Interlude One – Behind Me, Behind You
Worry was part and parcel to being a parent. Kisuke had come to learn this quite quickly during his first few months as a new father. And even now, six years later, he still couldn’t quite stop worrying. Not when it came to any member of his family and not when it came to his eldest son, who by all accounts was the strongest of them and should have garnered the least concern. At least in that respect.
As it were, however, Ichigo had a knack for getting himself into difficult and dangerous situations. He also had a knack for coming out of all obstacles alive and well, if not changed for it. But that didn’t make Kisuke worry any less. Not all wounds showed on the outside, not all of them resulted in blood. Ichigo was damaged in ways that not even he could comprehend. Deny it though his son might, Kisuke still knew that much.
Sighing, Kisuke strolled through the silent hallways of his shouten. Everyone was asleep in their beds, safe and sound, save his son. Ichigo was in Soul Society, risking his life for the sake of another and making the hearts of those he left behind pound with fear. It wasn’t that Kisuke did not trust Ichigo or that he didn’t admire Ichigo for the choice he made. But neither did anything for his peace of mind. He would much prefer to have Ichigo here and safe.
A single touch unlocked the kidoh-enhanced binding over his laboratory. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want his family to discover his scientific secrets, though that was part of it, but also because his lab held many dangerous chemicals and experiments. He would never forgive himself if someone was hurt because he couldn’t keep it out of their hands. Kisuke always locked it when he wasn’t actively present.
Right now though, he needed a distraction. Anything to keep him from dwelling too deeply on the thought of his son facing the entire might of the Gotei 13 with Kisuke’s sister and a handful of teenagers at his back.
The bubbling of chemicals in test tubes and the soft glow of his computers greeted Kisuke, and he grabbed his favorite stool, clambering up into it. His hat was set upon its designated pedestal as Kisuke reached for a read-out from one of the printers. He idly scanned the lines of data, computer examinations of Ichigo’s progress, looking for something to jump out and grab him as important.
He still didn’t understand his own son. Not how Ichigo could grow so quickly or even how he had survived back then. He’d used the Hougyoku on his own son same as he’d used it on Shinji and the others, but even then, Kisuke hadn’t been sure it would work. He’d feared that Ichigo was already dead and nothing could be done to save him. Until the flicker of a Hollow’s reiatsu had surrounded the boy, a flicker that had come from within.
Kisuke would be the first to admit he hadn’t known what to do with Ichigo. When it became painfully obvious that the boy was a mixture of Shinigami and Hollow and human, Kisuke had done the only thing he could think to do. He’d taken Ichigo to see the only other Vizard he knew. People who’d had almost a century to get used to their predicament.
“It’s a kid,” Hiyori stated flatly. Her arms were folded over her chest as she frowned at Kisuke with eyes glaring at the tiny body that hid behind Kisuke’s legs.
No matter how much he tried to encourage Ichigo to greet them face to face, the boy continued to hide. Only peering out from the side with one gold eye, warily watching the crowd of odd-looking people lined up in front of them. His tiny hands clutched onto the lengths of Kisuke’s hakama like a lifeline.
“Noticed that, did ya?” Shinji asked with a chuckle, unable to resist a teasing jab. “He’s the same height as you.”
Hiyori’s scowl deepened. “Stuff it, Shinji. I wasn’t asking you.”
Kisuke shook his head at their antics, knowing that if left unchecked, the two would quickly start an argument of epic proportions. One that would inevitably end with Shinji either kicked in the head or in a certain delicate spot and Hiyori smirking triumphantly.
“His name,” Kisuke interrupted loudly as he felt Ichigo’s fingers grip tighter. He lowered a hand, placing it comfortingly on the boy’s head. “…is Kurosaki Ichigo. And we’ve both come here to ask for your help.”
“Our help?” Mashiro questioned with a wide-eyed look, turning a finger back towards herself as if there were any confusion as to whom Kisuke meant. “Why?”
“Can’t you feel it?” Rose murmured, gaze sympathetic as he looked down at Ichigo. “His reiatsu’s all over the place – Shinigami and Hollow both.”
“You mean… he’s one of us?” Lisa finally glanced up from her manga to stare at the child in surprise.
Kisuke winced. “Yes and no,” he replied, fingers tracking soothingly through Ichigo’s hair. He could feel the boy vibrating with uncertainty, a more common occurrence since his parents’ deaths only a few weeks ago. “This little one is still rather unique, and I find myself unequipped in helping him.”
“The Hougyoku…?” Hachi questioned, brow drawn in thought.
“Only stabilized him, same as it did for you,” Kisuke admitted with a sigh. “And further, he was human to start.”
A series of gasps echoed from the Vizard in front of him, their sympathies only increasing.
“Human? Then how in the world did he…?” Shinji paused, expression hardening. “Wait, you said Kurosaki? Then he’s Isshin’s boy?”
“Was,” Kisuke corrected softly, feeling Ichigo’s grip dig into his skin as he looked away from the odd assortment of men and women and buried his face in Kisuke’s leg. “He’s mine now.”
“That must have been the odd spattering of reiatsu we felt a few weeks prior,” Rose commented. “We’d wondered but being as Karakura wasn’t torn apart, assumed it wasn’t anything dangerous.”
“Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been,” Kisuke explained, eyes darkening as he remembered that stormy night and the strange reiatsu that had rocked him from the warmth of his home and into the wet streets.
He had felt first the odd energies of a Hollow, tainted with something else, and then the rise of Isshin’s damaged reiatsu. Isshin knew better than to try and use his Shinigami abilities, which was the first sign that all wasn’t well. Not for the first time did Kisuke wish he hadn’t wasted time trying to understand the strange phenomena. If he had only acted a little sooner…
“… but as with all things concerning the people in this room, it began and ended with
Aizen,” Kisuke continued, hatred seething in his belly.
At the mere mention of the man, he could feel the tension in the room skyrocket.
“I don’t know what experiments he’s conducting,” Kisuke all but spat, “but some of the spillover showed up here. What killed Ichigo’s parents was – to the best of my conclusions – a half-formed Arrancar.”
“He’s still fuckin’ up everyone’s lives, despite being a whole world away,” Hiyori muttered with a huff, hands tightening into firsts. Only to follow the comment with an aborted yelp. “Ow! Shinji!” She whirled on the blond, rubbing at the back of her head.
“Hey, there’s a kid present,” the unofficial leader of the Vizard chastised. “Cut back on the foul language. Don’t wanna give him bad habits.”
Lisa snickered as she adjusted her glasses. “That doesn’t seem to work for her, Shinji. Might as well let Hiyori have her way.”
Shaking his head, Shinji moved in front of Kisuke. He crouched down until he could see Ichigo face-to-face. But the boy wouldn’t look at him.
“Isshin was our friend, same as you Kisuke. How can we say no?” Shinji murmured and focused on the boy hiding behind Kisuke’s legs. “Are ya just going to hide back there all day, Ichigo?”
Kisuke chuckled, detaching Ichigo’s fingers from his hakama and urging the boy out in front. “Ichigo, these are my friends. Greet them properly.”
He shrank back against Kisuke’s urging hands and looked apprehensively over the Vizard. Ichigo glanced from one to the next before turning his head away to stare at the floor.
“Hi,” he mumbled, childish voice impossibly quiet. When Kisuke nudged him with a finger, Ichigo added, “It’s nice to meet you.”
There was a moment of silence. Then…
“Kyaa!” Mashiro practically squealed, making Kisuke’s own ears hurt. “He’s adorable.”
The loud noise prompted Ichigo’s retreat even further as he backed up against Kisuke’s legs, though the ex-captain wouldn’t allow him to hide again. Yes, they were strange, but Shinji and company were all that Kisuke could rely on. Ichigo was just being shy. And besides, considering what he had just been through, it was only smart that he would be hesitant in front of people he didn’t recognize.
Love approached, inspecting Ichigo with a critical eye behind his sunglasses. “That Hollow’s just running rampant, isn’t he?” he murmured as he too crouched to be eyelevel with the boy, head tilting to the side. “But Mashiro’s right. He’s cute. Looks a bit like Isshin.” One hand moved out, poking Ichigo in the belly. “Strong, too.”
Ichigo didn’t like that too much. He pushed Love’s hand away, a spark of reiatsu rising with his discomfort, enough that even the dullest of them could sense the Hollow entwined within it. The power such a small body emanated surprised all of them, no more so than Kisuke who was again struck with confusion. Ichigo’s state of being was unlike anything he had ever encountered.
“He’s one of us,” Shinji said, treating Ichigo to a genuine smile that seemed to reassure Kisuke’s new son just a bit. “Of course we’ll help him.”
Kensei rolled his eyes, arms folded over his chest. “Yeah, because we needed another loud-mouthed brat… Argh! Mashiro!”
She had elbowed him in the side. What was with these women and being so violent?
“Don’t be such a stiff, Kensei!” she put in brightly. “Imagine the fun we’ll have!”
Fun. The training that the Vizard gave young Ichigo could hardly be called that, but they had their good times as well. They became as an extended family for Ichigo, and they still considered him one of their own. Ichigo had grown especially close to Shinji, though he would stridently deny it aloud. Those two were more alike than his son would ever admit, especially since they were favored targets among the female Vizard population. Though for different reasons.
The quiet, hesitant query prodded Kisuke out of his remembrance. He whirled on his stool, spotting Yuzu in the doorway, one hand on the frame. She was always the most hesitant to enter his lab, gaze flickering around to the many strange liquids and beeping machines.
“Yu-chan.” Kisuke slipped off his stool and went to her so that she wouldn’t have to brave the dangers of his lab. “I thought you were sleeping.”
“I was,” she answered, relieved that she wouldn’t have to enter. “But I’m worried about Ichi-nii. And Karin must be, too. She’s having nightmares.”
Kisuke sighed. “Again?” he asked as he placed one hand on Yuzu’s head. He closed the door behind him, carefully setting the lock once more.
Then again, he should have known. Of the two, Yuzu was the gentler and more emotionally astute, but Karin was more spiritually sensitive. It was she who had sensed the sadness in the parrot’s spirit. And it had been she who recognized when Kuchiki-san had encountered some trouble.
She nodded beneath his fingertips. “You know how she is, tou-san. If I just wake her up, she’ll pretend nothing’s wrong and go back to sleep no matter how scared she is.”
Yuzu sounded so worried, which was to be expected. The bond between the sisters was something fascinating and beautiful. Oftentimes, watching Ichigo watch over the two of them reminded Kisuke so strongly of he and Yoruichi.
Kisuke sighed. “Rin-chan does like to fake her strength, doesn’t she?” he queried softly.
In that, Ichigo and Karin were very much alike. Yuzu’s gentleness probably came from her mother. Not that her siblings weren’t gentle, just in a different way. Brashness covering the soft spots underneath.
“I’m worried about Ichi-nii, too,” Yuzu continued with fingers twisting together. “He didn’t even tell us goodbye.”
“He didn’t want to wake you,” Kisuke assured her softly, not wanting to disturb the others in their sleep. “And you know how your brother is, too. It would have been harder for him to go if he had.”
Yuzu sighed, sounding far too old for her age. “I know. He’s stubborn.”
“Just like Rin-chan,” Kisuke agreed with a light chuckle.
His ears picked up the sound of distressed murmuring and tossing bedcovers before they even stepped into the room. He peered inside, finding Karin’s bed easily. They had the curtains drawn, giving a soft luminescence thanks to the street light beyond the blinds. It was enough for him to see Karin’s expression. Even in sleep, she seemed worried, forehead pinched and mouth drawn into a frown.
Yuzu chewed on her bottom lip before coming to a decision. Kisuke watched as she made a beeline for her sister’s bed and crawled right into it beside her, a body for comfort rather than words. Much easier for Karin to accept than vocal reassurances. Karin could be so stubborn sometimes. Just like her brother. If Kisuke didn’t know better, he’d think both of them were channeling Yoruichi, who wouldn’t admit pain if her damn arm fell off.
Still, watching his daughters, Kisuke felt something inside of him give a tug of warmth. A gentle rise of it in his belly that soothed and didn’t twist. He thought of his son facing insurmountable odds and wished he could ease his own worries as easily as he comforted his daughters.
He moved forward then, tucking the blankets around both their bodies, noticing with some amusement that Karin had succeeded in uncovering herself as usual. Tucking in was something he hadn’t done for a good few years now, and strange to think that it was a habit he missed. How quickly they grew up. Especially here in the human world. Kisuke would’ve had more time with them had he not left Soul Society. Decades even. But then, if he’d never left, he wouldn’t have them at all. Isshin would. Or they wouldn’t have even been born in the first place.
Such a sobering and troubling thought. One that he shook away as quickly as it came. It didn’t do to dwell on things that hadn’t happened and never would.
Kisuke knelt down next to them. “Ichigo will be fine,” he murmured, brushing hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear. He did the same for Karin who made a noise in her sleep but didn’t wake. “He’s strong, remember?”
Yuzu nodded, mouth opening in a yawn that she politely covered. “I know. He’ll be back soon. Right, tou-chan?”
She sounded so childish in that moment. So young. So very much the little girl who had cried every time he put her down those first few weeks he’d had her. Only willing to leave his arms when Ichigo took her instead. Although he would never admit it to them, knowing it would only cause embarrassment, a part of him missed those days. The times when three little bodies insisted on sleeping in his bed with him and would wake whenever he tried to leave. When Ichigo was small enough to climb into his lap and still willing to do so. When Karin would still hold his hand as they crossed the street.
Where had that gone? Where had the time gone?
It was like Kisuke had blinked, and suddenly, Ichigo was a teenager. Karin and Yuzu were nearly in middle school. They still needed him but not as they had before. Somewhere, somehow, they’d gone from being kids – Isshin’s kids, his kids – to almost adults. From his children to something bordering on friends. And Kisuke felt like he was being left behind.
“Right?” Yuzu repeated.
And Kisuke had a second to realize he hadn’t answered her yet.
“As soon as he can,” he said, giving her a smile that he didn’t entirely feel. “You know that he will.”
She nodded with such complete faith in both Kisuke and her brother that he felt his heart constrict. Brown eyes slid closed as she snuggled closer to her sister. Kisuke took this to mean that she was about to retire for the night and rose to his feet. A true and painfully fond smile took over his expression. His daughters. Someday, he would have to find a way to both apologize and thank Isshin for making this family possible for him. For giving him what he would’ve never had on his own.
He had Jinta and Ururu, yes. But they weren’t quite this. They were constructs, built by him with a different purpose in mind, love them though he did. Ichigo and Karin and Yuzu… they were different. Something not intended at all but the more welcome for it.
Kisuke crept for the exit, using every skill he had accrued under Yoruichi’s watchful eyes.
Yuzu’s voice was barely raised to be heard and not enough to disturb her sister.
Pausing with the door cracked, Kisuke turned toward her. “Yes, my dear?”
“Ichi-nii, he’ll make it, right? No one can beat him.” Her little tone wavered with uncertainty. “Just like you?”
Warmth blossomed in Kisuke’s chest. It chased away the concern that had become a cold block of ice taking residence within his ribs.
“There’s no doubt,” Kisuke said, and he couldn’t quite contain the emotion in that statement. “Good night, Yu-chan. Sleep well.”
Her voice followed him out into the hallway. “Night, tou-san.”
Kisuke just allowed his smile to linger and shut the door tightly. In the morning, he promised to give both of them a hug.
She had no one to blame but herself. The signs had been there, but she had chosen to ignore them. Certain she had just been imagining things. Well, there was the small truth that her curiosity had neatly overwhelmed her. As well as a small debt of gratitude that she owed Ichigo for saving her life. And there might have been some vague plans to discover the truth mixed up in there, too. But in the end, Rukia had no one to blame for her predicament but herself.
It didn’t help that Ichigo resembled Kaien-dono so strongly.
It had thrown her for a loop the first time her bleary gaze had landed on him, orange hair blazing. She had thought herself awake in a dream, only to later realize that they were entirely separate men. And the closer she looked, the less they resembled. Still, Rukia couldn’t help reliving the past every time she glanced at him.
Maybe it was that vague familiarity that prevented her from delving too deeply into the truth of Ichigo’s existence. If she had thought about it, she would have questioned the oddities that surrounded him. Ichigo more than knew about the living world from an extended stay there. He was a part of it.
That explained so much. Explained why he understood so much of this time and place. Explained why his gigai felt different. It wasn’t a gigai at all but a real human body. A real life. He didn’t go to school because it was part of an assignment but because he really was still a child. Just a teenager like his friends.
And she’d heard what he had called Urahara-san. Heard but chosen to pretend she hadn’t. Chosen to explain it away.
Tou-san. Dad. Ichigo called Urahara-san his dad.
She more than anyone knew that familial words didn’t necessitate family. But it was different when Ichigo said it. Different than when she referred to Kuchiki Byakuya as her brother.
Ichigo meant it. He really and truly meant it. He looked at Urahara-san and saw only his father. And Urahara-san saw only his son.
Family. They were a family. Karin and Yuzu – and perhaps even Jinta and Ururu – didn’t call him brother out of respect but out of love. Out of truth. A Shinigami who was still living. Someone who had perhaps even been born a Shinigami in the living world.
Just a boy. Just a boy who had wanted to repay her for helping his sisters. Who had risked so much if she had realized the truth. Who could even now be paying the price for her foolishness. She could just imagine what the others would do when they learned, when they inevitably figured it out.
But they would never hear it from her. She would not be the cause of their deaths. She would not sentence them to that. Not for simply existing, for wanting to be left alone. Yes, she was angry with them, furious that they had manipulated her. But… but Ichigo hadn’t lied outright. She had assumed, and she should’ve known better. And in the end, Rukia couldn’t blame him. He just had so much to lose. Had risked more than she would ever understand to help her. Had been kind to her, had saved her when he should’ve allowed her to die. Had done the right thing, only to have it cost him.
He could even now be dead. Perhaps killed by her own brother and Renji when they had come to fetch her. Maybe by others later on. All of them could be dead. Ichigo. Urahara-san with his easy smile. Sweet Yuzu and protective Karin. Solemn Tessai-san. Quiet Ururu and fiery Jinta.
Every last one. Gone. Because she’d been too weak to defeat that Hollow on her own. Too prideful to release Sode no Shirayuki fully, to have that reminder of her mentor and friend so close. Too stupid to return on her own at an earlier time and create an excuse for her absence. Too slow to lead her brother and Renji further away. Too late to save Ishida-san when he’d attempted to help her. And all too helpless sitting in her cell in the sixth division.
Rukia was always too weak to save anyone. Not herself. Not Ichigo and his family. Not Kaien-dono either.
A lock clicked then. Thoroughly interrupting her morose mental meanderings. Rukia turned slowly, focusing her gaze on the doorway rather than the sky just visible beyond the bars of her cell. The brightness of the lights quickly illuminated her visitor, and Rukia couldn’t quite hide her surprise.
“Nii-sama,” she greeted politely, even if something did squeeze her lungs and thud dully in her chest. Her head tipped as she moved a pace closer to the bars.
He wasn’t here to check on her. Even Rukia knew that much. It was all business, not that she could read anything else behind his mask. Fifty years and she still couldn’t begin to guess what went on in his head. Much less so when he was looking at her.
But as typical of her brother and the position he held, Kuchiki Byakuya wasted no time. “Why didn’t you report the rogue’s presence?” Surprisingly, there was no hint of censure in his voice. Not yet.
So it was to be interrogation then. Well, Rukia had expected this. How cruel of the captain-commander to send her very own kin in do so. Or perhaps the old man was hoping she’d let something slip. That she would indulge Byakuya where she wouldn’t anyone else.
And yet, her brother had taught her well. She knew the words and the actions; she had learned how to speak like a noble, saying a lot but nothing at all.
Her chin tilted upwards, a sign of defiance though still holding courtesy. “He gave me reason to believe that he was there on Soul Society’s orders,” Rukia explained. It was an absolute truth that left out her inability to recognize when she hadn’t been given any real answers and allowed to make her own assumptions. “There are many humans of unusual reiatsu centered in Karakura.”
Gray eyes focused directly on her. “You know policy. You should have confirmed his presence.”
She couldn’t help but feel censured by that stare. And despite her efforts to show otherwise, Rukia shifted in discomfort.
“Yes, nii-sama. I was… careless.”
But that word didn’t even begin to cover her mistake.
Rukia watched as her adopted brother breathed slowly in and out, and she had the impression he had much, much more he wanted to say. To ask. To demand. But the fact that eyes watched them, peering from locations both known and unknown, obviously held his tongue. Those very same eyes tied Rukia’s own, too.
He changed his line of questioning. “There is a man we are searching for by the name of Urahara Kisuke,” the captain said carefully. “Was he in contact with this rogue?”
Rukia looked at him and prepared for the first time to lie to her brother. “He saved me of his own accord, nii-sama,” she replied, which was a lie by omission if anyone were to ask her later. “Of great risk to himself.”
“That is not what I asked.”
There was a note of surprise in his voice. Perhaps because she was so loyal to this rogue? This stray. But then, Rukia had been one of those once upon a time.
Her shoulders squared. “And yet, you have received my answer.”
For a second there, a flash of pained helplessness darkened her brother’s eyes. But it was quickly shuttered away by that damned noble mask.
“I can’t help you if you don’t answer my questions,” he stated plainly.
“I do not have the answers,” Rukia returned all too evenly.
Though it was more like she wouldn’t give them, her own consequences be damned. What was the worst they could do? Expel her from the Shinigami ranks? Her crimes were hardly that awful.
“It is a matter of gratitude,” she said instead.
“Gratitude?” Again with the surprise, barely concealed, but still present. “To a rogue Shinigami and not to Soul Society?”
Rukia couldn’t help but smile, even if it was strained and small. “The recipient of the gratitude should not matter. Otherwise, my honor would be worthless as well. He put himself at great personal risk without thought to reward or duty. Apparently, he had none of the later and desired nothing of the former. How could I be less than grateful?”
The captain watched her, and she wished she could read him better. But his expression and his stance were as blank to her as a piece of untouched parchment.
“Very well,” he allowed after a long moment. “You do realize the consequences of your actions, do you not?”
Her hands clenched where he could not see. “Yes, nii-sama. I do.”
He shifted almost imperceptibly, given the impression of wanting to say something but restraining himself by their environment and circumstances. If there was one thing at which Kuchiki Byakuya excelled, it was restraint.
“Then,” he continued, “there is nothing more I can do.”
And she watched as her brother – her family as she had accepted – turned away from her and left the room, leaving her locked in her cell. Rukia knew that he was right. There was very little he could do if she wouldn’t cooperate. But Rukia was not considering any other option.
Turn in Ichigo and his family? Let them be imprisoned or experimented on or even murdered for the small crime of existence?
Rukia would rather be disowned from the Kuchiki. She would rather die.
Death before dishonor, her brother should be proud.