A/N – So, I blame Black K Kat entirely for this one. Her and her irritatingly persistent plot bunnies. They would not leave me alone...
Anyway, this is Hold, a continuation of Kat's fic by the same name which started us wondering – How would Bleach have changed if it was Shuuhei Hisagi who went to Karakura, and not Rukia Kuchiki? The answer is... well, quite a damn lot. There's a link to that fic on my profile.
(Those of you who were reading 'To be a King Once More', I apologise for the delay. Moving house, finding a job, they all eat into free time. The story will continue, just as soon as I recapture that irritatingly flightly muse of mine.)
If there was one good thing Ichigo could say about the self-proclaimed 'humble shop keeper', Kisuke Urahara, it was that he was at least a very good listener. He didn't interrupt as Hisagi explained the situation, content to make lazy orbits of his store while murmuring in a politely interested fashion every time something particularly critical came up.
And what a shop it was. Ichigo had never seen such a profusion of different products all under one roof before, crammed onto dozens of makeshift shelving units without any apparent sense of organization or unified purpose. Brilliantly colored pieces of what he could only assume were candy sat side by side with fancy electronics and eccentric articles of clothing, all arrayed according to the whim of a madman in a floor plan that was positively insane. It was only one room, and not a very big one at that, yet the teenager was quite certain it was possible to get lost in here if you weren't being exceptionally careful.
Urahara seemed to have no trouble with it, however, a fact that spoke of what could only be a deep case of mental instability. He flitted from shelf to shelf in rapid succession, tossing handfuls of various items into an old fashioned wire basket according to whatever strange purpose he had in mind, pausing only to compare two different products against each other with a ferocious scrutiny that had Ichigo instinctively tensing up, even from the other side of the store. Somehow, even though he knew that evaluating gaze was not being directed at him, the thought that he might be found wanting was a strangely horrifying proposition.
"...so I was wondering if you wouldn't mind taking him on as a student or something." Hisagi finished, somehow having managed to keep his voice steady and calm even as the man he was addressing made a great show out of carefully comparing two hideously garish ties against each other.
"Hmm. An interesting request, I must say. It's been a while since I had a student." Urahara murmured, before discarding both ties as clearly inferior and turning round to look at them. His gaze was suddenly razor sharp and piercing, belying his previous attitude of casual eccentricity in a way that made Ichigo feel immediately foolish for even believing in it for so much as a second. "Tell me, Kurosaki-san, what is it you would like me to teach you?"
"How to protect my family." Ichigo replied, the words taking form before he'd even had an instant to properly consider them. There was something about Urahara's manner that had demanded an immediate response, something that forbade the wasting of even a millisecond on time with trivial things like justifications or meaningless questions. For the first time, Ichigo wondered just what rank the shopkeeper had held in the strange military organization of the Soul Reapers prior to his exile, and could only conclude that it had evidently been rather high.
"Oh? Just your family, Kurosaki-san? What about those who need help, but share the misfortune of not being directly related to you by blood?" There was no condemnation in those words, no harsh rebuke for his limited answer, yet Ichigo couldn't help but flinch anyway.
"Protecting them is my job, Urahara-san." Hisagi interjected, voice quiet and unyielding. "Don't go trying to force him into taking on a burden like that against his will. If he wants to do more, that's fine, but it's not a choice that he should be guilted into making."
For a long moment the air practically crackled with tension, exile and lieutenant staring each other down with grim looks and silent threats. Then Urahara drew a tacky paper fan from somewhere within his green robes and waved it back and forth in front of his face, and suddenly the tension was gone as though it were never there in the first place.
"Of course, of course. The customer is always right, as they say." Urahara chuckled, his smile mostly hidden behind the thin paper wings of the fan. "Speaking of which, how do you intend on paying for these little tuition services, Hisagi-san? Training like this requires some rather rare and expensive resources, and I don't think Academy sponsorships apply out here."
Hisagi shrugged and leant back, supporting himself against the thin walls of the shop. The different posture allowed the light to play across his face, emphasizing the deep scars that ran down over his eye and cheek, and for a brief moment Ichigo couldn't help but wonder if he was really sure about what he was getting himself into. A brief flash of memory passed through his mind in an instant, of blood and rain and a young boy's cries, and the doubt vanished once more. No one else would suffer and die because of him, no matter what it might cost him.
"I have my wages," Hisagi said, either not noticing Ichigo's momentary flash of doubt or choosing to let it go unremarked, "but rumor has it you accept favors as well. Your choice."
Urahara mulled over the choice for a long moment, clearly weighing up the options, before his glance strayed to the strange wooden badge adorning the Lieutenant's upper arm. "Very well, favors it is then. For now, let's start with not mentioning that you know where to find me to anyone in the Seireitei. Oh, and if a black kitty-cat ever asks you for directions, be a gentleman and oblige."
Ichigo looked at the tattooed man waiting besides him, hoping that last request might actually make some degree of sense to an individual with a keener insight into the afterlife, and was somewhat dismayed to see that Hisagi was clearly as baffled as he was. Still, the Lieutenant didn't let that slow him down, simply nodding in silent consent after a few moments careful consideration.
"Wonderful. Very well, Kurosaki-san, I shall expect to see you here tomorrow after your school closes for the first lesson."
And just like that, Ichigo Kurosaki began his new life as a substitute Soul Reaper.
In many ways, it was remarkable just how little impact that decision had on his day to day routine. Ichigo wasn't entirely sure what it was he had expected would happen after he agreed to the terms proposed in that strange little shop, but if nothing else he had assumed it would entail at least a few radical changes to his lifestyle. Dropping out of school for a little while, perhaps, or needing to adopt a regular training regimen that would doubtlessly draw all kinds of strange comments from his friends and classmates.
But no, in the end, he might as well have simply signed up for a new after school club for all the difference it made. He still lived with his family, still attended Karkura secondary school, still hung out with his friends. All that changed was that each day, when everyone else headed home or diverted to the nearest cafe or park, he paid a visit to the Urahara Shoten and began his training. In some ways he suspected that the eccentric shopkeeper was going out of his way to make the whole process convenient for him, which was more than a little annoying. He'd happily sacrifice a bit of convenience now in exchange for having the ability to protect those around him when it really mattered.
Still, no matter how bizarrely normal his life remained, he couldn't complain about the substance of the lessons themselves. Kisuke Urahara was a damn fine teacher, one of the first Ichigo had ever had who didn't write off the brash looking punk in front of him as a useless idiot and actually focused on teaching him what he wanted to know.
They'd started simple, with meditation techniques aimed at allowing Ichigo to adopt the state of mind necessary to 'view the spirit world all around them, and interact with its inhabitants'. He'd been more than a little reluctant, for obvious reasons - no matter how professional and serious Urahara tried to sound when he was explaining it, it was still something he'd expect to find on the back of a cult marketing pamphlet - but the blond man had quickly quashed all sense of doubt with a simple demonstration.
One moment, they'd been standing opposite each other in one of the Shoten's smaller storage rooms, the next Ichigo had been on the floor struggling to breathe under what felt like several tons of suddenly solidified air. He'd stayed there for five minutes, held just about on the verge of unconsciousness from an utter lack of oxygen, while his new sensei explained to him in no uncertain terms just why he needed to learn such things. If he didn't, then even the weakest enemy that might come after him or his family would simply be able to crush him into the ground with little more than a thought, and no amount of skill with a blade or strength in his arms would change that.
Faced with such a stark ultimatum, there had been little Ichigo could do other than swallow his pride, adopt the meditation stance, and do his best to look at the world around him without actually opening his eyes. To his overwhelming shock, it had actually worked, at least to a degree. He'd been able, just for an instant, to see a strange kind of haze around him, a multicolored blur that shifted and twisted in odd ways as people moved from place to place, leaving shimmering ribbons of disturbed space in their wake.
It was only when he'd tried explaining what he saw to Urahara that he actually had a name to put to it - reiatsu, spirit energy, the stuff from which all living souls were apparently made. It was like using eyes he'd never even known he had, learning to see a whole new part of the world that he'd never knew existed. Now, when Urahara repeated his little crushing trick, Ichigo could finally see just how he was doing it - see the overwhelming tide of pale green energy that seemed to burst out from within the shopkeeper's body and flatten him to the ground under its sheer mass. It was cold and incisive, and yet somehow also strangely jubilant and playful, a medley of strange sensations that he struggled to make sense of even as it crushed him into the ground. It was like feeling the surface texture of a boulder that had just come to rest on your shoulders.
He focused on it, trying to ignore the pain and fatigue that came with the sensation of being slowly crushed to death, attempting to force it away from his body with sheer willpower. For a long, agonizing moment nothing seemed to be happening, and then all of a sudden the pressure began to lift. He could feel something on the very edge of his perception, a blue-white glow that slowly gathered in intensity as he focused all his willpower on forcing the crushing weight of Urahara's spirit force away from his own body. It burned like fire, surrounding him in a coruscating shell of pale energy, and bit by bit he felt himself go stronger as it seeped into his aching limbs.
Then the weight was gone as Urahara stepped back, leaving Ichigo standing there in the middle of what felt like his own personal bonfire of reiatsu. The shopkeeper fluttered the tacky fan in front of his face once more.
"Excellent, Kurosaki-san. Gaining an awareness of one's own spiritual pressure is the first, and perhaps the hardest step on the road towards controlling it. Which, of course, comes next."
Ichigo groaned at the eager look on his teacher's face.
Close to two weeks had passed since that day when Ichigo met Hisagi once again. He'd seen the scarred Soul Reaper around town from time to time, presumably in the middle of conducting his duties, but it had always been fleeting glances at a distance, over before words could be exchanged.
This time, he came across the Lieutenant on his way home from school, a few minutes after separating from his friends and barely a hundred meters or so from his house. Hisagi was perched on top of a telegraph pole, standing there as though it was the most normal thing in the world, staring off to the east as though searching for something.
"Yo, Hisagi!" he called up, and had to suppress a grin as the normally composed Soul Reaper jumped in shock and nearly fell off his perch. Feeling gracious, he pretended not to have seen anything as the other man composed himself and turned to answer.
"Ichigo? I didn't feel you approach... guess the training is paying off, then." Hisagi replied, before jumping down off the top of the pole without even a moment's hesitation. He touched down gently as a feather, with a sort of controlled grace that Ichgio couldn't help but suspect was some kind of showing off. "What are you doing here?"
"I live here." Ichigo explained, realizing after a few moments that he'd never actually told Hisagi that. Or, for that matter, anything else save name and the existence of an incredibly irritating father. "What are you doing here?"
Hisagi looked gravely at him for a few moments, then jerked his head down the road in the direction he'd been watching so intently. Frowning, Ichigo looked that way, but he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. Then, realising what the Soul Reaper had to be referring to, he fell back on the techniques that Urahara had been drilling into his head for the past few weeks, and tried sensing anything... spiritual. He still felt vaguely stupid whenever he did that, and grimly suspected that he always would, but right now it didn't matter. He could feel what Hisagi was so interested in, almost immediately.
It felt, for lack of any better description, like a stain on the spirit world. An ugly blemish that spoke of ill-care and neglect, radiating an awful sense of twisted hunger that had Ichigo's own gut twitching in sympathy. But more than that was a sense of almost... malevolent sentience about it, a cruelty quite out of place in anything of this world. With a gasp, Ichigo severed his perception and took a step back, realising only a second or two later that he had instictively dropped back into a defensive position. With an effort of will, he relaxed, and met Hisagi's grim stare with one of his own. The Lieutenant nodded sombrely.
"That's a Hollow, isn't it?" Ichigo asked quietly.
"Yeah, it is. I've been tracking it... I'd say it's about three blocks away from here. If you're willing, I think it's about time you saw what it is you'll be defending your family against."
Without hesitation, Ichigo nodded in agreement. The Soul Reaper stepped forwards and took him by the arm, and then everything... blurred...