Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo. All characters are depicted as legal age.
Warnings: Light Yaoi, Slight Language, Spoilers for the Soul Society Arc and Beyond, AU after chapter 295
AN: This took forever to write. It has been sitting on my hard drive since August, so forgive me if it isn't very cohesive. Also, I'm working on a darker and angstier version since I couldn't decide which way the fic should go. It will hopefully be up in the next few weeks.
At first, all he can do is scowl, and he does so with a gusto that would make even the geta-boushi proud. Ichigo supposes that he should have expected this. After all, when has his life ever been normal?
If it isn't seeing dead people or monsters, it's his lunatic of a father or his equally insane friends. That isn't even counting his near brushes with disfigurement and certain death or the war he's involved in.
This certainly takes the cake as far as screwed up situations go. It's like he's become Fate's favorite whipping boy. He knows that Soul Society considers him a valuable resource, but this goes above and beyond protecting their assets.
He's been kidnapped. Actually kidnapped! At his age! And by his own goddamned allies! People like Inoue get captured. Not him. Not the all powerful Kurosaki Ichigo.
But somehow, he's managed it.
It all starts several weeks after his return from Hueco Mundo, bringing back Inoue and their friends, old and new alike. Toushirou, Renji, and Rukia simply show up at his house out of the blue one day, telling him that they need his assistance in a very important matter. Ichigo, of course, immediately uses his badge to get out of his body. But before he can even take two steps, he's down for the count, the victim of a very powerful sleeping kidoh to the back.
When he comes to, it's only to find himself in the fourth division, blinking up at the braid-lady, whose name he still can't remember. Rukia's there, hovering in the background, her own captain and Byakuya in the forefront. The healer checks him over and departs, and Ukitake-san smiles at him nervously before dropping a veritable bombshell, the other man an indifferent statue beside him. Ichigo's head is foggy and full of cobwebs, but he still catches the gist of it.
Apparently, their boss, Yamamoto, wants him to stay in Soul Society to keep him from running off again. Of course, it goes without saying that the old fart wants him here to keep him under control and away from Aizen.
That conclusion is supported by Ichigo's next observation as he belatedly realizes that the fogginess in his head isn't really clearing. Further, he can barely feel his own reiatsu, churning below the surface of his mind and just out of reach. It's like there's something separating Ichigo from his own energy, some kind of seal. He can still hear Zangetsu, still feel his Hollow coiling deep in his soul, but everything is so very muted; they are nowhere near as clear as they should be.
And the cause of his misery: a bracelet. A measly, little bracelet that serves a function similar to Kenpachi's eyepatch. The only catch is that Ichigo literally can't take it off; he's unable to do anything more than make it slide a few inches around his wrist.
Supposedly, it's only a temporary measure, a means of keeping his reiatsu from overpowering the lower Shinigami. Further, he'll have to wear it for a few weeks before they'll take it off for him.
Translation: It stays on until they can trust that he'll behave.
He simply gapes at them wordlessly. Ukitake-san looks back at him with a mournful expression. Rukia avoids his eyes. And something unreadable crosses Byakuya's face before he turns and strides out the door.
Ichigo just stares after him, a strange and sinking sensation in his stomach as the last of the man's scarf disappears from view. In the background, he can hear the other two talking, but it takes him several minutes to comprehend what they're saying.
"This is only temporary, Kurosaki-kun."
"Think of it as a vacation, Ichigo."
"You're our honored guest."
But he knows what they really mean.
Ichigo is a prisoner in all but name.
They give him a minder. Rukia calls it an "escort" like he's some little boy who needs his hand held on the way to the bathroom, but Ichigo's not fooled. He knows exactly what this is.
A fucking babysitter.
He doesn't know why they bother. It's not like he could leave anyway. He can't do kidoh, so there's no way he could ever activate the senkaimon to the living world. On the other hand, Ichigo supposes that they simply want to keep tabs on him, make sure he doesn't do anything stupid like try to harm himself.
The person changes all the time. Usually, it's Rukia herself or Renji. Occasionally, it's Toushirou or Rangiku-san. Sometimes, it's Ukitake-san or various other captains, lieutenants, and the odd third or fourth-seat, though the last always work in pairs. Thankfully, he's hardly ever watched by the weirdo from the twelfth division or his freakshow daughter, and as long as he is around witnesses, they don't bother him.
Ichigo never sees the captain-commander.
They're all on a rotating schedule, one so mind-boggling that Ichigo can't even fathom how they remember who is supposed to be where. Still, he does notice a pattern. Nobody from the eleventh ever watches him; he supposes they aren't trusted enough for it. They obviously don't approve of what the old man is doing, thinking in that strange and demented way of theirs that their brother-in-arms deserves better. Ikkaku and Kenpachi have made their displeasure known rather loudly, especially after the latter realizes that it's no fun fighting Ichigo with most of his reiatsu suppressed.
Yachiru, in turn, is unhappy because her Ichi and Ken-chan are so unhappy. The little menace takes to chasing Rukia off whenever it's her turn to watch him, not to mention thoroughly abusing the others when it's theirs. Even the drunk-guy and Ukitake-san, her favorites, don't escape unscathed. The former's hat and favorite pink haori are disfigured beyond all recognition; the latter's hair is now several inches shorter and a very fascinating shade of blue.
Regardless, Ichigo does his utmost to take it in stride, and the easiest way to not blow a gasket or to throttle someone is to ignore them entirely. In all actuality, he's taken to ignoring just about everyone, save his eleventh division buddies. Kenpachi seems to be alright with the arrangement, actually finding it funny that Ichigo would prefer to stay with them than anyone else. Now, the two of them just laze around, watching his squad put each other into the dirt and doing their best to pretend that his observer for the day doesn't even exist.
This was all Byakuya's idea; he just knows it. He can just picture the prissy bastard coming up with something like this. Ichigo is doubly suspicious when he notices that the man seems to be avoiding him. Before, during his earlier visits to Soul Society, he could hardly take two steps without falling over the guy. Now, he can't find him anywhere, and the sixth division captain isn't even one of his babysitters.
Ichigo can't really think of why else Byakuya would never watch him. Perhaps he's too high and mighty for such a lowly task, an ironic thing considering even Soifon and that fox-dude guard him every now and then. Still, he doesn't quite think that's the case. Normally, Rukia and Renji can hardly shut up about her brother, but neither has mentioned him once since this whole thing began. They both seem to be hiding something, keeping it to themselves. And Ichigo would much rather stab himself in the chest with Zangetsu and then go another round with both his Hollow and Grimmjow before he ever asks them.
Instead, he practically interrogates his friends from the eleventh, but they are also surprisingly silent on the issue. Ikkaku just shrugs and does his best to drink an entire jug of sake in under a minute. Kenpachi gets a very bizarre and unreadable look to his face, suddenly finding Yachiru's finger-paintings fascinating. Yumichika-san bats his girly eyes, a very knowing gleam in their lavender depths.
"You'll just have to ask him yourself," he suggests before sashaying away.
Ichigo takes to wandering aimlessly around Seireitei, making a mental map as he goes and trying his best to catch a glimpse of Byakuya without his minders catching on. He never sees him in the sixth division whenever Renji makes him go there, the lieutenant apparently not getting out of training the new recruits even when he's supposed to be watching his former friend. Ichigo isn't allowed to go into Rukongai, but he doesn't really want to. He can't picture Byakuya hiding from him there, so there is no real reason to worry about it.
He thinks as he explores, considering his situation and all that has happened over the last year since he met Rukia. Even now, he wonders what they did with his body. If Kon is in it at the moment, taking care of it for him. Or if they simply destroyed it, killed him in everything but fact. Ichigo hopes that they didn't; he won't be held responsible for his actions if they have.
He also wonders what his family is doing, how they are reacting to all this. If anyone has even bothered to explain it to them. Somehow, Ichigo doubts that they did. The Shinigami are bastards that way. Always so superior about themselves, they forget that their actions affect the lives of others, if they even care in the first place.
Ukitake-san and the others try their best to get him interested in the activities of the Shinigami, and Ichigo plays along for a lack of anything better to do. He's since learned more about paperwork and the general goings-on of each squad than he ever wanted to know. It seems to make his guards feel better, not that he really cares. Rukia especially takes it as a good sign, even daring to talk to him, despite the fact that he never responds.
They all think it means he's mellowing, perhaps even wanting to be here. But they couldn't be further from the truth. He wants to go home. He wants to be with his friends, with his family.
He wants his life back.
Ichigo doesn't think that his hosts are any closer to letting him go than they were when he got here. Shinigami are rather patient, it seems, a given since they live for so very long. All they have to do is wait him out; a few decades and he won't have a body to return to, if he even still has one now. He especially thinks that he's in for the long haul after he overhears Toushirou and Rangiku-san speaking with the drunk-guy, learning that the Arrancar have been appearing in Karakura, apparently searching for him.
Ichigo merely grits his teeth and tries to keep himself occupied. He spars with Ikkaku and Yumichika-san every day, Kenpachi and Yachiru observing and adding some helpful and not-so-helpful tips. They don't use shunpo or anything similar, merely working on their swordsmanship. But it's time well spent. His watchers help them occasionally; Ichigo quietly takes their advice with a neutral face.
The search for Byakuya is fruitless. All he manages to see of the man is his scarf disappearing around various corners. The substitute Shinigami is spending more time in the sixth division now, ostensibly to watch Renji train the newbies. Surprisingly, Ichigo does learn a number of things. He even manages to pick up a few basics of kidoh, which he practices in his room at night, the only time he is left alone. Even with his reiatsu as muted as it is, he can still do a surprising number of things. And truthfully, with it this way, the chances of him blowing himself up are far less.
Nevertheless, Ichigo isn't deterred or even distracted from finding Byakuya. Something inside of him says that it's very important. Zangetsu especially is oddly keen for him to talk with the captain, though he never says why. However, that is going to be impossible if Ichigo can never find him. But for all he knows, Byakuya could be watching him every hour of every day, standing just outside the edge of his senses. It's not like he'd ever know the difference. Of course, it doesn't help that he can't sense his way out of a paper bag on a good day or that the man seems rather good at concealing himself.
Ichigo vows to work on this, actually breaking down and speaking to Hanatarou about it one day when the little guy comes to heal him after a particularly vicious spar with Ikkaku. The healer actually seems taken aback that Ichigo would talk to him, everyone in Seireitei apparently knowing of his reluctance to speak to anyone outside the eleventh division. Still, Hanatarou agrees to discreetly help him, promising to keep their conversations to himself.
His watchers are pleased that he's finally reaching out to other people, thankfully leaving him alone whenever Hanatarou comes for a visit. Only Rukia seems suspicious, her eyes narrowing as she sits just out of earshot.
Just over a month after his abduction, Rukia and Renji finally become fed up with his silent treatment. Ichigo supposes that it was inevitable. Out of all his minders, he sees the two of them the most, almost daily. In all honesty, he expected both of them to crumble much sooner than this, but their guilt seems to have kept them quiet for far longer than he thought it would.
They start to purposely goad him, trying their utmost to elicit a response. Ichigo has to give them credit for the effort, both of them saying things that would have sent him yelling before. However, he manages to maintain his silence, tuning them out much like he used to do Goat-Face and Keigo.
Renji, of course, is the first one to totally break.
Ichigo is on his way back to Kenpachi's after another scintillating day of ignoring his redheaded companion. The other man is in a piss-poor mood, the result of a glancing blow to the head from one of the newbies and a few hours of having Ichigo glower at him.
And even looking back weeks later, Ichigo is still not entirely certain what exactly happens next. All he remembers is that the redhead says something that he doesn't quite catch. Suddenly, Renji growls like a dog, practically howling as his temper gets the best of him. The next thing Ichigo knows is that the lieutenant has thrown him against the side of a building, holding him there, both hands knotted into the front of his shihakushou. Renji leans in as closely as he can, and his tattooed face is soon all that Ichigo can see.
"Why're ya doin' this?" Renji demands in an enraged and faintly hurt tone. "Can't ya see what you're doin' to us, Ichigo? Don't ya know that we're sorry 'bout everythin'."
All Ichigo can do is blink, more surprised than injured but incapable of any other response. Renji doesn't seem to realize this.
"Dammit! Answer me!" the man demands.
Renji is about to say more when he's suddenly knocked back by a black and white blur. He struggles with his attacker before being tossed to the ground several yards away. He is up on his feet in an instant but freezes when he realizes just who it is.
Kuchiki Byakuya stands directly in front of him, his back to Ichigo and his hand on Senbonzakura. "I am disappointed with you, Renji," he states in his usual monotone, though there is a hint of outright hostility to his voice. "Return to the division. I will address this matter later."
Renji swallows thickly and nods, avoiding his captain's eye as he leaves. In the meantime, Byakuya has summoned other subordinates, directing them to the substitute Shinigami.
Ichigo simply stares at the entire spectacle, too stunned to speak.
Byakuya turns to look at him then, a bizarre gleam in his grey eyes as he studies the teen, as if searching for injury. Apparently finding none, the captain steps away, and Ichigo belatedly comes out of his daze, the object of his month long search almost within reach.
"Wait," he calls.
But in the next instant, Byakuya simply disappears, moving away too quickly for Ichigo to follow.
Afterwards, Ichigo's urge to see the man is doubled. He just can't figure out Byakuya or what the hell he's trying to pull. All he knows is that he is going to catch up with the bastard if it kills him.
Renji is no longer one of his watchers. The last Ichigo heard, he's still a guest of the braid-lady, there due to a run in with a very irate Yachiru. Regardless, the teen can't really say that this is an improvement since he sees Rukia even more now. Further, she apparently figures out his desire to see her brother, finally realizing what all those trips around Seireitei and to the sixth division were really about.
She does her best to dissuade him from continuing in his endeavor, badgering him continuously about it for almost a week straight. Finally, her message completely ignored, she resorts to begging.
"Please stop this, Ichigo. Don't take it out on nii-sama," Rukia pleads with a very peculiar expression. "If you want to be angry with someone, be angry with us. At Renji and me. It may not have been our idea, but we supported it fully."
Ichigo opens his mouth, on the verge of questioning her, but he promptly stops himself, digesting the information she's just revealed. His suspicions about Byakuya confirmed, he whirls on his heel and strides away, the much shorter girl struggling to keep up.
He stalks back to the eleventh division. But half-way there, he changes his mind, instead heading for the thirteenth. Once inside the main building, he politely speaks to Ukitake-san's female third-seat, and the woman is so surprised that she lets him in her captain's office without hesitation.
Ichigo bows to the startled man, who is in the process of standing.
"What can I do for you, Kurosaki-kun?" Ukitake-san asks, brushing a strand of bluish-white hair from his face as he walks over to his guest.
Ichigo's eyes flicker to Rukia. She's finally caught up with him, kneeling at the entrance to the room.
"Well, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, you can reassign Kuchiki-san," Ichigo says in a very firm voice. "I really don't want her around me anymore."
Ukitake-san blinks at his word choice, eyes widening as understanding sinks in. Rukia splutters, and before she can form a retort, her superior nods and motions for her to leave. When she hesitates for several minutes, his other third-seat gently leads her away. The captain watches quietly, gesturing for his guest to sit and going to fetch a pot of tea.
The next day, Rukia is gone, no longer one of his babysitters. In her place is a very nervous Hanatarou. The healer smiles weakly when he sees his charge.
Ichigo grins back, and a wicked plan forms in his mind.
His search for Byakuya slowly becomes an almost obsession. He can't get the man out of his head. Ichigo has to see him, has to talk with him. Somehow, he knows… he just knows that if he does this entire crazy situation will make sense. Byakuya is the key to this whole damn mess. Ichigo just has to find him.
But that is much easier said than done. Hell, he hasn't even seen the man in over two months, not counting the episode with Renji.
Ichigo tries to shunpo with the block on, and while it works, he's nowhere near as fast as he normally is. In fact, he's slower than when he first learned, Yoruichi-san apparently making him quicker than normal, or perhaps he's just particularly good at it. Either way, he's not very pleased with the results, and if he's going to corner Byakuya, he can't rely on his superior speed to do it.
Which means he's going to have to rely on strategy, something he freely admits isn't his forte. But it's all he's got, and for a lack of anything better, Ichigo quietly plans at night, thinking over his options. And as much as the guys in the eleventh division are his buddies, he doesn't quite feel comfortable enough telling them what he's planning to do. Besides, they'd probably ask some very awkward questions that he really doesn't want to answer.
Thankfully, he doesn't have to tell them, instead managing to convince Hanatarou. Even better, the little guy doesn't question why he wants to see Byakuya so very badly, agreeing to help him without asking anything in return.
After months of craptastic luck, things are finally starting to look up.
His luck surprisingly holds throughout the next week, Fate finally letting up on him. Hanatarou teaches him everything he needs to know and more. Ichigo actually manages to get it all right without it blowing up in their collective faces, his determination once again letting him do feats thought impossible.
Further, everyone is none the wiser to their actions. That is especially not after he bribes Yachiru with several pilfered bags of candy, sending her on a sugar-induced high throughout her squad and Seireitei at large. Everybody is too busy trying to contain her to bother with him.
The first stage of his plan complete, Ichigo moves on to the second, which is more of a waiting game than anything else. All he needs is a glimpse of Byakuya, just an idea of where he's at a given moment, and hopefully a minimum of witnesses.
Somewhere, the gods must be smiling upon him because Ichigo miraculously sees Byakuya outside one day when he and Hanatarou are passing by the sixth division on the way back from braid-lady's office. The man is on a bench half-hidden from view between a wall and a blossoming cherry tree, and he actually appears to be on a break, simply admiring the petals swaying in the wind above him.
Even better, he is completely alone. There isn't anyone else around, his subordinates elsewhere. Ichigo can't quite figure out why Byakuya hasn't sensed the two of them yet, but he doesn't want to question that fact too deeply, figuring that captain is simply distracted or perhaps deep in thought.
Ichigo is in the middle of trying to figure out how to get close to the man without him realizing and disappearing again, but Hanatarou beats him to the punch. The little Shinigami marches right up to the captain, somehow managing to distract him long enough for Ichigo to get within range. The next few seconds are filled with a deep set determination to succeed coupled with an almost panic, especially when Byakuya unexpectedly stands, on the verge of walking away.
Knowing his chance is about to slip through his fingers, Ichigo hurriedly casts a binding spell. To his never ending surprise, it actually works. Byakuya is caught completely off guard, stumbling enough for his assailant to catch him, grabbing hold of the man before he can even recover. The expression on the prissy bastard's face when he realizes what just happened would be comical if the situation weren't so damn serious, but the substitute Shinigami can't quite help the smirk that spreads across his face as he tugs at the captain's sleeve.
"You and I need to have a little chat," he says through gritted teeth, trying his best not to barrage the man with questions then and there. "Somewhere private."
Byakuya looks at him with slightly widened eyes, face again becoming an unreadable mask as he hesitates and then finally nods.
Hanatarou is gone, having vanished several moments earlier without them noticing.
Sometime later, the two of them are in Byakuya's office, and Ichigo is in an almost daze still trying to digest all of the information the captain has just told him. He'd known that Aizen was interested in him but not quite to this degree. Not enough to permanently assign Ulquiorra to spy on him and his family. Or to actually send his fellow traitors to Ichigo's house. The teen can't help the small shiver that crawls down his spine as the implications and possibilities run through his mind.
Perhaps Soul Society was right in bringing him here, though they definitely could have gone about it better. They didn't have to drag him off without so much as a by your leave. The only bright spot in all this mess is that his friends and the geta-boushi know where he is. They, at least, could cover for him at school. But his family is an entirely different thing.
"Your family also knows where you are," Byakuya interrupts as though reading the teen's mind, studying him carefully. "Your father was… displeased with our actions, though he understands the necessity of them. Your kaizou konpaku – Kon, I believe – he has been filling in for you. I even understand that the Quincy has been assisting with schoolwork to keep your grades from falling."
A moment passes in silence as Ichigo considers, and Byakuya simply continues to watch him, his face completely unreadable. Still, there is something strange about his expression, an odd pulling at his mouth and eyes.
"The others… Rukia… why did she not tell you all of this?" the man finally asks.
Ichigo stiffens. "I've… uh… I haven't been speaking with them."
Instead of censuring him, the captain inclines his head. "That is understandable."
"And you've been avoiding me," Ichigo redirects, the hand resting on his knee knotting into his hakama. "I've been looking for you for months. I just knew that you had something to do with this."
Byakuya shifts almost imperceptibly, seeming nervous. "If I had known that this is what Yamamoto-soutaichou would do," he begins but shakes his head. "This isn't what I intended at all. I only suggested that it might be safer for you here in Seireitei."
Ichigo shakes his head and adds without thinking, "If you wanted me here that badly, Byakuya, all you had to do was ask."
The man is actually embarrassed, pale cheeks growing pink as his companion watches in a fascinated sort of shock. Ichigo falters, eyes widening. The silence that stretches between them is beyond awkward. And it takes everything the substitute Shinigami has not to twitch as Byakuya avoids looking at him. Ichigo can't help himself as he nervously twists at his inhibitor, a habit he's picked up over the last few months.
But a hand on his wrist stills the movement an indeterminable amount of time later. Ichigo glances over to see Byakuya studying his bracelet intently.
"We never should have sealed your powers in the first place," the captain says, actually looking at him again. "It was wrong of us to do so… and to force you here without explaining why."
A distant part of Ichigo wonders how much it cost the man to admit that, but he is too focused on what Byakuya isn't saying. Too hopeful at the potential prospect of being free from the damned thing. Before he can even ask, the captain murmurs a phrase under his breath. With a flare of reiatsu, the bracelet finally comes off and drops into his hand. Ichigo looks at his now bare wrist with something akin to awe for several moments as he takes a deep breath and feels his reiatsu rise to the surface, running along his skin. Zangetsu practically vibrates with pleasure in his mind as his Hollow stretches in a corner of his soul but thankfully remains quiet.
"Thanks, Byakuya," Ichigo whispers, a genuine smile on his face as he continues to look at his bare arm.
The man nods, seeming rather pleased. "If…" He hesitates, and something flashes across his face. "If you wish to contact to your family, I can arrange it," he offers unexpectedly.
Ichigo's head snaps up. He blinks and belatedly notices just how close they are together and the fact that Byakuya has yet to move away. They simply stare at each other, eyes searching and searching…
And then, they're kissing.
It doesn't take very long for people to catch on. Just a few shared meals, hands and knees brushing. Along with several long walks, their ease with each other so readily apparent that even the weirdo from the twelfth realizes. Of course, the fact that the reiatsu suppressor is gone but Ichigo isn't is their first hint. Braid-lady and the drunk-guy catching the couple kissing just before a captain's meeting is their second.
All of Ichigo's minders are gone within a week.
Hanatarou smiles and continues to teach him kidoh without comment. Kenpachi gives a feral grin, beyond sadistically delighted that Ichigo's bagged Kuchiki-hime and idly hoping the prissy bastard might actually remove that stick from his ass. Yachiru is simply thrilled that her two second favorite people are together. Yumichika-san acts as though he knew the entire time, and Ikkaku just slaps him on the back for a job well done. Ukitake-san seems to be a mixture of utter relief and quiet amusement. Much the same as the majority of the Gotei 13.
Renji and Rukia are completely forgiven, and forgive completely, a few days later. Both surprisingly take everything in stride, and Ichigo can't help but think that they had to have known all along exactly how Byakuya felt. He can't fault them for trying to protect the man, not that he really needed it in the end.
And years later, after the war is over and when they are rebuilding everything, Ichigo thinks that being kidnapped is probably the best thing that ever happened to him.