Sorry this was so late getting out to you, but it got a little long and I wanted to cut it back. Oh, and as for the time frame for this – it's about a year after the events in Book 3 are projected to end.
I know you all are waiting for book 3, but I've got that stupid Western (mentioned last chapter) stuck in my head and I want to get that finished up before I actually start Bleached Hallows. I do have a timeline and rough outline, and some specific scenes plotted out. But that's what the holdup is... sorry :(
Ichigo nearly screamed with boredom; he felt it would have been more productive if they had just let Gin take him through and show him what he needed to know, instead of letting the old witch try to confuse him. More than once Gin pointed out something that she'd left out, which was something she had hoped to have them overlook. Whenever that happened, Yubaba muttered under her breath, not at all happy.
No hope of that; Gin was far too thorough to let her get away with anything. There were only a handful of Captains who would be just as conscientious: Soifon, but she was anal retentive; Unohana, who never missed anything, but Ichigo's relationship with her right now was a little uneasy, and she was letting him approach her when he was ready; and Byakuya, because it was part of the job. And he was anal retentive. Hell, he probably went over the place with a white glove. Thinking that, he started dreading next month's visit with his brother-in-law.
Ichigo nearly sighed with relief when Yubaba passed them off to one of her 'aides' - an entity – Ichigo refrained from calling him a boy, even though he appeared to be younger than Toshiro in age – named Haku.
There was something very – familiar – about Haku's reiatsu, even though Ichigo was certain he hadn't ever seen the boy before. It was – the best Ichigo could describe it was watery. In some ways it reminded him of Toshiro's, just not as cold.
While trailing him, Ichigo studied the dark haired – something or other as he led them down to the boiler room, deftly fending off remarks from Gin, who very obviously knew him.
"No memories yet?" Gin asked him suddenly as they walked down a long set of dark stairs.
Haku glanced back at the Third Squad Captain. "No."
"What?" Ichigo looked from one to the other, not understanding what they were referring to.
"Haku can't remember who he is – or where he's from." Gin frowned. "Although I sense a new 'but' in there that I haven't heard before."
"Amnesia?" Ichigo asked curiously.
"Not – entirely," Haku said slowly.
Ichigo frowned; like Gin, he heard a lot more in that statement than Haku was saying. "Well, your reiatsu feels familiar somehow, although I'm sure we've never met." Ichigo looked at Gin. "Can you feel it? How similar it is to Toshiro's?"
Gin frowned. "Now that you mention it, yes – I see what you mean. It's like it has the same base…"
"Water, but not ice or snow. And his name – it's just – not quite right, somehow."
Haku stopped short and stared at Ichigo. "What?" he asked, stunned. Not right? What was he saying?
Ichigo sighed. "Your name – it's right, but – not quite right. Like part of it's missing."
"Missing…or stolen…" Haku murmured to himself, frowning. Both Soul Reapers stared at him curiously, and Haku explained how Yubaba's contracts worked.
"Unless someone reminds you of your name, or you have something to remind you of what it is, then you very quickly forget it."
Gin and Ichigo glanced quickly at each other, Ichigo's expression questioning. Gin gave a brief shake of his head and a shrug: no, he had not been aware of this. It was the first he was hearing of it. If he was not aware – then Yamamoto was unaware. Gin knew that Ichigo was also given info that the rest of them were not, as part of his training with the Head Captain in preparation for succeeding him. Such information would have been in the packet that Yamamoto had given him to review on the bath house, or he would have been told privately. However – the expression on his face said otherwise.
By now Haku had started walking again and had reached a door.
"The boiler room," he said to Ichigo, "It heats all of the bath water." He then explained how the system worked, how the special waters for clients were ordered and sent upstairs to the baths.
The boiler was off, as it was not needed, but kept warm so it would not take much to get it going again. The boiler man – Kamaji – was certainly not the strangest spirit Ichigo had ever seen, even if he reminded him of a spider. Kamaji would most likely send Ron Weasley hiding under a bed somewhere, though, he thought. Also in the room was a girl, who was standing in a corner, watching them with wide eyes.
She too seemed vaguely familiar.
Gin's normal smile – which generally creeped people out – suddenly vanished and he reached out to take hold of Haku's shirt.
"Okay – now what the fuck is going on here?" he demanded to know, Ichigo catching the hint of anger in his voice. "That girl is human – living!"
Haku slipped out of Gin's grip. "I know – that's why she's down here – it was the only safe place for her to speak to you where Yubaba wouldn't catch her doing it."
Gin and Ichigo both frowned at this. The situation was suddenly getting highly complicated. Maybe it was a good thing that Byakuya had come this month – by now he probably would have pulled out Senbonzakura and everyone would be fleeing flower petals.
"What's going on that requires so much secrecy?" Ichigo asked, scowling.
The girl inched forward, her eyes on Ichigo. "My parents…" she whispered, and then took a deep breath, "Yubaba has turned them into pigs."
"Pigs?" Ichigo's brows rose. He looked over at Gin, who was frowning.
"Maybe you had best start from the beginning," Gin advised.
Between Haku, Sen – whose name was actually Chihiro – Kamaji and the woman Lin who had been peeking around the corner worriedly until Gin pulled her out of hiding, the story came out. How Chihiro and her parents (well, her idiot father – something Ichigo certainly sympathized with) had gotten lost while moving, and stumbled across the empty market, and her parents were subsequently turned into pigs.
"I see…" Ichigo said grimly after hearing the full tale. He had not been impressed with Yubaba to begin with – he liked her even less now.
"It's worse than that," Kamaji said.
"Worse?" Gin turned to look at the boiler man, giving him a look that was wondering how it could possibly be worse.
"They aren't the first – and probably not the last."
The two Soul Reapers stared at him. Ichigo was starting to feel like he wanted to just tear the whole place down and save everyone some grief.
"And what – does she do – with these pigs?" Gin asked, his eyes open.
"Well…" Lin shifted her weight uneasily, "Some of them are used for – breeding."
"Yuck! You mean I could have half siblings that are PIGS?!" Chihiro nearly shrieked. Haku put a hand on her shoulder, trying to comfort her and calm her down.
"But – well – there's a reason why some of us don't eat pork."
Chihiro and both Soul Reapers stared at Lin; Gin was frowning again, and Ichigo scowling fiercely, and Chihiro was now truly freaking out.
"THEY'RE GONNA EAT MY PARENTS?" her voice rose, "What if they already did? What if –"
Haku turned her around and put his hands on her shoulders, and stared into her eyes, calming her. "Chihiro – calm down," he said to her, "They're fine. They didn't kill any of the pigs last night."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm positive, I was keeping an eye on them," he reassured her.
Ichigo was watching the pair closely; there was a bond there, one that went deeper than Haku being the first one to find and help the girl. And despite the familiarity of the reiatsu, there was something else underneath it, as if…
"You're a shape-shifter," Ichigo said suddenly, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as he realized just what the underpinnings of the reiatsu was – partially a similarity to both Yoruichi and Professor McGonagall.
Haku glanced at him. "Not really."
"Show him, Haku," Chihiro urged.
Haku sighed, and before Ichigo could blink, the figure of the boy had vanished and had been replaced by a dragon. Not a shape-shifter, huh? Right...
"Hm," Gin cocked his head, "So that's your secret."
The draconic head dipped once. In this form, the dragon's reiatsu was even more familiar, and similar to Toshiro's. Ichigo knew he'd run across it before, but he could not quite place why…
"Ichigo," Gin asked suddenly, "do you think you could counteract the spell on the pigs?"
"Eh?" Ichigo looked at Gin, startled out of his thoughts. "Well, it depends on what kind of spell was used, but I can give it a shot. If it doesn't work, I can always just turn Yubaba into a rabbit – or a naked mole rat."
Gin snorted with laughter; he'd heard about the mole rat incident, Toshiro had told Matsumoto, who had reported it to him. He couldn't remember the last time he had laughed so hard.
"I'm sure having to face the Old Man while you're in such a – vulnerable state – will be quite a lesson," he finally replied. Gin glanced over at Chihiro, who was looking up at Ichigo with nearly worshipful eyes that clearly had his young friend confused, as he kept glancing at her… until Ichigo finally snapped his fingers.
"What?" came a chorus of baffled voices, except for Chihiro, who had nodded with happiness.
"She had a pink Hello Kitty bike – lived across the street from us in Karakura Town. Yuzu used to babysit for her."
"Yes! And you and Tatsuki-san –"
"Yeah, I remember. We chased off those boys, the ones trying to take your bike. They damaged it out of spite," he nodded.
"But you fixed it."
"Ah…well, we had a bit of experience putting bikes together by then, and fixing them. My two sisters, her cousin, and we put one together for Orihime as well," he shrugged. "Fixing yours was not a big deal." His eyes narrowed slightly as Haku had changed himself back into his human form by now, "so, how do you two know each other?"
"I don't know –"
"We just met –"
The two spoke at the same time, causing Ichigo to sigh. "There's a bond there already Chihiro, that doesn't usually form in a day…"
"Really?" Gin said in an undertone, clearly speaking about Ichigo and Rukia; Ichigo chose to ignore him for the moment.
"Even I can feel it," he continued as if his friend hadn't spoken.
"It is there," Gin agreed with him.
"I know that I've known her for a long time, but – I don't know how," Haku replied, a hint of frustration evident.
"I – can pull some of those memories out, if you want," Ichigo said slowly, "But – it would be better if I did it with Chihiro. I already know her, and her memory is not as messed up as yours."
"Wait a minute…" Lin started to protest, but the look Gin gave her shut her up. Haku did not appear happy, either. Ichigo knelt in front of Chihiro.
"You don't have to do it," he said gently, "And it doesn't hurt, at all. My teacher did the same thing to me plenty of times when he was teaching me."
"It really doesn't hurt?" Chihiro asked nervously.
Ichigo smiled reassuringly. "Not a bit."
"And it will help Haku?"
"I'll just be looking for memories relating to him," Ichigo replied.
Chihiro nodded. "Okay."
She watched as he pulled a long wooden stick out of his sleeve; he stood, tipping her chin up so he could look into her eyes, and pointing the stick at her – a magic wand, she thought curiously – he murmured, "Legilimens."
A rush of images flashed in quick succession, so quickly she almost couldn't grasp them before the next one assaulted her. Ichigo finally stopped whatever he was doing, giving her a chance to catch her breath.
"Did you catch all of that?" he asked gently.
"I – I think so…" Chihiro whispered. A pink shoe… a river…"I think – my mom told me about a time – we were visiting relatives in Naruki City. I was really little… my shoe fell in the river, and when I tried to get it, I fell in after it."
"Naruki City," Ichigo murmured, understanding, "Of course!"
"Something – a wave or something – pushed me back to shore…"
Haku was staring at her, and Chihiro's eyes suddenly widened. "Haku – Kohaku! The river was the Kohaku River! That was you! You were the spirit of the Kohaku River!"
"Well, well," Gin smirked.
"The river was filled in to make room for apartments," Ichigo said with disgust, "That's why you can't find your home. It isn't there anymore."
"Why'd you come here?" Gin asked Haku, "If a river, stream or other body of water vanishes or becomes dead in some way, the spirit is supposed to come to Soul Society. That's how we get our own water to supply Soul Society's needs. What vanishes in the World of the Living should appear in the Rukongai."
Haku frowned. "I don't know, really," he admitted, "In hindsight, I suppose I should have, but – I really didn't want to."
He got several knowing looks, which he chose to ignore.
"What will you do now?" Chihiro asked him.
"Oh, I'll have a very long talk with Yubaba," he said with a faint smile.
"You'll have to wait," Ichigo told him.
"Oh yes – the Head Captain is going to want to chew on her a bit first," Gin's smile had turned feral. "Now – shall we go take a look at those pigs and see if my friend here can break the spell on them?"
The small group stared at the herd of pigs packed into the pens, and Ichigo scowled when he saw how many there actually were.
"How many of them were human?" he asked, looking askance at Haku.
"Um – actually, I'm not entirely certain," he replied, a bit embarrassed. "Some of them are workers that upset or displeased Yubaba; others, well, they are, er –"
Gin held up a hand. "Stop, no more. We get the picture." He looked at Ichigo. "Well?"
Ichigo nodded, and held out his wand. With the number of pigs, he was going to have to pour a lot of his reiatsu into the counter spell, if he wanted to hope to overcome the original transformation curse.
"Finite incantatum," he whispered. He scowled when he felt the push back, and raised his reiatsu again.
"Finite incantatum," this time, the pigs bodies glowed and began to warp out of shape slightly, like heat rising off pavement.
"Damn it," he muttered, his scowl growing more fierce. He glanced back at Gin, who nodded at him and surrounded Chihiro and the others in a kido shield. Ichigo increased his outpouring; he had to be extremely careful, or he could kill them if he lost control. Normally no one could even sense him: not even his grandfather. Gin had told him how souls had just – evaporated – in Aizen's presence when the pair had gone to Karakura Town during the Winter War; if Ichigo was not careful, he could cause the same thing to happen.
"Finite incantatum!" This time the power he put behind the spell would not be denied, and the transfiguration spell on the pigs broke, turning most of them back into their original forms. Some remained pigs, though. He rather refused to think about what that meant.
The newly restored people all sank to the ground, asleep.
"Hakufuku," Gin said, pulling out his phone, "better this way. No questions." He released the tiny group from the kido, and stepped outside, while Chihiro ran forward to check on her parents.
"They're okay?" she turned her head to look at him.
Ichigo smiled down at her. "They're just sleeping for the moment." He looked back as Gin returned – with Soifon, and he groaned internally. The stealth force commander was his least favorite Captain… and he was pretty sure the sentiment was returned. She must have been standing by waiting, in order to have arrived so quickly.
Soifon frowned down at the number of slumbering people that she saw. "Is this everyone?"
"No way of really telling," Ichigo said, as Gin told her about the pigs and how they had come to be that way. A disgusted expression crossed her face. She turned around.
"Spread out and find her!" she ordered; the member of the stealth force that had been standing in the doorway nodded and vanished. Soifon then strode out of the building that had been home to the transformed people, Gin and Ichigo right behind her. Once outside, they saw that Soifon had not come by herself. She had brought a large number of her squad with her.
"We'll take care of getting them somewhere far from the bath house before we wake them, and change their memories," she said. "You'll need to take the witch to see the Head Captain."
"That's something I'll enjoy," Gin said, smirking.
"But – our car isn't far from here –" Chihiro started to protest, which got her an angry look from Soifon. Chihiro cowered behind Haku.
"It probably would be best to just put her parents back at their car, and then let Chihiro follow on her own," Haku said, "Not a lot of time has passed, so it shouldn't be too odd for them." Soifon included him in her glare.
"Y'know," Ichigo said out of the blue, staring at his wand, "I suddenly got a hankering for – carrots," he turned to a bemused Lin with a sly look. "Got any?"
"I'm sure I could dig some up," she replied, baffled at this sudden statement, and Gin's amusement.
Soifon froze when she heard his comment and gave him a startled, uneasy look, while Gin chuckled. "Fine," she muttered, "But I'm putting it in the report."
"I didn't expect anything less," Gin said innocently.
They decided that Haku would get Chihiro to her car, while Gin and Ichigo helped to look for Yubaba, with some help from Lin and Kamaji. It was Lin who spotted her, trying to fly away.
"Oh, like hell she's getting away," Ichigo muttered, pulling his wand out again. Gin, still smirking, first cast Sai, then Hainawa, binding Yubaba's wings against her body. She squawked as she started to fall, until Ichigo with a shrug, used his wand.
Her fall halted, and she started to rise again, much more slowly. Ichigo grinned. "Hey, it worked!"
"What do you mean, 'it worked'?" Soifon asked, arriving with Haku. She glared at him.
Ichigo scratched the back of his head. "Ah, well, it's a charm – and I still have a little bit of trouble with them." He gave them a somewhat sheepish look. "I might have accidentally blown her up instead."
Soifon rolled her eyes as Gin chuckled and the three Captains went to collect their prisoner, who was glaring at them.
"Are you going to make her easier to get back to Soul Society?" Soifon asked, glaring right back at her.
"I think you should; she'll just try to get away otherwise," Gin advised. Ichigo shrugged. It was a good idea, he had to admit.
"Rabbits are your specialty – and she'd be oh so very portable."
"And very fast and squirmy," he reminded Gin.
"Turn her into a pig and see how she likes it," Haku suggested. Ichigo grinned.
"A pig it is. And if Yamamoto is really angry at her – we can leave her like that and just give her to the Shiba family. They'll know how to handle a recalcitrant pig."
Even Soifon snorted with amusement at the fate that could await Yubaba if that's what the Head Captain decided.
Yamamoto stared at the group in front of him, feeling a migraine starting. After Gin and Ichigo had left that morning, he had had a bad feeling about sending the pair of them off together (Things had a habit of happening around Ichigo…) so he'd had Soifon standing by for backup. She'd been in a bad mood over it – until Gin's call for the Stealth Squad had come through. At which point she had started cursing and jumped into the gate, her squad behind her.
As he listened to their story – in particular, Haku's – Yamamoto felt his migraine increase with his anger.
"I see," he rumbled ominously as he stared down at the witch – who was still a pig. The old woman stared back up at him, trembling. Ichigo had left her hair in place, so she looked like a pig with a wig on.
"Did you really think this would never get back to me?" he asked her, his anger making little flames break out along his staff. The only one who did not back away from him was Ichigo – he was the one holding her leash. He was also not afraid of Ryujin Jakka; he knew his grandfather would not harm him. "The question only becomes – what punishment should you receive?"
"Actually – we sort of had an idea…" Gin started to say, causing Yamamoto to look over at him. Yamamoto raised an eyebrow as Gin explained what they had discussed earlier; and then he nodded.
"Indeed; I think it would be appropriate to let the Shibas discipline her. See to it. You are dismissed."
"I'll take her," Gin said, reaching for the leash as the small group left the First Division barracks, "You have an anniversary to celebrate."
Ichigo nodded, and looked over at Haku. "Are you going to stay here?"
Haku nodded after he thought for a moment. "Yes, I think I will."
Ichigo nodded again. "You can stay at the Fifth Squad Barracks then; I'll take you out into the Rukongai tomorrow. Come on, I'll introduce you to Momo and Cedric."
The next morning, despite the fact that Ichigo was tired due to the late night he'd spent out with Rukia, he was still able to make it to his squad in time to go out to the far reaches of District 80 – Zaraki – in a sector that had been constantly plagued by drought. The severe drought and lack of water was the cause of many of the outbreaks of violence in the area.
"It's very dry, here," Haku said, looking around.
"Yes, it is," Ichigo nodded, "It rains in the mountains and hills there," he pointed, "but it has no outlet."
"You mean it needs a river to flow into," Haku said slowly. Ichigo nodded.
"So we're going to make a river – your river," he replied.
"How?" Haku was doubtful, despite everything he had learned about the young Captain in front of him.
"The group with us – I handpicked them for this little job," Ichigo smirked. "They all have rather specialized skills. Akon is Third Seat of the Twelfth Squad – Research and Development - he'll be the one to pinpoint the best place for us to start. Both Rukia and Toshiro - "
"Vice Captain Kurosaki."
Ichigo sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. "They both have ice-snow type zanpakutos. If we need to, they can fill the trench, and we can then melt the ice. Momo's zanpakuto is a fire-type, and Cedric's is an earth-based zanpakuto. More importantly, all of them except Akon are witches or wizards. So what we can't do with our zanpakuto, we can do with magic."
Haku stared at him; Ichigo had put a lot of thought into this project, and he'd gotten permission from his grandfather to take whomever he needed with him. He had also approached Kenpachi, and borrowed a number of grunts from Squad 11, under the direction of Ikkaku and Yumichika. Once Kenpachi, who was from this area, had heard about what he was up to, he had put his Squad at Ichigo's disposal.
Ichigo had thought about asking Professor Dumbledore or his mother to come along, but the new year at the Soul Reaper Academy was just getting started, and things were rather hectic. So they would have to make due with the small group he'd selected. Rukia at least understood how important the presence of water was, as she had grown up only one District lower than this one, in Inuzuri.
Akon took the lead, staring at a tablet he was carrying. He had determined it would be best for Ichigo to deepen and lengthen an existing stream. "This one here," he said finally, pointing, "it ends halfway down the mountain; extend it until it reaches the next river. There's also an underground lake we can tap into that will fill most of the new riverbed for us."
"Won't people be in the way?" Haku asked worriedly. There had been a number of ramshackle buildings on their way out to the site.
"I sent Squad 11 and most of my Squad out earlier; they'll keep people back out of the way. I can go around any towns if I need to," Ichigo replied, drawing Zangetsu. The blade morphed into its massive, deadly Shikai state, which caused Haku to take a step back.
Ichigo drove Zangetsu into the ground, and focused a wordless Getsuga Tensho down through the blade. The result caused Haku to jump in shock, as a deep crevice, at least a mile long and widening as it spread out from the sword, was created by the blast.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Toshiro asked him quietly, as Ichigo flash-stepped down to continue creating the riverbed. "And that's only his Shikai."
Cedric chuckled briefly at Haku's expression as he drew his own zanpakuto and followed his Captain, smoothing out the riverbed and creating shallow and deep spots with his own earth-based power.
Haku just stood there, watching; it was all he could do as the group set to work. Rukia – Ichigo's wife – and Captain Hitsugaya left them as well, but they went up the mountain. Momo told him that they were going to create a deeper ice and snow cover at the top, so that when it melted naturally, it would continue to feed the river. And all the while, it was Akon who directed the group like a General.
"We want to do it as naturally as possibly, and let the contours of the land and then nature take over," Akon explained to Haku at one point. "When you start messing with nature, it can get nasty."
"That's true enough," the river spirit agreed.
When the small group finally went down to examine their handiwork, they found Ikkaku and the other Soul Reapers having a hard time holding back the inhabitants from rushing forward towards the newly installed water supply.
"Having trouble there, Ikkaku, Yumichika?" Ichigo smirked at the pair, who had their hands full, one of them with a pair of children.
"Ha ha, Ichigo!" Ikkaku snapped back at him as he reached out with a foot and snagged a squirmy little brat by his tunic. "They started getting antsy like this the moment they saw the water come rushing by!"
"This is such an unattractive way to behave," Yumichika added with a sigh, as another tried to climb over his head. He plucked the offender off and tossed her at Cedric, who caught her in his arms with an "oomph" of surprise.
"Well, we should be done in just a bit," Momo told them, "We just have to take down the retaining wall between the two rivers and then see what level the water equalizes at."
"Well, make it fast, will ya?"
"All right, all right," Ichigo laughed and flash stepped off, with Haku behind him. Haku figured that he had best go along and meet his new neighbor. The other river spirit was still there, watching them curiously, and even helped Ichigo take down the wall. The three watched as the waters mixed, and to his pleased surprise, the underground water that Ichigo had tapped into had been enough to fully fill the new river, and when the silt and dirt eventually settled, it was going to be a good fresh water source for the area.
"Well, there you go, Haku," Ichigo said, "your new home. If you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Yes, thank you Captain," Haku turned and bowed gratefully to Ichigo.
Ichigo scoffed. "It's just Ichigo. I don't stand much on ceremony." He turned to the other spirit, who was also a dragon. "And thank you for being so understanding, river-san," he said to it, bowing briefly. The other dragon bowed its head once and then the two river spirits started getting to know each other.
Ichigo returned to the others, and waved them over. "All right, let's go. River's all theirs, now." He looked at the thirsty people eyeing it eagerly. "Although they may want to wait for all the dirt to settle, first."
"Tell them that, but I don't think they'll listen," Ikkaku muttered, dropping his arms and letting the people rush by him.
Ichigo felt a tug on his haori. He turned around to see a tiny girl staring up at him, so he knelt down to get to her level. "What is it?" he asked her gently.
She leaned up to whisper in his ear shyly, which caused his lips to twitch, and he placed a hand on her head. "You're welcome."
Momo giggled. "You do have a way with children, Captain."
Ichigo blushed, as he heard Rukia chuckle and slip an arm through his. And of course both Ikkaku and Yumi had witnessed that...he was never going to live it down.
He glanced back once, to see the people crowding around the river. On the other hand... he enjoyed doing jobs like this. Jobs that did things for people. That actually filled a need, maybe made life a little better, a little more peaceful for them.
Rukia let her hand slip down into his and squeeze it gently.
"Come on, let's go home."