Though the air of the real world was warm and moist, Kira Izuru couldn't stop shivering. He tucked his head down and folded his arms over his chest. He was the strongest of the three, wasn't he? The top of his class… Although of course, he would never say it to anyone else; if someone asked he would praise Abarai's fighting spirit and strength with a sword, he would praise Hinamori's kidou skills and perserverance. Still, he couldn't help think sometimes that Renji's courage was foolhardiness, that he was too aggressive and left himself open, and that Momo was too naïve, and had no respect for the hierarchy of the Academy and Gotei 13.

You're better than both of them, a small voice said. Rukongai brats with no sense of discipline or propriety. Kira usually tried to quiet that voice whenever it decided to speak up, and he had earned a reputation as one of the most self-deprecating students in his class, but in his mind that was only a poor façade for his real nature.

However, that voice was completely silent now, and replaced by another that told him he was unworthy to look Momo or Renji in the eye. They hadn't lost it. They hadn't shown their terror as Kira had when faced with death, though he had felt it in their reiatsu. Abarai's had taken on a manic edge, as though he were ready to go berserk and take as many Hollows with them as he could; Hinamori had trembled but her mind had not given into despair. And Hisagi, his model and rival, had a deeper strength than either. Kira remembered the feel of that leather-strong spiritual pressure, the calm of accepting his own demise in defense of his charges, of fulfilling his duty. The memory shamed him.

Kira felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Momo.

"Are you all right, Kira?"

He turned around. "Oh, y-yes, Hinamori. I was just…I wanted to be alone…" he trailed off lamely.

"Oh Kira, it's all right," Momo said, and laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. "I know you were scared. I was too." She must have felt his shame, although he was masking his reiatsu as best he could. "But it's fine now. Captain Aizen is here, and he'll take us home safely. Think of how good it will be to go back," she finished with a smile. Kira envied her. She could trust so easily, and took comfort in others without reservation. He simply nodded and looked straight past her, avoiding her face. Behind Momo, he saw Renji and Hisagi, shaking hands and exchanging words out of earshot.

In a second, though, Momo's smile vanished, and was replaced by a look of horror. The rest of the group was returning from their hiding places after being scattered by the sudden attack. But at the back of the crowd, several of the stronger first-years carried the bodies of the students from the barrier squad, their eyes streaming with tears of fear, sadness and relief. Captain Aizen led them, carrying Aoga's body, and Lieutenant Gin followed at his heels, Kanisawa cradled gently in his arms. They laid the bodies down in a row, and the students followed suit, as Aizen removed his captain's coat and covered the faces of the 6th-years.

Momo ran away from Kira to embrace another girl from their class, and Hisagi knelt by the still forms of the dead. Kira shivered once more and turned away from the scene. He wasn't like them. He just wanted to be alone now; he didn't deserve any reassurance.

But his reticence had attracted, rather than discouraged, the attention of at least one of these people, although it was unlikely that this particular person was motivated by a need to provide comfort.

"Hey, you there."

Lieutenant Ichimaru appeared at Kira's elbow. His arms and the front of his uniform were covered in blood, but the reminder of the night's slaughter didn't seem to dampen Ichimaru's spirits, or wipe away his ever-present smile. Kira just stared. Clearly his superior officer did not feel Kira's perturbation, or if he did, he was willfully ignoring it.

"You're one of those four, ar'n'cha? Those students who stood up to those giant Hollows, right?"

"Yes sir," Kira said, and seeing a chance to make a connection for himself (how perverse you are, Izuru, thinking to take advantage of a tragedy). "My name's Kira Izuru, Lieutenant Ichimaru."

Ichimaru nodded knowingly. "`tsa pleasure to meetcha. Yer a quick one, figurin' out who I am so fast."

Kira blushed, not used to being openly mocked.

"My mother and father were shinigami," he said humbly. "I grew up hearing all about the Gotei 13. They said you were a prodigy…"

"Oho? Did they… And now that Mama and Papa are dead you're gonna fill their shoes, am I right?" Ichimaru finished, more to himself than to Kira. "Interesting."

"I'm sorry, sir, but did you know my parents…?"

"Oh, no, there are so many shinigami, you know, and so many of them come and go…"

Kira didn't like his implication. His parents had not been weak… But he had. And the thought stopped his tongue. "M- May I ask how you knew of their deaths then?" he said politely.

Gin's smirk reappeared. "You really want to know what I think? Well, aristocrats like you don't go scrabbling around for a job this young unless they've got no one else to take care of 'em." Kira must have looked surprised, because Gin continued. "How do I know you're a noble? Well, first off, most Rukongai kids don' talk 'bout "mothers and fathers." And you haven't got that hungry look. Your friends there, 'specially the redhead and the scarred one, they've lived in poverty, and now they got something to prove. That sorta existence just does things to ya…"

Kira looked guilty. "I'm sure it was difficult," he said. "And it clearly prepared them for life as a shinigami much more than me. I disgraced the Academy today, I acted like a coward when they stood firm."

Gin chuckled. "I dunno, I don't see why dyin' quietly's any better'n dyin' screaming at the top of your lungs. If being so close to death everyday just teaches ya to go out with a whimper maybe there's not so much merit in it. That's not what I was talkin' about. No, there's nothing wrong with bein' scared'a dyin'. I am…"

"At least they would have had a chance. I wasn't even ready to fight."

Gin shook his head firmly and fingered the hilt of his zanpakutou. "No, they wouldn't have. Those giant hollows have the power of a thousand souls that they've devoured. Without even knowing your sword's name, there's nothing you could have done."

Kira shook his head and turned away, deciding he wanted little more to do with the prying lieutenant, despite what Kira was sure were his best intentions. He didn't want reassurance or pity. Gin looked over to Aizen and the rest of the gathered students. The captain nodded at him and Gin stood up.

And with that, he turned and left to follow his captain as the rift between the living world and Soul Society opened up. He looked over his shoulder and said to Kira,

"But don't you worry about that now, Kira. We officers got your back, right?"

Kira got up and began to follow the crowd.