by Darth Stitch
SUMMARY: Bleach AU. A tired, depressed Shinigami Captain is sent on a routine mission into the Living World. But when he runs into a certain orange-haired teenager, the mission becomes anything but ordinary.
Disclaimer/Author's Notes: Bleach is the creation of Kubo Tite and I'm just playing in the sandbox. I'll put the pretty toys back when I'm done. I figure that this has been done before but I just had to take a whack at it – who could resist the notion of Byakuya meeting Ichigo first? I have taken serious liberties with the canon so please put tongue firmly in cheek and leave all canon at the door.
Although this is an AU take on the anime/manga, I don't intend to rewrite every single episode and recreate them. Some things are going to be inevitably different, given the characters and the new dynamic involved.
WARNING: Yes, there will be slash (yaoi) but it's not going to be apparent at least for a very long time, at least until I get a Certain Somebody around here to the proper age. If slash is not your thing, clicky-click on the handy back button and run like hell.
We fear that which we cannot see.
Kuchiki Byakuya was tired.
He was tired of duty, tired of grief and sorrow and pain, tired of keeping up the strong, emotionless front expected of a clan leader and a captain of the Gotei 13. He was tired of seeing her face in his thankfully strong and capable little sister. And he could not bear the obvious affection she bore for him and the desire for his acceptance and approval. It scratched too close at wounds that had never really healed.
It wasn't that he didn't care – Rukia, despite his family's objections to her adoption into the clan, had always carried herself with the pride and dignity of a true-born Kuchiki. Had things been different, perhaps he might have relaxed into the relationship, enjoyed being someone's "onii-san" when he'd grown up as an only child. Perhaps he could have even thanked Hisana for it. It was just easier
to retreat into well-practiced formality and keep his distance.
It would hurt less, in the long run.
The wind picked up, catching the edges of his windflower scarf. Had there been anyone to see, he would have made a rather striking and odd image – a samurai in traditional black, flowing hakama, standing on top of a 20th century modern-day telephone pole.
Slate gray eyes watched the twinkling lights of the town but he was really lost in memory, remembering what brought him here.
It started with that incident with the Hollow. Nasty creature – it had caught him off guard with that illusion of Hisana and he'd been badly wounded. The creature had evaded Shinigami for more than fifty years with that trick and perhaps, had he been less distracted, he might not have had to suffer the humiliation of being rescued by his impetuous vice-captain.
It was Ukitake-taichou who proposed that Byakuya go out into the real world. The cheerful 13th Division Captain had been among Byakuya's visitors while he recuperated, bringing him his favorite type of tea.
The thing about Ukitake-taichou was his amazing ability to see far too much and yet skirt his way about the issue with skill and finesse. It was said that one could never see the strike coming from the best of swordsmen; Ukitake was much the same with his words.
It would be a routine mission, really and Kuchiki-taichou had not gone out into the Living World for very many years now. Honestly, all of them should be up to speed on what was happening out there and they'd considered sending young Hitsugaya-taichou but perhaps Kuchiki-taichou might take that opportunity instead?
Byakuya murmured his initial demurral – that was expected, after all. Also, Abarai Renji, his vice-captain, was utterly useless at paperwork, despite his prowess in battle. Byakuya didn't really want to contemplate the mountain of paperwork that would be awaiting him upon his return. And then, Ukitake pointed out that he would be more than happy to help Byakuya out with that – he'd often bemoaned where he could direct the manic energy of his two excitable third seats.
And then, the final blow – Unohana-taichou would more than likely force Byakuya into weeks of inactivity at his home when he could be spending it out there in the Living World, in useful occupation, even as he rested.
"So where shall I go?" Byakuya asked, taking a sip from his tea and conceding victory to the elder captain.
"Karakura," was the prompt answer. "It's rather become quite the magnet for Hollow activity. This place does have an unusual amount of spirit energy. It's a very interesting puzzle. Is there anything perhaps in your family's archives about the area?"
"There have been some isolated events that took place in that area some centuries ago," Byakuya answered. "But they should not be related to what is happening now. As you say, it is an interesting puzzle."
Ukitake beamed. "There. A mystery to unravel and a chance to wander about the Living World! And I shall have my third-seats take care of your paperwork immediately. Everyone wins, neh?"
The head of the Kuchiki clan nodded in agreement.
And so here he was, with the moon high in the sky, standing watch over Karakura town. Ukitake was right; there was enormous spiritual energy here.
He set aside the perpetual weariness for a while. It was a simple job, a routine job that any Shinigami might be able to do. But Ukitake had asked that he come here and he was painfully aware of the man's ulterior motives. Yet, he found himself accepting that obvious concern and forgiving it, when once he would have been mortally offended.
Duty. He was so tired of it and yet he knew he had to continue onwards.
The Shinigami captain leapt off into the night.
And so fell the sword of fate.
EPISODE 1: Strawberry & the Soul Reapers
Damn it. He was on Dumbass-Bashing Duty again.
Kurosaki Ichigo ignored the posturing and the insults – mostly aimed at his unusual orange hair (yes, it really was orange, go figure how the hell that happened). He'd heard those kinds of things all his life. What was really important was the overturned vase and the crushed flowers and the pitiful, tear-streaked little face that looked up at him.
Shit. She was the same age as his little sisters. That alone made him even angrier.
One of the Dumbasses rushed him. Yep, spend a little time in the dojo and everybody thinks they're Jet Li or Jacky Chan. Ichigo stopped him with a well-placed foot in the face. The fact that he probably broke the idiot's nose was just icing on the cake.
It was easy enough to take the Dumbass down, keep that foot on his face and stare down the rest of his Dumbass buddies, patented Glare of Death set firmly on his face.
"Anyone care to tell me what that is?"
"A v-v-v-vase, sir?"
"You're a fucking genius, buddy. And what's in the vase?"
"And what'd ya do to the flowers?"
"Knocked 'em over with our skateboards."
"Yeah, you graduate at the top of the class!" Ichigo snarled. "So why's there a vase with flowers at this particular corner?"
The Dumbass under his foot finally managed to speak, "It's for that little girl who got run over last week."
"Right again! So maybe, just maybe, you morons want to apologize to her, before I sic the entire population of ghosts in Karakura on your sorry asses?!!"
"You don't wanna mess with the Berry-head, man. He really can see ghosts!" confirmed another Dumbass.
"AIEEEEE!!!!! We're sorrywe'resorrywe'resorry!!!!!!!"
Looks like his reputation had preceded him. That came in handy at times. Dumbass-Bashing done, Ichigo turned his attention to the little girl ghost hovering just above the vase and what was left of the flowers.
Shit. Once again, Ichigo was reminded of his baby sisters and he felt that funny twist in his gut every damn time he encountered something like this.
"Yo. You all right?" he asked gruffly, trying to cover himself.
She gave him a tremulous smile. "Yes, onii-san. I just really wanted them to go away."
He scratched the back of his head. "No biggie. Listen – I'll bring you flowers tomorrow, okay?"
She beamed. "Thanks, onii-san! I can rest peacefully now."
He waved a hand as he started to walk away. "Yeah, yeah – you better hurry up and get going on the whole rest in peace thing okay? See ya tomorrow."
Yeah. That was his life. He was Kurosaki "Strawberry" Ichigo, age 15, a high school student known for that distinctive head of orange hair (yes, it WAS his real hair color, damn it! Thank Kami his eyes were at least a normal shade of brown), a reputation for being pretty good in a fight and just one more teensy little detail.
Kurosaki Ichigo could see ghosts.
Yep, he really could see them. See them, touch them, talk to them as if they were alive and breathing. He'd been able to do that since he was a kid. Kami knew why he had that gift – his sister Karin had it too while Yuzu, thankfully, could sense them but was spared the ability to see them. But that was life and it sucked sometimes and he just dealt with it best he could.
Inevitably, because he got home late (not that past 7 pm should be late for a 15 year old teenage boy), his Dad pounced on him. The real reason why his reflexes were so good was because of his Dad's twisted idea of martial arts training – thank Kami his Dad didn't have any bright ideas of dragging him off to China. Falling into a cursed spring and turning into a girl wasn't high on his list of Things To Do in Life – Karin was the Ranma ½ fan, not him.
Ichigo managed to fend off the old goat-face but not before Karin helpfully pointed out that he'd picked up yet another freakin' ghost. Damn it. He kept exorcising the things but they still followed him around like puppies!
Thinking about his latest "guest" made Ichigo remember that little girl at the corner all over again. He'd never be able to forgive himself if anything happened to Karin or Yuzu. He was a big brother after all.
Yuzu sweetly offered him dinner but Ichigo had lost his appetite already. And Karin was already coming up with some hare-brained scheme to profit off his so-called "gift" with the ghosts. He wasn't in the mood for more of Goat-Face's antics either. Goat Face had decided to wail out his sorrows about the poor treatment he was getting from his children to the enormous poster that was set up for their mother and there was another memory that Ichigo didn't want to delve into right now. So he made his excuses and bounded upstairs to the safe haven of his room.
His family kept redefining the concept of weirdness every single day.
Just as Ichigo had dumped his school bag on the floor and was about to get dressed, his room began to smell of cherry blossoms. Then, a swallowtail butterfly went past his head, velvety black wings flapping. And just when Ichigo was about to blame the whole mess on the new ghost that had followed him home, this rather pretty guy in samurai gear emerged from the wall and walked into his room like he owned the place.
What. The. Fuck?
Ichigo was terrible with names but he wasn't half bad with faces and physical details. The guy had a couple of inches on him but was fairly close to his own build. Black hair was caught up in some sort of elaborate hair clips which should have looked ridiculous on any other man but somehow suited him.
The samurai cocked his head to one side, as if listening for something that only he alone could hear. There was an eerie howling, very faint, coming as if from very far away. Despite that, it raised the hairs on the back of Ichigo's neck and he'd thought he was already immune to that kind of thing.
"It's close," the samurai murmured softly, a tekkou-covered hand tightening on the hilt of his sword.
Ichigo had just about enough of this. He struck out with what should have been a well-aimed kick. "How's that for close, you jerk--?"
The samurai flitted out of the way easily and Ichigo's leg met with nothing but thin air. The orange haired boy regained his balance easily and dropped into a defensive stance. This guy wasn't some dojo wannabe – somehow, he had to be the real thing.
Slate-gray eyes regarded him with obvious startlement. "You can see me?"
Ichigo snorted. "Well, duh, Captain Pretty Damn Obvious. What's close and what the hell are you doing in my home?"
"You can see me," said the samurai slowly, in clear disbelief. "And you would have kicked me."
"I'm not going to miss next time," Ichigo growled.
"Normal humans should not be able to see me," the samurai answered coolly.
Ichigo snorted. "Sorry, buddy – 'normal' is overrated in this house."
"Obviously," the samurai retorted. "I am a shinigami. Suffice it to say that I mean you or your family no harm. Now forget you ever saw me and leave me about my business."
"Hell, no," Ichigo retorted. "I see a lot of ghosts all the time, samurai-hime, but this whole shinigami thing's a new one on me. You barge into my house uninvited; the least ya could do is give me some sort of explanation."
The samurai's lips thinned in obvious irritation. "Hime," he muttered under his breath. "Why is it that everyone, including that barbarian Kenpachi, keeps calling me that…?"
Ichigo snorted. "'Cos you're pretty enough to be one."
The samurai glared at him. "You're a mind-reader as well?"
"Nope," Ichigo smirked. "You were thinking aloud."
Okay, the samurai guy looked even prettier when he was so obviously flustered. Er… whoops… manliness points were going down by the second here. Ichigo mentally gave himself a smack upside the head. Focus, Berry-head.
Fortunately, the samurai recovered quickly. He turned his attention to the ghost who'd come home with Ichigo and had been largely ignored until now. The poor guy was probably some office drone who'd been unlucky enough to get into an accident – he was still clutching his briefcase.
"A small demonstration," the samurai said stiffly. He drew his sword from its sheath and approached the ghost.
"Hey," Ichigo began, taking a step forward. "What the hell do you think you're doing -- ?"
The samurai made a small gesture with his hand and Ichigo fell to the floor, his arms pinned to his sides by what seemed to be invisible chains.
"Oi! What did you do to me?!"
"Be still, boy," the samurai told him. "I am shinigami – reaping souls is part of my duty."
"Please…" the ghost whimpered. "I don't want to go to hell…"
"Do not presume. You will not go to hell," the samurai told him calmly. "I am sending you to Soul Society where you may find rest." The hilt of his sword touched the ghost's forehead and he disappeared.
"What the hell happened to him?" Ichigo demanded.
"We call souls like him 'wholes' and what I did to him was konso – the soul burial. He has passed on, as you would call it."
Pinned down and helpless by some strange force as he was, Ichigo found himself looking up into those cool gray eyes and believing every word. Once more, he heard that strange, eerie howling and worse – it seemed to be getting closer.
The samurai knelt next to him and this time, he looked faintly amused. "You are a very strange boy. The kido spell I cast on you will last until you wake up in the morning. Think of this just as a very odd dream."
Ichigo heard the howling again and this time, it was the loudest yet. As if it were already here.
The samurai was muttering to himself again. "Something is blocking my senses… where is that Hollow?"
"Hey, Shinigami!" Ichigo blurted out. "What the hell was that? I keep hearing that howling!"
The cry came again and this time, Ichigo heard a loud crash from downstairs. His father cried out and then he heard his sisters screaming.
The samurai stared at him. "You heard it before I did - ?"
Ichigo was having none of it. His sisters were screaming. He struggled to his feet. "Karin! Yuzu!"
"You shouldn't be able to stand up!" The samurai tried to stop him.
Ichigo could hear footsteps – could track it going up the stairs and down the hall. His door burst open. Yuzu – sweet little Yuzu – was there, blood on her face and bruised all over.
"Onii-chan – Karin – Daddy… monsters…"
Brown eyes turned inward, unfocused. "There was so much blood, Ichi-nii and it came from Daddy's back and then, something took Karin outside…. It was a monster… I think it was a monster… it was all so fast… " Yuzu fell to the floor, unconscious.
"It's a Hollow, boy," the samurai said urgently. "Stay here with your sister – I will take care of it, it is part of my mission…"
"No!" Ichigo was past listening to him. "It's got my sister!"
"Stop, you can't break that spell – it will damage your soul!"
All Ichigo could see was that little girl he'd left behind at the corner. He promised he'd bring her flowers tomorrow. And he never ever wanted to do that for Karin or Yuzu.
Losing his mom was bad enough.
Whatever was holding him down was insanely strong but Ichigo didn't give a damn. All that mattered was saving his baby sister. Somehow, Ichigo felt the invisible chains holding him slowly giving way as he struggled. He grabbed onto that opportunity with both hands and felt himself strain against that power, giving one more hard push…
Ichigo was free.
He grabbed the first available weapon he could find – his old baseball bat and was out the door.
Kuchiki Byakuya couldn't believe it.
He was a master of kido and yet, that boy – that human boy had somehow managed to break his spell. He'd felt the sudden surge of sheer power from that boy the moment he shattered the binding spell. And Byakuya should have sensed that Hollow coming even before it attacked.
Abruptly, he realized the reason why his senses had been so confused the minute he'd stepped into the house.
It was the boy. His reiatsu was so strong that it had even managed to overwhelm his own power, even if it were only for a moment.
But Byakuya wasn't about to waste time standing there, lost in his own thoughts. He'd followed the boy the minute he rushed out the door. He was a Shinigami Captain; he would not let an innocent die on his watch, not from some Hollow.
He found the boy staring in horror at the Hollow standing outside his house. The creature held a little girl in its claws. Byakuya's heart clenched abruptly in his chest – the child had dark hair and it was all too easy to substitute her features for Rukia's.
"Ichi-nii…" the child whimpered. "Run… Ichi-nii…."
He reached out to put a restraining hand on the boy's shoulder. "Don't – it's an evil spirit and you won't stand a –"
To his horror, the boy moved, faster than he could have imagined – almost as if he knew how to use shunpo, wielding that wooden stick like a bokken. "Karin!!!!"
Byakuya didn't need to see it – he knew that Hollow had raised his free hand to strike and the boy would have no way to avoid those claws. Stifling a curse, he flew upwards, drawing Senbonzakura from its sheath. A quick shove got the boy out of the way and Senbonzakura slashed down taking out the creature's arm and freeing the little girl.
He hissed as he felt the monster's claws slash down his back, opening wounds that had just barely begun to heal from the last battle he'd been in. He stifled a cry as he felt it sink its teeth into his shoulder, ripping away flesh. Somehow, he managed to slash at it and leap away, sinking down to his knees.
No – it would not end like this. He barely just had strength enough to use his shikai but the boy and his sister were too close to the Hollow and right now, he was too drained of energy to focus properly. He just might end up destroying the neighborhood in the process instead. The wound on his shoulder was bad enough; already, he could feel his shihakushou practically becoming soaked with his blood. His sword arm was useless; he could barely lift the blade now.
He felt, rather than saw the boy stumble to his knees next to him. His sister had fallen behind the Hollow – they'd have to go through the creature to get to her.
"What is that thing?" The boy asked, breathing heavily.
"It's a Hollow – an evil spirit that devours other spirits," Byakuya told him. "It's also attracted to humans with a great deal of spiritual energy. A human who can see spirits, even a shinigami… and could break a shinigami's spell."
The boy stared at him, horror and understanding beginning to dawn on his face. Byakuya didn't have time to sugarcoat things – he didn't want to let this boy have this sort of knowledge but it was far too late now.
"Yes – it is after you now."
"My Dad… my sisters…?" The boy asked.
"They're hurt but they still have their souls."
"Oh. Good." New determination filled the boy's eyes. "Well, if it wants me…"
"Idiot!" Byakuya growled. "You don't go around offering yourself to Hollows!"
"I didn't say I'd hand myself up to the thing on a freaking silver platter! I'm going to save my family!"
"You won't get that thing with your bare hands, you fool!" Byakuya's breath was growing short – he was getting weaker by the minute. There was a way and he'd be breaking Kami knew how many Soul Society laws…
He'd sworn on his parents' graves that after Hisana and Rukia, he'd never do such a thing again….
But he couldn't look at that boy in the eyes and let him die.
"There is a way," he told the boy, struggling for every breath. "Take my zanpakutou and set it over your heart. I will give you half of my powers."
"You were able to break my spell, boy. It's a risky move but we have no other choice. It's the only thing that will give you a chance against that Hollow."
"I get the picture," the boy interrupted him. "Give me your sword, Shinigami."
So earnest. Had he been ever like this, when he was this boy's age?
"Don't call me that." Byakuya responded. It was suddenly important that he let the boy know his name. It was strange what people would think of at times like these. "My name is Kuchiki Byakuya."
The boy managed a cheeky grin, despite the prospect of imminent death. "I'm Kurosaki Ichigo. Nice to meet ya."
The Hollow howled. They were out of time.
Gray eyes stared steadily into brown. "If you fail…" Byakuya began.
"I won't fail." It sounded like a promise.
Senbonzakura slid easily into human flesh. The sudden surge of reiatsu caught Byakuya entirely by surprise.
No, I meant for him to only take half of my strength. Somehow he managed to take it all!
And the boy – Ichigo – held in his hands a zanpakutou that was easily his own height. Byakuya had never seen a shinigami's sword automatically assume its shikai form without even having the command for its release spoken.
What was this boy?
The outcome was nothing short of astonishing. Swinging that gigantic sword as if he'd been hunting Hollows all his life, Ichigo dispatched the creature easily. A few moments and it was all over.
And then, drained by his sudden and shocking assumption of shinigami powers, Ichigo fell unconscious in the street, his hand still firmly closed around the hilt of that giant sword which showed no sign of going back to normal.
Clutching his wounded shoulder, all pain forgotten, Byakuya rose to his feet and stumbled towards Ichigo. The question rang again in his mind.
What was this boy?
And then, Byakuya caught the sense of a familiar reiatsu and an equally familiar, mocking voice.
"My, my, Kuchiki-taichou. What have you gotten yourself into this time?"
- to be continued –
Author's Endnotes: Naturally, we have to get Urahara in there.
I'll take time out to give a salute to Mandeh-Yaoi-Star's highly entertaining take on the same idea "Never Surrender."I stumbled onto her fic while I was in the middle of sketching out the ideas for mine. Go check it out here on FF Dot Net. We need more Byakuya/Ichigo love out there!
Updates will be as often as I can manage 'em. To keep my sanity, I'll try to keep each "episode" as self-contained as possible, just like the anime. If I'm going for a longer arc, then I'll do my best not to publish until they're complete… or at least until I'm close enough to the end.