Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.
General Warnings: AU, GEN, Time/Dimension Travel, Ichigo-centric, violence, language.
Summary: "Too dangerous to live," Central 46 declares. Locked up in Muken with half-healed wounds and helpless rage, Ichigo gets another chance to save his fellow Visored when the Spirit King whisks him away and offers him a deal. He accepts and promptly gets his ass dumped in the past. Like, WAY back in the past. Ichigo really should be used to impossible things happening to him by now.
Author's Notes: This fic is written for Rikkamaru, who piqued my interest with this Bleach time travel plot so much that I couldn't leave it alone.
"Ichigo, listen ta me – if ya find a way out, take it. Don't come back for us, ya hear?"
"I can't do that!"
"Yes ya can, and ya will! For once in your life, kid, don't be a hero!"
"I'm not trying to be a hero! But what kinda person would I be if I left you guys behind?!"
"A sane one. I mean it, Ichigo. Ya got a long life ahead o' ya; don't go wastin' it on has-beens like us. We've lived long enough; we've had centuries. You've barely lived two decades."
"Like that fucking matters! I'm not letting those Central 46 bastards execute you!"
"For god's sakes, we've been clapped in chains and ya can't even sit up straight! Now is not the time to worry about anyone else! Shit, the least they coulda done was get ya a healer first. You're gonna bleed out at this rate."
"Hey, I'm not the only one- the only one injured here, you hypocrite."
"I'm not critically injured; there's a difference, idiot. Dunno what the hell ya were thinkin' when ya ran ahead ta fight Aizen. Ya shoulda known ya'd be seriously wounded after ya killed him."
"As if I knew Central 46 was going to- to send in Shinigami to arrest me afterwards! Soul Society is really- is really fucked up."
"You're tellin' me. It's run by corrupt bastards after all. ...Ichigo? Oi, stay awake. No sleepin'. Didn't know ya still needed naptime at this age."
"Screw you, Shinji. 'm just resting my eyes. For a while. I'll be fine. When I wake up, I'll get us all outta here, 'kay?"
"Not okay. Stay awake, Ichigo, ya hear me?"
"Hirako Shinji, you are to come with us."
"Tch, do we get at least a farce of a trial this time or are ya people gonna skip right on ta the execution?"
"You and the other... Visored will be treated as Hollows. There is no need for a trial."
"No! You can't-"
"Ichigo, shut up and stay still! Ya look out for yourself, ya understand? Don't do anythin' stupid!"
"Do not worry, Hirako. He won't have that opportunity. As acknowledgement towards his final efforts in killing Aizen, Central 46 has decided that he will be incarcerated instead of executed."
"What kinda fucked up acknowledgement is that?! Death is better, ya thrice-damned Shinigami!"
"Ichigo, remember what I said; don't ya dare-"
Ichigo opened his eyes.
The wooden ceiling stared back at him.
It took him a moment to register the sunlight streaming in through the curtains and the fact that, had he still been in Muken, light would've been the last thing reaching him.
For a long minute, he didn't move, allowing the memories of darkness and desperation and hopelessness fade into the back of his mind.
He simply concentrated on breathing.
It had come as something of a surprise when Ichigo had finally succumbed to the welcome pull of painless oblivion after who knew how long only to hear the echo of a smooth rumbling voice in his ear, edged with power but somehow giving no sense of danger.
Ichigo hadn't been able to see anything; he hadn't even been sure if his eyes had been open at the time, but the voice had introduced itself as the Spirit King, something Ichigo had only heard of in passing from Aizen and Kisuke.
"Balance must be maintained. Central 46 has overstepped its bounds. I myself am no longer in any position to put a stop to it. However, I can give you another chance, a chance to save your Visored friends. But in return, I require your assistance.
"Soul Society must not be allowed to drown in its own prejudice and laws once again. If the Spiritual World is to continue to flourish, changes must be made. Shinigami cannot remain strong if they do not accept change. Visored or Arrancar or even Quincy, there will be no future if the Shinigami continue solving their problems by killing all of them and vice versa.
"This is where you come in, Kurosaki Ichigo. I have witnessed your potential for growth, and I approve of your tolerant disposition towards Shinigami, Hollows, and Humans alike. Because of this, I will trust your judgement. I will grant you one chance; any changes are yours to make. But make them you must, and I pray you make the right ones."
And without so much as a by-your-leave, Ichigo had abruptly jolted awake the next second, shooting upright and finding himself sitting in a bed not his own, his Zanpakutou beside him, and both Zangetsu and Shiro's voices back inside his head where they belonged.
Ichigo had been completely bewildered at first. It hadn't taken long to realize that he was still in Seireitei, but he was definitely not in the Fourth or any of the other division barracks that he was familiar with so that ruled out the arrest and Muken and watching Shinji and the other Visored being dragged away and the Spirit King's voice all being just a nightmare.
Ichigo had cautiously ventured out of the room he had been in, Zanpakutou sheathed but hand wrapped securely around its hilt. He'd almost gaped when he had stepped into the hallway and promptly found himself in the midst of at least several dozen Shinigami, all bustling about with books or scrolls or Zanpakutou of their own.
Ichigo had hastily retreated back into his room after that, wondering if perhaps Aizen had done something to him in the final battle and he was stuck in some sort of illusion, but illusions usually made a person forget the more important things, and Ichigo could remember every detail of the war perfectly fine.
Halfway through his mini panic attack and agitated pacing (in a room with three beds, not one, but with seemingly only one set of books and other necessities stacked in drawers and shelves), he had caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror and found his reflection wearing the same white and blue attire as the male Shinigami he had seen outside instead of his usual black.
He had tried asking Zangetsu and Shiro what was going on but both had only known as much as he had. Of course, Ichigo hadn't been so clueless as to not recognize the Shinigami Academy uniform once he had calmed down. Renji and Rukia had provided him with an overview once when they had been giving him a proper tour of Seireitei.
Except, last he'd checked, Shin'ou Academy had been destroyed in one of Aizen's raids.
But it wasn't as if he would've been able to get his answers by staying inside the room so ichigo had gone outside again, not missing the adoring looks from some of the students and the equally antagonistic sneers from others. They obviously knew him well enough to pick him out from a crowd.
When he had finally made his way out of the Academy and into the courtyard out front, he had found Seireitei in all of its unmarred glory, looking like it had never seen hide or hair of Aizen's army.
Another half hour of inwardly hyperventilating, carefully recalling his last moments before he had blacked out and the so-called Spirit King's words, and meticulously turning what looked to be his dorm room upside-down later, Ichigo had dug up name tags tucked inside the other two sets of uniforms in the closet, a class schedule with his name written on top, and a selection of course books and scrolls that also had his name written inside them in his familiar semi-neat scrawl.
They had all read 'Shiba Ichigo'.
Technically, if his dad hadn't been in hiding, Ichigo would've grown up with the surname Shiba instead of Kurosaki. He hadn't though so it had been somewhat strange to see his name connected to his father's Clan name, but that had been the least of his worries.
Ichigo wasn't stupid, no matter what some people thought. The Spirit King had told him that he would be granted a second chance, and at the time, in a small part of his mind that hadn't felt hazy and half-asleep, he had thought that the King had meant that Shinji and the others hadn't been dead yet, and that he would free Ichigo so that he'd be able to save them.
Clearly, Ichigo had misunderstood.
His digging had also turned up a lunch invite slipped inside one of his books. He had been more perplexed than anything else when he had read the message.
'Morning, cousin! Join me for lunch today, okay? I'll swing by at noon to pick you up. Your favourite big bro, Kaien^_^'
Ichigo had stared uncomprehendingly at the note for a good two minutes before putting it down and checking the clock on the wall. It had read eleven-forty-five.
Now, some things did tend to fly over Ichigo's head from time to time but he had been fairly certain that he was the eldest in the family and that he didn't have any brothers, older or otherwise.
However, he did have a famous dead cousin by the name of Shiba Kaien, older brother to Kukaku and Ganju.
And if the note was real and Ichigo wasn't dreaming, then it meant that the son of a bitch Spirit King had dumped his ass in the past.
Ichigo could move pretty fast when he wanted to (which, considering the war, that had been most of the time) so he had flown around his room and shoved everything back in their proper places in the span of ten minutes, a little messier than before but nothing he couldn't work around or clean up later.
He had been giving his room a last once-over just as a knock sounded at his door, and when he had opened it, he had found himself staring at an almost lookalike of himself. The only differences had been the hair and eye colour, the half-inch of height that the other man had had on him, and the good-natured grin on Kaien's face.
"Yo, cousin! Ready to go?"
After that day, Ichigo had vowed to stay away from Shiba Kaien as much as possible from that point onwards. The guy wasn't as hyper as Isshin was but he definitely had that Shiba exuberance that everyone except Ichigo seemed to have inherited. Ichigo had always been all frowns and the occasional smile or laugh ever since his mother had died. Every Shiba he had ever met (granted, that was just Kukaku and Ganju, along with his father and sisters) had all been much more cheerful overall.
Kaien had been no exception, talking to Ichigo like they had known each other since forever. The older man hadn't seemed to mind that Ichigo had only answered with grunts, nods, and a sparse handful of stilted sentences.
But the lunch had been informative since Kaien had, on the way back to the Academy, asked Ichigo if he was doing alright since he had entered the Academy two weeks prior, and Ichigo had managed to subtly glean a few facts from his cousin such as how Kaien had apparently found him in one of the outer districts in Rukongai about two months ago, grievously injured and unconscious but looking so much like Kaien that Ichigo had just had to be a Shiba, and that had apparently been how he had been inducted into the Clan as a long-lost cousin.
Ichigo had already had his Zanpakutou with him though – in its sealed state of course – so Kaien had signed him up for the Academy as soon as Ichigo had been back on his feet, much to Kukaku's disapproval who, Kaien had told him with a conspiratorial wink, had enjoyed doting on Ichigo when Ichigo had woken up confused and conveniently amnesic.
Ichigo had bade his cousin a quiet goodbye after that, ducked away from the hair-ruffling and hug that Kaien had attempted to glomp him with, and then returned to his room and tried to wrap his mind around the fact that he was now in the past.
Like, way in the past. At least a century because Ichigo had picked up Hirako Shinji's distinctive reiatsu signature when they had passed by the Fifth earlier.
It had taken everything he had not to storm that place and make sure that the Visored – future Visored? – was okay. It was probably lucky that he hadn't picked up Aizen's reiatsu as well or he might've snapped and gone after the traitor right then and there.
And now here he was, three and a half months after that lunch date and still struggling to adjust to this new world. For all that he had been a regular visitor to Soul Society since saving Rukia that first time – and a resident of the place since the start of the war – it was a whole other matter to actually attend school and interact with his peers and not give anything away.
The last was actually not that hard. Ichigo had quickly discovered that half the school idolized him for his connections to his genius cousin and the Shiba Clan, and the other half hated him for the same things. As a result, none of them had been all that interested in genuinely befriending him.
That was alright in Ichigo's books. At this point, he had no desire to befriend anyone either.
And while he had thought it to be somewhat unfair, Ichigo was also grateful for his ties to a Clan because it gave him a few benefits, such as his very own room even though it was big enough for three. Ichigo had taken to setting up a privacy seal to soundproof the place – it was about the only bit of Kidou he could manage (along with some very basic healing) since it had been a requirement anytime an impromptu meeting had had to be held in Hueco Mundo – because there were times he still woke up screaming from nightmares of blood and death and the claustrophobic darkness of Muken.
On the other hand, there were also quite a few downsides, the worst being the way his teachers all compared him to Kaien, which consequently turned some of the other students against him with insults and jeers. Ichigo didn't really mind too much – it was really more of an annoyance than anything else – but he did wish that they would stop. From what he had learned once upon a time courtesy of Kukaku and Ganju, Kaien was not a show-off or an arrogant snob; he was the exact opposite – hardworking and kind to the people around him, and disliked standing out – which only served to frustrate Ichigo even more because he knew that if Kaien ever caught wind of the flak that he was taking because of the older Shinigami's reputation, his cousin would not be happy. Kaien already seemed ridiculously protective of Ichigo for some reason and looked out for him in his own exasperatingly sociable way; Ichigo didn't want to give Kaien any reason to get upset on his behalf.
But other than the school drama around him, the Academy was mostly very boring.
The school taught four main subjects: Zanjutsu, Hohou, Hakuda, and Kidou, along with some history, mathematics, and the art of filling in paperwork properly (Ichigo had very nearly laughed when he had seen this, though its proper name was 'Professional Office Duties').
There was less than nothing that the teachers at the Academy could teach him about the first three. Ichigo was one hundred percent certain that he could take out every instructor inside the school with one hand tied behind his back and blindfolded. He was already at captain level and was even stronger than most captains, present and future, not to mention he had been taught Shunpo by the Goddess of the Flash herself. Even the accelerated classes did nothing to alleviate his boredom, especially since he had to tone it down several hundred notches; he was already powerful enough when he was holding back.
Mathematics was a breeze; he had worked hard back in high school before the war, and had, at Ishida's urging, kept up with his studies between skirmishes after the war had started.
And filling in paperwork – pointless crap like duplicates of past mission reports and income statements – was nothing new. War, instead of putting paperwork on hold, actually generated more of the cursed stuff, and whenever Ukitake had been bedridden and Rukia had been swamped by mountains of it, Ichigo had graciously lent a hand. And then Shunsui had unfortunately found out and added his workload to Ichigo's pile, claiming that Ichigo had to do at least some of it since the captain was teaching him how to wield his dual blades more effectively.
(Ichigo had later retaliated by spitefully pouring all of the man's sake down the drain, much to the utter delight of both Lisa and Nanao. Regrettably, this had only earned Ichigo an ass-kicking during their next sparring session; for such a lazy guy, Kyouraku Shunsui was no pushover, and was a shockingly dedicated mentor after Ichigo had managed to convince the man to teach him.)
So really, the only challenging courses that Ichigo could look forward to were history and the Kidou classes.
He had always liked history so that at least kept him decently occupied. Kidou on the other hand made him want to yank his hair out.
That privacy seal that Kisuke had taught him? It had literally taken Ichigo an entire three months to learn it. Granted, it was a fairly tricky bit of Kidou, especially since he had never been taught the basics, but still. Everything else came easily enough to him when he worked hard enough at it so it had been beyond aggravating when Kidou simply didn't work out as naturally for him.
And his father had even had the gall to tell him that Kidou was something that Shibas in general excelled at. Renji and Rukia certainly hadn't helped when they had sat on the side and laughed at him.
But learning that one seal had at least given him enough of a handle on controlling his reiatsu to seal his Zanpakutou and hide his reiatsu signature from those around him so Ichigo had been somewhat mollified when he had finally succeeded at the end of the three months.
Still, it didn't help him now whenever the instructor told him to pull off a low-levelled Kidou.
You have too much reiatsu, Kisuke had sighed more than once. The lower-levelled Kidou spells will never come easily to you simply because your reiatsu is too powerful to contain within the weaker spells. Normally, stronger reiatsu make the spells themselves stronger, but your reiatsu only overwhelms them and makes them explode.
Ichigo had asked what he should do.
Stick to the harder ones, Kisuke had advised with a cheerful snap of his fan. Or better yet, don't use them at all. Knowing you, you're more likely to take out your own hand than hit what you're aiming at.
Yeah, like that was at all helpful.
Ichigo's instinctive scowl deepened as his thoughts took a darker turn down memory lane. He didn't like thinking about the past – future – too much. It inevitably led to remembering his old friends.
At least half of them had died. His father and sisters had gone the same way, though that had been almost three years ago now, and the memory of it was more of a deep-seated ache in his chest than the choking agony that had gripped his heart for months afterwards. His old man should actually be alive right now but Ichigo hadn't been able to bring himself to swing by the Shiba compound even though Kaien had tried numerous times to coax him 'home' for dinner.
He had gotten rather adept at not thinking about the other timeline. It helped a little. During the war, whenever his mood teetered on the brink of depression, he would throw himself into battle and fight and fight until he had exhausted himself to the point where he had just been too tired to think. Unohana hadn't been happy about it, to put it mildly, citing mental and physical health issues, but it wasn't as if she had been able to do anything about it either; Ichigo had been one of their strongest fighters and nobody had been able to afford him taking any downtime.
Now was no different, but instead of life-and-death battles, Ichigo concentrated on his studies. He was fairly certain that the librarians at the Seireitei Library all recognized him by now, and not just because he was Shiba Kaien's cousin. He had taken to holing up there to avoid migraine-inducing fans, irritating bullies, and Kaien (who always insisted on being open and friendly and trying to cajole Ichigo into being more social).
Hiding out in the library worked amazingly well. Kaien hardly ever thought to look for him there, and when he did, the place was big enough for Ichigo to sequester himself away in a dusty corner without anyone the wiser.
He avoided thinking about things like Aizen and what the hell he was going to change and not change as well. The Spirit King had implied that Visored were needed so that was one thing Ichigo couldn't really do anything about, especially since if he managed to save Shinji and the others from being Hollowfied, Aizen would undoubtedly find another group of unsuspecting Shinigami to experiment on, and that would throw everything out of whack, leaving Ichigo with a completely unpredictable future to deal with. What's more, Shinji had once confessed to Ichigo that being a Visored really wasn't so bad, especially since the power boost coming from his Hollow powers had saved many a life including their own time and time again.
So Ichigo would leave that alone. Besides, there wasn't much he could do about anything at this moment. Graduating should be his first order of business, and nothing truly disastrous had really kicked off until around four years from now.
Ichigo shifted when a knock came at the door, automatically cancelling the Kidou spell as he involuntarily tensed, ready to move at a moment's notice. He didn't recognize the reiatsu signature outside.
Rolling out of bed, he padded to the door, opening it to find a fellow student shifting nervously from foot to foot in front of him. She was a full head and a half shorter with dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and a katana tucked through a sash around her waist.
Her eyes widened when she caught sight of him, and for a moment, she seemed lost for words, looking terrified and self-conscious at the same time.
There were students like these too, the shyer ones who kept their heads down and didn't really speak to students on the higher rungs of the political or social ladder.
Ichigo mentally heaved a sigh and cursed Kaien for inadvertently putting him in situations like this before prompting bluntly, "What is it?"
The girl actually jumped a bit before ducking into a low bow and stammering out, "G- Good afternoon, Shiba-dono. I- I'm not sure if you've been informed b- but Koyonagi-sensei has assigned me some extra tutoring sessions with- with you for- for Zanjutsu. He told me to give you this."
Cheeks flushed with palpable embarrassment, the girl thrust a small piece of paper forward, gaze focused anywhere but Ichigo.
Ichigo's eyebrow twitched in annoyance as he snatched up the note and scanned it. As far as he could remember, he had never agreed to tutor anyone.
'Shiba-kun, consider this extra credit. Your Kidou instructor tells me that you're not up to par in her class but, having reviewed your progress in the rest of your courses, I believe it would be a shame if you did not graduate early because you lacked the marks in that one area. Continue working hard at your Kidou and tutoring this student will make up for any deduced marks. ~ Koyonagi Senzo.'
Ichigo gritted his teeth and forced down the urge to Bankai Koyonagi's ass to kingdom come.
Koyonagi Senzo was the Zanjutsu branch head at the Academy, and the man had unfortunately caught Ichigo wiping the floor with his classmates during his first week at school. Koyonagi had instantly hauled Ichigo away for a few practical tests and had quickly come to the conclusion that Ichigo was just as much – if not more so – of a genius as Kaien and Ichimaru Gin (who had graduated five years ago in the span of one year).
After that, Ichigo hadn't been able to escape the man's persistent resolve in getting him to realize his full potential and graduate in a year as well, two on the outside. It was lucky for Koyonagi that Ichigo had absolutely no intention of sticking around in the Academy for more than one year; he'd die of boredom otherwise.
Still, he was convinced he could pass his Kidou course perfectly fine without tutoring someone for 'extra credit' but he wouldn't put it past Koyonagi to slap him with something even more irritating. The older Shinigami was forever going on about how Ichigo had to get out more. Ichigo wasn't sure whether Koyonagi liked him or hated him what with the man's continued efforts at pushing Ichigo to do his best. It certainly made Ichigo's life harder since he was trying to hide his best.
Outwardly, he exhaled with a wordless grumble that made the girl in front of him flinch. He rolled his eyes, not in any mood to coddle her as he asked impatiently, "What's your name then?"
The girl squeaked a little before stuttering out, "I- I'm Fujiwara Asuka. I- It's an honour to make your acquaintance, Shiba-dono."
Ichigo grimaced at the formality. Was this what his cousin and people like Byakuya and Yoruichi have to put up with? He wasn't even out of the Academy yet for god's sakes! "Right, well, first things first – if I'm gonna tutor you, you have to drop that ridiculous suffix, okay?"
The girl, Fujiwara, looked a bit horrified but nodded meekly and intoned, "Sh- Shiba-san then."
Ichigo sighed. Well, he supposed that was moderately better. Inoue and a few others had once called him something along those lines too back in the day. Or... would call him that one day.
"And second rule," He continued, glowering down at her. "Could you at least look at me while we're talking?"
Fujiwara reddened and hastily raised her head, barely meeting his eyes before her gaze dropped back to the floor again.
Ichigo ran a hand through his hair. Wonderful. He wasn't good with females in general – Rukia being one of the few exceptions; she had just clicked with him and they had become friends almost instantly – and now he was stuck teaching a girl who would probably prefer to be tutored by someone less... intimidating than Ichigo.
Too bad Ichigo had used up most of his patience during the war. Unless it was patience for leading troops or planning strategy, he really couldn't give enough of a damn to indulge anybody with sympathetic words and meaningless reassurances.
"Alright, when are you free?" Ichigo enquired, deciding to move on. What the hell was Koyonagi thinking sending some shrinking violet of a chick to him? The man should know what Ichigo's personality was like by now.
"U- Um, I- I've set aside Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the afternoon if- if that's alright with you?" Fujiwara ended on an upward questioning lilt.
Ichigo mentally went over his schedule. He didn't have anything on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and more time occupied over the weekend meant less time for Kaien to pester him.
"That's fine," He said curtly. "You need help specifically in Zanjutsu, right?"
He ignored the ashamed wince that wracked the girl's body and waited for an affirmative instead. "Okay then; do you have a particular place you want to hold these sessions in or will anywhere do?"
"..." Fujiwara mumbled inaudibly, face steadily heating up.
Ichigo prayed for patience and hoped he didn't end up emotionally scarring the girl after these extra lessons. "A bit louder please."
Alarms rang in his head when Fujiwara took on an expression that suggested that she might be near tears but at least she managed to force out, "I- I'd prefer s- somewhere private, Sh- Shiba-do- Shiba-san."
Ichigo rubbed a weary hand over his face. "Alright, you know that abandoned training area near the Eighth Division that nobody goes to because it's too swampy? Meet me there at four starting next Tuesday."
Fujiwara jolted a bit, evidently startled. "W- We're leaving school grounds to train?"
"There's no rule against it so long as we're back by curfew, and I plan to make it back for dinner so no worries on that front," Ichigo pointed out. "Besides, you can't get any privacy in the indoor training rooms here; they all have an observation deck attached. The outdoor training areas are even worse; people crossing school grounds can see them anytime. Unless you have a better idea?"
Fujiwara hurriedly shook her head and bowed again. "N- No, Shiba-san. Th- Thank you for agreeing to tutor me. I- I won't be late and- and I'll work hard."
Ichigo grunted and waved a dismissive hand in the air, already turning away. "Whatever. I'll see you later."
He glanced back in time to see the girl flee in a rush of Shunpo. Well, it looked like her Hohou didn't need any assistance.
He sighed once more as he closed the door behind him.
He just knew he was going to regret this. What did he know about teaching anyway? The extent of his experience in that area was helping his sisters do their math homework.
And why the hell had he suggested the swampy training field? It was practically in the Eighth Division's backyard even though it was free for public use.
But Shunsui had trained him there, and the captain's methods had been gruelling yet effective. For such a laidback guy, he had put Ichigo through hell with his workouts, more so than Kisuke or Shinji had ever managed.
So Fujiwara was going to hate him by the end of... well, Ichigo would give her a week. She seemed fairly sweet-tempered in addition to her timidity so she'd probably put up with him for three sessions or so before going to Koyonagi to beg for a tutor change. Ichigo would probably get in trouble for being too harsh but it would be better for Fujiwara in the long run not to get stuck with someone like him.
Nodding decisively, Ichigo retreated into the interior of his room and pulled out his books. He rarely ever got more than a handful of hours of sleep every day, and he tended to snatch naps whenever he felt tired since he could never sleep through the night, so he might as well get started on his homework now.
"Taichou, I have a conundrum," Kaien announced as he meandered into the room where his captain often relaxed with a pot of tea and Kyouraku's company. Sure enough, the Eighth Division captain was sprawled on a tatami mat across from Ukitake on one side of the table, sake and meat buns set out in front of him. Both captains were friendly enough that Kaien felt comfortable being somewhat less formal around them when they weren't in public.
As if on cue, Kyouraku waved lazily at Kaien in greeting, and Kaien sketched a short bow and a grin in return before turning back to his own captain.
Ukitake smiled rather indulgently at him, obviously already knowing what Kaien was going to say. "Yes, Kaien? Is this about your cousin again?"
Yeah, okay, Kaien had been talking on and off about his baby cousin for going on five months now, so sue him. He was worried. After all, how many other long-lost cousins turned up out of nowhere crippled with near-critical injuries and waking up with amnesia? What if Ichigo keeled over from a relapse or something?
Not to mention Kukaku had threatened to behead him if Kaien didn't look out for their newest addition to the family. He was a lieutenant, sure, but nobody in the Shiba Clan defied Kukaku and got away with it when she was in one of her moods.
"Yes, Taichou," Kaien sighed heavily as he took a seat and tried not to sound like he was sulking. "He's avoiding me."
"Well, he doesn't really know you, does he?" Ukitake pointed out gently, but Kaien would have to be blind to miss the amused smile flickering at the corners of his captain's mouth. "He's bound to be a bit wary, though I'm sure you'll wear him down eventually."
Kaien just sighed. "Yeah, I know, but Ichigo's just so... closed off for a Shiba. I mean we're a pretty loud bunch overall. When it comes to Ichigo, I'd consider myself lucky if I can get three full sentences from him in one sitting."
"He didn't grow up with your Clan though," Ukitake reminded him. "He would certainly be different in terms of personality."
Kaien scratched his head. "Yeah, I suppose. I'm just worried. I dropped by the Academy a few days ago and visited one of the instructors. He says Ichigo's pretty isolated, that he doesn't have any friends, and my reputation there doesn't help him at all. Ichigo hasn't complained of course but Koyonagi-san says he's a bit of a loner."
He perked up a bit when he recalled a few other things Koyonagi had revealed. "But Ichigo's also a genius."
Ukitake arched an eyebrow. "Oh? Another one?"
Kaien grinned proudly. "Yeah. Apparently, my cousin's already climbed to the top of the top in Zanjutsu, Hohou, and Hakuda. After Koyonagi-san noticed, he paired Ichigo up with a sixth-year and Ichigo kicked his ass. Koyonagi-san suspects that Ichigo can already unseal his Zanpakutou too but Ichigo hasn't said anything on that. His other studies are advancing at a terrific rate as well. The only thing he has any real problems with is Kidou. Ichigo doesn't have the control for it."
His captain's expression became thoughtful as he shared a glance with Kyouraku. "Will he graduate by the end of the year then? Students are not required to perfect every aspect of the four combat forms before they join the Gotei 13 after all."
Kaien nodded eagerly. "Koyonagi-san's betting on it. He's just working on getting Ichigo to socialize more right now so that he'll play nice with his fellow Shinigami later when he joins a squad. He mentioned something about having Ichigo tutor someone for extra credit."
"Hmm," Kyouraku spoke up for the first time since Kaien had entered the room. The captain eyed Kaien contemplatively from underneath his sakkat. "Just a thought, Kaien-kun – does your cousin realize you're... well, stalking him?"
Kaien huffed indignantly before rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "Ah, not really. He knows I stop by a lot to see how he's doing but he always hides whenever I go visit. How does he expect me to know how he's doing if he doesn't even spend time with me?"
Kaien scowled a little when this only served to make both captains laugh.
"Maybe you're a bit overprotective, Kaien," Ukitake suggested with a smile. "Perhaps Ichigo-kun feels uncomfortable with all the attention you've shown him, especially with the other students watching."
Kaien paused, feeling his mood drop. "I really don't think Ichigo cares about that. From what I've seen, he just doesn't seem to care what anybody else thinks of him. He's..."
Kaien stopped again, hesitating over his next words. To be honest, he really didn't know what to make of his newest relative. Ichigo was so...
That didn't sound quite right but it was the best Kaien could come up with. His cousin felt... sad, maybe. Sometimes, when Kaien managed to corner Ichigo and drag him out for lunch, there were occasions where he felt like the bright-haired Shinigami was grieving or something, and at other times, it almost felt like Ichigo was plain tired of... everything.
Tired. That might be it.
Either way though, it was the main reason why Kaien kept going back. There was just something brittle about the younger Shinigami that sparked an instinctually protective side in him.
Kaien blinked out of his thoughts at his captain's voice and nailed a winning smile on his face. "It's nothing, Taichou. Ichigo just seems a bit... lost, I guess."
Lost. Yes, that was it. Distant and tired and most of all lost.
And Kaien didn't know why, and he hated that because it meant he didn't know how to help. He was the Clan Head; it was his responsibility to take care of those in his Clan, and it frustrated him to no end that their newest family member couldn't seem to find any peace with them. Ichigo hadn't even stepped foot back in the Shiba compound since he had left it four months ago to attend the Academy.
"Give him some time, Kaien," Ukitake interrupted his thoughts. "Being afflicted with amnesia can't be easy. It would be akin to being dropped off in the middle of a foreign land and struggling to adjust to living his life there. It would take a while."
"I guess so," Kaien agreed grudgingly, and really, there wasn't much else he could do. Even the Shiba Clan doctor had said that it would take time.
Still, that didn't mean Kaien couldn't keep trying. Ichigo was a Shiba and Kaien's own little cousin to boot (okay, so the 'little' was debatable but that was beside the point); there was no way Kaien was just going to hang him out to dry.
"A- Are we really g- going to use this place?"
Ichigo smirked briefly. "Yeah."
He surveyed their surroundings. Besides a small patch of elevated dry land on the far left, everything else had dipped down to form a rather marshy area. Some parts had even flooded.
Most Shinigami wouldn't even think to train here. Slogging through the muddy water while practicing katas and sparring against somebody else wasn't exactly something one would enjoy. A single misstep or stumble would see you face-plant straight into the swamp.
Ichigo would know; he'd tripped over more half-submerged shrubbery than he'd care to remember, and splashed gracelessly past the push of reluctantly yielding water more times than he'd care to count.
And that bastard Shunsui hadn't even allowed him to use Shunpo to stay above the area.
That would defeat the point of this training method entirely, Ichigo-kun, Shunsui had said with far too much good cheer as he'd lounged on a goddamn deck chair with a bottle of sake in hand while Ichigo had glowered at him, soaked from head to toe.
If Ichigo hadn't respected the man so much, he would've ended up hating him for the rest of eternity.
"Okay, I have to know what you can do, so..." Ichigo studied his temporary student with a critical eye, ignoring the way she fidgeted. "Go through all the basic Zanjutsu katas. You can do it on dry land. For now."
He smothered the urge to snicker when Fujiwara's eyes widened in trepidation at the last bit. Inside his head, Shiro's cackles echoed with sadistic glee.
As Fujiwara obeyed, tentatively drawing her katana and beginning her first kata, it soon became clear to Ichigo that the problem wasn't that she didn't know the steps. The problem was that there was little to no power behind each of her movements. Upon facing a real opponent, her strikes would be more comparable to soft taps than anything that would actually hurt.
Ichigo pinched the bridge of his nose. This was going to be tough. Or more accurately, he was going to have his work cut out for him to toughen her up.
Now, if Fujiwara had just entered the Academy this year, Ichigo might've been inclined to go a little easy on her. However, Ichigo couldn't recall her in any of his classes, accelerated or otherwise, which meant that she had to have been here for at least two years or more now.
Which also meant that, clearly, the methods that the Academy was using to teach Fujiwara wasn't working. One thing Ichigo had discovered during the past few months in that school was that everything that the instructors taught there was... bland. There was no variation, just a set routine of exercises that wouldn't do shit against enemies like Aizen's Hollow armies.
Ichigo exhaled shortly and then flickered forward in a blur of Shunpo, drawing his own blade as he moved and barely giving Fujiwara any time to react before he had smashed into her, metal screeching against metal as the girl just managed to raise her katana in an awkward block to defend herself.
Fujiwara yelped even as Ichigo easily shoved her backwards, flinging her off her feet with a deft twist of his wrist and watching impassively as she landed in the water with a gigantic splash.
She came up spluttering, looking shocked and frightened and downright bewildered, floundering for words as she blinked the water out of her eyes. "Sh- Shiba-san? W- What-?"
Ichigo stepped calmly into the swamp, unmindful of the water now lapping at his legs. He had had the foresight to change out of the bulkier uniform of the Academy and exchange it for a plain kimono instead. Fujiwara wasn't as lucky; Ichigo was sure she would correct her attire for next time.
"Get up," He ordered without fanfare, levelling his blade at her. "If we're going to do this, we'll do it my way. You have no strength behind your attacks, and your reflexes are absolute crap. At the rate you're going, you might graduate from the Academy but you wouldn't last two minutes in a real battle."
Fujiwara gaped at him for a moment, and her eyes might or might not have filled with tears, but Ichigo was privately impressed when she only pressed her lips together and hauled herself to her feet, staggering a little as she regained her balance before raising her katana once more.
She didn't complain.
Huh. That was a pleasant surprise.
However, out loud, he only instructed, "No Shunpo."
And then he struck.
The first blow sent Fujiwara reeling backwards but Ichigo didn't relent. He slowed down just enough to let her retaliate against his onslaught but he didn't let up, only pausing when she fell over into the swamp every few minutes.
Of course, Ichigo was holding back quite a bit. He would've eviscerated the girl in half a second if he didn't but he made certain not to give her too much leeway. He could feel her muscles straining whenever their blades connected, and he was careful not to push too hard and risk muscle strain on Fujiwara's part.
Fujiwara only lasted half an hour, quite literally collapsing at the thirty-minute mark as she gulped in air, her entire frame trembling from exhaustion as her blade skittered out of her hand.
Ichigo, not even winded, lowered his Zanpakutou as well, examining her closely before sheathing his blade. "I guess that's all we'll manage today. Can you stand?"
Fujiwara didn't even have breath to answer, face red with exertion, strands of escaped hair hanging in her eyes, and clothes soggy and in need of probably more than one good wash. Nevertheless, under Ichigo's measured gaze, the girl pushed herself shakily onto her feet, only for her knees to buckle as soon as she tried to straighten.
Ichigo's hand instinctively shot forward and grabbed her by the back of her uniform before she pitched face-first back into the marsh.
There was a moment of silence, broken only by Fujiwara's ragged gasps. Ichigo made a face at the situation in general before swinging her onto his back, disregarding the immediate dirt and water that stained his own clothes. The girl's fingers automatically clutched feebly at his shoulders even as she stiffened a little with startled uncertainty.
"Hang on," Ichigo muttered, leaning down to scoop up her Zanpakutou before making his way off the training grounds. "If you let go, I'm not stopping to pick you up again."
This saw to Fujiwara's hands tightening around his shoulders as Ichigo began trudging back to the Academy.
For a long while, neither of them spoke. Ichigo was perfectly content with the hush as he mentally catalogued all the things that he would need to work on with Fujiwara - stamina, speed, the increasingly sloppy forms, the occasional useless movements in between attacks...
It was a rather long list.
"A- Are all our sparring sessions g- going to be like this?" Fujiwara's voice quavered unsteadily right behind Ichigo's left ear.
Ichigo's mouth twisted a little in sardonic amusement. "Pretty much, yeah. You have a problem with it, go see Koyonagi."
His eyebrows shot up when the only thing he received was an instantaneous refusal.
"No!" Fujiwara seemed to choke on her own outburst for a second before forging on unevenly, "I- I mean, this- this is fine."
Ichigo stopped in the middle of the road, shooting a dirty look at a few gawking passersby that sent them scurrying away, before craning his head around to peer at his student. "Are you serious? You were dead on your feet, and you can't even walk; I'm not gonna go any easier on you in the future, you know."
Fujiwara just nodded mutely and said nothing more. Her eyes skittered away from Ichigo's probing gaze but there was a certain brightness in them that had nothing to do with tears this time. The exact opposite in fact.
Ichigo's eyes narrowed as he started moving again. What the hell was wrong with this girl?
Idly, as the Academy came into sight, he figured he should stop by Koyonagi's office and ask him just what kind of person the man had dumped on Ichigo.
"You dumped a noble on me?"
"You actually care?"
Ichigo glared furiously at the serene-looking man sitting cross-legged on top of his desk. Koyonagi was weird like that, and with an x-shaped scar over one cheekbone and wild tawny hair, most students found the man somewhat daunting.
Ichigo just found him aggravating beyond belief.
"No I don't," Ichigo growled. "But I would've appreciated a bit of a heads-up. I worked her to the bone today and she looked happy when I told her that every session with me would be just as hard. And while we're on that subject, let me tell you, she's soft. What the hell are you people teaching your students these days?"
Koyanagi had the nerve to look amused. "First of all, Ichi-kun-"
"And when did we get so familiar with each other?" Ichigo interrupted crossly.
"-you're also a student here," Koyonagi continued on blithely. "Don't make it sound like you've already graduated, you arrogant brat. And secondly, Fujiwara-chan is what some people would call the runt of the litter. From what I know, she would've been better suited to staying at home and spending her days sewing or something but I believe she managed to talk her Clan into letting her sign up for the Academy. Even worse, she's a bastard child.
"Because of that," Koyonagi's expression became wry. "She's not really accepted in any circle here at school, not amongst the nobles, nor amongst those from Rukongai."
Ichigo stared at him. "I'm a bastard child."
Kind of, he amended in his head.
Koyonagi scoffed. "Yes, but you're a Shiba. Only a fool would alienate one of the five Noble Families in Seireitei in any way, and while there are plenty of fools at the Academy, none of them are foolish enough to commit political suicide.
"Fujiwara-chan on the other hand is from a branch family of a Lower Noble House; granted, the Noble House is fairly prestigious but it doesn't change the fact that it holds lesser weight than one of the main Clans, not to mention she's a branch member to boot."
Koyonagi's features soured. "Even some of the instructors ignore her for the most part. They don't think she'll make it very far even if she does manage to graduate so they don't want to waste time teaching her in vain."
"Well at the rate she's going, she won't last a month in any division," Ichigo predicted harshly.
Koyonagi smirked. "Which is why I sent her to you, Ichi-kun. I dare say she was ecstatic to meet someone who actually paid her some honest attention. And who better to whip her into shape than someone who'll train her seriously?"
Ichigo squinted suspiciously at the Shinigami. "Flattery's not gonna get you anywhere, you bastard."
Koyonagi snorted with laughter. "You're a rude brat. I've kicked a student's ass for less."
Ichigo scoffed loudly, pushing off the wall he had been leaning on and striding for the door. "We both know if you could do that, you'd have done it already. I'm stronger."
He tilted his head and expertly snatched the paperweight that Koyonagi had just thrown at him out of the air before hurling it back.
The two of them had a rather odd relationship, less instructor-and-student and more acknowledged-soon-to-be-allies once Ichigo graduated.
Koyonagi had been displeased the first time they had fought when he had seen right through Ichigo's plan to let the other man win. The instructor had refused to let Ichigo leave the room until he had stopped holding back. Ichigo had still held back in the end but, after six hours of glowering at Koyonagi and an increasing need to go to the bathroom, he had finally stepped up and disarmed the older Shinigami in three minutes flat.
Koyonagi had been absurdly satisfied with the outcome.
"You'll keep her with you?" Koyonagi called after him as Ichigo made to leave. "She's weak now but she's got good work ethic. Her Kidou's not half-bad either. Might even be able to give you some pointers."
Ichigo rolled his eyes at the deliberate taunt. "So long as she doesn't come crying to you, I guess I don't have much of a choice, do I?"
He paused just inside the doorway, curiosity stirring a question in his mind. "What Noble House is she from anyway? I mean most of those Families wouldn't really allow 'runts' to attend the Academy, would they? Might bring shame to their reputation, etc, etc?"
Koyonagi shrugged. "A few are a bit more lax, gives a little more freedom to their members. Her being here at all means she's from one of them."
"Which one?" Ichigo prompted impatiently.
Koyonagi sighed dramatically and reached over to fish a file out of the pile stacked on one corner of his desk.
"Mm..." The instructor stopped several papers in, swiftly scanning the page. "Ah, here it is. The Fujiwaras are a very small branch of the Kyouraku Family."
Ichigo almost gave himself whiplash as his head snapped around to stare at Koyonagi in disbelief. And then he looked skyward and cursed the Spirit King with every swearword he knew, simply because this just had to be its – his? – fault.
Talk about cycle of irony.
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