Disclaimer: I do not own any Bleach characters…

I will still continue my 'Finding Family' series but I couldn't seem to get this plot out of my mind.

Chapter 7 of 'Clash with the Vendice' is almost finished and should be posted within a week.

Summary: The war was over. Central 46 has taken over much of the goings-on of Seireitei after imprisoning Aizen Sosuke and sentencing Kurosaki Ichigo to a lifetime's banishment from Soul Society and the confiscation of his Zanpakuto on the charges of gaining Hollow powers. Two years later, Aizen Sosuke escapes, setting off a chain of events that thrusts Ichigo right back into a world he had thought to have left behind for good.

My first Bleach fic; hopefully, it'll turn out alright. Please enjoy!

Chapter 1 – A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed


"…Right then, I'll call again next week. Take care of yourselves. Goat-face too. …Bye."

With a sigh, Ichigo disconnected the call before rising and making his way to the kitchen, footsteps silent. Summer called for a vacation and his goat of a dad had insisted on a trip to Okinawa. Karin and Yuzu had followed, more than happy to get out of town and away from the still-wary atmosphere that clouded Karakura even on the brightest of days.

Lips thinning, Ichigo peered out the kitchen window at the setting sun as he absently set the kettle on to boil. After the war had ended two years ago, the entire group had gone their separate ways. Oh, they still kept in touch, but less and less as the days passed.

It was his fault, he supposed; he had never been one to let go easily. While he stayed here, graduating from high school in, miraculously, the top three percent, and promptly turning down every offer from eleven different universities, instead signing up for online courses, the others had all branched out.

Ishida had gone to Todai, and was now on his way to becoming a very successful fashion designer. The Quincy seemed to want to avoid all mentions of the War and Shinigami and Hollows in general, so Ichigo wasn't really surprised that the only time he heard about his once enemy-turned-rival-turned-friend-turned-whatever-the-hell-they-were-now was from the news or from Inoue.

Inoue had also been accepted at Todai, her marks easily getting her in, and last Ichigo had heard, she was doing an internship with some big-time lawyer in Tokyo. While her absolute refusal to go into anything related to medicine didn't come as a surprise seeing as she spent most of her years in the War surrounded by blood and bandages and patients, her decision to become a lawyer had been. Ichigo suspected her choice had less to do with what she wanted and more to do with the fact that becoming a lawyer had been what Tatsuki wanted before the last deadly wave of the final battle had taken her life. After his first and last tentative conversation with the ex-healer about this issue, which had resulted in a near-hysterical Inoue and Ichigo himself feeling like a complete ass, the ex-Substitute Shinigami had never brought it up again.

Chad, on the other hand, had opted to stay in Karakura, attending the local college and working part-time in a bar on weekdays. Of the three, it was Chad Ichigo had the most contact with, visiting the Mexican at least once a week, and in return, the other would make regular house calls over the weekends. Ichigo suspected that their age-old promise had been part of the reason Chad had stayed in town, but bringing that up had only brought on an almost reprimanding stare and the orange-haired Vizard had let it go.

Tatsuki's death had shaken all of them and Keigo, Mizuiro, and Chizuru had drifted away from him. There had been blame in their eyes, Ichigo was sure, and not just from them. He knew he should have been able to protect her, had berated himself time and time again, but her death wasn't something he could change, so he had accepted the inevitable fallout and stopped trying to make amends after the first half year.

But unlike the others, Ichigo himself had not moved on. He still remembered the fateful day of his farce of a hearing, remembered the soul-wrenching feeling of his Zanpakuto being taken away from him, remembered the sneering, smug faces of those in Central 46 staring triumphantly back at him.

He had thought, with ridiculously optimistic hope, that there would be at least a couple captains and vice-captains who would come to his aid, speak on his behalf. Perhaps Toshiro, or Jushiro, or even... Byakuya. That brought on a twist of pain deep in his gut, but he had learned to accept the fact that they had more important things to protect, and risking them by standing up to Central 46 wouldn't have done any good. A wry smile made his way onto his face. Two years of exile was a long time, four years of war even longer; he really didn't have any more anger left to hold a grudge.

Again, he peered out the window, taking note of the rapidly darkening sky. He would need to eat soon, he thought numbly, even as his mind took him back to the trial.

Renji and Rukia had both been too weak to attend the hearing, though Ichigo suspected, and a warm glow stirred briefly inside him at the thought, that both would've come if they had been able, even if they had to crawl there. But the Sixth Division Vice-captain had just come out of a coma and was drugged up to the gills, while the noirette had been suffering from a broken arm, fractured leg, and a concussion worrying enough to warrant 24/7 monitoring. Central 46 had been more than happy to leave them in the care of the Fourth Division, kindly neglecting to tell them of the trial until after the event.

Ichigo would be fooling himself if he said he hadn't been disappointed that Kenpachi hadn't been there. Then again, the Vizard knew, without a doubt, that the Eleventh Division Captain had probably been banned from coming. If he had, the man would've raised hell and high water to keep Ichigo from being exiled.

Exiled. He hadn't thought that would ever happen. When it had become clear, in the first two minutes of the trial, that he would be convicted no matter what he said, he had imagined a scene much like when Rukia had been bound on Sokyoku Hill, executed by one of those gigantic firebirds.

Which was why the Substitute Shinigami would be eternally grateful to one Kyoraku Shunsui, who had, throughout the entire war, kept his comical wit and teasing grin, but had neither of these things with him when he entered the chamber his hearing had been held in. Instead, the usually flamboyant captain's mouth had been set in a grim, unflinching line, eyes hard and stormy as he took his place at the Captains' dais. His eyes had met Ichigo's briefly, and the orange-haired Vizard had read the promise there, clear as day, swearing to him the man's full support.

It hadn't been enough, nowhere near enough, to get him fully pardoned but the alternative was much, much worse. Central 46 had wanted to stick him in their underground prison, locked reiatsu and all. But Shunsui had fought for him, pointed questions and smoothly hidden accusations, all backed up with diamond-armoured defence, enough to wear the old bastards down so that they would settle, albeit reluctantly, for banishment and the confiscation of his Zanpakuto.

Twice, Ichigo had caught the Eighth Division Captain sending pointed, almost accusing looks across the room where the man's best friend sat. But the War seemed to have taken all the fight out of Jushiro, leaving only a shadow of the man he had once been. Ichigo guessed that his sickness had taken a heavy toll on him as well, and coupled with the losses of the War (both of the older Shinigami's 3rd Seats had been brutally cut down by the 9th Espada), it was enough to wring the fight out of him.

Not that Ichigo had seen it that way at the time. During the four years they had all fought together, Ichigo had quickly come to see the two older Shinigamis as friends, perhaps even surrogate uncles. It had been Shunsui and Jushiro who had taught him Kido, drilling both Bakudo and Hado into him and the newly-acquired techniques had save him more than once during one battle or another. That Jushiro hadn't said anything in his defence had hurt, and there had been disappointment and no small amount of anger.

But that had eventually faded as well, Ichigo thought, bitterly amused. The kettle began to whistle, shrill enough to jolt him out of his depressing thoughts. With a sigh, he opened a cupboard and drew out another cup ramen.

"Instant noodles again it is." He muttered.

Chad had once told him, right after Ichigo had questioned him about staying in Karakura, that the orange-haired Vizard's instincts had never been wrong, nor had he ever settled for staying stuck in one place for long. If Ichigo insisted on staying in Karakura, then that must mean something would happen, and when it did, Chad would be there to help.

Ichigo had almost verbally denied it, but hadn't had the heart to in the end. He had lost most of his friends, human and Shinigami, and he didn't want to lose one of the few he had left.

But what the hell was he waiting for? The War was over, people were dead, Soul Society was quickly becoming a chaotic mess, and Ichigo himself not far behind. He had tried dating, but that had quickly proven to be a bad idea. He didn't have anything in common with most of the people his age, and those he did he could never reveal everything about himself to. Recently, he had started considering the option of moving out, as any sleep he got at night was riddled with blood and screams and accusing whydidn'tyousaveme eyes. More often than not, he had woken up screaming, and no matter how many times his sisters reassured him, he knew it was taking a toll on their lives.

They didn't know about most of the War, definitely none of the gruesome details, and Ichigo was more than willing to keep it that way. Even worse, he couldn't even talk about it with his old man, who would just needlessly worry about him. It was hard enough to keep his other life a secret; the man didn't need to know about the War too.

"Hey King, the water's goin' ta overflow."

Ichigo blinked, quickly righting the kettle as his mouth quirked up. Almost forgot.

A snort followed this thought and he could feel his Hollow scowl at him.

The one upside about confiscating his Zanpakuto was that Central 46 had, once again, underestimated him. He was not Shinigami, or Hollow, or Vizard, or completely human either. He had no idea what he was, but that also meant he could do things others couldn't. He could no longer use Zangetsu alone, but, before the War ended, he had trained vigorously with one Urahara Kisuke, and had a state he called Saikai, where Zangetsu could merge with Shiro and form a sword of their own. Zangetsu himself could separate himself from the sword so he had managed to keep the old man with him when the sword itself had been taken away. Anything below that, Shikai and his two levels of Bankai, well, no one said Zangetsu was the only one with a sword right?

He had never used the silvery-white sword Shiro could produce during the War so not many knew he even had it. Of course, there wasn't much cause to use it now, but he still trained under the Urahara Shoten and his Hollow's sword had been a great comfort to him after the heart-twisting pain of having part of himself taken away from him. Zangetsu never said much on the matter though Ichigo knew his Zanpakuto missed the other part of himself even more than Ichigo did. But the old man had reassured him that it was infinitely better to be with his wielder than locked away alone for eternity.

"It is raining again, Ichigo."

Ichigo shook himself, pushing back his reminiscences. "Sorry," His apology rang loud in the empty house. "Just thinking."

Zangetsu rumbled knowingly but said nothing more. Shiro was not so kind.

"Geez King, do ya have ta be so depressin'? It's been two years. I say screw the Shinigami! When are ya gonna get on with yur life anyway? This town is dingy! I wanna travel!"

Ichigo sighed, more exasperated than annoyed. "I just don't think it's over yet." He said quietly, after a contemplative moment. Another derisive snort followed his much-repeated statement.

"I agree with Ichigo, Shiro. You can feel it too. Something has been brewing for two years now, in this town as well as Soul Society."

"Che! That's why I wanna leave! All this brewin' and stirrin' and mixin' ya always go on about makes my skin itch!"

Ichigo sighed. "Stop arguing. You're giving me a headache."

Shiro scoffed again but fell thankfully silent. Ichigo had been having headaches on and off for the past two years, becoming more and more frequent as time passed. He didn't need any more reason for them.

It was then that the orange-haired Vizard felt it, a quick, poorly-hidden burst of reiatsu, fast-approaching, non-threatening, and painfully familiar.

Nine at night, darkness quickly painting the skies, sitting in a lonely kitchen slurping down instant noodles with half-hearted enthusiasm, and Ichigo knew everything was about to change.

He was up and at the front door before Zangetsu or Shiro could comment. Something about the way the Shinigami heading towards his house hadn't bothered hiding her reiatsu, the speed at which she was shunpoing towards him with a sense of almost-panic and definite desperation, put him on alert.

Cautiously, he unlocked his front door and opened it just as the Shinigami landed at his front step, breaths coming in nervous pants. Ichigo waited for her to look up, and when she finally did, he noted, with no small amount of amusement as ochre gazed into violet, that she was still very much the same height.

"Come on in," Ichigo offered, stepping aside with a rare soft smile. "I just boiled water so I'll get you some tea. Make yourself at home, Rukia."

Five minutes later, they were both in his room, Rukia curled up in her rabbit-printed beanbag chair (and wasn't it just pathetic that Ichigo still thought of the old thing as hers), the one she had stubbornly insisted on buying all those years ago when she still lived with him, while he lounged on his desk chair, turning this way and that as he watched the female Shinigami sip her tea. If he closed his eyes and pushed all thoughts of the last eight years away, he could still remember more peaceful times, times when all they had to worry about were stray Hollows and where all of Rukia's Chappy accessories would go in his room.

A dull thump and the rustling of fabric interrupted his thoughts, and Ichigo did a double-take as he opened his eyes and found Rukia prostrated on his bedroom floor, forehead pressed into the carpet with an absurd amount of force.

"Rukia!" He half-stood from his chair, typical frown deepening. "What are you do– "

"I am so sorry!"

Ichigo knew complete bewilderment was written all over his features as he registered the tearful apology.

"For what?" He could only ask stupidly.

Rukia just huddled closer to the floor. "For not defending you. For not visiting you. For not breaking you out. For not being there for you when you needed help. For being completely usele–"

"Rukia!" Ichigo sighed in exasperation as he knelt beside her, tugging insistently at her shoulders. "You're being an idiot. You don't–, no, stop that and listen to me, you don't have anything to be sorry about." He finally settled on scooping the petite female up, frowning as he felt the thin frame under her signature Shinigami uniform. Had she always been this thin? This light?

"How can you say that?" Violet eyes stared tearfully up at him as he settled them both on his bed, still cradling the female in his lap. "I wasn't there! I didn't even know you had been convicted until Hanataro came and told me and Renji about it!"

"Exactly," Ichigo gave her a gentle shake. "You didn't know, not to mention your injuries were near-fatal. There was nothing you could've done."

"We should've–"

"No," Ichigo interrupted firmly. "Rukia, there was nothing you could've done. I was exiled. No contact and all that, you know. I know you would've been there if you could."

The female Shinigami just stared at him for several seconds, tears leaking out of tired violet eyes before burying her face in Ichigo's shirt, shoulders shaking under two years of pent-up guilt.

Ichigo sighed again and tightened his hold, glancing out the window at the now-darkened sky. He frowned as caught the faint outline of ugly clouds rolling in.

A summer storm? Now?

He glanced down again as the shudders became fewer, before reaching over to his desk and plucking a few tissues from its box.

"Here, now stop crying." He ordered softly, pulling back to wipe her face. "You should be happy to see me."

Rukia hiccupped, managing a smile through her slowing tears. "Thanks, Ichigo."

Ichigo smirked. "Anytime. Crying is rare for you though. Must be that time of the month, huh?"

He was promptly whacked upside the head, which was what he had been hoping for, and couldn't help the slight grin as Rukia huffed.

"Idiot." But the insult was more affectionate than annoyed and Ichigo mentally congratulated himself.

"So what is it?" Ichigo prompted after a moment of companionable silence as Rukia settled on his bed next to him, tea in her hands once more. "What brought on this visit?"

Again, no small amount of guilt swam in the sea of violet as the Shinigami was reminded of her failure to even visit the Vizard but it faded somewhat under Ichigo's stern frown.

"It's Seireitei," Rukia finally spoke. "Everything's falling apart."

Ichigo couldn't quite help the snort that was echoed by Shiro almost a second later. "Considering it's Central 46 leading Seireitei at the moment, I can't say I'm surprised."

He turned his head abruptly, studying the haunting shadows lurking in the noirette's eyes, as well as the almost unnaturally pale features and small frame.

"Is that why you haven't been eating properly?" He asked, observing the startled jerk of her head.

Rukia shrugged. "It's not like I've been starving myself or anything. But things are so busy now. After you–," Here, she took a deep breath before forging on. "After you were exiled and word got out that Central 46 took away your Zanpakuto, well, it didn't sit well with many people.

You know that new Captains have been appointed to the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th Divisions, right?" Rukia glanced questioningly at him and Ichigo quickly nodded. Tousen was dead. Aizen and Gin were both locked away in Muken. And Komamura had been killed a week after Tousen had died.

"Well," She continued. "Apparently, Central 46 went for asinine obedience instead of actual competency." A wry, almost smug, satisfied smile curved her lips. "That's what Nii-sama told the Third and Fifth Division Captains when they came to arrest him."

Ichigo visibly started, stiffening in unpleasant surprise. "Arrest him? Byakuya's been arrested?"

Rukia quickly lost the former smile, features becoming even more haggard as she turned to face Ichigo. "Aizen's escaped Muken."

Ichigo honestly tried to feel some sort of shock or surprise at this piece of news, but what could you expect from a group of fools with too much power and paranoia? There was bound to be a slip-up sometime.

Ichigo's frown deepened as he contemplated this new information with a mature thoughtfulness that, truthfully, stunned Rukia. She had sensed something different in the Vizard even before they had started talking. Sure, Ichigo had more than matured during the war, in a way that made her entire being ache, but the aging Ichigo had gone through then had been forced, pushed on him by surrounding circumstances. The maturity she now saw, the way Ichigo's eyes flashed with quick insight and thoughtful understanding, the way he seemed to prefer to listen rather than talk, the way he now seemed to be mulling over options he could take instead of insisting on jumping right in head-first without a second thought, well, she could admit to a little awe.

Of course, Ichigo during the war had been quieter as well, but that quiet had been silence brought on by sorrow and the weight of those departed. This quiet was different, as if Ichigo preferred and enjoyed the peaceful calm it seemed to bring.

Much like her brother, she realized, and she wondered if her brother had ever seen this side of Ichigo, if this was the reason the Kuchiki head had been so silently devastated by the vibrant Vizard's sentencing.

Because, and here she turned to watch her friend with something akin to fascination, this was someone she could see her quiet, reserved-to-the-point-of-cold-condescension, brother spending time with, maybe even becoming friends with. Then again, Ichigo was very easy to befriend. People were drawn to him no matter who or what they were.

"Wait," Ichigo was now staring down at her, gaze probing. "Someone helped Aizen break out, and Byakuya of all people got the blame for it? They do realize that they've just hauled in the Head of the Kuchiki clan, right?"

Rukia nodded ruefully. "Yeah, but like I said, after you left, things started falling apart. Yoruichi-san came back to Seireitei." Here, Ichigo nodded. Yoruichi was his and Kisuke's only means of communication with Soul Society now.

"Ever since your exile, the Shihoin Clan and the Kuchiki Clan have been demanding answers from Central 46. Not just them either. The Kyoraku Family and the Ukitake Family to name a few. Ichigo?"

Rukia frowned as a shadow seemed to pass over Ichigo's features as she mentioned... Her eyes widened as her mind quickly took her back to almost two years ago when Kyoraku Shunsui and Ukitake Jushiro had shaken the whole of Seireitei with their so-called 'sparring session'. The two had fought for five hours straight, and even then only stopping when the Captain-Commander himself had stepped in. But before she could say anything on the matter, the Vizard motioned for her to continue.

"So what answers are they looking for?"

Rukia hesitated, but continued after a moment. Ichigo was owed more than an apology from more than one person and in her opinion, her Captain had a lot to answer for.

"Money meant for the Academy or Shinigamis' pay mysteriously disappearing, direct orders sent out by Central 46 to capture or execute Shinigamis that would eventually become potential threats, there's even been talk of the Royal Guard being sent out to do their dirty work." Rukia shook her head. "Seireitei is just one big mess, has been for centuries, except now it's all being dug up and exposed."

"The Royal Guard," Ichigo commented after a moment. "That's the Zero Division, isn't it? The one that protects the Royal Family and the Spirit King?"

Rukia's head jerked up. "How do you know that?"

Ichigo shrugged. "I've been to that library of yours a couple of times, and I've heard things from different people."

It was a vague answer but Rukia understood the Vizard's need for it. There was no need to bring others into this.

"Well yeah, that's what the Royal Guard is supposed to do. But apparently, they've been neglecting their job for a long time. I don't know much about that; only what Nii-sama's been able to tell me in private, but something's going on and Central 46 is desperate to hide it."

Ichigo nodded. "So they've somehow cooked up another story and have somehow put all the blame on Byakuya."

It wasn't really a question but Rukia nodded anyway.

"Nobody says anything outright, of course, but there's an underground rebellion in Seireitei. Nii-sama is part of it," A strain of pride thrummed in the female Shinigami's voice. "So am I, and a lot of the Gotei 13 as well. The captains can't be seen sneaking in and out of places, but Central 46 can't really do anything if officers from different Divisions go drinking together on weekends."

She glanced up and her smile widened as she caught the faint approval behind wine-coloured eyes.

"But Central 46 knows about the rebellion, they know we're planning a coup d'état; they just can't catch anyone so they're aiming at the people supporting it from the shadows, like Nii-sama. And without the Clan head, the Kuchiki clan is weakened. They don't have as much influence anymore. Although," And here, Rukia smiled again, vindictive satisfaction edging it. "The Clan elders are all kicking up a fuss, and Renji–"

She stopped, freezing in mid-sentence as she glanced up apprehensively at Ichigo. Ichigo only raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

"Renji?" He prompted.

"...Renji's running the Sixth Division really well, keeping everyone out of trouble but raising hell over Nii-sama's arrest." She stopped, hesitating. "...You're not mad at him either?"

Ichigo snorted. "'Course not. That bastard would've taken on the entire Gotei 13 if it meant getting me out. He learned his lesson with you."

Rukia all but beamed up at him. "We both would have."

The Vizard smiled crookedly at her. "I know."

"What's his sentence then?" The Vizard asked abruptly. "Treason is punishable by death, isn't it? Are they going to execute him?"

Rukia winced but shook her head. "No, he's being sent to the Maggots' Nest tomorrow afternoon. They want to make an example of him so they'll be escorting him there in broad daylight." She hesitated briefly, noting the stifled rage burning in Ichigo's eyes. "Sui-Feng-taichou's livid, although I think Yoruichi-san has something to do with it too. The Maggots' Nest is under their jurisdiction but neither of them were consulted before the decision was made."

Tension flooded the room as Ichigo stiffened, anger almost visible as he glared across the room.

"Do you even know for sure if Aizen actually escaped and it's not some big lie that Central 46 made up as an excuse to start arresting people?"

Rukia started, gripping her tea cup in a white-knuckle hold. This option hadn't even occurred to her but now that Ichigo had mentioned it, it would be just like them to...

"I don't know," The noirette's voice was barely above a horrified whisper. "If it is a lie, then Nii-sama..."

Ichigo quickly shook his head. "It doesn't matter either way," He declared. "The official word is that Aizen's escaped, and someone somewhere is going to accuse the old bastards of incompetency at the very least."

Rukia nodded, shoulders relaxing half an inch, and took another gulp of tea, one big enough to scandalize at least half the elders in her clan but she didn't quite know how to phrase her next request. She blinked in consternation as Ichigo easily solved her internal dilemma.

"Do you have a way for me to get back into Seireitei? Kisuke's been trying, but even he hasn't been able to build something to get through the barrier."

Rukia could only stare, absently aware that she was gaping in a very unsightly manner. "What?"

Ichigo rose, sliding open the closet she had spent nearly half a year sleeping in. "Even I can't break someone out of jail if I'm not actually there, you know." He glanced back at her as he rifled through the closet. "That's why you came, right? Sneaking out of Seireitei like this. It must be pretty heavily guarded at the moment." He grinned, eyes flashing with amusement. "I'm an expert when it comes to breaking into Seireitei and kicking ass until I can break whoever got themselves stuck in prison out."

This startled an actual laugh out of the female lieutenant, tired and faded, but genuine.

"Yes, I have a way for you to get back in. It's a sort of last resort emergency escape that the Kuchiki clan hid away. We can use that to get back in. Thank you, Ichigo." She smiled gratefully at the orange-haired Vizard as she placed her finally empty teacup down on the desk.

Ichigo responded with a noncommittal grunt before tossing something yellow in Rukia's direction.

"Get some sleep," He ordered, straightening and watching with soft amusement as Rukia stared at her old Chappy-the-Bunny pyjamas with delighted astonishment. "I'm heading over to Kisuke's to get some things in order. We'll go get your brother tomorrow before he gets transferred."

Rukia looked up, nodding as her eyes filled with tears again. "Thank you," She whispered. "I knew I could count on you."

Ten minutes later, Ichigo had locked up the house and was on his way to the Urahara Shoten, a little more alive than he had been for the past two years.

"King, I can't believe you're goin' ta help them! They never helped us when we were in trouble!"

Ichigo gave a mental shrug. They're my friends. Rukia's like a sister to me. I'm not going to let her down.

Ichigo, while I can see why you cannot ignore Kuchiki Rukia's request for help, why are you so keen to jump back into this life? You hate war, and war is exactly where this is going to lead.

Ichigo paused, steps slowing as he found himself passing the spot where his mother had died so long ago.

If I ignored this, he explained carefully. Byakuya would die. But Aizen would still be free and sometime in the future, maybe a few months now, maybe a few years from now, but eventually, someone's going to come knocking on my door. Whether that someone will Aizen, or Rukia again, or even a squad of Shinigami come to arrest me again for another crime, we'll still be pulled back into this. I knew this wasn't over two years ago and I guess this is what I've been waiting for all this time. I'd rather enter whatever this is on my terms though, not on someone else's.

There was silence now from both his Zanpakuto and his Hollow. He knew Zangetsu would approve of his reasoning, and while Shiro was hot-headed and temperamental, he wasn't stupid.

"Alright," His Hollow finally grumbled. "I suppose that makes sense. At least I'll be able ta tear some of those shitty old bastards apart. I haven't had a real fight in way too long!"

Zangetsu only chuckled, and Ichigo focused on the old man.

I'll get your other half back; I promise.

He felt his Zanpakuto still, before a wave of affection and gratitude flooded his mind, making Ichigo smile as he continued walking again.


"Ichigo! I've been expecting you. Come on in."

Ichigo rolled his eyes at the exaggerated cheerfulness before cutting to the chase.

"You felt Rukia earlier?"

Kisuke peered out from under his hat before sweeping it off at Ichigo's pointed frown. They had spent a lot of time together during the War, and even more after Ichigo's exile. The former captain had been utterly bemused one day when Ichigo had walked into the Shoten during a rare, peaceful lull in the War, squatted down to his level where he had been slumped on the sofa, and promptly asked if they were good enough friends for the blond to stop hiding behind his hat when they were in private.

Kisuke, while startled, had smirked and talked his way around it. Ichigo had taken the unspoken 'no' with good grace and life had continued.

Four battles and seven close calls later, Ichigo had ducked into the Shoten again while Kisuke was making a new, more creative (poisonous, Ichigo corrected,) tea, leaned on the opposite side of the counter and had asked again.

This time, Kisuke had tilted his head, the shadow his hat casted over his eyes lifting ever-so-slightly, and asked why.

Ichigo had replied simply that he found it irritating to glance at the blond only to find him looking worryingly tired, even when he wasn't. It made his head hurt, Ichigo had complained, though Kisuke was sure that the other meant heart.

The ex-captain had found it flattering that Ichigo worried so much about him, but he had rarely taken his hat off in anyone's presence after his exile, and to that day only Yoruichi had had the honour of seeing him without. So he smiled his crafty smile, threw around meaningless teases and had the orange-haired Vizard rolling his eyes and huffing in exasperation within minutes. He ignored the pang of guilt as he spotted the disappointment in Ichigo's steady gaze.

And then, another couple battles later, and several more close calls that naturally came with those, and Kisuke found out why close calls were called close calls.

The two had been on patrol together, without backup and tired from that day's battle. A group of Menos Grande had ambushed them as they were making their way back to the Garganta that connected Hueco Mundo to the Human World. Kisuke hadn't been worried; they could both take care of themselves. That was, of course, before his orange-haired partner had shoved him out of the way as two Adjuchas tried to blindside him. Ichigo had managed to cut one down but the other had shot a Cero straight into the Vizard's gut.

Kisuke had cut down the rest of the Menos Grande in one furious sweep and torn the Adjucha apart in the blink of an eye before scrambling almost clumsily to Ichigo's side. He had sworn that day that he would make Tessai sit down with him for as long as it took to learn actually useful healing spells and not the basic crap that captains were required to learn but, in reality, wasn't worth a damn when it counted.

He would later learn that the shot had come dangerously close to Ichigo's heart that day and had actually nicked his left lung, but Kisuke still had enough brain power to staunch the flow of blood as best he could as he sent his reiatsu snaking through the nearby Garganta for the closest help. Luckily, Unohana herself had been on patrol that day, and had intercepted his summons with calm efficiency. Before her arrival though, Kisuke had taken one look at the hazy wine-colored eyes and rapidly paling features, not to mention the irreplaceable lifeblood slowly leaking over his hands, and had immediately done what any sane man did in life-threatening situations: bargain.

Never mind that Kisuke didn't believe in God or Gods or whatever higher power sat on a fluffy cloud up in the heavens. He promised he would stop making horrible tea if Ichigo survived; he promised he would stop teasing the Vizard if Ichigo survived; he promised he would stop heaping work on his redhead sometime-freeloader if Ichigo survived; he promised a hell of a lot that day, but Kisuke supposed that if there really was a God, then it was his last promise, forgotten until a thready, hoarse whisper below him asked once more, that did it.

A glimmer of weak amusement had struggled to the surface of his pain-glazed eyes, and Kisuke had realized he had been bargaining out loud. Ichigo had suggested, with a sputtering chuckle that spilled bright crimson over the Vizard's lips, and had made the blond's breath catch in gut-clenching fear, that perhaps he could stop wearing the damn hat when no one else was around. That time, Kisuke hadn't hesitated, hadn't talked in circles or asked why. Instead, he had nodded and swept the hat off right then and there, and had promised his former student and current best friend that he would never have to see the hat on his head again when it was just the two of them if Ichigo would just hang on.

And then Unohana was there, with a squad of her best medics, but it had still taken six and a half days for Ichigo of all people to get back on his feet, even with the help of Unohana's expertise. The Vizard had been laughing off the incident by the end of the week, but Kisuke never forgot the soul-deep terror of that day when he had thought he would lose Ichigo. Hell, he hadn't even known when his ex-student had become so important to him, but even imagining a life without the vibrant youth was more than troubling.

So Kisuke never broke his promise, and he had had the smug pleasure of watching the muted astonishment cross Ichigo's features when they had been alone one day, drinking sake this time and the blond had taken off his precious hat with an exaggerated flourish. The bright, warm smile that followed the surprise had been more than worth it.


The blond blinked before smiling genially. "I suppose we should talk about the situation over tea then?" Kisuke thought fairly that it was the last promise he had made that day that had saved Ichigo's life, so the promises made before were null and void.

Ichigo snorted as he followed the man into the kitchen. "I'm storming Seireitei tomorrow. Try not to kill me."

Finished! Thanks for reading and please review and tell me what you thought of it!