[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 08

Chapter Seven – Be My Family or Not

“In Rukongai?” Yamamoto-soutaichou repeated, face empty of expression but a storm gathering behind his old eyes. Weathered fingers curled over the head of his staff, the hidden Ryuujin Jakka.

A pale hand gestured vaguely. “Yes,” Kurotsuchi answered as though the information meant little to him. “We detected it earlier today and just now learned that it came from no member of the Gotei-13.”

The captain-commander seemed to digest this information. “Is it the rogue?”

“We can only assume,” Kurotsuchi said with a faint shrug.

“Why would he come here?” Unohana asked, soft voice filling the hall of the first division where all the captains had been summoned.

Soifon stepped forward, eyes narrowed with thought. “Perhaps Urahara is seeking his revenge,” she suggested.

“If that is true, then Seireitei must be his destination,” Yamamoto inserted.

And the disturbing thought struck a murmur through the hall.

“He won’t be able to get past the gate,” Ichimaru inserted with a lazy drawl. “Or enter Seireitei.”

Kyouraku shook his head, remarkably awake for once rather than resembling someone asleep with their eyes open. “He arrived half a day ago and has yet to make an attempt for any of the four gates. Why is that?”

“He must have a plan. We can’t even fathom what machines Urahara has constructed for him,” Kurotsuchi commented, a faint look of glee entering his painted face. The desire to find the rogue and grill him for information practically wafted from the man’s pores.

Hitsugaya Toushirou – captain of the tenth division – frowned as their words washed over him. He tipped his head back as he contemplated the situation, and his frown deepened into a scowl the more uneasy with it all he became. Rogues and runaway Shinigami and traitors and the shiver down his spine that said there was something more here. There was something that was on the edge of his reach but still just beyond grasp. A depth to the happenings that he couldn’t yet fathom. And he folded his arms over his chest as if to fight back the normally welcome chill and cast his eyes around the room to take in all the captains around him.

The captain-commander stern on his throne-like chair with slitted eyes. Soifon with stiff and angry posture. Ichimaru grinning without a care in the world, and Unohana so calm but a hint of something almost like concern underneath. Aizen’s deep eyes meeting Toushirou’s own with both recognition and resolve. Kuchiki as blank and warm as stone. Komamura solemn and silent behind his mask, and Tousen staring out with an unseeing gaze. Kyouraku fiddling with his hat to Toushirou’s left, while Kurotsuchi vibrated with glee on his right. Zaraki giving a feral grin, already itching for a fight. And sickly Ukitake noticeable by his absence.

“And what would it be?” Toushirou asked then. Curious because he had heard of no other method to enter Seireitei. And wouldn’t it be unproductive to attack anything in Rukongai?

“There is one other way to pierce the Sekki-seki,” Kuchiki suggested. He had the air of someone who knew personally that such a thing were possible.

Toushirou felt his eyebrows crawl towards his scalp. But it was another voice who answered with the same knowledgeable tone.

“Shiba Kuukaku,” Kyouraku stated with a sigh. One finger rubbed over his chin and scratched through his brow.

Shiba? Weren’t they former nobles? The remnants of a once great clan? The last vestiges after a mysterious fall in favor that he still didn’t understand? So many eddies and currents underneath the seeming calm of Seireitei. So many whispers of things that had happened before his time here.

Kuchiki nodded. There was something in his eyes, but his emotions carefully shielded by that damned mask. Sometimes, Toushirou envied him for that incredible control.

“Would she help them?” the captain-commander asked, and his tone was almost dangerous.

The Kuchiki head looked to answer but then paused and shook his head. As though appearing to consider his words carefully.

“That I do not know,” he admitted and hesitated again, casting a glance at the old man. “But if he is indeed Urahara Kisuke’s s-”

“Something yet unproven and irrelevant to this discussion,” the captain-commander cut in.

Kuchiki could only tip his head in silent apology. “If he… has a tie to Urahara Kisuke…”

“Then Kuukaku-san wouldn’t hesitate to help,” Aizen finished for him. There was a flicker in his voice. Almost resignation.

“Perhaps,” Kuchiki allowed.

The captain-commander made a noncommittal sound in his throat. “We’ve no choice then. Someone must be sent to question the Shiba family.” His fingers worked over the knobbed top of his zanpakutou and then tightened abruptly.”

“It isn’t so simple, soutaichou,” Aizen said thoughtfully, one hand placed on his chin. “They have moved to Rukongai and hidden their existence. They will be difficult to find.”

“Even so, it must be done,” Yamamoto declared with white knuckles.

Toushirou shifted from one foot to the other, glad that Kyouraku’s bulk hid that from view. He had little interest in being the first to volunteer. Playing fetch wasn’t his idea of fun. Though he had the worrisome thought that they would send him just because he was the youngest. He always got the shit assignments and could only wonder who they’d dumped them on before he was promoted.

No sooner had he thought that than a member of the Onmitsukidoh appeared at Yamamoto’s side. The man flashed into place with all the quiet subtlety that the group had perfected.

“Sir.”

Toushirou instantly paid more attention. For the man to interrupt a captain’s meeting, the news had to be important. Otherwise, no one in their right mind would risk the captain-commander’s anger.

“Speak,” Yamamoto commanded.

The kneeling man bowed lower. “Witnesses report five ryoka and Shihouin Yoruichi were spotted in Rukongai. One ryoka is recognized as the rogue Shinigami known as Kurosaki Ichigo.”

A murmur rippled through the gathered captains. But a glance from their commander quieted them in an instant.

“Their destination?”

“They seem to be heading deeper into Rukongai, but their target is unknown.”

Toushirou watched as Yamamoto’s shoulders straightened with the new information. “Is there anything else?”

“No, sir.”

Yamamoto flicked his finger. “You are dismissed.”

In the same manner in which he appeared, the man vanished.

“That confirms what we have already assumed,” Soifon stated, face betraying nothing despite the mention of her former mentor. “He’s not heading straight for Seireitei. He must have another plan. Shiba Kuukaku must be questioned.”

“Indeed.” Yamamoto inclined his head, gaze flickering briefly over the room.

Toushirou tried to make himself very small; he really didn’t want this one and did his utmost not to draw attention to himself. He scarcely dared breathe as he leaned back to conceal himself completely behind Kyouraku, trying to ignore the way the man smirked at him underneath his hat. Just as he attempted and failed to ignore Aizen’s gaze as it drifted over knowingly. Toushirou hadn’t been the only one to notice that the old man loved picking on him.

But for once, the captain-commander chose a different victim.

“Ichimaru-taichou, I leave that task to you. Use whomever you wish. And quickly. We are in the dark, and I refuse to be taken by surprise.”

That odd, wide smile never left Ichimaru’s face. “Yes, soutaichou,” he replied with a shallow bow.

Toushirou let out a sigh of utter relief.

“The rest of you, prepare for an attack,” Yamamoto continued, snapping his staff against the floor. “We don’t yet know the power of this boy. And considering his… affiliations, we cannot immediately assume he isn’t a danger.”

Kurotsuchi chuckled, a high-pitched sound that echoed eerily through the room. “I wonder what power Urahara has given him,” the scientist commented with a strange gesture.

“Has the prisoner said nothing?” Soifon questioned, ignoring Kurotsuchi just as much as everyone else did, Toushirou included.

Kuchiki, unchanged despite his connection to said prisoner, shook his head. “Nothing that would be of use.”

“Her punishment is a matter to be discussed at a later time,” Yamamoto declared with finality. “For now, we must focus on the ryoka and their intentions. Everyone is dismissed.”

No sooner had the old man spoken than the murmur of conversation began, the captains tapering off into groups of two or three as they headed for the doors. Toushirou didn’t want to linger either. No doubt Matsumoto would hound him for information the minute he stepped into the office.

Yet, despite his eagerness to depart, Toushirou was one of the last to leave. Aizen had offered to walk back together like they normally did, but something had urged Toushirou to refuse. To linger even as most of the others vanished to their respective divisions. That feeling was only validated as he noticed that Ichimaru was loitering outside with his vice-captain. Either he had called Kira or the blond had been waiting for him. Regardless, Toushirou couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. It wasn’t as if the two were trying to be discreet or had any need to be.

“Hisagi-kun got volunteered, too,” Ichimaru was saying. Perhaps explaining the scope of the mission to his vice-captain as the blond nodded obediently. “But be careful anyway, Izuru.”

Kira frowned, the action drawing deep lines into his face. Not that he wasn’t a particularly cheerful person to begin with.

“Why?”

Ichimaru shook his head. The two of them moved to a side alley. And Toushirou, lingering just outside the division, pretended to wait for someone as he nonchalantly eavesdropped. He too was curious. Why would Ichimaru warn his subordinate to be wary?

“Somethin’s weird,” Ichimaru continued, losing his smile briefly. “Urahara’s here fer revenge? Don’t seem like ‘im, yanno? And jes after that Kuchiki girl’s jailed fer hidin’ a rogue? Somethin’ don’t add up.”

Kira blinked up at his captain. “Something like what, taichou?”

Their voices lowered further. Toushirou just wished that he could see their faces better as his ears perked for information.

“I dunno really. There’s somethin’ about this ryoka boy. Somethin’ with him and Urahara that the old man doesn’t want us ta know.” He shrugged and rolled his shoulders. “But I do know that back when Urahara was exiled, he said he didn’ do it. That it was someone else an’ he was takin’ the fall fer it,” Ichimaru explained in a voice bordering on a whisper.

Toushirou’s eyebrows crawled up to his hairline. He hadn’t known that. He eagerly slid forward and tipped his head to the side to hear better. Luckily, Kira seemed just as curious and prompted his captain to continue, skepticism and wonder both tinting his voice.

“Someone else, taichou? But who?”

Ichimaru was silent for a long moment. And when he spoke again, Toushirou had to strain to even hear his voice.

“He claimed it was Aizen-taichou. Only he wasn’t a taichou back then.”

Toushirou felt his mouth drop open.

What the hell? Aizen? Aizen Sousuke? The man who was so nice and bright that sunlight practically shone out his ass? Who was always there with a helping hand or a friendly smile? One of the few people in all of Seireitei who didn’t treat Toushirou like some jumped kid? Who was actually competent in his post and saw no difference between the noble-born and those from Rukongai? Who had people begging to transfer into his division and who cried when they had to leave? Who Toushirou had tea with at least once a week? Who actually listened and seemed interested in hearing about the unfairness of the old bastard and his damn assignments? That Aizen?

Toushirou snorted to himself. Obviously, Urahara was delusional. To claim that Aizen would even think of something like that. Much less actually do it. This was the guy who captured spiders and released them outside his division instead of stepping on them. If Urahara was going to blame someone, he’d have been better off throwing the accusation on Kurotsuchi. Now that one was much more believable.

Aizen-taichou!” Kira’s voice was a high squeak. Louder than was circumspect and Toushirou suspected that Ichimaru was quick to shush him.

Their voices grew softer in tandem with the sound of footsteps heading away. The last Toushirou caught was Ichimaru confirming that statement and asking for his vice-captain to keep both eyes and ears open. That sometimes, things weren’t always as they seemed.

Understatement of the century. Toushirou himself was a prime example of that old adage.

But really? Aizen? Toushirou would believe that Ukitake and Kyouraku were traitors before that one. Or at least that they were up to no good with those damn knowing smiles and coos that he was so cute with his little crush. And it wasn’t a crush dammit! Just a healthy amount of respect for an admirable man. He didn’t stutter, and he most certainly didn’t blush! It was just admiration! Just-

“Hitsugaya-kun?”

Toushirou whirled at the sound of his name and the feel of a hand on his shoulder, and his heart leapt into his throat as his eyes focused on the man standing behind him. He felt his face heat up instantly. Even as he tried to tell himself it was only because he’d been caught doing something so childish and un-captain-like.

If Aizen noticed, he didn’t comment. He just stood there, curious and smiling, fingers warm on Toushirou’s shoulder before he pulled back.

And Toushirou fiercely denied that he suddenly felt colder without the contact. Not that the cold bothered him or anything.

“I thought you went on ahead,” Aizen continued, head tilting to the side. “Are you waiting for someone?”

Toushirou, face still flushed, looked away for a second. “No. I just… heard something interesting.”

“Oh?” the older man’s brows lifted. His brown eyes were gentle and kind behind his glasses, and Toushirou felt something flutter inside of him.

But that died a quick death in the face of what he’d overheard. And as much as he hated to do this, to question someone he considered a cross between a mentor and friend and maybe a little something more, now was as good a time as any.

“Is it true?” Toushirou asked, not even caring that he had to lift his chin just a smidge to meet Aizen’s gaze. “Did Urahara accuse you before his exile?”

Something flickered behind those eyes. Something tired and almost sad. As if it hurt him that Toushirou had to ask. Toushirou, for his part, felt guilt curl in his belly.

“He did,” Aizen answered so very softly and lifted his shoulders as though a heavy weight had settled there. “But it was completely unfounded. Dozens of people, including Kyouraku-san, saw me that night.”

Toushirou frowned, even as a surge of relief swept through him and made him suddenly feel lighter. He wondered just what Ichimaru was trying to stir. Why he’d repeat that at all. Even as he wondered about Urahara’s intentions as well.

“Then why would he accuse you?” Toushirou question, watching as the stirring of a light breeze tugged at Aizen’s hair.

The older man shook his head. “I wish I knew. I’m not entirely sure what he hoped to gain by blaming me. Perhaps to muddy the waters. Maybe I was just an easy target. It was no real secret that the head of my division at the time didn’t care for me. He certainly never would’ve defended me had he been able.” Aizen sighed. “But I suppose I can thank him in some small manner for his overt dislike.”

Toushirou furrowed his brow. Even as he wondered why anyone wouldn’t appreciate the man in front of him. He’d seen kittens that were more dislikable.

“How so?” he queried. Not really seeing the connection.

Aizen tipped his head back a bit. “Well, he had the tendency to leave me the majority of the work. Most particularly the jobs he didn’t like.”

“Like paperwork?” Toushirou questioned, well familiar with being the dumping ground for unwanted documents. Between his own lieutenant and the rest of the captains, it was a miracle if he could even see the surface of his desk by the end of the day.

“Quite,” Aizen allowed with a slight smile. “I spent most of the night in question – the night I was supposedly out doing all sorts of nefarious deeds – running back and forth between divisions. Delivering all manner of papers he’d left to the last minute. Without that, I probably would’ve just gone home.”

Which would’ve left him without an alibi. Not that Toushirou said that out loud or even felt that Aizen really needed one. Anyone with two eyes and smidgen of common sense – something in short supply in Seireitei – could see that he’d nothing to do with this mess.

Aizen, not privy to his thoughts, continued on. “Thankfully, Chamber 46 and Yamamoto-soutaichou saw reason. They dismissed the allegations. Even if they were unable to properly punish Urahara for his transgressions.”

Unable to properly punish him? What did he mean by that? But Urahara had been exiled! Wasn’t that his punishment?

Toushirou’s frown deepened. Then again, he wasn’t even certain what it was Urahara had been accused of doing. It was one of those things that everyone kept silent about. Where the records were kept under lock and key and one had to acquire the captain-commander’s permission to look. It was something that had occurred before Toushirou’s time. Before he’d even been in Soul Society. And obviously, no one had considered the information pertinent.

“What did Urahara do?”

Aizen raked a hand through his hair before it fell back into place. “That I don’t know. Not really. I was only a fukutaichou at the time and not privy to the details. Something terrible, I imagine.”

Something terrible…

Toushirou’s gaze shifted to the side as he considered. What could be so horrible? Something that merited exile and not execution?

He wanted to ask further, to question what Aizen knew. But there was something to Aizen’s gaze, something to the way his eyes flickered around. Like he was trying to tell Toushirou something without speaking aloud.

Finally, his eyes went back to Toushirou. And he gave a smile that was faintly tight around the edges.

“I’ve been rather remiss, I must confess,” Aizen said then in a complete change of subject. “I haven’t invited you over for tea at all this week, Hitsugaya-kun. If you would accompany me back to my division, I’m sure that we could fix that. Hinamori-kun will be delighted to see you.” He gestured towards his office.

Toushirou studied him for a second with narrowed eyes. Accompany him to his office… where no one could overhear them.

“I could use some tea after that meeting,” Toushirou replied, trying not to say it too loudly.

He fell into easy step with Aizen as they started to move away from the first division. Their words as they walked were light and impersonal. Related to work and nothing else. Not even hinting to what he was absolutely certain they would discuss once away from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears. He had no doubt that Aizen would tell him the truth about what was going on. At least, as much as he himself knew.

Ichimaru thought there was something to be suspicious about. Half of the Gotei 13 knew of the reasons behind Urahara’s so-called vengeance. But Toushirou knew nothing. How was he supposed to understand anything? How was he supposed to do his job and lead his division if he was going in blind?

A frustrating thing indeed.

At least one thing was certain. Those ryoka were not to be trusted.


“That’s a…”

“… really large cannon,” Ishida finished for Ichigo.

Who could only stare at the huge contraption with a growing sense of worry. Were they really planning what Ichigo thought they were planning?

“Precisely,” Kuukaku declared proudly and turned to grin at them. “And that cannon is what’s going to get you into Seireitei.”

Blanching, Tatsuki’s eyes darted between the massive cannon and her companions. “You… can’t be serious,” she put in with an air of apprehension. One that was echoed in the other teenagers. “You’re going to make us into human bullets?”

“Something like that,” Kuukaku answered, and her hand clapped down on her brother’s shoulder. “But don’t worry, my younger brother here will be with you every step of the way. He’ll make sure nothing goes wrong.”

“You know, any other time I’d be pretty damn happy to get yer praise, Onee-sama,” Ganju stated weakly. “But right now, I think I’ll settle for worried.”

Rolling her eyes, Kuukaku faced the group and gestured to herself with a pointed thumb. “I’m Shiba Kuukaku and also the first class fireworks master in this place! If you want something shot into the sky, I’m your woman. Perfect for dazzling lights or breaking into secure cities.”

Her words fell with a final air. Ichigo felt vaguely ill.

“Fireworks?” Inoue gasped and clapped her hands together in glee. “How pretty! Will you show us some, Kuukaku-san?”

Tatsuki shook her head. “Orihime…”

“Well, you have to admire her enthusiasm,” Yoruichi said with a chuckle. “Oh yes, Inoue-chan, we’ll definitely get to see some fireworks. Up close and personal.”

Kuukaku laughed. Deep and frightening. But she stopped, only to suddenly stomp one foot on the floor.

“Shiroganehiko! Koganehiko! Raise us up!”

“Yes, Kuukaku-sama!” the twins answered from some unknown location that Ichigo couldn’t fathom. And frankly, he didn’t want to ask.

His brow furrowed in confusion, wondering what Kuukaku meant by that, when suddenly the floor beneath them gave a great lurch. He fought for his balance. Noticing that his friends suffered from the same loss of equilibrium.

“The floor is moving,” Inoue exclaimed with the sort of glee only a child, a drunk, or an idiot could produce. And she was right.

As Ichigo and his friends gaped, the floor rose steadily beneath them. The ceiling split open to reveal the bright blue of the sky beyond, and the platform they stood on seemed to rise with the cannon remaining in the middle of it, entirely stationary. When the motion ended, they were all outside with a perfect view of the cannon stretching above them. Massive and ominous.

“The Kuukaku Cannon!” Ganju declared with a fist pump to the air. Only to shrink when his elder – and much smaller – sister tossed him a chastising glare.

“You can’t be serious!” Ishida spluttered. He paled even further than his usual shade, if that were at all possible. “Shoot us out of that thing? We won’t survive! Agh!”

Secretly, Ichigo gloated at the sight of the Quincy being smacked in the head with some sort of globe-type object. Stop his nagging then and there. Ichigo felt justified watching it bounce off Ishida’s head before Tatsuki caught it neatly. Her hands clutched the strange sphere with interest.

“What’s this?” She turned it over and around in her grasp as Ishida collapsed indignantly, a large knot already forming.

“It’s a reisyukaku,” Kuukaku explained as another globe came flying through the air, this time towards Ichigo. Luckily, he was alert enough to catch it before it collided with his skull.

The moment his fingers touched the smooth glass, Ichigo could feel his reiatsu pour into the sphere without even having to try. The material seemed to tug at him without asking. Ichigo fought it at first before realizing that was the purpose of the thing. Frowning, he concentrated and stopped his spiritual energy from leaking out of him. Reducing the torrent to a more dignified trickle.

“Wow!” Inoue gasped, stirring him from his concentration. “You’re inside a bubble, Kurosaki-kun! It’s so pretty!”

Blinking, Ichigo glanced around him. And sure enough, surrounding his body on all sides was an opaque sphere of some sort. It rippled with every fluctuation of his reiatsu but still formed a perfect sphere. Experimentally, he withdrew and added his reiatsu. Watched the bubble shrink and expand in return. Heh. That was pretty cool actually.

“It’s not a bubble,” Kuukaku corrected.

“It’s the cannonball!” Ganju inserted desperate to get a word in edgewise. And when eyes turned towards him in interest, he continued, “See, ya can’t just fly into Seireitei. They’ve got a barrier. This’ll help ya punch through it.”

“We’re bullets,” Tatsuki murmured. Playing around with her globe as though it were a mere soccer ball and not something important. “We’re live bullets.”

“Or dead ones really, considering where you are,” Kuukaku put in cheerfully and with a boisterous laugh. “It’s a pretty complicated explanation. So I’ll save you the trouble by saying, if you don’t use this as a protection, you’ll get blown to bits. So practice, practice, practice, children. We launch tomorrow!”

“Tomorrow,” Ishida commented weakly from his position on the floor. He didn’t sound any more thrilled about their “launch” than Ichigo was feeling.

“Ganju!” Kuukaku barked as her brother sprang to attention with the air of a trained dog. “Take them to the training room and show them how to use the reisyukaku.”

“Yes, onee-sama!”

Ichigo was with the others in not being too thrilled about this. But as he trudged along after them, his collar was suddenly snagged by an arm. He was yanked backwards with no grace at all. Ichigo yelped as he stumbled, whirling to find Kuukaku smirking at him from her grip in the back of his shitagi.

“What the hell?”

She grinned. “You don’t need any practice, big boy,” Kuukaku answered devilishly, releasing her hold.

Ichigo scowled as he tugged his shihakushou back into place. “That’s no reason to halfway choke me!”

An arm slung over his shoulders, Yoruichi pressing up against his side as she swung a hand around to poke at his cheek. “Now, now, Ichigo. Mind that temper of yours. Don’t tea and cookies sound much better than hours of practice?”

Ichigo felt tired. Incredibly exhausted. And they hadn’t even done anything yet! It was all his aunt’s fault. She and his dad’s crazy ass friends and their insane ideas which had done nothing but try his patience.

“At this point, I’m leaning towards training of any kind,” Ichigo answered honestly as he leaned away from her overbearing presence.

His aunt was having none of that, already guiding him after Kuukaku as they strode back down the hallway and into the room where they had originally met the one-armed lady. Though Ichigo was hard-pressed to call her a lady or even a woman. Perhaps one-armed beast served her better. One would think that this dad would’ve least warned him or something. He claimed to love Ichigo, but he really didn’t seem to care all that much about his safety.

“Nonsense,” Kuukaku dismissed after flopping back down onto her bed of pillows with about as much grace as a sack of rice and twice the busty bounce of Inoue playing volleyball. Now, there was an image.

Ichigo, guided by his aunt’s arm, had no choice but to sit along the floor with Yoruichi. A small space was between them in the middle. As though he and the two women were waiting for something to fill the emptiness.

Kuukaku snapped her fingers before aunt and nephew had so much as settled. Causing both twins to appear before Ichigo could even blink. As if they’d materialized from thin air or something equally magical. In this crazy place, he wouldn’t doubt it.

“Yes, ma’am?” they said in unison, bowing shallowly.

She waved an indifferent hand. “Tea, please. For myself and my guests.”

It amazed Ichigo just a bit that she even knew how to say something so gracious.

Their eyes flickered to Yoruichi and Ichigo. And something glinted a bit like adulation in their gazes.

“Anything for Shihouin-sama and Yoruichi-dono,” the one Ichigo thought was Kuroganehiko said.

And then, they were gone with the same speed and magic trick that had led to their arrival. But Ichigo could only feel his eyes twitch as he thought over what they’d just said.

Wait a kami bedamned minute! Shihouin-sama and Yoruichi-dono?

Yoruichi chose that moment to elbow him in the side. As if she could read his mind.

“I don’t think they were just talking about me,” she said with a wicked laugh and a wink.

“I’m not a Shihouin,” Ichigo replied with overt and almost hostile confusion.

He’d been confused for an Urahara a fair few times. Mostly because people expected father and son to have the same family name and thought that his orange hair was dyed. But he looked nothing like his aunt. Well, except for the eyes. But that was more circumstance than genetics really. He remembered having brown eyes before… Well, before he’d become whatever the hell it was he called himself now.

“I’m not a Shihouin,” he repeated when they said nothing to support his claim. “But Rukia did ask once if I was a Shiba.”

His aunt snickered. “Maybe somewhere in there,” she commented with a dismissive wave as the twins returned with a platter of tea and cookies that actually smelled rather enticing to Ichigo’s growling stomach. “All nobility is related somehow. Comes from interbreeding. Kuukaku and I are related on both sides of our family. We’re what… double third cousins?”

Kuukaku chuckled and reached for the one thing that was not tea on the plate and actually suspiciously resembled sake. Like the two terrors needed to get drunk.

“Fifth cousins?”

“Half-sisters?” Yoruichi suggested wickedly.

The two women broke into amused titters. Clinking filled bowls together and downing what had to be expensive sake all in one shot. Barely stopping to savor the flavor.

Ichigo considered escape. In fact, he strongly considered just vanishing in a flash of shunpo and making a break for it. Bad enough he had to suffer his aunt on a near daily basis. But to add this crazy woman was more than his sanity could take. And worse, he had to face them alone!

He sighed, reaching for the solace of a cookie. Even as the edge of his senses detected the subtle rise and fall of varying reiatsu. Ichigo concentrated, able to recognize Chad and Ishida’s easily. It took a few more moments for him to distinguish Inoue from Tatsuki. The latter easier than the former thanks to their longer acquaintance.

“You’re not a Shiba,” Kuukaku finally said through her titters. “At least, not directly. Isshin was a Kuchiki.”

Ichigo scowled at the name. “I don’t want to know about him.” He bit fiercely into his cookie and sent crumbs flying. Only to pause. “Wait. You said Kuchiki? You mean… Rukia?”

“Not by blood. But yes, you would be related to her,” Yoruichi explained as she poured more sake for herself and Kuukaku. The clear liquid sloshed into the curved, elegant bowls. “As I understand it, Rukia was adopted into the clan. She and her sister originally came from Rukongai. But her sister married the head of the family, and Rukia was adopted in later by the same man. She calls him her brother, but they’re technically in-laws.”

“Really?” Ichigo couldn’t help but question. “Who is he? The head of the family, I mean.”

“That would be Byakuya-bo,” Kuukaku put in with a smirk. “I’m sure your dad has told you all about him.” She and Yoruichi traded a devilish snort.

Ichigo honestly didn’t want to know.

“Kuchiki Byakuya… Little Bya-bo,” his aunt continued after a sip of sake. “He’s the head of the clan now and the captain of the sixth division. Inherited both from his grandfather. Though admittedly there was a placeholder for a few decades before Byakuya took over.”

“Placeholder.” Kuukaku sniggered at that one.

Yoruichi shrugged. “You have to admit that’s what she was. Just holding the division until Byakuya was old enough to take it over fully.”

“Who knew that such a whinny and snobbish brat could actually turn out to be a pretty decent captain?” Kuukaku questioned rhetorically. “Well… decent if he removed that stick from his ass. Stuffy bastard.”

“Prissy bastard,” his aunt corrected. “Prissy. Swishing that hair of his everywhere and with that damn scarf trailing along behind him. I caught a glimpse of him when he nabbed his sister. Just before the gate closed. Can’t say I’m surprised by how he looks.”

Kuukaku lifted a brow as she took a swig from her bowl. “And how does he look these days? Haven’t seen him in decades. Not since before his wedding. Bastard didn’t even invite me.”

Truthfully, Ichigo could see why. But he wisely kept that to himself as he sat back to listen. As much as he hated Isshin, it was kind of interesting to hear about his family. To hear about people who had the same blood running through their veins.

“Like you’d expect,” Yoruichi countered. “Like a great big brat. The prom princess who didn’t get her way and is now giving everyone the silent treatment.”

“Wait,” Ichigo interrupted before she could go on, nibbling on a cookie absentmindedly. “You’re sure that I’m related to this guy? This doesn’t sound like anyone in our family at all. Not me and certainly not Karin or Yuzu.”

“Karin and Yuzu?” his host questioned with a tilted head.

“My sisters.”

That explanation only made Kuukaku guffaw and slap her hand against her knee. “Gods bedamned. Ki-kun was certainly busy while he was away. ”

“More like Isshin was. But yes, you’re really related to Byakuya,” Yoruichi responded with a tug of his sleeve after she refilled his teacup. “He’s… hm… Isshin’s first cousin once removed on his dad’s side. Which would make him your second cousin, I believe. Though admittedly, Isshin didn’t much look like a Kuchiki.”

“He had that Shiba look to him,” Kuukaku acknowledged. “Which he should since his mother and my great-grandmother were sisters.”

Ichigo felt his eyes bug out. “Great-grandmother? Is that even possible.”

Yoruichi just laughed. She nudged him in the side.

“You forget… Shinigami live a lot longer than people in the living world. Decades if not hundreds of years. There are some captains running around who barely look older than I am but have been at their post since the Yayoi period. For two thousand years or more.”

“Am I related to these people?” Ichigo tried to tell himself that his voice wasn’t as high-pitched as it sounded.

Kuukaku and Yoruichi traded a glance. The former tipped her head back to study the ceiling as she thought, while the latter rubbed a finger over her chin.

“Some of them,” Kuukaku finally said. “I think that Ukitake-san once told me that Isshin and Byakuya were his great nephews several times over through his youngest sister. Or maybe it was his youngest brother.” She waved her hand. “Either way, one of them married into the Kuchiki or their kids did. And there’s a little Kasumioji in your line.”

“That’s my mother’s family,” his aunt inserted. “Mine and Kisuke’s.”

Kuukaku nodded. “One of them is the head of the Kidoushuu now. Took over a few decades after Tessai was ousted.” She reached over to pour more sake. “You’ve got some Yamamoto in there, too. That’s the soutaichou’s family,” she informed Ichigo. “His oldest son married a Shiba and took that name. But I can’t remember if that line died out or not. And I can’t remember if there’s any Unohana or Kyouraku that snuck in. I’d have to get out the genealogy charts and look. But there should actually be some Shihouin in there now that I think about it. They and the Kuchiki marry every few generations. If you weren’t already her heir, it might be close enough for you to actually be a contender for the headship.”

Ichigo’s eyes were huge. He turned to his aunt for confirmation, but Yoruichi just waved it away.

“Like we said,” she put in with a smile, “the nobles all interbreed. I’m surprised we don’t all have five eyes and seven arms as closely related as we are. The only one of our little group growing up who wasn’t his own cousin five times over was your dad. Was Kisuke. And that’s only because his father was from Rukongai. New blood. That’s what makes sure the family trees still fork.”

“Not that most of the high nobles marry commoners. Not unless they’re really powerful.” Kuukaku added, “Byakuya was a weird one for that. Marrying a slip of a girl with barely enough reiatsu to get into the Academy.”

Yoruichi glanced at her over her sake bowl for a long moment. “Her sister, however, she’s got some-”

But whatever she was going to say was forever lost to the sound of thundering feet.

“Onee-sama!”

The doors threw open with little ceremony. Ganju stood in the aperture, looking out of breath.

“They’re ready!”

Thunk!

An empty sake bowl struck Ganju squarely in the forehead, only to drop down and hit the floor with a clatter. Ganju’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He collapsed backwards with a large enough thud to reverberate through the matted floor and echo down the hallway. Ichigo tracked the trajectory of the throw to find Kuukaku rolling her shoulder as though preparing for another pitch. Her head stretched to the side, bones in her neck popping.

“Sorry sot still hasn’t learned his manners,” she said, sniffing.

As though pegging her brother upside the head with dishware was an everyday occurrence. And perhaps it was. Ichigo didn’t know enough to hazard a guess.

Kuukaku turned towards Ichigo then. Just as one of the twins – Shiroganehiko perhaps? – hurried forward with another bowl to replace the one she’d thrown.

“But your friends have learned, and quickly at that. It’s a good thing.”

“Does that mean you’re going to… fire us today?” Ichigo asked, struggling to find the right word.

Before she could so much as answer, the loud growling of his stomach made her lips curve and Ichigo sink back in embarrassment.

“I think staying here a night would benefit all of us,” Yoruichi said with a poke at her nephew. “If poor Ichigo is hungry, then everyone else is probably, too.”

“But-”

Kuukaku waved a hand, dismissing his protest. “Don’t be so eager to run into the heart of danger, boy. The Kuchiki girl will live another day. It’s not like they’re going to execute her or anything. You, however, look fit to collapse.”

Ichigo bristled. He’d rested plenty before coming to Soul Society. And yeah, maybe he was a bit hungry. But that was only because nervousness preventing him from doing anything more than nibbling a couple of cookies. Judging by the look on Kuukaku’s face and the fact that she had another empty sake bowl in her hand, Ichigo knew he shouldn’t protest. Besides, his aunt looked to be on her side.

“Whatever.” He folded his arms over his chest and scowled, tilting his head back in an almost haughty gesture.

But that only made Kuukaku laugh and slap her knee again. “Now that’s Byakuya right there. That’s him exactly.”

Ichigo narrowed his eyes and stared down his nose at her.

“That, too.” Her laughter was loud, resounding, and annoying. “You really are a Kuchiki, kid. Even if you don’t have the name. You’ve got the moves down perfectly.”

Ichigo felt his eye twitch.

That only made her laugh harder.

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