[AN: I just realized we passed 100k words in the last chapter! This was my first story I've written in fanfiction and now it is the longest story I've ever written…anywhere! I'd like to thank everyone who has stuck on for my rambling story with ill defined plotlines and holes to where it is now as well as all the helpful tips I've received for making the story clearer and more enjoyable. U da best! :)

Also, I just realized why I was so confused about you all commenting about the lack of page breaks. On my screen I was putting an underline between scenes but it wasn't transferring over for some reason. I have made a change starting this chapter to clear away the confusion. Sorry about that! I'm so fukin' dumb. :( Enjoy the more spaced formatting.]

Chapter XI

The first week in the Onmitsukidō was a sharp curve of a learning period. They were woken up at the crack of dawn or earlier to start morning exercises within the pitch black cavern. They went through sword forms and practiced learning how not to hit someone in the back despite the tight formations and started to get a sense of how to use more of their spiritual senses for maneuvering around instead of their eyes. It was a vital skill as they mostly operated in the night on assassination missions. Then they learned how to identify someone completely by their reiatsu alone.

They went through a series of trials that felt more like games taken to fatally extreme levels to put their lessons into practice. They played a "game" of hide and seek where the instructor selected a number and they had to identify who it was and track them down, all while stumbling into each other for the prize of being the one to finish the mission first. The losers did not get to eat breakfast. Considering they would be forced to exercise all day, it was a prospect none were willing to go through a second time after their first failure.

Their afternoons were spent refining their hakuda and how to move stealthily and their evenings had them finally being allowed to relax their bodies to train in reiryoku manipulation, mainly on how to suppress their own signatures. This wasn't a very difficult task for Ichigo as it had been so long ago, he had kept with his practices throughout the academy and was the first to manage to mask it…if only for a minute before his concentration broke and it released back to full strength.

Then after their evaluations were given, the next week began with them splitting up according to their capabilities and Ichigo was happy to see Ren- number 29- was on his team. That was when the difficulties of their training went from hard to harrowing. Their week repeated itself, but everyone found themselves in training weights that felt like they were carrying cinder blocks for shoes and given larger doses of poison and they had to repeat the Hell Route. If that wasn't enough, Ichigo realized that the type of poisons given to them changed every week to further build their immunity.

Perhaps the worst feeling though was having to keep Zangetsu locked in his room at all hours of the day because a zanpakutō is one of the greatest indicators of someone's identity. The fact that he was one of three people with dual swords just pushed that from easily identifiable to holding up a neon sign shouting his name to the world in how obvious it was to spot him. It didn't make the situation any more comforting and Zangetsu bitching in his ear didn't let him forget it either which just worsened the feeling.

As week four came round, Ichigo felt like he was finally getting a hang of things and that he was improving, so of course that meant their instructors piled on more difficult activities. Sparring against someone without weights while it felt as if the moon was riding on his shoulders for instance. If nothing else it pushed his reaction time to greater heights. Throwing knives at them to learn to dodge attacks in the dark was also very unpleasant in the beginning before Ichigo learned to push his need for sight to the back of his mind and it felt like a switch in his head was on and suddenly Ichigo didn't feel the slight pressure and anxiety of being deprived of his sight.

The start of the next month heralded a far more interesting challenge ahead. They started to learn the art of information gathering. How to deduce information from targets that they are trying to hide, how to read information quickly enough to get an idea of what a potential target is, how to plant false information in a crowd, but the one that everyone for one reason or another loved the most was how to seduce their target to spill their secrets. To achieve this, they were all given two passphrases. One was theirs for this exercise, and the other was told to be their targets. They had to learn who had their passphrase and the identity of their target. Both had to be told to their guide by the end of the year. If they failed, they would be kicked from the program. Then the next week came around and they were given one more detail: the passphrase of their target is the words they said as the lock on their memory for the Onmitsukidō. Meaning if they said the words in front of him, he would forget everything he'd learned. His eyes flashed gold in the dark privacy of his room. He wouldn't let that happen.

The weeks passed quickly, making their routines eventually feel mundane. The end of the month always prompts something new to be introduced. The second month was how to disguise themselves in a crowd. As they couldn't let their faces be seen by the other members, that meant their guides were once again called in to judge and mentor them on proper usage.

The third month had them running over to the next district where a large lake innocently lay hidden between two large hills. The instructor pulled out a pocket watch and told them to hold their breaths for a half hour, the five failing would receive a harsh punishment. Ichigo plunged into the water and felt half of his air escape as he gasped in surprise at just how frigid it was. It must have been kept just above freezing! Ichigo looked down at the bottom of the lake bed and found two particularly large rocks that he could wedge himself between. He smirked as he stuck his feet to the walls and his back to the other side. He wouldn't be wasting any more energy and necessary oxygen by doing this and with the added benefit of having somewhere to relax and observe the rest of the competition.

Ren joined him at the bottom a minute later. He looked at him and Ichigo felt a burst of amusement pulsing from his reiatsu before Ren used a rock to place over his feet and offered a thumbs up. As the time slowly drudged by, Ichigo found himself conversing with Zangetsu out of sheer boredom. It was certainly difficult to hold his breath for so long, but after a while it turned more into a mental exercise than a physical one. Zangetsu had come up with an insulting nickname for half of the other initiates by the time thirty minutes passed. A Shakkaho exploding in the center of the lake marked the end and Ichigo casually kicked off the rock and burst out of the water. He gratefully heaved in the fresh air and ignored Zangetsu snickering that he could have done it for hours without getting tired. Ichigo didn't know if it counted considering he wasn't technically alive.

Month four marked their studies into poisons, how to identify them, how to treat yourself enough to continue on the mission, and how to create their own. They extracted venom glands from animals to mix with chemicals and by the end of the month were injected with their own concoction. In the delirious haze, they were forced to find the ingredients to create an antidote or something that would at the very least let them live. Three initiates dropped out that month, one of which was Ichigo's target who he had just managed to figure out the previous week.

It was the fifth month that tested Ichigo's resolve. Torture and interrogation. They were led down to a cell block where a recently captured rebel was chained to a metal chair in the middle of a small…auditorium? They sat onto the metal bleachers surrounding the chair as the instructor walked into the room with a set of tools. Ichigo breathed deeply through his nose to cover his nerves. This was not something he was looking forward to at all!

The instructor explained what each tool was meant for and demonstrated first on a dummy and then on the prisoner. The instructor only made it through three tools before the rebel was begging to make it stop and willing to speak. Ichigo grit his teeth at the pained screams. The sound echoed in his ears as the memory of his own overlapped. Once they observed the questioning finishing, the instructor told them, "After their information has been acquired, they are of no more use. Should they get the chance to escape, all of the information you have learned would be obsolete and be a danger to you, your comrades, the public, and most importantly to the mission. There is only one fate awaiting them at the end." Hideki glanced at them all in the eye before asking, "Is anyone willing to perform the deed?"

While the rest glanced at each other, Ichigo had already found himself rising onto his feet. Every step down the metal stairs echoed in his ears as his stomach twisted. He found himself standing beside the prisoner before he knew it. Hideki asked him something but Ichigo's ears weren't working. Ichigo stared into the terrified, crying eyes of the bound man and Ichigo felt something pop in his ears as he clenched his teeth. A hand placed itself on his shoulder and Ichigo turned to see Hideki's unflinching and unmerciful eyes judging his own.

"Well? Get on with it, 15." Ichigo's eyes dropped back onto the rebel and he walked around the chair until he was behind him. Ichigo took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he whispered, "I'm sorry," and closed his hands around the man's face and neck and twisted. The crack bounced off the cold stone walls and Ichigo thoughtlessly returned to his seat, dropping ungracefully onto it with a thud. He listened with half an ear to the following lecture as the instructor continued the lesson on the dummy and prisoner…even in death he served a purpose. Ichigo felt a tear slip from his eye at the morbid thought that pervaded his mind. Every death serves a purpose. That is the way of the Onmitsukidō, to hunt and kill the enemy. It was necessary. It was dirty, horrible, nauseating work, but necessary. Ichigo knew he needed to learn it though. Aizen, Juha Bach, and all of the other threats headed to Soul Society with a grudge. He could stop them before they ever became a dangerous threat. If only he held on a little longer.

"Fifteen," Hideki called, stopping him before he could leave with the rest as the lecture ended. "Good work. Go get cleaned up."

Ichigo offered him a nod and ran- fled really- to his room. He promptly threw up his stomach now that he was alone. Watching that from a third person's perspective was awful. It was worse because he knew that any day now he'd be forced to be the one holding those tools. He took a long bath that night before flopping onto the cot.

He doubted he got a wink of sleep before he started the next day's exercise. Ichigo noticed he wasn't the only one acting lethargic that morning. Quite a few of them were unknowingly projecting their anxieties which just made it worse as they all reveled in their shared misery. Ichigo had never been so happy to learn that by circulating his reiatsu around himself, he could cancel out the "noise" of the others. It wasn't something he could do in a stealth mission as it was practically sending up a beacon to everyone where he was, but in the safety of their base at least he could push past it.

The next week found Ichigo entering a cell alone except for Misaka and Hideki who were observing him from the side. He was to show he'd been paying attention by performing on a live subject. He was given a list of questions he was supposed to ask going from something as simple as the commander's name of the rebel army, something they already know, to locations of bases they stayed at and where they are getting supplies from. Then he was to ask who was recruiting the rebel forces. Stopping the army from growing would go a long way to putting down the enemy force if they didn't have a new supply of soldiers to draw from. It would break their morale, cull the numbers, and stabilize the economy a bit more if people were content to continue their jobs instead of being swept up in a fallacy of getting a better future by recreating the government to their desires.

Ichigo had a lot of problems with Central 46, but he knew that they were necessary to keep order within the otherwise lawless dimension. Perhaps the largest problem was that they were located in only one place and are responsible for such a large population and are scattered far beyond a conceivable policeable area. This meant that the people in the latter districts were forced to fend for themselves.

'The more freedom you had, the less secure of an environment,' Ichigo mused as the prisoner was brought into the cell with a bag over her head. They threw her into the chair with a crash and pinned the shackles to the floor before they retreated from the room leaving Ichigo alone with the prisoner except for his evaluators.

One thing Ichigo had learned from both his time in the Onmitsukidō and his own experience as a prisoner was that often the fear of what could happen was far more intolerable than what actually happened. The mind cycles through scenario after scenario of the worst tortures imaginable and breaks people down. The best interrogators don't have to even lift a finger to get people speaking.

So instead of removing the bag, Ichigo leant against the wall and stared at the bound woman who was frantically jerking on her restraints and twitching her head to the sides to get her bearings, something quite difficult due to how thick and obscure the sack covering her face. Ichigo waited until it seemed her nerves were settling when he allowed his footsteps to scrape the ground as he circled her, sending her nerves skyrocketing again. Ichigo placed a firm grip onto her shoulder and spoke in a clinical tone.

"The human eye moves at least three times a second; that's over 100,000 times a day. Did you know that?"

"Wha- what?" she asked hoarsely. Ichigo noted that she'd been screaming recently because of the strained sound.

"Our eyes jump around to take in as much stimuli as possible," Ichigo continued, "because we don't perceive sight directly as they are, but instead from both views of the eye that is transmitted to the occipital lobe." Ichigo let his statement linger for a moment before leaning down next to her ear.

"I have been experimenting in Kidō recently and I have learned how to make a certain flame type to be smaller than a scalpel." Ichigo tore away the bag from her face as he brought forth his modified Kidō in hand and lowered it close to her face so she could turn her terrified blue eyes to stare at what would be her instrument of agony. She jerked her head back as much as the chair would allow and Ichigo used his height to tower over her cowed form.

"What do you think would happen if I were to permanently remove your tear ducts? All the lubricant needed to move freely would suddenly be gone. Your eyes will scrape against the insides of your skull every second of every day until you are begging for relief."

The woman started babbling as tears poured from her eyes and Ichigo made the intensity of the flame hotter and brighter in response.

"Please. No- don't- please," she continued into nonsensical sounds as Ichigo let the edge of the flame briefly scorch the edge of her nose just enough so she could jerk away slightly out of reach.

"Now…are you willing to tell me what I want to know?" He asked, sending a short burst of his reiatsu tinged with the feelings of inner wrath of his hollow nature as reinforcement to dominate her will. Her wide eyes told him what her response would be before she ever opened her mouth. Though she could not see it, Ichigo still gave off the impression of a demon smiling malevolently.

—O—

Ichigo walked out of the interrogation room nearly two hours later after pressing her for various details and cycling the questions around slightly to make sure he got the same answers to see if she was telling a lie. The woman, named Fujita Kayo- a former daughter of a seamstress who had watched her family get brutally murdered in the lawless upper districts because a son of some minor lord had a chip on his shoulder and felt he was wronged for some reason or another. No evidence could be proved that it was him though, so Fujita-san felt the need to get revenge herself if the law could not. She was found by a recruiter in the late thirty districts in the east who promised her a chance for retribution. The fact that the rebels were recruiting closer and closer to the Seireitei meant nothing good for the current situation of the war.

The rebels were favoring more sabotage and guerrilla warfare attacks than open battle, a smart decision considering the difference in power they could both raise in response. The Gotei 13 outperformed the rebels in every way except numbers, but in the face of a lieutenant or captain, the gap literally meant nothing. A mere swing of a sword could shred people in half with the air pressure alone- as proven by Zaraki in the field just last week- but their numbers replenished in a fortnight where they attacked somewhere else. As much as the Seireitei tried, they couldn't look or be everywhere all at once and they continued to use the Gotei's stretched forces to their maximum advantage.

Something Fujita revealed was that there were former members of the Gotei 13 who had for one reason or another decided to teach classes of how to become a shinigami. They stole the most recent shipment of Asauchi and gave them to the most promising under their tutelage. Ichigo knew this was just the "first act" of the war. It was going to get much worse before it was ruthlessly put down and the enemy commanders turned into cautionary tales. It wasn't a pleasant thought, but Ichigo understood that it was the only thing that would put a stop to the violence so they could plan for the future against the real threats, the ones who risked the stability of the world. The ones who named the Shinigami as Balancers. Juha Bach and his Wandenreich. Aizen Sousuke and his dream of replacing the Soul King. They must die for peace to be achieved.

—O—

As Ichigo mulled over his thoughts, Yoruichi and Hideki were discussing Ichigo's results. Yoruichi couldn't keep the small grin off her lips as Hideki maintained a stone face.

"Admit it."

"No," Hideki replied.

"Do it."

"I said 'no', My Lady," he rebuffed with ease only gained from decades dealing with her antics.

"You know you want to~" she practically sang, bouncing on her toes around him as they walked toward her office to write the report of Fujita's record of targets, both her known superiors and base locations, the initial methods of their training, the recruiters and where they look for potential additions to their forces, and a whole host of other minutiae facts and day to day operations. However the most pressing was the reveal of an upcoming raid on one of the Seireitei's food supplies. If that was hit they would have to not only force people to farm, but also keep a constant guard to ensure their safety as well as the harvest.

While the common soul only required a meal once a week or a month, the residents of the Seireitei were born with more reserves and needed the typical three meals a day or risk starving as their reiryoku turned the remnants of food to replenish itself instead of maintaining their vitals. The shock to the system was very dangerous because their body was used to a certain amount of energy and knew how much it had to burn off to maintain equilibrium. Many souls didn't survive the withdrawal and it would severely hinder the shinigami if they couldn't restore their reiatsu. That meant no shikai, no Kidō, and most importantly no healing techniques from the Fourth Division on top of their latharga.

"My Lady, would you respectfully fuck off?" Hideki said, maintaining his bland tone despite his posture conveying his displeasure of her attitude.

"I know you want to add Ichigo's move to that little black book of yours." The black book was Hideki's personal record of Onmitsukidō techniques he has under heavy Kidō seals at the deepest location of the base and hidden behind as illusionary wall, locked in a metal chest that could probably withstand Ryujin Jakka's shikai for thirty seconds- or so he claimed- and Hideki would give his life a thousand times over to stop an outsider from reading a single page, much less the entire book.

Hideki gave a great sigh of sufferance and glanced to the ceiling briefly before turning to the cat who ate the canary look Yoruichi was sporting- pun most definitely intended- and offered a small nod.

"It was an impressive tactic," he agreed warily, knowing she was about to react. And surprise surprise, he was right on the money. Yoruichi jumped into the air and swung around on his shoulders before landing on his back and he was forced to redistribute his weight to compensate for his "kitty bag" as he fondly nicknamed her in her youth due to her piggy-back riding habit.

Hideki had served beside Yoruichi's father and- while not a relative- was still called so by her when at family gatherings when he was off duty. Hideki was more than happy to continue his career of doing what he loved despite his best friend retiring from the captaincy position. Breaking recruits was his favorite pastime in between carrying out his lady's orders and missions, and he would continue to do so until his body refused to work anymore. Even then, he could change to a more managerial position and bark out commands. Other than the Hell Route Hideki didn't have to move much to maintain order of the initiates and he could always foist the run to someone else. Besides, that would be several centuries anyway before he had to start worrying about his health.

"I always find the best toys," Yoruichi continued her teasing tone. Hideki flashed a glimpse to see her smile. It was different from how she usually used to say such things.

"Is that all he is?" Hideki asked, making her smile dim slightly before she recovered from her lapse with a tighter smile.

"What else would he be?" she asked instead.

"Hmm," Hideki let the slightest twitch move his lips before the emotional walls slammed back into place with practiced ease.

"What do you plan on doing with the information we've acquired?" he finally asked.

"Stop the rebels, hunt down the leaders, kill the recruiters, and finally put an end to things all the while letting the Gotei 13 take the credit…business as usual. Why?"

"That wasn't what I was referring to, My Lady. I meant from the other prisoner."

The Onmitsukidō had captured twenty different rebels from the last four raids and from different districts and bases. All had the vaguest hint of an attack planned which had nothing at all to do with the food supply as they previously thought. Two from the south spoke of a rumor against the Academy, to stop the Seireitei from replacing their forces while they were still weak and relatively easy to kill. Three from the south east said there was a chemist creating a concoction that would "leave a trail of red across the Center of Power." Nine, from various bases, all revealed they heard a plan to release the boundary between the Maggot's Nest and acquire the worst criminals into their forces. The rest heard whispers of a beast chained in a base, though what the beast was or where it was contained made that line of inquiry a temporary dead end from the get go.

Their actuable plans they could make would be to reinforce the guards around the First Division to keep an eye on the prison, send a team to start tracking down this chemist, and station a few members as students in the academy to best protect the students without intimidating the enemy and lull them into a false sense of security. Yoruichi shared her ideas as she hopped off his back when they arrived into her office and as soon as they knocked out the particulars, Hideki ran off to disperse her orders. She flopped onto her large cushion she kept in her office.

"The world is going to turn to shit…if it isn't already," she mumbled, staring at the ceiling as her mind whirred with various plans and back-up plans. She shook her head and slapped her cheeks before standing up. She needed something to take her mind off her depressing thoughts. She felt a grin work its way back up onto her face at the thought of catching her little berry boy cleaning up in the baths. She could almost feel a string of drool falling at watching his muscles flexing as he worked his magic fingers into the tense spots around her shoulders that she would demand he fix when she barged into the bath. He would probably put up a fuss, but in the end Yoruichi knew she could put her charms to work and make him fold. With her spirits elevated, Yoruichi jumped into a shunpō that was too fast for most captains to see in search for the young Shiba.

—O—

Aizen poured over the data being transmitted through a hidden device he kept within the forest training grounds of the Onmitsukidō. Shiba Ichigo was doing admirably; perhaps even greater than his initial expectations of the prodigy student. Aizen could tell that he was what some people called a battle genius. His paperwork and test scores showed a bright mind to be sure, but his aptitude to physical combat and learning whilst in the midst of violence was otherworldly. Aizen couldn't recall anyone improving so quickly…except for perhaps himself, his pride reminded him.

Aizen knew in comparison he was more of an intellectual learner, pursuing through the vast library to learn all of the Gotei 13's secret techniques that he learned in secret within a few days of trial and error after reading through how it should react. Within a few more days he would master said techniques and find a way to manipulate them to his liking. His control of his own power was what made him such a lethal foe and Aizen knew it. None except the head captain could match him in pure power and he would bet he outperformed Retsu Unohana, or Yachiru Kenpachi as he had learned, in how refined his reiatsu could flow. He willfully acknowledged she was the better in Kaido, but that was all she outperformed him in.

If Aizen was to achieve his plans of becoming the next Soul King, he would need a distraction to keep the Zero Division guards off him. Ichigo would be a suitable pawn in that regard. Aizen smirked before replacing his thick framed glasses and his facial features softened to the kind and humble demeanor he was popularly known for. Lieutenant of the Fifth Division, Aizen Sousuke, left his hidden lab buried deep under the surface beneath the Seventh Division barracks. It was close enough to react if needed, but far enough away from his regular routine that he wouldn't be seen as acting irregularly. It also allowed him to suitably lie if he was asked where he had been by his overly nosy captain by saying he was trying to cultivate the capabilities of unseated recruits who might have potential and poach them to his division.

Through both recommendation and subtly planting the idea into more capable students in the academy through his calligraphy lessons as a temp teacher, Aizen had slowly added people that were loyal to him first and the Gotei 13 second, not that they consciously realized such a thing. Their faith in him was as amusing as it was pitiful. Aizen relished in his pastime of twisting their minds to obey his words with a few compliments or "gentle" admonishment. Especially if his words conflicted with what their initial beliefs were and they followed through willingly. It was merely preparation. Preparation for establishing himself as the strongest and letting his splendor be known to the masses. He relished the day where he could cast off his shackles on his reiatsu and show everyone exactly how outmatched they were, but not yet. He wasn't so arrogant to believe he could take on the entire forces of the Gotei 13 as he was…for now.

He thought back to his experiments of creating his Magnum Opus that unfortunately was falling a tad short to his desires. He saw what he wanted but despicably his experiments refused to cooperate and survive the transformation process from shinigami to hollow hybridization. Their pitifully weak reserves couldn't withstand the combustion process and either turned completely into a hollow or went through a variant of soul suicide. It was beyond vexing! He needed a stronger host to test on. Fortunately this cute little rebellion would grant him all the opportunities he needed to abduct the necessary subjects he required…so long as he had a suitable excuse prepared.

That was why he had crafted another persona with the rebel faction as a willingly and naive spy who passed certain bits of near negligent information along with the occasional piece of good intel so they didn't "cast his aside." Aizen honestly wanted to chortle at how a few of the "tougher" commanders had initially called it. The fools were like adolescent bull sharks born in a lake who were later dropped into the ocean whilst surrounded by great whites. They still believed they were the top of the food chain until they found themselves without a head.

They were so foolish that it wouldn't really make a difference if they had a head or not anyway. They hardly used their brains if they thought attacking so soon without establishing a good foundation to their forces was a good idea. Without his suggestion of retrieving the Asauchi he doubted any of them would have made this war last longer than five years before they all found themselves on the chopping block. If they managed to weaken the Gotei in the process, well, then all the better for him. Plans within plans. Aizen never made an action if it couldn't benefit him in three different ways.

Aizen pondered over how to achieve winning Ichigo over to his side when a thought struck him so violently he nearly stuttered in his walk back to his division. The chaos it would unleash would wrap the leash around his neck and have him not only grateful for helping him with achieving his own desires, but make his views align with his own. Soon, all Ichigo would see would be the illusion and believe it in preference to reality itself. The roguish smirk threatened to tug at his handsome features but Aizen instead let a calming wave circulate through himself to place a beatific and benign smile on his visage instead. Yes. You will be mine, Shiba Ichigo.

—O—

At six months into their training, the initiates were finally granted a week off from training and to visit their families…if they had one left. It was difficult to be so isolated from other humans. Except for Yoruichi's, none of the initiates had seen an actual face that wasn't a prisoner for months and forced into their barren barracks was almost similar to solitary confinement at night. Misaka was the only other person he could talk to outside of regular training with the other initiates, but after the first day she also had taken to wearing a mask. He guessed it was just another way of trying to wear away at their resistance. Even the leave was going to be a test, Ichigo realized. That was because they were finally granted a taste of what they were missing before being thrown back under the proverbial bus. Isolation from the normality and fun reality to live amongst the shadows. It prompted him to remember Misaka's initial statement when he joined, that he "was no longer Shiba Ichigo."

Ichigo still took the chance to enjoy himself regardless of what the future trials awaiting him were. He was going to see his family, take a refreshingly long rest that night for the first time in half a year, and sit down to an unpoisoned and delicious meal. All would be well. Ichigo put on the same clothes he had left to join the Onmitsukidō with and shunpōed as quickly as he could to return home. Home, Ichigo thought. How long had he thought of it as such? When did it turn from a mere cover and relatives home to his own? It was a nice feeling.

"Anyone home?" Ichigo called, clacking the front door as he forcefully opened it and swept a sprinting Ganju into his arms and a hard noogie to his head before he could start yelling. His action "prevented" him from stopping Kukaku who practically flew in behind him and slammed his face into her developed bosom as she clung onto him.

"It's been so long, Ichi. You haven't visited or written even once," she pouted, though Ichigo detected the front for what it was. An offer to return to normality or maintain his distance. Kukaku probably knew more than anyone else in the Gotei except for the head captain of what happened in their ranks outside of the Onmitsukidō themselves with her friendship to Yoruichi. Though admittedly even that was very limited due to required secrets and oaths. That she was willing to act like he had been gone for no more than a weekend with their improved relationship as siblings meant more than words could accurately describe.

"I'm happy to be home," Ichigo said warmly. "I'm sorry I wasn't allowed to contact you until now, but I have the next week off."

"Idiot," she said softly, ruffling his hair in the appropriate Shiba affection standard.

"It's only six more months and then I can visit as regularly as any position in the Gotei," Ichigo offered.

"You better. Kaien has been missing far more meals than usual lately."

"Why?" Kukaku snorted at his question.

"Take a good guess." Her sarcastic tone immediately revealed the answer and Ichigo shared in her good humor of their brother pining after a certain 3rd seat from the Thirteenth.

"Miyako," they said as one, shaking their heads as Kukaku hauled him toward the living room to celebrate his return with a drink…despite the fact it was only eleven in the morning. Ah, it was his first day back, he was allowed to enjoy it.

Kukaku shoved a saucer into his hand as she recited all of what she learned of his friends and what they'd been doing in his absence. Rangiku had finally achieved shikai and Kukaku was visiting the strawberry blonde to keep informed of the latest gossip amongst the students. The two had hit it off pretty well…sometimes too well in Ichigo's opinion, but he was glad that Rangiku was doing so well.

He wasn't aware of when she achieved shikai in the "original" timeline, but he was sure that it was sooner than she would have otherwise achieved it. Perhaps the lessons he had driven- sometimes quite literally- into her head had caught on and she stopped looking at Haineko as a tool and more as the other half of herself she actually was. Her improvement could only be a good thing in his opinion.

Ichigo stopped his train of thought when his brain registered what Kukaku just said.

"Wait, she what?" Kukaku burst into giggles at the dumbfounded look on his face.

"Akiko slipped different hair dye into everyone's soap at the academy. The next morning everyone woke up with their hair looking like a unicorn barfed over all of them," she said between laughs. "Instructor Ōnabara used body wash and it stained him completely blue!"

Ichigo amused himself with the slightly rotund instructor yelling, "Dodge" while looking like a smurf. All he needed was the white hat and he'd be a perfect match to Grumpy. He snickered at the mental image. Now he had to get someone to make him the hat so he can recreate that. Yoruichi and Kisuke would surely be willing to help him in his harmless prank, right?

After a delicious lunch with the family that was there, Daichi was meeting some other lord's family for business, Ichigo raced over to the academy to meet up with his other friends. Ren was amusingly enough already being fussed over by Akiko who hadn't taken his loss of companionship after years of being at her side well at all and was adamant in voicing her displeasure with a lot of hand gestures.

Ichigo offered them all the chance to join him at his home for dinner as they left the dorms. The sun had finally burnt through the morning cloud cover and shone pleasantly onto their skin as they walked past the front gates to the center of the Seireitei. Yukino had instantly agreed and it led to the others following along lest they miss out on what would surely be "prime entertainment" as Rangiku called it. Ichigo felt like he was missing some very much needed context in that regard but was derailed by the conversation from two shinigami females talking about an engagement.

"Kakyō is getting engaged?" Ichigo asked his friends. "To who?"

Rangiku shared a look of wariness with Shizuka and Yukino about the candidate.

"What's wrong? Who is it?" Ichigo prompted.

"Tsunayashiro Tokinada," she said.

Tsunayashiro, Ichigo thought shrewdly. A complete sadist. Of all the people for her to marry, why did it have to be him? His sadism was kept under a veneer of civility but he couldn't quite keep it off his face even during polite conversation. Kakyō was an intelligent woman; what would prompt her to willingly agree? Ichigo then paused. Maybe it wasn't so willing. He couldn't say he really knew too much about her despite the friendly relations they had maintained after their fight so many months ago. Did she have a wider family? Ichigo couldn't recall her mentioning one, but that didn't mean she didn't have one. If they were struggling in the Rukongai, her marrying a noble meant she could invite them into the safety of the Seireitei without them requiring a ridiculously expensive pass or becoming shinigami. She was nice enough to suffer for someone she cared about. In that way Ichigo knew they had common ground. This was all speculation and conjecture though. Still, he had to be careful. He knew her death was right around the corner and he was walking a tightrope for her continued existence.

"Come on, good food, conversation, and quality Shiba entertainment awaits," Ichigo said at last, shelving the situation for later tonight. It looks like his rest week won't be so restful after all.

—O—

Ever since being brought into the Shiba Clan Ichigo had been hearing "horror" stories about Ichirou Shiba. That he was cantankerous on the best of days and would make the brightest summer day feel like the coldest winter night. Despite all of the rumors though, Ichigo didn't take them too seriously because Chisato and Daichi spoke warmly of the man. There was no man who had a greater influence in raising Daichi after his father had died when he was young and Ichigo didn't think there was anyone as stalwart, honorable, and protective as his father. Even though he was officially retired, Ichigo knew almost nothing was done without having passed through Daichi's hands and turned to the greatest benefit for the family in mind. So when Daichi said that Ichirou would be stopping by in the afternoon on his fourth day off, he had to say that he was looking forward to meeting the man who pushed and shaped his father into the mold he was today.

Ichigo had already finished going through his morning exercises and was cooling off on the back porch observing nature and enjoying the momentary peace and tranquility away from his family's usual flair for dramatics. He loved them to death, but that didn't mean he could stand their constant need for physical affection and booming voices. Ichigo acknowledged that he had grown into an introvert from his first life, wallowing in his grief over Masaki's death had done him no favors in that regard, but he still loved having company to enjoy a decent conversation…at a normal volume he amended with a fond smile.

Ichirou made his way through the bustling mansion in search for the recent prodigy he had been hearing about so much recently. His interest had been peeked ever since Genzou had been spitting vitrol about the "disrespectful little shit" at one of their elders meetings, but his own interests and hobbies had kept him a little too occupied to be bothered at the time. But then he had received word from his good friend Hiruzen who had informed him of the type he was from an unbiased third person perspective. He sounded a little idealistic and naïve from his answers, but Hiruzen said he had a look in his eyes that contradicted those words. He understood loss was inevitable, but he turned to face the odds anyway in the hopes of pushing their fates back as long as possible. He could respect that even if he did think it was foolish.

If, hypothetically of course, he knew he only had a few years to live, he wouldn't want his family to waste half their fortune to "keep him comfortable" so he could cling to life for a few more months. He was going to die anyway so what was the point? He had to stop at this point to go into the nearest restroom and pull out a red handkerchief and cough wetly, the cloth stained a darker hue when he pulled it away and stashed it back into his shirt. The lengths he went to sometimes, he thought as he shook his head over how concerned they would be.

Still he had a mission to achieve, so he continued out the back and strained to sit down next to the youngest addition to the family who had flicked his eyes over to the tiring old man before returning to observe the scenery. Ichirou took a ragged breath to calm his racing heart and enjoyed the sun streaming through the trees onto them. Ichirou was more than content to just inspect the child- no, young man he remedied, for those eyes certainly held weight despite what his age would suggest- and found himself somewhat eager to finally converse with him. He thought this meeting would be even more beneficial than he had previously believed. With that in mind, he started to lay the groundwork to get a better idea of his character. There is nothing quite like seeing someone for yourself to get an accurate reading without bias.

"How are you liking your stay with Daichi and Chisato?" he finally asked. Ichigo's brown eyes snapped to him at the break in silence before he mulled over the question before answering with a half truth.

"I haven't had a moment's peace but…it's nice." Ichirou snorted at the answer. When have Shibas ever held back in displaying their worries to the world? Ichirou had always been the black sheep in that regard, staying in the corners of the room and protecting them from the less scrupulous individuals of the world. Over centuries he had grown a vast network of people from all walks of life who informed him of the goings on from the seats of government in the Seireitei to the furthest reaches of the Rukongai. They were what allowed the Shibas to live freely outside the safety of the Seireitei if they so desired, even in the harshest circumstances of rebellion, they would find allies willing to aid them for they were the forerunning family that tried to lessen the ails of the masses.

Unfortunately for Ichirou, his snort caused him to reignite his hacking and couldn't stop the spittle of blood from staining his hand before he could reach for his handkerchief. Ichigo hesitated only a moment before running a diagnostic Kaidō over his granduncle.

"You have blood clots in your lungs," Ichigo said quietly.

"Oh really, I hadn't noticed," Ichirou said dryly. Ichigo continued to move the Kaidō to see deeper into his body and the sight wasn't an inspiring one for his continued health.

"You're dying."

"I'm old. It doesn't matter," he snapped. Ichigo judged his posture and eyes more than the words he uttered and found what he was looking for.

"I won't say anything more then."

"A Shiba with common sense? What's the world coming to? Is this a sign of the end?" Ichirou deflected.

"I assure you that this is not what it would look like," Ichigo said blandly. That caused Ichirou to pause. What would he know about that? He was too young to have heard about IT and there were no clues left behind to learn about IT except by word of mouth between the Clan Leader and the Heir. Ichirou was one of the few exceptions as he had learned the secret from Daichi's grandfather, his cousin. Maybe he meant something else. He had to be speaking about something else. Still, it would be remiss of him if he didn't attempt to weasel out the information. He saw Ichigo's eyes had hardened by his comment and the look of self reproach.

"What do you think the end of the world would be like? Meteors falling from the sky? Perhaps fire and brimstone covering the surface?" They both snorted at that. They knew Hell wasn't like that after all.

Ichigo knew he couldn't say what it would look like, but at least he had a suitable excuse prepared.

"Probably like a garganta. A vast void swallowing up the Earth in one fell swoop."

Ichirou felt a knot of unease loosen. Good, he didn't know. Their sins weren't meant to be aired to the world. He wouldn't be in danger if he was ignorant, but…of all the Shibas Ichirou had ever met, Ichigo was the one he felt stood the greatest chance of undoing their sin. Should he risk it? Did he have the right to ask him? More importantly, what would the change bring to the world if he managed to succeed? They were all vitally important questions that needed contemplating before he could even begin to think of informing Ichigo about their family's misdeeds.

"I heard Kaien has finally bucked up and got himself a girl," Ichirou changed the subject.

"Bastard's been mooning over her all week whenever he hasn't been complaining about me being gone for so long," Ichigo grunted. "At least they are "officially" dating now." Then his voice turned even softer as he grumbled, "Official my ass, like they haven't been screwing each other for months during their outings."

"Well she was a pleasant enough girl, if a little too bland for my taste. He should have found a girl with more fire in her; she hardly spoke a word in my presence. Do you believe she would survive a Shiba lifestyle?"

"I think that she was trying to be polite in the face of her lover's family…and you don't have a clue what that means."

"Ha! Not on your life. Politeness doesn't get things accomplished any faster, so what's the point? If people just said what needed to be said they would cut out a lot of crap that spews from their mouths. You know what I mean?"

The lopsided smirk Ichigo offered in return said it all. Ichirou laughed in response and clapped his knee.

"I like you. Both our names start with Ichi- so of course we'd get along," he continued jovially.

Funny, Ichigo thought. But I don't remember saying so…whatever.

"If you really believe what you said earlier that people should just say what's important, than why don't you start? Why did you come to seek me out?" Ichigo cut in when he opened his mouth to answer. "And don't give me any bullshit about you wanting to see me because you're dying or you might miss the chance." Ichirou closed his mouth with a snap and scratched his chin while hiding his mouth from view.

"I am looking for someone willing to do a job for me," he finally said after a tense minute.

"What's the job?" Ichigo asked, turning his body to stare at him directly.

"It's a secret."

Ichigo raised a brow that screamed 'Are you kidding me?' "Let me rephrase my question then; what type of person are you looking for?" Ichirou studied him as he said, "Someone who sees the world as it is. Someone who has torn away the rosy-tinted glasses and is willing to stand in the muck when it rains. Someone who is willing to protect our family no matter the cost. Family above all is my motto, and I need someone that fulfills all of those qualities before bringing them aboard."

Ichigo absorbed the information before asking, "Have you found any candidates?"

"I've a few in mind…though unfortunately Daichi has already turned me down because he said he's busy. Hmph, like he's one to talk. He's retired, he can foist the work onto Kaien's shoulder's if he needed to. He isn't the lord anymore."

That Daichi turned him down with such a weak excuse meant it wasn't something he could even think of doing, but more importantly if he still allowed Ichirou to come to their house it meant that whatever it was is still seen as necessary despite his own misgivings and doesn't want to make Ichirou's decision in recruiting someone any more difficult than it likely already is.

"I see." Ichirou gave him another once over before chuckling.

"Yes, you probably do. I am aware of what you've been up to. I have friends everywhere after all, so let me give you a piece of advice…that blue haired girlfriend of yours, Takahashi Yukino if I'm not mistaken, give her a wide birth."

"Excuse me?" Ichigo demanded. He ignored the implications of what it sounded like in favor of channeling his anger through a proper outlet.

"She's been making inquiries into her sister's execution and it's going to get her killed. I don't want her actions to drag you into it because the rest of the family will follow along right after you. Make the smart decision, cut your ties. She's a corpse walking already."

"I'll be sure to ensure she stays cautious then," Ichigo said coldly. He wouldn't leave a friend to die if he had a chance to stop it. Even the law itself came after his consideration for them. No family member would stop him from protecting her unless it was clearly her fault and all the evidence he gathered personally implicated her. Until then- and not a moment sooner- he would retain his good relations.

"I did my part then. It is up to you whether you follow through or not…good luck Ichigo. You'll need it." Then as if their previous line of conversation had never happened, Ichirou changed the subject to hear his views about the ongoing war. After insultting his friends, Ichigo wasn't actually keen on conversing with the man any longer, but he was actually glad he decided to stick around in the end. Ichirou had a sharp mind, an even sharper tongue in disparaging over the stupidity of others and their actions, and the constant flow of profanity when he got animated over them was highly entertaining.

—O—

The last day of his vacation called for a party because as Kukaku had proclaimed, "Every Shiba needs to know you'll be gone for a while," so of course that meant getting shoved into a formal kimono because the Shiba Clan hardly just celebrated by themselves, everyone was required to be invited along. Ichigo finally decided on wearing the night sky kimono he had bought the previous year.

The reminder that he hadn't paid off the expense on top of his friends gifts suddenly was brought to mind and he felt a surge of guilt flood through him. Yes, while it was technically money that belonged to him because of him being a part of the clan, that didn't mean he was willing to let that debt stand. He had bought it, so he was going to pay for it, so that was that. He had already poured all of his paychecks he had made over the last six months into it, because despite the fact he was still an initiate, technically he was already a part of the Onmitsukidō…on paper, which meant he received the appropriate compensation. They certainly earned it by surviving their strict training.

"I hope you aren't avoiding our guests," Chisato called through the door before asking to come in. She waded in and fixed his outer robe before taking a step back to admire him fully. She grinned softly before placing a hand to his cheek and brushed her thumb.

"You are looking very handsome. If your intention was to make an impression, you will very much succeed. I bet the girls won't be able to keep their hands off you."

Ichigo eyed his closet door as he mumbled something about changing which had Chisato chuckling but she clamped her hands onto his shoulders and pushed him out the door.

"Were you hoping to impress a certain someone?" she continued her teasing, but Ichigo had learned the best way to deal with a playful Shiba was to pretend they were asking a vitally important question and cut the joke down at the roots before they wiggled more information than he wanted them to have and had anymore ammunition to use.

"No," he said, turning a frown in her direction. "Who did you think I wanted to impress?" Chisato's smile slipped from her lips and pinched together like she'd bitten into something sour.

"You're just like your father."

Whether she meant Daichi or Isshin was unclear, and both were equally weighted and unfair. Isshin acted like a man-child most of the time and Daichi was always intense and in your face about whatever is bothering others. He wasn't like that…he thought. The fact that she was referring to romance completely slipped by his head.

"It takes someone knocking some sense into you to finally understand."

Ichigo stopped short. Oh, he comprehended. She meant it like that. Oh well. Her being under the misconception he was oblivious to romance meant a reduction in further teasing, so he wouldn't spoilt the surprise. The fact that it meant he actually could look for someone and not be bogged down by expectation or rumors was just a bonus.

The party was just beginning to hit the full swing and he observed just how willing some people were to be here versus those that were not. Those with business connections were more than willing to discuss how to sidelong certain obstacles and look for opportunities only brought along by the civil war. Then there were those of the nobility who were seeking to establish family ties by showcasing their children to Lord or Lady such and such who definitely didn't look like they wanted to be there but placed a polite smile on their faces anyway. Ichigo was just glad that most of the Shiba Clan didn't prescribe to such traditions because he was pretty sure he would murder said parents who were forcing their kids on him, then the potential girl because she insisted on going through with it anyway, and then his parents because did he look like the type of person who would agree to such practices?

At least the booze was good he thought. He took his offered freedom to stand around with Kaien who had relished the opportunity to invite his girlfriend and see her dressed up. Their quiet conversation was centered around a new potential method of their efforts in healing Juushiro's lung disease. The fact that he no longer really had lungs when Himigami entered his body was still strange to Ichigo and he wondered how that worked. If Himigami had the ability to change his shape and reverse the damage, how did Unohana not figure out a way of stripping whatever is causing the disease in the first place and wait for the bullshit abilities of the Soul King's hand to fix him in the lapse? Unfortunately that required a greater understanding of Kaidō and science and how they react to spiritual bodies. Ichigo may have experience through medical school of how the body worked, but that didn't always transfer over to soul related matters no matter how similar they looked on the surface.

He left the couple to their own devices when their conversation turned more intimate and found Shunsui at the bar chatting up a young woman with Lisa sighing at his womanizing ways as far as possible away from her captain while still keeping him in view so he didn't get into too much trouble. The entirely predictable smack that followed as the woman left in a huff was still entertaining no matter how many times he saw it though. Shunsui adopted a look of hurt as he touched his cheek like he couldn't comprehend why she hit him when Ichigo sat down beside him. Shunsui dropped his arm and casually drawled, "This is a nice party, Ichi-chan."

"And how about the company? She isn't looking to pleased with you at the moment."

"It was just a bit of miscommunication," Shunsui defended.

"Right, right. Was that before or after you asked if you could touch her boobs?"

"I asked nicely," he whined. "And it wasn't like I meant here or now. That would be bad for both of us. I respect a woman's integrity," he said, nodding to confirm his statement. Ichigo wasn't convinced.

"Uh huh. Did you bother telling her that?" Ichigo asked, knowing the answer already.

"No…I thought she knew."

"Sometimes I wonder about you," Ichigo muttered.

"So Ichi-chan was thinking about me? I'm sorry to say that I'm only interested in girls…no offense."

"One day someone's going to kill you," Ichigo deadpanned, "and I am going to watch and enjoy it as much as I can. Then I'll spit on your grave."

"Why is everyone so mean to me?" Shunsui falsely cried. He tipped his straw hat down. "Besides, I think there's someone far more interesting for you to be thinking about," he said, gesturing behind them. Ichigo turned and felt all of the moisture in his mouth disappear like he had a front row performance to seeing Ryujin Jakka. Yoruichi was sashaying toward him in a gold and burnt orange dress. Her purple hair was trapped in an elaborate gold comb and pin which only emphasized the matching color of her eyes. He tracked the sway of her hips before his action caught up to his brain and it shut down before it managed to reboot right as she stopped next to him.

"Do you mind if I steal him from you Kyoraku-san?" she asked.

"By all means," Shunsui smiled, shooing them away so he could return to his drink. Yoruichi looped her arm through Ichigo's and dragged him away as Shunsui got in one last parting shot.

"Have fun you two. Do anything I would do!" he hollered before snickering only to be driven into the ground by a punch from Lisa. Ichigo's prediction of someone killing him was looking like the date might happen closer and closer. Before his plots of murder progressed any further, Ichigo forced his attention onto his…friend, mentor, teacher, something else? She was all of those and more and he couldn't quite define where one boundary began and another ended.

"Ichigo," she said, her voice an octave lower as she gave him a once over. "You clean up nice. That's good."

"Why?" Ichigo asked warily. She had that look in her eyes. It promised him nothing good.

"Rangiku said you agreed to a deal about clearing away your potential bet. At the end of the night the SWA has agreed to take on said cost in return for a favor."

That was sending all kinds of red alarms off inside his head.

"That isn't necessary-" he began.

"Excellent. Come around to the east wing of the house when its time. Kukaku has alread agreed to help set it up."

"I never agreed to this-" Ichigo stopped as she placed a finger to his lips.

"Ichigo, trust me. It won't hurt you and you might even find yourself enjoying what we have planned if you go along with it." Ichigo swallowed.

"I do trust you," he answered earnestly, bringing a brighter shine to her eyes. "But I still want to know what you have planned."

"Hikifune heard about cameras from the living world and decided to make some improvements. That the Onmitsukidō managed to get a supply of the first functional prototypes was just icing on the cake. All we need is a few photos and you can go on your way."

"So it's just a few photos?" he asked for clarification. The widening of her smile sent a rush through his body.

"If you want it to be," she said, turning around and swinging her hips even more than her approach. Ichigo couldn't turn his head away if he tried. Fucking hell. Yoruichi turned and gave him a sultry smirk over her shoulder knowing he was watching her.

Fuck! She's your boss, idiot! Zangetsu's cackling in the back of his head did no favors. Bastard. He needed another drink. Now.

After knocking back a few drinks and restoring his emotions to a sense of normalcy, Ichigo stopped beside Daichi who was also in search of a stronger drink now he had finished with business for the night. The host getting drunk at a party was severly frowned upon…before midnight. Then all bets were off because everything that needed to be said had been spoken and they could finally relax and enjoy themselves with the company not usually seen for work purposes or family emergencies.

"Dad? Do you have a moment?" As usual whenever Ichigo called him dad Daichi broke out into a warm smile.

"Of course," he nodded, throwing an arm around his neck and nearly choking him in the one armed display of affection. Thankfully reiatsu could act like a barrier if you had enough of it.

After they entered a side room and pushed a flushing couple who were in the midst of making out with their clothes more than noticeably ascue, Daichi sat down in one of the arm chairs and waited for him to speak. Ichigo knew what he was about to ask shouldn't be heard by anyone else so he placed a barrier around the room to block all sound from escaping and locked the door. If he didn't ask now, he might never get an answer in time.

"Tokinada Tsunayashiro," Ichigo began. "He's going to kill his fiancé."

"How do you know this?" Daichi asked carefully. Ichigo only raised a brow in response and his father nodded in understanding. The future. He hated to admit it, but sometimes he forgot where Ichigo came from. He just fit in so well to their family that it felt like he was always there.

"What do you need me to do?" he asked reslolutely. His immediate show of support meant more than words could describe, so Ichigo conveyed it the only way he knew how. He squeezed his shoulder and simply said, "thank you." It was enough.

—O—

Daichi frowned as he mulled over the limited information he knew about Kakyō and her involvement in helping raise a child out in the Rukongai who would become a quite formidable and annoying foe in the future. The Central 46 gave a large leeway of protection for the nobility against the common masses in terms of what is "legal" as long as there is no definitive proff, and even then they might be able to lessen the sentencing or sweep it under the rug entirely if given the proper "incentive."

However where they rigidly refused to compromise was actions taken between the Five Great Noble Families. They could not allow them to progress out of business warfare or passive aggressive tendencies because of how essential the continued existence was in maintaining the balance of power. The only way they could possibly think of doing so would be if they had someone able to fill the power vacuum on standby. Nevertheless, it was much easier to maintain ties with the devil you know. Less toes were stepped on and they could exploit the system if they knew who partaked in certain practices.

"You will have to be very, and I mean very careful in how you handle this," Daichi finally spoke his thoughts. "The Tsunayashiro are digging in their heels recently about some matter they won't breathe a word about and Central 46 has taken to backing them in their decisions ever since."

"Backroom dealings?" Ichigo asked, causing Daichi to snort.

"It's Central 46, everything they do is in the backroom. I heard a whisper that the 46 have been building a force not subject to anyone's authority but their own. It was why I asked you to be so careful when you entered the academy; I didn't want you caught up in whatever they're doing."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"If you were more focused on your studies you wouldn't be needlessly worrying about something that wouldn't effect you anyway. Besides, I wanted you to enjoy your last year in peace before you joined the ranks. It would let you settle in and find a place for yourself. Don't tell me you haven't seen the improvements you've made. You are far more comfortable in your skin than I've ever seen you before."

Ichigo reluctantly admitted he was right, but that didn't make him feel like he was being shut off from the truth…again. He wasn't a teenager anymore and he had seen worse than just about anyone alive in the wars ahead. There was no ground Daichi had to stand on in that regard…but he couldn't deny that Daichi was right. Which was infuriating. He did need the year to find a small semblance of peace and work out his inner demons that he would never see his family again. He still felt the pang of loss that he could never enjoy Yuzu's curry and her interest in whatever popular drama show was on that day or Karin's snarky comments about her showing up the entire soccer league almost singlehandedly, which would have sounded arrogant if she wasn't being brutally honest about her skill. She definitely would be able to go pro if she wanted.

"We've danced away from the subject. Kakyō. What are we going to do?" Ichigo asked instead.

"Well…she did just graduate six months ago. She is going to want to spend some time with her squadmates and make a name for herself. If she happened to find herself going on several back to back missions…well that would just be her wanting to make a great impression as a hard working comrade. But that's only a temporary solution. Unless we can fix the underlining problem, she'll still be in danger."

"So?" Ichigo prompted impatiently. Daichi nibbled his lip as he worked for a solution.

"We need eyes and ears in their compound so they can inform us of when he'll make his move. I know someone who is willing and able to do so, but it won't be easy. They can't be around him at all times without drawing suspicion on themselves."

"What if they can be promoted to being an aide to Kakyō? As a future bride to the heir, she will be offered a reasonable amount of freedom if she asks for something as simple as that," Ichigo said.

"Again, that will put a lot of suspicion upon our spy if she single handedly asks for them instead of whatever servants they wanted to foist on her."

"So not them then. It has to be someone who they wouldn't doubt has a reason to be there," Ichigo hummed. He twitched as a potential person popped into his mind. She would probably take it the wrong way. She liked her current perusal of her dream and would most definitely attack him for suggesting she take on an aide's position instead of as a shinigami. He also didn't want her to risk her life because she was a friend, but…they were running out of options and she did have shikai. He only hoped Kaida didn't try and melt his balls off before he finished explaining the situation.

"I think I know just the one."

Now he only needed Yoruichi's and Kaida's captain's approval for an off the books mission. If he wasn't mistaken she had gleefully joined the 11th. Surely Zaraki would agree to his proposal if he offered to spar with him again in the future? Ichigo was then violently reminded of the "lecture" Unohana had given him. In a suitable environment for the spar he amended. He wasn't looking forward to receiving a follow up "talk" that involved her fully opened eyes and undone braid, with her sword bouncing in her palm like an equestrian rider does their crop. He liked living, thank you very much. His last thought before he took down the bakudo barrier was that he certainly had a lot of dangerous female friends. Yoruichi's swaying hips came to mind. Very dangerous indeed.

—O—

With his anxieties quelled, Ichigo allowed himself to fully enjoy the party as more sake was brought up from the celler. He snagged his favorite brand's bottle from the bar and sat beside Shizuka and Yukino who were supporting a very drunk Rangiku who was slurring her way through a jaunty song. He couldn't stop the bubble of laughter as she mixed up the lyrics and caused unintended inneuendoes, or she was actually sober and was fucking with everyone in earshot for her own amusement. Both were equally plausible in Ichigo's informed opinion.

Between songs Ichigo kept finding his gaze wondering before the conversation around him recaught his attention until the next song would start and Ichigo laughed alongside his friends in Rangiku's creative parodies.

"You haven't stopped looking at her all night," Yukino said quietly, breaking him from his thoughts.

"Hmm?"

"Shihōin-sama. You haven't stopped looking at her all night," Yukino repeated. Ichigo froze before returning just as quietly, "Was it that obvious?"

"No," she shook her head. "But I have gotten to know you rather well and I know how to read your expressions even when you believe you're hiding them behind a mask."

"Oh."

"You should ask her to dance," she said in the awkward silence. "She would probably like that."

Alright…thank you," Ichigo said, passing a chaste kiss to her forehead before departing. Rangiku cut off her song a few moments later to find her balance when Shizuka changed seats to sit beside Yukino.

"He has no idea, does he?" Shizuka prodded softly.

"No," Yukino whispered brokenly, "and he never will." She reinforced her statement by fixing a glare onto her friend. Yukino continued, "So long as I can continue at his side. It's fine. I'll be fine," she declared, though it fell flat when tears escaped from her eyes. Shizuka enveloped her into a hug and buried Yukino's face into her shoulder.

"I don't even know why I'm crying," Yukino mumbled into her shoulder. "It was just one night, right? It didn't mean anything."

"Yukino," Shizuka said worriedly.

—O—

Ichigo groaned awake as the morning light smashed into his eyes and exploded his brain, or at least that was what it felt like. His natural body's response was to filter out said toxins by regenerating the damaged tissue or muscles, so why did it feel like his hollow nature decided to take a sick day? His answer came once he opened his eyes. Not one, not two, but three naked woman were passed out and surrounding him on his bed.

"What the fuck happened last night?" he whispered. His horror suddenly grew when he looked at the women's faces. He felt all of the blood drain from his face. To his right Yoruichi lay snuggled up to him burying her cheek into his neck, on his left a still red flushed Misaka had her arms wrapped around his waist and showing that yes, she did indeed have an impressive rack hidden underneath her clothes, and stuck between his legs and adding to the discomfort by nestling her own bosom on his crotch was Lisa.

"I'm so dead." Fearing for his life, Ichigo as silently and quickly as possible removed himself from the bed, barely stopping to get a change of clothes before running out the door. It was only once he left the females who had been "sleeping" woke up.

"How long do you think it will take him to realize we didn't do anything?" Yoruichi asked chuckling.

"I won't tell him if you won't?" Misaka said. This was prime blackmail material after all.

"Thanks for joining in Lisa," Yoruichi laughed under her breath.

"I am always in for a laugh…and some good skinship," a perverted high pitched sound echoed from her mouth as a healthy blush entered her cheeks.

"Pervert," Yoruichi and Misaka deadpanned.

"You don't have any ground to stand on. Who was the one who started this thing?" Lisa countered making Yoruichi unable to say anything in her defense.

"Touché."

Meanwhile Ichigo was still trying to force himself to remember what had happened that night. After dancing with Yoruichi for an hour or so they had stopped for a few more drinks as the guests started leaving. Then Yoruichi enforced her earlier demand and dragged him away for a few "photos" before he had a chance to escape. The photos session started off simple enough. He did a few strong man poses which felt completely ridiculous and had the entire room laughing at his expense, but with the steady flow of alcohol and the good natured ribbing involved it felt less humiliating than just embarrassing and- dare he admit it- fun. But as the night progressed, the poses he was demanded of became, shall we say, more raunchy.

It began with his outer robe being stripped from him as he was getting "too warm" according to said picture takers and his reddening face. Then his inner shirt was pulled down to expose his shoulders and chest. Rangiku then came in with a towel and threw a small bucket of water to "cool him down" and Yoruichi threw her away to towel him off slightly. Then before he knew it, somehow he almost entirely naked and the towel was covering his crotch as Yoruichi was forcing her tongue down his throat. Before he could recover from his surprise, a photo was snapped and he realized what his state of dress was like. He remembered getting up to chasing her in his embaressment and then- nothing. That was the last thing he remembered. All he knew was that the next time he saw Yoruichi was going to be very awkward. Then he remembered he had needed to talk to her about Kakyō and Kaida's situation and his mood plummeted even further. It was official, he was dead!

-O-

[AN: And that's a wrap! I love fucking with Ichigo's head, it honestly brings me joy. What do you all think of my characterization of Aizen? I started writing and he came out as a complete narcissist. I know he's arrogant and full of himself, but did I take it too far? What about the first half of Onmitsukidō training, was it too much? If anyone's worried about there being literally no chance of the enemy being capable of scratching him, then I hope you're ready for a surprise. Ichigo will most definitely be laying a beat down on some fools though so... I promise I'm not nerfing him anymore! I have more ideas of what he could conceivably do to train if he was given more than just a couple weeks training before "the next big bad villain shows up to ruin his day" schtick, but I don't want to put it all back to back because... it's probably as boring to read as it is to write. Just a small spoiler ahead if you're interested... it involves his Quincy side.

Please write a review about something you liked or hated! I'm glad you all stuck around for this almost one year anniversary chapter release! Though considering I have had such large gaps in between chapters it probably felt like less or more. (shrugs)]

-EmberPhoenix