Bleach Reloaded
By Darth Stitch


Standard Disclaimers Apply



EPISODE 4: Sweet Child of Mine


She's got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky

Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I stared too long
I'd probably break down and cry

Oh, sweet child o' mine
Oh, sweet love of mine

- "Sweet Child of Mine," Guns N'Roses

Having a prissy shinigami for a roommate took some getting used to.

It wasn't that Byakuya was a pain the ass to be around – he wasn't kidding when he said he'd been raised with formal manners. He was quiet and orderly and non-demanding – the perfect houseguest, in fact. Mothers everywhere (plus Yuzu) would love him. Thing was, Ichigo was fairly protective of his own personal space and he'd always been thankful that he was "nii-san" to two sisters, instead of an annoying pest of a brother. Still, he figured he'd get used to this, eventually.

It was funny how they quickly got into a routine – get home from school, get dinner, sneak some up to Byakuya and get homework done (and predictably, Byakuya wasn't a slouch in the brains department – he just needed some help on the whole modern world thing). Then, it was bedtime and for once, Ichigo could claim that he really needed the sleep because it was a school night and no, Goat-Face, he didn't need any additional training before saying "nighty-night." Sheesh.

Byakuya talked in his sleep.

Not that Byakuya did a lot of the whole sleeping thing. Ichigo knew the other man dreamed sometimes – bad dreams or bad memories from the sound of it. He'd mutter unintelligibly and toss and turn and sometimes, he would speak a name.

Hisana.

And there was a whole world of grief with the speaking of that one single name – Ichigo would have to be completely and utterly stone-cold not to figure it out. And then, a scant few minutes later, Byakuya would wake, draw a ragged breath and then slip quietly out of the room. Had Ichigo been any other person, he probably would never have noticed it – the man was good at the whole stealth thing and he could have just slept on all unknowing.

The first few nights, Ichigo had let it pass – whoever that Hisana was and whatever the source of the sorrow with her, it was something obviously very private and he wasn't about to intrude on that.

Problem was, Ichigo had never been able to stand by while someone was obviously in pain. So this particular night with Byakuya doing the same exact thing, Ichigo couldn't stand it anymore. He waited for a few more moments when the other man had slipped out the window and then, sighed loudly and got out of bed.

He was careful not to trip himself on the futon. Just one more thing to grab and Ichigo was ready.

Really, Byakuya was awfully fond of staying out on his roof.

The shinigami just sat back, quietly watching the stars. For once, he didn't resemble some marble statue – he looked tired, very young, wistful and oddly vulnerable.

He was startled when Ichigo handed him some warm milk in a spill-proof mug.

"You look like you need it," Ichigo said simply.

Byakuya regarded the milk with an almost comical expression – Ichigo was oddly reminded of a kitten encountering its very first ball of yarn. The Berry head tried not to grin and no, the word "cute" certainly wasn't crossing his mind, no sir. Plus, a guy just wouldn't tag that word on another guy – that was kinda weird.

"Sometimes, all you just need is a mug of warm milk… at least that's what my mother used to say," Ichigo told him, feeling awfully stupid and sheepish about the whole thing.

"Your mother," Byakuya said finally, "must have been a very wise woman. And very special."

"She's my Mom," Ichigo shrugged. "Drink up – I can at least heat milk, y'know?"

"Thank you," Byakuya said finally, taking a sip.

And then, he smiled - a small, almost shy curving of his lips but was unmistakably the real thing. For some reason, that was enough for Ichigo.

***

Byakuya had that same "kitten-with-ball-of-yarn" look on his face again.

Ichigo coughed, trying to hold back laughter, because this time it was over a tetra pack of a popular juice drink. "Dude, don't they have juice packs where you come from? You know, punch in hole with straw and sip?"

The shinigami's head shot up and immediately, Ichigo was treated to that familiar frosty stare. "I have absolutely no idea what you're babbling about."

Suppressing a sigh, Ichigo took the tetra pack, exagerratedly demonstrated how to put the straw in and handed it back to the other guy. "There. Try it now."

A first tentative sip and then, the kitten-look was back, only it was more of a "contented kitten with saucer of milk" expression now. Ichigo found himself shaking his head. Go figure.

"ICHIGOOOOO!!!!!"

And here Ichigo thought they were going to have a few more minutes of peace and quiet up here on the school roof. With well practiced ease, Ichigo stepped to one side to avoid the incoming glomp from Asano Keigo.

"Dude! You've brought the transfer student to our sacred shrine of manliness!" Keigo gushed.

"It must be love," observed Mizuiro more sedately but with an unmistakably mischievous twinkle in his eye. "You're always together these days."

Ichigo blinked in confusion. "Huh?"

Keigo glared. "Mizuiro, buddy, don't corrupt the innocent. One Chizuru is more than enough!"

"Hello, Kuchiki-kun," said Mizuiro, obediently switching to something more sensible.

"Hello," Byakuya answered tentatively after getting a Look from Ichigo, which had gone unseen by the other boys.

"I missed out on all the excitement! Don't be a stranger, Ichigo-kun! Introduce me!" Keigo cried.

Ichigo rolled his eyes and did the introductions as asked. "Y'think you can keep it down, Keigo? I don't think they heard you in China."

"What?" Keigo said, putting a companionable arm over Byakuya's shoulders. "We should be so lucky to have a chick-magnet of a friend like Byakuya-kun over here." And to the dark-haired boy, Keigo continued. "This here is a sacred brotherhood you've been inducted into, my friend. Perhaps, with your help, I might finally have a chance at sweet Orihime-chan…"

Byakuya stared at him bemusedly for a few minutes and then carefully extricated himself from under Keigo's arm. "I'm honored?"

Ichigo snorted. "Don't worry, Byakuya – he's just the resident nut in this group. We're not all like that."

"Whaaaat?!!! I resent that remark, Kurosaki Ichigo!"

"Resemble it, more like."

A well-placed knee against Keigo's back suddenly and violently knocked him over.

"What the fu—"

And then, came trouble.

The curse died on Keigo's lips as he looked up to one of Karakura High School's resident juvenile delinquents. "Oshima! You're off suspension!"

"I ain't talkin' to ya, maggot," was the answer. The bully pushed his ugly face into Ichigo's line of vision. "Yo, Kurosaki. When're ya gonna dye that carrot-piss hair black, eh? Y'got no orignality, tryin' to look like me."

Ichigo scoffed. He heard this kind of thing all the time and it got old, it really did. "Like I keep telling you, this is my natural hair color. And I can at least look in a mirror without breaking the damn thing. So piss off, ya drama queen."

"Ehhhhh?"

Keigo inevitably tried to intervene, heading off the inevitable fight. Ichigo didn't want to waste his breath. It wasn't his fault nature decided to play a joke on him with the hair. He'd learned early on that it was either he nipped these things in the bud or he'd have to deal with more hassle than he wanted.

So Ichigo easily dodged out of the way of Oshima and his brass knuckles but the jerk decided that Ichigo wasn't going to be his only target.

"Hey, who's the pretty boy, Kurosaki? Your girlfriend?" He took a swing at Byakuya, who had been quietly sipping his juice box the entire time.

For about half a second, Ichigo was worried. Just about half a second. But this was Byakuya, after all, and he'd simply flitted out of the way, allowing Oshima to nearly fall flat on his face. And Ichigo had to hand it to the other guy – he simply looked down his aristocratic nose at Oshima as if he were some particularly disgusting specimen of insect and went back to sipping his juice.

"Oi!" Ichigo hollered. Byakuya had some nice moves but from their last encounter with the Hollow, he knew that the shinigami was far from being 100%. "Stop goofing around and fight me!"

The bully wasn't listening. His friends were also preparing to corner Keigo and Mizuiro – oh hell, this was going to get ugly.

And then, salvation.

Just as Oshima tried to chase after a gibbering Keigo, he was sent flying across the roof. Ichigo grinned. He only knew one guy who could really pack a punch like that.

"Yo, Chad!"

Yasutora Sado or Chad, as most everyone else called him, was a huge, hulking half-Mexican, half Japanese. Ichigo trusted him to have his back in a fight any day of the week. "Yo, Strawberry."

Chad's mere presence was enough to scare off Oshima and his cronies. Funny thing was, Chad was just another quiet guy, trying to mind his own business. He packed a helluva punch though. And for all his strength with his fists, he had a soft spot about several miles wide, especially for the cute and cuddly.

Case in point was that pink-cheeked parakeet he brought in. Which introduced itself as Shibata Yuichi in a little boy's voice.

Keigo and Mizuiro were definitely fascinated but looking at that bird raised all the hairs on the back of Ichigo's neck. What the hell?

"There's something there," murmured Byakuya to him. "It's probably just a lonely soul. Harmless, for the moment."

"But we gotta do the konso thing on it, right?" Ichigo whispered back.

The shinigami nodded. "If we leave it alone – it will turn into a Hollow eventually. Or become bait for one. It's for the best." There was a definite gleam of approval in those gray eyes. "You're learning, Ichigo."

Ichigo scoffed, trying to ignore the fact that he felt oddly warmed by that. "Huh."

And then, Chad mentioned that the bird was supposed to be cursed. That all the bird's owners had died in a mysterious or just plain bizaare fashion. And he himself had already been involved in a couple of accidents. Ichigo knew that Chad was crazy strong but this was ridiculous.

He had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a hell of a lot more complicated than he thought.

***

It was official – Kurosaki Ichigo's life was now something out of a shonen manga, anime series to come soon.

First, there was that huge car accident that had thrown the entire Kurosaki Family Clinic into full-on Defcon 3. For once, Isshin had laid off the whole goofball act and barked orders and thrown himself into the treatment of patients like the skilled doctor that he actually was.

Second, they brought in Chad, who was apparently had been unlucky enough to be caught in that exact same accident. Somehow, he'd managed to hold on to his new little feathered pet and kept it safe. Honestly, Ichigo didn't expect anything else – Chad was funny like that. For such a big guy, he had the softest heart in the world.

The wound on his back was just plain nasty and it was a testament to Chad's crazy-ass strength that he wasn't dead. But that wound wasn't the least of Ichigo's worries.

Byakuya confirmed it too. "His wound absolutely reeks of Hollow."

"It's gotta have something to do with that bird!" Ichigo said, running his hands through his hair in sheer exasperation. His radar for this kind of thing was pretty damn good and yeah, he could tell the bird itself was harmless. Even if it was a bit creepy, the way it sounded exactly like a little boy. Still, there had to be something to that so-called curse, Ichigo just knew it.

Third, one would expect that a grievously injured person would have the sense to lie down and rest. No such fucking luck. After breakfast, with Yuzu telling him that Karin wasn't feeling too well, which was one more additional worry – his Dad found that Chad had disappeared from his hospital bed.

Which pretty much had Ichigo running all over Karakura town, trying to find his idiot friend. Chad was definitely being targeted by a Hollow – Ichigo would figure out what the hell that bird had to do with it later but he had to save his friend first.

***

"The problem with Hollow is that they hide within the dimensions between this world and Soul Society," Byakuya was explaining to Ichigo much later, as they met up on a street corner. "We can only sense it when it comes back into this world to attack Chad."

The shinigami captain did not want to sound discouraging but they were just pretty much running about in circles at this point. Not for the first time, Byakuya wished that his powers were fully restored to him. He could feel them slowly returning, day by day, but he was deathly afraid that the time would come when he would truly need those abilities and if they were out of his reach, someone would die.

He fervently prayed that it would not be Ichigo. Ichigo's ability to learn certainly was a pleasant surprise but the boy's power was only borrowed and he was being asked to do tasks that took years of training for most shinigami. While he might make a fine shinigami once he entered Soul Society with that natural strength, Byakuya certainly wanted Ichigo to eventually go back to his normal human life.

"Isn't there any other way we can track him?" Ichigo asked hopefully, as if he held all the answers.

Byakuya wished he did have them. "For now, we are as most Shinigami – waiting for orders from Soul Society before we can act." There were other ways, things that Byakuya could have done had he the full range of his powers but there wasn't much point in mentioning them now.

Ichigo exclaimed. "The parakeet! Maybe I can trace the aura of the spirit inside it!"

Before Byakuya could tell Ichigo that this should be impossible for him, the orange-haired boy just closed his eyes and reached out…

Byakuya could still sense it – the rise of Ichigo's own power, the reiraku slowly beginning to form around him in its most familiar form of white ribbons. It shouldn't have been possible – the spirit in that bird was meshed too closely to the spirit of the real animal and the distance alone was too great. It should not have been possible for any ordinary human, let alone a typical shinigami.

Reiraku – visualizing the spirit's aura as those white ribbons and following them – an ability that only high-level shinigami could do. The shinigami captain could have done it, were he fully restored but Ichigo?

And yet, Ichigo's hand shot out, grabbing one of the wildly dancing threads and with a wide manic grin exclaimed, "Found him! This way!"

Byakuya found himself shaking his head. Ichigo's abilities were growing at an unbelievable rate. And it was getting easier to trust in the strength of this boy and just believe that they would get through this whole sorry mess alive. The shinigami captain was beginning to learn that there was something about the younger man that inspired this remarkable faith. And he he'd never been one to simply rely on faith.

This time, Byakuya kept his questions to himself and followed.

***

Just when Ichigo had thought that it couldn't get any worse…

All right, he knew that the minute that thought crossed his mind, things would definitely go to hell in a handbasket. He should've known that Karin was going to catch the backlash of this somehow.

He and Byakuya had been following the "sense" of the parakeet's spirit, which Ichigo somehow managed to pick up. He figured he'd been able to see, speak and touch ghosts for all of his life – why shouldn't he be able to track where they were as well?

And once he managed to picture that "trail" leading to each spirit as those ribbons, something that he could reach out and grab, following it to the end, it was easy.

They'd gone for about a block when they had run into a pale and shaking Karin. She looked terribly sick and she hadn't looked so weak and helpless since she was a toddler – it scared Ichigo even more.

"Get her home," Byakuya told him. "I'll go after Chad."

It was such a calm, confident, commanding tone that Ichigo almost found himself automatically obeying. At least until he abruptly recalled that Byakuya didn't have all of his shinigami powers quite yet.

"Are you serious?" Ichigo burst out, Karin lying limply in his arms. "I can't let you go after that thing alone!"

Gray eyes again regarded him with that frosty stare. "You cannot afford any distractions. I can hold the creature off until you get there."

Ichigo knew better than to argue further – Byakuya was very proud and he was no slouch at defending himself. So he settled for this instead. "Don't get yourself killed, Byakuya."

"Don't be foolish," was the reply. And then, Byakuya spared a glance for Karin and Ichigo was prepared to swear that there was genuine concern there. "Take care of your sister first."

And Byakuya dashed off, moving with surprising speed.

Ichigo shook his head and turned his attention to Karin.

"Ichi-nii," Karin began, her voice breaking and her face streaked with tears. "I saw it… the memories of that boy in the parakeet."

Ichigo went cold. He should have remembered that Karin shared his "gift."

Karin continued, weeping. "Maybe it's because I'm the closest to him in age. I saw his last memory, Ichi-nii. He saw his mom murdered… right in front of his eyes."

Ichigo could remember… the pouring rain… his mother's voice crying out for him … waking up to find her bloodied body sprawled over his own, protecting him to the end …

Just for a moment, the world stopped for him and all he could hear was Karin telling him everything else. "Please Ichi-nii – you have to save that boy. Tell him that he can see his mom again once he goes to the other side.

"Don't let him be alone anymore!"

He got Karin home, tucked her into bed, made sure that she was all right before he left. And all that time, all he could think of was how he'd never seen Karin cry in years.

She'd been as much of a crybaby as Yuzu was when they were little. When their mother died, Yuzu had taken over the housework – cooking, cleaning, the laundry, trying to fill in that empty space that their mother had left behind. Karin was the tomboy – she couldn't help in that way. But she tried not to make them worry about her.

So all those childhood troubles, schoolyard bullies and fights (though Ichigo had let it be known that no one picked on his baby sister and got away with it), getting yelled at by teachers for doing silly clumsy kid stuff, breaking her arm – Karin had borne it stoically. She didn't cry. Didn't shed a single tear.

Karin had tried to be strong, in her own way, just like Ichigo. And now, she was asking him for his help, believing without question that he could save that little ghost boy.

He was her big brother. What else could he do but make Karin that promise?

***

It was easy for Byakuya to catch up to Chad, once Ichigo had pointed him in the right direction.

Not for the first time, he wished that he could use shunpo – it would have been a matter of seconds to catch up to the large boy. No use thinking about what he couldn't do right now – he had to get to Chad before the Hollow did.

He wasn't quite lying to Ichigo when he said that he could hold off that Hollow. He was a master of kidou – he might have ended up in the Kidou Corps easily but his own prowess in the other shinigami arts helped him succeed his grandfather Ginrei not just as the Head of the Kuchiki House but also as the captain of the Sixth Division of the Gotei 13. So Byakuya knew that he stood a good chance of defending himself and Ichigo's friend.

And he had power enough left to sense the Hollow coming up behind him.

He stifled a curse as the evil spirit struck at him – his faux body wasn't quite fast enough to dodge that blow. He was able to regain his footing but he was thrown back a good three feet. Struggling for breath, he managed to keep standing, despite the fact that he already felt black and bruised all over.

"You smell good, pretty," said the Hollow.

Byakuya kept his expression impassive with an effort. Fights always started like this – the taunting, the sneering – he let them slide by. He kept his silence, watching the creature.

Evidently, the Hollow liked the sound of its own voice. "And it looks like you're strong enough to survive that blow. You must be very tasty…."

Byakuya leapt, stunning the creature on the jaw with a well-placed knee. He grabbed hold of the Hollow's mask, hoisting himself over and struck out with a hado . The White Lightning spell struck the Hollow full in the face.

Hope flared anew in him – his powers were returning. He and Sado had a chance.

That hope died quickly when the smoke dissipated and the Hollow was revealed to be without a single scratch.

Damn! Byakuya cursed himself for deciding to use the spell without an incantation. He'd gotten used to the fact that kidou came so easily to him that he rarely needed to use the chants.

"I recognize that – you're a shinigami, aren't you, pretty? Or were a shinigami, I guess – that spell was so weak, I barely felt a tickle." The Hollow laughed. "Oooooh, you'll taste real good. Once you get a taste for shinigami, you'll never forget it! And I've had two!"

Time. He had to stall for more time. "Then come after me, then and forget the boy inside that parakeet."

The Hollow grinned. "Wouldn't you like to know why I want the brat?"

It really loved to hear the sound of its own voice. Byakuya would indulge it, for the moment. "By all means – do tell."

"I'll tell you quietly…" The Hollow paused for dramatic effect and Byakuya yearned for the familiar comforting weight of Senbonzakura in his hand, wanting to wipe the smirk off this creature's face once and for all. "…if you'll just stand still and let me eat you!"

It lunged.

Byakuya moved to the side and was surprised to see a very large fist come out of seemingly nowhere, hitting the Hollow squarely on the face.

It was Yasutora Chad.

Byakuya was stunned. Somehow, Ichigo's friend, an ordinary human boy by all accounts, could touch the thing.

"Did I hit it?" Chad said, looking at his fist and looking equally stunned. He looked around. "Where is it?"

"You can't see it?" Byakuya blurted out, composure completely out the window.

"No, but I know I hit it." He struck out again and once more got the Hollow right in the nose.

The Hollow was actually reeling.

"Yeah, I got it," said the larger boy with evident satisfaction. He looked far more calmer than Byakuya felt at the moment, which was even more unbelievable. The boy, not even a shinigami, was fighting against a creature he could neither hear or see but he was fighting. It was as if he had absolutely no sense of fear at all!

The Hollow cursed and leapt to the air. "Hahahahahaha!!!!! You can't see me coming from this angle, boy!"

"Above you!" Byakuya warned. Just their luck – of course the damn thing could fly.

"Hey, transfer student," said Chad, obviously surprised. "You can see ghosts too?"

"Don't argue with me – it's right on top of you!"

Chad turned and wrapped his arms around a nearby electric pole. "Which direction?"

Byakuya gave it to him. And to his complete and utter amazement, Chad managed to break that pole away and used it to bring it down hard on the Hollow's neck.

The shinigami captain looked down on the Hollow with satisfaction.

"Did I get it?" Chad asked.

"You did," Byakuya affirmed. "Someone will be coming along to clear out this trash. He can stay down there until then."

The creature began to laugh from his prone position on the ground. Byakuya tensed – this wasn't a good sign.

"You shinigami are so arrogant – didn't I say that I've already managed to eat two of you? I have some little friends to help me. Say hello!"

Oh. Hell. Byakuya looked up and found themselves surrounded by dozens upon dozens of leech-like creatures. The leeches leapt for them, plunging them down to the hard ground by sheer numbers.

Chad roared. By sheer strength alone, he was able to haul the things off him. Byakuya wasn't far beind, flinging off the disgusting creatures. Chad turned to help him.

"Right above me!" Byakuya gritted out. Chad helpfully got rid of the rest.

"This guy's ridiculous!" The Hollow blustered. "He's answering every single thing with his biceps!"

It took to the air again.

Chad followed Byakuya's gaze heavenwards. "Is it flying again?"

Byakuya nodded.

Chad knelt and cupped his hands. "Need a lift? I can help you jump higher."

This friend of Ichigo's was refreshingly direct and wasn't fond of wasting his words. Byakuya appreciated that.

"Good thinking." Byakuya took off at a run, stepping lightly on Chad's cupped hands and felt the boy adding his own considerable force to help him make the jump higher. Softly, he began murmuring the words of the kidou spell. This had to work or they would both be dead…

Ye lord! Mask of flesh and bone, flutter of wings…

Ye who bears the name of Man!

Byakuya didn't get to finish the spell. The Hollow flung a leech at his face. Byakuya reflexively raised a hand to deflect it and it exploded, knocking him down hard to the ground.

"Surprised?" The Hollow gloated. "The leeches are miniature bombs. They explode in reaction to the sound of my tongue! It was foolish of you to think that flying was my only ability!"

Byakuya struggled to his feet, feeling the warm trickle of blood slowly trickling down his scalp and over his face. His hand wasn't much better.

"Don't worry, big guy – I got a surprise for you too!" The Hollow continued.

Another set of leeches arrived, bearing the cage of the parakeet. Byakuya had wondered where the bird was as Chad didn't have it with him when he arrived.

"Take one step and you can say bye-bye, birdie!"

"I'm sorry, Mister," said the boy-in-the-parakeet.

Chad began to move but Byakuya threw out an arm to stop him. "The Hollow says he'll make the birdcage explode if you take another step."

"I want you to run around, pretty!" The Hollow taunted. "Run around and around and around until I get to eat you. It's fun to play with my food!"

"But, transfer student –" Chad began to protest.

Byakuya looked at him steadily. "Do as I say." He made it an order and thankfully, Chad accepted it.

Don't get yourself killed, Byakuya. Surprisingly, he found himself thinking of Ichigo's parting words.

And even more startling, he remembered how Ichigo had come up to the roof to give him that mug of milk.

You look like you needed it. Just that and he asked for nothing more.

Byakuya wasn't about to let himself get killed by this creature.

He ran, dodging the leeches jumping at him and being thrown at him as best as he could. The explosions were deafening but he stubbornly concentrated on the words of the spell.

Ye lord! Mask of flesh and bone, flutter of wings…

Ye who bears the name of Man!

Just a little more. He had to hold out for a few more minutes.

Truth and temperance, upon this sinless wall of dreams…

Unleash but slightly the wrath of your claws…

"Destructive Art 33 Blue Fire, Crash Down!" Byakuya shouted the spell's last words.

The burst of blue energy hit the Hollow straight on, obliterating the leeches and cracking the Hollow's mask. It was just a crack but it was a beginning. The Hollow was sent to its knees.

"Shinigami bastard…" The Hollow croaked. He tried to lift his head but stopped short when a foot pushed him firmly down.

"You idiot," Kurosaki Ichigo growled at him, scowl firmly in place. "I thought I told you not to go and get yourself hurt!"

Byakuya blinked. And then found himself retorting: "I believe you told me not to get myself killed. I am alive, am I not?"

"Oh don't try to pull off the whole cool thing on me crap! I got worried!"

Byakuya tried not to feel warmed by that last statement. In fact, to his absolute horror, he was beginning to feel the tell-tale signs of a blush spreading over his cheeks. He was saved from replying when the Hollow butted in.

"How long are you gonna stand on my head?"

Ichigo scoffed. "Heh. I'm Kurosaki Ichigo, age 15, acting shinigami. If you wanna go around chasing shinigami, you can play with me!"

Byakuya helped Ichigo assume his shinigami form easily and caught the Berry-Head's body.

"Ichigo, the leeches he's got are actually bombs."

With that warning, he knew Ichigo would be able to handle that Hollow on his own. Ichigo met his eyes and nodded.

"He's a complete bastard, isn't he? Picking on that kid, almost killing you…. Making Karin cry."

"This bastard's gonna be eating you!" the Hollow roared, still apparently with a lot of fight left in him.

"I got this," Ichigo told Byakuya. Byakuya nodded. The important thing was to get the rest of them to safety.

"What's happened to Ichigo?" Chad asked as they ran for a safer distance away, Ichigo's currently soulless body in his arms. The big hulking Mexican had simply handed him the parakeet's cage and grabbed the orange-haired boy, following him.

"He's fighting that creature now," Byakuya told him, feeling that the tall half-Mexican boy was definitely owed the truth.

"I'm sorry," the parakeet whimpered. "It's all my fault. You all got hurt because of me… it's all my fault…"

"Yuuichi," Chad said, obviously trying to comfort the boy-ghost.

"He promised me that he'd bring my Mommy back to life." The boy-ghost wept.

Little by little, they coaxed the story out of the child. Apparently, the Hollow was some sort of serial killer in life. The little boy's mother was his last victim; she died protecting her son. He'd broken into their home and managed to corner mother and son out on the second floor balcony. Just as he was about to give the mother a final stab, the child managed to grab his foot and trip him, making him fall over the balcony.

Serial killers and murderers make the transition to being Hollow easily and this one was no exception. In an especially sadistic impulse, he went after the child, taking his soul and forcing it into the parakeet. For the past three months, he played a sick game of chase with the child, making him run, making him find protectors like Yasutora Chad and killing those protectors. And in return, he promised the child that he would bring his mother back to life.

Cold rage filled Byakuya even as a gentle Sado tried to comfort the little boy. The scent of cherry blossoms wafted in the air, a reassurance that Senbonzakura would soon be in his hands again.

It would not be today, though.

"Stay here," Byakuya told Chad. "Protect that boy."

He had to go back to Ichigo. He had to witness this, for the child's sake.

Apparently, the Hollow was telling Ichigo the same tale.

"The brat would wail for his Mommy! It was fun!"

Byakuya's rage was the exact mirror of Ichigo's own. The substitute shinigami grabbed one of the leech-bombs the Hollow threw at him and smashed it right back into its mouth.

"Let's hear you make another sound with that tongue of yours," Ichigo paused for a beat and then snarled. "Can't do it, huh? I guess I'll just have to take your tongue!"

He ripped the Hollow's tongue right out of its mouth.

With another swipe of his sword, he took the Hollow's leg.

"Can you savor it a little?" Ichigo continued, unrelenting, unforgiving. "How it feels to be like one of those being murdered?"

The Hollow wasn't talking now, Byakuya noted with fierce satisfaction. It took to the air and Ichigo leapt after it.

"Never forget that terror!" Ichigo screamed. "Hammer that into your mind and disappear!"

That giant sword came down, cleaving the Hollow almost in half.

And then, just as Byakuya expected, the Gates of Hell appeared.

Ichigo came down to the ground, brown eyes wide. "What the fuck –"

Byakuya went up to him. "It is his judgment. It is what he deserves."

At Ichigo's disbelieving stare, he continued, still watching the Hollow's final end. "I told you that our zanpakutou cleanses a Hollow of its sins and sends it to Soul Society. But it can only absolve it of its sins as a Hollow."

Horrified understanding began to fill Ichigo's eyes. "Then, because of what he did when he was alive…"

Byakuya nodded. "Hollows who have committed terrible sins in life will be claimed by Hell. Look now, Ichigo – the Gates of Hell are opening!"

The gates yawned open and out of its terrible darkness, a great hand appeared with a sword, skewering the Hollow on the blade. Cold, inhuman laughter echoed all around them, making Ichigo shudder. This time, Byakuya reached out a hand to steady him. He'd seen this before, countless times, but the sight never failed to chill him as well.

Mercifully, the sight of Hell's gates was brief and the Hollow was swallowed up inside of it and was gone.

***

Life wasn't fair, Ichigo knew that. But there were times when it just plain sucked.

Byakuya regretfully told them that there was no way to restore little Shibata Yuuichi back to his body. The chain of fate that had bound him was already cut and too much time had passed. For once, that calm, impassive face was filled with an unmistakable sadness.

Chad looked pretty much like a kicked puppy himself – Ichigo wasn't far behind. They'd explained everything to Chad, who amazingly took the whole thing about shinigami and spirits in stride. Then again, Chad was one of the few people who didn't think that Ichigo was weird for being able to see ghosts. He was just plain disappointed to know that there wasn't much else they could do for the kid.

Damn.

"There is nothing to fear," Byakuya tried to tell the child, trying awkwardly to give comfort. "You will not know hunger there and there will be no Hollows to prey on you."

Well, it was amazing that Byakuya was actually trying to do the whole "nice guy" thing. Ichigo figured that he couldn't be made of ice after all. But he'd better step in now.

"Hey," he told Shibata gently. "It won't be so bad. And this time, I'm sure your Mom will be waiting for you!"

The little pink-cheeked bird perked right up. And then, he called out to Chad.

"Mister – thank you for everything. Because you carried me around… I didn't get hurt at all."

Chad's hair hid his eyes and he hunkered down even more. "It was nothing," he said gruffly. "But… Yuiichi, when I die and get there, is it all right if I can carry you around one last time?"

This time, Ichigo made it so that Chad could really see the little boy ghost. He'd done it before, mostly to scare the living daylights out of assholes who didn't have any respect for the dead, but this time, Chad deserved to see the kid off.

The child who was Shibata Yuuichi beamed. "Sure!"

The little kid had the same pink cheeks as the parakeet. He was just so damn young. Mustering a bright smile, Ichigo knelt down to the boy's level and asked, "It's about time to go. Are you ready?"

The child nodded and closed his eyes, trustfully.

And it was done.

***

In her bed, Kurosaki Karin slept. The sick feelings that she'd been enduring all day had finally faded away and she was able to sleep peacefully.

Her dreams too were sweet. They included a smiling little boy, with pink cheeks, being brought to safety at long last.

"Thank you… Ichi-nii…"


-to be continued-



Author's Notes:

I have cats on the brain, I swear. I'm sorry – there is something remarkably kitty-like about Byakuya-bo. *chortles* And he makes a better kitty than Grimmjow, I swear. Heh.

Yes, I know Byakuya isn't as much of an injury-magnet as Rukia is. And that certain things are happening to him that should've happened to Rukia at this point but she didn't get that chance because of Certain Sandal-Hat Reasons. Not to knock off Rukia, but Byakuya is stronger than her and some things are very, very different in this AU.

*coughHougyokucough* Huh? Houg-whatsis? *evil grin*

All thanks to http: // bleachfanfiction. wikia. com / wiki / List_of_Kido for a very helpful list of canon and non-canon Kido spells. Yay for research!