Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.

General Warnings: AU, GEN, violence, language, Espada-in-Soul-Society.

Author's Notes: Like I said before, there's none of the new Quincy stuff in this fic.

Chapter 2

[Seireitei, Soul Society]

"I think you're breakin' at least half a dozen laws there, Kisuke."

Kisuke almost jumped out of his skin, so focused in his current task that he had failed to notice his visitor. It took every last drop of his self-control not to reach for his Zanpakutou; only the fact that he recognized the voice as a friend's prevented him from doing so.

"I could say the same to you," Kisuke remarked mildly as he turned around. "Shouldn't you be handing in your mission report to the Captain-Commander, Shinji-san? It's regulations."

Shinji snorted, pushing off from where he had been leaning against the doorway before sauntering forward. "Tch, regulations. Nakamura will survive if I don't hand in my report until tomorrow morning. Unfortunately."

Kisuke smothered a smirk. There were days when he wanted nothing more than to pull an Ichigo and create some havoc within the walls of Seireitei. The more trouble for their dear Commander, the better.

He paused, backtracking. The thought of his former student and friend twisted his gut; it always did.

Things had taken a turn for the worse after the war had ended. If Kisuke had had even an inkling of what would've followed, he would never have sat vigil by Yoruichi's bedside for so long, his own wounds be damned, ignorant of Central 46's actions until it had been too late. His childhood friend had recovered, none the worse for wear. He himself hadn't come out too badly, though with a few more scars than before, and his right hip still ached on rainy days from a too-hurried patch job courtesy of one of the less-experienced Fourth Division Shinigami when Unohana and the seated officers had been too busy. Kisuke had been too focused on saving Yoruichi at the time; the woman had been losing far too much blood and no one competent enough had been around to staunch it properly.

So he had done it instead, even though he himself had been dizzy from reiatsu exhaustion, and Soifon, missing an arm and refusing to move from her former teacher's side, had been sobbing her eyes out (which hadn't helped in the least), and there had just been too much going on for Kisuke to tend to himself.

However, he had saved Yoruichi, managed to convince the unusually vulnerable-looking Soifon to get her own wounds looked at, and minus the semi-bad hip, he had miraculously made a full recovery.

Kisuke couldn't say the same for the bright-haired youth who had been their trump card time and time again during the war.

While most had survived, three-quarters of the upper echelon had been grievously injured in the aftermath. But the war had ended, they had won, and nobody had had enough presence of mind or energy or even foresight to look for any deceitful schemes amongst their own ranks.

No one had seen it coming.

No one, until one day, less than a week after the final battle, Central 46 had made a citywide broadcast of implementing martial law.

It had taken everyone by surprise, but before any of them could even think about protesting, curfews had been enacted, Shinigami who would report directly to Central 46 had been hired and delegated to patrol the streets, the gates separating Seireitei and Rukongai had seen an increase in guards, and the Senkaimon had been shut down. Only Shinigami with specific permission from the government to go to Hueco Mundo or the World of the Living were allowed to pass through.

Every single one of the Visored had been furious at being locked in. Central 46's condescendingly magnanimous announcement that they could keep their Division – the Fourteenth –running, albeit added to the Gotei 13 instead of acting as a separate unit, had only served to rile them up even further instead of appeasing them, and Kisuke had honestly thought that there would be an imminent uprising on their hands. No matter how much Central 46 insisted that the new laws were a precaution against another traitorous overlord like Aizen, nobody had been happy about it.

But Hiyori, Rose, Love, and Mashiro had all been unconscious with near-crippling injuries, and the other Visored had been nowhere near their full strength either. No matter how much they had wanted to revolt, they hadn't been physically able.

And then there had been the captains and vice-captains, half of whom had been bunking at the Fourth as Unohana and her Division worked overtime, while the other half had tried to keep all the Divisions up and running. The war might have been over but the Hollows certainly hadn't stopped appearing, and they had had world balance to maintain.

Not to mention what with Ukitake stuck in a coma, Yamamoto on his deathbed, and Kyouraku trying to juggle the Eighth, the Thirteenth, and his continued duties as acting Captain-Commander because nobody else had been able to handle it or even wanted it for that matter (Kisuke had really felt for the poor man when he had had to take over two years into the war after Yamamoto had been struck down), and there had been nobody left with a second's worth of spare time on their hands.

There had literally been no one capable of confronting Central 46, and if Kisuke hadn't been so uncharacteristically infuriated over their dictatorship, he would've applauded them for an excellently-played underhanded manoeuvre worthy of Aizen's conspiracies.

Of course, Kisuke hadn't been too worried at first. After all, they had had Ichigo, and at that point, there hadn't been a single person in all of Soul Society who had also fought in the war who thought that there was anything Ichigo couldn't do, not after defeating a Hogyoku-infused Aizen in a head-to-head clash at long last. Not even the Captain-Commander or Ukitake or Kyouraku had been able to boast as much (if the former two had been in any shape to boast in the first place, of course).

Besides, Ichigo had defied all of Soul Society once already. A second time should be a piece of cake, especially where there were probably a hell of a lot more people willing to follow him this time around.

As it had turned out though, they hadn't had Ichigo.

When some of them had finally gotten around to looking, Kisuke being one of the few who hadn't been stuck in bed or had mounds of paperwork to attend to or missions to go on (he certainly hadn't been trusted enough by Central 46 to carry out any sort of assignment) along with Shinji and surprisingly Hitsugaya who had mumbled something about thanking Ichigo for saving Hinamori from something or other at the beginning of the last battle, they had all but turned the Fourth Division upside-down before tracking down Unohana and asking the woman for Ichigo's whereabouts.

Even Unohana, for all her serene calm and endless tolerance, had had faint shadows under her eyes and an edge of exhaustion hanging about her, but she had willingly led them to a quieter wing and had shown them to the room where Ichigo should've been staying in, along with Rukia and Abarai.

That day, Kisuke had been reminded just why even Yamamoto would shut up and do as he was told when he was in Unohana Retsu's domain.

At first, they had all thought that Ichigo had done a runner again, even in the state he had been in. It had happened before; Kisuke didn't know anyone else who hated staying in a hospital as much as Ichigo did. The few times someone had managed to drag the young man to the Fourth for medical attention had been when Ichigo had been too injured to actively disagree. As soon as he had been well enough to stand, he'd be out and back on the battlefield before Unohana could threaten him into staying in bed.

But it wasn't as if Ichigo had had anywhere to run to. The war had been over, and they'd already checked all the other rooms in the compound. At that point, if Ichigo had wanted to go anywhere, it would've been to his father's bedside, but Isshin, having still been stuck in a coma with only a sixty percent chance of waking up, had been alone in his room.

And then Unohana, after checking over a sleeping Rukia and Abarai, had promptly swept out of the room and stalked down several corridors, not minding Kisuke, Shinji, or Hitsugaya as they'd hurried after her. They hadn't stopped until they had reached one of the break rooms in the barracks.

It had been the first time Kisuke had ever seen Unohana truly angry. The dark cast over her features had sent a chill up even his spine never mind the unfortunate Shinigami whom Unohana had hunted down. The man – who, as it had turned out, had been the one charged with monitoring Ichigo, Rukia, and Abarai's conditions over the past week – had stayed frozen with terror as his captain had enquired, ever so politely with one hand placed dangerously on the hilt of her Zanpakutou, why there had been a sleeping agent in the two vice-captains' systems, and where Kurosaki Ichigo had been moved to without her consent.

Unohana had fired the Shinigami on the spot almost before the man had finished stammering out something along the lines of 'orders from Central 46', stripping him of rank before ordering him off her Division grounds at once.

Kisuke and Shinji had both held back the urge to do the man some serious harm but Hitsugaya hadn't had quite as much restraint. The discharged Shinigami had scuttled from the room with a flood of ice at his heels.

Even Unohana had pretended not to see.

But amusement aside, that had been when Kisuke had started worrying. The battle with Aizen had taken everything Ichigo had had; the young man had been suffering from almost empty reiatsu reserves and critical wounds that had concerned even Unohana. Ichigo hadn't been in any state to protect himself.

So they had gone to Kyouraku next, who, luckily or maybe not so luckily, had been visiting a still-bandaged-but-walking Kuchiki captain at the Sixth. The situation had been explained, Byakuya had immediately insisted on both his vice-captain and sister-in-law to be moved back to the Sixth, and their temporary Captain-Commander, looking haggard and stressed, had set off for the Central 46 Compound.

Somehow or other, the news that Kurosaki Ichigo was missing had spread like wildfire, and by the time Kyouraku had exited the assembly hall a full hour later, looking uncharacteristically grim, Kisuke, Shinji, and Hitsugaya had no longer been the only ones squatting outside the front doors waiting for news. Unohana had needed to return to her patients, but Byakuya, astoundingly enough, had joined them after retrieving Rukia and Abarai, and the other Visored who hadn't been bedridden had gathered as well.

The pink-haired vice-captain of the Eleventh had been there too (Kisuke had had a feeling that Zaraki had sent her since the man's third and fifth seats had both still been laid out on their backs, and the captain himself hadn't been in any condition to walk anywhere what with having lost a leg and the stump hadn't been healed enough yet for a prosthetic).

Even Hisagi from the Ninth had dropped by, and Kisuke had known for a fact that that particular Division, along with the Third (whose ex-captain had been thrown into Muken without a trial; not quite fair for a sort-of-double-agent who had contributed to their side in the latter half of the war but had also been the least of everybody's problems at that point in time), the Fifth (which had neither captain nor vice-captain at its helm), and the Seventh (whose captain had been killed) had been a real mess with only three lieutenants between them keeping things going.

"He's gone."

Kisuke could still remember the dead silence that had answered those two words. Kyouraku had forged on before anyone could interrupt with questions, shadows in his eyes and expression unreadable.

"Because they set up martial law, Central 46 revoked Ichigo-kun's Substitute Shinigami status. He's been sent home to recover and live his life without further intrusions from our world."

To Kisuke's ears, it had sounded like Kyouraku had repeated what Central 46 had said word for word. He hadn't been the only one to think so.

"What home?" Lisa had demanded at once. "His old man's fighting for his life in the Fourth. His sisters are dead. Kukaku and her brother are both here. Inoue and Sado were both killed two years ago, and that Quincy friend of his bowed out of the war almost immediately after that! Ichigo doesn't have anyone left except us!"

Kyouraku had heaved a sigh and shaken his head tiredly. "It was something Ichigo-kun decided. He turned down their offer to stay here as a captain of one of the Divisions."

It had taken several minutes and a stern dismissal from Kyouraku, but eventually, the crowd had dispersed, none of them satisfied in the slightest.

Kisuke hadn't believed for a second that it had been as simple as that. At the very least, even if Ichigo had chosen to go back to the Human World, he would never have gone without at least waiting for his friends and father to recover first.

He had been right. After most of the others had left, Kyouraku had grabbed both Kisuke and Shinji before hauling them back to the First for a private word.

"I need you to do what you do best," Kyouraku had told Kisuke first, not a hint of humour in his expression. "Don't get caught."

He had turned to Shinji next. "Keep him out of trouble. And for heaven's sakes, accept Central 46's deal to join the Gotei 13. They won't take no for an answer, and you won't like the alternative."

Shinji had looked almost rebellious but Kyouraku had frozen them both with a weary "I can't protect you for much longer. If Yama-ji doesn't wake up in the next three weeks, they'll be reinstating me with someone more... capable, and I doubt the new Captain-Commander's interests would have the good of the Gotei 13 in mind. Whoever replaces me will be under Central 46's thumb, understand?"

To this day, Kisuke still had trouble believing just how far Central 46 had fallen. That verdict alone had been blatantly disrespectful to Kyouraku, one of the oldest and most accomplished captains in all of Soul Society. To even imply that the man who had led the Gotei 13 with overall success for three of the five and a half years of war – ever since Aizen had personally put the old man into a coma – wasn't fit for the position was utterly absurd.

After that, things had gone from bad to worse. A month later, an unknown Shinigami, once part of Central 46's personal contingent of bodyguards, had stepped up as the new Captain-Commander. Strict and rigidly by-the-(new)-book, Nakamura Susumu was all about keeping his troops in line and doing what Central 46 wanted. They had all found out that those who outright disobeyed were sent to the Nest of Maggots for a certain period of time, imprisoned in the Underground Prison, or suspended until further notice.

Kisuke supposed they should all be grateful that nobody had been executed yet, and most of them were still allowed to go on missions in Hueco Mundo.

The assignments pertaining to the Human World were always taken by the Third, Fifth, Seventh, or Ninth, who had all had new captains installed.

Kisuke knew why. After five months of spying, pulling strings, and calling in various favours from people he had been certain he could still trust, he had finally pieced together exactly what had happened to Kurosaki Ichigo.

To suppress a person's reiatsu was bad enough, and was only supposed to be reserved for criminals. To do that and seal away their Zanpakutou was nothing short of torture. It was equivalent to ripping someone's soul in half, and coupled with the fact that Ichigo had also been torn away from his Hollow, the other, darker half of himself, and Kisuke had been amazed that Ichigo's soul hadn't been destroyed completely.

Zanpakutou weren't meant to be separated from their wielders. In cases like Kuchiki Kouga and Muramasa, both had been sealed away to lessen the effect.

For Ichigo, whose bond with both Zanpakutou and Hollow was unprecedentedly stronger than anyone else's, Shinigami or Visored, Kisuke frankly couldn't imagine how Ichigo hadn't at least gone crazy.

Or maybe he had; Kisuke wouldn't know.

Both Kuchiki Kouga and Muramasa hadn't exactly been the epitome of sanity, and while there had been other factors contributing to that, it had also been because they had been separated for so long and hadn't had each other to balance out their soul.

And they hadn't even been able to hear each other.

Kisuke had brought his findings to Kyouraku and Shinji, as well as a still-weak Ukitake.

Predictably, Shinji had hit the roof. In addition to the fact that the captain considered Ichigo a younger brother, the man was also a Visored, and was literally one of the handful who truly understood – though thankfully not how it really felt – what being separated from one's Inner Hollow would be like.

However, Shinji had still been cool-headed enough to not instantly whip out his Zanpakutou and storm Seijoutoukyorin; no Shinigami had ever been into the Residential Towers where Central 46 resided, and who knew what kind of guards they had in that place. Running in half-cocked like some fresh Academy student wouldn't help anyone.

There hadn't been much else they could do though. The information of Ichigo's demise had been clandestinely shared amongst the former upper echelon; those who could be trusted. But some of the original Gotei 13 – or 14 now – had still been in the Fourth, and others were still healing despite getting back to work. Their numbers had been cut down, they were collectively weaker than the new blood that Central 46 kept producing from out of nowhere, and their government was perfectly happy to take full advantage of this.

Eventually though, no matter how reluctantly, Central 46 had had to send some of them on missions to the Human World, if only because they lacked manpower to cover Hollow sightings around the entire world.

Rukia and Abarai, who had woken up a few weeks after Ichigo had disappeared (both had looked ready to commit large-scale homicide when they had been filled in on the goings-on in Soul Society), had instantly volunteered, only to be turned down.

Kisuke, who had been given his own lab to play with and punted into the Fourteenth Division along with the Visored, hadn't been stupid enough to think they'd let him go but he'd given it a try anyway. As expected, he'd been denied.

Isshin (Kisuke and Shinji had drawn straws to see which of the two of them would be unlucky enough to break the news to the father after the man had finally pulled through and woken up four months after the war; Kisuke had lost, and that conversation hadn't been a pretty one) hadn't even been able to volunteer since, after storming into the assembly hall and then being thrown out and threatened with imprisonment, he had packed what little he had had and left Seireitei altogether to go live with Kukaku and Ganju, who had been, consequently, looking after Yuzu and Karin. Both girls had had all their memories intact, much to the surprise of absolutely no one.

(Kisuke wished he had had some way of contacting Ichigo to tell the bright-haired youth that at least his sisters had been found and were taken care of.)

In the end, the first of their group to be sent to the World of the Living to take care of some Hollows had been Kira Izuru.

With his deceptively slim build, somewhat weak presence, and humble compliance with his new captain, Central 46 had probably thought that the blond wasn't a real threat. It was too bad for them that Kira was nothing if not loyal, which was a trait shared by Ichigo, so it really had been no wonder that the two of them had become fast friends over the course of the war.

Kisuke had almost laughed when the first thing Kira had done after being handed his assignment by his captain had been to steal out of his barracks in the dead of night to the newly-built Fourteenth Division compound and enquire if any of them had any messages they wanted him to pass along or tasks they wanted him to do once he had completed his mission and made a detour to Karakura on the way back.

It had all been for nought though when Kira had returned a week later within the allotted time given to him by his superior, and after reporting in to his captain, he had met up with most of the original captains, several of the vice-captains who hadn't been busy running interference, Kisuke, and Isshin (who had paid off a few Shinigami to sneak back in) in a private room in the Kuchiki main house.

"He isn't there anymore," Kira had relayed to them anxiously. "According to Ishida-san- uh, the older one; according to him, Ichigo organized Isshin-san's funeral and sold his house seven months ago. He packed his bags and left town the very next day and he hasn't been back since. Ishida-san has no idea where he went."

"Seven months ago? That's barely two months after the war ended," Hitsugaya had commented in a low voice. One could never be too careful even in the safety of the Kuchiki compound. "Do any of his Human friends know where he is? What about Ishida? The younger one?"

Kira had shaken his head in the negative. "Ishida-kun entered university; they haven't spoken since Ichigo-kun asked him for help in trying to find a way back into Soul Society. And his Human friends..."

Kira had trailed off hesitantly, shifting uncomfortably on the spot before carrying on with a slight grimace. "I approached one of them – Arisawa-san. Ichigo-kun once told me that she was his childhood friend."

"She is," Isshin had confirmed in an impatient rush. "What did she say?"

Kira had winced at the intent desperation on the man's face. "She... She was..."

"She cursed him out, right?" Rukia had cut in, expression set in stone as everyone had turned to her. Kira had nodded somewhat apologetically. "She would. I was with Ichigo when he personally went to deliver the news of Inoue-san's death to her. She blames him for not bringing Inoue-san back alive. They didn't part on friendly terms. I think that was the first and only time during the war that Ichigo drank himself into a stupor."

Kisuke had frowned at this revelation. Perhaps he had been biased, but the girl – Arisawa, was it? – had had no right saying things like that to Ichigo, who had never been able to break the bad habit of taking far too many deaths on his shoulders. It was one of the few things Ichigo had never had time to learn before he had been thrust into the war, much to Kisuke's regret – grieving was alright, but taking every death personally could quite effectively destroy a man.

"What about when his sisters died?" Matsumoto had spoken up, a rare sombre cast to her features. "I was- stuck in the Fourth around that time."

Shinji had scoffed without humour. "He skipped right over gettin' drunk and went straight on ta suicidal."

His mouth had twisted, bitter and vindictively satisfied at the same time when he had glanced at Isshin. "Aizen shoulda known better than ta lay a hand on your daughters. That was the turnin' point of the war. Ichigo went on a rampage in full Hollow form and literally wiped out over a third of Aizen's army. Scariest thing was that I think he was in full control the entire time."

"A third?" Matsumoto had echoed. "I thought that was an exaggeration!"

Shinji had shrugged, tilting his head back to catch Kisuke's eye. Kisuke had tugged his hat down, the memory clear as day. "No, it wasn't."

"He was covered in blood with a gapin' hole in his side when Kisuke and I found 'im," Shinji had added idly, eyes distant. "I thought he was dead. Would've been if he hadn't had his Hollow with 'im."

That had only served to remind everyone of Ichigo's predicament, and not long after that, with nothing more they could say or do, they had all parted ways, sneaking out one of the hidden passageways at the back of the Kuchiki compound.

And that had more or less been the next ten years. Secret meetings and careful ventures into the World of the Living in futile attempts to track down Ichigo's whereabouts, all of it amounting to absolutely nothing in the end.

If Ichigo was here, Kisuke thought now as he turned back to the screens in front of him. We'd have overthrown Central 46 years ago.

It wasn't as if nobody had thought about it. But Kisuke knew better than to stir up anything on his own; even though he had once been a captain, he wasn't entirely trusted even amongst the original Gotei 14, and nothing short of every single Shinigami on their side joining in on the revolt would see a change for the better.

And Kisuke wasn't delusional; he knew he didn't have that kind of charisma. Neither did anyone else. Each captain – or vice-captain in Kira, Iba, Hinamori, and Hisagi's cases - had the loyalty of each of their divisions, but none of them, individually, had the ability to band all the squads together in a joint uprising. And it would be a cold day in hell before any of the Visored would willingly follow a Shinigami officer. Lisa was alright with Kyouraku but that was pretty much the extent of their allegiance towards the Gotei 14. One out of eight former exiles willing to put their lives in a Shinigami's hands wasn't exactly something that would inspire confidence.

Too much risk and not enough faith in a successful rebellion despite the tentative trust between them and their shared dislike for Central 46.

Kisuke thought Kyouraku might have a good chance at it, but he knew that the Eighth Division captain wasn't convinced of the same, especially with his lingering reputation for being a little too carefree. If the insurgency failed, Kisuke knew that every single one of the dissenters would either be sentenced to life in prison or execution. Some, especially the younger Shinigami who hadn't really seen much of the war, wouldn't be willing to bet their chances on Kyouraku.

Kyouraku and Ukitake together probably would've been able to convince the less certain ones, but the latter was growing weaker and weaker by the day, spending more time in bed than out of it.

Ukitake had been poisoned during the war, and it had had an adverse reaction with the captain's illness. For once, not even Unohana had been able to come up with a cure. She hadn't been able to do much about Ukitake's sickness to begin with, much less that combined with an unknown poison.

So these days, the man's squad was virtually run by Rukia and those two third seats, all three of them working their asses off to make it look like their captain was still relatively healthy; none of them wanted some stranger taking the white-haired man's position.

And to top it all off, Yamamoto had finally passed away four years ago. It had been a long time coming, everyone had known, but Kisuke recognized the way that some had still been clinging to the hope that the old man might yet survive and take back the reins from the current Captain-Commander, that Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni might still have enough years in him to make everything alright again.

He hadn't though, and his death had been a serious blow to morale, making things all the easier for Central 46. Kyouraku and Ukitake had taken it the hardest, though they had shouldered the burden and carried on after a few days of private mourning.

Life had continued, and hopes had dwindled. And over the years, Kisuke wondered if maybe they should risk breaking out of Soul Society illegally so that they'd be able to look for Ichigo properly instead of dropping into random cities in a hit-or-miss attempt at finding him. Sometimes, Kisuke had contemplated building another Reishi Henkan-Ki but that would attract too much attention when it was activated.

He was working on a smaller, portable, and less flashy Senkaimon right now but it was slow-going. No one was allowed to keep a Jigokuchou with them anymore when not on a sanctioned mission so using the main Senkaimon was out of the question, and even if he could bypass the guards in the first place (those particular Shinigami weren't as easily bribed as the gate guards), the light from the activated portal would be seen all across Seireitei anyway.

Then again, Ichigo would've forced his way out ages ago if it had been one of them out there.

"Oi, earth ta Kisuke."

Kisuke blinked, and then slanted his gaze to the side as Shinji joined him.

Shinji eyed him critically. "Trip down memory lane? Not a healthy place ta go, all things considered."

Kisuke shook his head ruefully.

"Ichigo," He said by way of explanation, and Shinji glanced away, scowling moodily at the far wall.

"Got some good news on that front actually," Shinji revealed after a tense silence. Kisuke arched a questioning eyebrow. A small grin graced Shinji's face as the man pulled out a sheaf of... newspaper clippings?

"Ya know how we're never given missions to Karakura?" Shinji continued, shuffling the papers. "And we stopped making detours over there six years ago when it became pretty clear that Ichigo wasn't gonna go back?"

Kisuke narrowed his eyes, nodding slowly as he tried to catch a glimpse of exactly what Shinji was holding.

"I went back today, on a whim," Shinji admitted. "Thought I'd just take a quick look around. Ishida Senior practically ambushed me when I passed by his hospital. He didn't say much, just gave me these and told me ta pass 'em on ta Isshin when I was finished lookin' through them. Taciturn guy."

Kisuke had had enough of the blond's cryptic vagueness, and without preamble, he snatched the clippings out of the amused Visored's grasp.

Headlines like 'SHIROSAKI DISCOVERS ALTERNATE CURE'and 'BUDDING DOCTOR SUCCESSFULLY PERFORMS DIFFICULT BRAIN TUMOR REMOVAL' jumped out at him. There were no pictures, but the stack was a good inch thick, written in a variety of languages and all of them singing praises for a 'Shirosaki Kuroh'.

Kisuke stared for a long moment before closing his eyes, fingers tightening subconsciously around the news articles.

"We shoulda looked at the papers," Shinji commented softly from his right.

"He's okay," Kisuke murmured, feeling slightly dazed as he opened his eyes again and drank in the words. "He became a doctor. Isshin-san is going to be so proud."

"So little faith, Kisuke," Shinji said mockingly. "What, did ya think Ichigo was lyin' in a ditch somewhere drinkin' himself ta death?"

"Faith has nothing to do with it," Kisuke shot back, but he couldn't hide the relief that crashed into him as the realization that he was holding proof of Ichigo's wellbeing for the first time in ten years sank in. "I trust Ichigo, but he went through a war; anything could've happened what with the trauma and his soul being ripped apart. Don't tell me you weren't just as relieved."

Shinji huffed but made no move to deny it.

"Ryuuken-san is looking out for him though?" Kisuke prodded, flicking through the articles again.

Shinji hummed noncommittally, withdrawing what looked like several opened letters from a pocket. "Not actively, and Ichigo probably doesn't realize, but Ryuuken's sent a few offers over the years invitin' Ichigo ta work at his hospital. Ichigo always declines, but he has ta write back ta do that, and I think that's partly why Ryuuken does it, just ta make sure Ichigo's alright. I matched the dates with the articles; the guy always sends his job offers whenever Ichigo doesn't appear in the papers for a while."

Kisuke raised his eyebrows at that. Ryuuken had never been the best of fathers, and Isshin could be just as bad, but those two were, against all odds, friends, and Kisuke supposed that they each felt obligated to look out for the other's son. Isshin had done as much during the war before the younger Ishida had left. Several times, Isshin had saved the boy – man now – from certain death.

"So, ya wanna sneak out of Seireitei?" Shinji prompted. "Or do we wait for a mission? God knows we're usually delegated ta Rukongai when it comes ta assignments."

Kisuke passed the articles back to Shinji as he considered his options. Isshin would want this news as soon as possible but it wouldn't do to risk sneaking out when they didn't necessarily have to. "We'll-"

He didn't get further than that before an alarm went off, and Kisuke's head snapped around when he realized what it was.

"The heck is that?" Shinji asked, scanning the lab as Kisuke flew to the far end of the room, skidding to a halt in front of a small blackened screen that flickered to life as Kisuke hastily tapped in the triple coded lock that he'd created years ago when he had finally managed to slip a modified camera fly into the chamber where Ichigo's Zanpakutou had been placed under a truly alarming number of Kidou seals.

As the image came into focus, static blurring it every few seconds, Kisuke's eyes widened. He manoeuvred the camera around the room, careful not to move it too quickly. The energy output resulting from every single seal dissolving into nothing had all but fried its circuitries. He was surprised it was still working.

"Kisuke?" Shinji's voice had taken on an urgent note. "Is that what I think it is?"

"Isn't," Kisuke corrected distractedly as the camera fly finally gave out, the mini explosion and consequential scrap metal lost amongst the damage done to the chamber. "Ichigo's Zanpakutou's gone."

"Then that means..." Shinji trailed off, subdued shock colouring his features as his hand fisted around the paper clippings he had brought back.

Kisuke nodded, not quite sure whether or not he was happy about this turn of events. "Ichigo just died. His soul's here. He's here."

Shinji stared at him for a moment before blowing out a frustrated breath, waving the articles in the air. "Best news we've gotten in ten years, and then he goes and dies? Of what?"

Kisuke shook his head. "I don't know, but-"

"-but we have ta move," Shinji nodded curtly, already heading for the door as Kisuke shut down his computer system before following. "Central 46 will send people out ta retrieve Ichigo by hook or by crook. Ichigo ain't gonna come willingly, and Central 46 doesn't understand the meaning of no. You go tell Kyouraku about this. Spread the word."

"What about you?" Kisuke pressed, shrugging out of his coat and tossing it aside on a nearby rack as they swept out of his lab. Speed was of the essence.

Shinji flashed a bracing grin. "The Captain-Commander wants me ta report in so I'm gonna go do my duty and report in."

The blond sobered as he tossed the articles back to Kisuke. "Nakamura will at least call a meeting with the captains before sending anyone out. I'll buy ya sometime ta get someone out there ta find Ichigo and warn him before that happens. Swing by the Shibas and give them a heads-up too."

Kisuke nodded tersely, and the two parted ways, Kisuke speeding off towards the Eighth Division in the cover of the night as Shinji Shunpoed at top speed towards the First Division.

As he flitted from shadowy alcove to shadowy alcove, Kisuke spared a moment to savour the thought of seeing his old student again. Things were always more exciting when Ichigo was around, and this time, Kisuke knew there was more than a handful of people willing to throw their lot in behind the bright-haired Visored, no matter what Ichigo decided to do.

Another thought struck him as the Eighth Division compound came into sight, and Kisuke cursed himself for forgetting that particular tidbit.

After all, he doubted Ichigo had any idea what had been going on in Soul Society for the past decade. None of them had been able to help the young man in any way either.

And that could easily be construed as a betrayal on their part as well as Central 46's.

Kisuke's resolve firmed. He'd pack his bags and take off after Ichigo if that was what it took to assist the Visored. He'd had enough of living under Central 46's rule to last ten lifetimes, and he wasn't about to stand aside while Ichigo came under attack. The younger man was strong, but the Shinigami working under the government were no pushovers. How they'd managed to stay under the radar during the war before crawling out of the woodwork afterwards was a mystery.

As he reached the Eighth, Kisuke paused for a split second to stare up at the gathering storm clouds above.

Civil war. Well, it wasn't as if they weren't due for one.

He wondered if Ichigo would be willing to fight with them, assuming they could clear up the issues and misunderstandings and indirect betrayals between them.

Kisuke gave himself a mental shake and hurried onwards to the back entrance Kyouraku had shown him.

Whatever happened, it wouldn't be as straightforward as that. If there was one thing Kisuke knew Ichigo to be, it was unpredictable.


[Rukongai, Soul Society]

"This place is ridiculous," Ichigo grumbled as he carelessly cut down a slew of Hollows. "Aren't Shinigami supposed to patrol Rukongai?"

'The outer districts have always been neglected,' Zangetsu reminded him. 'Shunsui-san told us as much.'

Ichigo grunted, tearing through another half a dozen Hollows like they were paper. To be honest, he tried not to think very much at all about anyone in Seireitei. Besides, that part of his life felt like a... well, a lifetime ago.

Ichigo snorted to himself. Technically, it was a lifetime ago.

He'd reached the nearest town and found out that he had landed himself in District 78 in South Rukongai, Inuzuri. The good news was that he knew this place pretty well after having come here to rescue Rukia that time when everyone had forgotten her. The bad news was that the forests were practically overrun by Hollows. The town was relatively safer, but Ichigo had already had to deal with pickpockets and various other criminals in the past several hours alone.

The citizens there had rapidly grown wary of him though, especially when they had spotted his Zanpakutou. Still, Ichigo had asked around and finally convinced someone to trade him a dark blue kimono with a matching navy sash, as well as a bag of food and other necessities in exchange for getting rid of some Hollows that had been gathering at the border of the town. The kimono had a splash of small white birds in flight along the right side that stood out in stark contrast but Ichigo figured he couldn't have everything.

He missed his old uniform, the black kimono Rukia had given him after he had finally learned how to seal his Zanpakutou and the accompanying Shihakushou had somehow combined with his sword (Kisuke had given him a much longer explanation that he hadn't really bothered listening to). He even missed the white haori that Shunsui – temporary Captain-Commander in all his great wisdom – had pushed on him after the lazy bastard had dumped the Visored, Kisuke, Tessai, Isshin, the few Arrancar who had turned on Aizen, and the entire Eighth Division into Ichigo's 'safe hands', effectively promoting him to captain of the special division.

He had ended up sharing the position with Kisuke anyway, screw whatever Shunsui had said, especially when the Fifth had eventually come under their jurisdiction as well, and the Third and Ninth hadn't been far behind. Hinamori's health had had more downs than ups over the years, and she really hadn't been in any shape to lead anyone much less her whole squad. Shuuhei and Izuru had only been at lieutenant level, but lucky for them, Rose and Kensei had grudgingly agreed to step back in as temporary captains. Shinji had dealt with the Fifth while Lisa and Nanao combined had been enough to handle most of the Eighth's affairs, leaving a lighter load for Ichigo to handle (though the paperwork had still multiplied like weeds).

Oddly enough, when Ichigo had finished delegating jobs and rearranging their ranks to some semblance of order, Shunsui had clapped him on the shoulder, smiled approvingly at him as if the man had already known that Ichigo would be able to sort things out, before ambling away and leaving him to run his new division.

Ichigo wondered if they were all still captains right now. The handful of Arrancar in their squad had all been killed though, and the other divisions would undoubtedly be separated back into their own individual squads. He supposed Kisuke could still be heading the unit, or it could've been disbanded altogether.

"Dunno what you're complainin' about," Shiro was griping. "We haven't fought in ten years. That's a disgustin'ly long time to not have anythin' to kill. Now lemme out; you haven't even unsealed Tensa yet. At least let me have some fun."

Ichigo rolled his eyes but complied, slapping his free hand against the hilt of his Zanpakutou before pulling outwards, a white blade that was almost an exact replica of Tensa Zangetsu's sealed form blurring into existence in the palm of his hand as he did so. "Even activating Shikai for either of you would be overkill in these parts. We don't want to give anyone heart attacks."

"Says you. I couldn't care less."

Ichigo rolled his eyes again as he dashed forward, black and white cleaving a line straight through the throng of Hollows.

It wasn't really normal to converse with his Zanpakutou and Hollow so regularly. Kisuke had been utterly bemused when he had walked in on Ichigo talking to thin air one day, and Shinji had been downright floored when he had discovered Ichigo having a relatively friendly conversation with Shiro, only minimal cussing included. None of the Visored, who had spent over a century suppressing their respective Hollows, could let their darker counterparts surface without a fight to stay in control.

As the last Hollow fell at his blades, Ichigo straightened, sheathed Zangetsu, and let Shiro fade away again. "Done. Should we head for-"

He stopped when a panicked cry pitched high somewhere in the distance. Without hesitation, Ichigo Shunpoed off, flitting between the trees and bursting out of the foliage just in time to block the downward strike of a wayward Hollow. Deflecting the white claws and spinning to the side, Ichigo finished it off by slicing the Hollow clean through.

Quirking a satisfied smile, Ichigo turned around, gaze immediately falling to the girl on the ground.

His smile froze, and then dropped off his face altogether.

Green hair, pale pink eyes, and no Hollow mask anywhere in sight.

Stood to reason seeing as Lilynette Gingerback had died in the war.

Ichigo knew, logically (he'd read it in one of Kisuke's books or Juushirou's scrolls or maybe Rukia had told him), that a Hollow, including Arrancar, slain by a Zanpakutou was purified and sent to Soul Society as a Plus with no memories of their past life intact, and they could arrive immediately after their death or years later, just like any Human dying and then arriving in Soul Society.

They certainly weren't supposed to stare back at him with evident recognition on their face. Ichigo was one thing, what with having a Shinigami for a father, but clearly, someone somewhere wasn't doing their job properly if souls weren't being regulated correctly.

And wasn't Lilynette one half of a soul? Why had she entered Soul Society separately? And overlooking that fact, if Lilynette was here, then surely...

"Lilynette! I told you not to wander off. The forests here are worse than Hueco-"

They caught sight of each other at the same time, Starrk stepping out from a crop of trees, katana in hand. Like Lilynette, he had also lost the remainder of his Hollow mask, and both were clad in dark grey, somewhat worn kimonos.

A long, awkward silence ensued. Ichigo didn't need to be a mind-reader to realize that Starrk also recognized him.

It wasn't as if they were friends, but they hadn't been enemies either, at least not towards the second half of the war. They had fought together once upon a time, and they'd even shared sleeping quarters on several occasions, but they had both been killed by Aizen half a year before the war had ended. They had been trusted as allies, at least on Ichigo's part (some Shinigami didn't trust Visored or Arrancar at all), but Ichigo didn't think they had considered him a friend; they hadn't really known him for more than a year and a half or so.

In that, Arrancar were a mistrustful bunch, just like the Visored.


Ichigo stiffened, glancing down at Lilynette who had sat up and was studying him with intent eyes. It was odd to see both her eyes instead of just one.

Ichigo cleared his throat. What to do? He knew that they knew that he knew them so there was no point denying that. But he didn't want anything to do with his old life, nothing that would really remind him of a war he had very nearly lost his life for, had ended up losing his sisters, only to be betrayed and cast out like a criminal.

Besides, it looked like Starrk and Lilynette had been here for a while. They had probably settled down somewhere close by (Ichigo didn't blame them for not wanting to venture into Seireitei even though they clearly still had some of their powers), and they didn't need Ichigo intruding.


"Hi, it's been a while," Ichigo greeted a little stiltedly. "I didn't expect to see you here."

Lilynette's eyes widened and she scrambled to her feet as Starrk approached as well, moving further into the clearing as he tucked his katana away.

"We didn't know you were still working with the Shinigami," Lilynette burst out. "You always said you were going to go back to school and do your Human thing after the war ended."

To Ichigo's mystification, the girl exchanged a glance with Starrk before tacking on matter-of-factly, "We would've gone to Seireitei sooner if we had known you were there."

Ichigo blinked at her. "You would? I mean-"

He shook his head, feeling completely out of his depth. "I- Nevermind. I'm not working with the Gotei 13. I just got here yesterday."

Lilynette's brow scrunched in confusion but Starrk instantly seemed to understand.

"You died?" Starrk gave him a cursory inspection as if looking for injuries. Probably an instinctive action. "Before or after the war?"

"After," Ichigo glanced over in the direction of Seireitei. "War ended over ten years ago for me."

"We got here about six years after," Starrk revealed as Lilynette suddenly stalked forward and poked him in the arm.

"You're dead?" Lilynette demanded. "How?"

Ichigo shrugged. "Car accident."

Lilynette crossed her arms. "That's a stupid way to die."

Ichigo rather doubted that Lilynette knew anything about cars beyond the fact that they transported Humans around but he said nothing, only shrugging again. He busied himself with sheathing Zangetsu when he realized he had forgotten to do so earlier.

"Look, I should go," Ichigo forced an uneasy smile. He really wasn't sure why he felt so jittery around these two. Then again, he hadn't actually made any personal ties with anybody in over a decade. His closest relationships consisted of the guy who delivered his mail that one time he had stayed in Baltimore for eight months, another guy he had saved when he had been working on an army base and had ended up keeping in contact with through the occasional letter, and a scatter of women he had picked up (not all at once) at bars for a casual fling now and then.

Not a very good track record, all told.

"To Seireitei?" Lilynette persisted. "Will they make you a captain? Starrk and I have been talking about it for years – it's boring hanging out here, and I'd go crazy if I have to stick around this place for the next several centuries, so maybe we can join you? Missions have got to be more interesting than this; I mean we can't even open a Garganta anymore. We wouldn't mind working in your squad again so-"

"I'm not," Ichigo interrupted, swiftly forging on when Lilynette cocked her head questioningly and Starrk frowned at him, growing suspicion in his eyes. The man had always been very perceptive despite his laziness. "What I mean is, I'm not going to Seireitei."

"What? Why no-"

"Lilynette," Starrk cut in, stepping forward to drop a brief hand on his counterpart's head as shrewd eyes drilled into Ichigo's.

"What happened?" Starrk asked quietly, never one for beating around the bush.

Damn Arrancar. Oh wait, Starrk wasn't an Arrancar anymore.

Ichigo shrugged a third time, uncomfortable. "Stuff, you know."

At Starrk's raised eyebrow, Ichigo heaved a sigh and scowled off into the distance. "...Central 46 and I had a... difference of opinion. Kind of. I was getting too... powerful so they didn't want me around. Sealed my reiatsu and my Zanpakutou before dumping my ass back into the Human World when I was still recovering. You know; stuff."

There was a horrified silence. Starrk's expression was unreadable. Lilynette's features twisted into one of revulsion.

"I always knew there was a reason I hated those Shinigami," Lilynette growled indignantly, and Ichigo silently wondered when and why she had started caring so much. Was his memory going or something?

He adjusted the strap of his bag before nodding at them. "Anyway, I'm sure they'd accept you if you applied. Ask for Shinji or Kisuke, or even Juushirou-san or Shunsui-san; I'm sure they'd be willing to put in a good word for you."

He thought that was the end of it, and he turned to leave, but a hand clenching around his sleeve halted him before he could take more than a step away. He glanced down. "Lilynette?"

"But where are you going?" The girl persevered insistently.

Ichigo hesitated, and then waved a hand in the general direction of the districts beyond Inuzuri. "That way. I don't want anything to do with the government here, and while I can open a Garganta-"

Lilynette's mouth dropped open and she shot him an envious look.

"-there's nothing for me in the Human World or Hueco Mundo," Ichigo continued, a grudging smile tugging at his lips. "So I figured I'd go see what's that way."

Lilynette looked between Ichigo and the direction he had gestured at. "...More districts?"

Ichigo huffed a laugh. "No, I mean beyond that. Beyond Soul Society."

"There's something beyond Soul Society?" Starrk suddenly looked thoughtful, and there was an increasing interest on Lilynette's face that struck Ichigo as ominous.

"I don't know," Ichigo replied cautiously. "I mean, there can't be nothing, so I thought I'd go... explore."

And with that clarified, he gently detached Lilynette's grip on him, gave in to the urge to ruffle her hair, and then nodded once more at Starrk. "Take care of yourselves, okay? It was nice seeing you again."

This time, he got away with five steps before a rustle behind him made him twitch. "...Why are you following me?"

"Mm, well, we honestly have nothing better to do," Starrk drawled from somewhere at his left shoulder.

"Yeah," Lilynette chimed in, skipping up to walk next to him. "And exploring sounds a lot more fun than hanging around this forest. I don't wanna live in the woods for the rest of my life, and we can never go near civilization for too long because our reiatsu starts killing off the residents."

Ichigo almost stumbled as he glanced sharply at an oblivious Lilynette before turning to Starrk.

The other man shrugged, a sardonic smile on his face. "It's still a problem."

Ichigo turned back to face forward. When put like that, he could hardly tell them to go away.

And... maybe some company wouldn't be too bad.

"It could be dangerous," He warned at last, echoing the same words he had said to Shiro only yesterday.

Starrk chuckled and Lilynette snickered.

"Good," The tension that Ichigo hadn't picked up until now eased from Starrk's shoulders. "You'll need our help."

Ichigo snorted. This trip might just prove to be more than simply interesting.


[Seireitei, Soul Society]

Seireitei had descended into utter chaos, and for the life of him, Shunsui couldn't bring himself to care.

"Taichou, shouldn't we do something?"

Shunsui glanced up lazily as his lieutenant's shadow fell over him. "The Captain-Commander said to stay put, Nanao-chan. I can't go against orders, now can I?"

A reluctant smile flitted across Nanao's face but she remained insistent even as she lowered her voice even further. "I mean about him."

"Mm..." Shunsui sighed, absently taking a swig from his sake bottle as his thoughts moved to the singular individual who had always had a knack for working everybody up into a frenzy even without being here.

"Urahara-kun is handling it," Shunsui told her. "He's sent out camera flies with holograms of Ichigo-kun programmed into them to concentrate the search parties all in one district. I never thought I would see the day when he would show open concern for anyone besides Yoruichi-chan and Tsukabishi-kun."

And the Visored were all raring to go, waiting for an opportunity to slip out of Seireitei. Shunsui hadn't even seen Hitsugaya since the news had gotten out. The small-framed captain had been getting just a touch more rebellious as each year had passed. He hadn't even bothered showing up to the impromptu meeting that Nakamura had called. Luckily for Hitsugaya, the Captain-Commander had been too preoccupied to care. Nowadays though, on occasion, the younger captain actually reminded Shunsui of Ichigo with his disregard for authority figures; Hitsugaya was just more... subtle about it.

Until yesterday anyway.

Familiar reiatsu brushed his senses a few seconds before Byakuya appeared beside him, and Shunsui inwardly frowned at the imperceptible agitation in the tight line of the other captain's jaw.

"Kuchiki-taichou?" He prompted carefully, sitting up as Nanao sketched a quick bow from behind him. "Is something wrong?"

Byakuya's brow creased but he stood with the stubborn formality that none but Ichigo had ever been able to break (though that was normally because the bright-haired youth had managed to annoy the captain too much).

"Good morning, Kyouraku-taichou. Have you seen Rukia or Abarai-fukutaichou?" Byakuya enquired stiffly. "My lieutenant did not come in for work this morning, and I have visited the Thirteenth; Rukia has not been seen either."

Shunsui studied the younger captain for a moment before looking out towards the rest of the city. "I haven't seen them. You think they might try something rash?"

Byakuya stiffened even further. "...I have long since learned that where Kurosaki Ichigo is concerned, neither of them will stop at anything to assist him. It has been... difficult to stop them from attempting something reckless over the past ten years."

Ah. Well, Shunsui had always wondered why neither hot-tempered Abarai nor earnest Rukia had been thrown into prison over the years for breaking one law too many. Not that he wasn't happy that they hadn't been but it had been somewhat puzzling to him. Level-headed Byakuya holding them back and keeping them out of trouble explained it.

"I haven't seen them," Shunsui repeated, flicking a glance at Nanao who shook her head. "Maybe they-"

He found out in the next second that there was no need for maybes.

The broadcast system that had been built into a room in the First Division crackled before booming out, "All captains and vice-captains proceed to the western gates at once. As of this instant, Abarai Renji and Kuchiki Rukia have been stripped of their ranks and are to be apprehended at once for attacking fellow Shinigami officers and forcing their way out of Seireitei against orders. This is treason against the Gotei 13, and they are to be stopped at all costs!"

The silence was thunderous when the announcement abruptly ended. Shunsui peered up at Byakuya who was doing a fairly passable impression of a statue. "So, does that answer your question?"

Byakuya glowered at him.

That's an Ichigo expression, Shunsui thought idly with a hidden smile of amusement.

"If you will excuse me, Kyouraku-taichou," Byakuya didn't even bother giving an excuse before shunpoing off again, no doubt heading to the First Division to spin a tale about Kuchiki honour and stressing the importance of Byakuya being sent to retrieve the two fugitives who had besmirched his noble Clan's pride, etc, etc.

Byakuya was good at making things up on the go, especially when it came to politics.

In even less gracious terms, Byakuya was good at feeding verbal bullshit to other people.

Shunsui chuckled. "Ah, Ichigo-kun's been a bad influence on all of us."

"Taichou?" Nanao frowned in consternation.

Shunsui shook his head and levered himself to his feet. "Things are going to change very soon, Nanao-chan, and very quickly. We can't be caught unawares again."

Nanao straightened resolutely as she followed him back inside their barracks. "Understood, Kyouraku-taichou."

As he entered his office, determined to ignore the summons to the west gates, Shunsui glanced through the window at the stormy skies outside.

Civil war was on the horizon.

And whether any of them liked it or not, Kurosaki Ichigo would be at the center of it all.

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