Disclaimer: Bleach and everything in it is the property of Kubo Tite.
The goddamn bastard was enjoying himself.
It wasn't a feeling. It wasn't a vague hunch. It was an honest-to-god concrete fact, as plain as blue sky and green grass: Urahara Kisuke was enjoying himself.
Even though his back was turned as he ran full throttle, Ichigo could almost see the sadistic grin on the older man's face as he cheerfully proceeded to slice Ichigo's immediate surroundings into itty bitty pieces. He threw himself to the side as Urahara's zanpakutou nearly skewered him, and watched with a sick sense of fascination as the blade sunk nearly a foot into the boulder that he'd been in front of. His mind helpfully supplied graphic images of his body in place of the stone and he paled, his eyes widening.
It wasn't supposed to be like this! he thought frantically, scrabbling towards the nearest rock formation - not that it would help much, seeing as how the bastard's sword could slice through it like butter. He was supposed to kick ass and take names, not be killed by a lunatic wearing a stupid hat! The absence of his own zanpakutou felt nearly tangible... his hands clenched and unclenched spasmodically as if they needed something - anything - to grasp.
Ichigo was dimly aware of Urahara's employees watching him, chatting idly to themselves as if they were watching an interesting movie. A sudden wave of panic sunk its tendrils into his heart and he had to suppress the urge to laugh wildly. He was going to die and these people thought it was a fun show? He was just about to shout at them when a line of searing pain across his chest alerted him to the fact that Urahara - and his sword - had gotten tired of waiting for him to come out.
He ducked under a backhanded slash that could have easily decapitated him and slipped past Urahara, running for all he was worth. At least Urahara was slower than he was - something for which he thanked any passing gods that might be listening. He did his best to ignore the thin whispering sound of sharpened metal cutting the air just inches behind him, and tried desperately to think of a way to get himself out of his predicament.
"What do you think you're doing?" a voice asked from beside him.
"Gah!" Ichigo responded intelligently, tripping over his own feet and sprawling inelegantly in the dirt. "Who-" His eyes focused on the voice's owner and he blinked. "What're you doing here?"
The woman standing in front of Ichigo sighed and massaged her temples, as if trying to stave off a headache. She looked much the same as she had a few hours ago, when she'd helped Ichigo find the key to his powers. She was tall - nearly as tall as he was - with sea-blue hair that fell to her shoulders, dressed in a loose black blouse and matching pants. "I'm here," she said, "to keep you from getting us killed." She crossed her arms under her breasts and shot him a glare, somehow managing to convey an air of both frustrated exasperation and eager anticipation.
The mention of death made Ichigo look frantically over his shoulder, expecting to feel Urahara's sword piercing between his shoulder blades at any moment. He was pleasantly surprised to see that the hat-wearing maniac was still a fair distance away... and wasn't moving at all.
"This place isn't really the training ground beneath the Urahara Shop," the woman explained, noticing Ichigo's confusion. "It's the inside of your mind, Ichigo. And if you don't get over your fear of death soon, this place will cease to exist. As will you."
Ichigo's frustration came to a head and he yelled, "Well then help me already instead of standing there trying to look cool, damn it!"
"I can't help you if you're too stupid to help yourself!" the woman yelled back, balling her hands into fists. "Get rid of your fear. It doesn't suit you, anyway, and it's the only thing keeping us apart.
Ichigo snorted derisively. "Easier said than done, you psychotic tomboy."
The woman's anger seemed to ebb and she smirked, amusement dancing in her blue eyes. "You haven't changed at all. Still an idiot," she said, raising a hand and running it through her hair.
Ichigo blinked and did, ignoring for the moment the fact that the tall woman standing beside him spoke as if she'd known him before. He concentrated, willing his fear of death - of everything - to disappear.
Surprisingly enough, it did. A sense of confidence flooded him, washing away all of his doubts. He let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding, feeling as though he'd just found a part of himself he hadn't realized he was missing. Opening his eyes, the breath caught in his throat as something materialized in front of him. It hung in the air as if supported by invisible wires, turning slowly.
It was a sword.
The words came automatically, even as he reached out for it. The moment he touched it, he grinned; he felt suddenly whole. "Suiten sakamake!" he cried, grasping the hilt firmly with both hands. Power seemed to rise in him like a heady tide, filling him with so much energy he thought he'd burst as he spun the blade in a circle. The woman standing beside him smiled briefly before vanishing.
Then the world exploded.
He shook his instructor's hand and received his formal shihakusho, reveling in the crisp feel of the cloth. Finally, he was a full-fledged shinigami! He spotted his little sister in the crowd and waved to her. She waved back, smiling fiercely, pride shining in her eyes. He felt like he was walking on the clouds; he'd never stop grinning because
the sword wasn't really a sword, per se. His instructors at the academy had told him that zanpakutou only rarely resembled actual katana in their released forms, but he'd been hoping to be one of the few exceptions. After all, what use would his training in kenjutsu be now? The blade in front of him looked like
the captain wasn't showing up, and if he didn't come soon he'd go mad. For what seemed like the fiftieth time he found himself resisting the urge to release Nejibana and beat Sentarou and Kiyone with it until they shut up. He had no idea how Captain Ukitake could put up with their bickering when
Miyako was dead. The words took his breath away, leaving him gasping as though he'd been punched hard in the gut. He found himself shaking his head in denial, felt
Rukia, already unbalanced from shock, tripping as he pulled her, plunging her zanpakutou straight through
Urahara peered cautiously through the sudden dust cloud that had been kicked up, obscuring Ichigo from view. A part of him noted that Tessai had joined him, most probably after shooing Jinta and Ururu off. The large man smoothly drew what looked like a simple kitchen knife from within his apron, but Urahara knew better; Tessai's released zanpakutou was easily as long as he was tall. Wordlessly Tessai moved forward, taking his place slightly to Urahara's left where he could cover his former captain without impeding Benihime's striking arc.
There was a short, tense silence as the dust settled down and Ichigo was revealed, face down and apparently unconscious. Urahara started to breath a sigh of relief, then stopped, his eyes widening as he caught sight of the blade held firmly in the teenager's hands. Beside him, he could hear Tessai gasp.
A Shinigami's zanpakutou was as unique as their fingerprint or DNA; never in recorded history had there ever been two identical zanpakutou wielded by two different shinigami. In a way it was to be expected, seeing as how the swords were reflections of the soul.
The question is... if that's true, then who is Kurosaki Ichigo? Urahara thought, looking down at the sword - if it could be called a sword - that Ichigo was holding. The haft was far too long to be that of a katana, looking more like that of a spear. A light blue tassel hung from the head, which was tipped by an intricate, triple-pronged crystal blade.
"Is it..." Tessai started to say, then trailed off. It had been over a century since he or the man standing beside him had worn a shihakusho, but both of them still remembered the owner of the crystal trident.
Shiba Kaien had been a prodigy beyond words, graduating from a six-year course academy course in a third of the norm and racing through the ranks like lightning. Just five years later, he'd risen to the coveted rank of Vice Captain, setting a record that had never been broken since. Though he had no way of knowing for sure since his exile from Soul Society, Urahara thought it likely that Kaien had become a captain in the century he'd been absent - Ukitake Juushirou had certainly been grooming him for the job.
Of course, none of that answered the question of just what Ichigo was doing with his zanpakutou.
Urahara simply nodded, answering his friend's unfinished question.
His return to consciousness was slow, disorienting, and painful as hell. It felt like he'd been beaten judiciously with something both large and blunt. He started to open his eyes, hissed in pain as the light stabbed them like daggers, and decided that it was perhaps better to keep them closed for the time being. Slowly, he took stock of his surroundings as best as he could without his eyesight. Nejibana's familiar weight in his right hand made him smile despite himself.
He was lying on a hard surface, probably stone from the feel of it. The only sound he could hear was his own breathing. At length, he sat up, using Nejibana to support himself and doing his utmost best to ignore the horrible sense of weightless vertigo that promptly grabbed hold of him. He hadn't felt so sick since the idiots from the 11th Division had borrowed a pub for an entire week and convinced him to join them.
Cautiously, he opened his eyes, noting with relief that this time, at least, the light didn't seem like it was going to burn his eyes out. He took a look around, careful to keep from moving his head too much; it felt like someone had taken out his brain, liberally studded it in shattered glass and then carelessly replaced it, making him wince whenever he-
There were two people watching him.
Instinct played more part in his actions than thought as he sprang to his feet, bringing Nejibana to bear in front of him. He immediately regretted it as the sudden movement drove a spike of white-hot pain through his head, nearly sending him to his knees again. There was a soft thunk as he stuck Nejibana into the dirt, using the trident as a support. From what he could tell, the two people watching him hadn't moved, so he took his time gathering his wits and then looked up.
A wave of relief washed over him as he recognized the two men standing in front of him, though they weren't in uniform. "Captain Urahara? Vice Captain Tsukabishi?"
He frowned as both men flinched, shock plainly visible on their faces. Urahara took a cautious step forward.
"Who... are you?" the man asked slowly, peering at him from under his hat.
He blinked, confused. What kind of question was that? "I'm-"
He stopped, his eyes losing focus. "I'm..."
He abruptly fell to his hands and knees, his dizziness suddenly making itself known again. He felt the urge to throw up and made no effort to resist, the stench of his own bile making him feel even worse than before. Panting heavily, he leaned back and had just started to get his wildly fluctuating reiatsu under control when what felt like a superheated nail was launched straight through his brain.
The scream tore unbidden from his throat as memories, thoughts and feelings raged through his head like a fierce tide. His wide eyes saw nothing as he felt himself teetering on the brink of utter madness, his mind struggling to cope with the sudden deluge of utterly foreign information. He was sixteen and centuries old, a high school student and a shinigami vice captain. He was married. He wasn't. He was dead. Alive. He wasn't sure anymore. Of anything.
He felt like he was hanging desperately from a cliff, hanging over a pit that had no bottom. Slowly but surely, he felt his grip on his sanity start to slip. He was vaguely aware of Urahara kneeling beside him, yelling urgently, but he couldn't bring himself to concentrate on the words. He was busy going mad, after all.
Then a cool wave seemed to wash over him, lifting him up and away from the insanity that had seemed so close moments before. The thoughts, the memories, were still there, but now they seemed so much more bearable. He could remember his name. Names. He shook his head hard, noting absently that his headache had disappeared. Name.
"You need more time to adjust," a feminine voice - one that certainly did not belong to Urahara Kisuke - said from beside Ichigo. "Sleep."
He turned to look at the owner of that voice, but instead found himself staring into Urahara's face. Ichigo mentally shrugged. It wasn't important.
"Who am I, sandal-hat?" Ichigo said faintly, feeling his eyes droop. "That's obvious. I'm Kurosaki Ichigo." The ground suddenly seemed so soft and inviting, more like a feather mattress than hard, packed earth. He blinked as something registered to his fatigued senses.
"Heh. You kept that hat Lady Shihouin gave you," he managed to say, before sleep claimed him and he sank blissfully into darkness.
"What is it?" the cat asked, giving a huge yawn. She'd been in the middle of a glorious nap when awareness had been rudely imposed on her by means of a rough shake. Her dreams of milk and tuna had died a quiet and abrupt death as she bolted to her feet with a yowl.
Nobody shook her and lived to tell about it.
"It's about Ichigo," Urahara said. The heavy look on his face made the deep claw marks scoring his left hand look all the more ridiculous. "Follow me." Without waiting for her reply, he turned and opened the trap door that led to the 'basement'. Cocking her head to one side at his unnaturally serious manner, Yoruichi padded along after him.
"Isshin's boy?" she asked, leaping down in lieu of using the steps. At the bottom, Tessai gave her a quick bow before ascending the ladder upwards. "What happened? He didn't pass the test?" She frowned - as much as it was possible for a cat to frown - as Urahara made no reply. His... unique methods were far riskier than the normal, commonly accepted ways of training, but they should have been well within the bounds of possibility for someone with the Kurosaki boy's reiryoku.
At length Urahara chuckled, a little of his normal personality showing. "Failed? No, far from it. He passed with flying colors." He stopped in front of Ichigo, who was snoring loudly. In his right hand was a simple katana, held in a death grip.
"So," Urahara said, squatting beside Ichigo, "he found out the name of his sword."
"His sword is named Nejibana."
"Twisted Flower?" Yoruichi blinked, her tail lashing from side to side. "It sounds familiar, but I don't see why that would warrant waking me up in the middle of a nap."
"He also achieved shikai," Urahara commented, looking down at the sleeping youth. "It resembles a long trident with a crystal blade."
Yoruichi found herself resisting the urge to claw the man's eyes out. "That doesn't answer my question, Kisuke. So he released his sword. Good for him. Let me in on the earth-shattering revelation before I do something painful."
"You don't recognize the name? I thought you were friendly with the Shiba clan," Urahara said, turning to look at her. "The name and look of Ichigo's zanpakutou completely match that of Shiba Kaien's."
Yoruichi blinked again, her voice conveying confusion where her expression couldn't. "But that's impossible."
"Of course it is." Urahara stood up, careful not to kick dust onto Ichigo. "No two zanpakutou can be completely alike-"
"That's not what I meant," Yoruichi said sharply. She reverted to her human form, unmindful of her nudity - there was nothing that Urahara hadn't seen countless times already.
"It's impossible because Shiba Kaien is dead."
Shock showed plainly on Urahara's face for the first time. "What?"
"I said, Shiba Kaien is dead," Yoruichi said. "He was killed by a Hollow roughly forty years ago."
"How do you know that?" Urahara asked, quickly getting over his surprise.
Yoruichi smirked at him and said, "Unlike you, I kept in touch with several sources. From what I've heard, the 13th Division still doesn't have a vice captain. But anyway." She walked over and stared down at Ichigo, taking in his appearance. She noted that, besides the length and color of his hair, the boy did bear a striking resemblance to Shiba Kaien - at least, to the faint memories she had of meeting the man at a meeting of the noble clans. "So he has Kaien's sword. Say for a moment we ignore the way that fucks with over two thousand years of research on zanpakutou. What else?"
"He called Tessai and I vice captain and captain," Urahara said, shaking his head. "And he knew you."
"He knew you," he said, taking off his hat and holding it up. "He saw this and said, 'You kept that hat Lady Shihouin got for you.'"
It was Yoruichi's turn to be shocked. "I bought that stupid hat over three centuries ago! There's no way he could know that-" She was interrupted as Ichigo began to stir, notifying the world of his return to consciousness by way of a low groan.
"I have my theories," Urahara said, backing away from Ichigo and motioning for her to do the same. "We'll discuss this in more detail later." He paused, tapping his cane against one leg. "And do please take your cat form, Yoruichi-san. It simply wouldn't do for Kurosaki-san to pass out again."
She stuck her tongue out at him but complied. "You're no fun."
"Ah, you're awake!"
Ichigo woke to the abnormally happy voice of Urahara Kisuke, sitting up and putting a hand to his forehead. His mind still felt like someone had taken his head and shaken it hard, knocking loose all manner of old memories. Old memories. He couldn't remember anything after he'd found Nejibana and released it.
"Sandal-hat," he said, getting to his feet. "Your idea of training sucks."
"I must admit you exhibited a most peculiar reaction to it," Urahara said carefully, looking at Ichigo to gauge his reaction. No Captain Urahara this time, at least.
"What he doesn't want to admit is that he had no idea what happened," a voice said from beneath Ichigo. He looked down to see... a cat. He stared at the cat. The cat stared back.
"The cat spoke," Ichigo said blankly.
"No, really? I never would have guessed," the cat retorted, glaring at him. "You don't recognize me, do you?"
Ichigo blinked. "Should I?"
Yoruichi realized that even Shiba Kaien had never seen her transform. "Never mind. What's the name of your sword?"
Confused at the sudden change of subject, Ichigo looked down at his zanpakutou and grinned. "Its name is Nejibana," he said, then frowned as something seemed to flutter slightly inside his mind, a memory that hung tantalizingly out of reach. He was sure that if he just concentrated a bit more, pushed just a little further, then he might reach it-
His thoughts were rudely interrupted as what felt like a set of pins pricked his right foot.
"As I was saying." Yoruichi retracted her claws, ignoring the heated glare Ichigo sent at her. "Can you tell me your name, kid?"
"Kurosaki Ichigo," Ichigo replied, glancing over at Urahara. "He didn't tell you?"
As a matter of fact, he had told her, but instead of explaining himself Urahara smiled brightly and made an exaggerated show of checking a nonexistent watch. "My! Look at the time. Your training is over for the time being, Kurosaki-san. Now be a good boy and wait at home until I call for you."
Ignoring Ichigo's loud protests, Urahara unceremoniously shooed the teenager back into his body and then out the door, bidding him farewell with a smile that was far too cheerful to be anything but fake.
It was dark by the time Ichigo got home. He let himself in, slipped off his shoes, and was promptly greeted by a flying dropkick to his midsection. He rolled easily with the impact; one got to expect that kind of thing after the fiftieth time.
"Ichigo!" Isshin cried, completely ignoring the fact that it was well past ten at night and he stood a good chance of waking the neighbors. "You nearly worried your poor father to death. At least call home the next time you decide to run away!"
"I didn't run away, old man," Ichigo replied. He was far too tired and confused to get into a shouting match with his father. "And stop shouting, you'll wake up Karin and Yuzu. Just go back to sleep." His father's eyes widened in alarm and he held up both hands as a sign of surrender. Yuzu had a way of getting extremely cranky if her sleep was interrupted.
Ichigo watched his father move silently up the stairs to his room and blinked as another memory arose in his mind and then disappeared like smoke. The way the older man moved seemed familiar, almost as if he'd seen it before...
Of course you've seen him before, he thought, snorting. He's your dad. He mounted the stairs himself, unable to shake the feeling that the most obvious answer wasn't the correct one but unwilling to concentrate. His eyelids felt like they were made of solid steel, and his body felt like it weighed a ton.
Ichigo was asleep before his head hit the pillow. Though he wouldn't remember it in the morning, his sleep was troubled and uneasy. His mind gave names to the people who flitted through his dreams, though part of him had never seen most of them before. Yamamoto-Genryuusai Shigekuni. Ukitake Juushirou. Kotetsu Kiyone. Kotsubaki Sentarou.