Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.


General Warnings: AU, canon divergence, language, violence, Ichigo-centric, gen, liberties with mixing my own ideas with canon explanations


Summary: Ichigo can see ghosts. He can see Shinigami and Hollows, and that's fine with him, if not always safe. But he kind of wishes that he doesn't also see Zanpakutou spirits. All Zanpakutou spirits. Because apparently, no one else can.


Author's Notes: This is the big-ass oneshot-that-ended-up-not-a-oneshot that I mentioned on my tumblr several months ago. It's still not finished yet but people have been asking about it so I've decided to post what I do have. This is the first chapter, and I'll go with weekly updates over the next five weeks.


Chapter 1


I.

The first time Ichigo realized that there was something not quite right about himself (even by his standards), it was right around the time Rukia hopped through his window in the middle of the night, a sword at her waist and demanding to know if Ichigo could see her.

And then Ichigo got a crash course about Shinigami and Hollows and the like, and while he absorbed all the information (and her abysmal drawings) with growing interest, he was more intrigued by the pale-haired woman dressed in white and light blue clothing drifting just behind Rukia's shoulder. She was very beautiful – in a slightly eerie sort of way – and, if her expression was anything to go by, she seemed equally surprised that Ichigo was staring straight at her.

:You can see me?: The woman enquired, and her voice, while soft and refined, inexplicably reminded Ichigo of falling snow on a winter day.

He didn't answer right away, eyes darting back to Rukia for an explanation, but the girl hadn't even twitched, still scribbling away at a new page in her sketchbook as she mumbled sulkily about how rude Ichigo had been when he had told her that her pictures sucked.

"Oi," Ichigo curtly drew her attention away from her sketches and jutted his chin at the woman. "Who's that?"

Rukia blinked at him, craned her head around, and Ichigo didn't need to ask to see the way her eyes slide right past the ghostly figure hovering in the air. "Who's who?"

:She cannot see me,: The woman piped up again, a smile that was equal parts amused and somewhat frosty lighting her features. :Once they have learned our names, it is only possible for Shinigami to hear us when they are directly communicating with us in our inner world. You... You are unique. You can see me. How curious.:

Ichigo's mind reeled but he made an effort to scowl and shake his head when Rukia looked back at him with a weird look. The Shinigami huffed, studying him suspiciously before shrugging and returning to whatever she was drawing.

Ichigo's gaze flicked back to the woman, who smiled again, looking rather inquisitive, and floated a little higher. :I am Sode no Shirayuki, Rukia-sama's Zanpakutou. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Kurosaki-san.:

Ichigo managed a nod and – to be polite because this lady seemed nice if a bit cold, and she unnerved him just a little – bowed back clumsily when Rukia wasn't looking.

Still, he wondered why he could see her if even Rukia – being a Shinigami – couldn't. And Sode no Shirayuki was her Zanpakutou. But he didn't ask Rukia – he was enough of a freak for a Human; he didn't need a Shinigami to realize that he was a freak amongst them as well.

In the end however, there was no time to ask, no time to even apologize, because Ichigo ended up taking almost all of Rukia's powers, and the pained cry that Sode no Shirayuki emitted even as Ichigo tried to stop, tried to cut off the transfer process, would haunt him for months to come.

Afterwards, when the Hollow had been destroyed and Rukia had been securely integrated into Ichigo's home and school, he asked, quite a few times, whether or not Rukia would regain her powers, if she was absolutely certain that her Zanpakutou would return.

Rukia only gave him an odd look, more exasperated each time as she repeatedly assured him that she would be fine, and that Sode no Shirayuki would be back once she was fully recovered.

Ichigo could only breathe a sigh of relief. When Sode no Shirayuki returned, he would apologize. And he made a mental note to never try his hand at taking another Shinigami's powers ever again.


II.

Even before his mother had died, Ichigo had been getting fairly good at hiding the fact that he could see things that pretty much no one else could see. The only problem had been that he hadn't always been able to tell the difference between a Hollow and a Human if said Hollow had a Human form.

Masaki's death had only cemented Ichigo's resolve to differentiate between the two, and over the years, he only got better at walking past the ghosts wandering the town and not making eye-contact with them when he was in public.

So hiding his ability to see Zanpakutou spirits wasn't all that difficult, even when he was around disturbingly perceptive people like Urahara. Heck, the shopkeeper hadn't even given him any I'm-on-to-you looks so Ichigo would count that as a win.

Instead, his predicament was the Zanpakutou spirits themselves.

They wouldn't leave him alone.

:I know you can see me, you insolent child. How dare you ignore me?:

Ichigo gritted his teeth as he hauled one of the cardboard boxes off its place on one of the shelves in the back room. In between training (and mentally panicking over Rukia's impending execution), Urahara had bullied him into helping out around the shop, and since the man was training Ichigo, it wasn't as if Ichigo could refuse no matter how much he complained.

Ghostly fingers brushed the back of his head, sharp nails nicking his scalp, and with a muttered curse, Ichigo spun around and glowered irritably at the figure behind him.

"Would you stop that?!" He hissed, voice pitched low even in the privacy of the room he was in. Urahara could pop up at the most inopportune times.

The slender, regal woman before him, face half-hidden behind a red eye-mask decorated with delicate lines of gold, and dressed in crimson from head to toe, stared back at him derisively. Even while staying in one spot, her long scarlet hair – only a few shades darker than her clothing – fluttered around her as if an invisible breeze was constantly at her side.

In Ichigo's opinion, if Sode no Shirayuki had been elegance and beauty personified, then Benihime was akin to ferocity and majestic lethality combined. Not that he'd ever tell Benihime that because her infuriating penchant for trailing after Ichigo and demanding his attention more than made up for any admiration he could've felt for her.

In that, Benihime was very much like her wielder. Neither seemed to be able to stop annoying the shit out of him.

"Look," Ichigo continued, grasping onto what little patience he still had for this haughty spirit. "It's not like I can talk to you with other people around. It's not exactly normal, is it? Even for a Shinigami? And I'm a Human to boot; it's already weird enough for me to be running around as a Shinigami!"

Benihime sniffed, disdain entering her expression. :You are no mere Human, child. What a ridiculous notion! Have you nothing but air between your ears? Why do you not question how you came to be? Do you think it is truly so easy for a Human to be born with the ability to see Shinigami and Hollows? With the exception of the Quincy, even those other children have had need of a trigger to build up enough reiryoku to be able to see as clearly as you do.:

Ichigo blinked, feeling a little dumbfounded at her impromptu rant. And then his brain caught up and he scrambled for words and his mind raced. "Wait, what do you mean how I came to be? I was just born with it, like my sisters. What-"

:Figure it out yourself!: Benihime snapped patronizingly. :I certainly will not tell you since you insist on being so thick. Now, hurry up with those boxes. Didn't Kisuke tell you to bring them to him as quickly as you can? It's been five minutes; you're so slow!:

Ichigo would've thrown up his hands if he wasn't holding the aforementioned box, and with as nasty a glare as he could muster in the spirit's direction, he picked up the other box as well and marched out of the room.

"You're the one who wanted me to talk to you!" He growled, stalking past her. It took every last drop of his self-control not to shout at her when a hand cuffed his head from behind. It didn't hurt per se, the blow somewhat cushioned as if Benihime was only hitting him with a pillow, but he had never met such a high-maintenance person.

:Mind your manners, child,: Benihime told him arrogantly as she swooped past him. :And I expect you to talk to me from now on. However, you may refrain from doing so when other people are present; be grateful for my generosity.:

"Generosity my ass," Ichigo muttered under his breath as he swept down the hall. Slightly louder upon catching the rather foreboding downturn of Benihime's lips, he grumbled, "Why do you want me to talk to you anyway? If you're bored, go talk to Urahara-san. He's your wielder."

Benihime actually deigned to float down to his level, green eyes studying him critically through her mask. :Kisuke does not always have time to talk to me; he certainly cannot spare enough of it to meditate and enter our inner world to see me while you are still here, so you have the responsibility of keeping me entertained. Besides, I have never talked to another being before. You are an anomaly. You cannot expect me to leave something like you alone, can you?:

Ichigo growled. "I'm not a thing. And don't call me an anomaly! Or a child!"

Benihime only flounced off, disappearing around a corner even as she called back, :I will call you a child because you are one. And an impudent, unruly child at that.:

By the time Ichigo reached Urahara, he was in a foul mood, and he shoved the boxes into a startled shopkeeper's arms with more force than strictly necessary.

"Something wrong, Kurosaki-san?" Urahara enquired, looking more amused than concerned. Above him, Benihime tossed him a superior smirk, and Ichigo had to force himself not to throw something at her. Hollows didn't give him half the attitude this spirit did.

"Nothing's wrong," Ichigo bit out through a tight jaw. "But if there was, I'd blame you."

Because obviously, it was all Urahara's fault that his Zanpakutou spirit turned out to be someone like Benihime.

Without another word, Ichigo whirled around again and hightailed it out of there before Urahara could lambaste him with another job.

He gave thanks that at least Tessai's Zanpakutou didn't seem all that inclined to talk to him, though the shadowy figure (Ichigo actually hadn't been able to make out more than a vaguely humanoid shape) that had stood steadfastly at Tessai's shoulder had nodded politely at Ichigo when the spirit had figured out that he could see it. After that, Ichigo had only caught the occasional glimpse of it since it seemed to prefer staying out of sight.

And he had only seen Yoruichi's Zanpakutou spirit flitting at the edges of his vision, never really staying still long enough for Ichigo to pinpoint it.

Now why couldn't Benihime be like them?


III.

Seireitei was like a freaking zoo, except with an array of Zanpakutou spirits instead of animals. Then again, there were several animal-like spirits wandering around. Renji's, for one, couldn't seem to decide whether to stick to a baboon with a monkey's tail or its humanoid equivalent. Their squabbling made Ichigo very glad that they weren't his Zanpakutou.

After the invasion, after stopping Rukia's execution, and (to top it all off) after Aizen's spectacularly dramatic betrayal, Ichigo found himself waking up in a soft bed in a quiet room.

He almost screamed when he found himself staring up at a slim humanoid figure covered in bandages and wearing a very long light green hood. He couldn't make out a face.

As it was, he yelped and jerked sideways, arms flailing as he rolled away, and then promptly fell off the bed and crashed onto the floor, taking his blankets and half the contents of his bedside table with him.

Which meant that the jug of water that had been sitting on said table came tumbling down on top of him, drenching him from head to toe.

Spluttering and choking, Ichigo ran a wet sleeve over his eyes, trying to figure out where he was as he squinted up at the woman approaching him with a serene expression and a faintly bemused glint in her eyes.

"Uh-" Ichigo managed as his gaze darted between the dark-haired woman and the cloaked figure drifting a few steps behind her. Relief flooded him when he spotted Zangetsu standing in one corner of the room, shrouded in shadows but watching everyone in the room with careful eyes. When Ichigo caught his gaze, the older man offered only the slightest of nods but it settled Ichigo like nothing else could.

"Kurosaki-san, I do hope you do not always wake up like this," The woman admonished lightly, and Ichigo quickly looked back at her again as she extended a graceful hand to assist him.

Ichigo reddened but hesitantly (because he had been an enemy of Soul Society not too long ago and this woman, no matter how nice she looked, gave off the vibe that she was not to be fucked with) accepted the helping hand and allowed her to pull him back onto his feet.

"Sorry," He said sheepishly, glancing briefly past the woman and making sure to include the spirit as well because it wasn't exactly its fault that its looks sort of creeped Ichigo out. "I'm still a bit- uh... keyed up."

The woman inclined her head, leading him back to the bed and gently but firmly pushing him back into it before bustling away for the folded black Shihakushou that Ichigo now identified as his own on another table.

"Understandable," The woman nodded as she came back. "I am Unohana Retsu, captain of the Fourth Division. You have been under my care for the past three days."

"That long?" Ichigo blurted out, and then hastily tacked on, "Uh, I mean, thank you for taking care of me but what happened to Rukia? Renji? Hanatarou and Ganju? And my other friends?" He paused, recalling who had been badly hurt. "And Byakuya? Is he alright? And that wolf guy too I guess-"

He stuttered to a halt when Unohana raised a hand to stop him, a thoughtful expression passing over her face as she scrutinized him.

"Kuchiki-san is fine, as are Abarai-fukutaichou, Yamada-san, and those who entered Soul Society with you," Unohana revealed calmly. "All our captains, including Komamura-taichou, are also in good health or on the mend. Kuchiki-taichou is still confined to bed rest but he will make a full recovery as well."

Ichigo figured that 'the wolf guy' was this Komamura-taichou, and he made a mental note not to go around calling the guy a wolf again. After all, that captain had worn that huge helmet before he had flipped out over Tousen's defection; he was probably uncomfortable with his looks or something.

"Great," He said instead, tugging distractedly at the wet hospital gown clinging to his skin. He wondered if he should ask about Aizen and the whole desertion thing but decided against it. It wasn't any of his business, not really, and just because the Shinigami had stopped trying to kill him didn't mean they were all buddies now. He doubted Unohana would tell him much about any future plans regarding Aizen anyway. "So am I allowed to leave or...?"

Unohana nodded once more, handing over his clothes, along with a pouch that clinked in Ichigo's palm. "Please refrain from attempting anything strenuous for the next few days, and I suggest a shower and some food – there is a cafeteria on the first floor, or you may find a restaurant elsewhere. Other than that, you are free to go."

Ichigo didn't need to be a genius to recognize what the pouch in his right hand contained. "Wait, Unohana-san, I can't take-"

The words withered on his tongue as Unohana's expression took on a shadowed cast even as she continued smiling passively back at him. "I insist, Kurosaki-san. You cannot roam around Seireitei without some means of currency."

Ichigo gulped, glancing once more at the cloaked spirit who suddenly looked ten times more menacing, and hastily nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Unohana nodded one last time, seeming pleased as she left with her spirit gliding after her.

Ichigo shook his head. Holy shit, it should be illegal to be that scary without moving a single muscle.

He cocked his head and tentatively felt around for any foreign reiatsu signatures (he still wasn't all that good at it yet). Finding none, he released a breath and turned to Zangetsu. "You alright? No lasting damage?"

Zangetsu nodded, coming forward, black overcoat flowing fluidly around him. :I am fine. You were in capable hands for the past few days.:

Ichigo quirked a rueful smile as he clambered to his feet, making a mental note to clean up the floor as best he could before he left. "Unohana-san doesn't seem like the type of person who would accept anything less than the best so that's a given. I'm surprised they didn't assassinate me while I was out though. You know, for the whole invasion thing."

:You helped uncover a coup,: Zangetsu pointed out. :Granted, it was Aizen Sousuke's plan to reveal himself at this stage anyway, but you helped prevent the possible deaths of quite a number of Shinigami, the younger Kuchiki included. I doubt Aizen had planned to keep her alive after retrieving the Hogyoku. And had you not arrived in time, the Sixth Division lieutenant would have undoubtedly been killed as well.:

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair, shoulders no longer feeling quite as tense. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Okay, let me just take a shower, and then we can get outta here. I-"

A ringing cackle from behind him cut him off, and Ichigo swiveled around, almost tripping over his feet in his haste.

There was no one there, yet he knew that sinister laugh.

Ichigo instinctively reached for the Zanpakutou leaning innocently against the bedside table. "Oi, Zangetsu-"

:There is nothing to fear, Ichigo,: Zangetsu cut in, and Ichigo glanced nervously over at the spirit. :If you know yourself, if you accept yourself, then there is nothing to fear.:

What the hell was that supposed to mean? Ichigo sighed in frustration but aborted his move for his Zanpakutou. Zangetsu was always so cryptic when he wanted Ichigo to learn something, but the old man didn't look worried so Ichigo supposed he could put it out of his mind for now.

He sighed again and headed for the adjacent bathroom. After leading an invasion, he deserved some down time.


IV.

Seireitei was huge.

Ichigo hadn't been consciously aware of that the first time around, too busy racing against time and those idiotically law-abiding Shinigami to stop and enjoy the scenery so to speak.

As he wandered down one busy street though, Zangetsu a step behind him on his left, he noted the numerous restaurants and housing areas and even shopping districts.

It was lucky that lower-ranking Shinigami didn't seem to have learned their Zanpakutou's names yet, Ichigo mused idly as he scanned the groups of nondescript people wearing standard Shinigami uniforms wandering about (they didn't look or even feel very strong).

He was more than a little adept at pretending he couldn't see what everyone else couldn't see but he was still uncomfortable with walking through a spirit in the few times that he couldn't avoid it and the spirit itself hadn't moved out of the way. For some reason, unless Ichigo intentionally wanted to, he couldn't touch the spirits, and vice versa, which was actually pretty handy.

Ichigo had actually walked through Zabimaru twice (he was fairly certain that the baboon-snake hadn't guessed that Ichigo could see them since Ichigo himself hadn't given any such indication), and he'd even had to lean through Ikkaku's Zanpakutou spirit to double-check that the guy hadn't been about to kick the bucket after their battle.

(He was secretly glad that Houzukimaru hadn't seemed to notice that Ichigo had been able to see him either since even one solid blow from that giant – even in its injured state – would've definitely hurt, and the spirit had looked pretty pissed at Ichigo and even more concerned over Ikkaku.)

Ichigo rounded a corner onto a quieter street, and Zangetsu quickened his pace to draw even with him. :What of that teahouse, Ichigo? It looks less crowded, a quiet place, but well-maintained.:

Ichigo nodded his agreement, and then glanced curiously at the older man. "Can you guys actually eat and drink?"

Zangetsu tilted his head in a contemplative manner, and then smoothly produced his own jar of sake out of nowhere. :As you can see, we have no need to even if we did require food and drink, which we do not, and I personally have never tried, but I believe so.:

"Huh," Ichigo shrugged, heading for the teahouse. "Okay then, I'll get us a corner table or something so you can try. Could be fun, right? Plus I'm starving. If you can't eat it, I'll finish everything off for you."

If Zangetsu had been anyone else, Ichigo knew the man would've rolled his eyes.


V.

As it turned out, Zangetsu could eat – and drink – though the spirit had remarked that his own sake tasted better. Ichigo just made sure that his body was angled so that nobody saw a floating pair of chopsticks in the air.

:We have company,: Zangetsu warned him when Ichigo was halfway through a plate of takoyaki. :No, don't turn around. Distinguish their reiatsu.:

Ichigo scowled, lowering his chopsticks. "It's always training with you," He groused, but obeyed, brow crinkling as he tried to sense who had just entered the establishment. There were two of them, and they weren't familiar like Rukia or Renji but Ichigo was sure he had at least felt this reiatsu in passing before.

And they felt strong. Really strong, even though their reiatsu was muted.

"Captains?" Ichigo deduced hopefully, voice lowering to a murmur when he felt the two reiatsu signatures advancing towards him. "Uh... two of the captains who were on the Soukyoku Hill. Not Unohana-san or Byakuya. I don't think it's the old guy either; the Captain-Commander I mean."

Zangetsu didn't quite smile but his expression was one of approval even as he shifted out of his seat and stationed himself in the windowsill instead, sake cup in hand. :Not bad. Next time, be sure to identify them by name.:

Ichigo only had time to flash a quick grin before a friendly voice from behind him called out, "Kurosaki-kun, I see you're out of the Fourth. You have fully recovered then?"

Ichigo stiffened a little even as he twisted around in his seat, and at first, all he saw was a duo of pink and white. And then his head tipped back to take in the new faces, and it only took him a moment to recognize the two captains who had been responsible for destroying the Soukyoku. The white-haired one he had met even before that.

And then, of course, there were the four spirits hovering around them.

Or maybe just two, Ichigo reflected as he swiftly took in the two blades at the pink guy's waist. Two swords, one spirit split into two, one Zanpakutou.

He gave himself a mental shake before the silence got awkward and hastily nodded a greeting, momentarily wondering if maybe he should stand up to greet them, and then dismissing that idea because the time for that had passed at least five seconds ago. "Yeah, I have. Unohana-san just told me to take it easy for a few days."

He paused when neither captain looked like they were going to nod and bid him goodbye anytime soon. Inwardly sighing, he gestured somewhat stiltedly at the opposite seats. "Do you want to join me? You're here to eat, right?"

"We'd be happy to," The white-haired captain beamed as his spirits – children for God's sakes, and twins at that; what exactly did that say about their wielder? – giggled in the background. "And yes, we were busy with repairs earlier so we've only now had time for a late lunch."

They slid onto the empty bench as Ichigo surreptitiously examined the pink guy's spirits. Both were women, though the younger-looking spirit with only one green eye visible looked perpetually bored with everything around her, while the other, dressed like one of those courtesans back in the day, reminded him a little of Benihime in the regal, proud way she held herself, except she looked far more laidback, and she even nodded cordially in Zangetsu's direction as she settled in the air a few feet beside her wielder's head.

Ichigo turned his attention back to the two captains as they settled finished sitting down, each of them picking up a menu, and he figured, after an uncertain moment on his part, that these two had apparently forgotten that Ichigo didn't know who they were.

Huh. How embarrassing. Still, better get that out of the way now.

He cleared his throat, and then had to fight down an uncomfortable flush rising in his cheeks when he found himself on the receiving end of two expectant looks. He ran a restless hand through his hair. "I'm sorry but I don't- really know who you are. I mean, I know you destroyed the Soukyoku, and you're obviously captains, but I don't know your names."

Both captains blinked and traded a surprised glance before huffing a laugh between them.

"We apologize," The white-haired Shinigami said at once. "We thought someone had already pointed us out to you at some point since you didn't seem too confused earlier when we entered. I am Ukitake Juushirou, captain of the Thirteenth Division, and this is Kyouraku Shunsui, captain of the Eighth."

The pink guy – Kyouraku – nodded a greeting, smiling genially at Ichigo even as the man's spirits turned to give him a onceover. Out of the corner of his eye, Ichigo watched as the younger one looked wholly indifferent while the older one had gained a calculating gleam in her visible eye.

Ichigo nodded in response, leaning back and casually sweeping an eye over the twins as well. They paid him no mind, playing with each other as they clambered over the back of the bench that the two captains were sitting on.

"Right, nice to meet you," Ichigo offered briskly. "Uh, you already know who I am."

Well, he'd never claimed to be any good at conversation.

"Of course," Kyouraku looked faintly amused but his Zanpakutou spirit – the older one – hadn't stopped observing him with a speculative eye. "I daresay most of Seireitei knows who you are. And the friends you brought along. They are very loyal to you."

Ichigo softened just a bit without meaning to. "Yeah, I guess, but they were here for Rukia as well."

Kyouraku hummed noncommittally as Ukitake flagged down a waitress and placed their orders. "Mm, the one I met might disagree with you there. He insisted he came to save a girl he barely knows because you decided to."

Ichigo instantly knew who the captain was talking about. "You bumped into Chad? He's... well, that makes sense, I suppose. We made a promise when we first became friends. He was just keeping it."

And Ichigo made a mental note to thank them all later, Chad and Inoue and even Ishida, because none of them had been all that close to Rukia, and they hadn't had to come.

Speaking of which...

"How is Rukia?" Ichigo turned to Ukitake, remembering that this one was her captain. Unohana had said that Rukia was fine but...

"She has already returned to work, though she is only allowed on light duty for now," Ukitake smiled almost fondly – and just a touch wistfully if Ichigo was honest – at him but Ichigo was abruptly, intensely aware of the fact that the man's Zanpakutou spirits' sole attention was entirely on him all of a sudden. Especially when the twin boys vaulted forward and stopped an inch from his face.

He couldn't help it; he jerked back.

He caught a glimpse of Zangetsu straightening from his previous lax perch on the windowsill, eyes narrowing behind his sunglasses.

And both of Kyouraku's spirits were looking at him now.

Aw crap.

Up until now, Ichigo hadn't really questioned why none of the spirits (sans Zangetsu) who knew that he could see them – Sode no Shirayuki (though granted, she hadn't had much time to do so), Tessai's spirit, and especially Benihime – hadn't told their wielders about him. He'd let that go though, mostly because Tessai and Urahara were allies so even if they had found out, Ichigo was fairly certain that they wouldn't do anything bad to him, but the Shinigami in the Gotei 13 were a different matter altogether. Unohana's spirit knowing wasn't something Ichigo could take back either at this point.

For some reason however, neither of Kyouraku's spirits moved an inch, the younger one cocking her head at him in a vaguely cat-like manner while the older one smirked at him and finally looked away, turning to prod Zangetsu for a cup of sake instead. Zangetsu stared for a second before shrugging and handing one over.

Ichigo felt like facepalming. Why were spirits so damn weird?

"Kurosaki-kun, are you alright?" Ukitake's voice snapped his focus back to the two captains, and he managed a strained smile in their direction even as he raised a hand to push the twins away from his face, pretending to gesture at the window in the process.

The twins blinked at him before looking at each other, and then both broke out into playful snickers.

This did not bode well for Ichigo.

"I'm fine," Ichigo assured as he tried not to let his eyes stray to the two spirits prowling towards him once again. "I just remembered I had to do something later. Nothing too import- ow!"

One of the twins had managed to amble within arm's length, and the brat hadn't wasted any time reaching out and yanking on a lock of Ichigo's hair from behind so that the way his hair suddenly lifted was hidden from the captains' view.

Now both Shinigami across from him were looking slightly alarmed.

"Stubbed my toe," Ichigo lied glibly, shifting in his seat as he tried to bat the twin away without any particularly conspicuous motions.

The boy who had yanked on his hair giggled to his twin, voice rising excitedly. :Look, look! If we dyed his hair black, he'd look like Kaien!:

Who the hell was Kaien? Heck, did it even matter? Ichigo just wanted them off!

He tossed a fleeting, meaningful look over at Zangetsu, who looked far too amused for Ichigo's taste, but fortunately, the man acquiesced and reached out to pluck one of the twins away from Ichigo's head. To his surprise, Kyouraku's older spirit also complied, one well-manicured hand darting out to snatch the other twin away.

:Let go, let go, let go!: Both twins whined, squirming in the other spirits' firm grip. :We want to play with him! Orange-Kaien, don't you wanna play with us?:

Ichigo frowned. Kaien again. He wracked his memory; hadn't Ukitake himself look startled when the man had first laid eyes on Ichigo? When he had tried to grab Rukia that first time, the white-haired captain had looked... shocked when Ichigo had appeared, almost like he had seen a ghost.

Did he really look so much like this Kaien guy?

"Kurosaki-kun, are you sure you are alright? Do you need to go back to the Fourth?"

Ichigo snapped out of his daze, dragging his gaze away from the gathering of spirits all congregated by the window. Ukitake looked openly concerned now but Kyouraku was – to Ichigo's horror – glancing between him and the window with a puzzled air about him.

"I'm fine," Ichigo repeated once more, and thanked whatever god was listening when the captains' food came. "You enjoy; I just need to go to the bathroom. Be back soon!"

And without a backwards glance, he fled the table, forcing himself to a quick walk instead of the fast sprint he felt like throwing himself into.

Ducking into the men's room at the back of the restaurant, Ichigo barely had time to turn around before all five spirits came piling inside, the twins bouncing towards him and latching onto his arms as the other three phased through the wooden door at a more sedate pace.

"What do you think you're doing?!" Ichigo exploded, instinctively curbing the worst of his temper since he was dealing with – for all intents and purposes – children. "You're gonna get me in trouble! Or thrown in the loony bin, depending on how crazy I look!"

The elder of Kyouraku's spirits tsked, glancing distastefully at the urinals and sinks before focusing on him. :Do mind your manners, boy. Sougyo no Kotowari simply likes to play. They're relatively harmless unless you truly anger them. Mischievous, certainly, but not dangerous. Not much anyway.:

"Oh I feel a lot better now," Ichigo retorted sarcastically, but he made an effort to quell his irritation. It wasn't this spirit's fault, and she had helped him out earlier. "Okay then, what can I call you and who is this Kaien guy that these brats keep babbling on about?"

The woman scanned him loftily before sighing in a resigned manner and drifting forward so that she now stood a foot in front of Ichigo. She was taller than he was, just a little.

:We are Katen Kyoukotsu, she and I,: The woman gestured between herself and her younger counterpart who was hanging back away from the group. :But I suppose, if you must, you may refer to her as Katen, and myself as Kyoukotsu. You may refer to Sougyo no Kotowari as anything you wish since you will not be able to tell them apart anyway.:

Ichigo glanced down at the laughing twins with a disgruntled expression. They were pretty much indistinguishable, and they were still hanging off his arms.

:As for Kaien,: Kyoukotsu continued. :Hmm, well, Shiba Kaien used to be the Thirteenth Division's lieutenant until he was killed several decades ago.:

Ichigo was more than a little bewildered. "O... kay, so what does that have to do with me?"

Kyoukotsu actually rolled her eye. :You look like him, you silly boy. He had black hair and green eyes but other than that, you two are nearly identical.:

Oh. So basically, Ukitake was simply reminded of this Kaien character when he looked at Ichigo. Wonderful.

Wait.

"Did you say Shiba?" Ichigo enquired, thinking of Kukaku and Ganju and their subtle and not-so-subtle aversion to Shinigami. "What exactly happened to him?"

But Kyoukotsu only shook her head this time. :If you want the details, you will have to ask someone else. I have nothing more to say on the matter.:

Oh, Ichigo was planning on doing just that. Something wasn't quite adding up here. What were the odds that he looked almost exactly like a dead Shinigami from who knew how many decades ago? And hadn't Benihime told him that he was no mere Human, that he should question how he came to be, how he – and Karin – could see ghosts so clearly without any outside help or triggers?

The ability had to have originated from somewhere, right?

And since he and his sisters could see them, Yuzu's ability admittedly weaker but still there, maybe it was... hereditary?

Huh. His father was in for it when Ichigo got home.

:Ichigo, you have been in here long enough,: Zangetsu interrupted his thoughts. :The captains will become suspicious.:

Ichigo sighed in exasperation, lifting his arms. "They're already suspicious, and what the hel- what am I supposed to do with these two? And actually, come to think of it, why haven't any of you told your wielders about me? I mean, the Gotei 13 would probably want to know, if only because all organizations hate not knowing things."

Kyoukotsu shrugged elegantly, already turning away. Katen had already disappeared through the door again. :In the end, every spirit's first priority is our wielders' safety. We care not for your rules and laws and all that other meaningless drama. Besides,: The woman glanced back, a smirk tilting her lips. :I have lived for a very long time, and even I have never encountered someone like you. You are certainly more interesting than my tedious wielder who only lazes around all day.:

Ichigo sweatdropped and promised himself to never repeat that in front of Kyouraku. The man might feel offended.

"Wait, what am I supposed to-" Ichigo groaned quietly as Kyoukotsu disappeared as well, literally leaving him with an armful of kids. Zangetsu remained by the door, lounging against the wall with an air of amusement about him.

:Orange-Kaien, play with us!: One of the twins piped up once more. :You can see us! You can see us! Kaien couldn't, nobody could, but you can! Let's play, Orange-Kaien!:

"Okay, first of all, my name's Ichigo, not Orange-Kaien," Ichigo sighed in defeat and crouched down so that he could bend to the children's level. "And secondly, I can't play right now, but," He added hurriedly when both boys looked ready to pitch an epic fit. "If you come find me later, when I'm alone, I'll play with you, alright?"

He knew – from Benihime following him around and demanding attention – that spirits didn't have to stick beside their wielder all the time, though they only seemed to be able to leave their wielder for Ichigo. They weren't exactly free to wander around all of Soul Society whenever they pleased. He didn't know if they could cross into another world entirely though; he fervently hoped not or he'd probably be hounded even after he got back to Karakura Town again.

(What Ichigo couldn't understand was why they – mostly just Benihime really, and now Sougyo no Kotowari – couldn't seem to stay in their respective inner worlds instead of bugging him all the time.)

The twins traded another wordless glance before scaling Ichigo like a tree and settling on his back, but they made no move to yank his hair again or be particularly difficult.

"'Kay! But you promised!" The twins chimed before falling into loud whispers, evidently wanting to stay clinging onto Ichigo's back but were relenting on the playtime front.

For now.

Ichigo rolled his eyes and got to his feet again, scowling at Zangetsu's entertained expression. "Laugh it up. It would serve you right if they decide to play with you next."

Zangetsu's deep chuckles followed him out of the bathroom.

"Everything alright?" Kyouraku was the one who asked this time as Ichigo returned to the table, Ukitake's spirits hanging off his shoulders.

"Yeah, no problem," Ichigo said as he slid back into his seat. "How's the food?"

He spent the next half hour pretending not to notice the considering looks from both Ukitake and Kyouraku.


VI.

Ichigo ended up walking with the captains towards the Thirteenth, Ukitake having offered to lead him there to meet Rukia so that Ichigo wouldn't get lost along the way.

Ichigo was content to listen to the two captains conversing about various issues in Seireitei, giving him little pieces of information about the place they lived in. They always managed to coax him into voicing his own opinions, and Ichigo had more than enough questions about Soul Society in general to keep the older Shinigami occupied.

Around them, the spirits meandered along at their own pace, Katen wandering on ahead while Kyoukotsu fell into step beside Zangetsu, and the twins tumbled over each other as they scampered from one side of the road to the other.

In Ichigo's opinion, it must've been really boring for them to wait around in their inner worlds for their wielders to need them or communicate with them if they all seemed to prefer to kick back out here.

He glanced over at Ukitake when the man started coughing again, one pale hand coming up to cover his mouth, and Kyouraku automatically reached out to steady his friend with a hand of his own.

"That... sounds kinda bad," Ichigo said carefully when Ukitake subsided again, eyeing the captain closely.

Ukitake offered an apologetic smile. "I have had it almost all my life. I'm afraid not even Unohana-taichou can do anything about it."

Ichigo cocked his head, mentally reviewing a few of the medical books that he had read in times of extreme boredom when he had had nothing better to do (and his dad had been too crazy for him to deal with so Ichigo had fled to the empty clinic for some peace and quiet). He wondered if illnesses manifested somewhat differently in Shinigami, maybe sticking around for longer periods of time without killing them, and while he'd be the first to agree that healing Kidou was amazing, Ichigo had also seen enough of Soul Society to realize how... well, backwards it was.

"Have you tried Human medicine?" He suggested, pushing past the uncomfortable awkwardness he was feeling at poking his nose into someone else's business. Still... "They've advanced pretty far."

Both Ukitake and Kyouraku were staring at him now, and Ichigo was relieved that at least neither of them looked offended.

"Human medicine?" Ukitake echoed slowly. "That has never really come up. As I understand, they use herbs and such to heal their patients."

Ichigo choked a little, and he had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to stifle a bout of disbelieving laughter. Oh jeez, these Shinigami.

"That was a long time ago," Ichigo informed them. They had all slowed to a stop by this point. "You haven't really been down to the Human World in a while, have you?"

Ukitake shook his head, a curious light in his eyes. "No, captains rarely leave Soul Society unless a true emergency arises, and most Shinigami simply finish their designated mission before returning immediately afterwards. Rukia was an exception."

"Oh," Ichigo frowned in thought before forging onwards. It was what he did best after all. "Well maybe you should check it out in your spare time. Your sickness – you obviously have coughing fits pretty regularly, right? Especially when you exert yourself too much? Do you have fevers? Or weight loss and a lack of appetite during those fevers?"

Ukitake looked somewhat taken aback at the rapid-fire questions, and it was Kyouraku who responded this time, grey eyes intent. "Yes he does, to all of those. Are those recognized symptoms?"

Ichigo's brow furrowed even more as he dredged up the lines of text that he'd only half-memorized. He had never actually thought he'd need them; the books had just been light reading. "Uh, it could be a little different for Shinigami but I'm guessing Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, or lung cancer. First two are pretty easy to cure compared to other diseases; lung cancer's more complicated, but like I said, I don't know how Shinigami would react to certain treatments."

He paused as the two captains glanced at each other, an entire conversation passing between them in a span of a few seconds without ever saying a word, before they turned back to him.

"I'll consider it, Kurosaki-kun," Ukitake promised, another smile – more genuine this time instead of the patented patient one from before – curving his lips. "Thank you."

Beside him, Kyouraku was staring at Ichigo like he was the most fascinating thing he had come across in a very long time. It was distinctly unsettling being on the receiving end of it.

Ichigo shrugged self-consciously, rubbing the back of his neck. "No problem. If you do decide to get a checkup or something, come down to Karakura and ask... well, you can ask anyone to point you to the Kurosaki Clinic."

"Oh?" Something flitted across Ukitake's expression, too quick for Ichigo to read, but he cheated by glancing over at the twins again. Both had quieted and were watching Ichigo with the same intensity as they had when Kaien had cropped up the first time around.

Fantastic.

"Your family runs a clinic then?" Ukitake enquired.

"Yeah," Ichigo weighed his words. "Or, my dad does."

He thought it prudent not to bring up too much about his family.

"And who is your father?" Kyouraku asked curiously, tilting his sakkat back absently.

Too much interest.

Hm.

Maybe Ichigo should've directed Ukitake to the Karakura Hospital instead.

There was no way he could avoid this question though, unless he lied, and maybe Ichigo was just being paranoid.

He opened his mouth to answer, only to be interrupted by a familiar voice bellowing his name.

"ICHIGO!"

Ichigo wasn't sure whether or not he should curse his luck.

As the screaming reached his ears, he cursed it.

:Ichigo, stay calm,: Zangetsu was at his side in an instant, one warm hand curling gently around the back of his neck to ground him. :Ignore it.:

Ichigo swallowed harshly, unable to stop himself from backing up a few steps until he was partially standing behind Kyouraku, practically using the captain as a shield.

Not that it helped stave off the shrill cries resounding in his ears.

He had almost died fighting Zaraki Kenpachi because the crazy bastard's Zanpakutou would not stop screaming.

It had distracted Ichigo badly throughout the entire fight, and he had already been having enough trouble fending off Kenpachi's insane reiatsu and attacks as it was. If it hadn't been for Zangetsu keeping up a constant stream of soothing words in his mind to drag him away from the agonized shrieks that no one else could hear, Ichigo would probably be dead right now.

The screams got louder as Kenpachi approached, grinning madly, and Ichigo stumbled a little as he moved away again, trying to tune out the noise.

How the fuck could Kenpachi not hear that?

Another, more solid hand clasped his elbow, and Ichigo started when he realized that Kyouraku was frowning down at him with apprehensive perplexity. With some effort, Ichigo straightened and stood his ground, furtively shaking off the Eighth Division captain in the process.

"There you are, Ichigo," Kenpachi strode up, Yachiru-free and blade still thankfully tucked away as the spiky-haired captain nodded curtly at the other two Shinigami. "Ukitake-taichou, Kyouraku-taichou. Mind if I borrow Ichigo for a bit? I want my rematch."

Ichigo felt Zangetsu's hand tighten around his neck, nowhere near enough to hurt him but enough that Ichigo understood that the spirit was displeased.

"It doesn't matter if they mind or not," Ichigo cut in before either captain could reply. "I'm not fighting you again; once was enough. Besides, Unohana-san said I had to take it easy."

Even Kenpachi faltered minutely at the mention of Unohana, and in that moment, Ichigo had never been more grateful to anyone in his life.

"Damn, are you sure?" Kenpachi looked close to sulking. "Well when are you completely healed?"

"Not for at least a week," Ichigo fired back without batting an eye. Anything to stay away from Kenpachi's Zanpakutou. "Probably two. Three if I'm unlucky and I strain something."

Kenpachi stared at him. "What? That's a long-ass time! Hell, you'll probably be going home by the end of the week!"

"Yeah, well," Ichigo flapped a hand in the air. "Good thing I don't want to fight you anyway."

Kenpachi glowered, peering doubtfully at Ichigo. "Are you sure you're not completely healed? You're not lying to get out of fighting me, are you?"

"Of course not," Ichigo said bracingly. Involuntarily, his eyes drifted to Kenpachi's Zanpakutou again.

:You cannot do anything to help, Ichigo,: Zangetsu said quietly, accurately predicting Ichigo's train of thought. :This is something a Zanpakutou and its wielder must work out by themselves.:

:Utterly disgraceful,: Kyoukotsu cut in with her own input, looking disgusted and sympathetic all at once. :A Shinigami unable to hear his own Zanpakutou. Downright shameful honestly.:

The twins had scooted back to crowd behind Ukitake, hands covering their ears, and Katen had disappeared altogether, most likely escaping into her inner world instead for some reprieve.

"We could always test that out," Kenpachi was saying now, one hand dropping to the hilt of his sword as he eyed Ichigo slyly.

Ichigo bristled, sucking in a fortifying breath. "No means no, Kenpachi. Now if you don't mind, I have to get going. I'm on my way to see Rukia."

Kenpachi cocked his head. His grin widened. "Get past me first then."

Ichigo didn't bother drawing his own Zanpakutou as the bloodthirsty captain hurtled towards him, sword unsheathed. He had no desire to cross blades with Kenpachi's Zanpakutou ever again, at least not until Kenpachi learned its name. The screaming was bad enough; whenever Ichigo had deflected a blow or fought back against a flurry of strikes with Zangetsu, he had actually been able to feel the pain that the Zanpakutou spirit had been in. Feeling that again was not on his to-do list.

So he dodged. Anyone would when they saw Kenpachi careening towards them like an out-of-control juggernaut.

But as it turned out, he didn't really need to.

"Now, now, there isn't any need for that," Kouraku cut in, literally, drawing one of his blades to block the oncoming attack with enviable ease. The captain didn't even blink, still smiling affably as if the downward assault he had just stopped didn't hold all of Kenpachi's feral strength and weight behind it. And the man hadn't even bothered activating Shikai.

Ichigo was kind of glad that Kyouraku hadn't been one of the Shinigami he had had to fight. He wouldn't have stood a snowball's chance in hell.

"You know how Unohana-taichou gets when anyone under her care doesn't follow her instructions to the letter," Ukitake added mildly, one hand landing on Ichigo's shoulder as he began ushering Ichigo away. "Remember what happened the last time she was... unhappy with you, Zaraki-taichou?"

Kenpachi backed off, grumbling under his breath at whatever memory Ukitake had brought up, but the Eleventh Division captain nodded grudgingly, sheathing his sword again. "Fine, but you owe me a fight the next time we see each other, Ichigo!"

"Like hell I do!" Ichigo shot back, only to earn an exasperated look from Ukitake as the man steered him away.

"Don't go riling him up even further, Kurosaki-kun," Ukitake chastised with a sigh.

Ichigo huffed, gaze lingering on Kenpachi's Zanpakutou until they turned a corner and the captain was out of sight.

"I take it you did not enjoy your battle with Zaraki-taichou," Ukitake observed dryly.

Ichigo snorted, and then released a short breath as the screams grew distant before vanishing completely. "Well, he was trying to kill me."

He stalled for a second, glancing at Kyouraku's Zanpakutou before looking up at the captain. "Didn't that... hurt?"

Kyouraku blinked, a faint frown creasing his brow. "Hurt? No, of course not, I fully deflected that attack. Nothing to worry about."

Ichigo glanced away, eyes finding Kyoukotsu. "Oh. That's good."

:I think it goes without saying,: Kyoukotsu told him with a strange expression on her face. :That you are far more sensitive to spirits in general than anyone else. Typically, when Shinigami cross blades, they can sense, faintly, what their opponent wants through their Zanpakutou, what their heart is trying to convey. You on the other hand can also sense what the spirit is feeling. Most Shinigami and their Zanpakutou are attuned in battle, yes, but that doesn't mean they are feeling the same thing. In fact, more often than not, they aren't. I myself am frequently in disagreement with this lazy oaf over here even when we are fighting together.:

Ichigo's mouth twitched, one that fortunately went unseen by the two Shinigami walking beside him.

"Ah, here we are," Ukitake announced after they had turned onto yet another street. "My Division is just up ahead."

Ichigo perked up. Both Unohana and Ukitake had reassured him about Rukia's health status but Ichigo still wanted to see for himself.

And he had a spirit to apologize to. He hadn't forgotten.


VII.

"Ichigo! You're out of the Fourth!"

Ichigo grinned, breaking out into a quick jog when he caught sight of Rukia just coming down a flight of steps leading down to the courtyard he had just entered. Even from this distance, she looked much better, features no longer haggard and stressed, and she was smiling freely without the anxiety that had marred her expression ever since Renji and Byakuya had gone to retrieve her all those weeks ago.

"Yo, Rukia!" Ichigo raised a hand in greeting as he hurried forward to meet her. "Yeah, I just got out a few hours ago. Unohana-san gave me the all-clear. You look better too."

Rukia rolled her eyes but smiled up at him. "I haven't overexerted myself to the point of being laid out in a hospital bed for days on end like you. You're so reckless, Ichigo."

"Hey!" Ichigo had to smother another grin, more relieved than anything else, as they fell back into their usual easy banter. "I'll have you know I had a plan."

Rukia practically reinvented the sardonic look she was currently sending him. "Oh really? Did that plan consist of anything beyond 'defeat anyone who gets in the way'?"

Ichigo scratched his head, scowling good-naturedly. "Hey, at least it worked. You haven't been executed. Be a little grateful."

Rukia folded her arms bossily. "I told you I wouldn't thank you for it. Don't think I'll change my mind."

Ichigo snorted. As if he could forget. They were each just as stubborn as each other.

"Maa, a single meeting with Kurosaki-kun and you're in much better spirits already, Rukia-chan," Kyouraku commented teasingly as he and Ukitake caught up.

Rukia blushed but it faded quickly enough as she bowed respectfully to the two captains. "Good afternoon, Ukitake-taichou, Kyouraku-taichou. I was just beginning to worry that Ichigo was going to sleep for another week."

Ichigo scoffed, stepping back as the captains struck up a conversation with Rukia. He couldn't help noticing the way half the courtyard seemed to have stopped whatever they were doing, all of them glancing repetitively at Ichigo like they couldn't believe their eyes, all while pretending they weren't.

Exactly how alike was he to this Kaien guy?

Well, it didn't matter. He'd make a trip over to the Shiba house sometime and ask Kukaku or Ganju for a picture.

Instead, he turned his mind onto more important things, backing up a few more steps so that he was mostly out of hearing range of the others.

And then he looked to his left, making sure not to move his mouth too much. "Hey."

Sode no Shirayuki bobbed her head gracefully, smiling kindly at him. She seemed to have thawed a little compared to the vaguely chilly demeanour that Ichigo remembered from when they had first met. :Hello again, Kurosaki-san. I am glad to see you doing well.:

Ichigo grimaced a little. "Yeah, you too. Look, I'm really sorry about the whole taking Rukia's powers thing."

Sode no Shirayuki was already shaking her head, hair flowing around her. :You are not to blame for that. I know you did not do it purposefully. There is nothing to apologize for.:

"Still," Ichigo insisted. "I heard you; it must've been really painful. So I'm sorry for that, at least."

The spirit laughed, a chime-like sound that she partially hid behind one wide sleeve. :You are a strange one, Kurosaki-san. Very well, I shall accept your apology, and in return, I give my thanks for saving my wielder.:

Ichigo offered a lopsided smile at that one, but before he could say anything else, Rukia interrupted with a confused "Ichigo? Are you talking to yourself?"

Ichigo spun around to face her, along with the other two Shinigami. "Of course not; why would I talk to myself? I've been stabbed a couple times, not concussed. Now how about you show me around? Unless you're still busy with work or something."

This successfully distracted Rukia, and she turned hopeful, questioning eyes on her captain. Ichigo knew the man wouldn't refuse, especially not now after her near-brush with execution.

In contrast, Kyouraku was still watching him, eyeing the empty space where Sode no Shirayuki was still hovering.

:Do not underestimate my wielder, boy,: Kyoukotsu interjected with a wry smile. :He is a clever, cunning man despite appearances, and while he would prefer diplomacy over violence in any situation, he would not hesitate to cut an enemy down should such actions become necessary. And the other one is nothing to scoff at either. Regardless of his kind nature, Sougyo no Kotowari's wielder can be equally ruthless when times call for it. Kyouraku Shunsui and Ukitake Juushirou are two of the most dangerous individuals you will ever meet.:

Ichigo inwardly shivered. So getting on the wrong side of these two would definitely be a Bad Idea then. He hoped, in the future (because he just knew that his dealings with the Shinigami weren't over), that their ideals would never clash.


VIII.

Over the next few days, Ichigo saw at least glimpses of all the senior officers of the Gotei 13, and, of course, their Zanpakutou spirits as well, big and small. He even bumped into Toshirou and managed to annoy the crap out of him in the process (the faces the captain made were hilarious). He had also caught up with his friends, though he couldn't for the life of him understand why Ishida felt it necessary to whip up a whole new wardrobe for all of them.

It had taken him a while to gear up the nerve to go visit the Fourth once more to see how Byakuya was doing. They weren't enemies anymore but he was fairly certain that the Sixth Division captain still hated him, and to be frank, Sebonzakura scared the shit out of him.

The samurai spirit was relentless in battle, but to Ichigo, the scariest thing about Sebonzakura was the fact that he had held zero animosity towards Ichigo, yet he had still almost killed him. The spirit had been like a machine because Ichigo hadn't been able to glean any emotions from him other than apathy, what with the mask and all. Byakuya had been the one with all the indignant anger and scorned pride underneath his icy facade, not Senbonzakura. The spirit hadn't been mad at Ichigo like Ikkaku's or even Renji's had been.

If Ichigo could just hold a mere conversation with the spirit, he was sure he could get a better grasp on what Senbonzakura was like, but he wasn't willing to risk his secret doing it.

However, Ichigo wanted to at least exchange a few words with Renji before he left, and he knew that the lieutenant had been staying at Byakuya's side as much as possible ever since the whole Aizen debacle had ended. Plus, he owed it to Rukia to at least make nice with her brother, so that meant sucking it up and heading back to the Fourth.

It took him a while to find the right room (there were way too many hallways in his opinion), and the door was open so he saw Byakuya sitting up in bed, Renji in a chair several feet away, Zabimaru in its humanoid form wrestling with each other in the far corner, and Senbonzakura standing stoically at the foot of the bed before any of them saw him.

Ichigo cleared his throat and knocked twice on the doorframe. All the occupants turned to look at him, though Byakuya didn't look particularly surprised so he at least had probably sensed Ichigo from all the way down the hall (then again, Byakuya wouldn't have shown any surprise even if he had been surprised).

Renji however jerked his head around and leapt up when he caught sight of Ichigo. "Oh, Ichigo! I heard from Unohana-taichou that you were out. Would've tracked you down earlier but you've been all over the place so..."

He trailed off with a shrug, scanning Ichigo up and down. "Well, at least you don't look like shit anymore."

Ichigo scowled at him half-heartedly. "You were in worse shape than I was, asshole."

Renji scoffed loudly. "You got your ass kicked by Aizen!"

Ichigo thought this was highly hypocritical of the idiot. "You did too! I saved you from getting gutted like a fish!"

They glowered at each other before simultaneously relaxing and snorting with laughter. Ichigo caught sight of Zabimaru making faces at both of them, looking petulant but no longer enraged.

"Well come on, tell me what you've been up to," Renji urged, dragging him over to another chair before pulling up and seemingly recalling the fact that Ichigo and Byakuya had been trying to kill each other not too long ago. "Uh..."

Ichigo took pity on him and nodded at Byakuya as politely as he could manage. "Hey, Byakuya. Unohana-san told me you're going to make a full recovery. When are you allowed out?"

Byakuya's eyes narrowed. "Tomorrow at the latest." He paused. "I do hope you will not continue referring to me by my first name, Kurosaki Ichigo."

Ichigo blinked, glancing at Renji who looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack and was about as much use to him as a dead lemming. "Um, what do you want me to call you then? Byakuya-sama? Kuchiki-sama? I hope you realize that there's no way that's gonna happen."

Byakuya pinned him with a flat stare. "Kuchiki-taichou is sufficient."

Ichigo mulled the title over in his mind before waving a hand. "Nah, just Byakuya is much better. Don't worry, you'll get used to it."

He shifted his attention back to Renji before Byakuya could turn him to ice with the power of his withering, lava-freezing glare alone. The redhead was looking at him as if he thought Ichigo had a death wish. In the corner, Zabimaru – both of them – was howling with laughter. Senbonzakura looked as aloof as ever but the samurai's head remained turned in Ichigo's direction as if he was still examining him.

"So what's been going on with you?" Ichigo prompted as he grabbed a stool to sit on and yanked Renji down into the other chair. "Besides staying in this room and doing your paperwork or whatever."

Renji hesitated, glancing once more at Byakuya, but when it became clear that his captain had decided to ignore them both, his shoulders became less tense. "Honestly, not much else. You sound like you've been having a lot more fun. What have you and your Human friends been up to?"

Ichigo shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "Well, Ishida's sewing like crazy – don't ask me why; I think he thinks all our clothes are fashionably unacceptable or something. Chad and Inoue's been roped into trying out the new clothes and being Ishida's life-sized models. I think he's even whipping up something for Rukia. I ducked out while they weren't looking."

Renji guffawed. "That's hilarious. I'd have thought they'd all be exploring."

"Apparently, they did that while I was out," Ichigo said. "And I don't think they really want to wander all that far considering everything that's happened..."

He motioned at the window in an encompassing gesture. Renji nodded his comprehension. After all the shit that had gone down, the last thing they needed was some gung-ho Shinigami cornering one of them alone and attempting to rough them up a bit for invading Soul Society even though all had been – officially – forgiven.

"Where are ya headed next then?" Renji prodded, lounging back in his chair now.

"Mm, back to the Shiba house," Ichigo said briskly. "There's something I want to talk to Kukaku about."

Renji frowned in confusion. "What about? Nothing too serious, right?"

Ichigo scratched his head. "No, not really. Just... Ukitake-san has been..."

Renji raised his eyebrows. "Has been...?"

Ichigo scowled. "He's been looking at me weird. I want to know why."

In his peripheral vision, Ichigo saw Byakuya stiffen.

"Looking at you weird?" Renji parroted skeptically. "Are you sure it wasn't just your imagi-"

He stopped. Looked at Ichigo. Looked hard. "Oh."

Ichigo straightened in his seat. "Oh what?"

"Uh..." Renji glanced over at Byakuya who looked completely blank. "I suppose you kinda look like Shiba-fukutaichou. I didn't know him very well; I had just graduated from the Academy for a few years when he died. But he was Ukitake-taichou's lieutenant before that so I guess that might be it."

Ichigo nodded slowly. Kyoukotsu had already told him as much but it was nice to have it confirmed by someone else.

"Okay then," He got to his feet, idly wishing he knew how to seal his Zanpakutou since the bulk of it was a bit troublesome. "I'm off."

"To the Shibas'?" Renji blinked at him, evidently startled by Ichigo's abrupt declaration.

"Yeah," Ichigo confirmed. "Gonna see if I can get my hands on a picture of this Kaien guy. He can't look that much like me, right?"

Renji shrugged, and Byakuya didn't say anything at all, so Ichigo waved goodbye to both of them, paying no mind to Byakuya's frigid glower when Ichigo called him by his first name again, and then ducked out of the room.


IX.

As it turned out, Shiba Kaien did look almost exactly like Ichigo. However, Ichigo didn't get to ask about him.

He had stumbled on the shrine when he had been wandering the house looking for Kukaku, only to find her sitting in front of it.

"He was my older brother," Kukaku had told him without turning around.

That alone had pretty much killed any sort of interrogation that Ichigo had had in mind.

But there was no way anyone could look that much like Ichigo (or Ichigo look that much like anyone else) and not be related, and that had piqued his curiosity. After all, he was Human. Granted, a Human turned Shinigami but he had been born Human.

Right?

And Kaien was a Shinigami through and through.

So where did the resemblance come from?

That question had brought him to the Seireitei Library. Rukia had pointed it out to him when she had given him a tour, and Ichigo figured that if he wanted information about clans, the library was the best place to start.

One librarian, half a dozen deeply suspicious looks, and a trip up to the third floor later, Ichigo was seated at a table with a small pile of scrolls in front of him. The librarian had warned him that there were no 'clan secrets' placed in the library; Ichigo had told her that he wasn't looking for any. He just wanted to know if there were any lists of clan members stored in the place. The woman had still seemed mistrustful but she hadn't kicked up a fuss and had led him to a collection of general annals and chronicles open for public eyes, each filed by clan name.

Ichigo had skipped right over the Kuchikis and Kyourakus and Shihouins (Yoruichi the cat-woman was from a clan?) and a number of other clans before he found a small portion of the archives labelled Shiba at the very end.

The first piece of information he had found was that they had once been a big clan but, for some undisclosed reason, they had fallen from grace and had been booted out of Seireitei.

When the librarian had said 'general', she hadn't been kidding. The records he found were mostly an overview of what the Shibas had specialized in (fireworks), what their clan symbol had been, what their formal clothing looked like, and even where their compound had been located, but nothing more concrete than that.

Luckily for Ichigo, the family tree wasn't classified.

And from there, it didn't take long to trace his way back through the clan heads, Kukaku being the current one, and Shiba Isshin being the one before her, and apparently presumed dead, having been declared AWOL. His last rank before he had died had been captain of the Tenth.

Holy fuck.

The first thought Ichigo had, ridiculously enough, was that there was definitely a mistake. This Shiba Isshin was probably not the same guy as Kurosaki Isshin because, seriously, what kind of idiot out there would choose a moron like Goat-Face to take charge of a clan and a squad?

But of course, there was still the matter of Ichigo's likeness to Kaien, so after ten minutes of futilely attempting to picture his father ordering people around and being relatively leader-like, Ichigo gave up, accepted it as fact for now, and moved on.

It looked like Kaien had been the Clan Head before Ichigo's father, and the guy was also Isshin's nephew. Which made him Ichigo's cousin. Which also made Kukaku and Ganju Ichigo's cousins.

There were dozens of other names Ichigo didn't know, almost all of them labelled deceased, but they weren't really relevant right now anyway so he ignored them for the most part. Instead, he sprawled back in his chair, closed his eyes, and thought.

He was Human – that was an indisputable truth.

However, that also meant that at least one of his parents had to have been Human, which meant that if this family tree was right, if Kurosaki Isshin was Shiba Isshin, then that meant Ichigo was part-Shinigami through his father.

Which made his mother Human.

Ichigo didn't need to go hunt down a law book to deduce the fact that marriage – or any relationship really – between Humans and Shinigami was probably illegal.

So was Kurosaki Masaki the reason why his father had given up his life as a Shinigami? And if his father was a Shinigami, why hadn't Ichigo seen the man's Zanpakutou spirit around? Isshin was definitely wearing a Gigai, had probably gotten it off of Urahara too, so did Shinigami in Gigai mean that their Zanpakutou spirits would be hidden as well?

No, that couldn't be it; he had personally seen both Urahara and Tessai in Gigai, and their Zanpakutou spirits had still been flitting around.

So did that mean Isshin wasn't a Shinigami?

But Ichigo looked too much like Kaien to not be related in some way, plus what were the odds that his father's name coincided with a dead Shiba Clan Head?

His eyes snapped open and he scrubbed a hand over his face. Ugh, he was talking himself in circles.

Well, when he returned to the Human world, he could hunt down his mother's birth certificate and find out what her maiden name was. If it was Kurosaki, then that would be another point towards proving that his father really was a Shinigami, spirit or no spirit hovering around notwithstanding.

One thing was for sure though. Ichigo was eighty percent certain that Kurosaki Isshin and Shiba Isshin were one and the same. The man had faked his own death to get away from the Gotei 13 since a relationship with a Human was most likely against the law.

And Ichigo had, mere days ago, just told one of the most powerful Shinigami captains in all of Soul Society to visit his father's clinic.

Shit.


X.

When Ukitake offered him the Substitute Shinigami badge, Ichigo wasn't even looking at the man. Instead, he was watching Sougyo no Kotowari.

The twins had nothing short of devious smirks on their faces, their expressions an odd mix of phony innocence and shifty-eyed guilt.

Half a second later, Ichigo switched his focus back to the smiling captain in front of him.

"Just a license, huh?" Ichigo sighed somewhat resignedly, wondering if deceit was a requirement for all Shinigami officers.

"Yes," Ukitake nodded amicably. "So you'll be able to hunt Hollows officially in Karakura Town."

Ichigo squinted at the man, unable to make out so much as a twitch of discomfort. Behind Ukitake, Sougyo no Kotowari's gazes had dropped to the ground.

Ichigo sighed once more and accepted the badge.

"Yeah, okay. Thanks."


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