a delighted squeal.  “Oh, they’re three of my favourite brands too!  You're too sweet, Ichigo!”

 

                Ichigo rolled his eyes.  “Share it, Kukaku.”  He ignored her wordless griping as he took out another package wrapped in dark blue.  “Kaien.”

 

                Kaien caught the package but had no time to even shake it out of curiosity before Ichigo was tossing two more parcels out, one at Kukaku and the other at Ganju, the former’s wrapped in festive red and the latter’s in grass green.  One last gift was withdrawn, this one wrapped in a soft sheen of gold paper, and was promptly extended towards Asuka who accepted it like it was the Holy Grail.

 

                “Oh, me too, Senpai!”  Asuka twisted around to before turning back with a present wrapped in amber yellow in her hands.  “Merry Christmas.”

 

                Ichigo tilted his head, examining the slightly lumpy but still relatively flat package in his hands with an odd look on his face before nodding once at Asuka.  “Thanks.”

 

                Cue awkward silence.  Kaien resisted the urge to sigh again, jiggling the package in his hands instead.  “I know it’s not Christmas Day yet but can I open it?”

 

                “It’s yours now; do whatever you want with it,” Ichigo said, and before Kaien could stop him, Ichigo had already risen to his feet, simultaneously swiping up his bag as well.  “I'm going to bed.  Nice seeing you, Hirako-taichou, Kyouraku-taichou, Ukitake-taichou.  Asuka, we’ll restart training day after tomorrow.  Stay off that wrist.  Have a good night.”

 

                “Wait!  You can’t just leave!”  Kaien lunged, attempting to grab his cousin’s ankles, only for his hands to close around nothing as the breeze from a Shunpo swept by him.

 

                “I'm tired,” Ichigo declared bluntly from the already open door.  “And if anyone wakes me up before noon tomorrow, the world better be ending.”

 

                And with that said, the orange-haired Shiba was gone, flashing away back to his rooms without another glance back.

 

                Kaien slumped on the ground.  “I can’t open this present without him around!  And I haven’t even given him my present in return!  It’s still in my closet!”

 

                “Oh stop your whining, Nii-san,” Kukaku smirked and held up the first bottle of sake.  “You can wait until tomorrow.  For now, who wants sake?”

 

                Ganju along with Kyouraku and Hirako held up their sake cups while Ukitake raised his with a bit more dignity.  Kaien rolled his eyes.  Drunks, the lot of them.

 

                On the side, Asuka smiled politely before excusing herself for the night as well and heading off to the guestroom Kaien had shown her to earlier, Ichigo’s present for her clasped tightly to her chest.

 

                Kaien eyed his own gift before smiling wryly.  Ichigo might be tired but he was fairly certain that his cousin had only left at this moment because he was too embarrassed to stick around and wait for them to open their presents.  Not to mention he had probably not wanted to go through anymore mission Q&A.

 

                Personally, the best present for Kaien this year had been the safe return of Ichigo.  When he returned to work, Kaien would have to sort out exactly what had happened on that mission and see whose asses he would have to kick, but other than a bout of extreme exhaustion, Ichigo was okay, and that was enough for Kaien.

 

{5}

 

                Sketchpads.  Asuka had gotten him a small stack of sketchpads, along with a beautiful set of brushes and ink.

 

                “Um, do you like it?”  Asuka asked timidly from where she was sitting beside him on the engawa outside his rooms.  “You always go through so much paper when you're working on seals with Koyonagi-sensei, and I’ve seen you draw sometimes too, so I thought you’d appreciate something like this.  I know you don’t like gifts that don’t serve any purpose.”

 

                Ichigo quirked a smile at this.  “Yeah, I like this.  I’ve been thinking of buying a sketchbook myself for a while now but never got around to it.  Thanks.”

 

The nervousness in Asuka’s demeanour melted away as she beamed back, expression radiant.

 

                “Oh, and thank you for these!”  Asuka’s left hand reached up to brush the hana kanzashi she had chosen to wear today.  The series of tiny red and white flowers complimented her dark hair nicely.

 

                Ichigo coughed and shrugged, and Asuka giggled at his reaction, so very different from what she had been like when he had first met her.  He had bought her a set of different kanzashi in an assortment of colours, some suitable for everyday use while others were more appropriate for special occasions, but all of them were expertly and intricately designed.

 

                He had seen her staring at them when they had passed by that particular stall several weeks back.  They, along with Rangiku, had just finished eating dinner at a nearby restaurant, and all of them had been on their way back to the Academy when Asuka had caught sight of the hair ornaments.  They’d almost missed curfew with the amount of time Ichigo had waited for the girls to stop cooing over the pretty trinkets but he’d still had the presence of mind to memorize all the ones each of his friends had liked best before sneaking back the next day without them to buy each girl a set of kanzashi.  He’d gotten Asuka’s gift in reds, whites, oranges, and yellows, while Rangiku’s had consisted of blues, greens, purples, and blacks.  All in all, it had cost him six missions’ worth of paychecks but he figured he could splurge a little since he still had some saved up.

 

                Ichigo’s present for Gin had been significantly less expensive but he had heard from Rangiku in the future that the Third Seat had a secret love for detective novels so Ichigo had simply taken a short detour when he’d been down on Earth on a mission, found a set of Sherlock Holmes books, stole them, left behind the correct amount of money on the counter, before completing his mission and joining up with his team again, books safely hidden away in the folds of his Shihakushou.

 

                Ganju’s present had been pretty easy – Ichigo had simply bought a notebook and written down every recipe he could remember from the meals Yuzu had once cooked for their family, including the western style ones.  He’d noticed that Soul Society had tons of ingredients if you knew where to look but the cooks up here only made Japanese meals, and meals from a long time ago at that.  There were a few more modern dishes but even those were sparse and would only be found in Japan on Earth.

 

                Kukaku had been easy too – Ichigo knew, from the future, that one of his older cousin’s hobbies was gardening so he’d gone out and scoured the numerous market areas for potted plants and a few packets of rarer seeds that he hadn't seen around the Shiba compound.

 

                Kaien had been a little more difficult but in the end, Ichigo had decided on a sword.  He knew most Shinigami didn't bother with other weapons since they all had a Zanpakutou but Kaien almost always had a shinai nearby for practice, and Ichigo figured that an extra sword never hurt anyone.  Ichigo hadn't forgotten what Kukaku had once told him about the events leading up to Kaien’s death, and how outmatched his cousin had been without a blade.  Even a normal sword would've been better than nothing, and this weapon was unique in that Ichigo had modified the sword with a special Kidou seal on the hilt.  Because Ichigo had only bought the hilt.

 

It wasn't anything too special but Koyonagi had shown him how to manipulate reiatsu into inanimate objects like a rock so that when thrown against a wall or something, the wall was more likely to break than the rock.

 

In turn, Ichigo had taken it a few steps further and had used that knowledge to modify the hilt of a sword so that there didn't need to be an actual blade attached.  Instead, the user simply had to channel some of their own reiatsu into the hilt, and the seal he’d etched into the handle would lock onto that burst of reiatsu so that the user wouldn't have to constantly inject reiatsu into it, concentrate that spiritual pressure, and turn all of it into a blade.  Basically, it was a sword made purely out of reiatsu.

 

The seal only recognized the first person to channel reiatsu through it too so once Kaien had tried it out, no one else would be able to use it even if they got their hands on it.  Kaien had done exactly that earlier this afternoon, and Ichigo had almost died when Kaien had ambushed him with a fervent oh my god my baby cousin is a genius I’ll keep this sword with me wherever I go thank you hug that had nearly strangled him.  It was ironically contradictory to the way his cousin had been fussing over Ichigo’s health all day.  One would think he was about to die with the way Kaien had dogged him once Ichigo had gotten out of bed.

 

Kaien had advised him to patent and sell it (“Do you have any idea how much money you could make for something like this?”) but Ichigo hadn't the faintest clue what the big deal was because surely at least the Kidou Corps already had something like this?  Koyonagi had implied on a few occasions that he had once been part of the Kidou Corps (not that that was particularly surprising) and the teacher had been the one to – indirectly – teach Ichigo how to make the seal in the first place.  Just because no one in the Gotei 13 seemed to use a reiatsu-sword didn't mean it didn't already exist.  After all, it would be pretty stupid if not a single person had ever thought up an idea so simple in all the centuries that Soul Society had existed.  Maybe reiatsu-swords were only used in the Kidou Corps?

 

Ultimately, Ichigo had said he’d consider it but that he probably wasn't going to anytime soon, and Kaien had seemed a little too thrilled about this seeing as he had been the one to suggest the idea in the first place.  His cousin had promised not to say a word about who he had gotten the sword from if he ever had to use it in public, and that had been that.

 

In fact, Ichigo had gotten the same thing for Koyonagi, though he’d yet to deliver it to the man.  He’d have to wait until school started up again to give the bastard his present.  It was all due to Koyonagi that Ichigo had found such an interesting – though admittedly not very well-known if Kaien’s awe had been anything to go by – branch of Kidou to play with so he thought it was only right to thank the instructor with something like this.

 

“Senpai?”

 

Ichigo blinked out of his thoughts and glanced down.  “Hm?”

 

Asuka fidgeted a little but didn't look away.  “I- Which squad are you going to pick when you graduate?”

 

Ichigo looked back up at the sky outside.  Cloudy, and the ground was covered with snow.  “...Probably the Fifth.”

 

His left eye twitched when his ears picked up a muted “Hah!  He’s choosin’ my squad!” followed by an equally muffled “He said probably; he could still pick mine.” from somewhere inside the house.  Asuka didn't seem to have heard the exchange.

 

Nosy old codgers.  Ichigo had never known that Shinji and Shunsui seemed to have had some kind of rivalry going on between them.  They had never shown anything of the sort in the future even though they’d been friendly enough with each other.  Perhaps the playful banters and easy camaraderie had been lost forever after Shinji and the other Visored had been exiled, and neither Shunsui nor Ukitake or any of the other high-ranking officers had spoken up for them.  At the moment though, the two men were definitely on much better terms than they had been in that other time.

 

And he’d have to be brain-dead not to notice how both captains and Kaien had been trying to – discreetly to them, not so discreetly to him – manoeuvre him and Asuka under the ridiculous number of mistletoe hanging above each doorway throughout the house while Ukitake had sat on the side looking highly entertained, and Kukaku and Ganju had sniggered behind their backs.  What did they think he was, blind?

 

Asuka looked curious now.  “Hirako-taichou seems nice but... why not the Eighth?  It feels like you’d be more comfortable there, and Shunsui-nii-sama already likes you a lot.”

 

Ichigo hummed noncommittally.  How to phrase this?  “I think... I’d be more... useful in the Fifth.”

 

“Useful?”  Asuka echoed with puzzlement.

 

Ichigo didn't clarify.  “Yeah, useful.  Besides, if I go to the Eighth, Kaien will be over there all the time what with Ukitake-taichou and Kyouraku-taichou being best friends, and then I’ll be bothered every single day by that flaky good-for-nothing Neanderthal.”

 

Somewhere in the house, a certain someone started crying melodramatically.  Even Asuka looked around this time, a bemused expression on her face.

 

“Like I said,” Ichigo snorted, reaching for the bottle of sake on his left.  “Flaky.”

 

Asuka laughed.

 

{5}

 

                “Shiba Ichigo returned with his entire team intact and not a single scratch on him despite the marked dangers involved in that mission.”

 

                “Hmm, and he has yet to make any mistakes on all his missions thus far?”

 

                “That is correct.”

 

                “Well, you were right that the boy has potential to become part of Central 46’s private guard but I hear he has an attitude problem.”

 

                “Nothing that can’t be fixed over time.”

 

                “Is that so?”

 

                “He is still young, and other factors should be taken into account.  He has the trust of quite of few high-ranking officers, and he has been in Seireitei for less than a year.  He has shown his own brand of charisma, and that alone would be helpful in securing future prospects as well.  There is also his strength to consider; he has already achieved Shikai for one, and the student he took on – Fujiwara Asuka – is already one of the top students in her year, when only half a year ago, she was near the very bottom.”

 

                “And yet, no matter how strong, a steed that cannot be broken and tamed is ultimately useless in the long run.  Central 46 cannot triumph over the Gotei 13’s militaristic power without obedient soldiers, as I'm sure you can understand.  Over the next several decades, our people will slowly work their way into the Gotei 13’s ranks, and they must remain dedicated to our faction so that when the time comes to fully subjugate the Gotei 13 and place them under our command entirely, it will be a simple matter for our plants to subdue those who will try to stop the inevitable.  A rising prodigy in the Academy he may be, but Shiba Kaien and Ichimaru Gin were also prodigies in their own right, and now, the former has pledged himself to the very organization we will take over one day, and the latter has devoted himself to a Shinigami who fancies himself a god amongst men.  Aizen Sousuke’s plans will significantly weaken the Gotei 13, which will only help us in the end so it is best to leave him be, but Ichimaru is already lost to us now that he has picked his side.  In your opinion, what are the chances that Shiba Ichigo would bow to Central 46 when his own cousin resides on the opposite side of the battlefield?”

 

                “I do not see how that would affect anything.  Ichigo has only known Shiba Kaien for several months, not even a year, and they constantly butt heads over the smallest things.  As far as I know, Ichigo has not offered his loyalties to any side as of yet, so if we make a good case and an enticing enough offer for him to join our side, I believe he would come to us of his own accord.”

 

                “That... does sound promising.  He gets along well with you?”

 

                “As well as he gets along with anyone.”

 

                “Then for now, continue earning his trust and working your way into his good graces.  Ensure that he continues interacting with others in the Gotei 13 but do not even hint at our interest in recruiting him, though do make sure to put Central 46 in a good light whenever the government is brought up in conversation.  He is guaranteed a high station when he graduates?”

 

“Yes, the most probable choices being the Fourth Seat in the Fifth or the Third Seat in the Eighth.”

 

“Hirako or Kyouraku – unfortunate but not unsalvageable.  In fact, if he does join our cause, it would place him in the perfect position to spy on two of the most loyal Shinigami captains, along with a high enough rank to influence those who are under him.  Eventually, perhaps we could even have him secretly assassinate some of our worst opposition before the actual takeover.  If he chooses the Fifth however, do make certain the boy doesn't fall under Aizen’s thrall.  That man’s little plan for world domination does not need another genius.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Good, then when the time is right, if the boy shows no true inclinations or allegiance towards the Gotei 13, we will offer him a place under Central 46’s command.  If he proves his usefulness and reliability, he will be rewarded once our faction takes over the running of Soul Society.  A pity it will take at least another century before our plans come to fruition but it will be well worth it.  It’s high time that old coot stepped down anyway.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“One last thing then – do what you must to make him rely on you, make him look to you for guidance so that it will be that much easier to compel him to our side one day.   However, should Shiba Ichigo prove to be too wild for you to break... kill him.  An accident out in Rukongai would do nicely.  We do not need any of our plans reaching the Captain-Commander’s ears, or even Aizen’s, nor do we need either group gaining yet another prodigy.  If the boy cannot be controlled, then it would be best to take him out of the picture entirely.  You seem unnecessarily fond of that child, certainly more so than your job strictly dictates, but you would do well to remember your place.  Make sure it does not affect your judgement and duty; do I make myself clear... Koyonagi?”

 

“...Crystal.”

 

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