"I am unwritten.

Can't read my mind,

I'm undefined.

I'm just beginning.

The pen's in my hand:

Ending unplanned."

- "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield

Chapter Nine: Unwritten

After the Aizen betrayal, we spent a week recovering in the Fourth Division's healing barracks, full of long rows of hospital beds, quiet healers, and complaining Shinigami. (Not even the people who came to Dad's hospital were this bad. One of the qualifications for being a member of the Fourth Division must be: "Possess the patience of a saint.") They gave us our own little off-room in their hospital sector - we found out that Division grounds are divided into several main buildings for work, the soldiers' barracks for the Shinigami from Rukongai, the optional individual Division suites of rooms for the Seated Officers and Captains and Vice Captains, the mess, and the training grounds. The Fourth's hospital existed in one of their main buildings. Our room was small and made of wood, lined with pallets, privately access and rarely gone into. The Shinigami seemed understandably hesitant of us, tense but also strangely deferential once they'd realized that if it hadn't been for one of their own betraying them, we might not actually have done anything wrong. Maybe it came back to the honor principle. We mostly helped each other heal; Ishida even sewed our clothes back up with an amount of pride I found rather amusing. He made Rukia a dress, too, with fancy lining and everything. (I made no effort to disguise my amusement, in part to make up for Inoue's and Chad's impressment. The Shiba did not stay with us, obviously; and Yoruichi was reacquainting herself with her old home now that she was no longer considered as much of an enemy with them, something I was actually rather happy for her for. Out of all three of her comrades, she was definitely the least amoral or insane.)

I did a lot of things in that week. I met up with Hanatarou again and made sure he was doing alright; he smiled at me in a tired and sheepish but genuine sort of way, as all of his comrades gaped fearfully and incredulously at me talking to him from behind him. It was amusing, and also kind of surreal. I was glad I could do that for him, in a strange sort of way. I connected with my zanpakutoh some, now back in his shikai form, just tried to get a feel for how things were when we weren't about to die. (I hoped optimistically the whole "about to die" state would not exactly become a regular thing.)

And I met back up with Rukia. Her brother was still healing, but she was now living back in her own home, the Kuchiki House, which was fucking huge. (Seriously - whoa. She and Byakuya lived in that?) We were weirdly shy and smiley around each other for a couple of minutes, and then I asked her staringly why she was wearing a kimono, she kicked me in the shins and said defensively that that's normal around here, and things were basically back to normal. So that was nice. Sort of.

She seemed happier - happier perhaps, even, more tentatively content, than she'd been when she first met me. She said she'd been welcomed back into her clan and the Thirteenth Division, all charges off, and her Captain was happy to have her back. Her Shinigami powers should slowly reappear over the next month, zanpakutoh and all. There was something fundamentally contenting about that idea: that we'd saved each other, I'd repaid my debt, and we were both still here. Renji had even dared to stop by her house once, she said - which, good for him. It seemed to surprise and bemuse her, but not in the bad sense. I tried to get a sense of how she felt about him now, but it's always hard to tell with Rukia and it's kind of weird to just ask someone that directly anyway.

Speaking of Renji, no one in the Eleventh Division or formerly Eleventh Division - not even a Vice Captain named Iba with a beard and dark shaded glasses who I'd never met before in my life - shared most people's qualms about interacting with me. They challenged me to fights, slapped me on the back, treated me like an old buddy, invited me over to their training grounds during the day, tried to beat the shit out of me, and generally treated me like one of their own. Basically, now that we'd nearly killed each other, we were all best friends. It was kind of funny. The Eleventh was a hard one. They were... quite a division. They were also all good fighters - Renji, Madarame, and his partner Yumichiki who was blatantly gay and smilingly called me ugly, also strangely treated me with especial friendliness - so I just sort of learned to accept. They were curious about my friends, too. Ishida and them kind of pissed each other off and Inoue's boobs were too big and she too cheerful and happy-go-lucky for them to really act like themselves around her - assholes - but they seemed to like Chad. Chad thought they were interesting. He told me that quietly once, his face thoughtful, and then that's all I ever got out of him. I got to see his giant red and black arm at work, punching holes in shit with gigantic explosions and sending people flying, so at least there was that.

I continued to refuse fights with the eager and razor-sharp, furious Zaraki Kenpachi, however. He challenged me a lot, but I always managed to make a dry, uneasy comment, refuse shruggingly, or laugh uneasily and somehow manage to get out of it. I could tell it confused the hell out of a lot of people, but I pretended not to notice the stares in that way I think only I can do, and I kept the reason why to myself. Secretly, I knew Kenpachi would just naturally take the fight too far - I knew it from the expression on his face, my memories of fighting him, and the strangely cheerful bloodthirsty cheers of his hyperactive little pink-haired VP Yachiru (who he apparently raised). Sometimes I caught Zaraki watching me intently, as I fought with others of his Division and held back, carefully controlled and smooth, sharp. He still seemed worried. He seemed almost like he was still trying to confront me, sometimes, push me to just let go and enjoy fighting, the way I used to. I knew I couldn't do that, couldn't trust myself that much, so we did these weird dances of avoidance. It was somewhat offputting, especially with the Eleventh Captain's natural intensity, and I wasn't always sure what to think of it.

But when I wasn't in the Fourth barracks, with my friends, or fighting with the Eleventh, Rukia curiously offered to show me around her home like I'd shown her around mine. Smiling slightly, half a smirk, at the thought, I'd accepted.

The Seireitei was interesting. Full of huge, magnificent buildings, quiet little paved white roadways and hanging charms, high walls, wide spaces of grass and trees, and smoothly moving robed forms with dignified faces. I got the impression of a suddenly humbled and shaken undertone, though. During that week of recovery, everything was rather quiet: almost second guessing and thoughtful. It was hard to describe, even to myself, or really get my hands around.

Rukia introduced me to all the main Captains and Vice Captains, and she and my friends filled me in on what they knew or had learned was happening in other parts of the Seireitei during the insurrection. I filled in a lot of blanks.

The First Division Captain was the Captain Commander Yamamoto, because the First was the commanding division. He was... uncomfortable to talk to. Both he and his Vice Captain Sasakibe had a sort of native dignity and suspicion about them, elderly and silver bearded and stiff. They'd been doing this for hundreds of years, seemed like sticklers for tradition, and wanted to uphold the way things were - it practically rolled off of them in waves, along with power. Because, you know, hello, they were still alive.

They were the only ones I had to kneel for, and the conversation was brief and clipped, the two groups eyeing each other somewhat resentfully. I had invaded them, no matter what the reason. They upheld a society I didn't necessarily often like, and I had issues with authority figures. They felt like the ultimate authority figures. I was restless and jumpy leaving, Rukia rather quiet and cowed, as if she wasn't sure that had been such a great idea.

She'd seemed surprised when I'd shown I could (reluctantly) do super-polite, though. That expression had been kind of funny.

The Second Division Captain was the small, fit woman with the short black hair, narrow eyes, and cold hard voice. She was Yoruichi's successor, sure enough - the Captain of the Second Division special ops and black ops core. The ninja, the ones with ultimate stealth and speed. Her name was Soi Fong, and she came from this huge clan that had supposedly been strictly dedicated to the Seireitei since before forever, which was why her name was different - according to Rukia anyway. She also said Soi Fong was Yoruichi's Vice Captain before Yoruichi's betrayal. It was hard to tell. Unlike Yoruichi, Soi Fong seemed to be in a perpetual state of never relaxing or smiling at all. They were like day and night. On the other hand, she didn't want to talk for long. She said hello to me brusquely, and then snapped at me to get out of her way. Her Vice Captain, Oomaeda, a huge overweight man with a stupid-looking smirk who didn't look like he belonged in the Second at all, smirked at me as they passed in a "for once it isn't me" sort of way.

Aaand that was my introduction to the Second.

I was fairly sure I preferred Yoruichi, in spite of her loyalty to Urahara, who I had realized I would probably never be able to figure out completely.

The Third Division Captain had been Ichimaru Gin. His Vice Captain Kira, who was supposedly a nervous and melancholy sort, had gone into seclusion in shame after he'd tried to help his Captain during the insurrection, mistakenly thinking Ichimaru had been supporting the Seireitei through much of it. People seemed kind of worried about him, but no one seemed to be doing anything, which I didn't understand at all. Was it one of those stupid "socially acceptable" things? Anyway, he wasn't around for me to meet.

The Fourth Division Captain I actually met during my time in healing. Her name was Unohana, and I decided thoughtfully that I liked her. She was a peaceful, motherly sort with braided black hair done up at the back of her head, lines around her eyes, and a striking sort of prettiness, but there was an earthy reserve to her and she seemed to intimidate even members of the Eleventh Division, who usually had nothing but contempt for the Fourth. She watched me sideways a lot, but she was one of the only people who didn't seem challenging or intimidating toward me. I once told her out of the blue that her bedside manner reminded me of my Dad's, and she stared at me in surprise. Then, almost reluctantly, she smiled and said she chose to take that as a compliment. She was one of those strange people who made me blurt out things I hadn't intended to say just because I was thinking them, though, so I tried not to spend too much time around her. Her Vice Captain Isane, the one who had sent the message, obviously had a lot of determination but she reminded me more of a teenage girl than a warrior. She had this bobbed silver hair with red highlights, and I walked in and saw her and Inoue chatting about hairstyles once. Then she saw me, blushed, looked down, nodded quickly, and hurried from the room.

I stood there, staring after her in bemusement. Was it just me that these people didn't like? Was it my demeanor? Inoue looked amused and uncertain.

The Fifth Captain had been Aizen himself. His Vice Captain, he had actually tried to murder just before leaving. Her name was Hinamori Momo, and the most she was to me was a tiny porcelain doll figure with wavy brown hair lying unconscious in a bed, on life support. Rukia had commented to me sadly that she and Aizen had been very close - well, she and the good, even tempered, smiling Captain that Aizen had pretended to be to most people.

I learned about Aizen himself as well. Aizen Sousuke had been an orphan from a minor noble family, his family dead at a young age. He seemed, on paper, completely unremarkable, which was eerie. He did his full six years at the Academy, never graduating early as many talented ones did, and he had a respectable history leading up to Captain of the Fifth. He had "showed people" a water based zanpakutoh many times, meanwhile putting them all underneath the spell of his illusion based zanpakutoh (the real one) Kyouka Suigetsu. People around here had taken to gossiping in private, speculating how long Aizen had been "plotting this." Even I heard the whispers. I never had the heart to tell anyone he'd left because he felt like it. Rukia and I did not speak about what we'd heard from Aizen, sharing a mutual unspoken solemnity over it.

The Sixth Division people were Renji and Byakuya, and the Seventh Division Captain was the fox guy, the huge Komamura. His Vice Captain was Iba, the fighter with the shades. Normally, Komamura wore a golden helmet to hide his head. I didn't suppose I could blame him. He'd been super serious, and I'd been really awkward because should I say anything about... you know... the fact that I'd seen his face when apparently he didn't want people to? Or about his upset over the betrayal of Tousen? I just wasn't good with ignoring big elephants. He had apologized for the trouble their society had caused us, which was nice. I had said hurriedly that it was fine... and then when I'd gotten outside with Rukia, I said awkwardly, "Umm..."

I actually blushed, and she gave me a weird look. I had realized with Jidanbou that a lot of things were possible in the Soul Society, but I had to ask... "How is that... what his head looks like..." Rukia's eyes went wide with alarm and she hurriedly motioned for me to speak even quieter, so I did. "Right, that. How is that... biologically... possible?" She gaped at me. "I mean, obviously it's not self-inflicted, because he wears his helmet most of the time! So doesn't that mean it has to be... natural?" I finished awkwardly. I already regretted saying anything.

Rukia stared at me for a moment. Then she turned dark red, too. "Idiot!" She kicked at me, and I had to duck, snorting in spite of myself. "That's the first thing that comes to your mind?!"

"It's not the first thing that comes to yours?! I mean, fuck, I don't care if he looks like a fox; whatever, man! But you've got to wonder how -" I defended myself before my mind could catch up with my mouth.

"Shut up! Just shut up! No more questions!" she despaired, her lips twitching, and she pulled me farther down the walkway.

The Eighth Division Captain was Rukia's Captain's friend, Kyouraku Shunsui, and his Vice Captain's name was Ise Nanao. And that did not do justice to the absolute barrel roll of chaos that was both their interaction and their office. Not physically - physically it was weirdly perfect. But Kyouraku wore flowery pink and somehow managed to not look feminine, he was never shaved, he drank a lot, and he was always flirting with his Vice Captain. Who was such a stickler for neatness and rules, bespectacled with her hair up in a tight bun, that she spent most of the meeting greeting me formally and then looking like she wanted to strangle someone when he grinned and blurted out something embarrassing from behind her, his eyes almost purposefully mischievous. Kyouraku didn't honestly interact with me that much, just sat back and watched. He seemed like he took life easy. He was one of the only people I'd met yet who didn't seem at all bothered by what had happened and looked entirely content by his "rebellious by convenience" part in it. I liked him, but I also wasn't sure what to do with him, because his energy was almost the polar opposite of my own.

The Ninth Division Captain had been Tousen, a blind man who had learned how to fight via reiatsu sensing. His betrayal seems to have surprised people because he was an ideologue. That didn't surprise me - ideologues were easy to manipulate with their own ideals, and Aizen had been a good speaker, but it was probably easier to say that when you hadn't actually known the person in question. His Vice Captain, Shuuhei Hisagi, was a tall, young man with messy dark hair, tattoos, and dark, serious, almost sad eyes. He, too, bowed and apologized tightly and formally for his Captain's actions. Almost uncomfortable, I ran a hand nervously through my hair and reassured him awkwardly that it was fine; he hadn't known. He stood right back up and told me intently that he should have, and I shrugged him off. I had learned over my life that it was useless to say things like that; but he didn't seem like someone who had gotten that yet.

I looked away carefully.

By the time we got to the last three divisions - I was already extremely well acquainted with the Eleventh - I was just exhausted and slightly irritable from meeting all these new people. Dealing with too many at once always made me uncomfortable, and I didn't precisely like it, but damned if I was showing that. Luckily, the last three divisions were interesting enough that I couldn't mind too much.

The Tenth Division Captain and Vice Captain were - it's hard to explain your first impression of what it's like seeing them stand next to each other with the quite serious expressions that mean, Yes, we do work together on a daily basis. Like Kyouraku and Ise, but at the same time completely different.

Well, first there was the Vice Captain, a woman named Matsumoto Rangiku. She was very western-looking, like her Captain, though it may be the only physical thing the two had in common. She was tall and glamorous and curvaceous with thick, strawberry blonde waves. I pictured America. Maybe Hollywood.

Also, the woman had the biggest boobs I had ever seen in my life and I wasn't sure how she stayed so thin or stood upright, but my God she managed it.

Seriously, my first thought was, Whoa. I didn't even know they came in that size. I'm not even usually like that, and I grew up with Inoue.

After that, though, she actually turned out to be really nice, in a very bubbly, extraverted sort of way. She seemed sort of tired when she was sitting at her desk as we walked into the office, but she stood up really quickly and greeted us with a smile and all that. Asked Rukia how she was, talked about what had happened for a few minutes, decided I seemed pretty friendly when I smiled and nodded with a polite sort of strained tiredness and tried my hardest to keep up - and she actually came off as pretty smart, too, in an "I change the subject every two minutes" sort of way. The whole twenty yards. No formality, which I appreciated. I dared to wonder for about half a second about her high rank, but then a bug crawled onto her desk and she slammed it so hard and fast I saw the wood bend, cleaned off her hand, and kept right on talking, without looking and while still smiling and chatting cheerfully. And I thought, ... Yup. Vice Captain. And that was that. (I thought I saw her Captain roll his eyes slightly from off to the side.)

Which brought me to her Captain, Hitsugaya Toushirou, the person who had originally found out about Aizen's betrayal and was nearly killed for it. He was, apparently, a preternaturally fast healer, because he seemed fine sitting in his office now, if snappish. But according to Rukia, who actually warned me about it in an undertone before I walked in, yes that was his natural state. He was... hard to get close to. Reserved. Kind of irritable. I wasn't all that intimidated, but I was kind of curious.

Even more so when I found out he'd achieved Bankai when physically he was only about their version of twelve. Came from the Rukongai alone one day and graduated from the Academy in under a year. They called him "tensai" in hushed tones: prodigy.

So, yeah, knew all the rumors. But mostly, to me he just came off as stubborn and uninterested in socializing. I was fully ready to experience a kid who kind of freaked me out, but he seemed like a sharper and infinitely smarter version of Mizuiro. There was something about him that made me feel like I wasn't seeing much of him, that was all. He sat up purposefully straight, eyed us sharply sideways, greeted me with a nod, and went back to whatever he was working on at his desk unreadably, watching us out of the corner of his eye for most of the time. He watched, but he didn't interact. It was... different. I couldn't exactly tell what he thought of anything.

Physically, though, he definitely looked about twelve. A kid who had just hit preteen. So seeing a kid working at a huge desk, right next to a tall lady working at a desk that was just that little bit too small for her, was just physically something I'd only expected to see in surrealist art.

Otherwise, he looked a bit Irish, small and slim, muscled like a dancer, with daiquiri ice green eyes, a light dusting of freckles over the bridge of his nose, pale skin, and unusual platinum silvery-white hair. "Unusual" in the sense that it was naturally messy like mine, but mine just looked like a mess and his looked like an abstract art piece crafted out of one of those sugar shooters for cooking that you only see on TV. It was almost unfair realizing you were seeing someone who biologically had been gifted in pretty much every possible way.

Outside the office, I mentioned uncertainly (and awkwardly, again) to Rukia, "He's very..."

"... Pretty?" Rukia finished, smirking in wry humor. "I know. Ever year around his birthday, card stores make a fortune from looking adolescents."

I mentally translated looking adolescents into squeeing preteen crushes and figured I was probably right.

(It turned out I wasn't. I wouldn't learn until a long while later the little fact that sexuality was seen differently in Soul Society, including in the way that there was no differentiation made between the different phases of adolescence. So older people hitting on him was actually considered perfectly acceptable. And that just made it weird.)

"So together, the two of them are basically...?" I realized.

"Yumichika hates their Division out of envy," Rukia deadpanned. "They're too beautiful for him."

I snorted. "Yeah," I said. "That's... kind of what I meant."

The Twelfth Division was basically the polar opposite of the Tenth. Rukia insisted we meet the Captain and Vice Captain while they were out walking the next morning, because, "No way in hell are we getting within twenty feet of Urahara's successor's laboratory or his punishment facilities." In the end, I didn't actually meet them, just saw them on the walkway from a distance, because I took one look at the Captain and stopped and swore out loud really loudly. They looked over at us, eyes flashing, and Rukia pulled me awayincredibly fast. "I didn't even know she could move that fast" fast.

"Holy fucking shit...!"

"You are a jackass moronic dickhead! That man is unstable on a good day! Why would you do that?!"

"What the hell is wrong with his face?!"

"It's a mask, dumbass, and he uses it to psychologically terrify his opponents!"

"Well, it fucking works!"

I learned that day that Rukia learned a lot of swear words from me.

We stood there, panting in subsiding fear, in the training area for a few minutes... Before we looked up at each other and burst into kind-of-dumb sort of snickers that neither of us would ever admit to later.

In the end, I guess it turned out okay.

Captain Kurotsuchi Mayuri's mask - which totally wasn't just for terrifying the enemy, because he wore it everywhere, didn't he? - had been an eerie black painted on white, filled with nuts and bolts, and a golden head dress, and it just sounded stupid when you tried to describe it. A lot of things about Seireitei's higher-ups defied description. I was starting to realize that. But it was one of those things that was subtly crafted in exactly the right way to go on a person's face and then freak the living hell out of people.

His Vice Captain, his adult daughter Nemu behind him, had seemed from a distance paradoxically meek and normal looking, a pretty face with dark hair gazing downward. Rukia told me seriously that Mayuri wasn't old enough yet to have a child that old, and Nemu had been synthetically created to be a normal adult of one age on the outside. On the inside, like Urahara's "children", she had all sorts of abilities.

I felt bad for her too. Apparently Mayuri was once Urahara's highest learning subordinate, and that didn't surprise me at all. It was a rather abrupt reminder from the idyll of the week of exactly who these controversial people were, and how in a lot of ways I still didn't agree with them.

Still, even I could admit, I liked Rukia's Captain of the last Division, the Thirteenth. He had a fair, calm sort of presence about him. His name was Ukitake Jyuushirou, and he had been the man with the long white hair and the preternaturally thin, lined, worried face on the bridge. It made sense that he had stopped Byakuya attacking me, if I reminded him of a man he had once worked with. Rukia said admiringly - so he couldn't have wanted that attack to happen - that Ukitake had been a high ranking member of Soul Society for a very long time, and could fight very often even despite his slow, debilitating illness. He smiled at me almost assessingly, in a completely open way, and invited me to tea. His two highest-ranking officers were spazzy teenagers, he had one of those innocuous little candy dishes off to the side, and they all treated a strangely shy Rukia just like one of their own. We sat beside an open rice paper screen at a low sitting table in our robes and had lunch beside a porch that led out to a quiet lake with trees in it. I felt like I'd stepped into a period novel. It also felt bizarrely like I was home.

I wasn't sure what to think of that one. But I decided I liked this division. It was warm. If I'd become a Shinigami here, it was the one I'd have wanted to end up in.

But after that, I couldn't stop thinking about the mystery of Shiba Kaien.

I couldn't ask Rukia about it. I looked over sideways at her occasionally, and she would glance over at me, but in the end we would always end up looking away from each other. I just... wasn't sure how to broach the subject. How did you ask someone about something like that?

I could hardly ask the Shiba either. Ganjyuu would blow up at me. Kuukaku would probably kick me through a wall.

In the end, I mingled or lingered in public bars and other Seireitei meeting places one late evening just long enough to ask around and figure it out, listening and leaning back quietly in the shadows, thoughtful and ponderous. I wasn't like Rukia. I couldn't just sit there and not know and accept. I had to know about this man who supposedly reminded everyone of me. (Because I was the one who was here, damnit.)

I learned that Shiba Kaien had been the former Vice Captain of the Thirteenth Division. That was why they only had a Captain and seated officers right now; Ukitake still hadn't had the heart to replace him. He had entered the Academy prestigiously, as the Shiba had said, and graduated early to become a talented member of the Thirteenth - eventually the Vice Captain. Everyone liked Kaien: blunt, friendly, tough, and poetic, he had an openness and peacefulness about him, and a talent for bringing people together. He believed in the goodness in people and the Shinigami, and he stuck very firmly to the noble principle of honor and turned a blind eye to the Seireitei's many faults. No one could have expected anything better, around here.

He and Rukia had been close, when she'd entered the Division as a new, uncertain learning noble. He trained with her and made sure she felt at home. "She called him Kaien-dono..." I heard someone mutter in remembrance, almost wistfully. "Worshipful... It was hard for anyone else to get close to that one, you know... But he did."

He looked just like me. Everyone said so. But for a few facial differences, the fact that I was thinner and paler, and the fact that his hair had been black, we could have been twins.

Kaien had a wife. She was in the Gotei 13, too. She died on a Hollow-hunting mission on the Rukongai outskirts, and Kaien went back out with Captain Ukitake and Kuchiki Rukia in tow to "avenge her honor" and kill the Hollow. It sounded like something out of a storybook, something out of sync with anything that had happened just a couple of decades ago - nothing, here. The Hollow defeated and possessed Kaien, and her Captain had a sudden attack from his disease in the subsequent battle. Rukia had to kill Kaien to save him.

I realized all at once that she still blamed herself, and that was why she had told his siblings she was his murderer. Like me with my mother, she thought she was.

Rukia was taken off of leave for emotional reasons afterward. When she came back, she was a bit harder, quieter, and more distant, never quite the same. Not with most people. Apparently, anyway.

I couldn't relate. She wasn't like that with me.

Maybe that was why the next day, I headed out to the Shibas' house on the edge of the Rukongai. They invited me in with grins and we had breakfast, and then I smiled tightly and looked up at them and said with a deep breath, "Please don't ask any questions. But you should talk to Rukia about what really happened to your brother."

There was a moment of stunned silence as they stared at me.

Then they really did try to kick me through a wall, and I knew they were going to be okay.

But they must have trusted me. Later that afternoon, a strangely shy and hesitant but determined Rukia walked out in a flower printed kimono, simple and summer like, in the direction of the Shibas' house. Kuukaku had invited her, seemingly of her own accord. That woman was actually pretty damn understanding, in her own weird way.

Inoue and I had spent half the day looking for Rukia after we realized she was nowhere to be found in the Seireitei. It was actually quite the adventure. We were almost pulled in by a slightly drunk and partying Matsumoto and Kira, chased after by various members of the Eleventh Division, and startled the shit out of Renji and Byakuya when we burst inside looking for her in Byakuya's hospital room. (Byakuya's startled, gaping expression in particular was hilarious; I would have remember that for future reference.)

I had hoped I was right in my secret suspicion of where Rukia really was, in the back of my mind. Sure enough, we finally went looking for her outside of Rukongai's walls, and there she was, walking toward the Shiba house hesitantly, quiet.

I smiled after Rukia from a distance, because I knew she was going to be okay too, and we never ever talked about Shiba Kaien.

Because, hey. I could meet her halfway at least a little bit.

Inoue and I approached her after it seemed like they'd been talking outside lowly for a while. We were carefully blank faced. Inoue stayed back, unsure of what was going on. Not that I was all that sure of whether or not we should approach them outside their home late in the afternoon either. "... So that's where you were," I dared to say quietly aloud, and Rukia gasped and looked around quickly, her eyes wide. She looked like she had when she first met me, for a moment, at finding me here of all places.

I glanced away stoically, pretending not to notice. "It looks like you're finished here," I commented carefully, and I knew I'd been right when no one said anything in response. "So... come on. Let's just go back, okay? Tomorrow they'll open the door to the living world so we can all go back to Karakura." She looked away. "You should rest for the trip home tomorrow," I added, concerned.

I had assumed, unconsciously, that she was coming back with me, you see. The idea that Rukia wouldn't be stationed there, wouldn't be in my life anymore, had stupidly never even occurred to me. Especially not after all this.

So I felt strangely like I'd been hit in the stomach when she took a deep breath and looked up at me firmly. "About that," she admitted, the two of us watching each other sideways. "I have decided to stay... here."

She waited, almost hesitantly. "It is my home," she added uncertainly, frowning in something like worry.

And of course it was. Of course. I could understand that, after all the times in the past few weeks I'd thought I'd never even see my home again. This place may be strange, but it was Rukia's. (So why did the idea if her not going with me feel so... wrong?)

I forced myself to smile, strangely, my brow furrowed in something like pained bewilderment at my own internal reaction. "... Good," I admitted, and despite everything, I meant it. She stared at me in surprise. "Well, you decided on your own, didn't you? That's your decision to make." I shrugged. "Isn't the fact that you want to stay... kind of a good thing?" I pointed out in dry humor, genuinely nudging.

Rukia looked at me assessingly for a long moment - and then her eyes widened, she tilted her head, and she smiled, a small, genuine glow. For a moment, we were on the exact same page and we understood each other completely.

And that was what was important. That was enough.

And, of course, I heard the story of what had been happening during the rest of the insurrection. It was a very strange one, that came out in bits and pieces, and it took me a long time to really understand it all. But the basic gist of the story went like this.

My friends didn't have much to say about the people they fought. Just that mostly they were arrogant, stupid lower officers. The most interesting observation they had to make was that the lower you are on the totem pole, the more you worship powerful people, seemingly. And even that was kind of expected. Mostly they just took out a lot of people and smashed shit up, trying to distract things for me. Ishida and Chad seemingly did most of the fighting (and Ishida had even defended Inoue with his arrows aside from himself) though Inoue used her weaker attack a couple of times, and apparently had one amusing incident where she shielded some Shinigami right off the edge of a building and then got freaked out because she thought she'd killed him on accident. Ishida smirked like he was resisting the urge to laugh maniacally as he reminisced, and Inoue still seemed sheepish and sad. I kind of wished I'd been around to see that.

Chad, of course, fought Kyouraku Shunsui. That was the powerful figure I'd felt him around, the one who had nearly killed him and gotten him thrown in detention. Chad admitted that Kyouraku wasn't the worst Captain he could gave fought, by any means, though he did seem kind of quietly resentful that he'd been beaten so badly anyway. He said Kyouraku was surprisingly respectful and tried to get him to walk away, but he was extremely quick and deadly when Chad made it clear that wasn't happening. His VP stood there off to the side, deadpan and sarcastic. "She is odd," Chad said simply, his brow furrowing in bewilderment, and I knew she had to be, or else he wouldn't actually say it out loud. Huh.

Kind of funny that it was Ise Nanao he'd thought was odd.

Kyouraku actually left Chad alive and had him imprisoned, even though his Vice Captain seemed reluctant to do it. I'd have to thank him sometime for that. Even if he had probably done it because he wasn't sure he disagreed with the invaders' goals in the first place.

Ganjyuu followed Chad into prison later after the bridge incident, and Hanatarou got a light punishment from his Captain before being allowed to return back to former obscurity. Ganjyuu and Chad were kept in a private room under reiatsu restraint, because the Shinigami were as wary of them as they seemed to be of us in general.

Ishida and Inoue were still out in the Seireitei at that point, but they'd also realized they might be the only ones left besides me (and who knew where the hell I was, unfortunately). So they decided they'd be better off hiding by wearing Shinigami uniforms and trying to lay low for a while under a minor looking search squad. It had been Inoue's idea; Ishida said in something like disbelief that she'd even managed to knock out a couple of nearby Shinigami security guards with stealth and karate and then hide them in a broom cupboard somewhere after stealing their clothes. I smirked because, that was right, he hadn't known Tatsuki had trained Inoue in hand to hand, had he?

Ishida apparently took some convincing to wear a Shinigami uniform at all, stubborn and indignant at the prospect, but he sniffed that in the end he "had" to defend the uniformed Inoue from the weird guys who were flirting with her. So he just played along. Inoue smiled gently and shook her head from beside him, and Chad raised his eyebrows dryly.

Ishida pretended not to notice.

They had by then interrogated someone into telling them Rukia was at the Senzaikyuu, so they eventually snuck off together from their squad and started heading through Seireiei's streets to there. (They had quite the adventure, didn't they?) They were accosted by a drunk eleventh division member along the way, and then saved by some twelfth division members with no questions asked. Ishida was suspicious of this, having started to see the strong competitiveness that definitely existed between the squads. He just managed to pull Inoue out of the way before the bombs attached to the twelfth division members underneath their clothes went off.

They had been bait to try to kill the ryoka. Ishida said lowly and angrily that they'd looked betrayed as they'd died, but I wouldn't figure out why he cared until the end of this little tale.

He'd learned to hate the twelfth division captain who had done it, Kurotsuchi.

Kurotsuchi and his forcefully obedient, meek synthetic "daughter" Nemu had come out then. Kurotsuchi had been grinning, not at all repentant; Inoue had seemed more upset for them than him. Kurotsuchi started intimidating her with threats of becoming a lab rat under awful conditions as he laughed, saying they were the best conditions he'd ever offered a test subject. Inoue got even more upset - even in reminiscence she looked disgusted and uncertain - and meanwhile the Eleventh Division member looked confused as to why Kurotsuchi hadn't killed him yet, but not confused as to why Nemu stood off to the side, looking downward, and did nothing.

"Lovely people, these Shinigami," Ishida added darkly. I winced, because I could say absolutely nothing to that. It was true; it was terrible. Ishida was still much more open around us than he was around a single Shinigami.

Ishida intimidated the Eleventh Division guy into pulling Inoue away, because she was too loyal to go by herself. He realized that emotionally, she couldn't handle this; Inoue wasn't built that way, not as Rukia, or even Tatsuki, might have been. Then he fought Kurotsuchi himself. It was a harrowing fight in which Kurotsuchi abused his daughter and revealed that he was the one who had dissected the remains of Ishida's grandfather for research, seemingly just to piss him off. It sounded nauseating. All of my friends looked vaguely ill, in different ways, at the end of it. Ishida was growling in fury.

"I used the Final Quincy technique to wound he and his subordinate into at least retreat," he spat out. "It... it is a last ditch effort," and now his tone was quiet and he refused with his jaw clenched to look at any of us, "that briefly gives you and your bow enormous power. But afterward it renders you incapable of using Quincy powers anymore," he muttered suddenly and resentfully, looking away, and we all realized in the sudden heavy, mournful silence throughout the room that Ishida would never be a fighter again.

It hit me like a dead weight. I had no idea what to say. I couldn't even feel guilty; Ishida made his own choices and he'd hate me for it if I felt like it was my fault he'd attacked Kurotsuchi so furiously. He hadn't done that for me, not really. He'd done it for Inoue, his grandfather, Nemu, the dead rookies even. And that was all there was to it. That was what happened sometimes in battle.

But suddenly I had no idea how to express what that must have been like for him, knowing what he was about to do, with all of his Quincy pride. And I'd never been very good with emotional words anyway.

So I ended up bickering with Ishida to pull him back out of his stupor, and a few minutes later we were arguing again. The two of us had been walking together along a wall, discussing what had happened, and I walked ahead of him as I smirked backward to end the fight. And after a long, companionable silence together, Ishida finally said, "Kurosaki."

I looked back curiously.

He took a deep breath. "The only reason I agreed to stay here as their allies," he revealed, "is because of something Kurotsuchi Nemu did after her father retreated, wounded, from the battlefield. She came back and, without saying anything, she offered me emergency first aid to make sure I didn't die. Then she just... left. So, I figured... Perhaps, not all of them are terrible." The admittance was begrudging.

I smiled, tired. "That's what I'm starting to wonder, too," I admitted, and it surprised a vulnerable look out of him for a moment.

Finally, he continued the story. Ishida got away, wounded, before finally being taken down by Tousen Kaname, of all people. He was still acting in his role as loyal Captain, so he had no choice when he came across Ishida. He apologized for having to kill Ishida "in the name of peace," then knocked him out and put him in the medical detention center with Chad and Ganjyuu instead.

I snorted at this part. That was about what kind of man I'd guessed Tousen was.

During their time in the medical detention center, Chad, Ganjyuu, and Chad heard a strange rumor while listening in to the guards outside their doors. They heard that a Captain had been assassinated - Aizen, faking his death in a bloody, dramatic fashion because he was weird - and the ryoka were conveniently the prime suspects.

Meanwhile, the Eleventh Division member had actually managed to manhandle Inoue all the way back to his Division headquarters... Where she was held there in an almost friendly manner and everyone in the Eleventh Division already wanted updates on me and how I was holding up, just because we'd beaten each other up in a fight.

Again. Eleventh Division.

"It was so sweet!" Inoue told me cheerfully, beaming, and I laughed somewhat uncertainly along with her. I realized Inoue wasn't intimidated by anyone. Everyone was "sweet" until proven otherwise.

The Eleventh Division seemed excited because they could feel me getting stronger somewhere in the Seireitei. Everyone could, apparently; it was actually leaving most of the society in jitters, because thanks to Urahara's underground training chamber and my retreat, they could no longer tell where it was coming from. (How fucking big was my reiatsu? It blocked off all sensing in my house, it attracted Hollows like honey, it had attracted every ghost in Karakura, it was so big my shikai refused to go back into asauchi, and apparently it just fell like a blanket over any spiritual city I happened to be in, rooting itself firmly in the soil. Seriously, what the hell?) Zaraki, the little girl who was always with him Kusajishi Yachiru, Madarame, and Yumichika decided to help Inoue out and let her lead them through the Seireitei to me in secret in Shinigami uniform, rebelling because fuck it. If I died, they couldn't fight me again, and this whole thing was stupid anyway.

Eleventh Division.

So they broke Ganjyuu, Ishida, and Chad out of prison with... a lot of force, Inoue said carefully. (I actually laughed as I imagined the Eleventh breaking open a prison.) Then they all went looking for me again together, as a big group. (Renji, of course, who broke out of normal medical bay separately, actually found me and managed to train with me. Go figure. The guy was a hell of a hunter after all.) They got lost a lot because Yachiru gave shitty directions, finally being found and stopped by Komamura, his friend Tousen, and their Vice Captains Hisagi and Iba.

That was one fight that had been happening the day of Rukia's execution accounted for.

Zaraki, Madarame, and Yumichika had stayed behind to fight, letting Yachiru go on with my friends. That made their loyalties clear. Zaraki actually tried to fight alone at first, but the two other men insisted on "sharing in the fun."

That was how my friends had found me fighting Byakuya and hidden nearby to wait for my victory. Yachiru hid with them for a while before going to find her Captain again later. She was apparently both stubborn and sneaky. According to my friends.

I could believe it.

The other parts I had to get from Rukia, because they pertained strictly to the Shinigami and the Soul Society itself. She, in turn, had gotten them from people she knew, because she had been imprisoned in isolation at the time. So what I got was actually a thirdhand account, at least. The very, very basics. (I got more than that, but Rukia and I sifted through it and agreed most of the extra sounded like bullshit. Not worth repeating.)

The zanpakutoh ban was released against the ryoka as the Shinigami started to get worried: higher ups could now release within Seireitei precincts when faced with an intruder, as mandated by the Captain Commander during a private meeting. Then Captain Aizen of the Fifth was found dead, apparently assassinated, the next morning. People whispered that it was the eerie and blankly smiling Ichimaru Gin, an insanely talented boy from the Rukongai bad districts who no one had ever been able to get close to or understand, and was apparently so calmly smiling it was easy to at first ignore his wanton, showy violence. It was rumored that the two had been seen (acting, by) having some sort of words or altercation after the meeting the previous day.

Upon seeing the scene of the murder, and seeing Ichimaru nearby, Aizen's upset and enraged Vice Captain Hinamori attacked Ichimaru without authorization. His Vice Captain Kira stopped the attack. The two started fighting, though it was clear that neither - friends since the Academy - necessarily wanted to. The fight was stopped by Captain Hitsugaya Toushiro, who had Matsumoto send them to the brig to cool down.

Hitsugaya was then seen openly threatening Ichimaru icily, in front of the other gathered, hesitant Shinigami, that if he'd actually had anything to do with Aizen's death, Hitsugaya would kill Ichimaru himself. Ichimaru just smiled blankly, as he always did.

I wondered if they, like me, felt at this point like it was all a particularly vicious, wearying game of Twister. In my most poetic form: Man, my coming had fucked everything up, hadn't it?

Later that evening, Hitsugaya and Matsumoto were investigating the last scene were Aizen was seen - in his office the night before, by Hinamori. Hitsugaya came upon a "last letter" that Aizen had written and left on his desk, addressing it to Hinamori and hinting that he had suspected his own coming "murder." Hitsugaya, who grew up in Rukongai in the same house as Hinamori and therefore had a personal connection to her, sent Matsumoto to her cell with the letter, thinking she should be the first to read it. This was done without authorization or his superiors' knowledge. (I took it that wasn't a good thing.)

But Aizen's letter told Hinamori that her adoptive "brother" Hitsugaya was the traitor who was after his life, because apparently I was right and Aizen Sousuke is a sadistic douche. Hinamori broke out of jail to go after her old friend and avenge her Captain. Meanwhile, Ichimaru broke Kira out of his jail cell and went out to go where he knew the inevitable meeting would be later, perhaps for his own reasons.

Hitsugaya and Matsumoto were called out of their office the next afternoon by their seventh seat, who brought the news that Abarai, Kira, and Hinamori had all broken out. Hitsugaya and Matsumoto went to the prison and talked with the guards, noticing that Hinamori's breaking out seemed particularly forceful and desperate. Hitsugaya, worried about this, sent Matsumoto back to the tenth division headquarters and went after everyone himself. He went after Kira first because Kira's breakout hadn't been forced and he guessed Kira would be with Ichimaru, which he thought was where Hinamori would go because he thought Hinamori was still after Ichimaru. Hitsugaya was, somewhat rashly, planning to fight Ichimaru before Hinamori could get to him. All this did was make sure everything quite nicely hit the fan when Hinamori found the three together and drew her sword on Hitsugaya, telling him in upset what she had read. Hitsugaya tried to backtrack speedily and convince her it had been a forgery, Hinamori tried to attack him anyway, and after some dodging he finally knocked her out. He and Ichimaru began fighting because Hitsugaya thought Ichimaru had orchestrated the whole thing, and Matsumoto sensed her Captain releasing his zanpakutoh, the legendary ice dragon Hyourinmaru, an image of one of the four celestial guardians who can control the weather - (Rukia seemed admiring) - and then she sensed Gin releasing Shinsou. Having the somewhat dubious honor of being one of the only people to be friends with Gin, Matsumoto hurried back and stopped the fight just by stepping in because neither one wanted to hurt her.

The fight ended with minimal injury, and both parties left rather begrudgingly because no evidence could be found. The next morning, they woke up to find Rukia's execution date had been moved up and Hinamori had broken out of their holding cell for her again. Hitsugaya remembered something, with the two events in tandem, something she had mentioned before she was knocked out that she said Aizen had put in his letter. Something about the Soukyoku execution piece's power being released when it was about to kill someone, and someone wanting to use that for their own ends. Aizen was supposedly "investigating it at the time of his murder."

Matsumoto and Hitsugaya guessed that the Central 46 council was being manipulated by someone else into executing Kuchiki Rukia and headed over to their main building, currently in session during a time of emergency and accessible to almost no one.

So now I had pretty much everyone accounted for: Hanatarou had found Renji and his fallen subordinates after his fight with Byakuya and tried to heal them, my friends had found me, Zaraki and his subordinates were fighting some others, Ukitake and Kyouraku had gotten together and were planning a rebellion to save Rukia on their own just because they thought her execution was wrong, and Hitsugaya and Matsumoto were about to be embroiled in the main escape with Aizen and Ichimaru from the main Central 46 council building.

No one was sure what had happened after that, and apparently the people who did know weren't talking. All anyone knew was, Matsumoto had ended up fighting Kira outside the council building, each one trying to stall the other, and Hitsugaya and Hinamori had both found the massacred council before being slaughtered and left for dead at Aizen's hands within it. Unohana had figured out what was going on and came upon them then, but she thought healing everyone and getting the message out of what little Aizen had told her was more important, so she let Aizen and Ichimaru go to the Soukyoku Hill. Meanwhile, Tousen suddenly disappeared from his own fight, sensed out and found Renji and Rukia running away together, caught them, and brought them to the Soukyoku Hill with the other two traitors.

And I knew everything from there.

It sounded like hell. I couldn't blame people for being upset, even if I still wasn't entirely sure how I felt about most of them.

"And there's something else..." Rukia added hesitantly at the end, unsure. I gazed up at her in surprise. "Before my execution... I was being led out to the Soukyoku Hill that morning... and Captain Ichimaru came to visit me before going off to meet Aizen at the Central 46 chambers. He did it in a very cruel way, by offering me a chance to live and then snatching it away from me again, always with that blank smile like a snake... But he made me want to live again. I had accepted my fate - and he took that away from me. Did Aizen tell him to do that, do you think?" She looked thoughtful and heavy, puzzled, quiet. I was surprised at the admittance, in spite of how close we had become.

I thought over Ichimaru's strange hesitancy to injure me during our own fight. The way he had seemed distracted, the way he had merely pushed me away. The way his presence at Hitsugaya and Hinamori's fight seems to have distracted them from possibly hurting each other. The way he didn't actually hurt a single person as he left.

And I wondered...

"What is it?" Rukia asked quickly, intent.

"Oh, nothing," I muttered, shaking my head and looking away stoically, in spite of her frustration.

Nah. Couldn't be.

In a way, the world around me reflected my own sense of being thrown off balance, of having to consider a lot of things about... everything. There was a sudden loss of surety to the Shinigami about how their world was supposed to work, in the aftermath. The way they treated me was almost... humbled.

They had morale issues. They had been wrong. Wrong about something. A systems communication failure. Too many unspoken assumptions.

It couldn't be an easy pill to swallow, for them.

It also wasn't as satisfying to me as I'd thought it would be.

There was an indecisiveness in their future. But I could also see a growing sense, among them, that from his place in the world of Hollows with the Hougyoku... Aizen would probably be back. War would come. And when it did, changes would have to be made and they would have to come forward to meet it. Until then, I watched them go about their ordinary, everyday lives, the rigors of people walking around the Seirieitei, meeting up with each other, doing office paperwork and being sent out on missions... I watched them try to pull themselves back up quietly.

It's hard not to change your perspective on someone, after something like that.

There was one thing I thought of totally unrelated to Shinigami, whilst looking back over the insanity of the past several days. There was one thing I did, secretly, just me, just by myself. I snuck into their private records room one early morning, on a personal mission. It was not a particularly important room, just something I'd found that was full if public records of who was sent where in the Rukongai upon appearing in the Soul Society for the first time...

I searched though lots of file folders, chock full of boring bureaucratic files that were connected to the sensors temporarily stationed in one of those in-between pockets of the universe. And I kept searching, because what I wanted to find was important to me.

I found out where Enzeru had been sent.

I knew the Shinigami still didn't trust me quite enough to just let me out into the Rukongai to look around and do whatever. I wasn't sure I had that much time left anyway. They had already picked out a day for me at the end of the week to leave back to my own world and be gone - now. (Some things hadn't changed that much.) And I could have snuck out anyway and trusted my stealth abilities, but it would have ruined some carefully built trust and with my huge reiatsu signature, I kind of sucked at reiatsu stealth now anyway. But I had to know what had happened to her.

So I found her file and where she had been sent, painstakingly, looking for the exact place and time of disappearance, her name and exact description. I finally found her.

She was safe.

The Eastern Twelfth District of Rukongai. That was where she was. I stared at it for a while, trying hard to memorize it in my head, to make it stick. She had even been in a group with plenty of adults, families, and children in it. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Bittersweetly, I realized that it was probably the first break of good luck she'd ever had besides meeting me. I smiled slightly at that thought, and sent her a silent thank you. Just thinking of her. I realized that, a few months ago, I would never have been superstitious or honor-driven enough to think that could matter.

Strangely, though? I couldn't say I minded the change.

And then the morning of our departure came.

We cleared out of the room at the Fourth Division impressively quickly, considering Inoue insisted on fiddling with clothes for fifteen minutes, Ishida rushed around so tensely making sure we'd remembered everything that he looked like he was about to have a coronary, and Chad got ready so slowly he looked like a windup toy. "Let's go!" I called out, leaning against the doorframe, gazing upward and sighing. I had all I needed - my zanpakutoh, my Shinigami uniform, and Mom's lucky charm from Dad in one of my sleeve pockets.

"Don't be impatient, Kurosaki," Ishida dismissed, which he had some nerve telling me.

I gazed at him indignantly. "You guys are taking forever!"

"You didn't even brush your teeth this morning!"

I turned red and scowled as Chad started chuckling. "Shut up!"

Secretly, though, we were all pretty relieved to know we were heading back home. It didn't take us very long to reach the preassigned meeting place, Yoruichi in tow. (She was quiet and serious once more, back in her cat form. I couldn't figure out why. Maybe after all this time, she just liked it.)

We were meeting to leave on the edge of the Seireitei, near the great wall, a huge archway with reiatsu shimmering invisibly in it that was similar to the one Urahara had. Maybe he'd made them all.

It wouldn't surprise the hell out of me at this point, but then not much would.

The remaining Captains and Vice Captains were already assembled there to see us off. All of them, in a formal line - that surprised me. Rukia was there, too, still in one of those ordinary flower-print kimono it was kind of strange to see her in.

We all walked up slowly toward them, and the huge gate behind them, which seemed larger and gave off a faint ripple of actual power. My friends stared more than I did. Maybe my sense of what was intimidating in levels of power had changed just a little bit.

Ukitake stepped up in his white Captain's cloak, clearing his throat, and from his matter of fact impression I suddenly got the strange sensation he was representing his people to us. "This is the official dimension gate. We've installed a spiritron converter especially for you three," he nodded to my healed friends behind me, back in their ordinary clothes, who were technically still in their physical bodies.

Then he stepped forward and raised his eyebrows, opening his mouth slowly. "Uh... Ichigo-kun?"

I gazed over at him in surprise. "... Ukitake-san?" I finally responded quizzically, with something that was only vaguely like sarcasm, when I realized I wasn't missing something here. I didn't think I was. What more interaction could they expect us to have with each other after this, if they had decided to leave me alone?

But then he held something out to me. "Take this," he said quietly, expression serious. I took it, and frowned down at it thoughtfully.

"What is it?" I asked. At Ukitake's expression, Rukia quickly drew my friends off to the side behind me to say goodbye to them.

It was a keychain of sorts. At the end of the small chain, instead of a key, was a small badge, worn and ancient looking. It was white; on its front in black was the face of a skull and crossbones symbol. White and black, like the Shinigami. I could feel strange reiatsu moving around in it, calmly, faintly.

"That is a seal of approval for acting Shinigami." My head shot up so fast in disbelief, Ukitake's smile actually seemed to be despite himself. I saw a few members in the line shift slightly, anxiously, behind me.

They'd all been waiting for this, I realized. Without telling me anything beforehand. Assholes. But there was no bite to the thought anymore. Just some strange brand of uncertain, uncomfortable exasperation.

"The badge means we have recognized a warrior's existence as beneficial to the Soul Society," Ukitake explained evenly, without seeming high-handed, which was impressive. But I knew the score. I needed this. It probably had a tracking device in it, too, knowing them. While there wouldn't be any point in using this thing to hurt me instead of just doing that outright, that reiatsu had to be in there for something. And besides: there was everything that had happened recently, between us even. Not to mentioned, they probably weren't entirely comfortable knowing they had a living Shinigami among their ranks, one not entirely connected to them. So, although the idea of this made me uncomfortable, as long as they just kept an eye on me and nothing else I couldn't find it within myself to be angry.

Besides - I was bizarrely honored, in the sense that they were telling me I was allowed to continue to be a Shinigami back home anyway. I could still leave my body, after all. I had Kon. So was this an unofficial "yeah, you can help out around your home, just don't make a big deal out of it" kind of deal?

But they surprised even me.

"Under the tradition of this badge, you will be affiliated with us, as a fighter against Hollows and only as a fighter against Hollows, for as long as you carry it. Our ally in Hollow hunting and Plus Soul spiritual matters, if you will. This is what is known as a substitute Shinigami. You would be assigned jurisdiction over Karakura-cho, protecting it." I stared down at the badge, a strange feeling within me. Well... damn. "Do... you agree?"

I looked up to find Urahara eyeing me carefully, and I could feel the other assembled Captains and Vice Captains doing so as well from behind him.

It took me a surprisingly short amount of time to realize my answer.

I would be a Shinigami in addition to my daily life and school life, the exact thing I'd had to be forced into becoming. An older self, I reflected in dry amusement, would probably be staring in indignant horror at what I was about to do. But... I enjoyed being a Shinigami, on the most basic level of what one was, anyway. I liked the power and freedom it gave me, my new connection with Zangetsu, my soul world, my reiatsu. I liked the idea of fighting for my home back home. I wanted to be able to keep in contact with people back here, too. I wanted to remain in contact with Rukia, and even other people I'd met here: Madarame Ikkaku, or Renji. The Shibas. Even others I hadn't gotten to know well enough yet. It was a tentative, more personally based alliance, surely. But I wanted to make sure they were okay, if only from a distance, in whatever they were facing up against Aizen. Because no matter how I felt about them, they didn't deserve whatever the hell he had planned for them. No one did.

And there was less of a sense of paranoia there now that I felt I'd gotten to know them - with all their strengths and flaws.

"... Yeah," I said, lifting my chin slightly. "I do." I saw him smile slightly, somewhere between exasperated and relieved.

I turned from him to face my friends and Rukia, before the entire line of Shinigami. Clearly, this goodbye would not precisely be private. Yeah - definitely not a lot of trust there. Still, I looked at Rukia, who was standing there looking at me. And, because I didn't know how long of a goodbye this would be, I reached for something to say to her anyway. How did you end an adventure like what we had just had together? Especially if you were as bad with emotional, spur of the moment sorts of things as I was.

"See you, Rukia," I began, because that was easiest.

To my surprise, she smiled slightly, warmly. She understood. "See you," she returned, raising her eyebrows. My lips twitched despite myself. Then, spur of the moment, she added sincerely, her eyes big, "... Thank you, Ichigo."

I blinked, surprised. Because what the hell did I say to that, when I didn't feel like I'd done anything worth being thanked for? I searched for an appropriate reaction...

... Finally, I felt a surprising, faint stir from Zangetsu. And I realized something.

I could feel it intrinsically, as strong and clear as day. For the first time in a very long time... it was beautiful in my soul world today.

There it was. Faint sunshine. No rain, no sorrow and weight, no uncertainty or guilt, no powerlessness. Nothing. Not even any silver clouds. I thought back over everything, over my life and everything since the day the Shinigami had walked into it... since the day that Rukia had walked into it. And I couldn't find a single thing to regret. Which was just so fucking impossible, right? It should have left me scrambling! But... I liked this feeling. I was content. I didn't want to let it go. I was okay, and as I looked at the slight smile on her face, the strength and peace in her eyes, I knew that after all this, Rukia was strong enough to turn out okay, too. I had saved her, and she had saved me. Because it was true.

I wanted to be what I'd become. Who I'd become. I was okay, even, with working (indirectly and distantly) under the Shinigami. Because they weren't - they weren't awful, really. They were extremely flawed in many ways as a group... But they could be good people, when they wanted to be. They just... made a lot of mistakes. But then, so had I.

Maybe that was a stupid way of looking at it. But I couldn't think of any other way I could look at it and... remain useful?

And all of this. Really, all of it. It was basically Rukia's fault.

She had given me this... this peaceful feeling. This bizarrely enlightened feeling. No more rainfall behind my eyes. No more sadness - I had done what I had achieved. And I had reached her.

So I smiled, a small, crooked, shadowed, but incredibly and utterly happy smile. And I said the only thing I could think of to say.

"Thank you," I told her simply. "You made the rain stop."

I had learned a lot from the Shinigami, more than I had ever expected to, and I had learned how to fight the right way, and for the right reasons - if somewhat inadvertently. Now, I mostly just wanted to do something better than I'd ever thought I'd really be able to do: I wanted to go home.

My friends and I walked through the barrier together.

We had to run through the back entrance, screaming our heads off as that stupid sludgy thing came after us, again. I thought the Shinigami were just being passive aggressively vindictive. Yoruichi shouted sternly from up ahead (of course) that you have to use this entrance unless you are a full Shinigami and are assigned an official "hell moth" to help you move things from place to place. (So that was what those black butterfly things were.)

I wasn't sure I believed Yoruichi's explanation, though. It sounded kind of like bull.

Shouting, we made it through to the other side, stepping right out onto... open air.

Aaand we screamed and started falling over Karakura. But luckily the Urahara Shouten was waiting in the air to catch us. By catching us in a blanket, wrapping us up, throwing us to each other so fast Ishida shrieked into my knee that he was about to throw up, and then tossing us facedown onto something Urahara had made that looked kind of like a giant, flying, reiatsu laden surfboard.

I had such caring friends.

I looked up, startled, when I heard Urahara's voice, steering from up ahead as Tessai, Jinta, and Ururu landed behind us. "Welcome back, everyone!" he sang smirkingly, waving his fan as eccentrically as usual.

I stared at his back, at him, looking just like normal. "Urahara-san..." I finally said, unsure how to feel.

He relaxed, almost sad, and was suddenly unreadable. He sighed, a world-weary sigh, and stopped the flying craft. "Kurosaki-san," he said. "Congratulations on your victory... You heard about me, didn't you?" His tone was unusually blunt, and bittersweet. He gazed out at the blue sky ahead of us in silence.

I looked at him sideways, assessing. "Yeah," I finally said thoughtfully, reserved. "I did."

And he did the most incredible thing. He took off his stupid little bucket hat, turned right around, and bowed to me on his knees. "I am very sorry," he said, so lowly I wondered how often he'd ever said it. He stared down at his surfboard, face subtly interminably old and sad.

And I realized he wasn't acting this time, and because of that I couldn't be angry with him. Not really.

"Don't... don't do that," I finally sighed, looking away uncomfortably. "I never said I was pissed off or anything, did I?" My tone was almost challenging. I continued firmly to look away.

There was a moment of silence between everyone, even Yoruichi and the Urahara Shouten, as they gazed between us quietly.

By the way, I was really sick of people watching my private moments. That was one thing I would try very hard to put behind me, at the end of all this.

When Urahara continued to bow lowly in silence, staring down at the surfboard mindlessly, I tried to find something else to say. "Look, what you did to me is all you should be apologizing to me for, and as for that... What you did wasn't such a bad thing," I forced out. "Okay? You made sure all of us were strong enough that we could handle it. I get that. And..." And you don't tell people about your ideas and it's probably intrinsically a part of you, so there's no use getting angry at you for that. "So, we're grateful for your help." I chanced a glance back at my friends; they didn't disagree. They looked sad, solemn, only a little confused because I hadn't exactly told them the 'I'm part Hollow' part yet. I hadn't told anyone. Not even Yoruichi seemed to have known. Stupidly, I was trying to ignore it, and was scared of what they'd think. Story of my life. I huffed out a frustrated sigh and turned away again. "Don't be sorry," I ordered Urahara, despite all of this. "And don't..." I stared at his silent, bowed form. It was eerie. "Just don't be like that, okay?" I finally finished helplessly, vaguely disturbed. This was Urahara Sandal Hat, for crying out loud.

"Actually, hey, can I ask you one question?" I finally requested, thinking back over our time training together. "... You thought I'd refuse if I knew what the training was truly going to entail... didn't you?" I stared at him, almost glaring, daring him to admit he thought I'd abandon Rukia.

And, in typical Sandal Hat form, he looked up and beamed sarcastically, eyes empty once more. "... Yup!"

... I swore at him, realizing my teacher was still the most infuriating person alive. I punched him in the face, good and hard, and then told him to apologize to Rukia while he was at it.

Quietly, he actually agreed.

A short collection of moments. Some interrogation from my friends about my new substitute Shinigami "job", some promises to help me out with their own spiritual powers now if I needed it (they were rather eager there; I was both amused and touched), a snipped reminder from Ishida as he got off Urahara's flying device at his apartment that we were still technically enemies, a scowl and a shouted curse from me after him. Because, after all that? Screw him. Inoue smiling and waving after us, her eyes tired and gentle, as we got off at her place. Chad getting off at his place, nodding quietly up at me, his eyes deep. Me smiling slightly in thanks, because that was all that was needed, and nodding with tired gratefulness back. A snapped reminder from Jinta that Kon was still hiding up in my room, and by the way he'd been really annoying toward them "all summer." An addition from Urahara that they put Kon in my body and had me "come back home" before coming to meet me.

Goodie. I hoped my family hadn't noticed anything weird.

... Yeah, fat chance of that.

And then we touched down in front of my bedroom window, obviously invisible to the people outside and down below in the quiet suburban city streets. I could hear Yuzu singing herself inside the kitchen window. I looked around at Urahara. "See you," I said quietly, smiling slightly. "Thanks."

He nodded, and I nodded back. Then I climbed up onto my bedroom windowsill, and I watched him fly off back to his storefront.

All was normal once more over Karakura, minus one Shinigami and plus a new one in disguise.

I took a deep breath, gazing out over my sunny city, and let it out slowly. It felt familiar, in every conceivable way, and at the same time utterly new.

I was home.

Author's Notes: This chapter's a bit different, so let me know what you think of it. I'm not sure if I'll continue the story from here. I will, at the very least, be taking a break. In case I decide not to write any more, it's been a great journey and even though it's not my most popular story, I must admit it's been my favorite.

Thanks for reading.