Substitute School, First Semester: General Education

A Bleach Fanfic

Written by Zero-Sennin

Lesson 1: Introduction Ceremony, or Welcome to Substitute School

Saturday, May 16th, 5:15 PM

Karakura Town, Sakurabashi: Tsubakidai Park

For as long as he could remember, there had been a few constants in Ichigo Kurosaki's life, constants that lived up to their name and outlasted all of the rocky changes that came his way.

1) His hair was strawberry-blonde/orange/whatever you wanted to call it, and a source of ridicule up until the point that he actually started beating up the bullies that made an issue out of it. Then it became a source of endless challenges and threats. (He was still dealing with that…by continuing to beat up all of the wannabe gangsters and assorted punks that decided to convince him to dye it. Or stop dyeing it.)

2) He could see ghosts, and oftentimes used both his gods-given brains and the skills he'd obtained from dealing with complaints about his hair to satisfy the spirits' unrequited needs. Not exactly exorcism, but he didn't know what else to call it.

The second constant had recently given him no end of trouble two nights ago—he'd interacted with a ghost called Rukia Kuchiki, a "Soul Reaper" who'd passed into his room and performed a "Soul Burial" on another ghost that had somehow or other wound up nearby. Before he'd even had a chance to recover from that, a monster (a Hollow, his fuzzy memory stated, though knowing his track record, he probably had it wrong) had shown up at his house and attacked his family. Rukia sprang into action, sword and all, only to get hurt protecting him, and she was forced to give her powers to him…by stabbing him in the stomach.

Bedecked in the same black robes that she had worn, he had killed the Hollow with a single swing of his own oversized blade, shaped vaguely like a thick katana with a pair of blue tassels hanging from the end, and then turned to face his benefactor of sorts. The last sight he had of her was somewhat strange—her outer kimono was a dusty ash-gray, somewhere between black and white, and despite her wounds, she was smiling softly at him, as if to say "Good job".

Then everything went black.

When he awoke the next day, he had a pounding headache, and no one remembered a thing—his father and twin sisters were all convinced that a truck had crashed into the house in the middle of the night, and not that they had been visited by a soul-eating monster intent on having them for dinner.

Was that weird? Hell, yes. Did he care? Hell, no. If they didn't remember, it spared them all a lot of trouble…and meant that maybe, just maybe, things really hadn't happened as he remembered, that it had all been some sort of odd dream

At any rate, whether it happened or not, he'd done his duty for the Reaper girl, and hadn't seen her since, so he assumed that he was done entirely with her and her kind…

…Up until two Soul Reapers strode up to him in the middle of his normal Saturday stroll through Tsubakidai Park with stern and serious expressions on their faces.

Now they stood side-by-side on the grassy field, scrutinizing him coldly and silently. Despite his puzzlement, Ichigo stood a little straighter and crossed his arms, returning their stares until the shorter of the two, with fire-red hair pulled up in a topknot/ponytail that made his head vaguely resemble a pineapple, snorted disdainfully and crossed his arms.

"Captain, this is the criminal we were sent here to get? He's a kid, for God's sake. He barely has any of Rukia's spiritual energy on him. Her powers are almost gone by now, I figure."

The Captain barely spared a glance at the red-haired man; the slight action did nothing to ruffle the senior officer's dark, shoulder-length hair, nor the white hairpiece sitting above the few loose bangs he had or its companion on the right side of his head. "We shall see how accurate that statement is soon enough, Lieutenant Abarai." Focusing his attention and his gray eyes on Ichigo, the Captain continued, "Youare Ichigo Kurosaki, yes?"

"I am," the boy replied shortly. "What do you want to make of it?"

In response, the Captain reached within his inner robes and withdrew a tube, topped with a skull sporting a bandage and a top hat, which was full of round pills of some sort. "Personally, I have no quarrel with you. The Soul Society, however, has ordered your immediate retrieval, so that you may give your deposition for the trial of your accomplice, Rukia Kuchiki. To that end, you must ingest one of these Soul Candies and come with us, or face forcible removal of your Reaper powers—which will more than likely result in severe injury to your person."

Ichigo blinked in confusion, but quickly recomposed himself. "Kuchiki's on trial? I'm her 'accomplice'? What did she do and what do I have to do with it?"

"In case you hadn't figured it out yet, genius, a Soul Reaper isn't supposed to give powers to a human," Lieutenant Abarai said mockingly. "Now, come along with us—or, if you want to be difficult, we can take care of your powers like the Captain said, and then we can be on our way."

"I should also inform you that refusing to come with us will make you responsible for ending her career as a Soul Reaper…by exile or execution," the captain added, his neutral face the perfect contrast to Abarai's sneer.

That comment made Ichigo's tough front drop like a rock. "What the hell?" he barked, clenching his fists. "What do you mean exile or execution? She saved my life, dammit! How is that wrong? Tell me!"

"Trust me, this isn't pleasant for him or for me, regardless of what he's saying," interrupted Abarai, his taunting tone replaced by impassivity similar to the Captain's. "Besides all that, you're making this even more troublesome by arguing about our reasons instead of shutting your pie-hole and coming along with us so that she stands a better chance of not dying."

Frustrated, Ichigo let the next retort he had planned die on his lips, staying silent as the wind rustled the nearby trees. For a moment, he rumpled his hair violently with his right hand, trying to figure out what he was going to do. Putting aside his confusion at the fact that the events of that night had really occurred, he focused on the facts: even though he didn't know her, he didn't want Rukia to die because she had made the choice to trust and save him—on the other hand, he had no idea how long this would take, or what could happen to him if things went badly. Eventually, though, he sighed huffily and held out his hand, scowling.

"I'll cooperate. But…Let's make it quick, all right? My father's expecting me back home at some point."

The Captain merely nodded, popped the top off of the tube he held, and shook a candy into Ichigo's palm. After a moment, the teen swallowed it whole, and he immediately began to feel the effects—it was as if he'd been stabbed by Rukia's sword again, but instead of a stabbing force pushing him out of his body, it was more like he was…molting out of it. Soon enough, the moment passed, and once again, Ichigo found himself, dressed as a Reaper down to the white, split-toe tabi socks and straw sandals. The large katana-like blade he'd slain the Hollow with was on his back, fastened by a thick strap-with-buckle that crossed his chest, and his body was insensately sprawled out behind him.

Both Lieutenant Abarai and the Captain raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. Despite the fact that Rukia's spiritual energy was clearly the source of most of his spiritual energy, the level of power he currently exhibited could easily dwarf the energy of most rank-and-file Reapers if it were refined even slightly. Odder yet, there was another current of power flowing through him, deep below what was present now—it was much like an ocean or a sea, in motion but barely disturbed, still lacking some impetus to churn the waters. In Soul Reapers, that kind of power had to be pretty much innate, natural…and from what the Captain could feel of this hidden strength, as well as what little of Ichigo's personal spiritual energy was present in his aura now, it was very much Ichigo's own.

This must be brought to Captain-General Yamamoto's attention as soon as possible, the Captain thought. This boy…has at least the spiritual potential to be a prodigy.

Knowing that Abarai hadn't managed to sense the depths of Ichigo's strength (and wishing to continue the mission) the Captain cleared his throat loudly, put his hand firmly on Ichigo's shoulder, and turned the boy around to face his own body…which was now standing up and saluting.

"Your body is now…possessed…by the intelligence within the Soul Candy," the Captain said. "Give it instructions on how to behave like you, and how to recognize your family members. It will remember what you tell it and act accordingly."

Ichigo looked back at the Captain with an incredulous glare, and then focused on his body again—now he (or it?) was smiling broadly. Smiling.

Mental note to self, Ichigo. Never, ever smile—at least, not like that. Way too creepy.

"Hello, good sir!" The Soul-Candy-in-Ichigo's-body spoke with such unbridled enthusiasm that Ichigo literally felt himself becoming bodily ill. "I am Alfred. How may I serve you today?"

"F-fine…I guess," Ichigo mumbled. Not only was the Soul Candy's attitude annoying, but the fact that the strawberry-blonde was, effectively, talking with his possessed body was making things even odder. "Look, don't worry about that. Listen carefully to what I tell you so that you don't look too suspicious, all right? Now come on, we'll walk and talk. My house isn't too far from here but I can't trust you to not get lost or something."

Alfred saluted, causing Ichigo's face to twitch slightly, but the Soul Candy took no notice and fell in step behind him as he left. Lieutenant Abarai and the Captain did the same, and as they walked to the northwest, the tail of the latter's pale-green scarf fluttered lightly on the breeze.

By the time they arrived at the Kurosaki house, Alfred, to Ichigo's surprise, was more than prepared to impersonate the strawberry-blonde boy. The Soul Candy had easily remembered all of Ichigo's explanations, and while he (Ichigo had asked, and Alfred had stated that it was better to refer to a Candy by its apparent gender, making "he" better than "it" in this case) hadn't stopped his perpetual salutes, he did have a perfect imitation of Ichigo's scowl down pat.

Actually, now that he's looking more like me I'm even more creeped out than I was before, Ichigo admitted to himself as they came to the door. Today has just been so damn WEIRD.

"Don't worry, Master Kurosaki," Alfred said suddenly, breaking Ichigo out of his little reverie. "I shall represent you well. Misses Karin and Yuzu shall be safe with me, and Master Old Man will be gloriously bruised and defeated upon your return."

"…sounds…good," Ichigo replied hesitantly. "If you can help it, though, you should stick to the plan."

Alfred nodded. "Eat lunch, and dinner, entirely. Go upstairs to the room with the number 15 on the door. Read if I choose to, but don't touch anything else. Hit Master Old Man in the face if and/or when he bursts into the room. Use the bathroom when I feel the odd pressure in my…bladder. Keep scowling or acting bothered unless Mistress Yuzu says or does something cute, at which point a brief smile is acceptable. I understand and remember entirely, Master Kurosaki. Fare well on your journey!"

With a final salute, Alfred bowed to the Lieutenant and the Captain, then walked into the house, adopting Ichigo's slight slouch and confident gait as he crossed the threshold and announced, "I'm back!"; at the same time, the Captain drew the blade at his side and inserted it into the wall, turning it. When he did this, a thin line ran down the center of the wall, and a pair of sliding doors formed, sliding outwards to reveal another, smaller set of the same doors deeper within it; those, in turn opened to reveal a blinding white expanse. Three black butterflies—Hell Butterflies, right? Ichigo remembered from Rukia's lecture two nights before—came from the portal; a single one alighted on the Captain's hand. He regarded it impassively for a moment, and then raised his hand towards the portal, which it, and the other two, flitted directly towards and through.

Ichigo stared nervously at the new portal, and eventually spared a glance back at Abarai and the Captain to see if either of them had any intention of going first—their flat looks gave him the distinct impression that they did not. At all.

Resigned, Ichigo willed himself forward, taking the two steps into the portal as if he were a condemned man.

In an instant, Karakura Town behind him was swallowed by the light, and briefly, he was insensate—white filled his eyes his ears his throat his everything…

And then, without warning, without even realizing it, he was on bended knee, looking down at the dirt with a high wind blowing all around him. Confused, he got to his feet in a flash and began to look around wildly; to his surprise, he saw that he was atop a rocky, high hill. In front of him, he saw a large wooden frame that extended far above him; behind him, Abarai and the Captain emerged from the glowing portal behind him, which shut as soon as they exited.

Ichigo began to ask, his voice hoarse, "What the hell is going on—", but he was interrupted by the appearance of another Reaper—a nondescript, brown-haired man, in front of him; the man had simply appeared as a shapeless blur of black motion, further startling the already-shocked Ichigo.

"Lieutenant Abarai, Captain Kuchiki," the brunet said, with sharp salutes to each man, missing the start Ichigo gave at the name 'Captain Kuchiki', "Captain-General Yamamoto and Captain Soifon are waiting for you and the illegal substitute at the Underground Assembly Hall. Report there as quickly as possible, if you could, please."

Captain Kuchiki nodded, and then spared another of his calm glances at the Lieutenant. "Abarai, return to the division and prepare my paperwork. Once I have attended to this matter, I intend to finish it today."

Abarai said, "Yes, sir," and turned on his heel, vanishing in the same way that the messenger had arrived—not a second later, the messenger departed as well, and Captain Kuchiki began to walk forward, seemingly ignorant of the fact that Ichigo was not following him, but was actually trying to conceive some way of murdering him where he stood and getting away with it.

"Now this is just ridiculous," the teenager growled angrily, moving to match Kuchiki's businesslike pace. "You're related to Kuchiki and you're so damn stoic about this whole possibility of execution bull? What the hell is wrong with you? Are you so concerned with the damn rules that you can't even give a crap about your own family? Even if she's just a cousin or something, you—"

"If you must insist on doing this," interrupted Kuchiki calmly, "Rukia is my sister. And when I spoke earlier, I spoke of the consequences she faces—no more, no less. Insofar as the law is concerned, she has committed a crime, regardless of her reasoning for acting in the way that she chose to act, and thus, she is subject to the judgement of the law."

Ichigo tightened his glare on Kuchiki's back, as if he was trying to use the fire in his eyes to set the Captain's white overcoat on fire, starting from the diamond on the back of the garment that contained the kanji for "six". Though he must have damn well known that the strawberry-blonde was more than angry at him (at least, that was what Ichigo thought), Kuchiki kept talking, his voice smooth as per usual.

"You are also assuming that I am a heartless, cynical man who is far more interested in the rule of the law than of life itself. Being that my job entails the protection of lives, I would say that lacking empathy would have disqualified me from this position a long time ago. That said, my intention in speaking and acting as I have so far is simple: my emotions will not sway the individuals that are at present responsible for Rukia's life. If there is any chance at stopping her from dying, it is to be found in following procedure so that the evidence makes her case, and makes it well."

Ichigo would've been the first person to admit that he was bad at reading between the lines in any given situation at any given time, but the full import, and true meaning, of what Kuchiki had just finished saying was more than obvious to him: I'm trying to keep her safe the only way that I know will actually keep her safe, so shut your trap and help me do this right, because we only have one shot.

That humbled Ichigo somewhat, and led him to realize that perhaps the man wasn't as flawed a brother as he'd initially assumed; rather than talking uselessly at the Captain, he chose to look around at the buildings below. He felt as if he'd dropped straight into the feudal area—from what he could see the buildings had styled roofs, multiple tiers, or both. Beyond a certain point, he could even see a circular wall around the area, separating one set of buildings from an even larger urban sprawl.

Directly across from where they stood, over a wooden bridge, stood a tower atop a multi-tiered structure of some sort. On roughly the same level as the tower-structure's base, there stood a courtyard with a square body of water in the middle and what appeared to be a white circle at the center of that; the whole thing was surrounded by an equally square gate.

Perplexed, Ichigo asked, without expecting any real answer, "What is this place called, anyway?"

"Seireitei, the Court of Pure Souls," Captain Kuchiki answered, barely turning his head to look back at Ichigo. "It is the exclusive residence of the Soul Reapers' main organization, the Gotei 13, as well as the Central 46, the law-making body of Soul Society. I am captain of the Gotei 13's Sixth Division, and Lieutenant Abarai is my second-in-command—my second seat."

"…and Kuchiki is…?"

"An unseated officer of the Thirteenth Division."

Ichigo nodded; it was simple enough to understand. "So, this Captain-General Yamamoto is the head of the First Division, right? I'm assuming, then, that he's your boss."

"That is correct. He is also the oldest Soul Reaper in existence, and founded the Academy that trains recruits from the outlying areas of Soul Society to become Reapers."

If he felt like having Kuchiki's respect for him drop any lower (if that was at all possible), Ichigo would've whistled. As it was, though, he nodded again, and asked, "How is this whole thing going to work anyway? My 'deposition' or whatever it is you people need from me, I mean."

"You will give testimony before the Central 46 in the presence of a trained interrogator, the Captain-General, and a recorder. Additionally, the Captain-General will assess your power level, or at least I will recommend that he does."

"Wait—why would he need to do that?"

"You are not aware of this, obviously," Kuchiki replied, putting a slight amount of 'shut up now' tone into his voice as he faced forwards again, "but your powers, though awakened by Rukia's transfer, seem to stem in part from a larger pool that exists within you. If you were properly trained, it is likely that you could shed the vestiges of her spiritual energy and become a Reaper in your own right—giving you access to far more power than what you wield now. But that is not likely to happen. The 46 do not look kindly upon what Rukia has done."

That tidbit of info piqued Ichigo's interest. As much of a pain as this whole 'Reaper' gig was turning out to be, being able to do what Reapers did could prove useful if his family was targeted by Hollows again—especially since Rukia had posited that his presence had been the draw for the monster that came to his house in the first place.

Of course, who's to say that I'll even get a chance to set things up like that, he admitted to himself. Kuchiki's in a real crap-storm right now and after all's said and done they might maim me to get rid of these powers anyway, just like Abarai said.

He groaned and rubbed his forehead in exasperation. Being in this place is like being in school, I swear. Bunch of stupid rules, only that there's no such thing as detention for being naughty.

"Where is she?"

"She has already been put before the Central 46 to give her deposition, and has been moved to Second Division headquarters in containment. You will be taken before them as well, and you must observe protocol or you will be punished severely."

Ichigo tensed. "Is that a threat?"

"Hardly. It is the truth."

Though Kuchiki's voice hadn't changed in the slightest, some sort of overtone in his word choice and manner of speaking left Ichigo silent. Without saying a word, Kuchiki strode over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"I am sorry to…come into your personal space in this manner, but we must move quickly," he said. "Do not blink."

"What are you—?"

In the blink of an eye, Ichigo felt himself jerked forward violently, the world around him blurred into a mess of color and motion. Almost as abruptly, for the briefest of moments, everything seemed to snap back to normal, and he thought he was standing with Kuchiki on one of the lower levels of the tower architecture; however, the moment passed in yet another violent motion, and he found himself standing in front of the very gates of the complex he'd seen from up above. Taking a huge, choked breath, Ichigo blinked and shook his head rapidly, trying to figure out what had just happened.

"Those were Flash Steps," said Kuchiki, removing his hand from Ichigo's shoulder as he answered the boy's unspoken question. "A common form of high-speed movement, much faster than traditional walking. It is a little disconcerting if you are unprepared for it."

After finally regaining himself, Ichigo said, "Well, you did say we were in a hurry. Lead the way already."

Kuchiki made no sign of acknowledging that, instead turning his back to Ichigo and continuing to walk forward; hesitantly, Ichigo followed him through the gates in front of them, passing by a pair of guards robed in all black, down to their handkerchief-like masks.

Just like what he'd seen from above, the square lake lay in front of them; however, in front of the bridge that led to the white building in the center stood two Soul Reapers, each a startling contrast to the other.

The one on the left was a tall, wizened old man, with a long white mustache, bushy eyebrows, and accompanying beard; the latter had a purple ribbon wrapped securely around it. He was bald aside from that, with a prominent X-shaped scar well above his right eye, and leaned on a gnarled cane. He had a sleeveless white coat, exactly like Kuchiki's, but it was draped over his shoulders, not worn normally, and his eyes were closed, giving the impression that he was out on his feet.

The other Reaper was much smaller than him, and had the majority of her dark, short-cut hair in a pair of cloth-wrapped braids, with a golden ring on each end; some of her hair flared out to the side just above where the wrappings began. Like Kuchiki and the old man, she wore a coat, but she had on a yellow sash over it, tied around her waist with a bow at the front. Also, unlike the other Reapers Ichigo had seen, who wore sandals and ankle-high split toe socks, she had on a pair of Chinese-styled black slippers. Her eyes were a narrow, hard gray, and her square-cut bangs framed her face above her eyes while loose strands of hair framed the sides.

"Captain-General Yamamoto, Captain Soifon," Kuchiki said calmly, inclining his head to the old man, then the woman, as he said each name. "I have brought Ichigo Kurosaki, as requested."

Yamamoto returned the nod slowly, causing the sunlight to gleam slightly on his forehead. "Good work, Captain Kuchiki. We will take care of the boy from here. You may return to your division."

Kuchiki inclined his head again. "As you wish. But before I go, I would like to ask you for a small boon, Captain-General."

"And that would be?"

"I would like you to inspect Kurosaki's spirit, if you could. I think that he may have latent spirit powers of his own."

"Officer Kuchiki did say as much in her testimony," Yamamoto said, turning to face Ichigo. "She reported that he was not only able to see her, but that he was able to break a binding Kidouwith nothing but his willpower. Even if it was only the first-level incantation, that sort of incident is still unusual."

He opened one eye slightly, and Ichigo suddenly felt a thrill run through him as the single red eye seemed to pierce him from tip to toe, analyzing every part of him; after a moment, though, the eye closed, and Yamamoto made a thoughtful humming sound.

"He has Officer Kuchiki's signature all over him, but there is something deeper. It is barely noticeable, but it is there. Perhaps we may need to have this further investigated. But that will wait until after this trial."

"Thank you for confirming my findings, Captain-General," Kuchiki replied. He turned to leave, but before disappearing with another Flash Step, he looked at Ichigo.

"Remember, Ichigo Kurosaki. Obey the protocol. Do not do anything you are not told to do."

And with that, he vanished.

For a short time, Ichigo stared at the spot where Kuchiki had been standing, but eventually turned back towards the other two Reapers.

"I'm ready whenever you two are," he said, fingering the strap of his sword sheathe. "Lead the way."

Captain-General Yamamoto immediately took the lead, and Soifon fell in behind him, leaving Ichigo at the very back. As they crossed the bridge, Soifon began to speak, her voice calm, but edged with a sharpness that unnerved Ichigo.

"The 46 will ask you questions about what happened on the night that Officer Kuchiki gave you her powers. Your job is to answer them precisely and volunteer no information aside from that. If you attempt to do so they will most likely hold you in contempt of the court and your evidence will be thrown out."

"OK, that's fair," Ichigo said, starting a frown as they entered the building and began to descend down a somewhat gentle slope. "Anything else I need to avoid doing?"

"Do not lie. I will be watching you. I will know if you are trying to conceal the truth." Her tone became even more foreboding. "And I will tell them that you are being untruthful."

Well, gee. That's nice, Ichigo thought. More reason to be afraid of you, huh?

"I get it, lady. You don't have to threaten me."

"My name, so far as you are concerned, is 'Captain Soifon'," she responded tightly. "Watch your manners, Kurosaki, or you will cause a lot of trouble for yourself today."

Ichigo sighed as the incline finally leveled off, leading to an open doorway with a set of stairs that continued to lead downward. From what he could see through the opening, there was another building, roughly octagonal in shape, on the floor below; that had to be where they were headed, as it was the only structure there.

"Yes, Captain Soifon," he said, purposely avoiding any injection of sarcasm into the form of address.

She spared him a brief glance, taking note that he was attempting to shrink his irreverent scowl, and then turned her focus back to the front, braids bouncing as they made their way down the stairs and across the floor, into the central building.

Inside the room, there were 46 separate paper screens on three different levels of amphitheater-styled seating; each screen had a number on it, and the silhouette of a person sitting down could be seen behind each one. Yamamoto and Soifon immediately split apart as they entered, leaving Ichigo to stand just beyond the doorway; hesitantly, he willed himself forward to stand at the center of the room and waited quietly, figuring that it would be best to let them address him.

Directly in front of him, and two levels above, 'Number 1' spoke from behind his screen, his voice distinctly male and gruff. "State your name, age, and place of residence, defendant."

After swallowing a lump in his throat and working to keep his voice and speaking style within 'acceptable levels', Ichigo replied, "Ichigo Kurosaki, age fifteen, of Karakura Town."

"Did you receive powers from Officer Rukia Kuchiki of the Thirteenth Division two days ago when your place of residence was attacked by a Hollow?"

Ichigo nodded. "I did."

"Did you break her binding Kidouspell with your sheer willpower?"

"Yes, I did."

A ripple of shocked murmurs passed through the group; above the noise, from one level above and behind Ichigo, soft-spoken, boyish-sounding 'Number 12' asked, "Why did she offer you her power?"

"She was injured by the Hollow when she protected me, and offered me the power so that I could protect my father and my sisters."

"And you were the one to purify the Hollow?" asked 'Number 27''s female voice, seated at the highest level and two seats left of the center.

Ichigo blinked. "I'm sorry, did you say 'purify'? Well…I struck it down with the sword, and after that, I remember seeing…Officer Kuchiki…one more time. The rest is a blank. The next morning I woke up in my room and no one remembered a thing."

Soifon scowled at his faux pas of answering a question with a question, but it went unnoticed, as Number 1 said, "Then you did purify it. When a Soul Reaper 'kills' a Hollow, it is absolved of its sins as a Hollow and brought to this world. And the amnesia your family experienced is normal—the incident was wiped from their memories." There was silence for a time, and then he continued. "And this is the first time you have been removed from your body since that event, correct?"

Once again, Ichigo nodded. "Yes, sir, this is the first time."

The entire chamber fell silent; then, 'Number 1' shifted to look at Captain-General Yamamoto, and Soifon, before turning his attention back to Ichigo.

"Captain-General Yamamoto, Captain Soifon. Do you have any extra observations to make at this time?"

"He has the potential to develop powers of his own, your Honor," Yamamoto said simply. "The size of his zanpakutoualone implies that there is a vast amount of energy he has at his disposal from somewhere within him, but its overall composition is likely weak due to his lack of training."

"Would you need your Twelfth Division to analyze him further in regards to just how much power and ability he could gain?"

"That would be ideal, sir."

"He has been truthful to you in his testimony, your Honor," Soifon added. "Aside from that I have nothing to say."

The room filled with murmurs as the members of the 46 began to debate and discuss with each other; amongst their whispers, Ichigo thought he heard something to the effect of 'perhaps he may be useful as some sort of tool' or 'we should remove his powers post-haste', but they were just quiet enough to make a full confirmation difficult.

Eventually, though, the noise died down by mutual consent, and after the final whispers faded, 'Number 1' spoke again.

"Ichigo Kurosaki, you are charged with the crime of illegally utilizing Soul Reaper powers. Your accomplice, Officer Rukia Kuchiki, is charged with the crime of illegally conferring unto you Soul Reaper powers. Normally, her punishment would be either exile or death, while yours would be the immediate removal of her powers. However…considering that both your testimony and Officer Kuchiki's match, and the…situation, we are willing to offer one alternative that will serve both of you well—you may, if you so choose, be allowed to become a Deputy Reaper in service to Soul Society, and she would become your contact with us. Your duty would be to serve in this capacity for as long as you are able, and the same conditions would also carry over to your life after your death. "

Yamamoto allowed his eyes to open a fraction, while Soifon tensed up considerably, but they both held their tongues. Ichigo almost said something, but instinctively kept his mouth shut for fear of messing something up.

"Will you accept this offer or not?"

"…if I may, your Honor…I…I have to ask something," Ichigo finally managed to stammer.

Soifon again felt a twinge of annoyance work its way through her, but the impulse to silence Ichigo was itself silenced when Number 1 actually deigned to answer him.

"And that would be?"

"What would happen to Kuchiki if I were to turn you down? Would she…still be exiled? Or…killed?"

"We are willing to lessen her sentence whether you accept or decline, given that she was, in some way, attempting to do her duty when she broke the law. It was not the only decision she could have made, but it is plain to see why she chose it."

Ichigo, surprised that he hadn't been put in contempt of court or whatever, let out a small breath and looked down at his hands, the robes he wore.

I'm only like this because I wanted to protect my family, he thought. If I…If I accept this power, then I can keep on doing that. I can help make up for what my idiocy cost Kuchiki. I can thank her for saving all of our lives.

He swallowed another lump, but his determination to pay Rukia back eventually overrode everything else that he felt.

"I'll do it."

'Number 1' nodded sagely, and said, raising his voice, "Ichigo Kurosaki, your punishment is service to Soul Society for the rest of your human life, and the rest of your first life in Soul Society, as a Soul Reaper. You are now pledged to honor this contract with everything that you are, and it is expected that you will do so until you are no longer bound to it. Captain-General Yamamoto, Captain Soifon. Remove the defendant from our presence and send him home. It is now the Gotei 13's responsibility to oversee his training."

Yamamoto and Soifon bowed, and immediately moved towards the doorway; Ichigo automatically fell into step behind Soifon, and spared one last glance over his shoulder at the 46 men and women in the chamber before he left it for good and the door closed behind him.

"You have the luck of the gods, boy," Yamamoto said dryly. "Either that, or the 46 are more interested in your potential for good than your potential for harm."

Soifon muttered something in what Ichigo could have sworn was Chinese, but he had no way of knowing for sure.

As they ascended the slope, the light of the outside shining brightly above them, Yamamoto spoke again.

"We'll begin right away with your…community service. Officer Kuchiki will be the one to bring you here considering that she is now your link with us. You'll receive training from her and her Captain in basic Reaper matters, and conduct fieldwork in Karakura with her as well. Clear your schedule for tomorrow, understood?"

"Yes, sir," Ichigo replied, recognizing the authority the old man was putting into his voice. "I'll be ready."

Finally, they stepped back into the light of Seireitei, and as they crossed the bridge again, Ichigo looked up at the sky and managed a small grin.

"Looks like I'm in this for the long haul."

Once they arrived at the gate, Yamamoto looked over at Soifon. "Captain. Take Kurosaki to meet Officer Kuchiki. Have her escort him back home and inform her of her duties if the Hell Butterflies have not already done so. I have business to attend to, and we will have our captains' meeting regarding this matter later on."

"As you command, sir," Soifon said.

Without preamble, Yamamoto flash-stepped away, and Soifon gave Ichigo the wary eye for a brief moment before letting off a quiet sigh. "Give me your shoulder. We're going to move quickly."

A few flashes later, Ichigo found himself and Soifon standing in front of a flight of stone stairs, with two red pillars on each side. Without pausing, Soifon strode right up, leaving Ichigo to stumble somewhat comically after her, as his senses were still distorted from their movement speed—he could swear that she'd been even faster than Kuchiki when she moved, but he had no willpower to ask.

At the top of the stairs, a fairly normal building, much like the others, greeted them, but rather than go inside, Soifon simply stood in the courtyard, arms crossed as she stood at the doorway. In an instant, another fully-black-garbed individual appeared in front of her with the swish of Flash Steps, falling to one knee almost immediately.

"Have you received the Hell Butterfly from the Central 46 regarding Officer Rukia Kuchiki's punishment yet?" she asked.

"We have, ma'am. Officer Kuchiki is ready to be turned over to your service as you demand. We also received a care package from the Twelfth Division for the deputy Reaper."

"Bring them both here, then, and requisition a pair of Hell Butterflies to guide them back. Do it quickly. I need to get back to work."

The Reaper flash-stepped away, and Ichigo took a moment to look around at the Second Division Barracks, admiring the green forest that was all around them, and the relative stillness and quiescence that followed it. The moment was interrupted when Soifon audibly shifted to face him with her arms crossed, and continued to stare at him until he met her gaze with his normal scowl.

"OK, look, Captain Soifon. Whatever I did, I'm sorry. You can stop looking at me like I'm the devil now, thank you very much."

"Your attitude is poor, boy," she said. "Are you not aware of what you have committed yourself to by accepting this punishment from Central 46?"

He crossed his arms as well and continued to look down at her. "I am, yes. Basically they've got me until I die, and then even after that. But if it gives me the strength to make sure that what happened when Kuchiki saved my life doesn't happen again, then I don't care. The people I care about, my family…they're more important than anything. I won't lose them if I have the power to prevent it."

As he spoke the last words, his hands clenched, bunching up the sleeves of his robe; unbidden, memories of a rainy day by the riverbank flashed through his mind until he forcibly pushed them away.

Soifon made a dismissive humming noise and turned away from him. "Do not singularly devote yourself to only your family as your protectorate. There are others that you must be aware of, others that deserve your protection as much as they do. Your job as a Soul Reaper will be to render that duty to all beings of the Living World. Accept that now or your 'service' will be both miserable and half-hearted."

Before Ichigo could respond, Soifon's subordinate returned with Rukia in tow; she was holding onto a small, wrapped-up parcel that was somewhat tucked under her shoulder. The small Reaper's injuries from the Hollow attack had healed over fairly well by appearances, though she was still a little pale and her robes were slightly off-black as opposed to the midnight dark of regular robes. Her eyes, violet-blue as always, were darkened in thought, though seeing Ichigo's strawberry-blonde mop of hair quickly cleared her thoughts.

"…I heard about the deal you made with the Central 46," she said, frowning somewhat as she shifted the package. "…Why would you do such a thing? Are you not aware of what you have done?"

Ichigo barely failed to stop his teeth from grinding together. "And just when I already answered that—Look, you saved my life. I did my duty and returned the favor then, and this whole 'be a deputy Reaper thing' is the same thing—you saved me, I'm saving you. I don't let other people take the fall for the choices I make. That's not my style."

The short outburst shut Rukia up, and satisfied with that, Ichigo allowed himself a confident smirk.

"So let's not worry about the 'whys' and concentrate on what we've got to do. When are we gonna start this whole Soul Reaper business?"

"Tomorrow," Soifon said flatly. "We have no time to spare for you anymore today. Take him home."

As if Soifon's words had been heard by the universe itself, the pair of Hell Butterflies she'd asked for came down to them, and without hesitation, Soifon drew the short sword set horizontally at her back and thrust it into thin air. Just like Kuchiki's sword caused a portal to open in the wall of Ichigo's house, the double pair of sliding doors revealed themselves and opened up without delay. Unafraid, Ichigo and Rukia entered, and everything faded to white as the doors closed behind them.


Teacher's Notes:

So I've finally decided to toss my hat in the ring and try this out again.

This story, with any luck, won't extend beyond thirty or so chapters—I've got a good plan this time. Also, I've decided that in the interest of actually preserving plot twists, I'm being a lot less chatty about the stuff that's going to happen in these notes than I was with 'The King of Street Fighters'.

Sadly, with no official Soul Society map available, I fudged things a bit as far as layout. I'll keep it internally consistent, but everything in relation to everything else is pretty much based off of the map used for role-play at bleachforums(dot)com (I say 'pretty much' because I can't say I'm using it whole-cloth).

Considering that this is an English-language story, I'll be using the English terms for most of the different items in the Bleach world, with the exception of certain terms that are fine the way they are (i.e., zanpakutou, Shikai, Bankai, Gotei 13, Seireitei). As far as Romanization of names goes, I'm going to stick to official spellings with everyone, some of which have changed since I started this a while ago, and use long vowel sounds in names when appropriate (you see this with Juushirou, Ukitake's first name).

Regarding the characterization of the Central 46 in this chapter, I had a choice of either going directly with the manga/anime portrayal, or to adapt their behavior and train of thought to accommodate the story a little bit better. I am going with the latter. Forgive me that sin.

I have also shifted the timeline around a little bit so that Ichigo becomes a Reaper in the middle of a weekend as opposed to at an end of it, just so that the events of the next chapter can occur.

I'll be a lot more responsive to you reviewers as best I can. I'll make nods to a few of you here in this Teacher's Notes corner, but most of it will probably be acknowledged through direct response to your reviews.

That's all for this time; see you next 'class'.