Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.


General Warnings: Ichigo-centric, major AU, GEN, Ichigo-is-Kaien, reincarnation


Author's Notes: Much shorter this time, but I wanted to keep it to ten sections each chapter so this is it. Plus I updated much earlier than usual, so no complaints.


Chapter 3


21.

"Kuchikis on Shiba grounds; now I've seen it all," Ganju grumbled, mostly glowering at the Sixth Division captain.

Kukaku snorted and jabbed a none-too-gentle elbow into her brother's ribs. "Leave it. He'll be outta here soon enough."

She didn't bother lowering her voice, and while the Kuchiki Head was too damn stuck-up to even glance over, the pineapple-head walking a step behind and to the side of him stiffened and frowned at them.

"Don't you get along?" Lilynette piped up. Kukaku looked down at where the girl was walking backwards a few feet in front of her, dressed in a pretty, sky blue yukata. Kukaku had to resist the urge to tease her; as aggravating as Lilynette could be, the child Arrancar was adorable in her own way, especially with her not-so-secret fascination with dresses.

Not that Kukaku would ever say as much, even on pain of death.

"Nah," She said instead. It was good that Lilynette had asked; better to drill some basic facts into her early on if she and her partner – and Kukaku had never known anyone who could be so lazy, and she was acquainted with Kyouraku – were going to stay with them (and they would be, if only so Kukaku could try her hand at giving Central 46 a collective hernia). "See, we've never gotten along. The Kuchikis think us Shibas are all uncouth and barbaric, while we think the lot of them have sticks so far up their asses that we're always surprised they haven't choked on them yet."

Ganju snorted with laughter as Lilynette's eyes widened and an unbidden giggle slipped from her mouth, immediately followed by a surreptitious glance in Byakuya's direction. Kukaku was disgruntled to find that the captain didn't seem at all bothered, though the lieutenant beside him looked torn between indignation on his superior's behalf and reluctant amusement at her words.

"Kukaku, what are you teaching the kid?"

"Don't call me a kid!" Was universally ignored as Kukaku grinned unrepentantly at her brother (and damn, that was a thought that still made part of her giddy).

"Hey, I'm just teaching her one of the first Shiba rules our parents taught us," Kukaku retorted. "Right after we learned how to pick out a Kuchiki in a crowd."

Kaien rolled his eyes as he fell back to walk beside her. "Stop passing that stuff on. Honestly, Byakuya's not so bad."

Kukaku watched dubiously as her brother tossed a grin over at the aforementioned captain, who actually deigned to glance back this time, eyes narrowing slightly in that aloof, haughty, Kuchiki way that conveyed a world of contempt without ever saying a single word.

Except... there was a touch of resigned exasperation there as well, something Kukaku would've missed had she so much as blinked.

Huh. And here Kukaku had thought that Kuchiki Byakuya had been a lost cause when the man had turned out just like all his other relatives after Hisana's death. She knew Kaien had certainly been disappointed; her brother had once dubbed the teenaged Byakuya a 'spitfire born to the wrong clan'. Kaien had been looking forward to the day that that particular Kuchiki would step up as clan head, but the idiot had ended up letting Hisana's death affect him a little too much, not to mention that she'd heard about the pressure that the Kuchiki elders had put on him. Thank god the Shibas had gotten rid of their elders centuries ago.

But it looked like even Kuchikis weren't entirely immune to her brother's charm. Rukia didn't count because she was adopted and had been under Kaien's influence for a good while, but Byakuya definitely came as a shock.

"Kurosaki Ichigo, how many times must I remind you to refrain from being so familiar with me?" The stuck-up bastard was saying coolly.

Kaien didn't seem at all bothered as if this was a regular occurrence. Come to think of it, it probably was.

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard that before," Her brother said airily with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Had Byakuya been anyone else, Kukaku thought the man would've heaved a long-suffering sigh and maybe banged his head against the nearest hard surface for good measure.

"Ichigo! Kukaku! Ganju!" Isshin's voice floated back from the front, forcefully light but edged with an understated anger that made Kukaku tense. "Get up here; you have to see this."

Kaien had shunpoed off before Isshin had finished speaking, and Kukaku hightailed after him a split second later with Ganju on her tail. She and her younger brother weren't as adept as Kaien was in Shunpo but they were still better than some seated officers.

"What. The. Hell." Kukaku hissed the moment she skidded to a halt beside Kaien. She barely noticed everyone else assembling behind them even as shocked mutters swept the group coming up behind them.

The place was a mess. The front courtyard had been fine, but their central grounds were situated past a line of trees that separated the meeting houses up front from their main buildings and the forested area around them.

But the once lush forests had been destroyed, branches snapped and scattered across the earth, roots pulled up and grass no longer growing what with the distinct gouge marks of a large sword and Kidou burns carving up the ground. The houses themselves – what Kukaku could still see of them – were either falling to pieces or buried under debris from the leafy boughs that used to provide a canopy for anyone wanting to lounge on the roofs.

Kukaku's temper flared. She rounded on the Captain-Commander standing at the head of the Gotei 13.

"Is this how it goes now?!" She snarled without thought. "Does Central 46 get the right to loot our home after booting us out the gates overnight?! Those wrinkly old bastards-"

"Kukaku, calm down," Kaien's voice, still composed but with a strain of fury in it, cut her off. Strangely enough, while Kukaku still felt like marching into the Central 46 compound and bashing some heads in, a part of her settled enough to reign in her resentment.

"You too, Ganju," Kaien added, and Kukaku glanced to the side to find her other brother with his hands balled into fists and looking about two seconds away from committing mass homicide. "I don't think it was Central 46."

Kukaku shoved away her hatred of Soul Society's government and forced herself to think clearly. "Not Central 46? Then- Aizen?"

"Probably," Kaien stopped at the bottom of the steps leading into what was supposed to be the Shiba compound's main house. To Kukaku's confusion, he reached up, took hold of the faded wooden sign that had their surname engraved in it in bold but elegant kanji, and began shifting it from its perch.

"Rukia," He called out without looking back.

Rukia started a little at being addressed out of the blue but came forward readily enough, glancing around with an indignant frown of her own. That alone raised the girl several degrees higher in Kukaku's eyes.

"Yeah, Ichigo?" Rukia picked her way over the wreckage, coming to stand beside Kukaku.

"That Espada you killed; the Noveno," Kaien continued, still struggling with the sign. "He had all my memories?"

Rukia blinked, and then horrified realization dawned on her at the same time it did in Kukaku. "Y- Yeah, he did. He looked like you- um, the old you, and he even talked like you, and he knew every detail about you, everything that ever happened the day you- you died. Aizen probably got the location of whatever you hid here from him."

"Hmm," Kaien only sounded contemplative, not worried, and that was the only thing stopping Kukaku from demanding some answers from her brother. Kaien had always been like that, not really speaking his mind when it didn't relate directly to making his opinion of a bad situation known.

Several feet to the side, the Visored, Urahara, and that former Kidou Corps captain that Kukaku couldn't quite remember the name of, all looked varying degrees of apprehensive, though the shopkeeper, his employee, and Hirako hid it rather well.

"Okay," Kaien finally managed to free the plank, and he hopped back a few steps, examining the blank patch of wood it left behind. "Doesn't look like Aizen did much. We're good."

"Kaien, what are you..." Kukaku trailed off when her brother unsealed Nejibana in one smooth motion, the crystalline trident gleaming under the sunlight.

"Bakudou Number 56: Noren Mekuri," Kaien extended a hand and swiped it to the side as if drawing back a curtain, and a ripple of what looked like invisible water followed in its wake instead of the normal blue and violet aura usually left behind by this particular Kidou spell.

"I see," Kukaku heard the former Kidou Corps captain mutter. "That entire area is layered with Kidou, although..."

"Although what?" Sarugaki demanded.

"It seems Kurosaki-san has intertwined all his Kidou spells with water," The former captain finished thoughtfully. "I did not think that was possible."

Another rush of murmurs swelled in the crowd. Kukaku grinned to herself, exchanging a glance with Ganju. That was a Shiba Clan secret. Only members of their clan knew how to incorporate Kidou with other elements. Every single one of them did it with fireworks; it stood to reason that Kaien would figure out how to do the same with water. It wasn't something that could be learned by just looking either; the art was passed down from generation to generation by direct training, and if the practitioner didn't have the exact necessary control for it, well, the price would typically range from near-critical injuries to death.

Layer after layer, Kaien tore away the safety measures he had placed on the area until a single seal appeared, glowing faintly with Kidou and swirling with lines of water.

Kaien blew out a slow breath as he finally raised his trident. "It's been a while since I've done this, so whatever you people do, don't get in front of me."

He glanced back at Kukaku who nodded and took a few steps back, hauling Rukia with her as Ganju and Isshin followed. Their entire family knew the consequences of getting caught up in one of Kaien's attacks.

A single tap against the ground sent almost imperceptible ripples flowing from the spear point, and then before anyone had time to blink, Kaien had swept his trident to the side, and streams of water burst from the seal in the next moment, all of it absorbing into her brother's weapon.

As it turned out, the water didn't just come from the seal. Two minutes in, tendrils of water began spreading from the seal like cracks, stretching all across the front of the main house before curving out of the wood and redirecting themselves into Kaien's trident as well. Reiatsu pulsed in the air as Kaien wove the water tight around him, drawing all the power he had placed into the seal and breaking it down as it leaked out.

Even Kukaku, who hadn't gone through the Academy and learned all the fundamentals, could tell that the entire process took immense control, and it showed in the deep, focused frown on her brother's face, strain creasing his features as his stance firmed even more against the ground.

Another three minutes ticked by, and then, as suddenly as the process had started, the water disappeared in a flash of blue light, only for what seemed like all of it to whoosh out from Kaien's trident in a whirling typhoon that shot up into the air before breaking out into a torrent of rain that came crashing back down on them in a roaring shower.

However, before Kukaku could even think about ducking for cover, a blur of white flitted forward, one hand dropping onto Kaien's shoulder to steady him as he staggered while the other made a swift gesture in the air.

A ball of blue energy formed above them and fired out six ropes from its center, attaching themselves against the few trees that were still standing. The center solidified just as the rain hit, drowning out all other sound as the water thundered down against the net.

Kukaku paid it no mind, bounding forward and shooting a sour look in Ukitake's direction as she helped steady Kaien on his other side. She had never quite forgiven any of the Gotei 13, especially those closest to Kaien, for not looking into the reasons for the fall of the Shiba Clan, not so much because they had lost their prestige but because family had always been important to Kaien, and she'd thought that, as her brother's friends, they would, at the very least, throw around some pointed questions in defense of that.

Needless to say, that hadn't happened. That half the Gotei 13 had ended up helping out Kaien when he'd invaded Soul Society to save the Kuchiki girl – well, Kukaku put that entirely down on the fact that it had been Kaien leading the charge, or, undoubtedly, all of them would've ended up sitting on their asses and twiddling their thumbs again.

"I'm fine," Ichigo grunted, unaware of the byplay behind him. He offered a reassuring smile for Kukaku before turning a sheepish look on Ukitake. "Thanks, Taichou. I don't think I'm back at one hundred percent yet."

"You aren't," Ukitake confirmed with a sigh. "You were supposed to retrieve papers, Ichigo, not overexert yourself."

"I'm still okay," Kaien insisted, shrugging them off and twirling his trident around to stab the three prongs into the ground. All at once, all the water that the net had been holding up dissolved. It was a testament to just how thorough Kaien's mastery over water was to be able to get rid of all that liquid in a mere second. "Just a little winded."

"But it worked?" Kukaku peered up at the house, blinking in surprise when she found the previously smooth wood now hollowed out to form a small niche. And there were-

"Yup, it worked," Kaien sealed his Zanpakutou again before leaping up, hooking an arm around one of the wooden beams and reaching inside the recess to withdraw a stack of papers and scrolls, wrinkled and slightly yellowed but still in good condition overall.

"...Ichigo, ya give new meanin' ta 'hidden in plain sight'," Hirako deadpanned from somewhere behind them.

Kaien smiled faintly, juggling everything in his arms. "What better place to hide it? This was a fail-safe; if the papers in my old office were ever found, these ones would be the backup. No one but me was supposed to be able to get to them. Not even Aizen or that Aari-whatsit would've been able to. It probably gave Aizen a coronary when he couldn't access the seal, if he ever even found it."

Kukaku snorted, a sound echoed gleefully by the Visored as a whole.

Kaien just grinned before turning to the Captain-Commander, features sobering into something more serious.

Kukaku twisted around as well, and as she stared out at the sea of faces in front of them, it suddenly occurred to her how very much like a battlefield the place now looked. Most of the upper echelon of the Gotei 13 stood opposite to them, while she, Ganju, Isshin, Lilynette, and Starrk stood around Kaien, spread out and nowhere near as formally lined up as the Shinigami officers were even when they probably didn't meant to, but still gathered all on Kaien's side.

And maybe the others saw it too, because Lisa was suddenly striding forward, purpose in every step as she stationed herself firmly by Kaien. And then Hirako was ambling forward with the rest of the Visored, all seemingly under the pretense of wanting a closer look at the papers, and even Urahara and the other former captain shunpoed over a second later.

She was almost tempted to shoo Ukitake away, but there was a steely glint in his eyes that told her that the man was perfectly aware of what was going on and what it meant to be standing on their side. Half a second later, both of the captain's third seats had appeared behind him, faces set in stone.

And Kukaku could even pick out quite a few standing behind the Captain-Commander who looked either highly uncomfortable being there – the pineapple-head, those Human friends of Kaien's who all looked ready to spring to Kaien's aid if necessary, even the short white-haired captain who had succeeded Isshin – or equally anticipatory in the face of impending battle – the spiky-haired captain who looked both eager and tense, the cheerful-looking kid on his shoulders, the baldy and the peacock beside him, even that snake Ichimaru Gin who just looked like he was enjoying the whole situation. Yoruichi remained standing beside Soifon, but the woman was watching the Captain-Commander with narrowed eyes, ready to move at a moment's notice.

Tension abruptly spiked. Kukaku felt for the Kuchiki girl who looked blatantly dismayed as she hesitated in the middle, trying to make up her mind while pretending not to, though Kukaku knew that Rukia would pick Kaien if a fight really did break out, brother on the opposing side or no.

And everyone was pretending that they weren't mentally calculating who to lunge for first if an impromptu civil war suddenly started right smack in the middle of the Shiba compound.

"Maa, Yama-ji, shouldn't we get this meeting on the road? I'm sure the entire Thirteenth Division wants to get their hands on Ichigo-kun once he's done here."

And just like that, the heavy atmosphere lifted as Kyouraku meandered forward to stand beside Rukia, looking for all the world like the most oblivious idiot to ever step foot on the face of the planet.

Kukaku would've thought that the man had only wanted to stop any future altercations if Kyouraku wasn't standing with his back to them and facing the Gotei 13 instead. The meaning was clear. Apparently, neither Kyouraku nor Ukitake were willing to give up their respective lieutenants without a fight a second time.

"Indeed," Yamamoto's ancient tones sounded, and a part of Kukaku was viciously pleased that the man had undoubtedly seen the lines being drawn only a few seconds ago, and not in his favour. "Kurosaki Ichigo, we will first commence with the reopening of your posthumous trial, and the charges brought against you by one Aizen Sousuke: the breaking and entering of his private properties and the attempted theft of his research, both crimes of which the Shiba Clan paid for with their fall as a Noble House."

In the completely floored silence that followed this revelation, Kukaku dimly wondered if the Captain-Commander had lost his mind.

What the hell was the man playing at by putting Kaien on trial for the charges that Aizen had slapped on him? They should be dropped at once considering who they had come from! Kukaku had thought that they were simply here to go through whatever proof Kaien had gotten his hands on so that the exiled Shinigami could be pardoned.

Apparently not.

So really, at this rate, that civil war might still happen.

22.

"Wait, you're telling me the Shiba Clan fell because Aizen accused Ichigo of stealing his research?" Lisa's incredulity could've manifested a physical form.

Three steps away, Ichigo sighed. Well, this wasn't how he imagined things to go down, although, to be fair, he hadn't really been able to picture how it would go down at all. He just hadn't thought that the Captain-Commander would call him out on this issue right off the bat.

"Is this some sort of joke?" Lisa continued heatedly. "Ichigo's not even a scientist, and he'd never steal for someone else-"

"-for the most part," Urahara interrupted quietly.

Ichigo stiffened, and then slowly turned to glance at the shopkeeper. Urahara was watching him, calm and composed and without a trace of his usual childish idiocy. There was something almost grim in the line of his mouth and the crease of his brow.

"What're ya talkin' about, dumbass?" Sarugaki snapped, staring between Urahara and Ichigo.

Urahara raised an eyebrow in Ichigo's direction. Are you going to tell them?

Ichigo scowled. Like he had a choice.

"The charges are founded," He said, turning sharply back to the Captain-Commander and ignoring the shocked silence around him.

Yamamoto cracked open an eye. "Then you admit to breaking into the Fifth Division without explicit permission from the former captain Aizen Sousuke?"

Ichigo scoffed. "Of course not; is that what he said? I wouldn't waste my time breaking into the Fifth. Aizen would never hide anything there. No, I broke into his private labs."

"Aizen Sousuke never had any personal labs registered," Kurotsuchi cut in, though he looked less skeptical and more eager to get his hands on said labs.

"When I say 'private', I mean secret," Ichigo clarified, eyes narrowing. "I know where there are. Took me twenty-three years to find them, and another nineteen to crack all the passwords and bypass all his safety measures to get to his files, but I managed it in the end.

"These," He separated the stack of papers from the scrolls and raised the latter. "Are all the theories I came up with over the years.

"And this," He waved the papers. "Is everything I managed to steal from Aizen's labs confirming everything I put together myself. They detail all of Aizen's schemes – his plans, his work on the Hogyoku, the experiments he's performed on other Shinigami and Hollows, particularly the Hollowfication experiment that he framed Urahara-san and Tessai-san for, and..."

He flipped through the papers and plucked out several near the bottom of the stack. "I have here all the names of the captains and lieutenants that Aizen Hollowfied a century ago, all tabbed with his observations and data of their transformation. It's a clear-cut case; everything you would ever need to clear their names and give them a full pardon is all here."

Ichigo paused to take a breather, feeling a bit like he was standing in the spotlight when he realized that the clearing was completely silent.

"...Ichigo," It was Ukitake who spoke up first, voice tight with emotion. "Didn't I specifically order you to stay away from Aizen and the Hollowfication disaster? I told you not to look into it."

Ichigo stiffened and rounded on his captain. "Taichou, with all due respect, that was the only direct order you gave me that I ever disobeyed, but you couldn't honestly think I'd stay away, could you?"

"Ichigo, Aizen was dangerous-"

"Aizen Hollowfied Lisa!" Ichigo burst out, and it was Kaien's memories talking now, all the things he had wanted to say, all the things he had wanted to shout at Central 46 and the Captain-Commander and the other captains so that they'd do something, anything, and not just let it go, as if losing six captains and four lieutenants on Aizen's word alone was normal.

"He Hollowfied four captains and four lieutenants, framed it on another two captains, and then got them all convicted literally overnight, and nobody did anything about it!" He continued, words spilling out in an agitated rant. "What was I supposed to do? I tried to go through the proper channels, you know I did, but Central 46 refused to let me even appeal! I even went in the capacity of the Shiba Clan Head instead of a lieutenant and they turned me away at the door! Clan heads are supposed to be granted an audience if they request it, no matter what the issue is about! That's one of their precious laws right there, and the corrupt fools broke it themselves!"

He spun away from Ukitake's appalled expression and glared furiously at the Captain-Commander instead, shuffling the scrolls and papers together. "So I chose another option; I decided to investigate by myself. Everybody said Aizen Sousuke was butterflies and rainbows personified; didn't anyone think it was at all suspicious that a supposed saint like him got rid of half of Gotei 13's most powerful Shinigami all in one go?!"

A ringing silence cloaked the clearing when Ichigo stopped, jaw tight as he reigned in his anger. Wonderful. His temper was getting the better of him. His teenaged self was not helping in the slightest at the moment.

"Wait," Lisa's voice was very, very soft, but Ichigo heard her loud and clear anyway. He tensed, and then shifted to glance at her. His long-time friend had a peculiar, pensive expression on her face.

"You died almost sixty years ago," Lisa said, eyes sharp.

Ichigo frowned. "Yeah, what of it?"

Lisa's lips thinned. "Twenty-three years to track down Aizen's labs, and another nineteen years to get all that information; you fucking idiot."

Ichigo blinked, anger banking in favour of utter bewilderment. Hirako and Kensei were looking similarly pissed, while the other Visored hadn't seemed to catch on to whatever Lisa was getting at quite yet.

"That's a century altogether, moron!" Lisa barked, looking furious and strangely distraught at the same time. "This means you spent all the years after we were exiled right up until the day you died looking for proof to- to get us back! Who the hell does that?! And Metastacia! I still refuse to believe some random Hollow managed to defeat you! You- You-"

"-got caught, yes," Ichigo finished, finally understanding what Lisa had figured out. "I didn't know it at the time, of course, but Metastacia was one of Aizen's experimental Hollows."

He paused, trying to word it in a way that would hurt less. "I was careless. A week before I died, I finally managed to find and piece together the last of everything Aizen had been working on. Someone must've caught me leaving his labs. The next day, I was... just about to go to Ukitake-taichou with all the information I'd found, but then- but then Miyako's mission came in, and something didn't feel right, but I- I let her go anyway. I was distracted; I put off handing over the proof, just until she came back. And then she came back, except it was a retrieval squad that brought her back, and I-"

He broke off and shrugged uncomfortably, eyes glued on the papers in his hands. "I lost my head. I went after Metastacia that same night, and obviously, I never came back."

He looked over at Lisa again. "I'm sorry. I should've handed over what I had to Ukitake-taichou when I still could- ow!"

Ichigo tripped back a step, and it wasn't because of Lisa, though she had been in the process of stepping forward to punch him. Instead, all he could do was clutch at his head and blink in bafflement at Hirako, who was all but glowering at him, fist raised. "H- Hirako?"

"We'll talk about this later," The former captain said shortly, voice terse. "Oi, Soutaichou, are we done? Ya got all of Ichigo's proof right here. Or would ya like ta continue pinnin' him with breakin' and enterin' and larceny while you're at it?"

Yamamoto looked utterly unfazed, though he sent a sharp, stern look in Hirako's direction that still had the power to at least curb the former captain's rather aggressive words momentarily, even if it was accompanied with an irritated click of the blond's tongue.

"Kurosaki Ichigo, where are the labs?" The Captain-Commander enquired.

"Underground," Ichigo answered promptly. "In District 64, North Rukongai. I can show you where they are right now."

Yamamoto nodded curtly, and then turned in Gin's direction. "Ichimaru Gin, you did not mention these labs."

Gin shrugged easily, and the movement would've been absolutely guileless if he didn't have his signature smile on his face. "I didn't know about them. I knew he had labs, but I was never interested in knowin' where they were. I only knew the ones he had in Las Noches."

"Uh, I can vouch for that," Ichigo added before anyone could accuse the former captain of lying. "It was only ever Aizen and Tousen who made trips out to North Rukongai."

Matsumoto beamed at him, and while Gin's smile didn't so much as twitch, he did crack open an eye to study him.

Yamamoto grunted. "Mm. Then we will go there now, if only to make sure they are cleaned out."

"Wait, what about the Visored?" Ichigo demanded doggedly, instinctively shouldering forward to stand in front of Hirako. "And Urahara-san and Tessai-san?"

"Pardoned," Yamamoto said brusquely. "Although I would like those papers as soon as possible."

And without further ado, the Captain-Commander shunpoed away, his lieutenant hastily falling into step behind him as they headed for North Rukongai. The other Shinigami lingered for a few seconds, all looking ready to burst with questions, but in the end, they shunpoed off as well, leaving only the newly-pardoned, Kyouraku, Rukia, Ukitake, Kiyone and Sentarou, and Ichigo's family, Starrk and Lilynette included. Even Ishida, Inoue, and Chad had been tugged away to give them some privacy.

On Ichigo's part, he was mildly dumbfounded at how swift the hearing had semi-ended. It almost sounded as if the old man had been planning to pardon all of them from the very beginning and had only been waiting for Ichigo to produce his papers. And why hadn't Yamamoto taken them now if he wanted to read them eventually?

He wavered, and then looked over at where Urahara was standing. Well, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth.

"Urahara-san," He held out the documents. "You should probably make a copy of all of these, just in case."

Urahara's gaze flicked from the papers to Ichigo, making no move to take them. Ichigo frowned. "Urahara-san?"

"Why didn't you tell us?" Behind him, Ukitake sounded weary. "Me, or even Shunsui. We could've helped-"

"You told me to stop, Taichou," Ichigo interjected, and even though there was no censure in his voice, Ukitake grimaced. "Besides, Aizen had a knack for dragging other people down along with the person he wants to crucify. If I was ever arrested, I didn't want to take anyone down with me. Everyone else would've been able to honestly say that they had no idea what I was up to if it was just me. Deniability rights, you know?"

He attempted a smile, but the action fell flat when no one else looked the least bit amused. He sighed. "Look, things turned out bad enough. If I was ever caught, I was supposed to have fallen alone, but I got Miyako killed and disgraced my entire clan while I was at it. Can you imagine the damage if I had told you, Taichou? Or anyone else?"

"You idiot," Lisa was staring at him in thorough disbelief. "You honestly believe every word coming out of your mouth, don't you? You spent almost half a century trying to clear our names, you came closest when no one else even tried, and you still blame yourself for what Aizen did, for somehow not having the foresight to turn the proof in, for- for everything?"

Ichigo felt the beginnings of uncertainty stir in his chest. Well when she put it that way, it didn't sound so good.

"I did though," He insisted, and this was a point he wouldn't back down on. "I got Miyako killed. If I had been more careful-"

"Ya were sneakin' around under Aizen's nose for forty-two years," Hirako interrupted. "I'd say that's pretty damn careful, but Ichigo, ya paid for it with your life. Anythin' else that happened as a result was Aizen's fault. If ya blame it on yourself, then you're gonna have ta blame it on us too, 'cause it was us ya were riskin' everythin' for."

Ichigo closed his mouth, having opened it to protest this very issue. "...Kukaku, you-"

"The only thing I regret is not killing Aizen myself when he was still alive," Kukaku snapped. "Don't you dare do this, Kaien. It was Aizen's fault that the Shiba Clan fell, nothing more, nothing less."

Ichigo reluctantly quieted. When Kukaku got like this, arguing was futile.

"We should talk about this later," He said instead, echoing Hirako's words. They didn't really have time right now, and it would be better once everyone had had some time to digest everything. "Urahara-san, take these."

This time, the shopkeeper accepted the papers, but before Ichigo could withdraw completely, Urahara took a step back, swept his hat off, and bowed from the chest, mirroring his action from months ago, save for the fact that he had been apologizing back then.

Ichigo froze.

"Thank you, Kurosaki-san," Urahara said quietly, and his words rang of sincerity.

Ichigo flushed red, and then leapt forward to shove lightly at Urahara's shoulder to straighten the man when it almost looked like Tessai and a few of the Visored were about to follow his example.

"It's fine, don't worry about it," Ichigo said hurriedly. He hadn't done anything; he had failed – why didn't they understand that? "Now come on, we have to head over to North Rukongai before Kurotsuchi gets impatient and starts blowing things up in an attempt to find the labs."

He glanced around, unnerved by the respect around him, and he'd have to be a clueless idiot to not notice the faceoff earlier, how so many people had sided with him, and while he had been flattered and pleased and grateful, the entire thing had also made him uneasy. He didn't want dissent breaking out on his account, especially so soon after Aizen's downfall. The Gotei 13 was supposed to stand together, to help, to protect, not destroy.

"And since when has that ever worked out?" Nejibana pointed out almost bitterly in his mind. "The Gotei 13 has always been far too entrenched in rules and regulations. You were alone when you fought to save those who were wrongly accused despite the odds and risks. They know that, they understand that, and that is why they stand by you, Ichigo."

Great. Now even his own Zanpakutou was siding against him.

He glanced around. What he needed now was someone normal who'd maybe curse at him a bit and act... normal.

Ichigo disappeared in a blur of shunpo, reappearing beside Lilynette and scooping her up. "Want a lift, kid? I'll get you there faster."

And before Lilynette could do more than squawk in protest, Ichigo had sprinted away, leaving a startled crowd behind.

"Put me down!" The girl screeched, hanging on despite her complaints. "And don't call me a kid, you stupid Shinigami! This is kidnapping, you know!"

Ichigo grinned with relief. "Oh? Kidnapping, is it?"

"THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT! STARRK! HELP! THIS MORON WON'T LET ME GO!"

Ichigo slanted a glance to the side where Starrk was trailing only a few steps behind, having taken off after Ichigo much quicker than the others.

Starrk quirked a lazy smile that held a gratifying measure of understanding in it. "Shut up, Lilynette. You don't have to do any work; be grateful."

Lilynette sputtered and flailed her fists in Starrk's general direction. "You lazy ass! You just don't want to go to the effort of doing anything! I bet Ichigo would wipe the floor with you in a fight! You're just chicken!"

Ichigo relaxed as Lilynette continued yelling increasingly creative insults at both of them and Starrk yawned and ignored her.

This was what he wanted; just to have the people he cared about around him and happy. The last few days at the Shiba household had been some of the best in both his lives.

However, judging by how they hadn't hashed out all the things everyone had wanted to say about what Ichigo had done, this wasn't over yet.

23.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Ichigo stared across the lab, frowning when he saw Kurotsuchi tapping away at one of the computers.

It had taken twenty minutes for Ichigo to put in every code and bypass every precaution Aizen had set. The labs had pretty much been abandoned but Aizen hadn't bothered taking the defences down.

As a whole, everyone had spread out just to make sure no leftover experiments were still hanging around, and Ichigo had just finished searching one of the rooms with Starrk and Lilynette. The other Shinigami were wandering back in as well, Renji coughing a little from a layer of dust that he looked to have somehow managed to dump over his head.

Kurotsuchi didn't answer, but a second later, a hologram flashed into existence in the middle of the room, and Ichigo was suddenly staring at his own face, the only difference being his hair and eye colour.

The lab instantly shut up.

Ichigo couldn't see this ending well.

24.

[Recording SK1]

"Lisa?" Kaien poked his head into the Eighth Division lieutenant's office. It was empty. "Jeez, is she still not back from her mission? I hate juggling paperwork for two divisions by myself."

With a wordless grumble, he closed the door and headed back out, pausing at the captain's office long enough to pound on the door. "Kyouraku-taichou! Please do some of your paperwork today! I'm not handling yours and Ukitake-taichou's!"

He paused when there was no answer. A Shinigami officer passing by called out to him, timid and blushing when he turned his attention on her.

"G- Good morning, Shiba-fukutaichou," The girl bowed low, barely able to meet Kaien's eyes when she straightened again. "K- Kyouraku-taichou i- isn't in right now. He went to see the Captain-Commander half an hour ago."

"Ah, is that right?" Kaien scratched his head and grinned his appreciation. "Well thanks for telling me. Mind sending someone over to the Thirteenth to tell me when he does get back? He's behind on his work and I've got too much to do to cover for him as well, and your lieutenant will kill me if she comes back with nothing finished."

The girl flushed red again but nodded eagerly, bright-eyed and earnest. "I will, Shiba-fukutaichou; the moment Kyouraku-taichou gets back."

Kaien waved a hand and continued on his way.

[End Recording SK1]

25.

"What is this?" Ichigo demanded as the images flickered and disappeared. "I remember that. That was the day- the day after the Visored were convicted. Kyouraku-taichou went to yell at the Captain-Commander that morning."

"Camera flies," Kurotsuchi announced from the computer. "It seems Aizen had them planted all over Soul Society. Your name was on that one, Kurosaki, along with all of these."

Ichigo's eyes narrowed when the captain held up a box of recordings. Had Aizen known then? Known what he'd been doing before he'd even started? But then why had the traitor not stopped him earlier?

"Put another one on then," Toshirou spoke up, and then paused and actually glanced at Ichigo first. "If that's alright with you, Kurosaki."

Ichigo hesitated, glancing over at the impassive Captain-Commander who didn't look like he would be moving anytime soon. It looked like they'd have to go through the recordings. When the man had ordered a thorough catalogue of everything here, he hadn't been joking.

Ichigo nodded slowly, and then bit back a half-smile when Urahara continued smiling cheerily at Kurotsuchi but removed his cane from the scientist's hands, who had been in the process of reaching for the second video footage even before Ichigo had given his okay.

Kurotsuchi glared sullenly at his former captain but didn't quite seem to dare spitting back a spiteful barb at the shopkeeper.

Another hologram flickered to life and everyone redirected their focus to the images once more.

26.

[Recording SK2]

"I can leave in five minutes. Just let me put this away-"

"Kaien."

Kaien stopped at the door of his captain's office, his entire frame wired with tension as he glanced back at Ukitake and Kyouraku. "We're going to look for them, right? They've been Hollowfied. What if they're hurt? What if they're dying?"

Ukitake looked tired. Kyouraku was staring out the window, hat shadowing his eyes. "We can't search for them, Kaien. Soutaichou's orders."

Kaien bristled. "Screw the Captain-Commander's orders! Lisa's out there somewhere! We can help them-"

"We can't disobey his direct orders," Ukitake closed his eyes for a moment. "And it's dangerous, Kaien."

"I'm an officer of the Gotei 13!" Kaien snapped. "Danger kinda comes with the package! Look, let me go alone then. Send me on a mission to the Human World. Urahara-taichou, Tsukabishi-taichou, and Shihouin-taichou's with them. They've gotta know that staying in Soul Society isn't an option anymore, so they'll have run to the Human World. Let me search for them. I'm not a healer but I can still help."

Ukitake shook his head. "I'm sorry, Kaien, but any missions to the Human World has to be sanctioned by the Captain-Commander right now. He's..."

"I asked for one myself," Kyouraku spoke up at last, and when he turned, Kaien stiffened under the flat grey gaze pinning him in place. "Yama-ji ended up sending an assassination squad down to the Human World instead. I'm afraid there won't be any missions, Kaien-kun."

Kyouraku sighed deeply, tugging his hat down again. "Maa, I should be heading back to my Division to- take care of things. I'll see you later, Juushirou, Kaien-kun."

And then it was just Ukitake and Kaien, the former looking grave while the latter gritted his teeth.

"Taichou," Kaien made a helpless gesture with one hand. "It's Lisa! She's my best friend, my sister! You can't tell me to just leave her!"

"That's exactly what I'm telling you to do," Ukitake looked pained but firm.

"But-"

"It could've been you, Kaien," Ukitake cut him off, apprehension in every line of his features. "If I hadn't fallen sick and you hadn't stayed behind to run the Division, you would've been requested to go in Lisa's stead. You would've been the one Hollowfied."

Kaien gaped for a moment before pulling himself up. "Better me than her, especially if it should've been me! All the more reason for me to go find her! And not just her either; Hirako-taichou is out there as well, and all the others-"

"No," Ukitake stood up, frowning sternly. "Kaien, you are to stay away from this issue entirely, do you understand? That's an order."

Kaien stared in disbelief. "Seven captains and four lieutenants gone, and we're not gonna do anything about it? You realize that besides Shihouin-taichou, everyone else was convicted because Aizen said so, right?!"

"Lower your voice!" For the first time since the conversation had started, Ukitake's sounded slightly alarmed. "You never know who could be listening, Kaien."

They both glanced at the open window.

"I'm sorry," Ukitake repeated, sitting down again. "But we can't afford to lose anyone else. Aizen-fukutaichou is... not quite as... harmless as we thought him to be, but that is not an opinion shared by many. I don't want you going up against him."

Kaien clenched his hands. "If Aizen really did pull my friends into some fucked up experiment and then framed Urahara-taichou and Tsukabishi-taichou for it, then I think he'll find that I'm more than a match for him."

"That's enough, Kaien," Ukitake's voice sharpened into that of a commanding officer's. "You will leave this alone. That's an order, understand?"

Kaien stood in the doorway, desperation etched on his face as he shook with emotion, but in the end, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed.

"Yes, Taichou."

[End Recording SK2]

27.

"You didn't mean that," Juushirou observed, glancing at his once-lieutenant and wondering how he had missed the determined edge in Ichigo's voice that day. A twinge of guilt sparked in his chest at hearing himself basically order Ichigo into not helping a group of people who were essentially both their friends. Juushirou had known Love and Rose somewhat better than Ichigo, which only made it worse.

(But Shunsui had lost Lisa, and Juushirou had had no doubts that he'd lose Kaien if his lieutenant had gotten in Aizen's way, and as bad as he felt for Lisa who had practically been his second lieutenant what with the amount of time she spent with Kaien doing the Eighth and Thirteenth's collective paperwork, Juushirou selfishly wanted to keep Kaien safe.)

Ichigo tilted his head, a rueful smile spreading over his face. "No, I didn't, not for a second. But I figured arguing with you any further wouldn't get me anywhere."

"Lucky too," Hirako added from several feet away. "Looks like ya managed ta throw Aizen off your trail for a few decades with that act. He must've wanted ta keep an eye on ya, ya bein' Lisa's friend and all."

Ichigo blinked, and then took on a faintly embarrassed cast. "I know I was talking mostly about Lisa and all, but I meant the rest of you as well. I mean I knew you, Hirako, you even came by the Shiba compound all those times for those parties we used to throw-"

Hirako grinned, laidback and entertained. "I get it, Ichigo, don't talk yourself in circles. I at least crossed your mind; that's somethin'."

"What parties?" Sarugaki peered suspiciously at the former captain.

Hirako made a face at her. "None that anyone would invite ya to."

Juushirou hastily cut in before the former lieutenant could explode at Hirako. "The Shibas had the tendency to have large dinners over the weekends. After Ichigo became my lieutenant, he got into the habit of inviting myself and Shunsui over, and then Lisa became lieutenant and she tagged along, and Hirako somehow joined in one night and it became a regular occurrence."

"Ya don't have ta make it sound like I accidentally wandered in in the middle of the night and refused ta leave," Hirako grumbled as Lisa snickered on Ichigo's right. "I distinctly recall gettin' an invite."

Juushirou suppressed a smile of his own and offered an apologetic look instead, but Lisa cut in with a smirk. "Yeah, I remember that too. You came up to me that day and told me I was your 'first love', proclaimed it to the entire street, and then Ichigo punched your lights out and called you a pervert! Highlight of my week."

A smatter of laughter erupted in the room.

"You didn't tell us that was what happened when you pulled that bullshit with Lisa, Shinji!" Muguruma guffawed.

Hirako grimaced, one hand rubbing at his nose in recollection. "Like sister, like brother, smashing people's faces in with no warning. I said I didn't mean it afterwards."

Ichigo looked to be holding back his own laughter. "And I apologized by inviting you over for dinner. But it was your own fault, Hirako. Seriously, the guy working the dango stand thought you were about to propose to your fiancé, what with your first love spiel."

"Ichigo, ya punched a captain?" Renji looked faintly impressed. "Well, I mean, you fought against the entire Gotei 13 once upon a time, but even back then?"

Ichigo rubbed the back of his head. "Like I said, Hirako's fault. The only pervert I can stand hitting on Lisa is Kyouraku-taichou, and that's only 'cause Lisa's alright with it or I'd punch him too."

"I'm hurt, Ichigo-kun," Shunsui sent a passable impression of hurt in Ichigo's direction, though it was ruined by the smile twitching at the corners of his lips. "How could you call me a pervert? What would you call Lisa then?"

"My best friend and sister who can do no wrong," Ichigo said with a completely straight face. Beside him, Lisa reached up and patted him on the head, smiling in approval.

"I've trained him so well," She announced with a grin so reminiscent of the lieutenant who hadn't yet been betrayed by her own people and hardened by harsh experience that Juushirou almost did a double-take.

Another round of laughter sounded as Kukaku gave Lisa a thumbs-up and a wide grin, and Shunsui lamented exaggeratedly over the pair of troublemakers Ichigo and Lisa had always been.

Juushirou chuckled softly and glanced at the two lieutenants standing together again. He hadn't noticed earlier what with Lisa positioned behind Hirako and Ichigo standing out front, but the two Visored, even with Ichigo's orange hair, brought a wave of nostalgia washing over Juushirou.

"Sight for sore eyes, hm?" Shunsui murmured, slipping back over to his side.

"Yes," Juushirou agreed wholeheartedly. "And it will be nice to have them both back again. Unless Nanao-"

"Nanao-chan will step aside for Lisa-chan," Shunsui said with conviction. "There's no doubt about that. But..."

He trailed off, and there was something in his voice that made Juushirou stiffen. "What is it?"

Shunsui glanced at him. "I think you and Ichigo-kun will need to sit down and have a proper chat later."

Juushirou frowned, but he didn't have time to prod for a clarification when another video recording sprang to life in front of them.

28.

[Recording SK3]

"Aizen-taichou, we have a problem," Tousen said as soon as Aizen stepped into his office and closed the door.

"Urgent enough that it cannot wait until tonight? You know this room is bugged."

Tousen shook his head. "Last night, I returned to the labs, having forgotten a few folders I had brought with me. I sensed something not quite right but I found nothing amiss. However, I waited outside, and three hours later, I felt Shiba-fukutaichou's reiatsu appear from the labs."

Aizen's eyebrows rose. "Oh? Interesting."

"Has Ukitake-taichou discovered your plans? Perhaps he sent his lieutenant to find out more."

Aizen chuckled. "No, Ukitake-taichou follows Yamamoto-soutaichou's orders and has long since told Shiba-fukutaichou to cease looking into my plans. Shiba-fukutaichou is acting on his own."

"But why? What has he to gain from something so risky?"

Aizen smiled. "He is looking to clear the names of those who were Hollowfied, specifically Yadoumaru Lisa and perhaps Hirako Shinji. They were close friends of his, after all."

"But that was over forty years ago! To continue searching even now-!"

Aizen inclined his head. "Hmm, it seems I have underestimated Shiba Kaien's tenacity. That man is many things, but first and foremost, he is loyal. What a pity he has already given it to his friends and family. He would have made a good soldier."

"Then what shall we do about him? We cannot leave him unchecked."

"No, we cannot," Aizen acknowledged, staring thoughtfully out the window. "...How are the new Hollows coming along?"

"Some are not quite on par yet; most are not fit for battle. Did you have any specific Hollow in mind?"

"What about... Metastacia?"

"I believe he is ready. Should I redirect a mission to the Thirteenth, requesting Shiba Kaien's lead?"

"...No. Release Metastacia in the forests of District 64, North Rukongai; I would like to observe the results. And I will prepare the necessary reconnaissance mission. Shiba-fukutaichou is widely hailed as a prodigy. He will be suspicious if an assignment so close to my labs arrives on his desk. ...I will give it to the Thirteenth Division's Third Seat instead."

"The Third Seat?"

"Yes. Shiba Miyako, I believe. A necessary loss. It will provide sufficient distraction for Shiba-fukutaichou when his wife does not come home alive."

"As you wish, Aizen-taichou."

[End Recording SK3]

29.

A sickened silence choked the room when the hologram faded away.

Ichigo didn't notice. There was a funny ringing in his ears, and all he could see was the image of Aizen planning Miyako's death as if he was arranging a tea party.

He had told her not to go that day.

"Miyako, maybe you should let someone else lead this mission. I just have a funny feeling about it."

But she had said she could handle it.

"Don't worry, Kaien. I'm proud to do my duty, and I'll kill any Hollow out there disturbing a soul's rest. I'll be fine; it's only a reconnaissance mission. I'll be home before you know it. Besides, it's your birthday at the end of the week; I can't possibly miss that, right?"

Yet it had taken a retrieval squad to bring her home, unconscious and looking just like Miyako but had ended up only being her corpse. Miyako had been long dead.

If only he had warned her about Aizen, if only he had forced her to drop the mission, if only he had gone himself – would any of that have made a difference?

"Ichigo?"

A gentle hand on his shoulder made him jump a foot in the air, and he almost tripped over his feet as he whirled around to face his captain. Ukitake's brow was creased with concern and sorrow, and his hand remained on Ichigo's shoulder as if he thought Ichigo would keel over any second.

Ichigo squared his shoulders. He couldn't think about Miyako right now, not in front of all these people. He'd been putting off concentrating on his dead wife ever since he remembered having a wife; he could shove everything to the back of his mind for a little longer.

"I'm fine," He smiled through his scowl. Absently, he wondered if he could tell them all to stop watching, but he still had to clear his clan's name, and this was part of the evidence that would ensure that the crimes that Ichigo had committed had been justified. Besides, he'd rather be here watching with them than allow the Captain-Commander and whoever else the old man deemed fit to watch them without him.

"Kurosaki Ichigo."

Ichigo turned and blinked at the Seventh Division captain currently bowing from the waist in front of him. Hisagi stood beside him in a similar position. "K- Komamura-san? Hisagi-san?"

"I apologize for Tousen," Komamura stated solemnly. "It seems it was he who betrayed you to Aizen."

"Y- You don't have to bow like that!" Ichigo waved his hands frantically, beyond relieved when they both cautiously straightened. God, this was fucking awkward. "Look, it was Tousen's fault, and I just wasn't careful enough. I remember Tousen coming back here for some documents; he caught me by surprise."

Ichigo pointed up at the metal rafters above. "I just managed to hide up there when he walked in, and I was sure I was going to get caught because he stopped in the middle of the room and just stood there for five minutes, but then he picked up his files and left. I didn't know he'd still be outside three hours later."

"Still, if we had at least suspected..." Hisagi looked pained as he ran a hand through his hair.

"Tousen should've known better," Ichigo glanced back at the empty spot where the footage had been. "It's not anyone's fault but his. He wasn't a child; he made his choice. The wrong one, but it was his choice nonetheless, and that's his responsibility to bear. I get that he was your friend and captain, but blaming yourselves for his decision is just taking that responsibility away from him."

Like Ukitake had tried to do for Ichigo, but it was nobody's fault save his own for charging headlong into a battle like that, for falling prey to Metastacia. He had thought of protecting Miyako's memory, and he had thought of fighting for his own pride and Miyako's pride and the pride of his men, but no matter what other people believed, all that had come second to revenge.

Revenge, and maybe a desire to follow Miyako when he had asked to fight such a dangerous Hollow alone.

"Let's move on," Ichigo said with strained lightness, ignoring the startled looks that both Komamura and Hisagi had taken on after he had semi-lectured them. "There's only a few left, right?"

"Wait," Ikkaku interjected, scratching his head. "What I wanna know is why Tousen bugged his own office. It's great for us, but wouldn't it be better for Aizen if he hadn't bugged it on the off-chance that someone found the camera flies?"

"That's why they bugged it," Toshirou corrected. "If the camera flies were found, it would be suspicious if only the Third, Fifth, and Ninth weren't bugged. Aizen's Zanpakutou would ensure that nobody would actually see anything worth seeing if they did manage to get their hands on the cameras."

Ichigo made a face; he could've done without seeing Aizen order Miyako's death, especially now that the man was dead and Ichigo couldn't kill him again.

He pulled his attention back to the center of the room when a fourth recording came on, and then instantly regretted it when he saw what it was.

Aizen really was a sadistic bastard.

30.

[Recording SK4]

"Stop, Miyako!" Kaien threw himself in front of his captain and subordinates, arms outstretched as he stared desperately at his wife.

Miyako jerked to a stop, eyes empty, cheek splattered with blood. For a moment, nobody moved or even breathed, five pairs of eyes glued on the sole figure standing amidst the Shinigami who had fallen under Miyako's blade.

And then, in a flit of Shunpo, Miyako leapt over their heads onto the nearby roof, quickly darting away into the night.

[Footage Skip]

"Taichou, she can't have gotten very far yet," Kaien said flatly as he stared down at the bodies of his comrades.

"Wait, Kaien!" His captain's voice was sharp with caution. "Control yourself! Following her now is just what the enemy wants."

Kaien raised his head, gaze focused on a point beyond the line of trees ahead. "Still, I must go. It manipulated Miyako to kill her subordinates, who care for her."

His hands tightened into white-knuckled fists, almost trembling with raw fury and barely restrained grief. "It sullied her pride."

Kaien gritted his teeth. "Please let me go, Taichou!"

Ukitake's frown deepened but there was a sad sort of acceptance in his eyes. "Very well. I will go with you."

Kaien turned at last, and his eyes were dark with haunted shadows as he met his captain's steady gaze. "Taichou..."

Ukitake nodded once, firm and resolute, yet holding a measure of dread that Kaien either didn't see or ignored, before glancing at Rukia. "You come too, Kuchiki."

Rukia dipped his head, brow scrunched with distress. "Yes, sir."

Ukitake turned to Sentarou and Kiyone next. "You two take command here and prepare combat protocols."

Both officers saluted. "Understood!"

Ukitake had barely turned back before Kaien was surging forward, eyes burning with cold fire. "Let's go!"

Ukitake swiftly shunpoed after his lieutenant when Kaien rushed off, and Rukia dashed after them, mouth pinched with worry.

"Kaien, slow down!" Ukitake called out as they raced after the Hollow that had taken Miyako. "It is pointless to waste energy here!"

Kaien never slowed down, never even turned around as he hurtled forward with singular focus.

[Footage Skip]

"Taichou, I beg you. Please let me go alone," Kaien's eyes held nothing but the Hollow who had murdered Miyako. Beside him, Rukia peered up at him, wide-eyed and anxious.

Ukitake stared for a heartbeat, two, and then closed his eyes. "Alright."

Kaien didn't waste a single second, leaping down onto the forest floor without further ado.

The Hollow crouched at the opposite end of the clearing chuckled maliciously. "So you're first, eh boy?"

Kaien's gaze slid back to Miyako's Shihakushou and Zanpakutou. When he spoke, his voice was low and rough with near-untamed rage. "Hey asswipe, how many Shinigami have you eaten so far?"

"Well now, how many..." The Hollow cackled again. "Sorry, but I don't remember the number."

Kaien's expression was icy. "Have you regretted it even once?"

"That's a stupid question, boy," The Hollow jeered. "I have a heart just like you people. There hasn't been a night I haven't regretted after eating Shinigami. Even now, I regret I didn't manipulate that Shinigami woman more before eating her."

Kaien's bangs shadowed his eyes. The maelstrom of emotion in his voice teetered on madness. "You controlled Miyako and made her kill her comrades..."

"Controlled?" The Hollow laughed. "At that time, I was inside that woman. I'm so sorry I wasn't able to show you the moment I consumed her and returned to this form."

And just like that, reiatsu exploded from Kaien's body as the lieutenant unsheathed his sword, power tearing across the clearing as Kaien snapped.

In the blink of an eye, two of the Hollow's arms had been severed from its body. Whirling around, Kaien grasped one of its tentacles and barked out, "Rage through the seas and heavens, Nejibana!"

His Zanpakutou morphed, and then abruptly shattered, and Kaien froze, shock temporarily overriding his fury. "What?!"

"You fell for it," The Hollow growled gleefully. "When anyone touches my feelers, their Zanpakutou vanishes!"

Another tentacle came flying out and slammed into his chest, knocking him back through the air.

"Kaien-dono!" Rukia cried from the side, hand moving to her Zanpakutou. Ukitake's own hand stopped her. "Taichou... Why not?! We must save Kaien-dono!"

"If you save Kaien, then what becomes of his pride?" There was a heaviness in Ukitake's voice that was almost resigned. If you go to his aid now, his life will be saved. But at the same time, it would end up killing his pride for all eternity."

"What does pride matter?!" Rukia lashed out. "Compared to life, pride is nothing!"

"Listen and remember well," Ukitake continued, gravity weighing his voice down. In front of them, Kaien continued fighting, clashing against the Hollow with wordless roars and reckless movements and single-minded intensity. "There are two kinds of fights. Whenever we go into battle, it must always be one of the two – the fight to protect life, or the fight to protect pride."

Ukitake's jaw tightened, and the man looked like he wanted nothing more than to run to Kaien's aid, but his feet stayed in place. "Right now, he is fighting for pride – the pride of his men, his own pride, and most of all, the pride of his beloved wife."

Out in the clearing, Kaien, bleeding from several gashes and eyes still wild with grief-borne wrath, snarled at the Hollow's taunts. "I can take care of you all by myself!"

Even with its grotesque face, the Hollow still looked smug with Kaien's answer. "Is that so? Then I shall reward you with the same treatment as your beloved wife. You get the pleasure of me controlling your body from within and killing your own comrades against your will!"

The Hollow shrieked with laughter, and before Kaien could react, its tentacles burst from its back and raced towards him, seeping into his skin in mere seconds and leaving its original body behind.

"Kaien... -dono..." Rukia stuttered out, voice quavering.

"What?" Kaien's voice was distorted. "Did you call me, little girl?"

And then he turned, and there was no more Kaien in the monstrous, hollow-eyed face anymore.

The Hollow leapt at her, features hungry and feral, and it would've eaten Rukia if Ukitake hadn't cut in.

"RUN, KUCHIKI!" The captain snapped, sword drawn. "HURRY UP! DO YOU WANT TO DIE?!"

Rukia ran, fear and anguish clouding her face as tears welled up in her eyes.

"Why...?! Kaien-dono!"

[Footage Skip]

"Are you mad?! You're going to kill your own man?!"

"Yes I will!" A storm raged in Ukitake's eyes, despair and misery and outrage, but his hands were steady as he readied himself for battle. "I cannot let the likes of you have Kaien's body!"

He slashed at the Hollow, drawing blood even as it narrowly escaped a second blow, but before he could leap after it, a rasping cough tore from Ukitake's throat as his illness brought him to his knees.

The Hollow didn't come back for him though. Instead, it aimed directly for Rukia standing near the tree line, looking small and frightened even as she held her Zanpakutou in front of her.

"You fool!" Ukitake shouted, stumbling to his feet only to stagger after a few steps. "Why did you come back?!"

And in Kaien's body, the Hollow laughed and laughed, Kaien's typically kind and friendly features twisted into a hideous image of a monster.

And yet-

And yet there was fear reflecting from that face, a hopeless struggle against the Hollow that was in control that spoke of Kaien suffering as he watched Rukia approach her death at his hands.

Rukia's sword wavered and then steadied.

The blade plunged into Kaien's body. Crimson painted the night sky.

Rukia shook as blood dripped down her hands and splashed warm against her face. Her lieutenant slumped against her.

Rain began to fall.

"Thank you," A voice whispered, and it was all Kaien this time, exhausted and hoarse with agony but tempered with genuine appreciation. A trembling hand pressed against her back. "Thank you, Rukia. Thank you."

-3-

As Rukia watched her past self, all she felt was numb, and when Ichigo's arm, warm and comforting, wrapped around her shoulders, she didn't jump or stiffen or pull away, only reaching out to tangle her fingers into his Shihakushou and press against his side as her worst memory played out.

-3-

Rukia couldn't move. "Kaien... –dono... Kaien-dono, T- Taichou is coming now; just- just hang on-"

The blind rage from before had leaked from Kaien's frame, and when he spoke now, despite the pain, it was the usual Kaien speaking again, calm and level-headed and not the one who had been almost berserk with vengeance and heartache.

"Not here yet then?" A wet cough wracked the lieutenant's body. "Good, that's good. There's something I need to tell you, something I need you to do for me."

"You- You can do it yourself," Rukia choked out.

"No," Kaien pulled back to look at her, and a small smile quirked his bloodied lips. "I am going to die, Rukia. We both know that."

Rukia released a shuddering sob. "My- My fault- I'm sorry-"

"No," Kaien said again, one hand contracting around her wrist. "Not your fault, never your fault. Don't you dare believe that, Kuchiki."

He paused, and his body listed to the side. Rukia scrambled to hold him up, clutching at his back in an attempt to not aggravate the damage already dealt.

"S'rry," Kaien slurred, eyes prying open with difficulty. "Listen to me, Kuchiki, this'll be unfair to you, and I have no right to ask you of this, but later, I need you to go to my office and look under the floorboards."

"F- Floorboards?"

"Mm. There should be- should be somethin' important there, and I need'ya to pass that on straight to- straight to Taichou. Direc'ly to him, 'kay?"

"You should- You should tell Taichou this," Rukia's gaze lifted to scan their surroundings over Kaien's shoulder. "He- He's coming now-"

"No," Kaien coughed again. "It's too dangerous for him to know. If- If it's not there, Kuchiki, if it's not under the boards, then I need you to forget I ever said anything, understan'?"

"Wh- What? Wh- Why wouldn't-"

"Rukia, do you understan'?" Kaien's voice rose and cracked, but his gaze remained on Rukia, blazing with desperate ferocity. "If s'not there, you forget I ever said anything, preten' I never asked you to do anything. No matter what you do, you do not go looking into it. Promise me, Rukia, pr'mise me you'll do as I ask, to the letter. Please."

He broke off into another fit of coughs, and this time, his body folded a little as if trying to escape from the pain, only for the sword still embedded in his chest to shift and press deeper still.

"Okay, okay, I promise!" Rukia swore hysterically, trying to stop Kaien from moving. "I promise I'll do as you ask, just- just please, Kaien-dono, stay- stay with me! Don't-"

-3-

Don't die.

As the recording momentarily stalled and Kurotsuchi muttered a curse over by the computers, Shinji considered turning away because this was a major breach of privacy no matter how you looked at it, but at the same time, it almost felt disrespectful to look away now, and Ichigo seemed wholly mesmerized, skin bleached of colour as Rukia stayed glued to his side, looking three seconds away from bursting into tears.

Ichigo – Kaien; whichever – was an idiot through and through, one of those daft, born-once-in-a-blue-moon morons who just didn't know when to give up. The dimwit was dying, and he was still trying to get their names cleared, and if that didn't work out, then at least protect Rukia from any backlash.

A true simpleton who didn't know when to quit, who never listened to 'you shouldn't' or 'you can't' or 'that's impossible', and was quite possibly the most reliable kind of friend one could ever ask for.

Idly, Shinji thought of what life might've been like had Ichigo been Hollowfied alongside them all those years ago.

He mentally snorted. Soul Society wouldn't have known what hit them. It had certainly been completely turned on its head when Ichigo had invaded the place all for a single Shinigami.

Then again, come to think of it, both Kaien back then and Ichigo now had always been terrifyingly protective of Kuchiki Rukia. She was a lucky girl. Kuchiki Byakuya had no room to complain; there was really no one better to keep his sister safe.

Shinji's gaze slid to the side where Ukitake was standing. The man's head was angled in a way that hid his expression from everyone save for Kyouraku standing beside him, who had lowered his hat to shadow his face.

Probably best that way.

He glanced to his right where Lisa had retreated after Ichigo had stepped forward to stand beside Rukia.

Lisa was tough, never whined or wanted pity, and rarely ever cried (she had when they'd gotten news of Kaien's death; Shinji had felt pretty shitty himself but at least he hadn't been the guy's best friend).

She wasn't crying now either, but all the same, Shinji took a step to the side and wordlessly slung an arm around her. It really should be Kyouraku comforting her, but the man looked to have his hands full with Ukitake and his own thoughts.

Still, Shinji approved of the way the captain at least glanced over to ensure that Lisa wasn't alone.

His gaze wandered back to Ichigo. He remembered what he'd said when he'd first met the kid – Ichigo, not Kaien.

"A Zanpakutou... and a Hollow's mask. Do you get it yet? I'm a Shinigami who has crossed over into the domain of the Hollows. So... let's be friends. I'm a Visored, one of the Masked Army; the same as you, Ichigo. Join us. You don't belong with them."

Looking back now, what he had said had been laughably foolish. No matter what Ichigo became, he'd never abandon his friends.

Shinji glanced over at the Captain-Commander this time. The moment the old man had pardoned them so easily without even getting his hands on the papers Ichigo had produced, Shinji had known what Yamamoto wanted.

At the moment, Soul Society was desperately short on captains. With three different spots open and any and all attempts to fill them ending in failure, Yamamoto would want someone dependable to step up as soon as possible, and who better than former captains who had all proven their capability in the war?

Shinji silently scoffed. He wondered if the old man was finally going senile. Had Yamamoto forgotten what Shinji had said?

They were Aizen's enemies, but Aizen was gone, so they were solely Ichigo's allies now.

Shinji was fairly certain that Kyouraku would be able to convince Lisa to return to her old position, and so long as she was okay with it, then Shinji wouldn't kick up a fuss.

Kensei could go either way – return to being a captain again or remain stubbornly outside of Gotei 13's jurisdiction – and Mashiro would follow him in whatever decision he made, but there was that Ninth Division lieutenant to consider now and the kid was barely keeping his head above water as it was. Not yet captain but still keeping his Division afloat was no simple task.

Rose had the same decision to make as Kensei, with a similar situation where the current lieutenant was concerned, so he could go either way as well, not to mention from what Shinji had seen, Kira Izuru was still working through his own problems concerning his twice-damned double-agent of a captain.

The Seventh had Komamura now, and the guy seemed like a good captain and a decent man – wolf – if a bit iffy in the friends department; Love probably wouldn't make waves, and he wasn't all that interested in returning to his old position anyway.

That left Hacchi and Hiyori. Hacchi would follow Tessai's lead, who would most likely stay in the Human World if Kisuke stayed, and knowing the shopkeeper and considering the bow to Ichigo earlier, the man would stay to pay his debt to Ichigo if nothing else; Kisuke usually failed big time in the ethics department but he took debts seriously, especially when it came to people he actually liked. The fact that he rather enjoyed his current job in Karakura was just the icing on the cake.

On the other hand, Hiyori would probably fling herself off the top of a cliff with a cement block tied around her neck before ever stepping foot anywhere near the Twelfth Division again. Every one of them had a bit of an aversion to scientists now, Kisuke being the only exception.

And then there was Shinji himself, and while he felt for Hinamori, he really did, he had absolutely no desire to touch that problem with a ten-foot pole. The girl was just too sweet for someone as prone to tricks and nasty-mindedness as Shinji could be, and she was still hung up on Aizen. That bastard had done a good job brainwashing her.

Heck, at the moment, with bags under her eyes and a slight hunch to her shoulders, Shinji had no idea why Unohana hadn't kept her locked up in the Fourth for the girl's own mental health.

And he didn't necessarily need or want his former captaincy again, so he really had no reason to stick around in Seireitei on a permanent basis. He was officially pardoned now, they all were, which meant that they could come and go as they pleased. Shinji could come back for a breath of Soul Society air anytime he wanted.

And he'd have to make trips up here because despite the popular belief of what seemed like three-quarters of Soul Society, Shinji knew that Ichigo had no intention of staying. The teen had a life in the Human World, a father and two sisters and his own friends, and he'd never abandon that just because he turned out to be a lieutenant from half a century ago as well.

So Shinji would have to stay in Karakura too, not that Ichigo knew that yet; Shinji figured it could be a surprise.

Preferably a show-up-on-his-doorstep-one-day-after-everything-h ad-settled-with-no-room-for-objections sort of surprise.

Shinji grinned to himself. Yes, that sounded like a decent plan overall.

His grin faded as movement started up again on the footage being played. Oh yeah, they still had this to get through.

Well, the worst of it was over, right?

-3-

A rustle alerted them to the arrival of the last of their party, and Kaien, breathing laboured and sagging against Rukia once more, struggled to make himself heard.

"Taichou..."

Ukitake, leaning against one tree, stayed silent as he waited for his lieutenant to speak. Desolation couldn't even begin to describe the deadened look in his eyes.

"Thank you so much... for letting me fight."

Ukitake didn't blink, didn't make any move to shield himself from the rain even when the water trailed down his face and one couldn't tell the downpour from tears.

"Aa." The single syllable was subdued, miserable, lifeless. He said nothing else. There was nothing he could say.

Still holding Kaien, Rukia's eyes widened with horrified comprehension. "K- Kaien-dono... you didn't... intentionally...?"

"Kuchiki..." Kaien's words came slower now, syllables dragging together. "I put you... in terrible danger... by making you go along... with my selfishness. I'm sorry. It... must've been hard."

A smile, sad but grateful, curled at his lips. "Thanks. Because of you... I can... leave... my heart here."

His hand slipped from Rukia's back, the other already dangling limply against his side. A keening cry slipped from Rukia's throat as she sat back and lowered her lieutenant even further. A moment later, Ukitake was suddenly there, helping her slip her blade from his chest as gently as physically possible.

Kaien didn't even have enough energy left in him to scrounge up a noise of distress as the weapon slipped free and his life spilled out in sluggish pools of crimson, staining his uniform as much as the rain was.

Hazy, half-lidded green eyes sought out Ukitake's face as Rukia clung onto his arm, head bowed as she convulsed with the force of her suppressed sobs.

"Taichou..." Kaien's mouth barely moved. "'m s'rry."

Ukitake brushed back the wet bangs that stuck to Kaien's forehead. "Shh, there's nothing to be sorry about. Just rest now."

But Kaien's fingers stretched out, catching Ukitake's sleeve. "I was... h- happier than anything... being- being your... lieutenant. Thanks for... t- taking care of me... Tai- chou."

Ukitake forced an unsteady smile, one hand pressing against Kaien's cheek as the other curled around the dying man's weakening grasp. "Aa. And I was happier than anything having you as my lieutenant. I'm proud to have had you by my side for so many years. If anyone should be saying thank you, it should be me. The Thirteenth would've never done so well without you there."

Kaien released a ragged laugh. "Ah, you always... think too... highly... of me, Taichou. E- Ever since you... you conned me... into taking... the- the position... in- in the f- first place."

Ukitake huffed a feeble laugh as well. "'Conned' is a bit harsh, Kaien. You made me wait thirteen years before you finally accepted; that has to count for something, don't you think? ...Kaien? Kaien!"

Green eyes were no longer focused on the white-haired captain. Instead, they had drifted past Ukitake's shoulder, sightless as the light gradually dimmed from them, the last of his life draining away.

"NO!" Rukia broke at last, wailing sobs splitting the air as she thumped one loose fist against Kaien's shoulder. "No, Kaien-dono! You haven't finished teaching me yet! I still have so much to learn! You can't go yet! Kaien-dono!"

"He's gone, Rukia," Ukitake, face as white as his hair, tugged the hysterical girl against his chest, his other hand reaching out and gently closing his dead lieutenant's eyes. "He's gone, but he didn't die alone. That was always what Kaien feared most, and we were with him until the end."

Rukia just continued crying, frame hunched against her captain. "He's- He's gone- He's really-"

"It's going to be alright," Ukitake promised, running a soothing hand through her hair. "Things will look better in the morning."

Rukia didn't stop crying. Ukitake didn't look like he believed his own words.

And the rain continued to fall.

[End Recording SK4]


Please leave a review on your way out.


And an extra warning – I managed to get this chapter out early but my next two weeks are filled with so much school stuff it's not funny; I don't know if I'll be able to update this or anything else in that time.