A/N: AU from volume 21. Because Ichigo's not the only one who should get to Take a Third Option... and because Shinji creeps me out. Set in the Clean and White AU.

Never involve yourself with shinigami again.

Ishida stood there, his father's words still ringing through his head, as Ryuuken stalked off into the night. Set his jaw, and began walking back to his solitary apartment. Walking, not running. Ryuuken might not be interested in being a Quincy, but he wouldn't leave even his son unprotected from Hollows that powerful...


Never involve yourself with shinigami again.

As if he'd ever wanted to. The only reason he'd ever dealt with Ichigo was because the orange-haired idiot shed reiatsu everywhere. And as far as the mess with Rukia went... the shinigami had messed up her life just as much as his. Why shouldn't he have stuck a finger in Soul Society's eye?

I found your murderer, Grandfather. I just wish I'd been able to do more.

Take Ryuuken's offer, and he could again.

...Except that technically, don't get involved with shinigami took away the option of hunting Kurotsuchi down. If he gave his word, he had to mean it. The pride of the Quincy demanded nothing less.

Stay powerless and free to act. Get his powers back, and be bound from using them where he needed them most.

...Damn it, why did Ryuuken always do this to him?

"One thinks it's a bad bargain, that I do."

The hairs on the back of Ishida's neck prickled. Something was walking right beside him, and he hadn't even sensed it-

A shinigami.

A short shinigami. If he had four inches on Rukia, it was only because of that thick head of hair. Red hair, tied back in a simple ponytail with a leather thong, over violet eyes deep and quiet as twilight. Eyes that held a spark of wry laughter, odd counterpoint to the cross-shaped scar on his cheek.

"Never involve yourself with shinigami," the redhead went on, blithely ignoring Ishida's narrow stare. As if a shinigami walking - walking! - down the street with a mortal was just an ordinary night. "As well say, never walk in the rain. Storms come whether we will or no. Like Hollows. And death." A red brow went up. "Sooner or later, no matter how careful one is, one will get wet."

"You're one of Kurosaki's friends, aren't you?" Ishida bit out. "Get the hell away from me!"

"Maa, maa," the redhead said mildly. "We're only talking, that we are. And one doesn't know this Kurosaki you speak of." He paused. "I think."

"Orange hair, meat-cleaver sword, the reiatsu sense the kami gave a fly?" Ishida said sourly. "Just tore through Soul Society like a flaming zombie with chainsaws? You have to know who he is." Zombie? I've been locked up with Orihime too long. A thought hit him as they walked through yet another copse of trees perfect for an ambush, and he grabbed for what was left in his jacket. "Unless you're one of Aizen's-"

"Easy." A callused hand had his, immovable as a mountain. Ishida hadn't even seen the shinigami blur. "I swear to you, I am no ally of Aizen Sousuke's." Violet eyes glinted blue as steel. "So he has revealed himself at last? Good. Perhaps Yamamoto-Genryuusai will step outside the comforts of law and tradition, and into the reality of those who suffer when ones charged with upholding the law are arrogant madmen."

Despite his position, Ishida snorted, recalling that stiff, ancient idiot who'd almost destroyed Rukia's spirit. "I wouldn't hold my breath."

The corners of the redhead's mouth turned up in a wry smile. Releasing Ishida, he bowed. "This one is known as a rurouni."

A wandering swordsman? And why just a nickname, not the samurai-style declaration of name and rank other shinigami used? "Ishida Uryuu," he returned the courtesy. "I am... I was a Quincy."

"Is a swordsman stripped of the name because his arm is shattered?" the rurouni said levelly. "The teachings, the knowledge, the pride; those are yet yours. You are still a Quincy." His fingers felt air, and pulled out a tattered white spirit-ribbon. "It is only the power that you lack."

Ishida saw the threadbare ribbon; a ribbon he hadn't been able to see, without the shinigami's interference. And swallowed bitterness. "Only everything."

"Courage and knowledge can allow even the powerless to prevail." The rurouni hadn't let go of his ribbon. "Power without them is blind, helpless. A typhoon, damaging friend as much as foe."

"You do know Kurosaki," Ishida said dryly.

"Not yet," the redhead said judiciously. "But this one was young once, too."

Fine. Wonderful. So the overpowered idiot would get yet another weird shinigami to play mentor. Like he needed more help. "I'm sure you'll get a chance to hospitalize him soon enough," Ishida said icily. "Good night."

"There are Hollows about," the redhead stated, "and frayed as it is, the remnants of your power are enough to draw them. Allow this one to-"

"I don't need help from shinigami!"

The redhead nodded slowly. "Then would you accept harm?"

What the-

"Nekomata, stain."

Snow stinging blind eyes, wind roaring muffled in ringing ears. A scent of plum blossom, blood, oh kami she didn't-!

Grief chilling him like icy rain, Ishida looked up; the scent of blood no longer sharp with snow, but hot and heavy in the summer night. And caught his ribbon.

A bloody thumbprint faded, leaving only hair-fine threads of crimson that bound ragged white into wholeness.

Shaken, Ishida glanced at the shinigami's right hand, where the green light of healing kidou was just fading. "What did you do?"

"Some of us are skilled at healing," the redhead mused.

"Who are you?"

"And some of us have gifts that are... not quite healing." The redhead shrugged. "You might think of it as a brace. It should allow the wound you inflicted upon yourself to heal. In time."

A brace. A whisper of shinigami power, wrapped around his own. Already the night seemed just a little brighter, every tree and rock and fence glowing with its own trace of energy. And the ache inside him, where he'd emptied himself of power...

It still ached. But it wasn't as raw. "How much time?" Ishida asked warily. Because except for Kurosaki and the idiots he attracted, no shinigami ever did the right thing for the right reasons.

"More than Aizen will allow us, I think." Violet met blue, level and sober. "I was young once, Ishida Uryuu. And I was alone, and proud. In that pride I nearly destroyed myself, and I slew many others. Some deserved to die. Many did not. I did not know. I did not let myself know. For I was hitokiri, and my lord ordered that these men die." He shrugged, a graceful flow of black and red. "So I, too, know what it is to be a destroyer."

A manslayer. Ishida's throat went dry. "It's not like that. Hollows are monsters! They kill people!"

"They do," the redhead said quietly. "And they must be stopped. But they were people, Ishida-kun. Under all the hate and hunger and evil, they are still human spirits. Just as we. And you know it. You are too brave a soul not to know it."

Silence stretched between them. A moth fluttered into the night; Ishida glanced aside just enough to be sure it wasn't a hell butterfly. They didn't need any more complications.

"I can't let them win," Ishida said at last. "I can't let those ignorant feudal samurai destroy what we were. Let shinigami worry about the dead. Quincys were meant to protect the living."

The redhead nodded. "So you wish to protect, rather than wreak vengeance. Good. It is always good, to find your resolve." He smiled wryly. "Though it is never quite what one expects. Even the most peaceful spirit, who once hammers his soul into steel for a brief moment of peril, is never the same again."

Find my resolve- wait a minute!

"Though, one should take issue with your history teachers," the rurouni said with mock sternness. "Samurai, indeed. Has no one told you of the first samurai, and the Way of Horse and Bow?"

Violet eyes sparkling with laughter, he vanished.

Caught flat-footed, Ishida picked up his jaw. And made his way back to his apartment, desperately trying not to think.

Find my resolve. Seated at his kitchen counter, he shuddered at the thought. Quincys had their resolve. They were trained to it. The bow, the spiritual powers; those were known paths, and all you needed was a dedicated teacher to set you on the trail. Finding your resolve - that was for people who didn't know what their powers were. What their limits might be. Like Chad, and Orihime. Like Ichigo.

Like shinigami.

Fine red threads, binding a tattered white ribbon.

I'm not a shinigami.

But a shinigami's power was holding his together. Power called to power. And Kurosaki shed reiatsu like a cat shed fur. It got everywhere. Into everything.

Briefly, Ishida considered the merits of pounding his head on the counter. It'd feel so good when he stopped.

Before I was powerless. Then I had a choice between power and freedom. Now I've got powerless, Ryuuken's way, or waiting to see if another damn cryptic shinigami's mixed me up in some centuries-old plot-

A thought hit, and he winced. Oh, Ryuuken really wasn't going to like this.

I don't like it either. But if I want to know about cryptic shinigami... I'd better ask another cryptic shinigami.

So. Urahara's, tomorrow. And hope he timed it right.

Ichigo would never believe he was there for the candy.

A/N: In a very odd, head-tilting way, shingami don't kill Hollows. They purify them. So... in a sense, they're Technical Pacifists. Kinda. Sorta. At least enough for Kenshin to get behind!