Author's Notes:
Well, that took significantly longer than it should have. . . five months. Huh. I suppose you can blame both some serious real life issues as well as the fact that this chapter hasn't been too interesting to write for that.
. . .Whiiiich is also the reason why I personally am not exactly 100% satisfied with the end result- but I still hope that it came out well enough. That, and that next chapter does not end up taking as long as this to complete. . .


His mood significantly worse than the last time he was here, Ichigo approached the captain's office at the Tenth Division barracks once more- and this time, Tatsuki, Orihime and Uryu were following him. Even now, Ichigo had no idea why his father had so insisted on having them around for him finally telling his story, but whatever the reason, Isshin was not to be convinced of any compromise, which in turn had left Ichigo with some awkward explaining to do to the others.

Looking back, Ichigo wasn't even entirely certain any more why he had kept the fact that Isshin was his father from them, since it technically wasn't even that big of a deal. Perhaps it was because he himself still had not gotten used to the thought, perhaps it was because it was just something personal to him- Ichigo couldn't tell.

When he had told the others that the captain of Squad Ten was in fact his father, the reactions he got were about what he had expected: Orihime was just surprised, Uryu was surprised but mostly indifferent, and Tatsuki was just outright angry that Ichigo hadn't told her sooner, though she understood why he had done so. And even though there was nothing unexpected about it... somehow, Ichigo still could not help but to think that he would have rather kept it to himself.

But had Ichigo thought that explaining matters to his friends was already hard enough, he soon realized that the harder part was easily getting them to come along. While Orihime agreed rather quickly, Tatsuki, being still a bit sore about being left out of the loop, took more than just a little convincing and apologizing to make her give in. Uryu, for his part, simply did not see the point in him coming along, seeming quite content with simply staying behind. Ichigo was completely unable to change his mind until Orihime unexpectedly helped him out, ultimately convincing him.

Silently praying that this wouldn't get too long or too annoying for him, Ichigo knocked at the door to his father's office.

This time, he didn't even have to wait until he was told to come in: The moment he stopped knocking, the door already slid open, revealing an eager-looking Isshin behind it.

"Come in, come in!" His father said, quickly grabbed Ichigo by the arm and dragging him into the room. Each of them looking rather flabbergasted, the others reluctantly followed him.

"Well then, lemme take a look at you lot!" Isshin exclaimed once all four of them were inside the office, letting his gaze wander across all of them. "So you're all Ichigo's friends, huh? Gotta admit, I wouldn't have thought that he'd have this many, what with this constant frown of his and all..."

Quickly turning his head to the side so that nobody could see, Ichigo made a face. Things like this were, as he realized now, a big part of the reason why he had kept Isshin being his father to himself.

"Uhh, excuse me... taichou?" Tatsuki asked, regaining her speech before the others.

He waved his hand dismissively. "Just call me Isshin!"

"Uh, sure." Tatsuki continued, her tone making it clear that she was within the early stages of being annoyed. "So, Isshin-san, why exactly do we need to be here? Shouldn't you be talking about personal things with Ichigo alone?"

"Oh no, believe me, it is better this way." Isshin said, shaking his head. "I'll admit, I've only really known Ichigo for a few weeks now, but I am already pretty sure that this is the sort of thing that he would keep for himself and brood about until everybody knows that something is wrong with him. No, I'm not having any of that."

"Honestly, if you keep going like that, I think I'd even prefer not knowing anything..." Ichigo growled under his breath.

"And besides", his father kept talking, ignoring Ichigo, "unless I'm entirely mistaken, this also concerns you, Quincy boy."

Uryu gave him a bewildered stare. "What are you even talking about?"

Isshin chuckled quietly. "I'll be getting to that all now... I suggest you four sit down, because this will take a while- this story is gonna take a while."


oOo


"...And it is declared that Shiba Isshin, member of the Shiba household and captain of the Tenth Division, is henceforth sentenced to exile into the world of the living. He shall be stripped of his rank as a shinigami, his zanpakutou removed and his power limited. In light of his years of service to the Gotei, no further action will be taken- but this sentence is irrevocable."

Isshin hung his head, gritting his teeth. The air in the court room was heavy; so many faces of the elderly sages of the central Forty-Six looking down on him, judging him. Oppressive would have been too mild a word to describe the atmosphere.

Yet for all this, he could not force himself to feel any guilt. He had killed a man; he had ended a life permanently, yet nothing could change his mind to make him think he had done wrong. The man in question, an obnoxious nobleman named Hideaki Katsujina, had been a tragic case- a perceived slight turning into a grudge turning into a one-sided rivalry, turning into harassment- and eventually, he'd crossed a limit, Isshin had lunged and ended his life. The problem was that though the Hideaki family was small, it was allied closely to the Shihoin family. Isshin was quite aware, though he hadn't thought of it very much in his life, that he was one of the most privileged people in the afterlife- just wearing the robes of a shinigami was privilege; it put you above a majority of the souls in the afterlife. Having a seat as an officer was privilege further- better wages, better, less gruelling duties, better the further up the ladder you got. Being a captain, the most privileged position for any shinigami- a respected leader, a hero to Gotei, an idol leading a life seasoned by hard work and ease both. And to be a noble clan leader on top of that was almost the ultimate privilege, belonging to the elite of society, standing above the rest in station and wealth. Not something he was very comfortable with, but it was fact.

But privilege only stretched so far. A nobleman or a captain, let alone a combination of the two, could literally get away with murder- justice was not equal for all, however much you'd like to think it was, because captains are the greatest resource the Gotei Thirteen has available. But when something happened to somebody equally privileged, as it had with him, then not even station and status could save you. Isshin had, through some very specific circumstances, killed an awful man with powerful allies, and he'd have to pay for it. He wasn't concerned so much for himself as he was for his family; this could be disastrous for them.

Isshin was snapped out of his brooding, as one of the sages said,

"Have you got anything to add, criminal?"

"Well," Isshin said, taking a deep breath, "since I ain't likely to ever get this opportunity again, I might as well express my feelings for this court." He spat at the floor. "You can all go fuck yourselves, you senile, rotten, ignorant geezers."

It didn't make him feel better, but it was, in retrospect, one of those things you just had to say. He'd never liked this system much, and there wasn't anything more representative of the system than these wretched old men and women.

"Guards, escort the prisoner out to enact the punishment." The sage said from his seat, ignoring Isshin's little outburst. "This case is officially closed. Henceforth, Shiba Isshin is no longer one of our kind."

At once, two of the guards that were quietly standing in the corners of the room came up to him, one at each side, chained his arms together, and let him out of the room, away from the old men that already had lost all interest in him. The bored looks on some of their faces were almost enough for Isshin to shout yet another insult after them, but he ultimately decided against it- there was nothing that that would accomplish, especially not after they had already ignored his previous outburst. Instead, he simply let the guards, large and silent men, take him out of the room.

Out in the hallway, a small crowd of people already awaited them: Members of both the Shiba and Hideaki clans, as well some of their respective allies, all divided into two clearly opposite groups. The atmosphere out here was as tense as it had been oppressive in the court room.

As the crowd noticed Isshin and his unwanted companions, all eyes immediately turned towards them, reactions clearly divided between the two groups. Shock for the Shiba, glee for the Hideaki.

Without anyone speaking a word, the guards led Isshin through the crowd. Isshin himself, meanwhile, tried his best to maintain a calm expression. If he was already to be punished, then he sure as hell would not give these Hideaki people the satisfaction of seeing him broken.

"So this is it, ya big idiot?" A voice suddenly tore through the silence in the hallway- Kukaku, his cousin, head of the Shiba clan, whom they had just passed by. The guards, apparently having at least some sort of compassion (or something along those lines) stopped dead in their tracks and let Isshin turn around towards her. The way Kukaku stood there, staring him down angrily, her brother Ganju behind her with his gaze lowered, Isshin didn't find it hard to imagine that the only thing holding her back from punching him were the guards... but he also knew her long enough to know that they and all the other people were holding her back from being a great deal more emotional.

"Well, this is the end, I'm afraid..." Isshin said, forcing himself into a weak smile. "But the moment has been prepared for, right?"

"Don't try to act cool now, ya moron!" Kukaku snapped back immediately. "Just cut the crap and tell us what sort of punishment you've gotten yourself now!"

Isshin sighed. Of course, there was no point in acting unnecessarily tough now... at the current point, the clan's reputation could hardly be damaged any further, and they would find out, anyway. "Exile- which these two guys are taking me to right now."

As if on cue, the two guards had seemingly decided that the conversation should be over now, as they began marching on without a single word said.

Kukaku however seemed not to intent on being shut up just like that, and followed them. "All right, now listen here ya goddamn moron." She said, matching the walking speed of Isshin and his guards. "We will try to get you back as soon as we can, no matter what these Centralist geezers say- so you better make sure that you don't get yourself killed somehow during your exile, got that?"

Isshin said nothing in response. Instead, he just looked back, as Kukaku stopped following them, and stared after him, staying behind just like everything else that had defined his life until now.


oOo


Isshin took a look around him. So this was his exile... some sort of graveyard in the world of the living. If he didn't know that the old bastards of the Central Forty-Six had as much of a sense of humour as a brick wall, he almost would've thought that this was some sort of joke on their part- after all, what better place would there be to dump a shinigami than a graveyard?

Shaking his head, Isshin rid himself of the thought. This was the past now. The Gotei and Soul Society didn't concern him any more- it was time that he focussed on this involuntary new home of his. The world of the living... while Isshin had, like most other shinigami, been out on a mission in it before, his last trip to it had been many, many years ago. The duties of a captain kept him perfectly occupied at Soul Society. There were so many things, so many impressions of everything around him... the most noteworthy of which was the fact that it was late night, and the rain was pouring down.

Letting out an annoyed groan, Isshin walked over to what seemed to be the staircase leading up to this graveyard, and sat down. So there he was, stranded in the world of the living, all alone, and soaking wet. Whatever else his exile had prepared for him, it was already starting of just great.

Uncertain on what else he could really do, Isshin just stayed where he was, sitting on the staircase and thought about it all. Being honest with himself, he didn't even exactly know what exactly he felt about everything. Sure, he was still pissed as all hell that he had been exiled, and he was sad that he had to leave his family, and everything he knew behind... but at the same time, he also felt somehow curious about what was ahead of him. Surely, it couldn't be more stressful and exhausting than the life of a man who was both a captain of the Gotei Thirteen and a member of a noble clan, with all the duties, tasks and obligations that came with it.

Taking a deep breath, Isshin stood up and began climbing down the stairs, figuring that there was no use in just sitting around there- only to immediately stop, as he heard the noise of somebody climbing up the stairs.

Standing perfectly still, Isshin stared ahead into the dark night and the rain- seeing just as much as what was to be expected, namely, little more than nothing. Before long however, the silhouette of a person came into view, followed by something which sounded distinctively like somebody attempting to whistle a song that was not suited for whistling... which in turn was finally followed by the person it all originated from.

"Aha, I knew there was something unusual going on here!" The man said once he was finally standing right in front of Isshin.

Isshin gave the guy a wary look. The person standing in front of him was a tall, blonde-haired man in green robes carrying with him an odd-looking cane, wearing a hat with green and white stripes. The rain added to this the effect that he looked a bit like a jellyfish, one that had found a victim that it would never let go willingly. "Who are you?"

"Aah, I could be asking you the same thing, you know?" The man said, speaking in a tone that made it sound like this was all just some big joke to him. "It doesn't happen too often that a shinigami of your power is, unless I am mistaken, exiled into the world of the living... but very well, for the sake of getting this conversation somewhere, I'll be polite here and give you my name: I am Urahara Kisuke the-"

"No, I know your name." Isshin spat, his eyes growing wide. "The traitor- the mad scientist, the man charged with heresy and treason because he turned good, decent captains and vice-captains into hollows. Everyone's heard that tale." Of course he had heard the name before- the name was common knowledge among the higher ranks of the Gotei. Although Isshin himself had been in a far lower rank back when the events had taken place, he still had heard a great deal of things about everything that had transpired.

"I personally would have preferred the title of 'former captain of Squad Twelve and now humble shopkeeper', but I suppose there is no point in denying it." Urahara responded, seeming not in the slightest unsettled by Isshin's outcry.

"What do you want from me?" Isshin growled. From what he knew, Urahara Kisuke had fled, gone into exile before any sort of sentence could be passed on him, which most likely meant that he still had access to his powers as a shinigami... if he had to fight him, he would be at a severe disadvantage, if not outright screwed.

"For starters, your name wouldn't be too bad. It is rather impolite to not give your own name after I already gave you mine." Urahara said, still keeping up the same friendly smile that he had been using all the time.

"…Isshin." Isshin grumbled.

"Shiba Isshin?" Urahara said, his jovial tone sounding slightly more interested. "My, my- a fellow ex-captain, then."

"I'm nothing like you." Isshin growled.

"As you no doubt are well aware of at this point- you should, at least- the Gotei court system is neither fair nor just." Urahara stated calmly. "It seems to me we're caught in the same boat- you may need some help, being stranded in the world of the living like this."

"I'll find my own way, thank you." Isshin grunted. He was stranded, alone, and pretty weak- but he wasn't about to just blindly trust anybody, much less a traitor. Warily, he prepared himself- just in case he'd have a fight on his hands.

But the strange traitor only smiled, and took a step back.

"All right then." He said, turning around. "I'm sure we'll run into each other again soon, Shiba-san."

"What, just like that?"

Urahara shot him a look. "Yes, just like that. Or are you disappointed that I haven't got a moustache, cape, and a snide laugh, or a tendency for kicking puppies?" He chuckled.

"…whatever." Isshin grumbled.

"Good bye, Shiba-san. We'll meet again soon, I'm sure." The man said, walking away, Isshin watching him. He seemed nothing like the kind of monster he'd been told he was- but appearances, of course, often were misleading. Shrugging, he stood up. He missed home; he missed his house and family and friends. He missed his strength, his captain's robe… it hurt, he could admit to himself in this loneliness, it hurt to lose all you'd built your life around.

But hurt was one thing, and letting it hold you down was another. Isshin was pragmatic enough to see he had to adapt. This was a new life- not one he'd like much, it seemed, but there was nothing to be done. So, what to do? Step one would be finding a place to stay, even temporary. Not that he'd really need shelter from the elements- but a focal point, a home, would be a good way to start feeling not so lost. Heading out into the city, Isshin begun his search.


oOo


The next day, overlooking Karakura from the roof of his shop, Urahara Kisuke mused to himself. An ex-captain, no doubt soured to the Soul Society? He'd be lost, ignorant of this world- he'd need some kind of help. And he'd make a fine ally in the long run. Yes, if he would only be patient…

Then he sensed it, what he'd come for. Shiba Isshin's reiatsu, strong and proud- and like sharks smelling blood in the waters, one hollow after another emerging from Hueco Mundo to hunt for the tastiest source of spiritual energy there was. Well, better get to work…


Quincy duties and responsibilities aside, life was fairly simple for Kurosaki Masaki. It was a good day- the sun was shining, and after this one short trip to the grocery store, she'd cook a nice meal- maybe she'd try her hand at sushi? Summer was just about to set in, and all in all it was the kind of day that'd make you glad to be alive.

Which was why this mundane yet cheerful chore was slightly dampened when, by the vegetable section, she found herself face to face with a blond man in a bucket hat and a green coat. She knew who he was- there were all kinds of rumours going on; a revolutionary escaped from the Soul Society, an ex-shinigami turncoat, a mad radical, a lazy bum of no real consequence- all she knew was that her aunt seemed to regard him with contempt, but not so much contempt she wouldn't take his help on occasion. For a fee, of course.

"Good day, Kurosaki-san!" He said cheerfully.

"…good day." She said suspiciously. Though friendly he looked, something about him always made her feel like he might as well wear 'ulterior motives' as a neon sign over his head.

"Excellent day to get some vegetables, I say." He said, fiddling with a tomato. "Wouldn't you say so?"

"…yes. If you'll excuse me-"

"And there's always cheese- can't forget cheese." He continued.

"Do you have something to say, or are you just here to muse about foodstuffs?" She asked bluntly.

"Oh, nothing in particular." He said whimsically. "Just doing some shopping, like yourself. We all have to eat. I wonder, though…"

"What?"

"I heard this interesting rumour."

She should just have ignored him, really, but despite herself Masaki replied,

"What?"

"Word is there's a shinigami in Karakura- one recently banished. Powerless."

"If you're wondering if we'd go after him, then I can assure you we will not- unless he goes out of his way to be a problem."

"Oh, that's not it at all. Can't you sense it?"

"Sense what?" Masaki said irritably- but she let her senses roam a little, feel for anything there might be to feel.

"Any second now…" Urahara said, with a slight smile.

And there it was. The quickly disappearing trace of a hollow, speeding in one direction.

"You have a serious problem, Kurosaki Masaki-san." The man said.

"And that would be?"

"You are a good person." He said casually. "It's like a curse, really."

"…how is that a problem?"

"Because… being a good person, you have to ask yourself: if a number of hollows are going after one man, weakened and likely going to die, could you bring yourself to idly stand by, knowing that you might make the difference between life and death?"

He adjusted his hat, and walked past her. "I could be wrong, of course. But I rarely am."

Masaki shot him a sour look. So much for a peaceful day.


oOo


Isshin sneezed. He was leaning against the wall of a dark, narrow alleyway, observing the activity on the street nearby, trying to make a sense of it all. Even though the rain had already stopped a few hours ago, he still was still soaking wet, as well as cold- but at the moment, this didn't bother him nearly as much as it should have. What instead kept him was... well, just about everything around him.

It had been several years, if not decades, since he had last been in the world of the living... and things certainly seemed to have changed quite a bit in the meantime. Even though the town that he was in by no means seemed to be a big one, it still was as full of activity as the Seireitei, if not even more. Even the buildings themselves, while still rather different in their style, would not have looked too out-of-place in the Seireitei in regards to their size.

Too confused with the city itself, Isshin's search for a place to stay had ended up being a great deal less successful than he had hoped, with most of his time being spend of exploring this weird new place. By now, he was beginning to understand what Urahara had meant when he had said that he might need help... but right now, accepting that man's help was not exactly an important point on Isshin's to-do list.

No, he'd have to deal with this by himself. It had always been clear to him that banishment wouldn't exactly be a simple thing to deal with, and he definitely wasn't desperate enough yet to ask for the help of a shady-

Interrupting his thoughts, Isshin started to frown. Of course, just as he was already having way more than enough on his mind to deal with, another problem showed up: Namely, a Hollow of considerable power approaching him.

Glad that he was at least still able to do this much, Isshin stepped away from the wall, and slipped into a shunpo to get up on the roof on the nearest building. Running away would be pointless, and if he had to fight, he would much rather do so in a relatively open space, which the rooftops easily provided.

Once he was up on the building, Isshin tensed. The hollow could be here any moment, and he knew better than to underestimate the creature in his current state. His power was severely limited, he didn't have his Zanpakutou, and to top it all off, the creature seemed to be unusually strong.

His mind racing, Isshin started to think about how he should face the beast- only to be rather rudely interrupted by the Hollow suddenly appearing in front of him. It was a bipedal, thin creature, at least twice his size, and with a mask that gave it an odd resemblance to an oversized frog... and more importantly, it seemed to be a firm believer in the philosophy of not toying with or talking to your food, as it didn't waste a moment before attempting to punch Isshin.

Isshin, though lacking in power, was still a soldier. Quickly, he dodged under the punch, sprung forward and, summoning what little strength he had, slammed a fist into the hollow's gut. It wasn't very effective- but the beast grunted, and took a step back. In the blink of an eye, Isshin considered his options. Could he beat it? The odds would be stacked against him, probably so badly it'd look like a joke. Could he run away? No chance- as he was now, the best he could muster was a slow shunpo, and not one he could keep up for very long. Could he hope for rescue? Doubtful- who was there, really? So it was fight and probably die, or run, and die with certainty, with his back turned to the enemy like a coward.

Well, so be it then. Shouting the loudest battle cry he could muster, he launched into a series of punches and kicks, using his combat training to maximize his weak blows. He was a Shiba, traitor or not, and he'd damn well die like one- like a man, facing his enemy, fearless and defiant. He'd likely end up hollow chow anyhow, but hey, you had to make the best out of a bad situation.

Even if it meant dying.


Masaki sailed through the air, silently cursing- in a very ladylike manner- the misfortune of being a Good Person. It would be so easy to just let him die. People died all the time. And shinigami were soldiers, too- they knew the risks of the life you led fighting hollows, just like quincies. It would be just another casualty, of the kind of people they all hated anyway.

Except, when it came down to it, it was people her aunt hated, not Masaki. And that infuriating blond stranger was right- she had no business thinking of herself as a decent person if she let somebody die. A dozen arguments raced through her head- if you start doing good, where do you stop? Why is it your responsibility? Why be kind to an enemy who may well stab you in the back?- but it was all insignificant. If you could help, there was no reason you shouldn't, and one good deed done was always better than none.

She felt the energy signatures get closer, as she gracefully- she hoped- leapt from one rooftop to another, sailing on her reishi. She had her quincy cross out, hanging from her wrist. Where were they? She could feel them- the signature of what she would have normally assumed was a soul, one with plenty of power, and the unmistakeable signature of a hollow- resentment, hunger, brutality, all in one ugly clump of miasma. She stopped for just a moment, trying to pinpoint it exactly- it was close by, but where exactly? She closed her eyes, and concentrated, and saw the flow of reishi threads, the flow that was everywhere all the time, in smaller or larger quantities. They were big here, and they led- they led a hundred meters or so to the east. She opened her eyes, and looked. That big building over there, the one with the large, shining windows… at the top, there it was. Quickly, Masaki took off, leaping higher and faster.

As she approached the top of the building, she let her bow form. The roof was mostly flat, with a few small structures on it, and she got a good view. A raggedy, worn man in the typical shinigami robes, with blood seeping from several places- quite badly, by the look of it- just barely hanging on, ducking and rolling, and avoiding the hollow's attacks. The hollow was nothing special- above the lowest order of hollow, probably, but not very strong all things considered. Quickly, she landed on the rooftop.


Isshin was breathing heavily. These odds were very not good, weren't they? What an odd life- to come this far, only to have it end against a petty hollow after being disgraced… he was wounded, quite badly too- there was a huge gash on his chest, at least one rib was probably broken, and he was bleeding from several smaller injuries. This was the end, wasn't it? A swipe of the hollow's paw caught him, and he tumbled over, knocked down.

"Come and get me, then!" He said, spitting at the creature, before slipping into oblivion.

And then Shiba Isshin woke up. The first thing he noticed was pain; lots and lots of pain, which let him deduce that he probably wasn't dead, because being dead didn't hurt this much. He groaned, and opened his eyes.

What he saw, after a few seconds of blinking to adjust to the light, was the perfectly angelic, albeit a bit young, visage of a woman.

"Would ya look at that," he grunted, significantly weaker than he would have liked. "If I didn't know any better, I'd almost think that I died and went to heaven- wouldn't seem all that unlikely with this kinda greeting."

The woman's expression, which had previously been merely cautious, changed into a scowl. "Of course, of all the shinigami that I could rescue, I just had to come across one that thinks he's Casanova..."

Isshin said nothing in response, owed to both the fact that his pain was still taking up most of his attention, and him having no idea as to what he could even say. So, instead of giving a response of any kind, he instead decided to slowly sit up, under the heavy protest of his aching body. It did not go well, and he fell on his back again.

"You are lucky that I arrived when I did, shinigami. Any later, and you would have already been that hollow's meal." The young woman continued, keeping a neutral, but slightly cold tone.

"If I had really been lucky, you would've shown up before that hollow decided to make me its punching bag." He mumbled, responding without actually thinking much about he was saying. At the same time however, the wheels in his head began to turn. Unless the beating he received from the hollow messed up his hearing and other senses, the woman in front of him had saved him- destroyed the hollow. While it wasn't impossible, it was rather unlikely that she was a shinigami herself... which didn't really leave all that many options as to how she could have done it.

"So, this might not be the best time to ask this..." Isshin began before his saviour had the chance to say anything to what he said before "...but, you wouldn't happen to be a Quincy, by chance?"

This time, it was the woman who said nothing in response- instead, she gave Isshin a short, calculating look before holding out her right hand... in which she held a small iron cross attached to a chain.

"Well, that's a first... what gives me the honour of having my life saved by a Quincy, despite being a shinigami?" Isshin asked, his pain and fatigue suddenly feeling a lot less important to him.

"You have no zanpakutou with you and were about to be killed. As far as I am concerned, you have done nothing to deserve death- is that good enough for you?"

"Well, I won't protest being rescued." Isshin said cheerfully- as cheerfully as he could through the pain. He tried sitting himself up again, and immediately regretted his decision, falling back in even more pain.

"Keep still." she said, irritated. "You're pretty beat up- you don't happen to have any bandages, do you?"

"See, I knew I shouldn't have left those in my night stand." Isshin said, managing a not-very-convincing grin.

"You really are an idiot, joking at a time like this…" She muttered.

"You'd get along great with my family- they say that too. I am Shiba Isshin, by the way. Nice to meet ya."

"Kurosaki Masaki." She said. "Now keep still- I am going to try something."

"Oh, you don't need to fuss." Isshin mumbled. "We shinigami are pretty hardy. It always looks worse than it is- a human like you would die from this, but not me."

"I'm sorry, do you want me to leave you bleeding and in pain? Because I could do that."

"Um, no." Isshin said sheepishly. "Go ahead. You're a doctor, right?"

"Not really." Masaki said, putting her hands over Isshin, and he felt a tingle as her energy reached into his. "But I do know a few things about manipulating spiritual energy."

Isshin felt a stronger and stronger sensation as she worked, almost burning- but the pain slowly lessened, and the puddle of blood around him stopped growing.

"That's not bad." He said, sounding surprised. "What was that- some kind of quincy voodoo?"

"I just reversed the polarity of the reishi flow." She said, sounding annoyed. "It slows the rate at which spirit particles move. It stops the blood from leaking out, and it dulls the nerve endings that feel the most pain."

"Huh?" Isshin said, sounding as if he'd been asked to understand quantum physics.

"Look, it's just a lot of… wibbly, wobbly, spiritually-ish… stuff that my aunt taught me. I'm sorry, but it's all I can do."

"That's plenty." Isshin said, carefully sitting up at last. "Thanks!"

"…whatever." She mumbled. "Anyways, bye now. Don't get yourself killed."

"Wait-" Isshin started, but Masaki had already dashed away. Slowly, he stood up. Well, that was… an unexpected turn of events, and far less awful than it could have been. He winced, as his injuries made themselves remembered- he was still hurt, still in pain, and still exposed. If one hollow could do this to him, then in this state, imagine what another one could… slowly, he made his way down the building. There was only one place to go at the moment- even if it had to be temporary.


As if on cue- it probably was, smug bastard- the arch-traitor and enemy of the state, Urahara Kisuke, was waiting for him just outside the building.

"Feeling all right there, friend?" He said cheerfully.

"Fuck you." Isshin murmured.

"Not very, I see." The man said, as obnoxiously cheerful as ever. "If only you had some place to go with those injuries. That quincy lady was very gracious, but the job is far from done."

"Get to the point." Isshin growled.

"It seems to me you could benefit from having a place to stay- shelter, medical aid, food, maybe even some purpose…"

"And what's in it for you?"

"Pragmatic!" Urahara exclaimed. "I like it. Yes, something for something- nothing too draconian, only a few favours here and there. My shop could use a resourceful attendant for a few years."

Isshin grumbled. "Deal, I guess. Where are you at?"

"Right this way." Urahara said, slowly beginning to walk down the street. "We have a lot to talk about, you and I."


oOo


Badly and inaccurately whistling a song that he had heard on the radio recently, Isshin walked through the streets of Karakura Town, a package under his arm. Almost three months had passed since he had first found himself banished in the world of the living, and while his general situation (obviously) was nowhere near as good as it had been back in Soul Society, it was already a vast improvement over the first cold and rainy night that he had spent in this town.

Of this improvement, however, barely anything was Isshin's own work; almost everything that he had done or accomplished over the past few months was ultimately somehow related to Urahara Kisuke. While the "shopkeeper" remained as shady as he was in the night that Isshin first met him, he still held true to his word, and helped Isshin with all the problems that life in this unfamiliar environment brought with it. Urahara had explained to him how to act in this world, what to look out for, how to keep attention off him (a lesson that to this day Isshin found hard to believe that Urahara of all people taught him properly), and, most importantly, gave him a job in his shop. Even though Isshin's exact tasks in this job basically boiled down to "whatever the hell Urahara told him to do", he did not complain- as long as he earned some money and had a place to stay, it was acceptable.

As Isshin got to know Urahara, the banished traitor somehow turned out to be a lot more... personable than Isshin had expected him to be. While he did refuse to talk about the incident that had gotten him and his two associates (or whatever they were) banished in any way, and his motivation for doing... just about anything remained a mystery to Isshin, the man was still friendly and helpful to Isshin in his own way, and even seemed to care about him to some extent.

Isshin, for his part, simply tried to make the best of things- mainly by not trusting Urahara more than necessary, and carrying out the tasks that he gave him without asking too many questions. In fact, it was one of these tasks that had Isshin out in the streets at this moment; he was supposed to make a delivery of sorts to a warehouse at the other end of the town. Urahara had with no word mentioned what the contents of the package that he was to deliver were, and Isshin didn't ask.

It might be legal, it might not be- and it most definitely was not his business. Besides, this whole obeying of the law seemed less important than it used to- he'd been let down by the society he'd first sworn allegiance to, and it was a society that was anything but fair. Some noblemen might have had qualms betraying the principles they had once stood for, but for Isshin in this new, uncertain life he was carving for himself in the world of the living, his past values were being shed like the skin of a molting lizard. Had he ever been completely comfortable with those ideas to begin with?

His thoughts, which were steering towards philosophy, ethics and reason, subjects in which Isshin knew he was deeply unqualified, were interrupted abruptly, as he turned a corner and found himself face to face with his one time rescuer, that cute quincy.

The two of them stopped, staring at each other for a few seconds, neither saying anything. Isshin decided that this was not going to turn into an awkward silence, and went ahead and said, cheerfully,

"Hi there! Masaki-chan, wasn't it?"

"That's Kurosaki-san." She said. "But... yes."

"Well, how are you doing these days? I didn't get a chance to properly thank you last time- for the whole saving my life business and all."

"I am fine, and don't mention it." Masaki said in a tone Isshin recognized as an attempt at haughtiness. Not buying it for a second, he continued chatting cheerfully. It's not like he was in a hurry- and it was a nice day out, and talking to a pretty girl was as good a way as any to spend your time.

"So, what do you do? Going to school?"

"I'm studying marketing. I'm going to get a nice office job when I'm done, that's the idea." She made a move as if to walk past him- she really ought to; not only was he a shinigami, but he was a terrible Casanova... but somehow, she didn't walk. Not just yet.

"A career girl, eh?" Isshin said, nodding enthusiastically. "You humans are so strange- women going to work, that's- no actually, I shouldn't say that. My cousin would punt me over the head and remind me that she was the one who kept the clan running, mostly, when I was goofing off."

"Maybe you are the strange one." Masaki said, not sure how to feel.

"Probably." He said, grinning.

"You're awfully cheery for somebody who lost everything." She smirked.

"Oh, it's really just a jovial facade that hides my deeply rooted pain. I hide it, but every night I cry myself to sleep, longing for that backstabbing society of corrupt asshats where I was raised." He chuckled, and dramatically put a hand to his forehead. "Woe is me! If only the pure heart of a maiden would heal the never-ending pain of a nobleman who has lost his pride and family!"

Masaki tried her best to frown; to scowl just like her aunt would when Masaki was being a particular disappointment to Quincy Values, to look down on this clown of a man- but despite herself, she couldn't help but crack a smile. What a silly shinigami- and this was a nobleman?

"You smiled!" Isshin cheered. "Score one for the heartbroken, wounded nobleman!"

"You really are a strange one." Masaki said, almost giggling. "How did somebody like you end up here?"

"I'll tell you if you let me buy you dinner." He said slyly.

"Did anyone ever tell you that you can't do subtle?"

"All the time." Isshin said dismissively. "Is it a yes or a no? I can continue goofing around all day if I have to."

"...maybe." Masaki said. She should say no. Obviously. I mean, he was the enemy. Then again, she was already a disappointment to Quincy Values...

"You're paying." She said. "And no funny business- it's totally platonic, and if your hands start wandering, I'll rearrange the bone structure in them."

"Platonic will do just fine!" Isshin said cheerfully. "Score!"

"So when and where exactly will it be, Mr. Exiled Noble?" Masaki questioned, smiling weakly.

"Oh yeah, that... probably should've thought about that, sooner..." Isshin mumbled, scratching his head. "How 'bout... next Friday at seven? In the restaurant..." He looked over to the other side of the street "over there?"

Masaki nodded. "Fine by me. See you on Friday then, I guess- and don't go pulling any tricks like forgetting the wallet to make me pay."

"You betcha I won't!" Isshin shouted triumphantly before hurrying off, waving after her, leaving Masaki to wonder just what exactly she had gotten herself into.


oOo


Carefully, as to not make too much noise, Masaki closed the house door behind her. It was Friday night, and she was just returning home from her dinner with Isshin. Much to her surprise, the exiled shinigami had proven himself to be fully capable of providing some genuinely good company, all while acting not too drastically different from his loud-mouthed self that she had already gotten to know during the other times that she had met him. Not to mention his story...

Even after their dinner, and everything that he had told her, Masaki still found it hard to believe that Isshin supposedly was a nobleman prior to his banishment- though if it was a lie, it certainly was one that managed to be both entertaining and believable. A feud between two noble clans, with Isshin finding himself at the receiving end of severe harassment from a nobleman of the opposing clan, which ultimately led to Isshin slaying the man out of revenge over a particularly infuriating act... and Isshin's subsequent punishment in the form of being banished. While Masaki didn't know much about how the Gotei itself worked, with the way Isshin described things, she could not help but think of it being similar to how Japan was over a hundred years ago... which would also explain Isshin's fascination with burgers and other kinds of western food.

Masaki yawned, and started sneaking across the entry hall without turning on the lights, hoping to be able to avoid any confrontation over staying out so late until the next morning. After their dinner, she and Isshin had taken a calm walk together through the city, talking about all sorts of things. When at last the time had come for her to head back home, she thanked Isshin for the dinner and the evening, making it (hopefully) rather clear to him that she would like to see him again... though even now, she wasn't entirely sure why.

Shaking her head lightly, Masaki dismissed the thought. There was still plenty of time to think about this later. For now, it was more important that she made it to her room before she was noticed by-

"And where exactly have you been until now?"

Masaki tensed as the lights turned on. Slowly, she turned around, and sure enough, there she stood: Her aunt and guardian, Ishida Kimiko.

"I have been out in town. Didn't uncle tell you?" Masaki asked, hoping that Kimiko didn't notice how nervous she was.

"Oh, he did tell me, all right." Kimiko remarked, slowly walking over to Masaki. "But you and I are both aware of how little he cares for what you do. What I want to know is why exactly you failed to mention your plans for the evening to me directly."

"It was only an evening out. I didn't think it was important enough to go looking for you."

"Kurosaki Masaki, you know very well that I wish to be informed of these kinds of things. How can I expect you to continue the Quincy traditions of the Ishida family if you constantly disobey me like this?" Kimiko said, using the kind of stern tone that all parents seemed to be natural experts at. "We will have a conversation about this tomorrow. For now, you will head to your room at once."

"Yes, aunt." Masaki almost spat, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. It was at times like this that she could not help but think that her aunt was essentially an evil stepmother as one would usually see in a fairy-tale... except that for Masaki, the fairy-tale was very real.

She was a disappointment to Quincy Values. She always had been. Too spirited, too wild, too reckless, without grace, dignity, without the wisdom and seriousness that the last of the last of such a proud race should have. She'd heard it all her life- ever since she was a small child, her aunt had tried to make her into the perfect quincy, mold her into the ultimate lady.

Who would eventually marry her son Ryuken and provide lots and lots of babies which shared way too much DNA to be healthy.

It hadn't gone over very well with Masaki, not then and certainly not now. Her aunt thought of her mainly as a glorified baby factory- why even bother with that cold, condescending dignity? Had she had any choice, she would have told her aunt just what she felt. Had her parents not been dead, long gone since the time she was a toddler, she would have told her aunt that she was a harpy, a heartless woman so consumed with preserving the quincy legacy that she couldn't care less about her actual family; what they wanted and needed. Instead, she pined for the days of yore, before the great extermination, when quincies were dominant.

And she would never have it. There was just no way- all the quincies in the world that were left were herself, Ryuken, her aunt and her uncle, and just a few more- some dozens scattered across the world, barely more than one hundred, all in all. And maybe, just maybe, those dreams of restoring quincy glory would have been doable if quincy purism wasn't the complete antithesis to pragmatism- nobody were to marry regular, dirty humans, be they spiritually powerful or not. It was a mad idea, spawned by another madness known as pride.

Well, she wasn't all bad. She had always been strict, but she had taken Masaki in when she was just a child, raised her like her own, and she hadn't been unkind most of the time. Even so, Masaki longed for the day she'd be out of this house, away from this Quincy purism silliness, able to make a life of her own.

As she walked up the stairs, she saw a familiar figure. The pale hair, the glasses- Ryuken was always around. He was the loyal son, the good child who didn't talk back. And, Masaki suspected, not quite so enthusiastic as her aunt might think.

"You think she won't find out?"

Always so damn direct. Not a 'Hi Masaki, how was your day?' or anything of the sort- just a confrontation. If she hadn't grown up with him, she'd have thought him the rudest boy alive. As it was, she knew him to be a good person- but bad at communicating that.

To the matter at hand, she was pretty sure she knew what he meant- but out of defiance, she decided to feign ignorance.

"Find out what?"

"The smell is all over you." Ryuken said apathetically, slowly running his hand over the air around her shoulder. In his hand, a small strand of reiatsu grew visible- red, of the wrong colour for a quincy.

"Mother's senses have dulled over the years, but even she will feel it eventually if you keep going. And then what will you do?"

"We'll just find out, won't we?" Masaki said, gritting her teeth. Was he going to run along and tattle on her? Ryuken wasn't petty- but he might, out of duty, act as if though Isshin were an enemy.

"The question is, what are you going to do about it?"

"Well..." Ryuken murmured, casually readjusting his glasses. "You could start by telling me why you're associating with a shinigami, of all things. I'm not mother- I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. So convince me."

She sighed. "He makes me laugh."

Ryuken frowned. "He makes you... laugh? What exactly has been going on?"

"He's castrated, all right? He committed some crime against some noble, got stripped of his powers, and sent here. He's almost completely powerless. A harmless idiot. And I kind of like talking to him."

"While I am sure mother would be relieved to hear he is castrated, I doubt she would be convinced. And unless he is literally castrated, men generally want only one thing from attractive women..."

"It isn't like that!" She snapped irritably. "We had lunch- one time, today. That's all that's happened so far."

"All?"

"...well, I may have saved his life once, a few weeks back." She admitted sheepishly.

"Well, isn't this turning into a romantic story." Ryuken said sarcastically.

"It's not romantic!" Masaki snapped, more sharply this time. "It's just... I finally have somebody who makes me laugh, and god knows that's a change for the better! This house is joyless- completely joyless, and I'm- I'm-"

She stopped, her frustration causing her to choke on her words. She took a few deep breaths, before continuing.

"A couple of weeks ago I saved him. Then, a little while back, he asked me to dinner. That's all. He's not a threat, and he's not some wild lecher- and if he did try something, it's not like he could even try to touch me. And you're not going to tell your mother."

"And why is that?"

"Because you like me. And I like you. And it will stay that way unless you make it different. Is that reason enough?"

Ryuken sighed, and leaned back against the wall. "I wasn't planning on telling her, anyway. But she'll find out eventually, you know."

"Then I'll deal with it when the time comes." With that, Masaki marched away, down towards her room.


oOo


"I just can't believe this!" Isshin said, shaking his head.

"Oh, calm down." Masaki responded, giving him a bemused look. "It really isn't that big of a deal, you know."

Isshin stared at her, bewildered. "Not that big of a deal? NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL?! Are you kidding me?! I never would have expected this!"

"Well, I have already known it for quite a while, I guess..." Masaki admitted, shrugging.

The expression that appeared in Isshin's face upon these words was that of someone who just found out that they had been betrayed in the worst possible way. "So you knew it the entire time? You knew that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father all along?!"

"Well, this is a re-airing of a rather old film, you know..." Masaki said, clearly trying to hold back her laughter, as the credits rolled and people all around them got up in order to leave the theater.

"Traitor." Isshin grunted. "Knowing something like that, and not even bothering to hint at it- you're toying with my emotions!"

Unable to hold it back anymore, Masaki began to laugh quietly. "If that's what you want to call it, okay."

"Now that just figures. I am in the deepest depths of despair, and you just laugh at my misery! Oh, woe is me, is there no one in this cruel world that I can trust?!" Isshin lamented, figuring that he might as well go even further with his act.

"Well, maybe somewhere? The world is a big place, after all." Masaki said, grinning, while standing up from her seat. "C'mon, we should leave as well. The theater is already almost empty."

Letting out a big sigh, Isshin also got up, and followed Masaki, feeling rather satisfied with everything. By now, several more months had passed since he had first asked his savior out for dinner, and almost an entire year since his banishment. By now, he considered himself to easily be capable of dealing with the world of the living on his own- hence why he a while ago, he had left Urahara's shop, and moved into a flat of his own. While the payment that he received from working for the shopkeeper did not exactly allow him to live in any sort of luxury, Isshin still considered it preferable to living with Urahara: While he did get to know the shopkeeper well enough to consider him and his associates some kind of friends, the man himself still remained as shady and hard to read as ever- which in Isshin's eyes was more than enough reason to not spend any more time with him than necessary.

Other than his relationship with Urahara, Isshin's relationship with Masaki had changed quite a bit over the past few months: While during their first few meetings (which after their initial dinner started to happen more and more frequently), the both of them kept on insisting that everything they did was purely platonic, by now the two of them were all but openly in a relationship.

It was the kind of thing that everyone could see. Urahara Kisuke could see it, his big, muscled friend could see it, Ishida Ryuken could certainly see it- he had a really good glare on him, Isshin had noticed in the few times he'd run into him- even strangers in the street could see it. There was something about young couples (well, by human standards, Isshin wasn't young per se, but he was a child at heart, and you were only as old as you felt) that was just really, really blatant.

That left only the tedious, trivial detail of the two people involved realizing that they were, in fact, an item. On a subconscious level, it was quite plain- Isshin felt a lot of things when he saw her, affectionate, romantic, lustful; wonder and want, and those feelings were more or less mirrored completely by Masaki.

But humans- and shinigami, who are every bit as irrational, stupid and silly as human beings- are too complex for their own good, and neither one of them were ready to admit what should be obvious. It was a bit like Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo and Juliet had insisted that they were just friends, who just so happened to hug a lot, enjoy spending an absurd amount of time together, and every so often put their lips together before awkwardly turning away.

Completely platonic.

Fortunately, fate- which Isshin came to suspect had a shape that involved clogs and a bucket hat- would force their hand that same night. The two of them, walking together with that very definitely-just-platonic swagger had only just left the cinema and turned to walk down the street, when their cheerful evening was abruptly interrupted.

"Masaki!"

Masaki felt that sinking feeling, like a stone passing through her gut. She knew that voice.

Shit.

"Do you know her?" Isshin asked innocently.

"Masaki!"

It was, of course, Ishida Kimiko, also known as her aunt. The one with certain supremacist views of non-quincies. Masaki put a palm to her forehead, bracing herself. This would probably get very ugly.

"Yes, aunt?" She said, taking a deep breath.

"Who is this man?" Kimiko demanded, frowning and inspecting Isshin closely. For a second, she seemed to think he was just a man- and then she made a face like she had eaten a lemon, and spat. "Shinigami! He is a shinigami- weak, but he is one! Masaki, you have some explaining to do!"

"Well, aunt-"

"Just for how long have you been running around with this... filth?" Kimiko demanded angrily. "Do you enjoy spitting on our proud heritage? Answer!"

"I'm trying to!" Masaki said frustratedly.

"Is there anything I can-" Isshin started, but was interrupted by Kimiko.

"Silence, you filthy little woman-stealing monster! I have a good mind to exterminate you on the spot!"

"You better keep quiet." Masaki sighed. "Aunt, this is Shiba Isshin."

"Although I don't much care for the Shiba part." Isshin added. Masaki gave him a look, and he shut his mouth.

"And how long has this been going on?" Kimiko said, her voice now unconvincingly calm.

"He's just, um, a... friend."

"Just a friend. I know what just a friend means to ignorant, unrestrained youngsters like yourself, and mark my word, I'll have none of that! We are quincies, young lady, and we bear the burden of centuries of proud tradition, tradition that puts us above the riff-raff on the streets- and certainly above abominable scum like this, this, this, filthy, ignorant, shameless, honor-less, evil-minded, lewd, genocidal, sheep-fondling, cannibalistic, vicious-"

"It's no wonder she isn't happy with your lot." Isshin said. He didn't shout, or even raise his voice, but somehow it stopped Kimiko's rant dead in its tracks.

"How dare you?" She whispered. "How dare you? How dare you speak to me that way, you shinigami scum? You weak, pathetic waste of spiritual energy- how dare you tell me she is not happy with us? She belongs with us! I have raised her as my own since she was just a little girl- and you have the nerve to tell me she- that we aren't-"

"Hit a nerve, did I?" Isshin said coldly. "All I know is that every time we meet- and that's been a lotta fuckin' times we done that and you didn't have a clue, you vicious old bat- she lights up. And when she leaves for home, it's like the light goes right outta her. And fuck me, if it ain't the same for me. When she's away, my light's all..."

He stopped himself, and looked at Masaki.

"This'll sound real fucking cheesy, but to hell with it. When you're around, I feel happy. When you're not, I don't. I ain't even sure what that means, but it means something. I think."

Kimiko's face was the very picture of appalled.

"Tell him!" She screeched. "You tell him right now, Masaki! You will tell him that you are happy with us, and that this can not happen! Right this instance!"

Masaki gaped, not sure what to do. Isshin's confession, such as it was, was already overwhelming- it confirmed what she already knew deep inside her. Her aunt's confrontation on top of that made it... a difficult situation to deal with.

"I..." She began weakly, not having the slightest idea how to react. What could you really say in a situation like this? What was really the right answer?

"TELL HIM!" Kimiko shouted, her voice growing even shriller. "Tell him and all this will be forgotten! We'll forgive you- just tell him-"

Wait a second.

Was that.. begging? From her aunt?

In that moment, Masaki made a decision. She decided that she would keep quiet; let the silence speak for itself. Resolutely, she shut her mouth.

"Let's go, Masaki-chan." Isshin said, putting an arm around her. It felt... right. Following his lead, she turned her back on her aunt.

"I warn you, Masaki!" Kimiko shouted. "You go with that man now, and you're never coming back! It's us or him- your family or that shinigami scum!

Furious, Masaki turned back to face her.

"He isn't scum!" She spat. "He's a good, kind man, kicked out of a place he hated, and if you weren't so full of hate, then maybe you could see that too!"

And with that, she turned her back again, and quickly walked away. Kimiko kept shouting until she was finally out of earshot. She felt elated, nervous, angry, emotions filling her like she was a balloon about to burst.

And as the two of them turned a street corner, it hit her.

She would be homeless. And without money. She was still a student, and she was homeless. Standing up to your tyrannical aunt was nice and all, but now she was without means. Shit.

"Are you okay?"

Masaki punched him in the shoulder, and bent forward, suddenly feeling sick.

"No, I'm not! I'm twenty-one and I'm homeless! I just..." She leaned herself against a wall, taking a few deep breaths, as Isshin sheepishly stood next to her, seemingly unsure whether to comfort her or give her space.

"Damn..." She mumbled. "You know, I knew this would happen some day. I just... kind of kept putting it off in my mind. And here we are."

"Yeah..." Isshin scratched his head. "I'm sorry about-"

"Sorry doesn't help." Masaki said harshly. "Did you mean what you said, about that 'light' thing? About it meaning something?"

"Uh?"

"Did you mean it?"

"Yes!" Isshin said resolutely. "Yes, definitely!"

"Well, if you mean it, then help me out. I'm going to need a place to stay, and... so many things right now."

Isshin smiled. "You know, I know just the guy..."

"Great." Masaki chuckled bitterly. "I'm at the mercy of the shadiest person in town."

"He's not so bad." Isshin shrugged. "He's shady for sure, but he's never exploited me, even when I was at my weakest."

"Fine, I guess..." She paused, and took a few deep breaths. She looked him in the eye. "I mean it too. The light thing, I mean."

"...oh." Isshin said, before breaking out a big grin. "Thanks."

"This has to be the most awkward confession of all time." Masaki mumbled.

Arm in arm, the two of them walked off into the night.


oOo


"We hardly see each other anymore." Urahara complained, although his whine sounded rather half-hearted. The two of them were meeting up- just for lunch. Urahara Kisuke was shady as hell, Isshin had made an effort to build his own life independent of this patron- but now, now that his years of service had been served, he found that he didn't mind the service as much as he had thought he would, nor did he mind the abominable arch-traitor as much as he had expected when he first met him. He didn't really mind him at all, in fact.

"Shut up." Isshin grumbled, drawing a smoke. That was one of the benefits of the world of the living- they had a very large selection of tobacco, and with his body he wasn't suffering from much of any adverse effects. Not being quite human had its advantages. "So, what's goin' on recently? Smuggling anything fancy?"

"Oh, 'smuggle' is such a harsh word. I prefer to think of it as a discreet, professional delivery service, provided with care and quality."

"And at a ripoff price."

"Quality costs money, Isshin-san." Urahara grinned mischievously. "Besides, there's a great many noblemen on the other side who are quite dependent on me to deliver this and that. And when you're the only supplier..."

"You set whatever price you want. Ha!" Isshin took another puff on his cigarette. "Scamming rich, stupid noblemen, that's a kind of shady I don't mind."

"There's more to it than just scams, you know." Urahara said cryptically.

"Yeah? You actually care 'bout something besides money?"

"If only you knew." Kisuke chuckled. "Let's just say that... there is somebody, on that other side, who is responsible for quite a lot of what more morally upright individuals would call evil, and what I would call personal, who is going to get what is coming to him one day."

"Revenge?" Isshin said, leaning back relaxedly. "Well, I won't pry- but hell, if it's revenge against the Gotei Thirteen, then I'm- well, I wouldn't say interested, but..."

"Not interested, of course. You have a life to look after."

"Right."

"But... curious."

"Yeah." Isshin said, somehow unable to shake the feeling that somehow, him feeling this way was part of the man's master plan. That was the one thing that kept something of a distance between them- the feeling that you never really knew what he really wanted, what he was all about. Urahara Kisuke, hearty and cheerful as he was, hadn't in the years he'd known him been keen on letting anybody in close. Still, he'd made good on every promise he'd made; he was shady but honest about his shadiness, a strange kind of reliability- one that Isshin felt was infinitely preferable to the prideful hypocrisy of the Central Forty-Six.

"Well, I might hold you to that one day." Kisuke said, shrugging. "Why, the day shall come when I upend all of the Gotei, tear down the walls and rebuild it, and get rid of all corrupt old men who stand in the way of making the world a better place." He smiled.

It was a bit of cheerful wishful thinking, and Isshin grinned back. "I like the sound of that. 'Course, that'll probably happen around the time pigs learn to fly- but count me in!"

"I'll go invent a flying pig this instant."

The two of them shared a hearty laugh.

"So how's Masaki-chan?" Kisuke asked after a while.

"We're actually gonna get married." Isshin said, grinning wider than ever before. "Ya know, as much as being exiled sucked, I couldn't be happier. I got a wife, a home of my own, a job... and I got you to thank for a lot of it."

"Don't mention it." Kisuke said soberly.

Still not being well versed in the fine art of expressing emotion, Isshin settled for a cheerful smile.


oOo


Isshin stared in front of him, his eyebrows raised questioningly. He had already been in this situation several times before- just sitting on the ground, watching in confused, but happy disbelief. He had been doing this for quite a while now, every now and then, and yet, it was all still so unbelievable to him as it had been on the first day.

"He isn't just going to disappear or anything like that, you know." Masaki said bemusedly, leaning against the doorframe.

"I know that." Isshin responded, sounding mildly annoyed. "It's just that... I still find it just so incredible."

Masaki chuckled. "I really would've thought that over three years are more than enough time for a shinigami to get used to being a father- guess I was wrong with that."

Smiling weakly, Isshin got up from the ground without taking his eyes of his son, Ichigo, who was calmly sleeping in his bed. "Well, it's not like a shinigami and a human having children together ever happened before- I just have no idea how this even worked, let alone what this means for him."

"You're forgetting that I'm a Quincy, dear. Unless shinigami are entirely different front us in every possible way, I don't think it is going to mean anything for him- except for maybe him being spiritually aware."

"I guess..." Isshin mumbled.

"You just worry too much." Masaki said, shaking her head. "Now come, before we wake Ichigo up."

Silently, Isshin followed her out of the room, finding himself to be unusually thoughtful. The day of his banishment was by now already several years ago... and yet, even now, he kept thinking about it- thinking about what he had lost, and, more importantly, what he had gained. Shiba Isshin, captain of Squad Ten, member of the noble Shiba clan- the more time passed, the less Isshin could identify with the person that he used to be. While it was true that he had left friends and family behind which he still missed, at the same time, he had started a new family of his own, and had found new friends that he were just as dear to him that the one that he had lost. He was, for all intents and purposes, Kurosaki Isshin now.

And even if he were to somehow return to Soul Society now, the last thing he could expect there was a warm welcome. Try as she may, Kukaku would not be able to change anything about his banishment – several years without any word from Soul Society were prove enough of that. "Worse" yet, his friendship with Urahara would probably be enough to turn his status from mere exile to downright traitor right away... no, for him, there was no way back for him. Kurosaki Isshin would grow old together with his family, without any regrets.

"Isshin!" Masaki suddenly said, putting his thoughts to and abrupt end. "Do you feel this?"

Confused, Isshin stared at Masaki. What did she mean? Since he had not been able to use them in years, his shinigami powers had dulled quite a bit, so even if there was something to sense, he would not be able to-

Isshin interrupted his thoughts. He did feel it.

Hollows.

While Hollows attacking Karakura town was generally not too out of the ordinary due to the Masaki's family and Urahara and his associates living there, there were usually only a couple of Hollows showing up every now and then- this was a different case. These had to be several dozens of Hollows, more than enough to give even a group of shinigami trouble.

"I need to get out there." Masaki whispered. "My family- they need my help."

With that, she ran off, presumably to search for her Quincy medallion- or rather, she would have, if Isshin had not grabbed her by the shoulder.

"Wait." He spoke. "I'm coming along as well. If this gets too dangerous, Urahara will probably also do something, but I don't want to take any chances."

Masaki gave him a look as if he had just suggested to drown himself. "You can't! Don't you remember how much trouble you had against the Hollow that I saved you from when we first met? You'll just get yourself killed if you go out there with me!"

"But I have to do something! I can't just stay here and do nothing, when you're out there, risking your life!"

She shook her head violently. "You have no choice. I know you probably don't want to hear this, but this is just too dangerous for you. You need to stay behind... and look after Ichigo."

For what seemed like ages, Isshin just stared at Masaki, letting her words run through his mind. Then, finally, he sighed. "Alright. But- just- just be safe out there, you hear me?"

Masaki smiled, visibly forcing herself to do so. "Of course I won't."

And with that, she ran off- this time, without Isshin stopping her. He just stayed where he was, listening to her search for medallion, and eventually rush out the front door into the night.

After a while, took a deep breath, and walked back into Ichigo's room and sat down on a chair from which he could watch his son, his heart racing. For the first time in ages, he found himself cursing the loss of his powers- he was condemned to inactivity, to have no idea of what was going on until it was all over.

He didn't know how long he had been sitting there, waiting, trying to sense what was going on, when he started to feel something unexpected: In addition to the distant reiatsu of the Hollows, and Masaki and her family fighting them, there suddenly was... a shinigami?

Isshin jumped up. This reiatsu felt familiar. It definitely did not belong to Urahara, or any of his friends and companions – it was somebody from Soul Society.

From the Gotei.

And it was approaching him.

Slowly, and uncertain on what he should do, Isshin walked over to the window and opened it. The night was cool and silent. If someone was not spiritually aware, it might almost seem boringly normal- but sadly for Isshin, he was.

Before long, the shinigami had gotten close enough for him to see a figure jumping across rooftops. Bracing himself for whatever it was that was coming for him, Isshin stepped away from the window, and took a quick glance to confirm that Ichigo was still sleeping.

And then he was there: Isshin's unexpected visitor.

"Ukitake-taichou." Isshin said, hoping that his confusion, surprise and wariness weren't too apparent in his voice. "What are you doing here?"

"Shiba-san... it certainly has been a while." Ukitake stated, staying as polite as ever. "I really would not have expected that it would come to this... let alone that it would be my task to inform you."

"What is it? What are you talking about?" Isshin asked, his confusion growing.

Ukitake sighed. "This is in regards to your banishment. You must know, for all this time that you were gone, we were unable to find anyone who could fill the position of the captain for Squad Ten."

A cold shiver ran down his spine. This couldn't mean what he thought it meant, could it...? "What has this to do with me? I'm in exile."

"The circumstances regarding that have changed, Shiba-san. Over the past years, the power and influence of the Hideaki family has lessened, where the Shiba clan has been able to regain some of the power that it has lost due to your banishment. As a result of this, it was possible for Shiba Kukaku-san and Yamamoto-soutaichou to convince the Central Forty-Six to reconsider your sentence."

Isshin just stared at Ukitake, as the world around him seemed to stop. This couldn't be happening... no, this simply couldn't be true... not after everything that had happened to him here...

"Th-that's impossible!" Isshin exclaimed. "There's no way those conceited geezers would overturn their own sentence unless they absolutely had to!"

"But that is the case, Shiba-san." Ukitake said, a compassionate look in his eyes. "The Central Forty-Six and Yamamoto-soutaichou are in full agreement that Squad Ten has gone long enough without a captain- and despite the crimes that lead to your banishment, your leadership skills are still fondly remembered in the Gotei."

"Leadership skills. Right." Isshin repeated incredulously. "These old farts just needed to pull a captain out of their hat, and remembered there's conveniently one that they've sentenced to exile several years ago! Well, I'm not playing along with this."

"To be honest, Yamamoto-sensei is keen to keep his war potentials close. Wasting a captain on a feud like that never sat right with him- the strength of the Gotei has always been its captains. Power and leadership isn't so easy to come by that we can let it go just like that. We're sworn to-"

"Fuck the oaths!" Isshin spat. "I'm not going- I have a wife, a son, a-"

"I'm afraid that you don't have a choice in this, Shiba-taichou." Ukitake retorted calmly, but there was a firmness in his tone. "Believe me, I am not happy to I have to do this. It doesn't take the mind of a genius to figure out that in the years that you've spent here, you have found a new home and family that you do not want to leave behind..." His glance wandered over to Ichigo, who despite everything that was going on, still calmly slept in his bed. "...but the Gotei needs you, and they are not willing to debate on the matter. I will take you back to Soul Society."

Isshin took a deep breath. This was unreal. It couldn't be true.

"No." He said, shaking his head. "No. You're not doing this to me. You kicked me out. Those rotten, corrupt geezers didn't want me anymore, and I moved on and I got... a whole new life. You are NOT taking this from me!" His voice rose to a shout towards the end.

Ukitake sighed, and shook his head. "I really wish you had a choice. And in the end, I guess you do- either you return, your clan gets a chance at restoring its status, you return to serving the public good. Or... well, at best you're executed."

"I'm not going back." Isshin said, gritting his teeth. "I'm not going back, you hear me?!"

Ukitake looked at Ichigo again, the little child sleeping peacefully. "What do you think the research bureau would do if they found out there were multiple shinigami-human hybrids? Just... think of your child."

Had it been anyone else, Isshin would have though- no, known it was a threat. But Ukitake was the most thoroughly decent man he'd ever met; he'd never really...

"What the hell are you saying?" Isshin growled, balling his fists.

"I understand the position you're in. Well, I don't suppose I can truly understand- but I sympathize. And unless somebody hides this carefully, this is something the wrong people could sniff out very easily, if you were investigated more closely. And if that man got his hands on them-"

"Then I'd rather see them dead than under his thumb." Isshin said, sounding deflated. "What... do you want?"

"I'll make sure your family is left alone. I'll pull what strings I can. Nobody will bother them, nobody will even know they exist. There is a choice here- either your clan is restored, you serve as best you can and do good even if you believe the people you serve are corrupt- or you refuse, your family is at risk, and your clan never recovers."

Isshin felt like he'd hit a brick wall. This was like a nightmare come true.

"...I don't want to go." He whispered.

"I know." Ukitake nodded.

"Could I see them again?" He asked, all his aggression dropping off him.

"It's probably best not." Ukitake said regretfully. "Sometimes, there's not a right choice to make- and when that time comes, you have to make the one that's the least awful."

Isshin remained silent for a moment, staring off into the air. "...Can I at least leave my wife something? A short letter, or something like that?"

"I don't see a problem with that. But please, try to get it done quickly. It might get suspicious if we take too long to return."

"...Right. I'll be back in a moment." Isshin said weakly, heading for the door- only to stop dead in his tracks when he reached the door frame. "About the Hollows attacking this village..."

"From what I can sense, a group of Quincy are taking care of them. They should be done dealing with them soon enough."

"...Alright."

Slowly, Isshin walked down the hall and into the kitchen, where he picked up a piece of paper and a pen, and sat down. Resting his forehead on his hand, he stared at the paper. There were so many things that he'd like to write down, so many things that needed to be said- and yet, he couldn't think of a single way to put them into words... and no matter what he wrote, it wouldn't be enough. But there was no time to think of anything that would be even halfway appropriate... and Ukitake was waiting.

Isshin took a deep breath, and started to write.