Twenty-one.

There had been twenty-one clouds in the fuckin' sky.

He knew. He did not even have to make an effort to remember, not that he would have. It just stuck in his head and wouldn't go away, like all the other little details. Whatever.

Looking back, he wasn't too sure why he had decided to keep the little brat after all. Entertainment value? Naw. The brat wasn't nearly strong enough for a good fight. Maybe it was that damned smile on her face. That wide one with the eyes closed and the little giggles that had done it. Damn, he was soft, eh?

He scowled, fingering the hilt of his zanpakuto. She had touched the damn thing and then giggled. Giggled, for fuck's sake. It was a sword. It was sharp, pointy, and wreaked destruction wherever it went. It was not for giggling. Stupid brat.

He had picked her up and scolded her then and there, just after giving them both their names. Swords were not ta' be touched by brats like her. Swords were sharp, and he damned well was not going to dress that little cut she would get from touching the thing. No way in hell.

And then he had slung her over his shoulder, tellin' her to hang on, or fall off. To tell the truth, he did let her get used to it, but after the fifth time she fell off, he reached back, grabbed her by the scruff, and just slung her over his shoulder, her belly on the broad surface, telling her to lean forward and stop that bloody squirming because it was uncomfortable and if she continued he was going to drop her, damnit.

So she had stopped squirming. But that stupid smile was still on her face. That look of absolute wonder, and complete adoration. He did not like that kinda look. It was for the rich assholes he had heard were living in some other district somewhere else. He? He was a fighter, a killer. There was absolutely nothing endearing about him. Nu uh.

The very thought was horrifying. He spat in disgust. He was not endearing. He was not nice, and by the gods, he was not fuckin' cute. But he just let her do whatever she wanted. Smile? Whatever. 'S long as she wasn't in his way, didn't do stupid things, she could do whatever she wanted. And he let her do whatever she wanted.

But he had stopped her from licking the blood off her finger. Stupid brat. Blood was not for licking. It was for looking at, and it was for drawing. It was not for licking. He taught her to dodge the sprays of blood, to make sure the damn thing didn't get on her clothes. The stains were too fucking difficult to take out.

He had stopped her from eating the leaves and the grass by the roadside. Grass was not for eating. It was for sleeping on, it was for stepping on, it was for cleaning swords on. It was not for eating. He taught her the fruits to eat, the poisonous stuff to avoid, making sure that the brat didn't choke herself on some poisonous crap she had picked up from the floor which was "shiny, Ken-chan!"

He had stopped her from jumping and straying away from him at the marketplace. God knew there were many other fucked up bastards in the Zaraki marketplace, just looking for a good piece of meat, in both senses of the word. And while the brat would not fit one of the categories, the other was not difficult to fulfill. He taught her to cling onto his shoulder properly, to stay there and not fall off, making sure that his little responsibility wasn't going to just disappear off somewhere and he would have to kill half the settlement to get the damned brat back.

He stopped her from stealing stuff at the stalls. Stealing was for no lifers. Why steal when he could easily beat up some rich bastard who had more money than he needed? He taught her to jump off quickly and unseen, to hide in the bushes in the side when he fought. Last thing he needed was for the little brat to get caught and held hostage by the cold-hearted morons.

He stopped her from getting into fights of many on one. She wasn't nearly good enough to get so many of them at once. All she would do was distract him when he was fighting. And so he taught her to dodge, to duck, to run, not away, but towards them. To take them on. To make sure the fight was on her terms.

He did not need to teach her to survive. She taught herself that, after one time she slipped off his shoulder in the damned marketplace, after the time she got lost in the forest and ended up in some family's home. He did not need to teach her to fight. She taught herself that, after the first few hits, after the first few days spent with a large bruise on her chin.

He taught her how to play the game. It wasn't really a game, but really, how else were you supposed to explain slaughter to a brat like her? He taught her how to play the game of survival. How to be the best, the strongest, the fittest. How to make sure that even if she was alone, and there were the bad men around, she would know that it was just part of the game that she was supposed to knock them out and go barreling back in a pink flurry to him. He taught her what it meant to win at the game, what it meant to win at life.

And looking back, he didn't regret it at all. He didn't regret the twinge in his heart when she rushed off ahead determined to beat his score. He didn't regret the worry he felt when she wasn't on his shoulder or rushing around somewhere near him because she was at some damned lieutenants' meeting. And he sure as hell didn't regret the sweet smiles, the way her eyes would light up once he entered the room.

"Ne, ne, Ken-chan! Whatcha thinkin' about?" A little hand tugged at the huge sleeve.

"Ya remember tha time I gave you your name, Yachiru?"

"Of course! I even remember the number of clouds that were in the sky!"

"Yeah… me too. Twenty-one,eh?"

"Noo, Ken-chan's getting old and silly. There were twenty-two clouds in the sky! Eleven for you and eleven for me, see?" A second tug on his sleeve. "See, Ken-chan?"

"Aye, aye, Yachiru. Musta' been my mistake."

Damn. He really was soft after all.