Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.


General Warnings: AU, Time Travel, Ichigo-centric, violence, language, past IchiRuki.


Summary: The war rages on for ten years, and by the time it ends, most are dead and Soul Society has been destroyed. But Kisuke still has one more card to play, and he gambles it all on the one person he believes in to achieve the impossible. Ichigo accepts without hesitation. There's nothing he wouldn't do to protect his friends and family, and he doesn't have anything left to lose anyway.


Author's Notes: So the AU future that Ichigo came back from is basically canon until all the way up to the battles between Aizen/Espada and Ichigo/Shinigami but instead of Ichigo/Kisuke defeating Aizen, the war continues for another ten years. I might throw in a little bit of Ichigo's heritage (gotta wait for the next manga issues to come out because at this point, I haven't the faintest clue who his parents really are). And considering Ichigo's growth rate, an extra ten years will make him very powerful so he'll have a new level of Bankai, as well as a sealed state for his Zanpakutou, etc. The plot that came after the seventeen-month skip in the canon doesn't apply (Ginjou, Royal Guard, etc.).

For those of you who have read my Naruto fic Ghost, the layout of this fic will be like that one, so this won't be a whopping time travel saga of epic proportions and I'm hoping to complete the entire thing in less than ten chapters.


Chapter 1


I.

"I'm going out for a walk."

Isshin lowered his newspaper, pretending he hadn't already been watching his only son over the top of it ever since Ichigo had stepped into the kitchen.

"Again, Ichigo?" Isshin enquired lightly, and then burst into fake sobs. "MASAKI! OUR SON DOESN'T WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH HIS FAMILY!"

Instead of the derisive scoff that would've been Ichigo's typical response, all Isshin received was a faint smile that faded before it could fully form. "Yeah, yeah, Goat-Face, I get it. I'll be back in time for dinner."

And without waiting for further fanfare, the teen disappeared out the door, silent as a ghost.

With the twins upstairs doing homework, Isshin allowed his usual goofy facade to diminish as he rocked back on his heels and stared contemplatively at the empty doorway.

Two weeks ago, Ichigo had come home from school, same as any other weekday, but Isshin had almost had a heart attack when he had caught a glimpse of his son's expression. Shadowed with hidden grief and weariness, Ichigo had swept in through the front door, made a beeline for his sisters, and given each of them a tight hug before brushing past Isshin on his way to the stairs.

Isshin would swear blind until the day he died that his perpetually scowling, emotionally reticent son had tangled his fingers in Isshin's sleeve like a child seeking comfort in the mere one and a half seconds it had taken for Ichigo to walk past him.

Frankly, it had scared the shit out of him. Something had happened, and it had affected Ichigo enough that it had changed him entirely.

Because the teenager currently out on yet another stroll through the streets of Karakura, while most assuredly Ichigo, was also vastly different from the short-tempered, impulsive youth that Isshin knew.

This Ichigo was harder, sharper around the edges, prone to long periods of distant silence even when the whole family was gathered at the dinner table, treated Isshin's morning assaults as if they bored him, never even yelled at him for them anymore, and always walked around on silent footsteps.

The one thing that had assured Isshin that this was actually still his son was the look of undisguised affection that would restore a glimmer of life into tired brown eyes whenever Karin and Yuzu were in sight.

He sighed and rose to his feet, raking a hand through his hair before trotting out of the kitchen and pausing at the bottom of the stairs. "Karin! Yuzu! Daddy's going out for a bit! Don't miss me too much while I'm away!"

Grinning despite the situation at Yuzu's "Okay, Tou-san!" and Karin's "Who would miss you, Goat-Face?!", Isshin grabbed his coat and headed out the door.

Maybe this was Shinigami related. Maybe Ichigo had seen a Hollow being killed by one of the more sword-happy Soul Reapers in the Gotei 13. So maybe Kisuke could shed some light on his son's behaviour.

Because, strangest of all, Isshin could no longer feel the reiryoku that Ichigo normally leaked like a faucet all over the place.

II.

"Interesting," Kisuke rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "No, I'm afraid there hasn't been anything particular in the last few weeks. Even the Hollows have lessened, though I suppose that would be because your son's reiryoku has suddenly been... muted?"

"Pretty much," Isshin nodded, frowning. "I can barely feel it anymore. And he's just- It's like a part of him is just gone. God, Kisuke, I look at him nowadays and it's like he's dead. Something's happened to him. Are you absolutely sure Grand Fisher hasn't appeared again? If Ichigo saw Masaki's killer-"

"I'm sure, Isshin-san," Kisuke interrupted, hiding a pensive frown as he reached up and tugged his hat down. He had been far more careful with monitoring the Hollows that came and went in Karakura after the incident with Isshin's wife. "Hollow activity is at an all-time low. Nothing has happened."

Isshin scowled, frustration all but radiating from him. "Well something is wrong with my son. The only thing, the only thing that makes him happy these days is when he sees his sisters, and even that doesn't last very long. Karin and Yuzu have noticed already and they're starting to get worried."

Kisuke sighed as Isshin shifted edgily in his seat. The other man had always lacked patience – personally, Kisuke blamed it on the Shiba genes. Captaincy had been good for him but there was only so much tolerance that Isshin could ever gain.

"Have you followed him on these walks he takes?" He asked evenly, snapping open his fan. "Maybe he saw a Shinigami getting rid of a Hollow and I somehow missed it, and the Shinigami decided to tell your son a few things."

Isshin shook his head dismissively. "I've followed him three times. He either walks circles around town or he goes to the river and sits on the bank until sunset. He's not meeting anyone."

Kisuke's frown deepened. Besides occasional glimpses when the teen happened to walk past his shop, he hadn't actually seen Kurosaki Ichigo since the boy had been a baby and Isshin had crashed into his home with a beaming Masaki on his right and his first child in his arms. The man had been so damn proud, and even as Kisuke and Shinji had taken turns holding the baby, Isshin had boasted to the high heavens that Ichigo would grow up to become a great man one day.

"And you're certain it's not just teenage angst?" Kisuke enquired cautiously. "I hear that's always a problem for kids Ichigo's age."

Isshin threw him a dirty look. "You think I'd be this worried about teenage angst?"

Kisuke sighed. "Yes, yes, alright. But there really hasn't been anything odd lately..."

He trailed off when a thought struck him, one not of any real consequence and had been dismissed out of mind until now.

Isshin instantly zeroed in on it. "What is it?"

"Come to think of it," Kisuke started slowly. "One of my Gikongan dispensers went missing a week ago."

Isshin's gaze narrowed. "And this didn't occur to you earlier?"

Kisuke shrugged. "I've misplaced them before, Isshin-san, and how many people do you know can sneak into my shop of all places undetected?"

Isshin grumbled wordlessly, grudgingly conceding the point.

Kisuke sighed again, snapping his fan shut. "Just keep an eye on your boy. He's special enough to attract Aizen's attention; you've been training him for years to prepare him. If something's happened to him – if he's seen something he shouldn't have – it'll come out sooner or later. Probably sooner."

In the end, that was all they could really do.

But as Kisuke waved his long-time friend out the door, his eyes drifted up to the cloudy skies overhead.

Isshin was prone to exaggeration at times, but when he was serious, he told things as they were. If the man said that his son had changed drastically, then Kisuke believed him. Now all they had to do was work out the reason for it.

III.

By the time Isshin got home, his son had already returned, shoes placed neatly on the side and muffled voices filtered from the kitchen.

Isshin paused just out of sight, shamelessly eavesdropping when he heard Karin's raised voice.

"-don't know what is wrong with you these days, Ichi-nii! Are you sick? Even Goat-Face has noticed and you know how much of an idiot he is!"

Isshin waited with baited breath for Ichigo's reply. He knew his son would probably never completely open up to any of them – that ship had sailed; Ichigo had closed a part of himself off ever since Masaki had died – but Karin and Yuzu both had a knack for weaseling some things out of their brother when they put their minds to it.

"...There's nothing wrong, Karin."

"That's a lie and we all know it!"

"Onii-chan, you can talk to us. Something's making you sad and we're worried. Maybe we can help."

"There's nothing wrong. I've just been a bit tired. I'm sorry for worrying you."

A moment later, Ichigo had appeared in the hall, and for once, Isshin didn't attempt to tackle the teen or break out into sobs or pull any of his usual antics. Instead, he met his son's gaze evenly, trying to catch a glimpse of something – anything – behind those dull brown eyes that had become disturbingly familiar over the past two weeks.

But Ichigo only nodded at him before climbing the stairs up to his room. The quiet click of the bedroom door closing sounded like a gunshot in the ensuing silence.

"Otou-san?"

Isshin glanced back and found the twins piled in the doorway. "Yes, Yuzu?"

Yuzu's lips quivered. "Is Onii-chan going to be alright?"

I haven't the faintest clue, Isshin thought harshly.

Outwardly, he plastered on a bright grin and whispered conspiratorially, "Your brother's growing up! It's a part of a teenager's duty to become moody over the smallest things. Don't worry; it's just Ichigo's hormones finally kicking in!"

He spun around and threw himself at his wife's memorial poster. "MASAKI! OUR SON HAS FINALLY HIT PUBERTY! HE'S UNDOUBTEDLY DEALING WITH GIRL PROBLEMS!"

Behind him, he heard Yuzu gasp in shock and Karin groan in annoyance. "Come on, Yuzu, let's leave the moron to his delusions. Are we having curry tonight?"

"Oh yes! I thought I'd cook one of Onii-chan's favourites. It might cheer him up."

"Good idea. I'll lend you a hand. Curry's about the only thing I can make."

Isshin waited until his daughters had returned to the kitchen before flopping onto his back.

"I don't know what to do, Masaki," Isshin murmured softly. "Our son's changed, and I don't know if he'll ever be the same again."

IV.

Blink.

The ceiling was still there, solid and white. No brown cloth, no reiatsu-enforced tent, no nightly howling winds of Hueco Mundo, so bitterly cold that even Toshirou had had to hunt down more blankets for himself.

When he had still been alive anyway.

Blink.

His room was still around him. No blood, no agonized screams, no Hollows after his head.

He was okay.

Ichigo breathed in deeply before exhaling again. He was okay. He was back, all the way back at the very beginning, and nothing bad had happened yet.

He was okay.

"Aibou, you're repeatin' yourself."

Shut up, Ichigo thought silently. Most of what he did was silent these days.

A snort echoed in his mind but at least Shiro managed to refrain from saying anything else. Instead, a soothing hum of reiatsu washed over him as his two Zanpakutou stepped in.

Ichigo sent back a thrum of quiet gratitude before his gaze shifted to his window. Rukia would be coming tonight.

He stamped down hard on the wave of near-suffocating anguish at the thought of the raven-haired Shinigami he had befriended all those years ago.

If only he had been just a little faster, a little stronger, then maybe Rukia wouldn't have died, wouldn't have bled out in his arms as he had hunched over her limp form amidst the rubble that Soul Society had been reduced to.

It wouldn't happen this time though, he swore fervently. That was why he was here, why he had allowed Kisuke to sacrifice himself to send him back in time.

To save everyone.

And if saving everyone also meant sacrificing all the bonds he had created over the course of the war, if that meant Renji and Uryuu and Shinji and Byakuya and dozens of others would never really know him...

If that meant giving up Rukia's love, then so be it.

Better alive and happy than dead in a world ruled by a madman. There was no point in moping about things he couldn't change.

"You could try," The smooth voice of his second Zanpakutou interrupted. "Kuchiki Rukia is still Kuchiki Rukia."

But she's not my Rukia, Ichigo shot back, closing his eyes. She doesn't know me. And besides, what kind of idiot would want to deal with all of my baggage?

"You are, as you have always been, too hard on yourself," Came the sombre reply. "You deserve to be happy, Ichigo."

Yeah, well, I'll be ecstatic when Aizen's dead and gone, Ichigo retorted, rolling onto his side.

"Now you're talkin', Aibou," Shiro cut in gleefully. "You can court the Kuchiki woman after we kick Aizen's ass."

Ichigo mustered up enough energy to snort derisively. Most of the time, fighting was the only thing his Hollow had on his mind. While he cared about Rukia, mostly for Ichigo's sake, Shiro just couldn't seem to understand that it really wasn't as easy as he made it sound. Rukia would never be the same to him anymore, just as Ichigo would never be the same teenager he had been when they had first met. He had lost the only person he had ever loved when she had been killed by Aizen's hand.

'Ichigo,' Zangetsu's voice resounded in his mind. Unlike the others, the oldest of his spiritual companions made no specific comment on Rukia. Zangetsu had always known him best. 'She is coming.'

Ichigo didn't open his eyes or move from his bed. Aa. She should be able to sense Fishbone D this time though. I've suppressed almost all my reiatsu.

'And you are certain of this course of action?'

Well, I can't exactly take her powers a second time. It probably wouldn't mix well with mine anyway. Who knows what would happen? Ichigo paused. Unless you have any objections about this plan?

'No,' Zangetsu answered placidly. 'It will serve to throw Aizen off. The Hogyoku must not be sealed inside Rukia again. If she unknowingly brings it back to Seireitei, Aizen will obtain it once more.'

Ichigo mentally nodded. That had been the main problem during the war. The Hollows that Aizen had been able to make with the Hogyoku – some that wouldn't die no matter how you sliced them up, others that could poison your Zanpakutou with one touch – had been truly terrifying.

A rustle drew his attention to the window, and he watched as a black butterfly fluttered in, followed soon after by the familiar figure of a slightly younger-looking and far less jaded Kuchiki Rukia.

Ichigo's jaw tightened as pain lanced through his heart. He stayed silent though as his once-friend and lover murmured under her breath and parked herself by his window, peering out of it into the night.

With his own reiryoku restrained, Ichigo knew that they could both sense the sizeable reiatsu of Fishbone D coming up the street.

And this time, as Rukia readied her Zanpakutou, Ichigo remained quiet, only rising to his feet, flicking the light switch, and making his way to the window after she had launched herself back outside, ambushing the gigantic Hollow with focused precision.

She held her own quite nicely, Ichigo had to admit. He had been a real distraction the first time around, but now that Rukia didn't have an inexperienced Human bumbling around, she could fully concentrate on the task at hand.

Casually, he scanned his surroundings, absently noting the muted reiatsu signature on one of the nearby rooftops. Urahara Kisuke had become one of his closest friends over the course of the war but that didn't change the fact that the ex-captain could be a manipulative son-of-a-bitch, especially at the beginning of their acquaintance. Ichigo would like to think that he had... cured the shopkeeper of that particular habit to some degree after a few years in each other's company.

Another surreptitious glance around pinpointed the camera fly hovering in a shadowy alcove, recording both the fight below and Ichigo's profile.

He inwardly snorted. Aizen was one nosy stalker.

His attention was drawn back to the fight below when Rukia released a startled yelp as she was sent flying by a backhand courtesy of Fishbone. Involuntarily, Ichigo jolted forward a step, his frown deepening as he silently urged Rukia back onto her feet.

She did, stumbling a little before dodging another blow and leaping forward to cut into the Hollow's mask. Fishbone howled, reeling back in pain and swiftly retreating into Hueco Mundo for a few seconds to recover, giving Rukia time to do the same.

Moments later, the Hollow burst back into the Living World, angrier than ever as it charged blindly at Rukia. The black-haired Shinigami ducked again before carving a deep gash in the Hollow's arm, only to get sideswiped when Fishbone's other arm lashed out and caught her in the middle.

"Aibou, your woman's gonna die if this keeps up much longer,"Shiro warned flippantly.

She's not my woman, Ichigo rebuffed irritably, but snapped out a tiny bolt of reiatsu at the camera fly, instantly short-circuiting the thing.

He darted an assessing look in Kisuke's direction. He couldn't sense any surprise from the shopkeeper so he knew the man hadn't seen what he had done.

As Rukia struggled to her feet once again and Fishbone advanced on her, Ichigo retreated into the darkness of his room and swallowed a Gikongan, stepping out of his body with ease and instantly feeling somewhat lighter. Sometimes, it was downright stifling staying in his human body – ironic since he was Human.

Sort of.

"Stay put," He ordered the mod soul, and after receiving a nod, he shunpoed out the window, making sure to stay out of Kisuke's line of sight.

He didn't bother drawing even one of the blades settled comfortably against his back, the katana at a diagonal angle with the hilt positioned above his right shoulder and the wakizashi just above his waist at a horizontal with the hilt on his left. Releasing either of his Zanpakutou would be wasted on a weak Hollow like this one.

His first Zanpakutou was the stronger of the two of course, especially seeing how their Bankai had become their Shikai when the simple initial release proved to be largely useless against the Hollows Aizen had sent out en masse. To his friends' general dumbfounded astonishment and exasperation, Ichigo had countered this by manifesting a second Bankai on top of his first. Tensa Zangetsu now remained in his younger form, though still as stoic and serene as ever.

He shifted, absently fingering the black scarf around his neck as he waited for an opening. His Shinigami clothing had changed in style over the years but it was still black on the outside with a white trim on the inside. His Shihakushou opened slightly at the chest, remained ragged at the bottom, and extended all the way to his ankles, but the wide sleeves only stretched a few inches below his elbows while his forearms and hands were protected by arm guards and fingerless gloves. Two dark red sashes, one over his shoulder and the other around his waist, secured his two swords to his person.

His hair was somewhat shaggier as well. At mid-neck length, his bangs were also long enough and messy enough to naturally shadow his right eye. After yet another battle against Aizen in the wastelands of Hueco Mundo, Ichigo had been unfortunate enough to take a crippling strike to his right eye, mangling it and destroying half his eyesight before Unohana could get to him. A faint, jagged scar now ran from his right eyebrow to his cheekbone and over his eyelid. The pupil was gone and the iris was now an unfocused blue after it had been poisoned by whatever substance had coated the blade that Aizen had used at the time. As it was, his eye still ached from time to time, and the only upside to it was that it tended to unnerve people when he glared directly at them.

The injury didn't affect his human body though, nor did any of his scars show, but it didn't change the fact that he could only see out of one eye now. The wound had been a bitch to deal with at first, and Ichigo had lost his temper more than once whenever he had turned and ended up crashing into a wall because his depth perception had been thrown off, or nearly getting skewered whenever an enemy came at him from his right side. That, more than anything else, had pushed him into learning how to sense reiatsu signatures, especially after Renji and Ikkaku had laughed their asses off when they had caught Ichigo walking headlong into a doorframe.

He ignored the nostalgia that came with the thought of the two lieutenants and forced his mind to stay in the present. He winced when Rukia was once again tossed off her feet, slamming against the wall with a sickening thud and a pained cry.

He spared one last second to look over in Kisuke's direction again. There was no way the shopkeeper wouldn't see him, and the man would undoubtedly dredge up a crapload of questions about Ichigo as soon as he caught a glimpse of him, but Ichigo had pondered this problem several times already and knew that there was no plausible way he could completely hide who he was from everyone. If nothing else, anybody who slapped eyes on him in his Shinigami form would wonder why he looked eleven years older than he supposedly was.

However, Ichigo was very good at evading difficult questions (or ignoring them anyway), and it wasn't in Kisuke's nature to take the direct route when interrogating someone. Ichigo could buy himself more than enough time.

So, just as Fishbone lunged for the fallen Shinigami, mouth opened and teeth bared, Ichigo dashed forward, whirling around the Hollow's large limbs and scooping Rukia's petite form into his arms before shunpoing a safe distance away.

He could almost taste Kisuke's shock. It almost made him smile.

"Who-?!" Rukia began, voice laced with alarm and pain even as she craned her neck around to peer up at him. Calmly, Ichigo knocked her out before she could get a good look. He was above most of the captains in terms of strength and equalled all the rest but that didn't mean he wanted the entire Gotei 13 descending on his head.

Carefully, he lowered Rukia to the ground, setting her and her Zanpakutou against a wall before glancing back over his shoulder. The Hollow roared, enraged that its prey had gotten away, and was now in the process of charging at Ichigo, hands outstretched and a hungry gleam in its eyes.

Bad choice.

Ichigo disappeared from sight, a single step forward flashing him across the street even as he drew Zangetsu. Without hesitation, he pierced the bone mask and severed it in half, shredding his way straight through the Hollow in the span of a heartbeat.

Ichigo had Zangetsu sheathed once more before he had even landed behind the Hollow, and as he straightened and turned, Fishbone dispersed, its shrieks dying away as its soul was purified.

"...That was so borin' I almost fell asleep,"Shiro remarked in the following silence that filled the dark street.

Ichigo rolled his eyes as he padded back towards Rukia, stooping down to pick her up again. Better boring than those skin-eating Hollows.

"Those weren't Hollows," Shiro grumbled. "Those were Aizen's trash. Things shouldn't've existed in the first place."

Ichigo hummed an agreement as he shunpoed back up to his window, Rukia cradled safely in his arms. He paused for a moment, perched on the sill, and glanced back over his shoulder, staring straight at the spot Kisuke had hidden himself in.

The shopkeeper's reiatsu signature lingered for a moment longer before it disappeared, becoming abruptly fainter as Kisuke headed home.

Ichigo allowed a small smile to tilt one corner of his mouth before he stepped back into his room. This would keep Kisuke occupied for a while.

Gently, he placed the unconscious Shinigami on his bed and reached into one of his drawers for the first-aid kit. He'd bandage her injuries and give her a place to sleep for the night before seeing her off tomorrow.

Wouldn't Aizen be surprised that Rukia, while somewhat drained, was still in full possession of her powers?

V.

Well, wasn't this interesting.

Kisuke stared idly at the cup of tea – cold now – in front of him, running over the earlier events once more.

Kurosaki Ichigo was a Shinigami, seemingly without any outside assistance, knew Shunpo, had sensed Kisuke, and had taken down a sixteen-foot Hollow without batting an eye. Kisuke was fairly certain that the boy's Zanpakutou hadn't even been released.

And that was another thing. From what he had seen, Ichigo appeared to have two swords, the longer one with a dark red scabbard and black handle and the shorter one with a blood red sheath and a dark purple hilt-wrapping, so the teen either had a daishou pair – and Kisuke only knew two other people who possessed double-sword Zanpakutou, only one of whom had two blades in its sealed state – or, incredibly enough, Ichigo simply had two Zanpakutou.

Why not? It seemed like a night for impossibilities.

He took a gulp of tea and grimaced. It was no secret that he was god-awful at making tea, or anything kitchen-related really, which was why Tessai usually made the meals, but his long-time friend was asleep at the moment.

With a sigh, Kisuke rose to his feet and headed for the sink to pour the tea away. He wondered how Isshin was going to take this news. Undoubtedly, the man had sensed the Hollow, but Kisuke had warned him to stay inside since he couldn't do anything anyway, and the Hollow had been something of a test for Ichigo, to see if the boy had the potential to become a Shinigami.

After tonight, potential wasn't even a question. Kurosaki Ichigo had skill to spare. He had even found Kisuke hiding in the shadows without difficulty.

The gaze that the teen had levelled at him had been unnerving at best too, even from the single eye Kisuke had glimpsed. He finally understood what Isshin had been trying to explain to him. Even in those few seconds that they had stared at each other, neither getting a particularly clear look but picking up on one another's reiatsu anyway, Kisuke had sensed nothing but overwhelming sorrow from the young man.

It had been enough to make him look away and leave. A fifteen-year-old boy – who looked quite a bit older than fifteen, come to think of it – should not feel like that.

There was also the problem of Kuchiki Rukia. Since Ichigo hadn't needed her powers to defeat the Hollow, had saved her before her reiatsu had even become entirely depleted, the girl would have no need for a gigai to recover in, which meant that the Hogyoku...

Kisuke closed his eyes and leaned against the counter, automatically reaching up for the brim of his hat. It was wrong, he knew, to seal the artefact he had created into an innocent person, but he hadn't been able to destroy it and time was running out. Aizen would make his move soon – heck, he probably had already, what with the puzzling transfer of the Kuchiki girl to Karakura – and Kisuke had to seal the Hogyoku away before someone came looking for it.

Kuchiki Rukia would be in Karakura for a month though so Kisuke could still pull this off. Never let it be said that he didn't have backup plans.

And in the meantime, he'd have to figure out just how Isshin's son had tapped into his powers, and who he had learned it from.

VI.

The first thing Rukia noticed when she woke up was the soothing scent of green tea in the air. The second was the fact that she wasn't in the Kuchiki Compound or the Thirteenth Division barracks.

She shot up into a sitting position, and then faltered when the room momentarily spun around her, leaving her clutching at the blankets tucked around her.

"I hope you don't always wake up like that," A male voice commented from beside her.

Rukia instantly stiffened, instinctively reaching for her sword at her waist but not finding it, and then turned sharply to face the other person in the room. "Who are you?!"

Narrowed brown eyes met hers as she took in the shock of orange hair and distinctly human clothes that the stranger was wearing.

This person was Human.

"You... can see me?" Rukia asked warily, though in hindsight, that was a rather stupid question since she was talking to him and it looked like he had lent his bed to her as well. He must have quite a high amount of reiryoku.

The teenager shrugged lazily, propping an elbow on the desk beside him. "I take it I'm not supposed to be able to? Or that monster from last night?"

This brought the Hollow she had been fighting rushing back to the forefront of her thoughts.

"What- What happened to it?!" Rukia demanded frantically, trying to recall what had happened after she had- passed out? "Is it gone? Did it hurt anyone?"

She looked back at the Human just in time to catch a shadow of puzzling fondness flicker briefly at the edges of his mouth before it disappeared again.

This boy was very composed for a Human, Rukia noted, studying the blank gaze that stared back at her and the heavy scowl that creased his brow.

"It disappeared," The Human told her. "And no, it didn't hurt anyone."

Rukia blinked, bewildered. "Hollows don't just disappear!"

"Well you were the one hacking away at it with your sword," The Human jabbed a finger over his shoulder at the closet door behind him and Rukia was relieved to spot Sode no Shirayuki leaning against it, no worse for wear.

She threw the blankets off and scrambled out of bed. The Human rose in her eyes when he wordlessly scooted out of the way and made no attempt to stop her from reaching her sword.

A warm hum of acknowledgement threaded through her soul as her hand closed around the sword's hilt and she breathed a sigh of relief before turning back to the Human.

"Thank you," She started stiffly, glancing down at the neatly-wrapped bandages around her left arm. "It seems I took some damage from the battle."

She paused and wracked her mind. "...There was someone else there. I was not the one who finished off the Hollow. Did you see who they were?"

The Human, infuriatingly enough, shrugged again. "Who knows."

Rukia twitched and she tightened her grip on Sode no Shirayuki. "What do you mean 'who knows'? You were watching!"

The Human didn't seem at all disconcerted. "I was busy dragging your ass inside after you collapsed. Now if you're finished, don't you have stuff to do? More of those Hollows to take down? Or someone to report to? Unless you work alone."

Rukia scowled as the teenager turned away dismissively. This Human was very irritating. "Aren't you at all curious about what a Hollow is? Or what I am?"

"Not really," The Human tilted his head and threw a slightly mocking look over his shoulder. "Though I have a feeling you're about to tell me."

Rukia almost growled before brushing past the teen and leaping onto the window ledge. "I am not going to tell you. Good day, Human!"

Without looking back, she shunpoed out the window, only stopping when she had gotten a fair distance away.

She paused, and then huffed. She had ended up leaving without finding out who had taken out the Hollow last night.

There was no way she was going back though. It was bad enough that the Human had seen her. She supposed it was a good thing that he hadn't seemed like the curious type.

VII.

"And you're absolutely sure it was Ichigo?" Isshin pressed, knuckles white as he clasped his hands together.

Kisuke gave him a dry look. "Unless you have another son you haven't told me about, yes, I'm quite sure."

Isshin closed his eyes for a moment and released a gusty sigh. "Well, he definitely didn't learn it from me."

Kisuke eyed him carefully from beneath his hat before mentioning casually, "His Shinigami form looked at least a decade older than his Human self, Isshin-san."

Isshin jerked, body becoming rigid with confused disbelief. "What? His soul's older than his body? How is that possible?"

The shopkeeper shook his head. "I don't know. What I do know is that Kurosaki-san fights like he's been doing it his entire life. He's not just good, he has experience. That Hollow had a sizeable amount of reiryoku, enough that an unseated officer of the Gotei 13 couldn't fully handle it alone, yet your son dispatched it with the ease that a captain would have shown. He didn't even release his Zanpakutou."

Isshin raised a hand and kneaded his forehead. This was ridiculous. Ichigo had been a normal teenager – albeit one who could see souls – mere weeks ago. "Is it possible that he simply didn't know his Shikai command?"

Kisuke shrugged. "Possible, but unlikely. Kurosaki-san knew what he was doing, Isshin-san. Shikai would have been overkill."

Isshin scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Alright, ignoring the fact that Ichigo is apparently a skilled Shinigami, what else did you notice about him? Did he seem... off to you? Personality-wise?"

Kisuke absently tapped his fan against his chin, an uncharacteristically troubled frown marring his features. "...He turned towards me just before he returned to his room with Kuchiki-san. You were right – he does look dead. Felt tired too, and it had nothing to do with the Hollow. Honestly? To me, he looked like he'd been through hell."

A chill ran down Isshin's spine and he had to busy himself with gulping down a cup of sake to steady his nerves and not show just how rattled he was.

They sat in silence for a long while after, each lost in his own thoughts. It was Isshin who spoke up again first.

"Well, I suppose I should head home," He sighed. "I'll keep an eye on Ichigo. Just... keep me updated, okay? If he decides to... to come here for Shinigami information or something, I'd like to know."

Kisuke tipped his hat in concurrence. "You should probably tell him soon though. About you. Maybe about your wife as well. He's going to find out eventually."

Isshin grimaced as he clambered to his feet. "It's... not the right time yet. I'll tell him soon."

He scowled when Kisuke only tilted his hat further down to hide his eyes and snapped his fan open to shield his expression.

"Suit yourself," The shopkeeper said mildly as he led the way back outside.

Isshin pretended not to hear the tinge of disapproval that he wouldn't have picked up at all if he didn't know Kisuke as well as he did and glanced around instead. "Where's Yoruichi-san anyway? I haven't seen her around lately."

Kisuke waved a dismissive hand in the air. "You know how she is. Yoruichi-san goes wherever she wants when she wants. The nature of a cat."

Isshin rolled his eyes. "Of course, never mind the fact that she isn't really a cat."

The shopkeeper only threw his typical carefree grin over his shoulder as he slid open the front door. "Some days, I'm convinced she's more feline than anything else. Now go home; a customer will be coming by in fifteen minutes."

Isshin shook his head. "The old man is something else. He goes and exiles you, pretends he doesn't know but lets you set up shop here, and then continues sending his Shinigami to Karakura as if this was some sort of pit stop."

Kisuke chuckled, though the sound held little humour. "This is a pit stop. And the Captain-Commander isn't one to ignore any resources he can get his hands on. It would be foolish to do so."

Isshin grunted noncommittally but didn't bring it up again. He knew that the exile was still a sore point for Kisuke even after all these years, and not just for the shopkeeper either. Shinji and the other Visored still held grudges the size of Soul Society.

"A customer?" Isshin recalled instead. "Kuchiki Rukia?"

Kisuke inclined his head. "Yes, she's stationed in Karakura for the next month and will need a place to stay."

A sly smile accompanied by a wave of his fan. "And as payment, I'm sure she'll agree to use the wonderful gigai I recently designed. It's already fitted into a maid outfit-"

Isshin heaved a sigh and tuned his friend out. Of the two of them, Kisuke was the incurable pervert. A harmless pervert, but a pervert nonetheless.

"See ya later, Kisuke," Isshin interrupted the man's spiel and headed out, almost regretting it when, without Kisuke as a distraction, his thoughts immediately returned to his son.

He highly doubted confronting Ichigo would do any good. The two of them had never really sat down and talked, not even after Masaki's death. Isshin had been occupied with the twins at first, and then Ichigo, being both a boy and someone who kept to himself far more than Karin and Yuzu at that point, had seemed like he was handling it fine so Isshin hadn't dragged the boy into a heart-to-heart chat like he had with the girls. It would've embarrassed them both, not to mention Masaki had always been better at getting through to Ichigo.

But he wondered – even if he had talked to his son, made certain that Ichigo was alright, whether or not the teen he saw now would still come to him about whatever it was that was bothering him, about Shinigami and Hollows and Zanpakutou.

It didn't seem likely.

VIII.

"And you're back here because...?" Ichigo kept his expression bland as he watched the Shinigami balanced on his windowsill fume petulantly.

"I need a place to stay," Rukia grounded out, looking like every word cost her.

Ichigo could see Kisuke's devious grin in his mind's eye. He mentally added his own hands closing around the man's throat and felt moderately better. "And you can't go stay in that Shinigami shop you mentioned because...?"

Rukia glowered. "Because the man who runs it and offered to let me stay is a pervert. I am not staying there!"

Ichigo fought off the oncoming headache. He barely slept nowadays (fitful dozing was a more appropriate wording), he had a potential war to prevent, and now, on top of everything else, he had Rukia to deal with, still so innocent and unburdened compared to the Rukia he had fought a war with that it made his heart hurt.

"And what exactly makes you think I'm going to let a complete stranger sleep in my room?" Ichigo asked just to stall for time because he already knew he was going to capitulate.

Rukia gained that stubborn look Ichigo was more than familiar with. "You have already done so once."

She hopped into his room to stand in front of him, a determined glint in her eyes. "I am Kuchiki Rukia, an unseated Shinigami officer of the Thirteenth Division in the Gotei 13 in Seireitei. You are?"

Ichigo crossed his arms and surveyed her impassively. "...Kurosaki Ichigo, born and bred in Karakura Town."

Rukia nodded, satisfied. "Good, now we are no longer strangers."

Ichigo snorted and leaned back against his desk. "There's still the tiny problem of you being a Shinigami and me not able to explain why my sister's going to have to cook for one more."

Rukia smirked. "You can leave that to me. I have a gigai ready."

Ichigo's eyes flickered to the window in the direction of Kisuke's shop. "...Gigai?"

Rukia hopped out the window again before coming back with her double slung over one shoulder. "This is a gigai. It is an artificial body which allows Shinigami to remain in the Human World and interact with Humans. My... contact lent it to me."

Ichigo's eyes narrowed on the gigai and the tingling feeling that brushed against his reiatsu. He knew the Hogyoku well enough by now to identify it a mile away. Damn Kisuke; he should've known that it would take more than an averted attempt at power exchange to deter the man.

At this rate, he'd actually have to confront Kisuke about this, though on the flip side, if Rukia really did end up bringing the Hogyoku back to Seireitei, she'd still draw Aizen out and Ichigo could kill the bastard before he did her any harm.

'Risky,' Zangetsu cautioned. 'Once the Hogyoku is brought to Soul Society, we will be in Aizen's playing field. There will be the Gotei 13 to contend with as well.'

Outwardly, he only sighed. "Fine, but you sleep in the closet, and you clear it with the rest of my family."

Rukia beamed at him and Ichigo had to force himself not to look away.

"I will," Rukia promised before bounding over to the closet and peering inside. "This will be suitable; I accept. When will your family be back?"

"My sisters are out with friends and won't be back 'til five," Ichigo glanced at his clock. "And my dad is in the clinic. He'll finish by six-thirty."

"Good," Rukia moved back towards his bed and sat down, crossing her legs and scanning Ichigo critically. "I'll have time to educate you."

Ichigo squinted at her. "Educate-? What, you mean about Shinigami and Seireitei and those monsters from yesterday?"

Rukia nodded solemnly. "I am here to do a job and it would only be polite to inform you of the circumstances. Now,"

She whipped out a sketchbook and a pencil, and Ichigo was hard-pressed not to groan. Rukia and art did not get along.

"We'll start with Shinigami," Rukia began earnestly, and Ichigo smothered another sigh and settled down for the lecture. At least he'd have someone to point at if he was questioned about his knowledge on Shinigami.

IX.

"Do you have to wear that thing all the time?" Ichigo asked offhandedly without looking up from the book he was reading as Rukia slipped back inside from her latest run-in with a Hollow and stepped into her gigai.

Rukia cast him a curious look but didn't pursue the question. "It is more convenient to move around Humans if I am in a gigai."

"Only me here, and I can see you either way," Ichigo pointed out.

"But your family could come in anytime," Rukia argued as she climbed into her temporary bed.

The Human hummed and said nothing more, rolling onto his other side with his back to the closet when Rukia pulled out her pajamas to change.

Rukia was small but not small enough to change inside the closet. Over the past week, she had quickly come to realize that Ichigo was the exact opposite of a pervert and always gave her privacy if it looked like she wanted it, including turning his back that first day she had woken up in the morning and, still half-asleep, had forgotten where she was and had proceeded to tug off her top.

It would've been far more embarrassing than it had been if the strange Human she was now living with hadn't been so nonchalant about it, simply averting his gaze and slipping out of the room before she had fully realized what was going on. He had even been decent enough not to bring it up later.

She didn't particularly like wandering into the other parts of the house to get to the bathroom either because she felt just a bit like an outsider with the rest of the Kurosaki household whenever she had meals with them or bumped into them in the hallway. With Ichigo, she almost felt as if she was back in Soul Society and spending time with other Shinigami.

And as strange as he was, something about Ichigo just put her at ease.

"Done?" The Human called out.

"Yes," Rukia ran her fingers through her hair before lying down on her bed, staring absently up at the underside of the top shelf above her. She heard him roll over again and a comfortable silence filled the room.

When she was certain he was immersed in whatever book he was reading, she snuck a surreptitious glance in his direction.

At first, she had thought that the restful air between them was due to the fact that... well, due to the fact that Kurosaki Ichigo looked astoundingly like her former mentor and lieutenant.

But after a week, Rukia had realized that while Shiba Kaien was open and loud and almost always grinning good-naturedly at everyone, Ichigo was distant and only sometimes-loud (when he hollered back at her after she needled him enough; it was surprisingly fun to get a rise out of the Human) and rarely ever smiled. Their similarities ended with their looks.

So it wasn't that, and a part of her was relieved because thinking of Kaien always brought back guilt as well, so she was glad that Ichigo didn't remind her of the lieutenant twenty-four/seven.

"Ichigo," Rukia spoke up.

"Hm?"

Rukia shifted onto her left side to peer out at Ichigo. "When are you going to tell me who it was that got rid of the Hollow that night?"

She always tried to pop the question on him at random times, hoping to trick something out of him, but she hadn't had any luck so far, and this time was no different.

"Wasn't it you?" Came the disinterested response.

Rukia scowled and yanked up her blankets. Annoying Human.

"Going to sleep?"

Rukia considered it. She did feel a bit tired after taking down two Hollows today. "Yes."

A rustle sounded and then the darkness descended on the room with only the moonlight outside bathing everything in a soft pale white.

She was almost asleep when Ichigo's voice sounded. "Rukia?"

Rukia stirred, blinking drowsily at the shadowed form on the bed through the crack of the closet door. "Mm?"

"...Nothing. Goodnight."

Rukia closed her eyes, already drifting off again. "'Night, Ichigo."

Like she said – strange Human.

X.

Rukia woke up to a choked off scream. She was out of bed in the blink of an eye, right hand blindly grasping for her sword even as she tumbled out of the closet and leapt out of her gigai. "Ichigo! What's wro-"

She stopped when her eyesight adjusted to the pre-dawn light and she caught sight of the hunched shoulders shaking underneath the tangle of blankets. She froze, all at once uncertain as to what she was supposed to do now.

Hollows she could handle. Humans waking up from nightmares was something else altogether.

"I- chigo?" Rukia approached the trembling form tentatively, putting down her sword again. "Are you alri-?"

She halted again, this time for an entirely different reason.

She had already known that Ichigo had an unnaturally high level of reiryoku – the Human wouldn't be able to see her or the Hollows otherwise – but so far, it had only been a buzz at the edge of her senses, there but easily ignored in favour of the Hollows wandering into Karakura.

Until now. Whatever nightmare had woken Ichigo up had affected him badly enough that his reiatsu now seeped from him in waves, almost clogging the room as it filled the air.

Rukia swore in her head. If the boy kept this up, Hollows would be lining up down the street waiting to feast on him.

"Ichigo!" She reached out and shook one of the Human's shoulders. It almost felt like she was wading through water, and yet, weirdly enough, it didn't suffocate her, only enveloping her as she moved forward.

"Ichigo, wake up!" She called again, wondering if maybe his father or sisters would have a better chance at calming him down. "Ichigo, you need to wake up!"

But just as she was about to hurry out and bang on Ichigo's father's door, the teen woke with a gasp and the reiatsu clogging the room disappeared within the space of a second, reigned in again as if it had never been there in the first place.

Rukia gaped soundlessly for a second before shaking herself out of it and hurrying forward to hover anxiously beside Ichigo who was pushing himself into a sitting position, hair matted with sweat and eyes wild with a frighteningly endless despair that made Rukia shudder.

"Ichigo?" She sat down gingerly next to him. "Are you alright?"

Ragged breaths answered her but a jerky nod several seconds later told her that she had been heard.

"Should- Should I get your father?" Rukia stammered out hesitantly. She was so out of her depth it wasn't funny. Human teenagers shouldn't look like- like this, should they? What kind of nightmares would cause a reaction this big?

"No," Ichigo rasped out, voice hoarse as if he'd been screaming for a long time. "I'm fine. Thanks for waking me."

Rukia remained by his side, examining the Human's tense frame and the way one of his hands was clutching at his throat.

Her mind flashed back to that first night.

"Ichigo, did you get hit by that Hollow?" Rukia demanded, reaching for the Human's hand. Ichigo flinched away. "With your high reiryoku, you probably would have healed pretty fast if it wasn't serious, but you should have told me! Let me see!"

Ichigo sucked in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then released it in a whoosh before lowering his hand to show unmarred skin. "I'm fine, Rukia, I wasn't hurt. Don't worry."

Rukia glared at him suspiciously. "Well you're the one who woke me. I wouldn't call that fine!"

This earned her a faint, lopsided smile that only served to make her even more worried.

"I'm fine," Ichigo repeated, getting to his feet. "I'm sorry I woke you; go back to bed. I'm just going to go down for a glass of water."

And before Rukia could protest, the Human had slipped out of the room, never looking back.

She crossed her arms and scowled before reluctantly heading back to bed, pausing only to slip into her gigai again. It wasn't as if they were friends or anything, for all that they shared a room and the teen was her only source of real conversation these days. It wasn't her place to butt in.

She sighed and crawled back into the closet, snuggling into her blankets once more.

She wasn't surprised when Ichigo never returned, even when she fell asleep half an hour later.

XI.

"Are you alright, Ichigo?"

Ichigo kept his eyes closed and his head buried in his hands as he sat on the front doorstep. Yeah, I'm fine. Almost fine anyway.

"Sorry, Aibou," And Ichigo knew his inner world was raining buckets without looking if even Shiro was sorry. "We blocked off as much of the nightmares as we could but your memories are fuckin' strong."

It's fine, don't worry about it. One hand involuntarily drifted to his throat. He could still feel the serrated blade, the gush of blood, the way he hadn't been able to breathe-

'Ichigo,' Zangetsu's reassuring tenor resounded in his mind. 'Stop thinking about it. Returning to that memory will only stress you further. It is behind you. Aizen will never imprison you again. I swore this on our soul the day you were rescued.'

"'We', Zangetsu," Ichigo's second Zanpakutou cut in silkily. "All three of us swore."

Shiro said nothing for once but a fierce blast of vicious malice stemming from the mere thought of Aizen was answer enough.

Ichigo exhaled slowly and felt his heart calm. The injuries he had gained during the seven weeks he had been in Aizen's captivity had been sheer torture, both literally and figuratively. He had been completely cut off from all three of his spirits during that time, and, to put it lightly, none of them had taken it well. They had crowded at the forefront of his awareness for weeks afterwards, and even Shiro had temporarily extinguished his short temper while Ichigo had recovered, shutting up when Ichigo wanted rest and materializing and snarling at Kenpachi when the captain had so much as peeked into the Fourth.

And while Zangetsu was the most level-headed and impartial of all four of them, Ichigo was sure that that had been the day that his first spirit had truly condemned Aizen Sousuke as the enemy and developed his tremendous hatred for him.

Ichigo brushed his fingers against his throat again. It had been a close call through and through. After he had spat one too many insults at Aizen, the madman had taken a knife to Ichigo's throat and sawed it open, enough for him to lose his voice and feel maximum agony but not enough to die right away.

Ichigo would always be eternally grateful for Shinji, who had, as he had later learned, kicked up a huge fuss about his capture, threw Yamamoto's orders – wait for Kurosaki Ichigo to escape; we cannot afford to carry out a rescue mission at this time – right back in the old man's face, gathered up his group of Visored, and ended up storming Las Noches with three times more people than even Shinji had originally planned.

They had gotten him back to Seireitei just in time for Unohana to save his voice, but... well, there was a reason Ichigo wore a scarf along with his Shinigami outfit now and it wasn't to look good. His neck was a mess of thin, ugly scars that made people wince just from catching a glimpse of him. He supposed he was lucky that they didn't show up on his Human body. After Kisuke had done something science-y that Ichigo hadn't bothered listening to, not even injuries transferred over anymore.

Though to be fair, before he had come back in time, he hadn't even seen his Human body in over four years.

'You are still thinking too much,' Zangetsu said sombrely. 'Let it go, Ichigo. It will do you no good to dwell.'

Ichigo smiled half-heartedly and forcibly turned his mind away from the memories. Some days, dwelling on his past – on a future that he would never let happen again – seemed like the only thing he could do.

Think I'll go for a walk, Ichigo stood up and stretched out the phantom aches in his joints. Damn, he felt old.

You know, I'd kill for a cup of Starrk's hot chocolate right about now, Ichigo thought wistfully.

"Yeah, for an Arrancar, he made a mean hot chocolate," Shiro agreed enthusiastically.

Ichigo huffed a breath of laughter that only felt a little strained. If nothing else, guess I'll have to save him for that.

XII.

"I've decided to go to school as well."

Ichigo grunted from his sprawled position on the rooftop, book placed over his face to block the sunlight. "Clearly, or you wouldn't be here."

He winced when a foot dug into his side. "Alright, alright, why have you decided to come to school?"

"To keep an eye on you of course," Rukia said loftily. "I should've realized that seeing a Hollow could be somewhat traumatizing for a Human."

"So you're here to keep me company?" Ichigo deadpanned, lifting the novel from his face. "I promise you, Rukia, I am in no way traumatized."

"I will decide that," Rukia insisted, taking a seat next to him and breaking out the bento that Yuzu had made for her this morning along with his. "Now, how do I drink from this thing?"

An unbidden smile that actually felt real this time curved his mouth as he watched Rukia inspect the juice box she had picked up. He reached over and plucked it from her hands.

"Give it here," Ichigo sat up and showed her the simple procedure. "That's how you do it. All you have to do is sip from the straw."

"Ohhh..."

Handing the juice box back to a now wide-eyed Rukia with an exasperated shake of his head, Ichigo lied back down again.

"Ah!"

Ichigo glanced up again at his companion's exclamation and followed her line of sight down to the school grounds below.

"I got rid of a Hollow following her around a few days ago," Rukia said by way of explanation. "I didn't know she went to this school."

"There are only a few high schools in Karakura and this one's the only public one," Ichigo revealed, shifting his gaze to the blue sky above. "Her name's Inoue Orihime – our class; you must've missed her earlier. ...She's alright now?"

"Yes," Rukia nodded, brow furrowing in recollection. "The Hollow was harder to dispatch than I had originally thought but I took care of it in the end. It was once her brother. She could see it, and she even managed to make it see sense. I had to modify her and her friend's memories afterwards."

Ichigo made a sound of acknowledgement. Good, Orihime was safe, and she had even managed to say goodbye to her brother this time around as well.

He spared a moment to regret the fact that they would probably never be friends in this life, at least not very close friends as only shared loss and pain and hardship could forge, but she would also be safe and that much happier because of it. Orihime had never been suited for war, no matter how obstinate she had been in following him into one battle after another.

"Hey! Ichigo! You're monopolizing the hot transfer student!"

Ichigo heaved a sigh and reached for his book again. He had literally not seen Keigo or Mizuiro in over half a decade after Aizen had launched an attack on Karakura and they had ended up having to seal off the Human World to prevent even more casualties. He still cared about them of course, but their antics weren't something he wanted to deal with right now.

"Ichigo? Who...?"

"Keigo and Mizuiro," Ichigo introduced bluntly, and then, just because he could and because he had always been protective of Rukia, past, present, and future, he raised his head and pinned Mizuiro with a sharp look. "Put any moves on her, no matter how ridiculous, and I'll kick your ass."

Mizuiro blinked, clearly surprised, but raised his hands and grinned cheerily. "No worries, Ichigo, I only go for older women."

Ichigo leaned back, hiding a wry smile, but he made a face when Rukia kicked him again. "Ow, woman! Anyone ever tell you you've got a violent streak?"

"I don't need you defending me!" Rukia retorted, though to his amusement, Ichigo picked up a pleased edge to her voice.

"Yeah, yeah, sorry," Ichigo muttered, blatantly ignoring Oushima when the brainless fool arrived and started spouting nonsense. He only stirred and waved a greeting at Chad when the larger teen appeared and shoved the bully out of the way.

"You alright there, Chad?" Ichigo asked quietly, taking in his friend's injuries.

Chad nodded silently, and then showed them the cockatiel he had brought with him, instantly drawing Keigo and Mizuiro's attention to it.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ichigo saw Rukia stiffen.

"There's something in that bird, Ichigo," She whispered, inching closer to him. "I don't think it's evil though. I'll have to perform a Konsou on it tonight."

Sudden inspiration brightened her eyes and Ichigo slanted a wary look at her when she turned to peer down at him. "Do you want to come?"

Ichigo twitched. "To watch you exorcise ghosts? No thanks."

Rukia huffed. "It's not 'exorcising ghosts'. It's a soul burial. Come on, Ichigo, I'll show you what a Shinigami does besides killing Hollows. And I'll even introduce you to Urahara-san; he's a Shinigami too, even if he is a pervert. I have to head over to his shop to buy some maintenance material for my gigai so you can come with me. Seeing more Shinigami will help you get over your trauma."

Ichigo raised a hand whacked her lightly upside the head. "I am not traumatized; get that thought out of your head."

"Well, you can still come," Rukia insisted stubbornly. "I wouldn't mind some company, and it's your friend's parakeet I'll be performing Konsou on."

Ichigo groaned under his breath but one look at Rukia's set features told him that it would be futile to argue. He didn't particularly want to see Kisuke, not like this, not right now, but at the same time, he missed the man terribly.

Kisuke wouldn't be the same though, not really, mostly because he didn't know Ichigo at all.

Not to mention that the shopkeeper had seen Ichigo in his Shinigami form.

"Ichigo!"

Ichigo sighed. "Alright, I'll come with you."

"To the shop and tonight's Konsou?"

Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Yeah, to both."

He couldn't hold back a snort at the triumphant smile on Rukia's face.

XIII.

Suffice it to say, Kisuke was not expecting the tagalong that the Kuchiki girl brought with her when she swung by that afternoon. He had known that, after the maid outfit fiasco, that Rukia had gone back to the Kurosaki household and talked her way into room and board with them.

(It made him feel just a bit put out that the girl trusted Ichigo – a teenage male – enough to sleep in the same room but didn't trust Kisuke enough to sleep in the same building.)

He had also heard from Isshin that Rukia had explained Shinigami and Hollows to Ichigo, but that she had still been handling the wayward Hollows in Karakura on her own. Ichigo had not been helping, and as far as he knew, the teen hadn't revealed to Rukia the fact that he had been the one to save her that night.

None of that explained why Ichigo was here now, a dark scowl etched on his face, his hands stuffed in his pockets, and his gaze so firmly shuttered that even Kisuke couldn't pick out any semblance of emotion from the boy.

"Urahara-san?"

Kisuke yanked his eyes back onto the impatient Shinigami waiting in front of him and snapped open his fan to shield his face. "Ah yes, come this way, Kuchiki-san. You might as well come too, Kurosaki-san."

He led the way into the interior of his shop and stepped aside to let Rukia browse. On the other hand, Ichigo simply settled himself against an unoccupied piece of wall, surveying the room with empty eyes and a shadowed expression.

Casually, Kisuke meandered over, noting the way Ichigo's shoulders increasingly tightened with each step he took.

"So, Kurosaki-san," Kisuke started lightly. "You're taking all this Shinigami business very well."

Narrowed brown eyes pinned him with a glower worthy of Yoruichi in her worst moods. For such a laidback woman, she could be awfully scary when riled.

"I've always been able to see souls," The teen replied evenly. "Shinigami isn't that far a stretch."

Nothing concrete. Purposefully vague.

"Hmm, true enough," Kisuke agreed, never taking his eyes off the other's face. "Truer for you than anyone else though."

To his puzzlement, Kisuke caught a glimmer of amusement in Ichigo's expression before it was smoothed away.

"Maybe," The teen acquiesced, gaze flicking briefly back to Rukia before focusing on Kisuke again. "Does it matter?"

"I should think so," Kisuke tilted up his hat, still not looking away. "The Gotei 13 doesn't like not knowing things, Kurosaki-san. They know about Humans with above average reiryoku, and they know about me and my humble shop-"

He paused and allowed an acknowledging smile to curl his own lips when Ichigo scoffed but continued without comment. "-but they certainly don't know about you."

"I'm not that interesting," Ichigo denied.

Kisuke lowered the brim of his hat again. "On the contrary, Kurosaki-san, I think you're very interesting. Far more than you let on."

This time, Ichigo didn't respond right away, and Kisuke was content to wait the boy out. They both knew that Kisuke had seen the teen in Shinigami form, even if neither of them had brought it up.

"Is that your Zanpakutou?"

Kisuke blinked and glanced down at the cane Ichigo was looking at. "...Hm, yes. How did you know?"

Ichigo shrugged. "Rukia never goes anywhere without her sword, even at school. She had to tell the teacher that it was a prop. I figured all Shinigami would want to keep their partners close."

Kisuke's eyes widened momentarily and he slanted another glance at Ichigo from under his hat. "...'Partners'?"

Ichigo quirked a crooked smile at him before pushing off the wall. "That's what Zanpakutou are, right? Partners. And you should never willingly leave your partner behind."

Kisuke didn't move as he watched the young man move over to Rukia's side, only to get an armful of merchandise dumped into his arms.

So Ichigo understood the concept of wielding a Zanpakutou, perhaps better than some Shinigami ten times his age. Surely that meant that he had definitely had contact with the spirit – or spirits – of his own Zanpakutou?

And if that was true, then it was highly possible that Ichigo's Zanpakutou had taught him how to fight, and even how to defeat Hollows.

The buzz of a cell phone sounded and Kisuke heard the muffled voice of one of Ichigo's sisters on the other end.

"Yeah, alright, I'll head back now," Ichigo hung up and turned to Rukia who was staring up at him with inquisitive eyes. "Chad's at the clinic. He's injured. I'm heading back to lend a hand."

Rukia quickly nodded, and Kisuke watched with rising eyebrows as Rukia hastily grabbed a few more items before rounding on him and thrusting her Denreishinki at him.

"Deduct whatever amount this costs from that," The girl all but ordered before bounding after Ichigo who was already halfway to the door. "Wait for me, Ichigo! I'm coming too. If it has to do with that friend of yours, it might be Hollow-related."

Kisuke hid an amused smile when Ichigo had to step to the side as Rukia rushed past him so as not to get run over.

"Oi, Ki- Urahara-san, can I have a bag for all this?"

Kisuke hummed agreeably and snagged a plastic bag from behind the counter even as he studiously pretended not to have noticed the slip-up.

Kisuke? He hadn't given his first name to the Kuchiki girl, and Isshin certainly wouldn't have said anything. Even if his full name had somehow gotten around to the teen, why would Ichigo call him by his first name as if it was habit?

"Thanks," Ichigo muttered as Kisuke graciously held the bag open for the teen to spill everything inside.

"Not at all," Kisuke said cheerfully, handing the bag over to Ichigo. "Do take care, Kurosaki-san."

He honed in on the boy's eyes, holding his gaze for a moment. The empty look from earlier had lessened somewhat, and a part of Kisuke was relieved that Ichigo wasn't quite as dead as he had seemed.

"You're playing a dangerous game," He commented at last when Ichigo turned away.

The boy paused and then glanced back, and this time, all Kisuke could see was the bottomless desolation that he had sensed from that first night. He was quite glad that he already had his fan out in front of his face to hide his perturbed expression.

"I'm not playing any games, Urahara-san," Ichigo returned coolly before continuing on his way. "I can't afford to. And frankly, you can't either."

Kisuke didn't bother calling the boy back as the door slid shut behind him.

Couldn't afford to? Something important then, at least to Ichigo. And...

Did the teen know something was off about Rukia's gigai? That wasn't a game either, not to Kisuke, not when Aizen was standing at the opposite end.

But Ichigo couldn't know. It was impossible.

Kisuke shook his head and sighed. Then again, Kurosaki Ichigo was just one impossibility after another.

XIV.

In the end, Ichigo had had to step in when Shrieker proved to be too much for Rukia. Even with her not being in the special gigai all the time, her reiatsu was still being leeched away little by little, and even Kidou didn't have as much effect as it should've.

Luckily, because she suspected a Hollow to appear, Rukia had instructed Ichigo to stay home, so he was free to leave his body and head over to the battle. By then, Chad had already looked thoroughly battered and Rukia was panting for breath as she dodged the Hollow's attacks and retaliated as best she could.

The moment her back had been turned, distracted by Chad who had been flung into a wall, Ichigo had shunpoed forward and sliced Shrieker in half, disappearing into the night again before it had fully dissipated and leaving the Konsou to Rukia.

And now, here he was, half his mind still on his earlier cryptic conversation with Kisuke – and what the hell had he been thinking getting into a verbal spar with Urahara Kisuke of all people – and the other half receiving the third degree from Rukia as she grilled him for information about her 'mysterious assistant'.

It hadn't helped that he had forgotten to refer to the shopkeeper by his surname. It was mere wishful thinking to hope that Kisuke hadn't caught his mistake.

And maybe he should've held back even more, but the Kisuke he knew had warned him that, sooner or later, most people would figure out Ichigo's origins. A ten-year-older soul wasn't something one could hide from other Shinigami.

Though Ichigo honestly wasn't planning on hiding it, at least not forever. Eventually, he'd tell the people who needed to know, who would want to know, and work from there, but until Aizen showed his hand, he couldn't afford to tell the truth, not to the Gotei 13 anyway.

A fifteen-year-old Human babbling about time travel versus a well-respected and much-adored captain in Seireitei? That was a no-brainer hands-down.

But Kisuke was different – he had no misconceptions about Aizen, hated the megalomaniac only a few levels less than Shinji and the others, but-

The Kisuke that Ichigo had gotten to know had been a near-broken man, especially after Yoruichi's death. Dying so that Ichigo could be sent back had probably seemed like a blessing, and a tiny part of him had – and still did – resented the shopkeeper for that, for pushing everything onto him and leaving him alone.

But a much bigger part wanted to keep as much of it from Kisuke for as long as possible, and even when the could-have-beens were revealed, Ichigo was glad that none of them – from the seated officers to the captains to the exiles – would have had to actually live through that future.

It was why he was here after all. Ichigo never again wanted to see the invisible but deeply permanent scars that the war had gouged into every single one of them – scars that Aizen had dealt, directly and indirectly, to even the oldest of the captains, something that thousands of years as Shinigami hadn't been able to do to Shunsui or Juushirou or even old gramps.

So if Ichigo could prevent that, and he could – he would, then he wanted to do it in a way that would protect them as much as possible from ever realizing just how close to total annihilation they had all been.

Still, Kisuke was already suspicious, and Ichigo knew he wouldn't be able to hide it from the shopkeeper for long. He had never been all that good at lying, while Kisuke excelled at deception and seeing through it, and a few more encounters with each other was sure to give the blond a good guess at the very least.

"Ichigo, are you listening to me?"

"Mm-hm," He answered automatically, and then got a pillow chucked at him for his efforts. He caught it and shot her a scowl. "You are one high-maintenance woman, you know that?"

Rukia scowled right back. "This is serious, Ichigo. There's another Shinigami running around when there isn't supposed to be. I'm the only Shinigami who was sent to Karakura Town, and even if I wasn't, why wouldn't they show themselves? It's suspicious!"

"Maybe they just want to help but they don't want you to know?" Ichigo suggested patiently.

Rukia put her hands on her hips. "Why would they do that?"

Ichigo shrugged, reclining on his bed and looking out the window again. "Maybe they want to be left alone. I mean you'd be obligated to report them if you found out who they were, right?"

Rukia grumbled wordlessly but seemed to take his words into consideration and subsided for a few minutes.

"...Don't you ever study?"

Ichigo blinked and turned back to Rukia, arching an eyebrow. "What?"

Rukia nudged the book bag he had left on the ground. "I never see you study."

"Ah," Ichigo shrugged again. It wasn't as if he had to. He didn't remember everything from high school but definitely more than enough to get by. "I do well enough. I flip through my textbooks before tests and stuff."

Rukia cocked her head in a contemplative manner but didn't say anything more on the subject.

Another drawn-out silence ensued, though with the summer breeze dancing through the open window, the atmosphere was a peaceful sort of tranquility.

Ichigo really wouldn't mind more afternoons like this.

XV.

The next three weeks flew by. With Ichigo reigning in his reiatsu, fewer Hollows popped up hoping for a feast, which gave Rukia more free time as well.

"When are you leaving anyway?" Ichigo asked when they were walking over to the Urahara Shop from school one day. Rukia had complained about the gigai feeling prickly and had been spending as much time as possible out of it, which also meant running out of Gikongan faster.

Ichigo wasn't complaining. He was still torn on whether or not he should prevent the Hogyoku from ever reaching Seireitei in the first place.

"In three days," Rukia replied, and then shot him a teasing look. "So eager to get rid of me already?"

Ichigo snorted even as his heart clenched. "You have no idea. I want my closet back."

Rukia mock-sniffed but broke out into a small grin when Ichigo rolled his eyes.

They got along, perhaps even better than the first time around, probably because Ichigo already knew almost everything Rukia could ever tell him about Soul Society, not to mention that he knew her inside-out. Either way though, just like the first time, they had become fast friends.

Most of the time, Ichigo was content with it. Other times, in the dead of night or when Rukia had to skip out in the middle of the day to take care of a Hollow and he was left with his own dark thoughts, he wished she would hurry up and leave. It was times like those that made even thinking about Rukia painful.

A moment later, they both paused in their tracks when Rukia's Denreishinki beeped.

"Hollow up ahead," Rukia announced, and then frowned when the red dot on the screen disappeared. "Or... not. Come on; stay behind me."

They jogged forward, Rukia alert for any signs of danger while Ichigo followed, already picking up Ishida Uryuu's familiar reiatsu.

He hadn't bothered talking to the Quincy either. They had never been friends until the whole saving Rukia thing, and this Uryuu still avoided Ichigo like the plague, especially after Rukia had entered Karakura High.

They rounded the corner in time to see Uryuu dispatching another Hollow with his bow, reishi swirling in the air around him.

"A Quincy!" Rukia breathed, looking shocked. "Wait, isn't he in our class?"

Ichigo grunted an affirmative as Uryuu's bow disappeared and the Quincy turned to face them.

"Ishida," Ichigo greeted placidly.

Uryuu's eyes narrowed with dislike from behind his glasses. "Kurosaki. And Kuchiki-san."

As Rukia eyed the Quincy warily, Ichigo supplied helpfully, "He probably knows you're a Shinigami."

Uryuu sneered, drawing himself up. "Of course. And I've sensed your high reiatsu since the day you entered the school. Now you hang around a Shinigami as well. I hate Shinigami."

Ichigo shrugged and glanced down at Rukia who was still slightly stiff as if the tension between them meant that the Quincy might attack any second. "Come on, midget, I thought we were heading over to Urahara-san's place."

Rukia seemed to give herself a mental shake. "Oh yeah, of course."

She nodded politely at Uryuu before turning away in the direction they had been heading, gaze still fixed on their classmate. Ichigo lingered, studying the Quincy's haughty expression and following the minute cracks in that mask to the almost-nervousness underneath.

Sometimes, it paid to know practically everything there was to know about someone.

Uryuu hadn't had friends before he had fallen in with Ichigo and Orihime and Chad and Rukia. Admirers, fangirls, fellow club members, and rivals for the top academic spot, but no friends.

And in the end, Uryuu was still only fifteen, not yet an adult but old enough to start struggling to grow up faster than he should.

"You wanna come?" Ichigo asked in a spur of the moment. Rukia did a double-take.

Out of the three Humans who had followed him into the war and died far, far too young, it wasn't too surprising that it was Uryuu that Ichigo was making an effort to reconnect with. Chad was already his friend and Orihime had the ever-steadfast Tatsuki, but Uryuu had even admitted, in a moment of rare sentimentality as they'd crouched behind a sand dune for a two-minute break after facing off against an army of Menos Grande under the blazing sun, that Ichigo was the closest friend he'd ever had.

Brother in all but blood, he'd said with a tired smirk. God knows I've learned to put up with your stupidity. I hear brothers are supposed to do that.

He'd died the very next day in a brutal skirmish. Orihime had fallen soon after with a smile on her face as she followed her fiancé. Chad had already passed on a year before.

To this day, Ichigo still wondered whether or not Uryuu had sensed, in some inexplicable way, that his death had been approaching.

He'd never know now though, and the Uryuu he was facing now looked a second away from gawking at him.

"No, I do not!" The Quincy recovered, bristling indignantly. "I will not associate with Shinigami."

"Rukia's not so bad. A bit on the abusive side-" Ichigo got his foot stomped at this. "-but overall very nice."

Uryuu was now staring at him in thorough disbelief as if he thought Ichigo had lost his mind.

The Quincy might not actually be that far off the mark, come to think of it.

"Come on," Ichigo reached out and snagged Uryuu by one arm to get him moving. "It's not like you have anything better to do, right? You can tell me about the Quincy. Rukia only ever mentioned them in passing."

Ichigo ignored Uryuu's splutters and half-dragged, half-talked the Quincy down the street by not letting go and rapidly firing off several questions.

"You're nicer than you look," Rukia observed, falling into step on Ichigo's other side as Uryuu yanked his arm back but continued lecturing them about a Quincy's duties. It probably helped that Ichigo wasn't a known Shinigami this time around.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ichigo muttered back rhetorically as Uryuu alternated between glowering at them and telling Ichigo about the war between the Shinigami and the Quincy. It sounded as If the teen had been waiting to get this off his chest for a long while now.

"I wouldn't know whether the Shinigami or the Quincy were right," Ichigo said when Uryuu finally stopped to take a breather. "But does that really mean you have to hate all Shinigami?"

"Of course," Uryuu snapped flatly, emotion flashing in his eyes. "My sensei was killed in front of me because the Shinigami arrived late. I used to think the Shinigami were correct, that they were the good side in the war, until then."

Ichigo's hand tightened around the strap of his bag. "There are no good guys in a war, only survivors. Once we're on the battlefield, we're all evil."

He received twin startled looks from both Rukia and Uryuu this time and he hastily shoved away the gloomy thoughts creeping up on him again.

"But for now, let's agree to disagree," Ichigo knocked his shoulder against Uryuu, making the Quincy scowl. "Besides the fact that she's a Shinigami, you don't actually have any problems with Rukia, do you?"

Uryuu shifted uncomfortably and tossed a swift glance in Rukia's direction before admitting, "Well no, I don't know her that well."

"Exactly," Ichigo nodded ahead. "There's the shop. You coming in?"

Uryuu looked like he wanted to refuse but there was a trace of bewilderment in his expression that seemed to make him stall.

"...Since we're already here," The Quincy acquiesced grudgingly.

Ichigo offered a half-smile, trading it for a scowl when he caught Rukia staring at him with raised eyebrows before leading the way inside.

XVI.

"A Quincy this time, Kuchiki-san?" Kisuke observed as his increasingly regular customer trotted around the shop, hearts in her eyes when she caught sight of the Chappy merchandise.

The Shinigami snapped out of it long enough glance over at the two males sitting near the front door and debating – arguing, Kisuke corrected himself when he saw both teens' scowls deepen – over something in a textbook one of them had taken out.

"It wasn't my idea," Rukia revealed, and Kisuke glanced to the side to find a speculative look cross the girl's face. "Ichigo dragged him along. He practically got Ishida-san to spill his entire life story on the way here. Or the Quincy part anyway."

Kisuke cocked his head. "Oh? Kurosaki-san is full of surprises."

"I guess so," Rukia – predictably – picked up a Chappy Gikongan dispenser. "...He said something strange. 'There are no good guys in a war, only survivors. Once we're on the battlefield, we're all evil.' Odd thing for a Human to say."

Kisuke's eyes narrowed unnoticeably beneath his hat and he said nothing as he rang up Rukia's purchases and watched her bounce back to Ichigo's side to wave the Chappy dispenser in his face. The boy swatted it away, most likely insulting the bunny in the process judging by the punch he received.

For someone who seldom smiled, never laughed, and, as far as Kisuke had seen, could be blunt to the point of rude when he spoke, Kurosaki Ichigo was surprisingly charismatic.

First a Shinigami and now a Quincy. If a Hollow started following Ichigo around, Kisuke would've seen everything.

They were good for him though. Isshin had come over a few more times over the past three weeks (more visits than in the past year), and the man had been over the moon when he had told Kisuke that Ichigo was livelier with Rukia around, still prone to bouts of secluded depression at times but kept to himself less now that the boy had a Shinigami to spend time with.

Kisuke had seen it as well. Ichigo almost always accompanied Rukia on her trips over to his shop, and he had watched the darkness recede from the teen's eyes whenever Rukia pulled him into a conversation or an argument over something inane.

It always came back, which somehow managed to light a spark of concern in Kisuke even though he barely knew the boy, but while Ichigo didn't buy anything from his shop, had no need to, he still came over frequently and always exchanged a few words with Kisuke when he chose to approach the teen.

"You again?!"

And there was also that.

Kisuke watched with no little amusement as Jinta careened out into the shop and aimed a flying kick at Ichigo's head, only for Ichigo to bend down to pick up a pencil, resulting in the redhead soaring over him and crashing headlong into the front door.

Naturally antagonistic to just about anyone who walked in through the door, Jinta had treated Ichigo no differently when the teen had easily managed to aggravate the boy with a few taunts the first time they had met. It didn't help that no matter how hard Jinta tried, he simply couldn't land a single blow on Ichigo.

On the other hand,

"Good afternoon, Ichigo-san," Ururu greeted meekly as she appeared as well.

Ichigo didn't smile as he evaded another kick from Jinta but he did reach out and tug affectionately on one of the girl's pigtails. "Yo, Ururu. How have you been? Geta-Boushi isn't working you too hard, is he?"

Ururu's cheeks tinted red as she shook her head, and then, at Ichigo's prompting, timidly began recounting her day.

Kisuke supposed it wasn't so unexpected that Ururu had taken a liking to Ichigo; the teen did have two younger sisters after all, both of whom, according to Isshin, adored their older brother.

"They're back again?" Tessai appeared at his elbow, a cardboard box in hand.

"Yes," Kisuke sighed, dramatically doleful. "Yare, yare, my shop's turned into a clubhouse."

He supposed he didn't really mind though, he decided as Tessai shot him a knowing look.

At the moment, his main concern was...

He flicked a glance over at the gigai that Rukia had abandoned, preferring to stay out of it whenever she could. The Hogyoku hadn't taken hold, and since she would be leaving in a few days, there was no more time to carry that plan out.

Kisuke turned pensive eyes on Ichigo again. The teen was a Shinigami, that much was clear. And from their brief conversations and what he'd heard on the side, Ichigo was no average fifteen-year-old. Wiser than he should be, wearier than he should be, more hardened than he should be.

"There are no good guys in a war, only survivors. Once we're on the battlefield, we're all evil."

What a jaded view of the world. True, but jaded nevertheless.

Pieces of a puzzle, still too sparse to form a picture, niggled at the edge of Kisuke's mind. He was missing something here, the key that would solve whatever mystery Ichigo was shrouded in, but he didn't know what.

An older soul in a younger body – that was important. If he could figure that part out...

He sighed. Things would be so much simpler if Ichigo had just done what Kisuke had expected him to.

XVII.

"Here," Rukia waited patiently for Ichigo to take the device she had bought from Urahara. "It's a Denreishinki, but it's set up so that I'll be the only one you can contact. If you want to, of course."

She inwardly squirmed as Ichigo stayed silent for a long minute, staring down at the device with impassive eyes.

Two weeks into her acquaintance with Ichigo and she had known that she wanted this Human for a friend, even if he was infuriating and grumpy-faced and made it a hobby to tease her.

Three weeks into her acquaintance with Ichigo and she had begun considering the not-so-legal option of keeping in contact with the Human after she left for Seireitei. (Technically, she wasn't supposed to bunk with a Human and spend time in the Human World outside of her Shinigami duties either. She had done both – Ichigo was a bad influence on her – so she figured breaking one more minor law on the side wasn't going affect her too much so long as nobody ever found out.)

And now, a month into her acquaintance with Ichigo and her assignment completed, she had weaseled the Denreishinki out of Urahara yesterday along with a promise that he wouldn't tell a soul.

It was ridiculous how... not exactly attached, but close to Ichigo she had gotten over the course of a month, yet she had had fun, the most fun she had had in a long, long time, and the friendship she had built, one that didn't expect her to act like a Shinigami officer (Renji) or a Kuchiki noble (Nii-sama), was something she didn't want to give up.

"You sure?" Ichigo only asked, fingers finally closing around the device.

Rukia couldn't help beaming. "Yeah, but wait for me to contact you. It's safer that way. This isn't exactly legal."

This earned the crooked half-smile that Rukia had come to realize was something most of the world didn't see.

"Alright," Ichigo agreed readily, pocketing it before accompanying her downstairs.

Downstairs, Rukia was met with the alarming sight of two pairs of teary eyes and one disapproving frown.

"Er..." She started, glancing helplessly at Ichigo as Yuzu began sniffling, Ichigo's father grew increasingly mournful, and Karin crossed her arms. Rukia still hadn't quite picked up the art of dealing with the rest of the Kurosaki family just yet.

Ichigo just heaved a long-suffering sigh and kicked his dad in the chin, propelling the man backwards and into a wall. Rukia didn't even blink anymore – the insanity, she'd gotten used to.

"You'll visit, right?" Yuzu piped up anxiously, giving Rukia a look that really made her want to promise anything.

"As soon as I can," Rukia compromised. It was the best she could do.

Karin just gave her a nod, but Rukia had heard from Ichigo that the older of the twins could see souls just as well as he could, except chose to ignore it. It wouldn't surprise her if Karin knew what she was.

And then, with a last polite bow to Ichigo's father, Rukia was stepping out the door, Ichigo behind her as they made their way to the Urahara Shop so she could drop off her gigai.

"Well, guess I'll see you later."

Rukia paused in the doorway of the Senkaimon in front of her, a Hell Butterfly hovering at her shoulder as she turned back and surveyed the two people seeing her off. Funny enough, both Urahara and Ichigo's gazes flitted past her for a moment and a touch of longing entered their expressions.

She didn't have time to analyze it though because Ichigo was stepping forward to clap her on the shoulder.

"Stay safe," The Human told her, and there was a certain weight when he looked at her, as if he was trying to convey something without words.

Rukia looked fondly at him. She was a Shinigami; she could take care of herself. Ichigo on the other hand was Human.

"That's my line," She retorted with a bright smile. "I'll be in touch."

Ichigo nodded, and for a split second, Rukia thought she caught something painfully like heartbreak in his eyes.

But it disappeared as quickly as it had come, if it had come at all, and Rukia shook away the unease in her gut. With a last wave, she turned and entered the gateway.

Part of her guiltily wished that her assignment could've lasted longer.

XVIII.

"One moment, Kurosaki-san."

Ichigo stopped in the doorway of the shop. "What, Geta-Boushi?"

His ears picked up the tap of a cane against the wooden floor. Instinctively, he tensed.

"Don't you think it's time you told me what is going on?"

Ichigo stiffened even further for a second before finally turning around. He was almost surprised when he found Benihime still sheathed and lowered unthreateningly. Then again, Kisuke always seemed unthreatening, right up until you were already caught in whatever mind-twisting trap he had set up and about two seconds away from being very dead.

Ichigo had had plenty of practice with handling Urahara Kisuke though.

"Even if I had something to say," Ichigo leaned against the doorframe, relaxed again but ready to move at an instant's notice. "Why would I tell you?"

Kisuke looked highly amused. "Come now, Kurosaki-san, you wouldn't have let me see you that first night if you had really wanted to hide it from me."

Ichigo scowled. Well, he could handle Kisuke; he never said he could play word games with the man. He was just too straightforward. "Rukia was in danger. I didn't see you do anything."

The air thickened. This was the first time they had really touched on this topic.

"Maa, I'll go first then, as a sign of goodwill," Kisuke forged on cheerfully when the silence stretched. "You are a fifteen-year-old Human in body only; I'd say your soul is around twenty-five years old, give or take. You have an in-depth knowledge of Shinigami in general even before Kuchiki-san arrived, you are already familiar with your Zanpakutou – one or two, I'm not sure – and you somehow know me in a more personal capacity than you should."

A faint tick had developed under Ichigo's left eye. "...How exactly was that a sign of goodwill?"

Kisuke waved a magnanimous hand in the air, perceptive grey eyes never wavering from Ichigo's. "I offered my findings, Kurosaki-san. Now it's your turn – what do you know about me?"

Ichigo snorted. Ah, so that was Kisuke's game.

His gaze slid over the interior of the shop, taking comfort in the sheer familiarity of the place.

He had never planned to keep things a secret. It was just a matter of when things would come to light. It looked like that time was now, or at least for the first time anyway. He had no doubt he'd be repeating himself at least once more.

"Being Human's tiring," Ichigo said at last, one hand reaching into his pocket for the Gikongan he had stolen weeks ago. "Do you mind...?"

Kisuke's eyes glittered with curiosity and satisfaction. "Go ahead, Kurosaki-san. I didn't get a very good look at you last time."

Ichigo managed a sardonic twist of his lips as he swallowed a pill. "You're not missing much."

And then he stepped out of his body.

Even with Aizen on the horizon, Ichigo could still appreciate the stunned look on Kisuke's face as the shopkeeper got his first sight of what Ichigo really looked like.

XIX.

The first thought that popped into Kisuke's mind was, my god, he looks like he's been through a war.

Black Shinigami clothing for the most part, a black scarf accompanying the Shihakushou, and of course, the two Zanpakutou. Somewhat messy hair that looked like it needed a trim even though the style suited the grown-up Kurosaki Ichigo rather well, and...

Kisuke narrowed his eyes, catching a glimpse of a long scar almost completely hidden behind the young man's bangs. "...Your right eye, Kurosaki-san?"

The single visible brown eye blinked once at him, carefully vacant of all emotion. "Old injury."

Ichigo shifted, body slung over one shoulder as he moved towards the back of the shop. Kisuke said nothing, stepping aside to let the boy – man; this was no boy – pass.

"Call my dad."

Kisuke arched an eyebrow.

"I'm going to have to explain this again for some other people sooner or later," Ichigo clarified. "I'd rather not have to do it so many times. Call my dad; I'll tell both of you at the same time."

Kisuke watched silently as the Shinigami disappeared into the back rooms without faltering even though the man shouldn't know the layout of the shop.

And then he shuffled over to the counter and picked up the phone.

More puzzle pieces fell into place. He'd just need a confirmation now.

And if he was right, then the dread beginning to pool in his chest probably wasn't unwarranted.

"Isshin-san? It's me. Do you have some free time? ...Well, to put it simply, your son is about to explain things and he wants you here. ...Yes, he knows you're a Shinigami."

XX.

Isshin barely paused long enough to tell the girls that he'd be out for a while before he had hurried out of the house, closing up the clinic with little thought for patients before he slipped out of his gigai and shunpoed to Kisuke's shop, the artificial body slung over one shoulder. His reiatsu was nowhere near recovered but he had just enough to manage.

He burst through the front door with little elegance and tore into the kitchen at the back, looking around wildly for his son, and then promptly felt like he couldn't breathe when his gaze landed on a tall orange-haired figure wrapped in shadows as he stood in one corner of the room.

"Ichigo?" Isshin's voice was scarcely above a whisper.

An impassive brown eye – was that a scar over the other one? – met his before Ichigo pushed off the wall and glided across the room, dropping gracefully onto the cushion seat across from Kisuke.

"You wanted to know," Ichigo started in a low tone. "Sit."

Slowly, Isshin lowered his gigai onto the ground before picking his way over to the empty seat beside Kisuke, still trying to wrap his head around the fact that his son no longer looked like a teenager.

He looked more like a war veteran than anything else.

Ichigo was silent for a long while. Neither Isshin nor Kisuke rushed him.

When he looked up, Isshin had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop from outright cringing. The dead, shadowed cast of grief was back. He had thought that the Kuchiki princess had made it better.

"I'm twenty-six years old, not fifteen," Ichigo started abruptly, acquiring their undivided attention. "And I'm from about eleven years in the future. The Urahara Kisuke of that time sent me back."


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