Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.
General Warnings: Ichigo-centric, major AU, GEN, Ichigo-is-Kaien, reincarnation
Author's Notes: No pairings; it's in the warnings.
And extra thanks to K. A. Raith who reminded me that Rukia isn't quite a lieutenant yet, so I've fixed that bit.
Ichigo didn't leave his bed at the Fourth for the next few days, mostly because he spent most of those days asleep and quite a few drugged to the gills courtesy of Unohana's tender loving care.
So on the day he woke up and his head didn't feel like it was stuffed with cotton, Ichigo managed to open his eyes and actually focus on the ceiling overhead.
The first thing he registered was the soft murmur of concern from Nejibana and Zangetsu's steady presence beside her, both waiting for a confirmation that he was alright. Ichigo smiled and sent a wave of reassurance back before turning his mind onto the last thing he remembered.
Oh yeah – returning to Seireitei. That had been... interesting.
They'd been met by the Captain-Commander himself who'd obviously recognized the serpent that had flown into the city. The old man had demanded an explanation at once.
Fortunately for Ichigo, who was already half out of it and was mostly concentrating on maintaining Nejibana's serpent form, Kyouraku had supplied a succinct clarification of what was going on for him.
If Ichigo hadn't been so tired, he'd have laughed at the momentarily gobsmacked expression on Yamamoto's face.
Everything after that was generally fuzzy and tended to skip around a bit. He remembered nearly crash-landing into the Fourth Division barracks and scaring half the officers there out of their wits but he couldn't recall how they'd all gotten inside. He remembered someone promising him that Ukitake would be perfectly fine with some rest but he couldn't recall who had told him.
And most of all, he remembered the bang of a door and Kukaku's voice, shouting, shouting, shouting, until everything had abruptly gone silent and one hand, flesh, had smoothed back his hair, while the other, wooden, had grasped his own hand. He couldn't recall anything after that though.
Taking a deep breath, Ichigo was pleasantly surprised to feel no pain, not even a twinge in his side. Carefully, he eased himself into a sitting position and took a look around.
The room he was in was dark, the curtains pulled shut to allow only slivers of light to stream through so it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. On his left, Ichigo caught the telltale white hair of his captain and he released a sigh of relief, his shoulders slumping with its intensity. Ukitake looked to be breathing easily and seemed only to be asleep.
He paused and wondered if the man had woken up at all over the past however-many days. He hoped not. He thought it was best if he was the one who told Ukitake directly about the whole reincarnation thing. It was bad enough that Rukia probably already knew and Ichigo hadn't been conscious for it.
Still somewhat stiff-necked despite the lack of pain, Ichigo slowly turned to the right, only to jump and swear when he found two pairs of eyes staring back at him.
"Took you long enough. Are all Shinigami this clueless?"
Ichigo warily eyed green-haired girl sitting in a chair beside the third bed in the room before glancing at the other Arrancar sitting up in said bed and watching Ichigo with equally guarded grey eyes.
"I admit," Ichigo started after a long unblinking moment. "I was pretty out of it near the end but I'm fairly certain that I only brought back one of you, so..."
He looked back at the girl. "Where the heck did you come from?"
The girl scoffed and crossed her arms. "You brought back both of us, idiot. Me and Starrk are two parts of the same soul, and you can't just kill one of us to get rid of both. It just took me a while to split away from him again."
Ichigo flicked another glance at Starrk but when the Espada made no move to correct her, he remarked, "You should probably keep that to yourself, kid, especially here."
The girl puffed up and bristled. "I'm not a kid! You're just as bad as that old guy over there!"
Ichigo blinked and instinctively looked over at Ukitake again. "Has he woken up yet? Did he say anything?"
"Hey! Listen to me when I'm talking!"
Ichigo rubbed a hand over his face and pulled up everything he knew about childcare. Not hard seeing as he had semi-raised Kukaku and Ganju, and then done the same with Karin and Yuzu. It just took a lot of patience.
"Alright, I'm sorry," Ichigo focused on the sulking girl again. "Who are you anyway? I'm Ichigo."
The girl glowered at him suspiciously but relented after a few seconds. "Lilynette."
Ichigo offered a faint smile. "Nice to meet you."
He switched his gaze over to the other Arrancar. "And you're Starrk, right?"
The man inclined his head lazily, the action at odds with his cautious expression. Ichigo paid it no mind. Anybody would be vigilant if they were stuck in the middle of known enemy territory.
"So like I said," Ichigo waved a hand in his captain's direction. "Do you know if he's woken up yet?"
Lilynette scrunched up her brow in thought as she swung her legs. "Yeah, several times, a few during one of those visits that that bastard made."
Ichigo squinted at her and wracked his mind for who 'that bastard' was. "...You mean Kyouraku-taichou?"
"The guy in pink," Lilynette scowled. "He's an idiot."
Ichigo huffed a laugh. "He gives off that vibe, doesn't he?"
His humour died as his gaze drifted back to Ukitake. "...Did you hear what they said?"
"They were talking about some Kaien guy," Lilynette announced, and Ichigo froze. "They were talking in really low voices so I didn't hear much, but it was Kaien this and Kaien that, and then I swear the old guy looked like he wanted to cry, and whenever he was awake, he'd just sit there and stare at you for hours. Who's Kaien? Did he die in the war?"
Ichigo forced himself to unclench his fingers from his blankets. "No. Kaien died almost sixty years ago."
Lilynette frowned. "Then why's everyone making such a big deal out of him?"
"Because he came back," Ichigo said simply, throwing back his blankets and clambering out of bed. His hand caught the bedside table when his legs buckled and dumped him back on the bed. A rush of irritation surged up in his chest – why was he still not healed? – and he thumped a fist against the wooden surface of the table. "Goddamnit!"
"Take it easy," Starrk's slow drawl sounded behind him. "That Unohana woman said something about you exhausting your soul."
Ichigo gritted his teeth but craned his head around to look at them. "How long have I been out? Did anyone else visit?"
Lilynette shot him an odd look but piped up again. Ichigo rather suspected that she hadn't had anyone to talk to all that much. Starrk, for all that he was sitting up, still looked to be recovering. His torso was still swathed in bandages.
"You've been asleep for almost two weeks. You're even lazier than Starrk over here. And you must be really popular; there's been people coming and going since day one. It's too early for visitors right now though and the healer lady always keeps everyone out at this time. She can be really scary."
Ichigo stifled a smile and glanced at the door. No wonder. He would've thought Kukaku would be here yelling his ear off first thing, but if Unohana put her foot down, then nothing and no one would be making it past that door.
"Do you know who's come by?" Ichigo asked, and then mentally slapped himself because, duh, of course not. "What I mean is, did a black-haired girl with purple eyes visit?"
Lilynette's eyes turned sly. "Why? Is she your girlfriend?"
Ichigo almost blanched. That was just... way too complicated right now. "No, she's a friend. You've seen her?"
Lilynette shrugged. "Yeah, she's one of the ones who came by most, every day; never missed a visit. I think she even brought work with her to do a few times."
An unbidden smirk crossed his face. Rukia had picked up one of his habits.
"She cried the first time," Lilynette continued, and Ichigo jerked around to face her again. "Came in here and just bawled her eyes out. Jeez, she was loud-"
"Lilynette," Starrk spoke up, interrupting Lilynette's rambling. The Espada was observing Ichigo closely, expression unreadable.
The girl scowled. "What? He asked."
Ichigo offered a strained smile. "It's fine, I did ask. I'll have to talk to her later, that's all."
God, he hoped Rukia hadn't been crying out of guilt because then he'd have to beat some sense into her in their not-yet-scheduled spar, and then Byakuya would probably come after him with Senbonzakura.
Ichigo paused and then snorted at the thought. He'd known Byakuya when the captain had been a teenager; Ichigo had watched him grow up. He'd even met Hisana a few times, and he'd been there when Byakuya had woken up one morning after her death and had become the stick in the mud that Ichigo had first come across all those months ago.
"What about a woman with black hair and green eyes?" Ichigo enquired next. "She might've come in with another guy wearing a green bandana."
"Yeah, both of them visited a lot too," Lilynette nodded, peering at him with guarded curiosity. "Who are they?"
Ichigo considered this for a moment. "...My sister and brother, I suppose; Kukaku and Ganju."
Lilynette's eyes widened. "They're your siblings? The lady spent almost all her time here alternating between threatening to break your legs and threatening to blow you up, and the guy said he was gonna kick your ass!"
Ichigo cringed. "Did they? Great, guess they're angrier than I expected them to be."
"Why are they mad at you anyway?" Lilynette eyed him critically. "You're that Human-turned-Shinigami guy right? You killed Aizen-sama for everyone. You should hear the whispers in the hallway; you're a hero."
Ichigo automatically scowled. "I killed Aizen because he hurt my friends and family. Nobody gets away with doing that, especially not a madman with delusions of godhood. Who's been calling me a hero? You give me names or faces and I'll have them set straight by sunset."
He glowered at the door. What was wrong with everyone? There were no heroes in a war – he'd learned that from Ukitake and Kyouraku, and he'd experienced it for himself.
"Why not?" Lilynette persisted petulantly. "The winners are always called heroes."
Ichigo turned to stare at her, feeling a little empty as he thought back to all the bloodshed that had taken place ever since Aizen had made his move with the Hogyoku all those decades ago, all the lives that had been damaged in one way or another.
"There are no winners in a war," He told her with absolute conviction, the echo of Ukitake and Kyouraku's voices in the depths of his memories back when they'd told him the same thing. "Only survivors. There are no good guys or bad guys either; when you step out onto the battlefield, both sides are evil."
Lilynette gaped at him, and Starrk's eyes flickered with something that might've been respect, but it was gone before Ichigo had time to blink.
And when a rustle sounded on his left, Ichigo had much bigger issues to deal with than views on wars.
Shoving back the weakness still coursing through his body, Ichigo forced himself upright, took one step forward, and lowered his gaze to meet the eyes of Ukitake Juushirou.
There was a long stilted silence. Ukitake had pushed himself up onto one elbow but didn't seem to be breathing, something Ichigo thought he should remedy as soon as possible.
He dipped into a chest-level bow before straightening again. "Ukitake-taichou, it's good to see you awake. How are you feeling?"
Ichigo shifted a little nervously, and then took another step forward in alarm when Ukitake suddenly struggled all the way up, coughing feebly as he did so.
"Taichou, you shouldn't push yourse- whoa!"
Sometimes, Ichigo forgot that despite the illness, Ukitake was still considered one of the strongest captains in all of Soul Society.
One hand clamped around his shoulder and jerked him forward, and Ichigo was yanked off his feet and sent tumbling straight into his captain's chest. Half a heartbeat later, he was being hugged to within an inch of his life.
"Tai- chou...?" Ichigo flailed a little, not used to out-of-the-blue hugs.
It was several seconds before he managed to get his arms under control, but once he figured out that Ukitake wasn't going to be letting him go anytime soon, he relaxed and returned the gesture, carefully wrapping his own arms around his captain's back.
"I'm sorry," Ukitake rasped after a long minute. In the prior silence of the room, the two words rang loud and clear.
Ichigo pulled back, startled, and his captain reluctantly released him.
"You're sorry?" Ichigo repeated, completely bewildered. "For what?"
"For telling you to fight alone," Regret coloured Ukitake's expression. "Because I offered you no backup, you fell against Metastacia."
A startled noise from behind them went entirely ignored.
Ichigo straightened and scowled down at his captain. "I think your memory's going, Taichou. I've been dead for half a century and I still remember. I asked to fight alone. I was the idiot who lost my head and charged into battle all for vengeance. You don't get to take that responsibility away from me. I died because I was stupid and careless, nothing more, nothing less. Rukia's one thing – I can understand if she feels guilty – but you don't get to do that. For god's sakes, you're my captain; act your age!"
He paused, taking in the way Ukitake was now blinking owlishly at him, looking wholly taken aback. A chuckle from the door drew their attention and they both turned to find Kyouraku leaning against the doorframe, most likely having slipped in when Ichigo had been ranting.
"Now here's something I haven't seen in a long while," Kyouraku remarked, stepping into the room with hat in hand and a new but still pink kimono draped over his haori. "Nobody's been able to give Juu-chan here a good dressing-down since you died, and the first thing you do after waking up is exactly that."
Ichigo huffed, temper abating and abruptly leaving him feeling off-balanced. He frowned, stumbling a step back as he tried to regain his equilibrium, only for his left leg to give out under him.
"Easy," Kyouraku's steady hand grabbed his arm before Ichigo could face-plant on the ground even as Ukitake frowned in concern, looking two seconds away from jumping to his feet to help too.
Well that wouldn't do.
With more effort than Ichigo liked, he straightened once more, and then allowed Kyouraku to steer him back to bed.
"You really shouldn't be moving about, Ichigo-kun," Kyouraku chided. "When you finally let Retsu-chan examine you, it was the closest I'd ever seen her come to looking worried. You gave all of us a scare."
For his part, Ichigo had no idea what the captain was talking about. "What do you mean let Unohana-san examine me? I don't think even the Captain-Commander dares say no to her when he's in her care."
Kyouraku looked amused but nodded in agreement. "True enough, but-" He glanced over at the two Arrancar still in the room. "You haven't told him?"
Ichigo glanced back at Lilynette and Starrk, the former looking sullen again and the latter tensing ever-so-slightly.
Kyouraku turned back to him, expression mild and little else. "Maa, you must've been really out of it if you don't remember, but you kicked up a huge fuss when Shinji suggested that you be looked over once she was done with Juushirou. You wouldn't hear a word of it; kept insisting that she had promised to heal Espada-san over there first. When a few of her subordinates tried to sedate you, you flooded an entire wing of the Fourth with Nejibana. In the end, just to speed things up, Retsu-chan healed him, and you only collapsed after she swore that he was out of immediate danger."
Kyouraku looked bemused even as something more serious settled over his features. "I don't seem to remember you being quite so reckless sixty years ago, Metastacia aside."
Ichigo flushed, feeling somewhat horrified. He'd done all that? And flooded a wing of the Fourth? He supposed he should count himself lucky that Unohana hadn't killed him for that.
Hesitantly, he flicked a glance over at the two Arrancar again, frowning when something off nagged against his mind.
Lilynette was still looking grumpy while Starrk somehow managed to look perfectly unperturbed and increasingly apprehensive at the same time. And...
They were still here.
Physically, Lilynette looked to be fine, and while Starrk was wrapped in bandages, Ichigo was pretty sure that the Espada could get up and walk away right now.
So why were they still here when they clearly didn't want to be?
"You can open a Garganta, can't you?" Ichigo said out loud. "Between Soul Society and Hueco Mundo? You can leave anytime. Why are you still here?"
Lilynette leapt to her feet, visibly fuming. "I can't believe a moron saved us! This really sucks, and you're a complete idiot!"
And then she spun around again, scooting her chair as close to Starrk's bed as possible before sitting down once more and pointedly ignoring the rest of them.
And Ichigo still hadn't the faintest clue why they were still here, though he'd been insulted several times for his efforts in finding out.
He looked over at Starrk, who wasn't at all forthcoming, and actually leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes instead. Ichigo scowled at him and turned back to the captains.
"I don't get it," Ichigo said bluntly.
Kyouraku huffed a laugh and Ukitake watched him with familiar indulgent amusement, the shadows in the latter's eyes momentarily lifting.
To be honest, Ichigo hadn't really expected his death to cause this much of an impact on his captain. Sure, he knew he'd been important to Ukitake, but Ichigo had been training Kiyone and Sentarou to take over in case anything had happened to him, and Rukia had been well on her way to becoming a seated officer by the time he'd passed. He knew that they'd mourn, but he didn't think that they'd still be hung up on it over half a century later.
"I don't recall you being this slow on the uptake either," Kyouraku commented. "Though we could chalk that up to you still being in your sickbed and all."
Ichigo scratched his head but dropped the subject. Clearly, nobody in the room felt the least bit inclined to enlighten him.
"But what's wrong with me?" Ichigo asked pensively. "Starrk said Unohana-san said something about exhausting my soul?"
All at once, both Kyouraku and Ukitake turned grim.
"There is a reason all Shinigami only have one Zanpakutou, Ichigo," Ukitake started, and Ichigo was pleased to note that his captain seemed okay with calling him by his current name but also dropping the honorific like he had when Ichigo had been Kaien.
"It's partly because any one soul should only be able to manifest one spirit," Ukitake continued. "But it's also because any more than that and the soul wouldn't be able to support that much power, at least not all at once. You would need to build up your strength over time."
The captain was sitting up now, still paler than usual but clear-eyed enough. "From what I've heard, Ichigo, when you fought Aizen, you used both your Zanpakutou, and not only that, you activated both Bankai at the same time. Senpai- Unohana-taichou told us that it was frankly a miracle that you had managed to make your way back to the fake Karakura Town to find me, much less escort Ichimaru Gin and Matsumoto-fukutaichou to the Fourth beforehand and then transport us all back to Seireitei afterwards. There's never been a case like yours, but from what she managed to learn when she was healing you, she said you should've died immediately after your battle with Aizen."
Ichigo couldn't think of anything to say to this for several long seconds. Truthfully, the whole should've-died bit didn't really bother him.
He should've died when invading Soul Society, would've if he didn't have kickass friends and the luck of seventeen devils.
He should've died when facing down all those Espada, would've if his potential for growth wasn't so damn large and the Espada hadn't all underestimated him at the beginning of each battle.
He should've died when he had faced Aizen that first time and a few other times as well, would've if the megalomaniac hadn't been so arrogant all the time.
And he did die facing off against Metastacia, so he'd already gone through that once.
Death didn't have as much meaning when you were forced to confront it every time you turned around.
So he did what he did best – take the news in stride. Basically, the gist of the matter was that he had almost died once again but hadn't and was now on the road to a slow recovery. All things considered, that was a good day in his book.
Outwardly, he nodded and turned his thoughts onto more important things. "Okay, and you mentioned Gin and Matsumoto? Where are they? Did Central 46 get around to them yet?"
Resigned disbelief coloured Ukitake's features as Kyouraku sighed rather dolefully.
"One day," Ukitake said resolutely. "You'll learn to start caring about yourself at least as much as you do everyone else."
Ichigo scowled. "I care about myself enough, but I promised Matsumoto that I'd do what I can to help Gin stay out of Muken."
His expression darkened in thought. "'Course, I still have to kick his ass for stabbing Hiyori. And Byakuya before that. And screwing with Rukia's mind. And Toshirou's. And Hinamori's. Man, that brat hasn't changed a bit, has he? I still remember when he left the Academy. His entire graduating class was scared of him and every single one of them was at least several decades older."
Kyouraku snorted with laughter while Ukitake hid his by clearing his throat.
"It has already been dealt with for the most part," Ukitake revealed. "Matsumoto-fukutaichou is surprisingly manipulative when she wants to be. She told us what happened with Ichimaru-kun and how he was planning on betraying Aizen from the very beginning, as well as his attempt to kill Aizen and retrieve the Hogyoku shortly before you arrived at the scene. She finished her testimony by swearing that you would back up every word."
He paused. "I don't think you quite realize it yet, but ever since word spread throughout the entire city about who you are, and coupled with your singlehanded defeat of the greatest traitor Soul Society's ever seen, most of the administration is bending over backwards for you, if only because doing anything against you would put at least half of Soul Society against them. Rukia-chan tells me that my Division has cleaned your office top to bottom several dozen times already over the past two weeks."
Ichigo abruptly stiffened. "What? Wait, Ukitake-taichou, I'm not-"
Everybody in the room turned to stare at the door as it was thrown open. Ichigo's eyes widened, and then he ducked when a ceramic mug was hurled at his head, missing him by inches as it shattered against the wall behind him.
"Now, now, Kukaku, calm down!" Ichigo placated rather uselessly as his sister advanced on him, eyes blazing as she cracked her knuckles. "Remember what I taught you? Violence is never the answer when talking can do the job!"
Miraculously, she stopped a foot away from his bed, one eyebrow twitching. "Oh? Is that so? So if I tell you that I'm gonna kick your ass from here to Hueco Mundo, it'll be the same as me actually kicking your ass from here to Hueco Mundo?"
Ichigo eyed her warily. "Uh, yeah?"
Kukaku lunged at him, looking positively murderous. "Hell no, you thick-headed Neanderthal!"
Ichigo yelped and tried to scramble away, except his limbs were still trying to sort themselves out and Kukaku had pretty much boxed him in. He winced and braced himself for her punches.
One fist landed on his head, and Ichigo blinked in bafflement when the blow only thumped softly against him. "...Kukaku?"
"You couldn't have remembered sooner?" Kukaku muttered scathingly from somewhere above him, but there was a quaver in her voice that made Ichigo frown. "You met us months ago, Kaien. You couldn't have- You couldn't have remembered sooner?"
Ichigo remained silent for a long moment before releasing an imperceptible sigh and reaching up to tug Kukaku's wrist down. Without a word, he pulled his sister forward and crushed her against him in a hug. It didn't surprise him when she instantly returned it, near-strangling him as she clutched at his clothes.
For Kukaku and Ganju as well, if they could look at his hair colour – which was practically the only thing that differed from his past self – and still think Kaien, then Ichigo would let them call him by his old name.
Over the top of her head, his gaze slid over to the two captains who were both smiling but looking away to give them some semblance of privacy, and then over to the two Arrancar. Starrk had busied himself with fluffing up his pillow but Lilynette was staring at them again, previous frustration seemingly forgotten.
"I thought you said your name was Ichigo!" She blurted out the moment he caught her eye.
In his arms, Kukaku stirred and pulled away abruptly, rubbing a hand over her eyes and sniffing loudly. She didn't let go of his hand.
"Technically, it is," Ichigo nodded. "But I'm also the reincarnation of Shiba Kaien."
Lilynette gawked at him. "That's impossible. You're not supposed to remember."
Ichigo grinned at her, wry and amused at the same time. "Story of my life, kid."
Kukaku snorted loudly at this as Lilynette screeched, "Don't call me a kid!"
"Yeah, yeah, not a kid," Ichigo ran a hand through his hair. "But we're getting off topic. What was Gin's sentence? And did Urahara-san find Aizen?"
"Ichimaru-kun's been stripped of his captaincy," Kyouraku supplied, finally pulling up a chair between Ukitake and Ichigo's beds. "And at least for now, Yama-ji hasn't reassigned him back to the Third or any other squad. But he's been allowed to keep his Zanpakutou, and Rangiku-chan and Kira-kun were ordered to keep an eye on him, so all things considered, he got off pretty lightly. I believe Hitsugaya-taichou for one wanted a much... harsher sentence."
Ichigo sighed. Yeah, he could see that. Even now, he'd be surprised if Toshirou didn't try to freeze Gin's balls off or something in a 'friendly' spar.
"As for Aizen," Kyouraku continued, the faintest edge of tired satisfaction entering his features. "He's very much dead. Urahara brought back his body. It's being held in a separate chamber as it dissolves into spirit particles."
Ichigo felt a weight lift from him. So it really was over. Odd that everything had come around in a circle; Aizen had killed him once upon a time, and now he'd killed Aizen.
"And the Visored?" Ichigo pressed on, pushing the thought of Aizen from his mind for now. "And Urahara-san and Tessai-san? None of them have been arrested, have they?"
Kyouraku chuckled at this, idly swing his hat in one hand, but something dark and hard burned briefly in his eyes. "Oh, Central 46 wouldn't dare. They messed up a century ago – believed a Shinigami who turned out to be a traitor and cast out six captains and four lieutenants who all came back and helped save the day. It's a sticky situation all around."
"So they've been pardoned?" Ichigo brightened, but pulled up when Kyouraku shook his head.
"No," Kyouraku's mouth tilted down. "That gets a bit more complicated. They're around; they've even come to visit you several times, but nothing's been done about their sentences yet. Central 46 has handed the decision over to Yama-ji since it is his former Shinigami officers in question-"
"And why hasn't the old man pardoned them yet?" Ichigo interrupted indignantly.
Kyouraku sighed. "Maa, the general idea is that he wants anyone who knows anything about the Hollowfication disaster a century ago to give their testimony before making a decision." His gaze became more intent. "Yama-ji hasn't said why, but for some reason, that includes you, Ichigo-kun."
Ichigo stilled, and then turned sharply to his sister. "Kukaku, our Clan – we've-"
"They tore us down, Kaien," Kukaku spat out bitterly, far more composed now and already knowing what he wanted to ask. "After you died, I was the next head but- well you know I've never been good at the whole politics spiel so Isshin-ji-san stepped up as clan head instead. Central 46 hauled him up on some trumped up charges that Aizen had brought to them, something about you stealing his research but that he caught you before you got away with it. The Shiba Clan literally fell overnight, but by Aizen's goddamn generosity, the entire thing was hushed up to 'maintain the Shiba Clan's former prestige', and we were all shoved out the gates of Seireitei before dawn."
Her wooden hand slammed against the mattress as she snarled, "Stealing research? You're not even a scientist! Why would you steal anything from that bastard?"
Ichigo stayed silent. Kukaku faltered and stared at him. "Wait, you didn't steal any research from him, did you?"
Ichigo frowned, gaze sliding to the window for a moment. "...Not- exactly. Well..."
"Kaien!" Kukaku snapped, looking alarmed now. "Why the hell would ya steal from Aizen? Not that I don't approve screwing with the bastard but ya should've at least told me!"
"It was safer if you didn't know," Ichigo retorted, glancing at his now frowning captain.
"Ichigo," Ukitake looked increasingly suspicious. "Were you investigating-"
"I'll tell everyone at the same time, Taichou," Ichigo promised earnestly, mind rifling through his memories as he mentally located the two places he had hidden everything he had accumulated against Aizen. If Aizen had found out, then he was fairly certain that the first copy of notes were gone but there was very, very little chance of anyone but him getting their hands on the second copy. "Please wait until then."
Ukitake scrutinized him for a long moment but nodded in the end, his faith in Ichigo as unshakeable as it had been in Kaien.
It humbled him and made him feel somewhat uncomfortable at the same time. He didn't know if it was right for Ukitake to trust him so unconditionally.
Ichigo winced when Kukaku pinched him on the arm. "Ow, Kukaku! I'm still injured, you know!"
Kukaku dutifully ignored him. "I suppose I'll have to wait too?"
Ichigo shot her as much of a hangdog look as he could manage. Kukaku rolled her eyes but let it go with a huff.
"Well, that's basically the gist of everything that's happened over the past two weeks," Kukaku said instead. "Now there'll be a whole slew of people here in fifteen minutes wanting to see you. They'd be here already if they knew you were awake. You wanna see 'em or play the coma patient some more?"
Ichigo grimaced. Truth be told, he was starting to feel tired again, not to mention a hospital room shared by three people wasn't exactly the ideal place for reunions.
"Why are we sharing a room anyway?" He enquired, looking around once more. "Not that I mind, but Taichou should have a room to himself at least."
Ukitake quirked a small smile at this but gestured in the general direction of the rest of the Fourth. "Quite a few people have been in need of medical treatment, and by the time a room freed up, it was easier for me to simply stay here."
"Not to mention he didn't wanna leave you," Kukaku added in her usual straightforward manner. "Unohana-san told him he could've left three days ago."
Ukitake took on a faintly embarrassed air. "I wanted to be here when you woke up."
Ichigo tinged red but grinned sheepishly. "Sorry for worrying you, Taichou."
His captain's eyes softened but he only shook his head. Ichigo had a feeling that his previous prediction that he wouldn't be let out of Ukitake's sight for at least a few weeks might actually come true.
"And what about them?" Ichigo glanced back at the Arrancar. "Seriously, are you guys being forced to stay? I didn't mean to drag you here just so someone could stop you from leaving."
Kukaku smirked before Starrk could reply or Lilynette could explode at them. "Oh that's not it, Kaien. Turns out, Arrancar know how to pay their debts. They're staying here willingly until they can return the favour."
Ichigo blinked, and then blinked again when neither Starrk nor Lilynette refuted this, though the former's eyes had narrowed and the latter had flushed red with suppressed aggravation.
"Oh," He said rather stupidly, and then hastily spluttered out, "Wait, you don't need to do anything! It's not like you asked me to bring you here. You can leave. I don't need repayment of any sort."
Lilynette's hair seemed to bristle. "What is wrong with you?! Why can't you just be grateful that you've got the Primera Espada owing you and hurry up and tell us to do something so that we can leave?!"
Ichigo arched an eyebrow at the girl who practically had smoke coming out of her ears. "...Okay, if you put it that way..."
All at once, Lilynette tensed and looked to be waiting for the death blow. Starrk didn't say anything, but one of his hands twitched as if he was fighting the urge to clench it.
Ichigo glanced at his sister. "Kukaku, when I last visited, the yard..."
Kukaku perked up. "Oh yeah, the yard was beginning to look a mess."
"Right," Ichigo turned back to the Arrancar. "You can repay me by doing the yard work for Kukaku. She hates weeding."
"And repainting the roof," Kukaku added. "I hate that too, and Ganju's too lazy to do a good job of it."
Lilynette opened her mouth but nothing came out. For once, it was Starrk who spoke, gaze shifting from Kukaku to Ichigo.
"Oi, are you joking?" The Arrancar was borderline-glaring even as his tone of voice remained uninterested. "That's not a fair trade, and aren't you Shinigami a little too lax in security? Even Taichou-san over there hasn't attempted to finish me off and we were in a death match not two weeks ago."
Kyouraku scratched his head. "Mmm, I'd rather not kill anyone if there isn't any need to. Honestly, I didn't even really want to kill you. I'm glad it worked out this way."
Starrk's brow furrowed as he eyed the amicable captain with a measured gaze before focusing on Ichigo again. "It's still not a fair trade."
Ichigo shrugged easily. "Lilynette said 'something', but she didn't specify what that something has to be, so, yard work."
"And no take-backs," Kukaku tacked on when Lilynette made to speak. "You said something; Kaien picked something. Take it or leave it."
Starrk, unwisely in Ichigo's experienced opinion, tried protesting one more time. He didn't make it past "But-"
In one smooth motion, Kukaku vaulted over Ichigo's bed, landed beside Starrk's, and promptly planted a fist in his face.
Ichigo winced in sympathy as Starrk reeled back, more shocked than pained as one of his hands went up to clutch his nose and LIlynette leapt to her feet, hovering uncertainly between Kukaku and her partner.
"You too, huh?!" Kukaku barked, crossing her arms as she glowered down at Starrk. "Why does this entire world insist on making me repeat myself? I said you'll be weeding and repainting the roof, and that's what you'll be doing! Do either of you have any further problems with that?!"
Mechanically, eyes wide, Starrk obediently shook his head. Lilynette hastily did the same when Kukaku rounded on her, shrinking away when Ichigo's sister gave her the evil eye.
Ichigo sighed, plucked a tissue from the box on the bedside table, and passed it over to Starrk. The Arrancar accepted it without complaint, still keeping a wary eye on Kukaku.
"First rule in the Shiba household," Ichigo advised. "Don't piss off my sister. It's bad for your health."
Kukaku glared at him. Ichigo grinned back. Ukitake and Kyouraku laughed. Starrk and Lilynette looked on, clearly thinking that they were the only sane ones in the room.
Life was good.
In the end, Ichigo did play coma patient again, mostly because he conked out soon after things had been settled with the two Arrancar, nodding off halfway through something Kukaku was saying.
He woke up again two days later, alone but physically feeling significantly better.
He couldn't say the same for mentally.
"Aizen aside, Ichigo is perfectly fine with one Zanpakutou."
"I could not agree more. If you have found a method to seal yourself away, then by all means, please share."
"How dare you? I was here first!"
"For all that Kurosaki Ichigo is the reincarnation of Shiba Kaien, his current life is that of Ichigo,and I am Ichigo's Zanpakutou. Therefore, I was here first."
"A mere technicality. It is just a name. I have known Ichigo for many, many centuries. When hefirst heard my voice, you were not even created yet!"
Ichigo, standing in the lush forests of his Inner World with only crumbling buildings in the distance now structured like the ancient ruins of age-old civilizations, wearily watched his two Zanpakutou bicker, both looking an insult away from whipping out their weapons.
Nejibana had always been the epitome of grace, if somewhat childish and possessive at times, while Zangetsu redefined dignity and composure, even in his teenaged form as he was right now. Ichigo had never expected either of them to come so close to blows with each other. If anything, he would've thought they'd get along.
"Oh don't stop them, King. This is what I call entertainment at its finest."
And it was wholly ironic that it was Ichigo's Hollow of all people who wasn't giving him a headache.
Ichigo studied his white counterpart critically. "And why exactly aren't you trying to kill me? Again."
The Hollow scoffed, rolling his eyes as if Ichigo had asked a totally ridiculous question, and then, in a sharp, quick movement, materialized his sword and lunged at Ichigo, who had begun reaching for one of his own swords the moment his Hollow had gone for his.
Half a heartbeat later, the Hollow was flat on his back, Nejibana's trident at his chest. Ichigo hadn't moved.
"Can't do anythin' now that this bitch is always on my case, can I?" The Hollow groused, not making any attempt to get up. "Least Zangetsu lets me have some fun."
"Which is another reason why it would only be reasonable for me to be Ichigo's sole Zanpakutou," Nejibana said loftily as she eyed the Hollow with distaste. "You allow this cretin to get away with his repeated attempts on Ichigo's life."
"That is Ichigo's Hollow, a manifestation of all the things he hates about himself and all the things he is scared of becoming," Zangetsu returned just as sharply as he stalked over. "You tell me, Water Mistress, if you continue to separate them, allow the distance to yawn between them once more and prevent Ichigo from ever confronting and accepting his fears, how will that protect him?"
"I will protect him, of course!" Nejibana snapped defiantly. "Yes, from his own Hollow if I must! I am his Zanpakutou! Protecting him is what I do!"
Zangetsu narrowed his eyes. "And you did such a good job last time-"
A flash of black and a spray of water later, Ichigo and his Hollow both had to jump back as Nejibana and Zangetsu clashed, trident against katana. The ground flooded as stormy waves brewed and the world darkened as a blood moon rose in the sky.
"Wow, they sure are possessive," His Hollow observed, examining his fingernails and seemingly unconcerned with their increasingly chaotic surroundings. "I would've expected this from the bitch but not Zangetsu."
"Don't call her that," Ichigo said irritably as he shunpoed above the water. "Look, I don't particularly like you, and I know you don't like me, but either way, we're stuck with each other, so all I'm asking is for you to tolerate me, and Nejibana for that matter.
"Zangetsu was right," He continued, tilting his head in the direction of the dark blur currently crossing blades with Nejibana's pale form. "You're everything I hate and fear, but you're still part of me, and I can't let you go. I won't let you go. We're stronger together, and that's what you want, right? To be stronger?"
His Hollow cocked his head, manic grin faltering for a moment. "...Yeah, of course. Who wouldn't wanna be? 'Sides you o' course. Always wantin' ta be just strong enough ta protect the people around ya. That's pathetic."
"That's who I am, accept it," Ichigo said bluntly. "And you're who you are, and I'll accept that too. It's the only way this'll work."
"Oh yeah?" The Hollow was grinning again, eyes gleaming with the near-insanity of bloodlust. "So you'll accept me jus' like that?"
Ichigo thought back to their fight with Aizen, when it had been Nejibana and Zangetsu and his Hollow, all standing with him as a single, united force, and in that moment, when every part of him had aligned and fitted together like the finishing pieces of a puzzle, even when they had been facing down someone with all the power of a god, Ichigo had felt like there was no way they could lose.
"Yeah," Ichigo said steadily, meeting his Hollow's yellow-on-black gaze. "Just like that."
His Hollow's grin widened, and this time, even though Ichigo was expecting it, he didn't react when his counterpart sprang at him, sword extended, and impaled him straight through the chest.
"Tch," His Hollow made a face as it began disappearing from the feet up. "King, ya can be more sentimental than a Christmas card."
Ichigo huffed a laugh, feeling no pain even with the sword running him through. "Just telling it like it is."
"Hmph," The Hollow glanced idly down at its dissipating body before looking up again. "Gimme a name."
Ichigo blinked. "What?"
"A name," The Hollow repeated impatiently. "I want a name."
Ichigo drew a blank. "...Shiro?"
The Hollow snorted derisively. "Ya have all the imagination of a doorknob."
Ichigo scowled. "I'm not good with names. At least 'Shiro' is obvious."
"Yeah, it's a step up from shoutin' 'Hollow!'," Shiro mocked. "Whatever. It'll do. Now don't go losin' any fights, King. Ya start gettin' yur ass kicked, ya call me, got it?"
Ichigo quirked a crooked smile just as Shiro disappeared. "Yeah, got it."
The sword in his chest vanished, leaving no hint that it had ever been there, and when Ichigo looked up, he found his Inner World back to normal and his two Zanpakutou watching him from several feet away, no longer fighting.
Even from here, Ichigo could pick up the subtle pride in Zangetsu's expression, and he grinned back despite himself.
On the other hand, Nejibana stood stiffly to the side, fingers tangled tightly in the folds of her sleeves. She looked to be biting back tears.
Ichigo exhaled through his nose and crossed the distance with a single flash step, stopping in front of his first Zanpakutou.
"Hey," He dropped a gentle hand on her bowed head. "Nejibana-"
"I couldn't protect you!" She burst out, cutting him off. "You were defenceless against that thrice-damned Hollow; I couldn't do a thing!"
"You were disintegrated the moment I activated Shikai," Ichigo said firmly. "And that was my fault. I was nowhere near my best when I charged into that fight, and we both paid for it. But I'm here now, and so are you, and while I'm not just Shiba Kaien anymore, I'm still your wielder and you're still my Zanpakutou."
He paused and glanced at Zangetsu. "The only thing that's changed is that we have a new... soul mate now."
Zangetsu very nearly rolled his eyes at the cliché while Nejibana managed a hiccupping laugh before pulling herself together.
Ichigo tugged affectionately at a lock of her hair, letting the streams of water trail over his fingers before nudging her forward. "Now the two of you stop being idiots. You're both important to me, along with that troublesome Hollow of mine, and I have no intention of abandoning any of you."
Under his hand, Nejibana relaxed, and the understated tension in Zangetsu's jaw eased.
Ichigo shook his head. "Honestly, you two. And here I thought I was the dense one."
"You are." "I cannot argue with that."
Ichigo rolled his eyes but couldn't help smiling as his two Zanpakutou exchanged a look.
"I'll be going now," He announced out loud, taking a step back. "Get along, and don't go crazy in here again. I like this forest just the way it is."
He closed his eyes and let himself drift out of his Inner World, the image of a guarded but more receptive expression on each of his Zanpakutou's faces seared into his memories.
When he blinked open his eyes again, Ichigo found that he was no longer alone in the room. Instead, Starrk was sitting in a chair near the end of his bed, legs sprawled in front of him and leaning back with a book over his face. Lilynette was curled up like a cat at the foot of his bed. Both looked to be asleep, and were out of their Espada outfits, now dressed in plain dark blue kimonos with the Shiba Clan crest emblazed in white near the hem.
Silently unfolding his limbs from its previous meditative position, Ichigo cautiously stood up, and then did a mental dance when his legs didn't immediately give out. Stretching languidly, he grabbed one of the unused blankets and tiptoed over to Lilynette, tucking the corners around her before turning to scan the room.
To his relief, a set of clothes consisting of a standard Shinigami uniform was placed on his bedside table. Good; he wanted a shower and there was no way he was going to continue wearing the medical gown Unohana had undoubtedly stuffed him in.
Ten minutes later, he stepped back out of the bathroom, rubbing a towel through his dripping hair as he fumbled with his obi sash. Damn the thing; his fingers only half-remembered how to knot it.
It took another few seconds to adjust the sash to his liking, and then, grabbing his Zanpakutou from where they leaned against the wall and tying their sheaths to the band of cloth, he set out in search of freedom.
Three steps to the door and more than eager to be out, Ichigo paused when a rustle behind him sounded, and he turned in time to see Starrk getting to his feet, stifling a yawn as he prodded Lilynette awake.
"Ah, I didn't mean to wake you," Ichigo apologized, glancing at Lilynette as the girl woke with a wordless grumble.
"I wasn't asleep," Starrk stated dismissively, tugging away the blanket Ichigo had draped over Lilynette earlier to hurry the girl along.
Ichigo coughed, faintly embarrassed but refusing to let it show. He couldn't help it; no matter how he looked at it, Lilynette reminded him of Karin and Yuzu, and even Kukaku and Ganju when they had been children, and his big brother instincts just kicked in on their own.
"You're finally awake!" Lilynette bounced up, rubbing the last of the sleep from her right eye. "Again! Jeez, do you always sleep this much? Sitting up too! And I thought Starrk was lazy!"
Ichigo scowled half-heartedly at the girl. "I was talking to my Zanpakutou and Hollow. It's called meditating, brat."
"Don't call me a brat!" Lilynette griped. "And what do you mean talking to your Hollow?"
Ichigo tapped a finger against his head. "I have a Hollow inside me. I'm a Visored."
Lilynette pulled up short. "I thought you were a Human who became a Shinigami. And the reincarnation of that Kaien guy."
"I am," Ichigo turned and reached for the door. "My soul's been through some weird shi- stuff. I'm basically a lot of things mashed together."
"Heh, you're strange."
Ichigo glanced pointedly down at her. "I don't want to hear that from someone who let Aizen dictate their fashion sense."
Lilynette reddened and scowled but Ichigo only smirked and ducked out the door, cautiously ensuring that no healer, especially Unohana, was lying in wait outside before slinking out.
"What are you doing?" Lilynette demanded two minutes later as Ichigo sidled along one wall of a corridor as he made his bid for freedom.
"What does it look like?" Ichigo retorted. "I'm trying to get out of this death trap. I technically haven't been deemed fit to leave yet, and you've met Unohana-san. That woman's the scariest person you're ever going to come across. Getting on her bad side, especially in her territory, is suicide."
"Oh I don't know," Lilynette muttered as she trotted beside Starrk, both stopping again when Ichigo halted to peer around a corner. "Your sister can give her a run for her money."
Ichigo released a bark of laughter. "Kukaku's violent, but she's a big softie at heart. She just wants to take care of everyone. What do you think you're wearing?"
"These?" Lilynette glanced at the kimonos she and Starrk were donned in. "She said they were just old clothes that she forgot to toss but they were still in good enough condition to wear, and they were collecting dust anyway."
Ichigo paused and shifted to look at them. "Typical Kukaku. They might've been collecting dust, but that's only because no one's been around to wear them. We'd never toss them. See that?"
He nodded at the blaze of white at the hem of their kimonos. "The Shiba Clan fell so it's not like we've got a big compound to show off anymore, only a house, so the place is mostly undecorated. That symbol you're wearing is the Shiba Clan crest, plus you're wearing dark blue. Only people accepted into the main family wear that colour. The clan head, and lady of the house if there is one, wear black, while the retainers go with grey or brown."
Lilynette was wide-eyed again while Starrk, frame still slouched, had an odd look on his face, as if he wasn't quite sure what to make of Ichigo.
"But- But she gave us a whole closetful of these," The girl stammered.
Ichigo arched an eyebrow. "Well, we can hardly expect you to only have one set of clothes, right? Besides, Kukaku's right. If they stay put in a closet, they'll just continue collecting dust."
He smiled, grimly satisfied. "Not to mention you get the bonus of people not giving you crap about being Arrancar, if only because I'm involved."
He paused and glanced left and right when they reached an intersection before scurrying down the hall, cursing his hair for the umpteenth time since he had learned how. He just couldn't have been reborn with normal Shiba hair, could he? Even Yuzu had the soft brown of their mother's, yet somehow, Ichigo had come out with orange.
Ichigo blinked and turned back again. This was the first time Starrk had spoken directly to him and looked like he wanted to continue talking.
The taller Arrancar was scrutinizing him closely. "Your Clan... Are there only three of you?"
Ichigo sobered, running through all the people he knew with Shiba blood. "...Technically, there are six altogether, but... one's in hiding – Kukaku mentioned him in passing a few days ago; he was the clan head after me even though he's from the branch family but we've never put much stock into direct lineage anyway. After he... left, Kukaku took over what was left of our Clan. And the other two members don't know about... any of this."
He waved a hand in the air. "Shinigami and Soul Society and everything else, I mean. As far as they know, they're just Humans with a talent for seeing ghosts."
"Your Human family?" Lilynette chimed in, visible eye inquisitive.
Ichigo smiled dryly. "Well, yeah; my sisters aren't involved at all."
He warmed to the subject, as he always did when Karin and Yuzu came up. "They're twins, only eleven, but Karin's older than Yuzu by a few minutes. Karin can see what I can see but she pretends this world's not real, and Yuzu can only see shadows and blurry images; nothing concrete."
Lilynette peered up at him. "Why would anyone pretend we're not real?"
Ichigo shrugged. "Karin's a practical person; it's not that she's ashamed of her ability or anything, but generally, claiming you can see ghosts in the Human World is just asking to get shunned, which is more trouble than it's worth."
Lilynette puffed out her cheeks as she digested this. "So you hide it too?"
Ichigo smirked humourlessly. "No. I don't parade the fact or anything, but if someone found out and tried to harass me about it, I just beat them up. Most of them have learned not to talk about that to me."
He frowned in consideration. "Or talk to me at all, really. Karakura used to have a real problem with thugs and gangsters. Not anymore."
He grinned to himself. Harassment had especially gone down after Renji, Ikkaku, Yumichika, Toshirou, and Matsumoto had transferred briefly into his school. The bullies who had attempted to get one over him for so long had, after realizing that the newcomers were Ichigo's friends, gone after them instead.
Needless to say, that hadn't turned out so well. For the bullies.
"Then there are six of you?" Starrk interjected once more, head tilting questioningly. "I don't know much about these Clans but I thought there would be more."
Ichigo hummed as they started walking again. "We used to have quite a few retainers but they must've been let go after the Shiba Clan fell. Kukaku at least kept two on though; I guess you haven't seen them yet. They're the gatekeepers of our Clan.
"Other than that though," Ichigo shrugged. "The Shibas are different from the other Noble Houses. Most of the time, we don't even wear formal clothing to show our rank, as you've seen from Kukaku and Ganju. We don't have scarves and other accessories like the Kuchikis, and our colours tend to be less eye-catching, unlike the Shihouins. Their clan head wears gold when they go formal. For us, what you two are wearing now is formal.
"And we're far more lax when it comes to traditions and rules, nowhere near as strict as, say, the Kuchikis when it comes to things like marriage either. Most of the time, they have their elders come up with a good match for members of the main family – you know, like high status, good breeding, and ability to bear a number of children.
"On the other hand, us Shibas don't even have elders; might've had them once upon a time but not for centuries now. When we marry, it's because we want to, or we don't marry at all, which, I suppose, contributes to a much smaller clan compared to the others.
"But overall," Ichigo quirked a dry smile at them. "I think we're happier."
Starrk grunted, looking to be mulling over all the new information. Lilynette blanched. "Why does it have to be so complicated? Why can't those other Clans just do whatever they want?"
Ichigo's hand twitched, almost reaching out to pat the girl on the head for being so adorably naive before he remembered that Lilynette would probably bite his appendage off for it.
"It's called politics," He said instead, picking up his pace when he saw a pair of side doors up ahead. "If you want to keep your sanity, stay well away from it."
He broke out into a jog and bounded out of the Fourth, vaulting over the wall surrounding the Division grounds in three steps.
"What are you, a cat?" Lilynette scoffed as Ichigo stared up at the blue sky and soaked in the sunlight.
"I don't like being stuck inside," Ichigo defended. "I doubt you would either."
His gaze drifted down the street. It was still morning right now so most people were inside working; only a few civilians could be seen wandering about in the distance.
But even without the bustle of a busy Division around him, the city still rang of home to Ichigo. He'd missed this, missed breathing in Soul Society air when, before, he hadn't even known he was missing anything.
Another part of him longed to be back in Karakura though, and it wasn't the actual place he missed so much as his family. He wanted to see his sisters, and even his father, and he had no idea where Ishida, Inoue, and Chad were. They could still be around but he hadn't gotten the opportunity to ask about them earlier.
Three familiar reiatsu signatures approached from around a corner, slow but steadily advancing. They didn't seem to have sensed him yet.
"Oh good," Ichigo cocked his head and glanced back at the two Arrancar. "I'm afraid we're gonna have to part ways for now. I have some people I need to talk to and I can't put it off any longer."
Starrk shrugged passively while Lilynette frowned in concentration. "Hey, that Rukia girl is coming. And that pineapple guy and that captain who looks like a woman."
Ichigo smothered a snicker but paused as another thought occurred to him. Renji he had expected a visit from but Byakuya as well? That was the only way Lilynette would know about either of them.
"Yeah," He only said out loud. "There are some things Rukia and I have to hash out. You're staying at Kukaku's place?"
Starrk nodded once. "Aa. She lent us a guestroom."
Ichigo made to turn away. "Alright, I'll see you there then. Try not to get on my sister's nerves!"
And ignoring Lilynette's "More like she gets on our nerves!", he disappeared in a flurry of Shunpo just as the party of three rounded the corner.
Byakuya saw him coming half a second before Ichigo landed in front of Rukia, and one of the captain's hands instinctively moved to Senbonzakura but paused the moment he realized who it was. Renji however jumped and cursed when Ichigo appeared.
Ichigo wasted no time snagging a startled Rukia by the back of her Shihakushou and slinging her over one shoulder.
"I- Ichigo!" She yelped in shock, too stunned to do anything but dangle there.
Ichigo smirked, nodded at a dumbfounded Renji, and then glanced at an imperceptibly wide-eyed Byakuya. "Yo, Byakuya! I'm gonna borrow your sister for a bit. She and I have things to talk about. I'll return her when we're done. See ya!"
And without waiting for an answer, Ichigo darted away with his once-protégé, leaping off across the rooftops towards the secret training area Yoruichi had shown him.
He took it as a good sign that no cherry blossoms raced after him in pursuit.
Ichigo dumped his baggage – not too roughly – onto the rocky ground. Rukia landed with an oof, but before Ichigo could blink, the girl was on her knees, her forehead touching the ground as she bowed as low as physically possible.
To say that Ichigo was highly uncomfortable would be an understatement of massive proportions.
So he did the only thing he could to clear the air.
"Rage through the seas and heavens, Nejibana," Ichigo intoned, and before Rukia could so much as twitch, he had blasted a jet of water at her, bowling her backwards head over heels and dumping her straight into the hot springs several feet away.
Rukia surfaced, gasping and sputtering, and the indignant expression on her face made Ichigo mentally sigh in relief. On the outside though, he only readied his trident.
"Release your Zanpakutou, Kuchiki Rukia," He ordered, just this once slipping seamlessly back into his role as her commanding officer. "I want to see how much you've improved."
Rukia hauled herself out of the hot springs, blinking water from her eyes as she wavered in front of Ichigo.
"I- Ichigo- Kaien-dono-" She couldn't seem to make up her mind on what to say.
Ichigo scowled in irritation. "Draw your blade, Rukia; if you don't come at me with everything you have, I'll wipe the floor with you."
The girl hesitated for a moment longer before reaching for her Zanpakutou at last. "Dance, Sode no Shirayuki."
Ichigo smiled and slammed the spear end of his trident into the ground, calling up a tidal wave that surged up from the ground and towards his opponent at breakneck speed.
With any luck, he'd assess her and hammer the guilt out of her all in one go.
For the tenth time since their spar had started half an hour ago, Ichigo caught Rukia's blade between the prongs of his trident and tossed her back to the ground with a kick to her sternum. As she crashed into the rocky floor below, Ichigo glowered down at the resulting cloud of dust.
"Rukia, I know you can do better than that!" He barked, effortlessly dodging another thrust as the Shinigami in question shunpoed back into the air and tried to get in a strike. Parrying the second blow and whirling around her, he planted a foot in her back and sent her careening back down again.
"Unless of course, you've been slack with your training," Ichigo mocked, trying to goad her into giving her all. She was holding back, hesitating before delivering each swing. It had long since started to annoy.
"I'm trying!" Rukia snapped back, some of her fire rearing its head as she spat out a mouthful of dirt.
Ichigo snorted as she hurtled towards him again, deflecting each strike she dealt.
"Don't joke," He shot back, catching her around the middle with his trident and flipping her flat on her back. "If this is you trying, then everything I ever taught you as Shiba Kaien flew out the window the moment I died!"
Rukia flinched, shoulders hunching, and Ichigo gritted his teeth in barely restrained frustration.
"Kukaku's forgiven you, Rukia," He reminded, struggling to keep his voice below a shout. "I never blamed you to begin with; I asked you to kill me. Why are you still so hung up over this?"
Rukia's hand tightened around the hilt of her Zanpakutou, bangs shadowing her eyes. Ichigo huffed in aggravation and lashed out at her once again. Sode no Shirayuki barely came up in time to block the heavy strike Ichigo dealt.
"There is absolutely no resolve in your blade!" Ichigo growled, forcing her back with every swing. "No desire to show your skill, no determination to win, nothing that says you even want to hold your own against me; there's nothing but guilt in your Zanpakutou, and that isn't what I want to see! Where is your resolve, Rukia?!"
A burst of water exploded from his trident, slamming into Sode no Shirayuki with a ferocity that emphasized Ichigo's own disappointment. Rukia went flying backwards, and only Ichigo's foresight to aim her in the general direction of the hot springs again prevented her from creating a human-shaped crater in the ground. As it was, a tremendous splash followed the Shinigami's landing, sloshing water everywhere.
As Ichigo waited for Rukia to either clamber back to her feet again or give up (and if it was the latter, he'd get really pissed), he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and instinctively heightened his senses, picking up the Visored and Urahara lingering just out of sight. He caught a flicker of Byakuya's signature reiatsu as well, hovering several feet away from the larger group.
Huh. Well, Byakuya had probably wanted to make sure Ichigo didn't put his sister through too much emotional turmoil or something, and this place was Urahara's property. He hoped the man didn't mind too much, though the shopkeeper probably would've intervened by now if he wanted them out.
Idly, he wondered how long they'd been here. He'd been entirely focused on Rukia ever since he had semi-kidnapped her from Byakuya and Renji so they could've been here all along and he had simply missed it.
"Next Dance: White Ripple!"
Ichigo's gaze flicked downwards just as a large avalanche of cold air rushed towards him. Twisting out of the way, he cleaved the attack in two, only to glance up sharply when he felt Rukia appear above him.
"Hadou Number 4: Byakurai!"
Ichigo wheeled out of the way of the streak of lightning, a small grin beginning to grow on his face when Rukia dashed behind him this time, not letting him fall back.
"Bakudou Number 63: Sajou Sabaku!"
Ichigo's grin spread fully across his face as he spun and slashed at the yellow ropes of energy snaking towards him.
"That's better!" He smirked, shattering the Kidou with two strikes of his trident and a minor explosion as the spell was cancelled. "And here I thought you were completely hopeless-"
He ticked up an eyebrow when Rukia lunged out of the smoke and crashed against his trident with Sode no Shirayuki.
"You talk too much, Ichigo!" The Shinigami growled heatedly, sounding more like herself than she had since the spar had started.
Ichigo's grin only widened.
As they exchanged a flurry of blows in swift succession, Ichigo observed Rukia's expression, noting the strength that had been missing until now burning in her eyes. There was still guilt there, flickering at the edges of her features and lining her shoulders, but she was pushing it aside, struggling past it as she fought him.
Unfortunately, even as just Ichigo and without Kaien's experience and skill, Ichigo was still stronger than Rukia, not to mention he had had two months to get used to fighting as Kaien again.
Deflecting one last strike, Ichigo flipped backwards and sent a wave of water rolling in Rukia's direction before calling out, "High Tide, Nejibana!"
Rukia, having been in the process of readying herself to face the oncoming wave, gaped when it promptly grew into twice the size of a regular tsunami, lengthening in height and towering over her even as the sides expanded to curl around her figure.
"Hold your breath!" Ichigo recommended cheerfully and tapped his Zanpakutou once against the air under his feet.
The tsunami collapsed.
It folded in on itself and descended on its prey with monstrous force, and had Ichigo not been holding back, separating the currents that would've dragged the trapped Shinigami down and crushed her amidst the water's uncompromising depths, instead only allowing the tamer tides to drench her, Rukia would've been a goner.
As the roar of rushing water subsided, Ichigo sealed his Zanpakutou again and sheathed it before shunpoing down to where the water was draining away, most of it beginning to evaporate as Nejibana's reiatsu relinquished its grasp.
The impromptu pool could only disappear so fast though and Ichigo waited at the edge of the water for Rukia to swim back to the surface. He could sense her moving so he knew she was okay, though she was taking a damn long time-
"Third Dance: White Sword!"
His eyes widened and he jerked back, drawing Zangetsu in the blink of an eye.
"Cleave the heavens asunder, Zangetsu!"
His Zanpakutou released just in the nick of time to deflect the blade of ice that shot out of the water and slammed into the broad side of his sword with staggering power. Ice instantly began spreading outwards, and Ichigo had to gather his own reiatsu to stop the attack.
His gaze slid from the sword that would've probably cut into his jugular if he hadn't managed to react in time to said sword's wielder.
Panting and soaked from head to toe, Rukia stood on top of the ebbing tides, brow knitted in fierce concentration.
They watched each other for a long moment, Rukia still winded but standing tall.
And then he struck.
With an abrupt flick of his wrist, he knocked Sode no Shirayuki aside, shunpoed forward in the span of a heartbeat, and brought Zangetsu up in a sweep, levelling the oversized Khyber knife against Rukia's throat before she could react.
Ichigo tilted his head and slanted a sidelong glance down at the frozen Shinigami beside him. "Follow through with your attack, midget. But... not bad overall."
And then Rukia was releasing her breath in a whoosh of air, sagging as Ichigo withdrew his blade and stepped away.
"I thought I got you with that last attack," She grumbled, plucking half-heartedly at her Shihakushou as she sealed her Zanpakutou.
Ichigo sheathed Zangetsu and smirked. "I blocked it in the end. You should've tried another Bakudou."
Rukia scowled at him, and then seemed to remember who she was scowling at and instantly faltered. Ichigo rolled his eyes, reached out, and whacked her upside the head.
"Cut it out," He snapped. "Honestly, I'm still me; I'm just... also Kaien now. I don't blame you; how could I? I was the one who forced your hand."
Big violet eyes peered up at him, fragile in a way that Ichigo normally wouldn't associate with Rukia's stubborn nature.
But then again, Ichigo had always known, in both lives, that she tended to put up a strong front even when she wanted to cry or when faced with something that scared her.
"I killed you," She mumbled softly.
"If you want to be technical about it, then yes, you did," Ichigo said practically, ignoring the way she cringed. "But you also saved me. You think I would've died happy knowing Metastacia had used me to kill you and Taichou as well? Besides, if that had happened, then I would've died alone, and-"
His mouth twisted downwards, a thrum of dread sparking in his chest at the very thought. "Nobody should die alone."
He knew he could be a bit of a loner, and even now, he was still learning how to depend on other people in battle, but to him, dying alone only meant that he had failed to protect the people he cared about, and that was a thought that terrified him even on the best of days.
"I fought an Espada who had your memories," Rukia suddenly revealed. "Aaroniero. He- He absorbed Metastacia, who still had a- a part of you when he returned to Hueco Mundo after he died. It was an ability of his, and- and neither Ukitake-taichou nor I knew he could until now. Aaroniero changed into you and I had to- I had to fight you all over again. He had your powers and Nejibana and-"
Ichigo crossed his arms. "Did you kill him?"
Rukia nodded jerkily.
"Good," Ichigo scoffed at the wide-eyed look he received. "I don't care if that Aari-whatsit had my Zanpakutou and my abilities borne from my memories. He's still just a copy. I'd be very unhappy right now if you had lost to a copy of me. Metastacia and that Espada may have had my body, but neither of them had my soul, and that's what counts. My soul's right here, Rukia, and I left my heart with you when I died, remember?"
And the words Ichigo had passed on to Rukia so long ago echoed between them.
"Whenever you fight from this point on, there is one thing that you must never do, and that is to die alone. Our bodies are composed entirely of reishi. If we die, our bodies will disintegrate and become part of the reishi that makes up Soul Society. And when that time comes, where will your heart go? Your heart will be passed on to your friends. If you pass it on to your friends, then your heart will always live on within them, and that's why, Kuchiki, you must never, ever, ever die alone."
He focused on Rukia again and, to his alarm, found her on the brink of tears.
"I am going to hug you now," She declared, voice cracking. "And if you tell Renji, I will castrate you, my former lieutenant or not."
Ichigo snorted, but unlike with Lisa and Ukitake, he was ready for the emotional display this time and he only wrapped a firm arm around Rukia as she tackled him with a hug that almost made him wheeze.
By the time she pulled back, wet sleeve wiping at her eyes, Ichigo was glad to see that the last traces of guilt were nowhere in sight.
Clapping interrupted them, and they both turned to the left, Rukia hastily composing herself as the Visored, Urahara, and even Byakuya appeared.
"Good show," Hirako complimented, wandering forward and inspecting Rukia with approval before concentrating on Ichigo. "Ichigo, ya got sloppy at the end and almost got yourself beheaded."
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "No need to exaggerate, Hirako. The worst I would've gotten is a scratch."
"Your scratches are deep gashes on everyone else," Kensei scoffed.
Rukia blanched at this and Ichigo shot the Visored a 'not helping' scowl. Kensei shrugged unrepentantly.
"But I'm fine," Ichigo hurried on. "And Rukia's fine, though she looks a bit like a drowned cat."
"And whose fault is that?" Rukia demanded, raking her fingers through her hair. "You dropped a tsunami on me!"
Most of the Visored smirked as Mashiro grinned, bouncing forward to examine Ichigo more closely. "Berry-tan is a lot stronger than before, especially since he shouldn't be fighting right now."
Ichigo twitched, freezing when Rukia rounded on him.
"What?" She eyed him suspiciously, hands on her hips. "What is she talking about?"
Ichigo shifted uncomfortably. "Um, well-"
"Kurosaki-san," Urahara spoke up, gaze shrewd under the brim of his hat. "Did Unohana-taichou release you from the Fourth yet?"
In his head, Ichigo nastily cursed the shopkeeper to the deepest depths of Hell.
"Ichigo!" Rukia looked ready to tie him up and drag him back.
"I'm sure she would've cleared me if she had seen me!" Ichigo tried to placate. Rukia didn't look very impressed. "Oh, come on, Rukia, I've been in that place for two weeks! There's no way I'm not-"
Looking back, he thought he probably didn't make a very good argument when he had to break off abruptly, feeling like someone had taken a hammer to his lungs as all the air seemed to leave him and he was falling before he could register what was happening.
"There's no way you're not what, exactly?" Hirako drawled as he caught Ichigo by the shoulder before he could hit the ground and carefully lowered him into a sitting position. Ichigo was too busy trying to regain his breath and fight back a wave of dizziness to flip Hirako the bird.
"What's going on?" Rukia sounded on the verge of full-blown panic. "What's wrong with him?"
"His soul has not completely recovered yet," Urahara supplied from somewhere in front of Ichigo. A cool hand pressed against his forehead before moving to his chest, and then a strong wave of healing Kidou washed over him. Ah, that's right; Urahara could probably enter the Fourth as a professional healer with his skills in that area.
The shopkeeper only let up on the healing when Ichigo's breathing eased and he could actually sit up on his own without Hirako's hand at his back.
"Oi," Lisa looked worried, the ticked off expression on her face doing nothing to hide it. "Maybe you should head back to the Fourth."
"You know I hate that place," Ichigo protested, the only thing stopping him from making an attempt to heave himself back to his feet being Urahara's uncharacteristically stern gaze and Hirako's iron grasp on his shoulder, keeping him in place. Mother hens, the both of them.
"Besides," He continued insistently. "I have other things to do."
"It can't be all that important!" Rukia objected.
"It's important," Ichigo said adamantly, gaze roaming from one Visored to the next before settling on Byakuya standing a few feet away. "The Captain-Commander wants to see me, right?"
To his credit, Byakuya acted relatively the same as he usually did with Ichigo. "Yes, Yamamoto-soutaichou requests your presence the moment Unohana-taichou deems you fit."
He paused, a flicker of maybe-humour darting across the captain's otherwise aloof features. "That time still seems to be undecided."
Ichigo blinked, and then scowled good-naturedly at Byakuya. "I hear you, but this is seriously important. Will everyone be there?"
Byakuya inclined his head. "He will call a hearing of sorts. All captains, lieutenants, the seated officers who fought in the war, Ichimaru Gin, those who were exiled, the Visored, and your family and Human friends will be present."
Ichigo's eyes narrowed instantly. "My family? As in just Kukaku and Ganju, right?"
For a split second, Byakuya hesitated before forging on smoothly, "As well as your father, Kurosaki Isshin."
Ichigo stilled. Luckily for everyone involved, especially the Captain-Commander, Urahara cut in with a clarification. "It was partly my fault, Kurosaki-san. I hadn't realized that you hadn't told Isshin-san who you are, and when he heard, he insisted on coming back to Seireitei. Of course, your sisters have not been told yet, and they are currently staying at, I believe, Ishida-san's house until further notice."
Ichigo glared at the shopkeeper. "So where's my dad? He hasn't been arrested, has he?"
"No, no," Urahara assured. "He's been staying in the Human World for the most part, arranging things with Ishida-san's father for your sisters. He's been visiting you regularly though, and the Captain-Commander has, temporarily at least, reinstated Isshin-san's reiatsu imprint. He is free to come and go from Soul Society, as are Ishida-san, Inoue-san, and Sado-san. All three of them are recuperating in Karakura as well, but they'll be here as soon as someone finds the time to inform them of your... conscious state."
Ichigo slumped a little in relief. "Okay, that's alright then. I should-"
"Go home and rest," Lisa interrupted. "Even if whatever you have to say to the Captain-Commander is important, how exactly are you going to say it if you can barely stand? Look, go to your sister's house and get some rest. I'll even make Shinji talk to Unohana-san for you."
Lisa shot him a dubious look. "Do I look suicidal to you? I'm not going to break the news to her that one of her patients has gone AWOL. Besides, you can run faster than I can."
Hirako glowered at her.
"What d'ya have ta say anyway?" Hiyori piped up at last. Ichigo was mildly surprised that she had managed to stay silent for so long. "Ya weren't there for the Hollowfication a century ago."
Ichigo stiffened and he craned his head up to stare at the former lieutenant. "No I wasn't. I regret it every day."
Hiyori looked taken aback but Ichigo was already turning to Lisa, who seemed to be recalling something from long ago.
"Ukitake-taichou suddenly had an episode that day," She said slowly with dawning realization. He was laid out for hours, right through the time when lieutenants were being requested to go on that damn mission. I was assigned to it-"
"-because I couldn't go," Ichigo confirmed gravely. "I had to stay behind to run the Division and take care of my captain, but if he hadn't fallen sick that day, I would've gone in your place. Ukitake-taichou told me later that you weren't amongst the first choices. If I had gone instead, you wouldn't have been Hollowfied."
Silence reigned heavily around them. Lisa stared and stared some more, motionless and looking increasingly pale.
"I never thought I'd say this," She spoke up at last. "But I'm damn glad Ukitake-taichou chose that day to fall ill."
Ichigo frowned. "Lisa-"
"If it was between me and you, then I'm glad it was me," Lisa said staunchly. "Besides, what does it matter anymore? You've been Hollowfied anyway in this life. And you died in your last life. I think that automatically cancels out anything you think you owe me."
Ichigo's mouth curled up in an involuntary smile. "Guess so."
"And it would've been a nightmare if we had had ta take ya with us," Hirako taunted. "Ya would've insisted on doin' somethin' disgustin'ly difficult, debatably suicidal, and or monumentally impossible ta clear our names, and the worst part would've been that it probably would've worked."
A round of laughter rippled through the group as Ichigo rolled his eyes again. He couldn't deny it though. He'd never been one to sit back and wait, and he would've dragged the other Visored into storming Seireitei and going up against Aizen at the first opportunity.
"So what's this important thing ya have ta do then?" Hiyori demanded again, dragging them back on topic. "Ya have some proof that might clear our names?"
Ichigo grimaced but stayed vague. "I should hope so."
He turned to Rukia, shrugging off Hirako's grip and climbing to his feet with only Urahara's steadying hand at his elbow as assistance. "Rukia, back when I died, do you still remember what I asked you to do?"
Rukia had winced at the mention of his death but the guilt didn't come back and she bit her lip in thought instead. "Asked me to... Oh, you mean the floorboards?"
Ichigo nodded attentively, gauging her reaction and ignoring the general confusion around him. "I suppose you didn't find anything?"
Rukia shook her head. "No, there was nothing there. I practically tore your office apart. I even checked under the ceiling boards just in case you meant that. I didn't find anything."
"What floorboards?!" Hiyori blared, all but at the end of her patience.
Ichigo scowled at her but answered directly enough. "The floorboards in my off- in my old office at the Thirteenth. I hid a few important things under them over the years. I guess Aizen must've gotten to them first before Rukia could get there."
"So that's the proof gone?" Love enquired, deflating just a little.
Ichigo snorted. "Hell no. I made two copies, just in case the first was found. 'Course, I wasn't planning on dying first."
"What if Aizen took the second copy as well?" Kensei frowned.
Ichigo shook his head. "He couldn't have. Even if he found the location of where I hid it, he'd need three things before he could get to it: access to the Shiba compound, Shiba blood, and..."
His hand fell to his first Zanpakutou. "He'd need Nejibana. More importantly, he'd need the control only I have with Nejibana's abilities. Otherwise, there's no way he could've gotten to it."
Ichigo smiled grimly at the surprised faces around him.
"I have a question, Kurosaki-san," Urahara had tilted back his hat and was frowning at him in a calculating sort of way that told Ichigo that the former captain was already well on his way to figuring out more than a few things. "Where did you get this proof?"
Ichigo had no wish to repeat himself later. Besides, he really didn't know how Lisa would react once she found out what he had done after she had fled with the others.
"I'll tell everyone at the same time later," Ichigo hedged instead, hiding his anxiety.
It was time to bring a few things to light. The outcome would be immensely eye-opening to say the least.
As it turned out though, bringing a few things to light had to wait a few days, especially once Unohana caught up with him and scared the crap out of him with quietly serene words and demonically shadowed eyes. Hirako had ended up being no help whatsoever, offering an unashamed 'what did you expect me to do against her' shrug when Ichigo managed to shoot a dirty look in his direction between getting chewed out by Unohana, his sister, and Ukitake.
And now here he was, two days later and resting on the porch, bored out of his mind with the only entertainment being Starrk and Lilynette weeding the yard.
"I hate doing this!" Lilynette complained for the sixty-seventh time since they had started (Ichigo had counted). "This is slave labour!"
A few feet away from her, hair tied back and wearing a dark green yukata instead, Starrk twitched and looked very, very close to homicide. "Shut up, Lilynette."
Lilynette, dressed in similar shades even though Ichigo had seen her staring longingly at the pale blue and white yukata that Kukaku had also given her but would've gotten dirty when she did the yard work, completely ignored Starrk and pouted outrageously over at Ichigo instead.
Ichigo scowled. Lilynette had learned early on that though she was an Arrancar, Ichigo had a soft spot for her, if only because she reminded him of his sisters, and the girl had taken shameless advantage of it.
He held out for a few seconds longer, but when even Starrk glanced enviously at the porch, Ichigo snorted and waved them over. "Yeah, fine, take a break. I'm not the one Kukaku's gonna call lazy bums."
"Hmph," Lilynette scurried over and flopped down beside Ichigo, while Starrk, at a more sedate pace, all but collapsed on Ichigo's other side and closed his eyes, already well on his way to an afternoon nap.
"Your brother could do it fine," Lilynette complained.
Ichigo grinned. "Yeah, but Ganju'll use any excuse to get out of doing the chores. He's never liked them. He doesn't mind doing the heavy-lifting but he's always tried to duck out of the mind-numbing jobs."
And speaking of Ganju, his brother had punched him in the jaw the moment Ichigo had stepped foot through the door two days ago, but before Ichigo had been able to recover, the idiot had wrapped him in a – manly, Ganju had insisted afterwards – hug and wailed until Kukaku had kicked him in the head to shut him up.
Just like old times.
There was a crash behind them followed by Hiyori yelling obscenities, Ganju hollering back insults, and Ichigo's own father/uncle cackling about something or other, and then another crash followed by Kukaku telling everyone to shut the hell up.
Ichigo released a tolerant sigh. Beside him, Lilynette scratched at one cheek. "Your family's crazy."
"Don't I know it," Ichigo said glumly, but he couldn't help smiling anyway. After finding out that the Visored and Urahara had actually been living in the underground training area, Ichigo, and then Kukaku, had insisted on having them over. There were enough guestrooms if everyone paired up, and it was better than sleeping on unforgiving ground in sleeping bags.
Unfortunately, this also meant inviting pandemonium into their home, and considering the fact that the Shiba Clan included Shiba Isshin who had greeted Ichigo with a flying kick only to get thrown through a wall by Kukaku herself, it was frankly a miracle that the place was still standing.
But it also reminded Ichigo of the Shiba Clan even just several decades back, when there were more people around and mornings were filled with the complaints from those who hated daybreak, and the harried back-and-forth running from those who were late for work, and the loud bangs of fireworks going off from the early-risers who got a kick out of waking everyone else up the good old Shiba way.
Needless to say, they had been the rowdiest Noble House to ever step foot in Seireitei, but nobody could accuse them of not knowing how to have fun. They'd always thrown kickass parties.
He glanced behind him through the open shouji doors and caught sight of Hirako talking to Hachi and Lisa about something, and Kensei was chasing a gleefully squealing Mashiro around who seemed to have stolen the former's shirt for some reason, and Love and Rose were in the middle of a shogi match, and Hiyori was still duking it out with Ganju and Isshin, except now Kukaku was standing over them, bellowing threats of pain and death at all three.
And Urahara had been here earlier but the shopkeeper had left after showing Ichigo a stack of photographs of various Shinigami's reactions after news had spread about Ichigo. Toshirou for one had been slack-jawed, and Soifon had been caught gawking, while Yoruichi, for once, looked like someone had managed to catch her in mid-shunpo and made her face-plant on the ground.
The most priceless one of all though was the dumbfounded expression on Byakuya's face, forever immortalized in full colour. Urahara had looked genuinely dismayed that he hadn't been able to catch the Captain-Commander's expression, but the pictures he did have, the former captain had assured with a deviously enigmatic smile, would be sold off all around Seireitei right after Ichigo was finished flipping through them, and the man had even promised to split the profit with him.
Ichigo hadn't been able to stop laughing for a good three minutes.
His gaze drifted back to Lilynette and then slid over to Starrk. His smile widened, a touch of disbelief entering it.
"What?" Lilynette prodded curiously, obviously catching his expression.
Ichigo gestured around them. "Shinigami, Visored, Arrancar; I never really thought that'd be possible."
Judging by Lilynette's widening eye, she hadn't even really noticed. Her head whipped around just as Kukaku came storming over, scowling dangerously at them. Behind her, Hiyori, Ganju, and Isshin were piled together on the floor in a twitching heap.
"Well why aren't ya working, you lazy bums?!" She demanded, clearly in a foul mood after dealing with the quarrelling three.
Lilynette's temper instantly flared. "We've been working for hours! You want it done, then you do it, you old hag!"
Ichigo face-palmed as a vein pulsed in Kukaku's forehead, and half a second later, the woman had tackled Lilynette off the porch.
"Who're you calling an old hag, you pint-sized little horror?!"
Lilynette was giving as good as she got, yanking at Kukaku's hair as Ichigo's sister pinched her cheeks. "You! Duh! I bet that's why you're getting other people to do all the hard work! You must get back pains if you work too much! And I've seen better tits than yours so there's no point showing them off! It's just another sign that you're getting old!"
"I'm gonna kill you, you mouthy brat! I hope you've said your goodbyes! What d'you have to compare with anyway? You're so flat-chested you could pass for a boy, and you even insist you're not a kid! Kid! Kid! Kiddy-kid!"
"I'M NOT A KID!"
Ichigo shook his head as the two continued rolling in the dirt below him, trying to throttle each other. "Jeez, you're both kids."
He leaned back on his hands and stared absently up at the sky, eyeing the fluffy white clouds meandering lazily across the open blue.
Ichigo blinked and glanced to the side at the former Primera. Grey eyes had cracked open to take him in. "What?"
Starrk didn't reply right away, studying him in a way that made Ichigo almost want to squirm. The Espada relented soon enough though, brow creasing slightly in thought.
"...How long can we stay?"
Ichigo cocked his head. To be honest, he had expected something like this. During meals over the past few days or even just lounging freely to pass the time, there was a horrifyingly empty sort of loneliness in Starrk's demeanour that made Ichigo's heart ache. He never wanted to know that loneliness, but at the same time, he knew he'd come close to it, when Miyako had died, when he'd lost Nejibana, when his mother had died, when he'd nearly lost Zangetsu, when he'd fought and fought and fought in both his lives in various battles, and, at times, when it had never seemed enough.
(And he'd been meaning to ask where Miyako's grave was, really he was, but somehow, Ichigo kept putting it off. At the moment, his wife's – and wasn't that just weird? – death was only a hollow pain in his heart, one that didn't hurt too much if he didn't think about it too hard. A part of him didn't want to know how he would react once he actually saw living – or dead, depending on how you looked at it – proof of what remained of Shiba Miyako.)
"Do you want to stay?" He countered, dragging his thoughts away from his sobering memories.
Starrk didn't react outwardly but tension gathered like a storm cloud over his features. "Doesn't matter to me either way."
Liar, Ichigo automatically accused, but he didn't voice it out loud.
"Well I don't mind," Ichigo said instead, pretending not to see Starrk's gaze narrow in on him again. "And Kukaku needs someone new to yell at, and if everything goes according to plan, we'll need extra hands to clean up our compound when we move back in. Ganju will definitely appreciate it."
He paused. "Besides, it's not up to me. I... don't know if I'm going to be staying here much."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Starrk's frown deepen. "What do you mean? Isn't this your home?"
Ichigo shrugged. "I'm a Human now, for all that I'm also part Shinigami and Hollow and Kaien and who knows what else. I have my old man and my sisters back in Karakura, and my friends are there too. Of course, I have friends up here as well, but it's not the same."
His mouth curled into something more sardonic. "Do you remember? Ukitake-taichou said his Division's been cleaning out my old office. Explaining to all of them that I'm not taking up the position again is gonna be a headache and a half. Some of them might cry."
And speaking of his old position, another issue on Ichigo's to-do list would be to sit down and have a proper chat with his captain. If he had understood the implication properly, then it looked like Ukitake was expecting him to return to being his lieutenant again, and while Ichigo had loved working under the Thirteenth Division captain to the point where he had put off achieving Bankai for decades just so he'd be passed over for consideration of a captaincy, he had other responsibilities now and he couldn't just drop everything and remain in Soul Society.
"Lieutenant, right?" Starrk was staring at him with that oddly intent look again. "Most people would want that. It's a step away from being a captain, isn't it? And you already have that Bankai. Two, in fact."
Ichigo huffed. "I don't particularly want to be a captain. And power can be a pain."
"You're plenty powerful," Starrk pointed out. "You took down Aizen-sa- You took down Aizen."
Ichigo blinked at the correction. It was the first time that the Arrancar had attempted to drop the honorific. How strange. He wondered why.
"I've only ever wanted to be just powerful enough to protect the people I care about," Ichigo said vehemently. "That's never changed, not in my last life, not in this life, and it'll never change for however many more lives I'll live, whether or not I'll remember any of my past lives. I don't want power for the sake of power. I'm not Aizen. I don't want to be a god."
Ichigo fell silent and thought back to when he and the overlord had crossed blades. He'd sensed the sheer lunacy there, the insanity that had taken root ever since Aizen had consciously decided to turn his back on Soul Society and become a god to shape the world according to his own whims, but Ichigo had also felt a little of the man's prior loneliness as well, of being too strong with no one around him who could challenge him so had cut what bonds he'd had instead, walking away and giving up on those who had once genuinely been his friends.
Ichigo didn't want that. That road was paved with sorrow and betrayal, and only led to madness and bloodshed.
"You should stay," He continued, turning to grin down at Starrk as he nodded over at where Kukaku and Lilynette were still attempting mutual murder. "If you don't have anywhere particular to return to, then you'd be welcome here. You'd fit right in with us. We're as unconventional as they come. Inviting a couple Arrancar into our humble abode will be a first, but it isn't nearly the craziest thing we've ever done. I'm sure the Captain-Commander won't mind if you promise not to wreak death and destruction on Soul Society."
Or rather, Ichigo wouldn't give the old man a chance to mind. After what he was going to reveal, the upper management would be hard-pressed to refuse him anything, and as long as it wasn't a completely outrageous demand, he'd most likely get what he asked for.
Starrk didn't give a verbal answer but he did sit up and offer a noncommittal nod, one that didn't seem swayed in either direction, before his gaze wandered over to the two people still tussling on the ground.
Ichigo sighed again and slid off the porch, marching over to the screeching catfight that didn't look like it was going to stop by itself anytime soon.
"Alright, break it up!" He ordered, diving in and hauling Lilynette into the air by the scruff of her yukata while warding off Kukaku with his other hand. "Kukaku, give her a break; she's a child-"
"I'M NOT A CHILD!"
"And you!" Ichigo gave the girl a small shake as she dangled in the air, arms crossed and sulking. "Learn some manners and don't go insulting your host! And it doesn't matter whether or not it's true!"
"Kaien, you better not be implying that I'm-"
"Of course not, now calm down!" Ichigo glared at both of them. "I can't believe I have to do this! You realize that I'm the youngest one of all of us, right?"
"You don't get to use that excuse anymore, Kaien," Kukaku clambered to her feet, dusting her clothes off with a grin that was more happy than teasing. "You've got sixteen years on you, and then several centuries on top of that. Technically, that would make you the oldest."
Ichigo shot her a long-suffering look. Technically, yes, and sometimes he felt the full weight of his years – like right now – but at other times, he really did feel only sixteen again.
"Oh never mind," He grumbled instead, casting a look around before setting Lilynette back down on her feet. "It's almost dinner time anyway so you might as well let them off for the day, Kukaku."
Kukaku huffed but nodded grudgingly in acquiescence. "Fine. Not bad for a day's work, I suppose."
"Better than anything you could do, ha-"
Ichigo clapped a hand over Lilynette's mouth as Kukaku's right eye began twitching. Hastily, he steered the girl away from his volatile sister.
"Would you stop doing that?" He hissed, dumping her next to her partner who had quirked a half-smile at their antics. "Who goes out of their way to piss off someone who could light their bed on fire anyway?"
Lilynette stuck out her tongue but cocked her head inquisitively. "Light my bed on fire?"
Ichigo arched an eyebrow. "The Shiba Clan specializes in fireworks, squirt, and amongst us all, Kukaku is the best at creating ridiculously lethal combinations that could probably set off a chain of explosions large enough to take out half of Seireitei in one go."
Lilynette's brow furrowed. "Fireworks... so they're like weapons?"
Ichigo frowned, and then glanced over at Starrk who shrugged.
"I don't know what those are either," He admitted nonchalantly.
Ichigo arched an eyebrow. "Huh. Well, we'll show you sometime. They can be weapons, but mostly, people set them off during festivals and parties. They're for entertainment."
Both Arrancar looked blank.
"You Shinigami try to kill people with explosions to celebrate?" Lilynette looked skeptical.
Ichigo bit back a laugh. "Not quite, and it's not just Shinigami; Humans use them too. They're not dangerous if you set them off properly. It's better if we show you guys later. Now, you should get cleaned up before dinner's ready."
Ichigo eyed Lilynette critically, reaching out to pat away some of the dust that had smudged her yukata before tugging exasperatedly at her tangled hair. "You keep saying you're not a child but I can't see it."
Lilynette's figurative hackles rose and she batted his hands away. "Hmph! Just 'cause I don't act like the old hag- ow ow ow! Alright, alright, not old hag!"
Ichigo stopped drilling his knuckles into the girl's helmeted head. He'd learned that the feeling was basically the same as no Hollow mask remains at all, something he hadn't hesitated to exploit.
He rolled his eyes and pointed inside. "Go take a bath and get changed. You can wear that new yukata Kukaku bought you. I know you like it; I saw you looking at it earlier."
Lilynette turned red as she hopped to her feet and stomped away, yelling back, "I was only looking at it 'cause I was wondering if the old hag wanted to wear something like that to make herself look younger!"
"YOU DAMN SNOT-NOSED BRAT! YOU TAKE THAT BACK!"
Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose as Kukaku gave chase once more. Ah well, at least Lilynette had listened to him and was on her way to the bathroom. If she managed to lock the door before Kukaku caught up to her, he was fairly certain that his sister wouldn't break it down.
Half a second later, he had to dive out of the way when Isshin came flying out the doors, one sandaled foot aimed at Ichigo's head.
"MY DARLING SON CAN HANDLE ANY FAMILY SITUATION THROWN AT HIM! I'M SO PROUD, MASAKI!"
Ichigo ducked low, spun, and planted a solid foot in Isshin's chest, sending the crazy Shinigami soaring over the rhododendrons and into the bushes at the far end of the yard. "Shut up, old man! You never change, do you?"
He was almost trampled when Hiyori and Ganju came charging out as well, both of them with their swords raised and battle cries on their lips as they descended on Isshin, who had to whip out his own Zanpakutou or risk getting skewered, all the while sobbing to Ichigo's mother about how cruel his friends were.
Ichigo stared after them with uncomprehending disbelief. He couldn't believe he was related to that guy.
A quiet laugh startled him out of his stupor and he glanced to the side to find Starrk watching them all with an air of amusement, head propped up against a loose fist.
Ichigo blinked once, and then smirked in satisfaction as he turned to head back inside. "If you can still laugh after seeing all that insanity, then you belong with us."
"KAIEN! IT'S YOUR TURN TO HELP ME WITH DINNER!"
"I'M COMING!" Ichigo hollered back, ducking in through the shoji doors and pointedly ignoring the Visored who all looked like they were enjoying the attempted bloodbath in the yard. "Starrk, go get changed, okay? Dinner will be ready in half an hour."
He didn't notice the rare look of surprise on Starrk's face as the former Espada watched him leave.
As a former captain, Isshin was more than adept at fully suppressing his reiatsu, so he was more than capable of staying hidden in the shadows of the night as he sat on the roof of the Shiba house and observed his son – nephew – down below.
Ichigo was currently breaking out his fourth bottle of sake that night, and while the father part of him wanted to jump down there and fly-tackle the teen for underage drinking, the rest of him, the logical part of him, knew that Ichigo wasn't technically sixteen, not to mention that anyone deserved a drink or ten after having centuries' worth of memories dumped in their head a mere two months ago.
So Isshin settled for watching silently in the background. He'd done his best to hide his shock, especially after Kisuke had dropped that bombshell on him almost as soon as he had woken up. He'd been out cold the moment the three-month time limit had ended, and he hadn't even been able to stay awake long enough to see if Ichigo had finished his training.
So it was lucky, in part, that Ichigo had slipped into a semi-coma for two weeks, allowing Isshin to come to terms with the fact that his son was also his dead nephew, who wasn't so dead anymore.
And maybe a part of him had always subconsciously known it; not exactly reincarnation, but that something was off. Isshin could still remember Ichigo's love of water ever since he'd been a toddler, taking to the local pool like he was born to swim and always sneaking outside to stand on the lawn when it rained. It had rained the day Masaki had died as well, but while that date could now make Ichigo moodier than usual, the rain had never bothered him.
There were other things too, things that Isshin had attributed to the trauma of Masaki dying. After his wife's death, he had noticed the way Ichigo always wandered up and down that riverbank, always searching for someone, and he, along with Karin and Yuzu and even Ichigo's friend Tatsuki, had all thought it was Masaki that Ichigo had been looking for.
But Isshin had asked once, a year and a half after Masaki had been killed and several months after he and the twins had been able to coax Ichigo away from the river so that his son had, save for the occasional visit, stopped going there.
"Why do you keep going there, Ichigo? You know your mother's in a safer place now, right? She isn't at the river anymore."
And Ichigo had looked at him with eyes older than they should be, and he'd simply said, "I know she isn't. I'm not looking for Kaa-san."
Isshin had been taken aback. "Then who are you looking for?"
Ichigo had made to reply, and Isshin would swear to this day that his son had wanted to answer, that the response had been on the tip of his tongue even as his expression had darkened with something a lot like hatred, but the boy had-
Just stopped, and he'd look thoroughly confused as if he hadn't the faintest clue who or even what he was looking for.
"The monster," Ichigo had said at last, and Isshin had known that that hadn't been what his son had wanted to say, or at least not those words exactly. It was as if Ichigo had forgotten.
Because when Isshin had found Ichigo crying by Masaki's body that fateful day, it hadn't only been Hollow reiatsu that he'd felt. There had been something else – Shinigami; someone else – Aizen.
He'd know that bastard's reiatsu signature anywhere, and even if it had been faint and nearly nonexistent, Isshin had known that Aizen had been there that day, that that Hollow attack by the Grand Fisher hadn't been coincidence. He had been terrified that Aizen had done something to his son as well, but Ichigo had seemed fine in the end.
Still, what Ichigo had said - or hadn't said - had unnerved him, but Isshin had pushed it aside and reminded Ichigo – again – to stay away from any such monsters. There had been no use in fretting over a threat that had retreated for the time being. If Aizen had wanted to do something to Ichigo directly, he would've already done it.
But it begged the question of whether or not Ichigo had seen Aizen that day, and Aizen had used something – a memory modifier or something worse – to erase Ichigo's memory of him and-
Shiba Kaien, and now Ichigo, had always been very much in tune with his Zanpakutou, and a crisis like a Hollow attacking someone he cared about should've summoned Nejibana to him. Had Aizen suspected? Though frankly, the traitor didn't even have to suspect; he could've simply wanted to watch Grand Fisher in action and had witnessed Ichigo calling Nejibana in the process. And then Aizen would've had to step in to seal away both Ichigo's memory of Aizen and his memories as Kaien.
Isshin shook his head. It was obvious that Ichigo didn't remember any such thing even now, and he was only speculating in the end. Aizen was dead now; that was really all that mattered.
Except it wasn't.
Ichigo was Kaien; Kaien was Ichigo, so where did that leave Isshin and Karin and Yuzu? Would Ichigo want to stay now, with Kukaku and Ganju? Isshin knew for a fact that the Thirteenth was in an uproar, had been ever since the news had gotten out, and only Unohana's firm instructions had stopped the entire Division from storming the Shiba household en masse.
Ichigo would be welcomed here. He'd be amongst friends and admirers, subordinates who adored him, and a captain who most likely saw him as a mixture of son and brother.
"Oi, your reiatsu's fluctuating, old man," Ichigo's voice floated up to his ears, making Isshin start.
Isshin rubbed the back of his head and quickly reigned in his reiatsu. Damn it; he hadn't wanted to be discovered.
With a sigh, he shunpoed off the roof and landed beside Ichigo on the porch, plopping down beside him and swiping his son's sake cup for a drink of his own.
"I did wonder if it bothered you," Ichigo remarked offhandedly, pouring Isshin a cup of alcohol with practiced motions that he really shouldn't have. "But you acted like you usually do so I thought you were okay with it."
Isshin gulped down the warm liquid in one go. "It's not so much that you're both my son and my nephew now; that's basically the same thing when it comes down to it. I'm just wondering what's going to change."
Ichigo peered over at him. "What do you mean?"
Isshin sat in pensive silence for a long minute, weighing the pros and cons of asking directly. The pros won out. "I have a life in Karakura now. I don't plan on coming back here until at least Karin and Yuzu have both passed on to Soul Society the proper way. So when I leave, are you going to come back with me? Or stay here?"
Ichigo was suddenly very still. "...Don't you want me to come back with you?"
Isshin scowled into his empty cup. "'Course I do; what do you think? You're still my son in the end. Besides, what am I supposed to tell your sisters if you just up and disappear?"
To his surprise, Ichigo relaxed and even smirked a little. "Then I don't see the problem here. I never planned on staying, much less take up my old position again, contrary to popular belief it seems. You think I'd just leave Karin and Yuzu? And as much of a pain in the ass as you are, I still consider you my old man; I can't just leave you alone. Yuzu can handle feeding you but someone's gotta take care of you when it comes to Hollows and stuff. You know, just in case you can't handle them yourself."
Isshin stared for a moment, somewhat stunned at the, for Ichigo, rather open admission of affection. The two of them exchanged kicks and punches and shouts; rarely ever did they share affectionate words of any kind.
Ichigo seemed to realize this as well, though the sake looked to have slowed his reaction time by a few seconds; nonetheless, the teen coloured faintly and fumbled clumsily for a follow-up.
"And who would be there to help Karin keep you in line if not me?" Ichigo tacked on haphazardly. "Yuzu's too nice, and I can't leave either of them at the mercy of your insanity."
Isshin glanced away and chuckled softly before reaching out and yanking an unsuspecting Ichigo into a chokehold. "MASAKI! OUR SON LOVES ME SO MUCH THAT HE ISN'T WILLING TO LEAVE ME ALONE IN THIS HARSH, CRUEL WORLD! I CAN DIE HAPPY NOW!"
"Shut up, Goat-Face, or you'll wake everyone up! And that isn't what I meant! I'd sooner dump your ass in the Dangai than say anything of the sort!"
Isshin just grinned wider than ever and wailed dramatically to Masaki some more as Ichigo fought against his grasp and swore at him.
And if Isshin's chokehold was more of a hug than anything else and Ichigo's struggles to escape were half-hearted at best, neither of them said anything.
Genryuusai cracked open an eye to study the former captain in front of him but nodded his consent. "Very well; the hearing will convene at the Shiba compound two days from now. I will have the restrictions taken down. I trust Kurosaki Ichigo will be fit to answer any and all questions by then?"
The grin that probably would've intimidated anyone else widened a touch. "Aa, he'll be ready. Unohana-san's given him the all-clear as long as he isn't disturbed for the next few days."
Genryuusai nodded tersely. "Good. All Visored and the two exiles must also be present."
The grin stretched again, sly and subtly threatening. "'Course; wouldn't wanna be anywhere else in the world. When our names are cleared, I mean."
And with the barest of nods that had less to do with respect and more to signal the end of their conversation, the man turned away and made to leave.
Genryuusai remained impassive, even when the man turned back.
The grin was gone. Brown eyes glinted. Hirako Shinji spoke. "One more thing, Soutaichou; I liked Shiba Kaien, and I like Kurosaki Ichigo even more. I've said it before; he's an ally and a friend ta all the Visored, and now especially ta Lisa. We consider him one of us. So this 'answerin' any and all questions' that you're goin' ta be puttin' Ichigo through; it sounds awfully like an interrogation."
Hirako smiled again, and this time, the Visored didn't even bother trying to make it look friendlier and less menacing. "I'm hopin' it's not an interrogation, if ya catch my drift."
And then he was gone, and Genryuusai only paused long enough to ensure that the former captain had indeed left before returning to his paperwork.
Shiba Kaien had been charismatic. It seemed that his reincarnation, that Kurosaki Ichigo, was even more so.
And that would be a dangerous thing if it was ever turned against them.
Central 46 knew that. They had wanted to shut the Human-turned-Shinigami-turned-Visored out of Soul Society entirely, perhaps even seal his Zanpakutou.
Genryuusai knew that as well. But he had gambled on the opposite. He would gamble on Shiba Kaien and Kurosaki Ichigo's core nature.
Anything else would probably mean a rebellion on his hands.
"But- But you're still Kurosaki-kun, right?" Inoue stammered out.
Ichigo smiled. "Of course. I'm just... also Kaien now. But I'm still me."
Ishida adjusted his glasses. "Well I hope you don't expect me to call you anything other than Kurosaki. 'Fukutaichou' is going too far."
Ichigo snorted. "Ishida, if you ever called me that, I'd check you in to the Fourth."
Ishida rolled his eyes but the tension in his frame seeped away at last as if he had been waiting for that exact confirmation. Beside him, Inoue's expression lightened, as if she had been waiting for the same, for a sign of Ichigo's usual personality.
Ichigo would like to think that he hadn't changed that much.
He glanced to his left. "Chad?"
Chad merely shrugged, calm and steady as a rock. "You are still Ichigo. That is all that matters."
Ichigo grinned. He had expected nothing less from the larger teen. They'd made a promise after all.
"So," Ichigo waved a hand at the house behind him where muffled yelling and mini-explosions could be heard. "Who's up for some chaos?"
"They're with me," Ichigo said adamantly when a murmur swept over the large crowd gathered at the gates of the Shiba compound. Beside him, Starrk was looking as bored as ever while Lilynette was scowling at everyone. Ichigo would've thought that they didn't even want to be here if the former hadn't already been waiting by the front door of the Shiba house earlier and the latter had been rushing back and forth all morning trying to figure out what to wear to something as formal as a hearing amongst the upper echelon of the Gotei 13 while pretending not to be doing exactly that. It hadn't helped matters when Kukaku had teased her about it.
To his credit, Yamamoto only inclined his head. "That is fine. Now, I believe you have something to retrieve before this hearing starts?"
Ichigo nodded, busying himself with pushing open the large wooden doors of the Shiba compound alongside Kukaku as he took a deep breath to steady himself.
This was it. This was the moment he'd been working towards since that fateful day over a hundred years ago.
Please leave a review on your way out.