New story for you! A six-part ficlet series. Each piece is connected, but there are large jumps in time in between them. I do hope you enjoy!

Also: Apparently, there is now some major effort going around to prosecute people who are writing underage characters into smutty situations. Or so my beta informs me. So to cover my ass, I make this statement.

All characters depicted in this fiction are of legal age. Therefore, in order to comply with this statement, the story is officially AU. This is the same for all of my fictions, fanfiction or otherwise.

Title: Misguided Manipulation
Pairings: Stark/Ichigo (eventually)

Rating: T
Warning: Language, spoilers
, especially for Stark's ranking and stuff
Words: 3,401
Timeline Placement: After the Soul Society Arc and before Ichigo decides to seek help from the Vizard, somewhat. Very much AU.
Sent to the Living World on Aizen's orders to recruit Ichigo to his cause, Stark finds himself led astray by the orange-headed teen. What a surprise.
Dedication: To Lady Azar-sama, my one and only beta and the one who requested this pairing.

Chapter One – When First They Met

What a charming little town, Stark thought to himself as he perched on a rather high roof top and scanned the whole of Karakura. Rather quaint and bucolic and other such pleasant words that described small places with very little in them. He couldn't help but wonder just what the boss had been thinking to send him here. He certainly had better things to do than scour this hamlet with its bright sun and cheery inhabitants, looking for one little orange-headed brat amongst all of the dark-haired humans.

With a twist of his jaw, Stark folded his arms across his chest and reminded himself that there was no use in questioning Aizen-sama's logic. Or trying to make sense of it either. He obeyed, or he didn't. There was no middle ground. And for the moment, Stark obeyed. He didn't see any reason to do otherwise.

For the moment.

So even if he thought this whole venture was foolish and pointless, he was going to do it anyway. If Aizen-sama really thought this Kurosaki Ichigo was important in the grand scheme of things, perhaps the brat was. It was up to Stark to find out for himself. Just as soon as he found the kid.

That inner and minor rebellion taken care of, Stark focused on carefully expanding his reiatsu. No use in getting caught by the Shinigami, after all. He knew they had advanced equipment to detect Arrancar and Espada happenings. Luckily, he was the most skilled outside of Ulquiorra at concealing himself. However, Ulquiorra didn't quite have the same charming personality as himself and therefore wasn't given this mission. Stark half-wished that he had been.

A sharp spike of uncontained and rippling reiatsu caught his senses. Probably the brat. There was little other useful spirit pressure in this village besides that tainted with the stench of Shinigami or human. Whereas Kurosaki's reiatsu had a delightful and intriguing mix of Hollow. Besides, most of the other reiatsu of any note had slightly better control. Or perhaps it was that Kurosaki lacked all semblance of restraint, and it simply showed. Either way, Stark was sure he'd found the brat.

Smirking to himself at the ease in which the first stage of his mission had been completed, he hopped from rooftop to rooftop. His path led him to a large building with multiple windows, surrounded by a wire fence. Huge open spaces of ground covered in either grass or hard-packed dirt was scattered within the compound. And Kurosaki was in one of the buildings, the largest in the middle.

Curious, Stark found a nearby rooftop and perched atop it, scanning what he could see with both eyes and senses. Those human friends of Kurosaki were there as well; he could see their faint glimmers of power. And – che – Shinigami. He could sense those, too.


Stark luckily didn't have to wait long before a low dong – six tones or so, not that he was really counting – echoed through the lazy afternoon. A perfect day for a nap wasted, just like that. He watched as hordes of humans began to pour from the doors of the building, all wearing the same outfit to some degree. And then, he saw Kurosaki. The bright orange hair was pretty hard to miss.

A scowl twisted up the brat's expression, and he walked with a bag slung over his shoulder. Beside him, the Shinigami-disguised-as-a-human skipped a little too merrily, and the big-breasted female with interesting powers chattered continuously. Kurosaki didn't seem to be paying much attention to either of them. Trailing along behind the trio was the Quincy – Stark recognized those glasses easily – and a rather large, darker-skinned human. The Espada didn't see the other Shinigami bastards anywhere.

A bit perturbed that he couldn't immediately swoop down and talk to the kid, Stark resolved himself to stalking Kurosaki. Keeping out of sight and carefully dampening his reiatsu, he followed the boy around Karakura.

Kurosaki walked all of his friends home except for the one, the Shinigami-disguised-as-a-human who Stark reluctantly learned was named Rukia. She came to his own residence, and from there, Stark could do nothing but wait. There was a strange presence inside Kurosaki's home, one that felt a bit like Shinigami but also a bit not. It was muted but seethed dangerously beneath the surface, and he felt just a bit intimidated and kept his distance.

Still, he felt satisfied in finding the boy's home and school – as he had learned the building was called. It was enough work for one day. He was hungry and in desperate need of a nap.

Fighting back a yawn and marking the location in his mind, Stark headed back to Hueco Mundo. He would try to catch Ichigo tomorrow.

Day two and three passed in nearly the same manner.

He tracked Kurosaki from house to school and back to house again. Sometimes, the kid made a few detours and wandered to a convenience store or another friend's home. Occasionally, he stopped by this slightly ramshackle store, the Urahara Shouten, which was also brimming with reiatsu that prompted Stark to keep a safe distance. He didn't need to be discovered before he managed to speak to the kid. He had never experienced the penalty for failure from the boss and hadn't planned on giving it a taste.

Mostly, however, it was the same routine for Kurosaki. He went to school. He killed some Hollows. He endured the existence of his friends. And apparently, he regularly had trouble controlling his inner self. Now, that was something of interest, but Stark unfortunately hadn't had the opportunity to discuss it with Kurosaki.

He had realized on the second day that in order to follow through with his mission he would have to get the brat alone. He couldn't talk to him and convince him to join Aizen-sama's merry bunch if he were surrounded by his own cheery gang of idiots.

But the more Stark watched Kurosaki, the more he realized that for all his surly attitude and glowering expression the kid was never really alone. He was surrounded by loyal companions. They practically worshiped the ground he walked on, and the Espada was marked by how similar to the boss the brat was in that respect. Except he had the feeling that Kurosaki didn't gain his admiration by terror but by something a bit more deserving.

The Arrancar wondered what it was about the brat that was so gravitating. Why people seemed to flock to him in loyal droves. And why so many would be willing to lay down their lives for him. But most of all, he wondered just what the boss saw in this kid and why he wanted Kurosaki on his side so badly.

Stark continued to watch, nearly forgetting about his initial orders in the wake of trying to understand. There was something about the kid, and he had to know what it was. The curiosity was nearly driving him mad.

It was an entire week later when the opportunity came to him. Literally.

"Why've you been following me?" a voice demanded in a belligerent tone, nearly sending Stark sliding off his rooftop perch in surprise.

He had been tracking Kurosaki throughout the entire day, waiting for a chance to strike as it were. But while contemplating giving up for the afternoon and making up for one of the many naps he had missed on this inane quest, his target had somehow disappeared from his sight. One second, he was there. The next, he wasn't. And there wasn't even a blip of reiatsu on Stark's senses.

That was his first clue that something wasn't quite right. The second happened to be standing right behind him.

Rising to his feet with a graceful and deceptively lackadaisical motion, Stark turned to regard his visitor, not surprised to find Kurosaki Ichigo standing there. Black cloth fluttered around his frame, his now thin zanpakutou in his palm. That explained how quickly he was able to move. But not the reiatsu suppression. Perhaps someone had been teaching him.

Stark grinned. "What makes you think that I have?" he drawled, hands slipping into his pockets as he glanced at Kurosaki from the corner of his eye.

There was something... in that determination, the hard glint of those brown eyes. He was certain the answer that had been bugging him all week was there.

The teenager scowled, and though his zanpakutou dangled down at his side, he didn't look harmless. "I'm not stupid," he spat in Stark's direction. "You're one of Aizen's Espada, aren't you?"

"I am." Stark saw no need to deny the truth.

Ah, there it was. Kurosaki's control was slipping, and he could already feel the tendrils of reiatsu slipping out. Seemed like he could only hold it for so long. Either that or his distraction was serving as a means to lose his restraint.

He watched as the boy's shoulders tightened. "Then why've you been following me? Why aren't you just attacking?"

Stark shrugged with faint nonchalance. "Saw something interesting. Thought I'd check him out for awhile."

The blade lifted and was pointed at him, all black and threatening. "Not buying that," Kurosaki growled. "What does Aizen want?"

"Right to the point, aren't ya?" Stark asked, not at all intimidated.

After all, the brat had a bit of trouble with Grimmjow, and strong or not, the sixth Espada couldn't even defeat Stark in his dreams. Which still begged the question as to why the boss wanted this half-human, half-Shinigami, half-Hollow… whatever the hell Kurosaki was on his side.

"Don't see a reason not to be. Do you?" the teen shot back cockily.

And just the look made Stark's blood burn. He suddenly wanted to fight Kurosaki, to see what he really had hidden underneath. He refrained, however, thinking that the boss wouldn't like it so much if he damaged the merchandise.

"Alright then. It's pretty simple really." Shifting his position so that he faced the other male head on, Stark continued, "How 'bout joining our side?"

Those eyes widened, and Kurosaki's zanpakutou wavered uncertainly. "What the hell? You can't be fuckin' serious!"

"Oh, but I am," Stark replied easily, taking some amusement out of perplexing the kid like this. "The boss is pretty interested in you."

"Well, your boss can fuck off," Kurosaki snarled, and his reiatsu spiked dangerously. Brown eyes were taking on a distinct and strange silver edge that only made Stark's curiosity grow.

He really wanted to know what was up with this kid.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance.

Stark sensed the danger seconds before it whizzed by his head in a startling display of bright blue and white. He jerked backwards, feeling the cool heat of power against his cheek. Not Shinigami. Something else. Something Quincy, as Szayel would have called it.


Dammit! Of all times for one of the brat's friends to join in. Lifting a hand, Stark gathered power into his fingertips and shot a cero in the direction of the newcomer, just something low-powered. After all, he couldn't convince Kurosaki to join them if he started killing off the kid's lackeys.

As the Quincy leapt to avoid the attack, bow brightening in his hands to relay another shot, Stark threw a reassuring grin at Kurosaki.

"We'll have to continue this another time," he said with fake apology. "Later." And with a vague two-fingered salute to his forehead, Stark stepped into a Garganta.

It wouldn't hurt to give Kurosaki a few days to think about it.

Stark didn't waste time in chasing down the brat again. After all, only the first contact was tricky. Now, Kurosaki knew that Stark was following him, which meant he had to be a little less unobtrusive. But not by much. Kurosaki's guard would be up now; he would be more aware.

Perched on the roof of the school, right above the main entrance where the kid usually exited, Stark waited. The low dong that signaled it was over for the day poured through his senses. And still, he waited. Any moment now a familiar orange-head would emerge from the building, and--

Ah, there.

Kurosaki must have sensed him because the boy turned around mid-step, eyes narrowed as he looked up at the Espada perched on the roof like some strange gargoyle. He looked annoyed, though it was hard to tell from his usual expression of irritation. And he was alone today. No human tagalongs or Shinigami escorts. Interesting.

Lifting a hand, Stark waved and rose to his full height. "Yo."

Kurosaki arched one brow. "You again?" he demanded impassively as though he didn't care one way or the other.

"What can I say?" Stark began with a careless shrug, effortlessly dropping from the roof to the ground and landing agilely next to the orange-haired human. "I'm damn persistent."

He snorted. "It's damn annoying," Kurosaki commented and turned to walk away, easily threading through the mass of students also trying to exit the building.

Stark didn't blame them. It looked boring, though possibly nap-worthy.

He quickly moved to walk beside the teenager, hands in his pockets and presenting a perfect picture of nonchalance. Brown eyes glared at him askance before Ichigo grunted his displeasure.

"And don't walk there either. People will think I'm crazy."

"No one said you have to talk to me," Stark pointed out, amused by the twitching of the kid's eyebrow. "Wouldn't ignoring me be easier?"

Rolling his eyes, Kurosaki shifted his schoolbag over his shoulder as he left the school grounds and turned in the direction that Stark knew would take him home. "Were you anyone else, then maybe. But you're as annoying as Grimmjow."

Stark was affronted by that. "Now, that's just rude. I am nothing like that guy."

Shrugging, Kurosaki rolled his eyes, his reiatsu flickering around him and easily escaping the bonds of his infantile control. Stark could sense the Hollow in it, intertwined with the blue stretches of his Shinigami abilities. The kid couldn't hide himself for shit. He was practically advertising his location and abilities to anyone within a hundred-mile radius. Whereas Stark, on the other hand, wouldn't be sensed until after his opponent had been defeated in one blow and not a moment before.

The Espada tipped his head to the side. "You seem to be having a little trouble controlling that, amigo," he commented and reached out as if to touch the straying tendrils. "Surprised your little Shinigami buddies haven't noticed that Hollow yet."

Kurosaki halted mid-step and whirled on him. "You can sense that?" he demanded, eyes flashing angrily and with a hint of fear in their dark depths.

Ah, so his little friends didn't know of the Hollow inside him; perhaps they weren't sensitized to it like an Arrancar was. Either that or he feared his Hollow. Maybe even both.

Dropping his hand, Stark lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug. "More than anyone else, I'll bet." He watched the kid closely. "I'm an Arrancar; you could say we're more attune to stuff like that. We recognize our own."

"Things like Hollows," Kurosaki retorted, a scowl decorating his expression; it seemed to be his favorite. "My control is none of your business." He whirled on his heels, stalking away from Stark with evident annoyance in every step.

Sensing something that could prove to lean in his favor, Stark immediately caught up. "On the contrary, I think that I might be able to help."

Kurosaki snorted, not even bothering to acknowledge his continued presence. "I don't need help from someone like you."

"Even if that means everyone finds out you're dirty secret because you're too stubborn to accept a little help?"

The boy paused but didn't turn, and Stark could see his fingers tightening around the strap of his bag. Ah, progress, how sweet it sounded. He pushed further, knowing that he had finally gotten to Kurosaki.

"If you don't control it, it will control you," Stark continued and moved in front of the teenager with a quick burst of sonido so that he was facing Ichigo. "I can teach you how. Take the offer as a token of goodwill."

Almost-silver eyes regarded him warily. "And immediately afterwards, I'll be forced to join Aizen. I can guess how your mind works."

"Not so," Stark replied, lifting a hand and holding it in front of him to stop Kurosaki's attempt to walk away. "The boss wants you to come willingly. This is just a free gift on my part. No strings attached. On my honor as a gentleman." He gestured vaguely to his chest. "Really, what have you got to lose?"

Kurosaki snorted again, eyes now taking on a golden cast. "I could think of a few things."

Shaking his head, Stark sighed and lifted his other hand. He held out the left hand, palm facing himself, and tugged at the fingertip to one glove. Neatly pulling it off and letting it dangle. It brought attention to the dark line that stood out brightly against his skin and on the back of his hand.

"See this?" he prompted and wriggled his fingers as Ichigo's eyes widened at the number presented there. "If I really wanted to take you in forcefully, I could. Grimmjow's only the sixth, amigo. The sixth."

Kurosaki was staring at him now, and though Stark hated playing his cards so early in the game, he also knew that the brat wasn't one for subtleties. The truth needed to be shoved in his face before he could see it. And well, if this was the best way to accomplish his mission, then so be it. Besides, the worst it could do would send the kid running scared, and Kurosaki wasn't really the type to do that.

The boy's gaze lifted to his. "Why would he send you to do something like this?" Kurosaki demanded. "You're the strongest. Doesn't he have lackeys for this sort of thing?"

"That's a good question," Stark replied, slipping his glove back on in one quick motion, effectively hiding the tattoo. "And as soon as I figure that out, I'll let you know. I'm not exactly thrilled about this myself."

Shifting in place, Kurosaki's brow furrowed as he absorbed the information, obviously debating. "What's in it for you then?"

"Call it curiosity," Stark drawled and motioned to the teen. "You've got a lot of power packed in there. I'm wondering why. Might even be a match for me in a couple years, if you learn to control it."

Kurosaki was singularly not impressed. "If only," he replied sarcastically, and when Stark continued to look at him, he sighed and raked a hand over his head. "You're serious."

"As a heart attack, amigo."

He let out a frustrated breath, his gaze darting all around Stark and on nothing really before he finally threw his free hand. "Fine. Whatever. Teach me. Hell, it's not like I could get any worse."

"So you'll accept help from the enemy?"

The teenager smirked, showing a touch of arrogance that might have been more of his Hollow's influence than anything else. "Can't exactly go to my allies, now can I? And you're not really my enemy at the moment."

"Not really to both counts." Stark smiled easily, hands returning to his pockets.

An abrupt leap took him backwards and to the roof of a nearby house, and he watched as Kurosaki glared at his departing form. "I'll find you then, yes? Lessons begin tomorrow."

Predictably, Kurosaki scowled, lifting his shoulders dismissively. "Whatever, Aizen's Espada," he muttered as he turned and headed back down the sidewalk, likely wanting to get home before the storm that was slowly rolling in struck.

"Stark," he called down to the kid, a belated introduction admittedly. "The name's Stark."

His only answer was a briefly waved hand of acknowledgment, not that Stark expected anything different. He watched the teenager for several longer moments, amusement creeping its way through him and threatening to overpower everything else.

This assignment might prove to be more entertaining than he had originally expected, he remarked to himself. With a chuckle, Stark stepped backwards into a Garganta, both an early meal and a much missed nap awaiting him.

He would need his strength.

a/n: And that's the end of the first part. I do hope you liked! This is a slightly different take on Stark than my usual, but I'm rather fond of it anyways. I'm trying to match it to current canon, so I hope I came close.

Part II to come soon! Let me know if you liked it!