Chapter 1 – The Time Machine

Urahara stared at the large black whirring device thoughtfully. It seemed to be missing … something. Something vital. Was it that the parts were not working properly? No. That could not be. After all, it was a device that he had been working on for months. The great Kisuke Urahara did not make mistakes – at least not many mistakes. Oh yes! That was it! He had forgotten about the most important part. He placed a replica of the small marble he had once created into the machine – the Hogyoku, which had caused so much destruction. It was hard to believe that such a small thing would cause so many deaths. He smiled wryly. If this experiment went the way he thought it would, the original Hogyoku would never fall into the hands of Aizen and be corrupted. The crushing guilt and the weight of so many deaths would also no longer be on his conscience. It was for the best. As he carefully switched the machine to active mode, he called for Ichigo Kurosaki, the man who was going to change it all.

"You can come in now, Ichigo. It's done." Came the weary voice of the genius exile.

"Yes, Urahara. I am coming." Replied the substitute soul reaper in a deep voice. Ichigo had aged significantly over the three years that the winter war had dragged on. His voice now held none of its defiance and rebelliousness of his younger self. Instead, it was that of a war veteran, one who had suffered and seen too many comrades die in action to care about what would happen to himself. His eyes were now a clouded, murky shade of brown, no longer filled with hope or belief. The half-moons under his weary eyes spoke of many sleepless nights filled with the harsh memories of his allies, his friends, the very ones he fought to protect dying. His orange hair had grown into a long mane – it had been ages since he had bothered to even cut it. His body was riddled with thousands of scars, many of which should have taken his life. He had always held on, held on in hopes of being able to protect another life, to save another one of his friends. But there was no one to live for anymore. They were all dead – all dead except for him and Urahara.

Aizen had won the war. He had fused with the Hogyoku and was now a god-like entity. Ichigo now only had a quarter of the power Aizen possessed, and Ichigo knew he did not have the resolve to fight any longer. What was there to fight for when all he sought to protect was all dead. Byakuya… Ichigo's eyes misted over at the memory of his lover dying. Byakuya had fought to the very end, had tried to protect Ichigo with all his power. Byakuya had trained very hard and reached his final bankai release – he was almost on par with Ichigo's powers.

Slate grey eyes stared at Ichigo, the light in them fading and dulling. A slender pale hand cupped Ichigo's cheeks and the other stroked his hair, lacing the orange strands with red. The noble had told Ichigo that he was very happy – very happy that he had met Ichigo; that he had experienced the love they both had before his death. The pale lips, drained of all blood, had whispered so softly that Ichigo had to strain to hear the words.

"I am not sorry for dying this way. It was all I ever dreamed of, dying protecting you was all I ever wanted. I'm sorry for leaving you behind. But I want you to be happy, Ichigo. Even if I am not here anymore, I am certain we will meet again. Ichigo I will… love you… forever."

As Byakuya's words stopped, the noble's chest stopped moving entirely. The determined light went out from grey eyes and pale lips curved slightly in peace. The noble looked serene in death, as if he were only sleeping, if not for the large pool of blood beneath his prone body. A lone tear slipped out from underneath Ichigo's closed lids. The tear he did not want anyone to see tracked its way down his cheek. Even though he was the commander and could not show any weakness, he allowed himself a solitary tear for his dead love. His heart was screaming out in pain but the expression on his face was controlled and never betrayed any hint of what he felt inside. After all, he had to give his troops the impression of strength. When the commander lost his composure it would only mean the death of his troops. Thus, he held himself back and just clutched his dead lover to his chest praying silently for Byakuya to have gone to a better place.

The day Ichigo had lost Byakuya was the day he lost his heart. Even though he kept it hidden, all his friends could sense that the Ichigo they knew and loved was but a shell of his former self. The only reason he was alive was to eliminate Aizen, and this purpose was all that held him back from joining Byakuya in death. They knew, and he knew they knew it. But nothing could be done for him. All they could do was to watch as he was consumed by the void in his heart. He still moved and spoke like Ichigo, but a vital part of Ichigo was gone forever. As they silently mourned for him, all of them swore to protect him like he protected them, and all of them eventually fell in action doing their best to aid him in his near impossible quest.

Ichigo was snapped back to reality by Urahara, who was no longer the light-hearted and joking man he once was. Urahara's blonde hair had long turned white, and he had aged noticeably. His eyes were haunted and marked with the loss of his only love, Yoruichi Shihōin. He was a mere shade of what he once was. However, he was still a genius inventor and had been working on the device for months, in hopes of stopping Aizen's victory.

"Ichigo, you know what you have to do now. The machine only allows one person through. You are so much stronger than me. You have to go into the past and succeed where I have failed. You have to defeat Aizen." Urahara said a tone of conviction in his voice. "Do not worry about me. I will stay here and wait for my time to come. I will not live much longer anyway. But before you go I would like to offer you my reiatsu to let you into the past. It would be a considerable drain if you use your own powers, and I know you need all your power to fight Aizen. This machine has been programmed to let you 50 years into the past, to let you into the Shinigami academy to prepare yourself further for the war. It will be the time when Rukia and Renji attend."

"Thank you for this, Urahara. I will save all of you from this." Ichigo promised determinedly. "I will change the very tide of time if I have to."

"Good luck," whispered the exile as he sent all of his reiatsu into the machine and fell back to the floor, dead. Urahara's time had come. Ichigo smiled sadly at his remaining friend who had most likely sacrificed himself to let Ichigo go through. Urahara had been lying when he had said he would live past this day. Ichigo's heart now swelled with resolve as he stepped toward the gate that had appeared. He would and could not fail all his friends who had sacrificed so much to let him get to this day. With a final glance at his beloved friend, he stepped through the gate and was instantly transported. Ichigo was lost in a swirl of colours and blurred images as he travelled. It was a disorientating experience.

When Ichigo finally opened his eyes, he was greeted with a curious sight. He had landed right in front of large ornate wooden doors. A plague on the wall surrounding was carved with the kanji Shinōreijutsuin 真央霊術院, which stood for the Spiritual Arts Academy. Just as he was drawing back his fists to knock, the door was opened swiftly.

"Have you come for the entrance exam?" A dark-haired boy with the tattoo 69 on his cheek asked curiously. Ichigo recognised him as Shuuei Hisagi immediately, the lieutenant of the 9th division in the future. He was dressed in a white kosode with an academy emblem in it, blue hakama and a Zanpakutō strapped to his waist. Ichigo guessed that this should be the uniform for the academy. As Ichigo was observing this, Hisagi broke in again. "I guess you are, if you would stop staring at me I will bring you to the testing area."

"Okay," said Ichigo curtly, his cheeks flushed in embarrassment. He had not noticed that he had been staring for that long. Ichigo glanced around him curiously. The academy was strangely elegant and imposing, looking rather like a medieval Japanese mansion in the Edo era. They came to a stop beside the main door of the academy which had a plague stating: "Do not seek beauty in battle. Do not seek virtue in death. Do not make the mistake of considering only your own life. If you wish to protect that which you must protect... ...slice the enemy you must defeat from behind."

As the doors opened, he was greeted with the sight of the very man he failed to protect – the man he would gladly do anything for. Byakuya Kuchiki. The noble's icy grey eyes were assessing coolly Ichigo as he strode into the room. Ichigo stared at him hungrily. It had seemed like an eternity since he had seen the noble in person. He wanted to devour Byakuya's features with his sight and imprint them forever in his memories. The flowing ebony hair, the piercing slate eyes; they were all there. Ichigo could barely believe his eyes. Then, remembering himself, Ichigo finally mustered the strength to speak. "Good morning, Kuchiki sama. I am Kurosaki Ichigo from the 80th district of Rukongai." Ichigo intoned politely, sketching the perfect formal bow. "Are you going to be my examiner today?"

"Yes, indeed I am." Replied Byakuya, his eyes narrowing imperceptibly. "You do not seem to have come from the Rukongai. Instead, you have the etiquette of a noble. How is that? And how did you know I am a Kuchiki?"

Ichigo realised that he had messed up. Majorly. He gazed steadily at Byakuya and tried to cover up his mistake. He had unconsciously slipped into his 'noble' façade that he had adopted to get Byakuya's family to accept him. He had also forgotten the fact that people living in Rukongai would not know Byakuya on sight. "I guess I was born a noble in my past life. And I knew you were a Kuchiki as the senior who brought me in told me I was going to be tested by one." Ichigo replied calmly, meeting Byakuya's eyes steadily without a flicker of deceit.

"You remember your past life? Remarkable. Only a person of great strength would be able to do so. I hope you do not disappoint." Byakuya remarked impassively. Ichigo knew enough about Byakuya to be able to tell that he was slightly impressed. Ichigo allowed himself a small smirk which did not go unnoticed by Byakuya. "The test of knowledge will start now. What do you know about Zanpakutō?" Byakuya enquired.

"Zanpakutō are an extension of a soul reaper's soul. They are basically partners in the form of swords which help the soul reapers fight. There are two stages of release for Zanpakutō, shikai which means initial release and bankai which means final release. The power of a soul reaper increases exponentially upon reaching shikai, and in bankai, the power is multiplied several times. Only a select few can achieve bankai and those who do are usually captains or lieutenants."

"Good." Byakuya was noticeably surprised by Ichigo's knowledge. "Next, we will move on to what you know of hollows."

Ichigo then decided that he would try to cover up his experience and just said, "All I know about hollows is that one killed my mother when I was too young to remember so I don't know what it looked like."

"I… I see." Byakuya murmured quietly, writing swiftly on a piece of paper. "Let me ask you another question. What motivated you to want to become a soul reaper?"

"To protect." Ichigo firmly replied. "I never want anyone to go through the agony that I had to go through without a parent for so many years. I want to protect those weaker than me."

Byakuya was impressed by that announcement, Ichigo could see it. Ichigo could see it even though others probably couldn't. Byakuya's emotionless mask ensured that. But somehow, Ichigo had always been able to see through the mask to the man inside. Byakuya wrote another mark on the paper then asked, "Are you ready for the Hohou test? It will require you to use shunpo. Do you already know what it is since you have proven yourself to know soul reaper techniques? If so, try to tap me once on my stomach and shoulder."

"Yes I am. And I know how to perform shunpo, as well as the other soul reaper skills because I had a sensei who had instructed me on them once." Ichigo was determined to prove himself to Byakuya. He wanted to see the look of wonder on Byakuya's face solely focused on him and him alone. Moreover, he knew that if he held back too much, it would be very obvious to a master of shunpo like Byakuya. As Byakuya started to move behind Ichigo, it seemed as if Byakuya was moving in slow motion. Byakuya must have been holding back. Ichigo immediately used a quarter of his speed, trying to look as if he was putting in a lot of effort. He shunpoed behind Byakuya quickly and tapped the noble on the shoulder once, then to the front where he tapped the noble lightly on the stomach. "Okay. You have passed." Said Byakuya, obviously stunned by Ichigo's skill. "Let's move to Hakuda. You will attempt to strike me once."

Ichigo readied himself, standing in a combat stance. As Byakuya stood impassively, Ichigo delivered a lightning-quick strike to Byakuya's abdomen. This time, Byakuya blocked him, knowing that Ichigo had obviously had some training. He did not bother going too easy on Ichigo this time like he did in shunpo. The boy had a fine mastery of shunpo, almost at Byakuya's level. As Ichigo tried to strike Byakuya, he was blocked again and again. Then, Ichigo pretended to strike Byakuya's shoulder and feinted at the last minute, aiming for the abdomen again. Byakuya was not able to defend fast enough. "You have passed again." Panted a visibly tired Byakuya. "Now for Zanjutsu. You will again attempt to strike me once."

Byakuya handed Ichigo a wooden sword, taking up a defensive pose as Ichigo started to attack relentlessly. Ichigo broke Byakuya's sword into two at the first strike. Byakuya was left staring at the wooden sword in shock. Ichigo knew that he had obviously injured Byakuya's pride, even though Byakuya did not show it. Byakuya put on the indifferent mask once more and requested; "Now I shall proceed to test you in kido. Perform any one Hado and Bakudo you know on the training dummy."

"Can I request a kido barrier?" Ichigo asked quietly. Receiving a quiet nod, Ichigo took in a deep breath and enunciated carefully "Seeping crest of turbidity. Arrogant vessel of lunacy! Boil forth and deny! Grow numb and flicker! Disrupt sleep! Crawling queen of iron! Eternally self-destructing doll of mud! Unite! Repulse! Fill with soil and know your own powerlessness! Hado no. 90: Kurohitsugi!" The sky appeared to darken as multiple boxes of black energy appeared, each of them topped off with cross-shaped spears, before they multiplied and enclosed themselves on their victim, the training dummy. The spell was so powerful that the dummy was completely reduced to ash and even the kido barrier shattered from its might. "Carriage of thunder, bridge of a spinning wheel. With light, divide this into six! Bakudo no. 61: Rikujōkōrō." Six large beams of light slammed into the training dummy's midsection.

"Very impressive." Byakuya admitted. "No one who is not at captain or lieutenant level should be able to do that. You have passed with near perfect marks. Who was the soul reaper who taught you all this?"

"He is an exile. Kisuke Urahara." Ichigo admitted honestly. Ichigo did not see how Byakuya could find out whether he was really trained by Urahara so he just said that. The stunned look on Byakuya's face as this piece of information was processed was priceless.

"And when did he teach you?" Byakuya enquired curiously.

"He taught me while he was still in soul society before his exile." Ichigo replied again.

"You are now admitted into the academy. Your lessons start tomorrow." Was Byakuya's only reply, though his stare conveyed his shock and injured pride.

"This is a transfer student who took his tests late. However, he scored near perfect marks for everything and is now the top in class. His name is Ichigo Kurosaki." The Kidō teacher for the first class announced it loudly. "Everybody, treat him well. And Kurosaki, please introduce yourself."

"My name is Ichigo Kurosaki. My name does not mean 'strawberry, it means 'number one protector. My interests are practicing Kidō and Hohou. I do not like people who threaten those I swear to protect. "

The class clapped politely after his small speech was over. Ichigo strode to the only empty seat in the classroom, plonking down on it hard. Noticing a flash of red at the corner of his eye, he turned around swiftly and realised that he was sitting right next to his redheaded best friend in the future. He was swamped with his emotions, he was so happy that he could see Renji again but sad that the Renji in this time would never be able to know him that well again. Ichigo could not afford to make too many close friends in the academy or he night let slip that he was actually not what he seemed to be.

Renji, noticing Ichigo's stare, whipped around rapidly "What are you looking at eh, you idiot Strawberry."

"Nothing, you barbaric pineapple." Ichigo retorted. Ichigo could think of a million times that he and Renji had bantered freely like that and Ichigo seriously missed those moments. He closed his eyes and thanked Urahara mentally for giving him a chance to see his comrades again. He did not mind now that they did not recognise him; he was just happy that they were safe and alive once more. Ichigo would do anything to prevent the events in the future from happening, even if it killed him. He swore to himself never to let his precious people suffer again, especially Byakuya.

Renji was staring at Ichigo as the orange head drifted away in thought. He is a weird one, but why do I feel like I know and trust this person? I shall try to be friends with him, if only to remove that look of sorrow in his eyes. Did I know him before?

Little did Renji know he was on the right track. However, as Ichigo was called to do a Kidō demonstration, Renji got distracted by the look of absolute confidence on Ichigo's face. Ichigo certainly was cocky, was what Renji thought at first, till Ichigo suddenly showed his full capability for Kido by firing a Hado 33: Sōkatsui, without an incantation. It was shocking. To be only a first year and to have that kind of capability was unheard of. The power of the shot blasted a hole not just through the training dummy Ichigo was practicing on, but the seven training dummies behind it too.

Renji decided to ask Ichigo to train him in control, something which Renji lacked significantly. In fact, Renji's numerous failed Kidō attempts were legendary in the academy. Even his own friends stayed several feet away from Renji when he was practicing his Kidō as they did not want to be caught in the explosion that would ensue. The effects of Renji's failed Kidō were devastating to say the least. The last time he tried Hado 31: Shakkaho, it had blown up and the explosion had turned the whole Kidō practice room into a smouldering wreck. Even his Bakudo could explode spectacularly. Renji was at his wits' end about what to do about his Kidō. But now he had a friend that could help rectify that problem. He grinned happily. Finally things were looking Renji's way for once.

After his first day at the Soul Reaper academy, Ichigo was rather bored. The instructors really had nothing to teach him. In fact, he was beginning to think that it had been a stupid idea to come back in time to receive training. Urahara had wanted him to do so, but the instructors were too elementary to teach him anything that could be of use against Aizen. Ichigo suddenly had an overwhelming impulse to find the only person he would find when he needed advice; Byakuya Kuchiki.

As Ichigo used his shunpo to travel to the 6th division barracks, he took a deep breath and hoped he was not making the wrong choice. He hoped that his future lover would turn into the man that was his trusted confidante and advisor. He hoped that he had made the right choice in trusting Byakuya about his situation. The Byakuya in his time would be most willing to help, but Ichigo was unsure about the one now. Would he go against the rules to help Ichigo now? Ichigo certainly hoped so. As he sped toward the 6th division, Ichigo took in a deep breath.

This chapter has been edited after your reviews. Sorry for the long break, I've been very busy but will definitely update soon. Glad you like the story!

XOXO, The lovely author