[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect Note

I am deeply, deeply sorry. But it seems after five years I still haven’t managed to work up the interest in this fic enough to properly update it. The problem with finishing this story is partly that it requires an in-depth knowledge of the universe. You can’t completely rewrite canon based on a single premise without keeping in mind actual canon. Or at least, I can’t. Not and be proud of my efforts.

And with that comes the fact I’d have to re-read/re-watch Bleach and, to put it plainly, I don’t want to. What caused me to lose interest in Bleach is a long and yet boring story so I won’t go into it. But it did cause me to have so little interest in the series that I don’t even want to revisit the beginning when I still liked it. To get this fic moving again, that’s what I’d have to do.

Therefore, I don’t think, as of this time, there’s much of a chance of me ever finishing this. I’m not saying there’s no chance of it in the future, but after five years, I do think my readers deserve an answer for their patience.

So I’ve updated below the nine pages of chapter nine here. And then I’m summarizing what I had intended for the rest of the story that way you are not left hanging.

After a thirty day period, or some time after when I do remember, I’ll be deleting this story from this website. I don’t like half-finished fics lingering about, reminding me of my failure.

For those who want to read the half-finished fic and the summarized events after I delete it, I will keep a copy of the story on my personal website (http)(:)(/)(crya2evans).(tripod).comin the Fic Graveyard.

So once again, I am so sorry that I can’t get this story complete. I hope that at least knowing how it was going to go and end will partly make up for that.

And though it should be obvious by now, I will reiterate. This was last updated five years ago. It was largely written five to six years ago. All of my plot outline and notes were written six years ago. Therefore, it does not take into account anything that has happened in the manga in the past six years. Not any of the revelations about Ichigo’s origins, or revelations about other characters.

I stopped reading Bleach after the Butterflaizen arc. I am aware, to a certain extent, of Ichigo’s new background thanks to a friend of mine who still reads Bleach, but I have not ever taken that information into account. I have not updated this outline in six years. Should I choose to continue this someday (however unlikely), I will not be taking any of this new information into account.

That being said, I present to you half of chapter nine.


Chapter Nine: Pride and Blade

“Kira-fukutaichou, and Hisagi Shuuhei-fukutaichou have been sent to find and question Shiba Kuukaku concerning her connection to the ryoka,” Iemura Yasuchika, third seat of the fourth division, droned from the front of the meeting room, accounting for the absence of two of the vice-captains.

Ise Nanao had always believed that Iemura must have taken lessons in boring oration from Yamamoto-soutaichou. He had a voice fit to put anyone to sleep, despite Nanao’s great efforts to pay full attention. To be honest, however, there was little for Iemura to report, making this meeting both a waste of time and energy.

“Witnesses confirm the arrival of six ryoka in west Seireitei, just beyond the twelfth division an hour prior,” Iemura continued, and finally Nanao perked up, this tidbit of information actually proving interesting.

“But… I heard that there were seven,” Hinamori Momo inserted, looking faintly disturbed at the process. It was unheard of for so many to pierce the barrier surrounding Seireitei. The mere act of it provided clues to the level of strength the Shinigami would have to face.

Iemura looked at her over the top of his glasses. “Six ryoka, one known entity,” he clarified, and winced as though reluctant to admit the information. “Shihouin Yoruichi is among them.”

Gasps rang throughout the room, but Nanao was far too controlled to let her surprise show. Though they should have all expected it. Shihouin’s connection to Urahara wasn’t a secret and she had disappeared with him those hundred years prior. It stood to reason that they would be working together, though Nanao hadn’t expected Shihouin to reveal herself in quite an obvious fashion. It wasn’t the second division’s way, after all.

“What about the others?” Nanao asked, adjusting her glasses. “What do we know about them?”

Iemura shook his head. “Very little, I’m afraid. One we are certain is extremely powerful, the Shinigami rogue. We can only assume the others carry abilities of their own.”

Matsumoto frowned, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “A rogue Shinigami? From what division?”

“No one knows. No one recognizes him.”

More murmurs rippled through the room. This sort of incident was unprecedented. No wonder everyone was confused.

“And their objective?” Iba interjected, his voice easily cutting through the muttered conversation to return their meeting to the task at hand. “Do we at least know this?”

Iemura shrugged, rolling up his report and tucking it under his arm. “Nothing but speculation.” He sighed, fiddling with the rim of his glasses. “Yamamoto-soutaichou suspects that their appearance has something to do with the exile Urahara.”

Confusion and understand ratcheted up the tension in the room. It was a name some of them didn’t and couldn’t recognize. Nanao was only familiar with it because she had heard her captain mention the man a time or two and had accidentally overheard Kyouraku and Ukitake discussing Urahara with notes of heavy regret in their voices. They always clammed up the moment they caught her listening, however, and couldn’t be pressed to elaborate more on the matter.

It was frustrating.

“What about Urahara?” Matsumoto asked, flipping her hair over her shoulder in a well-practiced move. “Revenge or something?”

“We don’t know,” Iemura answered and shifted from foot to foot, barely repressing a sigh.

Omaeda grunted, scratching at his chin. “We don’t know much of anything, do we?” he muttered under his breath with a very unattractive snort.

“We know enough to be careful. Whoever these people are, they are organized and skilled. With Shihouin Yoruichi leading them, they won’t be walking blind,” Nanao inserted, annoyed by the lackadaisical attitude the other vice-captains seemed to have adopted. “We need to be cautious since we don’t know what, precisely, they are capable of.”

There was a mulled silence in the meeting room as they gathered vice-captain’s considered the state of affairs.

“Well,” Tetsuzaemon said into the silence. “What’s the plan then? What’re we doin’ about them?”

Hinamori suddenly turned around in circles as though looking for something. “Wait a minute. Where did Abarai go?”

o0o0o

Ichigo landed solidly on a roof, sending a few tiles skittering out from under his feet to crash loudly to the ground. He winced at the noise, eyes darting around to see if anyone had noticed it. Nothing stirred.

“How graceful,” Yoruichi teased, landing beside him with a barely audible tap of her shoes against the roof, managing to not disturb a single tile.

“Men aren’t supposed to be graceful,” Ichigo grumbled, fingers tight around Zangetsu’s hilt, the feeling of reiatsu in the air crawling over his skin. He wasn’t used to being around this much reiryoku.

Yoruichi chuckled at him. “That’s just an excuse. Don’t worry, I won’t tell Ki-chan how clumsy you’ve gotten.”

Ichigo scowled at her. “Not like he needs to know anyway,” he muttered, eyes narrowing as they surveyed the surrounding area.

They were closer to the tower now. She could see the white building looming over them. And directly in front of them were the long, winding steps that would take them higher to it. He felt his aunt expanding tendrils of reaitsu, no doubt searching for possible dangerous Shinigami nearby.

Taking a slow breath, Ichigo concentrated on doing just the same. His brow furrowed. There was no one immediately close but…

Ichigo’s spine prickled and he rose to his feet, dropping down from the rooftop to land quietly on the ground below. His hand found Zangetsu and he curled his fingers around the bandage-wrapped hilt. He focused on the staircase, instincts screaming for him to be alert. He wasn’t sure what he had sensed, only knowing that he had sensed something.

“Someone’s coming,” Ichigo said as his aunt landed beside him, tossing him a confused look, only to jerk her head towards the stair as footsteps became plainly audible.

Whoever it was hadn’t bothered to hide their presence. Obviously, they wanted Ichigo and Yoruichi to know they were coming. They were looking for a fight. Ichigo flexed his fingers around Zangetsu’s hilt. He would be more than willing to give them one.

A man appeared. Ichigo didn’t recognize him from his dad’s descriptions, but the Shinigami had to be relatively high level. The reiatsu radiating from his frame indicated that much. Third seat? No, definitely a vice-captain.

His grip on Zangetsu tightened. “Who are you?” Ichigo demanded, his reiatsu coiling tightly around his frame, preparing for the inevitable battle.

“It’s rude to ask someone’s name when you haven’t given it yourself.” The red-haired Shinigami smirked. “Well, it’s not like I don’t know who ya are anyway.”

Ichigo scowled. “That still doesn’t tell me who you are, asshole.”

“Well, aren’t you friendly.” The tattooed Shinigami paused at the top of the stairs, one hand resting on the hilt of his zanpakutou. His other hand lifted his sunglasses, pushing them up to rest on his forehead. “Abarai Renji, vice-captain of the sixth division.”

Wouldn’t his dad be proud that Ichigo’s senses had grown so attuned. “I knew your reiatsu wasn’t captain class.”

The flush of anger on Abarai’s face contrasted nicely with the dark tattoos. His grip on his blade tightened, white-knuckled, reiatsu leaking free in furious tendrils.

Ichigo frowned, however, as more of Abarai’s reiatsu touches at his senses. “Though it does feel familiar.” As in, lingering in the area after Rukia had been taken. “Been in the Living World lately?”

“Ya’d know if I were, but ya were hidin’ like a coward.”

Ichigo’s jaw set.

Just behind him, he could feel his aunt’s reaitsu shifting. “Ichigo,” she warned.

He shook his head. “No, this bastard wants a fight. He’s itching for one.” He drew Zangetsu, the sound of metal sliding through a sheath loud in the tense stillness. “And I’m pretty sure it’s personal.”

Abarai’s eyes narrowed. “You’re damn right, it’s personal,” the Shinigami snarled, his reiatsu rising around him in steady waves as he, too, draws his zanpakutou. “Whatever happens to Rukia is all yer fault and I’m not letting that slide.”

“You’re the one that dragged her back! Don’t give me that bullshit!” Ichigo growled, hand slashing through the air.

“Don’t pretend you care, rogue.” The flush on Abarai’s face darkened to full fury. “Revenge and rescue don’t go hand in hand.”

“Revenge? What the fuck are you talking about?” Ichigo’s confused, but also, annoyed. This Shinigami didn’t have a clue what was really going on, did he? He was just spouting nonsense while trying to provoke a fight.

Yet… Abarai’s reiatsu was also filled with turmoil, rising thick and fetid across the open space between them. Sharp and jagged on the edges, as though he was barely holding on to his control. It felt bitter, like guilt and regret and shame, and there’s an assload of something else in Abarai’s words. Something that told Ichigo this definitely wasn’t a Soul Society sanctioned attack.

Somehow, Abarai had gotten it in his head that Rukia’s fate was Ichigo’s fault. He would be right, but why would it matter to him? Why should he care what happened to Rukia? For the life of Ichigo, he couldn’t remember Rukia ever mentioning an Abrarai, not that she talked about her personal life much. But here Abarai was, talking like a knight that failed to protect his princess and determined to slay the big bad evil that took her away.

Oh yeah, this fight was personal.

Abarai approached, steps filled with purpose, and Ichigo couldn’t fight down the anticipation that boiled in his blood. He hadn’t fought anyone but his aunt, his father and Tessai for the past three days. The knowledge of his bankai was like an eager predator in the back of his mind, but Ichigo won’t need it here. It was his trump card.

Tensa Zangetsu? Shirosaki laughed at him, gravelly and amused. And here I thought we had somethin’ special, aibou.

Ichigo ignored him, focused on the vice-captain with that intent to kill etched into his features.

“Your death is mine, rogue,” Renji said with deadly promise in his tone, sounding like a vaudeville villain.

Ichigo smirked. “We’ll see about that, vice-captain,” he sneered and then, they were less than two feet apart, swords whipping through the air and the sound ringing with the kiss of metal as their blades met for the first time.

The force of the blow reverberated up Ichigo’s arm and he felt an insane urge to laugh bubble up inside of him. Sure, he had fought against Hollow, but this was the first time he’d ever faced a human opponent with killing intent. Abarai’s anger and disgust and shame swirled in his reaitsu, which lashed out at Ichigo as though it had a life of it’s own, and Ichigo felt his own rise in greeting, twisting and whirling, a sheer cascade of blue-black power.

Abarai’s pupils dilated in surprise, realization pouring down the vice-captain’s face. And then Abarai gave a fanged smirk that sent chills down Ichigo’s spine because he knew his own face must reflect the same.

“I think I’m goin’ ta enjoy this,” Abarai said.

“No more than me,” Ichigo retorted as their gazes met across their crossed zanpakutou, Zangetsu vibrating against the unknown sword. “I won’t accept defeat here. I’m not going to let Rukia die.”

Abarai’s surprise ripples through his reaitsu and Ichigo uses that to his advantage, forcing Abarai back a step and slashing Zangetsu through the air, catching the tip against Abarai’s shihakushou. A flutter of fabric drops to the ground, revealing a thin slice in the vice-captain’s chest, which quickly beads blood.

Abarai lifted a hand, touching the small cut, rubbing the blood between his fingers as he frowned.

“First blood,” Ichigo taunted, feeling anticipation surge through him so strongly that he was forced to swallow it down. Damned Hollow getting too excited. He didn’t want to kill Abarai after all. The redhead could be a potential ally.

Abarai’s grip on his zanpakutou tightened and he glared at Ichigo, eyes blazing. “I’m not going to ask what ya meant by that,” he said, ignoring Ichigo’s prior taunt. “I’m just going to beat the truth out of ya.”

Ichigo’s fingers flexed around Zangetsu. “Go ahead and try.”

Abarai growled and his zanpakutou flashed through the air, aiming directly for the vulnerable skin of Ichigo’s throat. Ichigo moved quickly, bringing up Zangetsu in retaliation, barely flinching when their swords met with a noisy clang of metal. He could feel the redhead’s zanpakutou vibrating against his own, their reiatsu clashing with a fierce smack of powerful pressure.

Ichigo would have to play this carefully. He knew he was stronger than Abarai, and more skilled. His bankai would be overkill on a man of lieutenant level.

Soft-hearted human. Shirosaki sneered.

Practical human, Ichigo retorted and narrowed his eyes, his focus shifting entirely to the battle between himself and Abarai.

Quick and efficient, he told himself. To battle it was.

o0o0o

“I think we’re lost,” Orihime commented, looking around them pointedly.

Tatsuki snorted, cracking her knuckles noisily as though itching for a fight that was sure to find them soon enough. “We’d have to know where we are to be lost, Orihime,” she corrected.

Uryuu, for his part, refrained from commenting. His senses were already crawling enough as it was. Too much Shinigami around him. He hated the feel and the stench of them. His fingers were twitching, and he couldn’t deny that being in Seireitei, surrounded by the reishi that composed everything, was taking its toll. Power all but flooded into him until he vibrated with it.

“We could stop and ask someone for directions,” Orihime suggested, with that bright naivete that was somehow both irritating and endearing.

Tatsuki tossed her best friend a sour look. “I can see that going over so well. Excuse me, random Shinigami who is our enemy, might you help us? Oh, and if you don’t mind, don’t stab us with your sharp sword.”

Orhime huffed. “At least I’m offering a suggestion.”

Uryuu ground to a halt, half-twisting to see over his shoulder. He heard footsteps, along with the press of active reiatsu. “Quiet,” he said, holding up a hand. “Someone’s coming.”

“Should we hide?” Orihime asked.

Tatsuki cracked her knuckles. “Hell, no. I’m ready to test out these new powers of mine.”


That’s all I had of chapter nine unfortunately. Here is the synopsis/summary of what I intended for future chapters and where I wanted the story to go.

Tatsuki, Ishida, and Orihime manage to kill Mayuri, though not intentionally. Tatsuki delivers a blow to his head that’s meant to incapacitate him, but instead, it kills him.

Ichigo defeats Abarai without killing him but gets mildly injured. Yoruichi snatches the first fourth division member she sees, who happens to be Hanatarou. His teammates never even notice he’s gone. They let Hanatarou go afterward, but he decides to help them both because they were nice to him and because he doesn’t want Rukia to die either.

Chad and Ganju are running around when they run into Ikkaku and Yumichika. Fade to black.

Ichigo runs into Kenpachi, a fight ensues.

Chad and Ganju are beaten but Shunsui steps in to stop them from being killed. He puts them in the eighth division holding cell with a healer.

Tatsuki and Ishida go to the Eleventh Division to find Orihime because Tatsuki won’t leave her with those ruffians so they avoid encountering Tousen. Kenpachi decides to help them and Tatsuki explains that Urahara, aka Ichigo’s dad, and Yoruichi trained them.

Meanwhile, Aizen gets dead, suspicions are born, and Kenpachi knows Ichigo didn’t do it. Hinamori attacks Gin, not because she thinks he did it, but because he made a careless remark about Aizen and her mind snapped after seeing Aizen dead.

Ichigo runs into Byakuya on the bridge and kicks his ass. Byakuya recognizes in him some of Yoruichi’s distinctive fighting style, something Ichigo could have only learned from her.

When Ukitake shows up, however, Ichigo runs. He doesn’t think he can fight and win against Ukitake and Yoruichi also forces him to run away because she knows Ichigo can’t win. She also knows Ukitake isn’t going to stand by and let Rukia die.

Hanatarou frees Ganju and Chad from the Eleventh Division.

Hinamori breaks free from jail to attack Ichigo and Hitsugaya tries to stop her because if Ichigo took down Aizen, then she can’t beat Ichigo and Hitsugaya doesn’t want her to get dead. Hinamori gets mad, thinking that Hitsugaya is in on the plot. Aizen’s last conversation with her, after all, had hinted that he felt he might be betrayed by someone he trusted. He’d warned her to be cautious, that even those she felt were dear to her might someday turn their back on her.

Gin actually shows up to help stop Hinamori and it’s his well-timed kidoh that knocks her out so Hitsugaya thinks he’s on their side.

They take Hinamori to the fourth division and Gin suggests that Hitsugaya check out Chamber 46.

With no one in custody, they move the execution up. Ichigo and Renji face off again and this is when Renji asks Ichigo to save Rukia because Renji can’t do it.

Ichigo breaks the thing, stand and all, and takes off with Rukia. Shunsui and Ukitake give chase. Ukitake fights Ichigo while Shunsui takes Ichigo and runs. Ichigo tries to chase after her but Ukitake gets in the way.

Yamamoto chases Shunsui and catches up. Yoruichi helps Shunsui fight the old man. Renji takes Ruki and runs.

Hitsugaya arrives at Chamber 46 with Matsumoto and discovers the carnage. Aizen is there. He strikes down Matsumoto and has Gin strike down Hitsugaya, briefly giving them a glimpse of power they never knew Gin possessed.

Tousen snatches Rukia and Renji.

Tatsuki, Ishida, Orhime, Chad and Ganju fight Byakuya. Hanatarou helps via kidoh. Hinamori shows up thinking Ichigo will be there and helps Byakuya.

Unohana and Soifon arrive in Chamber 46, find the carnage and Hitsugaya and Matsumoto. Matsumoto is just conscious enough to tell them what happened before passing out, not that they can’t sense Aizen’s reiatsu.

Unohana’s announcement stops Ukitake from fighting Ichigo and there is no victor with Ichigo encouraging Ukitake to understand.

Ichigo races back, beats Ukitake there, but gets beat up by Aizen. They manage to rescue Rukia, but Aizen and his allies disappear into Hueco Mundo.

And that is where my outline ends. I suspect I would have outlined more had I gotten further into the storyline, but as my muses up and left me. I never got around to it.

I had vague ideas of dealing with the other Arcs, perhaps culimating in an AU ending, especially since I was so displeased with the the Butterflaizen arc. I know I was planning on an Ichigo/Adult!Nel pairing as well as Urahara/Ukitake, but that’s about as far as my ideas went.

If you have any questions about my outline, I’m afraid I can’t answer them. I can’t remember why I made the plot decisions I made or where I intended them to go.

If you want to ask whether or not you can ghost-write this for me, take over this fic, or something similar, the answer is ‘no’. I’m fairly possessive of my work, even if I’m not going to finish it. Though if I do allow someone to do so, it will be my brain-twin Lady Azar de Tameran, because she helped plot and write this fic in the beginning.

Feel free to ask me any other questions you might have. But I will be taking this entire story down in about a month or two.

I hope this soothes at least a little of your anger. I know it’s not the same as actual fic and I’m sorry it took me this long to realize I could never continue this.

Warm Regards,

Dracoqueen22

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[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 09

Chapter Eight – The Shooting Star Project

She found him sitting outside, perched on Kuukaku’s roof between the two reaching hands. He was gazing off towards Rukongai and the high walls of Seireitei beyond it. Her nephew’s habit of high solitude would never change, Yoruichi surmised. Sometimes, he was more like Kisuke than either of them realized. Despite their dubious blood ties.

“You should be sleeping, Ichigo,” she commented as she moved across the roof to join him. The wind buffeted at her and tugged her hair from its high ponytail as she came up beside her nephew.

“Can’t.” His arms were balanced over his drawn-out knees, Zangetsu lying across the roof next to him.

“Troubled thoughts?”

Ichigo shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said with narrowed eyes. “There’s something else going on. I can feel it. This can’t just be about Rukia and whatever they think she did or has. It makes no sense. Even if she’s one of the elite Kuchiki. There has to be something else we don’t see.”

Lowering herself onto the roof beside him, Yoruichi marveled at his insight. Even as she was struck with the realization that she didn’t understand her nephew any more than his father did. It was a chilling thought. Especially with how good she was at reading people and the fact that she’d known him since birth. As much as he was like Kisuke, Ichigo was also someone else – something else – entirely. And sometimes, she wasn’t even sure if that something was human.

“What makes you say that?” she asked. But it wasn’t nearly as casual as it sounded, and both of them knew it.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. Just a feeling.”

“A feeling?”

She watched as his hands twitched. Fingers twisting around.

“That we’re probably in over our heads and have been since before landing in Rukongai.”

He was perceptive, her nephew. Scarily so at times. Yoruichi had come to much the same conclusion herself. It seemed too coincidental, too extreme. Execution for fraternizing with an exile? Since when had that been punishable by death? There were very few deeds that demanded execution, and nothing Kuchiki Rukia had done was on that level. Even Kisuke hadn’t earned it. Had gotten exile instead.

Something much larger was at stake here. She could feel it in her bones. She just wondered if Byakuya was involved. Or if it was in fact Aizen. If he knew what Kisuke had done. What he’d put inside the Kuchiki girl. But how could he? How could that bastard possibly know?

“It does seem very suspect,” Yoruichi agreed vaguely, wondering how much her brother had revealed to Ichigo. “But then, they don’t know the truth.”

“Of what Aizen is, right?” Ichigo questioned, gesturing towards Seireitei just visible in the distance. “And we can’t exactly warn them.”

She breathed out at that. At the implication that Kisuke had actually been honest with him. To a point. Not that she didn’t blame her brother for his uncertainty. For his hesitance in dragging his son in deeper than he already was. For taking that last little bit of innocence Ichigo had left. Her nephew hadn’t been a child for a long time, not with a monster living in his very soul. But it was so easy to forget at times. Forget that he was more than a spiritually-gifted teenager. That if he really put his mind to it, if he lost control of himself, he was powerful enough that Yoruichi wasn’t sure she could put him down without getting them both killed in the process.

“No, we can’t,” she replied slowly. “They won’t listen. Not that they ever do.”

He lifted his shoulders. “That’s fine. I’ve already decided I’ll go through them if I have to. I knew that before I went through the gate.”

Yoruichi grinned, but it was frayed at the edges. “I knew you were my favorite nephew,” she said, reaching over and ruffling his hair. Something she hadn’t done for awhile; he claimed that he was too old for it now. “We’ll make a clan member of you yet, Shihouin-sama.”

He reddened. A response that she never failed to find adorable. He was so delightfully naïve about some things that it was refreshing for Yoruichi to see. Kisuke’s exile had been awful. A harsh blow to their lives, true. But in many ways, it was also the best thing to ever happen to them.

Yoruichi felt free now. Or at least freer. And Kisuke had free reign for his experiments, not that he had needed much reigning in before. Even more than that, Kisuke finally had a family. He had something the both of them cherished deeply. If not for Aizen’s betrayal, they might have only ever had each other. Probably never the shop kids. Jinta and Ururu. Most definitely never her nephew and nieces. Not Ichigo or Karin or Yuzu. Isshin wouldn’t have been with Masaki without Kisuke’s help. Which meant the children never would’ve even existed.

A sobering and horrible thought. One that she firmly banished.

“A good little heir,” she sing-songed in an attempt to make both of them feel better, and really, she was too much like Kisuke herself. “You’d probably even have met my father’s strict standards. And trust me, that man was pretty damn hard to please, Shihouin-sama.” She ruffled his hair some more. Surprised as always how much the texture was like her brother’s own for all that the color was different.

“Don’t call me that,” Ichigo muttered, acting like the teenager he was supposed to be as he ducked out from under her hand.

Laughing, Yoruichi rose to her feet and let the wind buffet briefly at her body. It felt strangely nostalgic to be here, though arguably she returned to Seireitei where Kisuke could not. She served as his eyes and ears here after all. Sometimes, she wondered just how badly her brother missed this place. If he even still considered it home. She wasn’t even sure that she did anymore. Not when her brother and nieces weren’t here. With only Ichigo at her back, it felt more like they were in hostile territory. Which wasn’t far from the truth even in the sanctuary of Kuukaku’s stronghold.

“Don’t stay up here too long,” she warned him, moving to leap down from the high roof and back to the warmth of the house. Yoruichi knew that Kuukaku had a bottle of warmed sake just waiting for them to enjoy. “You need sleep as much as the rest of us mortals.”

The sound of her nephew’s snort was her answer. Yoruichi shook her head at his cute behavior and hit the ground with a tap, her steps as light and sure as a nimble-footed cat. She looked back at him briefly, his seated form appearing solid and determined. He had quite the battle to face tomorrow, but she also knew he’d made his choice. And nothing could dissuade him. He could be so stubborn. It was the Kuchiki in him, Yoruichi had always thought. It was Isshin’s fiery determination. The heat and passion that had led him to defy everything. To love and marry a living human and make a family.

Or maybe it was Kisuke. The look he carried was certainly that of her brother. Even if the face itself was that of a Shiba. Even if it was so freakishly close to Isshin and even Kaien when he’d still been around. But gleam to his eyes? That was pure Kisuke. That was the same resolve she’d seen when her brother had wanted to go through the ranks without relying on her name and influence. When he’d wanted to reach bankai with a completely untested method. When he had been so determined to help Shinji and the others. To have them conquer themselves and the Hollows lurking inside. Yoruichi herself had been willing to concede defeat. To put an end to them and their misery. But as always, Kisuke had pulled a miracle out of his ass and made it seem easy in the process.

Yes, that stubbornness had definitely come from him. She only hoped that Ichigo really had inherited that golden touch along with it. The ability to always land on his feet. To always come out ahead no matter the odds stacked against him.

They certainly needed it.

As for her, Yoruichi could just hope for the best. Could only stand with him and catch him if he fell.

But for now… Now, there was a new jug of sake with her name on it. And Yoruichi headed back into the house, thinking that the alcohol would be much needed. Definitely the booze. The company wasn’t bad either. Kuukaku telling her everything she’d missed in the last few years. Simple and fun. Just what she needed.

Tomorrow wasn’t going to be easy. Nothing truly worth it ever was.

Their landing in Seireitei was much more graceful than the one in Rukongai. Though the cannonball had punched through the barrier with more force than any of them had expected, it held together thanks to Ichigo’s quick thinking and the stabilizing presence of his aunt. The assorted group landed in some back alley with only a small lurch and a bruised nose. It was Ishida’s as Inoue had flailed in her excitement and accidentally smacked her elbow into his face. No biggie really. The bruise might actually make him seem manlier.

Yeah, right.

Ichigo straightened as the last of the cannonball shattered to bits around them and vanished. He could feel the remnants of the spell lingering around him and shook it off as though it were something tangible. He felt keyed up, his senses stretching out in all directions. For some reason, being here in Seireitei, his reiatsu felt more energetic. He couldn’t explain it. And to be honest, he didn’t really like it either.

“Well, that was fun,” Tatsuki muttered, rolling her shoulder as though easing a cramp. She looked around and took in the featureless alleyway. “Any idea where we are?”

Yoruichi, hand on her hips and grin on her face, surveyed her assortment of teenagers. “In Seireitei. And that’s all that matters.”

“I get that. But what’s our destination, and how far are we from it?” Tatsuki pressed, going through a few idle stretches, obviously preparing for battle.

Ichigo felt a stab of fear rock through him before he could hold back on it. He was used to risking his own life; that had never been a problem for him. But Tatsuki and Inoue? Chad? Even that snot Ishida? They were here because of him, not for their own sakes. What would he do if they were injured because of him? Or worse killed? And why hadn’t he considered this sooner? Before it was too late to tell them to go back?

“Ichigo?”

A hand landed on his shoulder, dragging him from his thoughts. He turned to see his aunt giving him a strange look. Her normal teasing expression had been replaced with something far more somber.

He blinked and forced himself to look more alert. “Ah, sorry. What was that?” he asked, pretending to be distracted by the pressing influx of different reiatsu that swirled around them. The walls and ground seemed soaked in it, probably due to the amount of Shinigami that resided within the city.

“We were deciding to split up,” Chad interjected. His dark eyes regarded Ichigo with no small hint of concern.

“To cover more ground and hopefully, distract the Shinigami as well,” Tatsuki added, looking a little worried herself but choosing not to vocalize it either.

“Split up?” Ichigo repeated.

His first thought was that it was impossible for them to go their separate ways; he couldn’t protect them that way. But looking at all the determined faces, he knew he couldn’t say that. They’d all come here thinking to help him, and it would be insulting for him to imply that they couldn’t take care of themselves. Maybe the one he worried about the most was Inoue, but Tatsuki would rather lose an arm than watch Inoue come to any harm. Not that that thought was comforting either.

Ichigo sighed, curling his hand around Zangetsu’s hilt. “Great idea,” he amended, soothing what had been a rather abrupt outburst. “Our goal?”

Yoruichi lifted a hand, pointing to white spires rising in the distance. The towers were visible even from their position in the alley.

“There. The Shrine of Penitence. It’s where all criminals are kept until their execution.”

Ichigo nodded for a second. Only to abruptly freeze.

“Wait a damn minute. Execution?” Ichigo demanded, admittedly raising his voice a bit louder than was necessary. “What the hell are you talking about? I thought her punishment hadn’t been decided?”

His aunt was sympathetic. Even as a strange noise started echoing through the still air, sounding like a bunch of people were hitting wooden blocks with baseball bats.

“The announcement came through his morning,” she told him. “Kuchiki Rukia is facing execution for her willing association with exiles and rogue Shinigami.”

Ichigo nearly choked on his next breath. Unable to vocalize the surprise that bubbled up in his chest.

Thankfully, Ishida was there to step in.

“Is that even an executionable offense?” he demanded, horrified as the rest of them.

What the hell sort of place was this? What kind of people were they that they were so ready to kill one of their own?

Yoruichi inclined her head solemnly. “It is now.”

“What the fuck?” Ichigo’s hands curled into fists, and that tapping noise was a growing irritation on the edge of his conscious. “They can’t do that!” he shouted. Only to throw up his hands. “And what the hell is that noise?”

“It’s the alarm,” his aunt answered, a frown erasing her amused expression as her eyes narrowed. She was obviously concentrating on something inward. “Seems that our entrance was noticed.”

“Hard to miss something like that,” Ganju muttered and thumbed his nose. “Even for the Shinigami. And they’re not exactly playing with the full deck of cards,” he added derisively.

Tatsuki arched a brow. “That’s how they announce an invasion?”

The Shihouin head shrugged, cracking her knuckles in a very unladylike fashion. Then again, Ichigo had never accused his aunt of acting like a lady. Saying that she acted like a woman was pushing it.

“What can I say? They’re a little outdated.”

“A little?” Ishida snorted, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. “If they were any less sophisticated, I’d expect to see smoke signals.” One hand brushed invisible dust off his sleeves.

“Wait until you see how they deliver messages to each other. I’ll give you a hint; it doesn’t involve telephones.” Yoruichi grinned.

Tatsuki smacked her palm against her forehead. “I honestly don’t want to know. Everything in this place is completely retarded. Or insane. Or both.”

Rolling his eyes, Ichigo gave them the explanation his aunt seemed less interested in providing. “They use souls that take the form of butterflies.”

“They use butterflies to convey messages,” Ishida repeated with utter disbelief etched into his features. As if he wondered how his ancestors had ever lost to such people. “How does that even work?”

“Magic?” Inoue suggested, hands clasping together as her eyes practically gleamed. “Ooo, I’ll bet they’re pretty. I want to meet one.”

“No, you don’t.” Ichigo shook his head, arms crossing over his chest. “If you see a black butterfly, you need to scatter. It means a Shinigami is definitely nearby, and we’re not trying to fight them. At least, not yet.”

“Funny, because I thought we were here for a rescue,” Tatsuki countered with a wave.

“A quiet, quick, and hopefully uneventful rescue,” Ichigo clarified.

Tatsuki arched one brow. “And punching a hole in their protective barrier by using a cannon didn’t announce our presence?”

“I didn’t say it was a perfect plan,” Yoruichi inserted with a shrug. “But if we stand around here talking, none of that will matter. They’ll find us eventually.”

Ichigo inclined his head and glanced over his friends. He was no master tactician; he had no clue how to split them up properly. But luckily, his aunt stepped in when finding him at a loss. How he had fallen into the role of leader, Ichigo wasn’t sure. He obviously wasn’t cut out for it.

“I’m the only one who can keep up with Ichigo,” Yoruichi said then, one finger tapping her chin. “So we’ll stick together. Ganju, keep an eye on Sado here. Ishida-kun, I’m trusting Tatsuki and Inoue-chan to you.”

Tatsuki snorted, rolling her shoulder again as though very eager to get out there and find some Shinigami ass to kick. Ichigo still wasn’t sure what sort of abilities she’d been trained to use. But he had a feeling that of the three of them – Chad, Tatsuki, and Inoue – she was the least of his worries.

“More like I’ll be watching over him,” she put in with a teasing jab of her elbow in Ishida’s direction. Succeeding in striking him in the upper arm and knocking him off balance.

Ishida scowled, reaching to adjust his glasses as though affronted by her intimation. “As you know little of sensing reiatsu and even less about Shinigami, I think it is I who will be taking that role here.”

They would be arguing all week at this rate. And something pinged on the edge of Ichigo’s senses. The hair on the back of his neck rose.

“Stuff it, Ishida,” Ichigo snapped, body tensing. “We don’t have the time to argue. The Shinigami have calculated our landing point. We’ve got to go. Now.”

“He’s right.” Yoruichi easily leapt out of the alley to the nearest and lowest roof, crouched down as golden eyes swept around them. “They’re coming.”

Ichigo was quick to leap up beside her, reiatsu powering the simple move. Amazing how much stronger he felt here. As though just being in Seireitei amplified his abilities. He’d have to fight to not grow too used to it.

“Time to go,” Tatsuki announced, grabbing Inoue’s sleeve and pulling her towards the open end of the alley with Ishida following along behind. “Don’t get yourself killed, Ichigo. Or I’m going to kick your ass.”

“Duly noted,” Ichigo tossed back down to her.

“Bye, Kurosaki-kun!” Inoue’s farewell was far more energetic. Half-bubbles and sparkles as she waved gamely before the three of them vanished into the shadows of a side-street.

Chad and Ganju were the last to depart. The former tossed Ichigo a thumbs-up as the latter belted into the next street, head swinging this way and that before choosing a direction at random.

“Well,” Yoruichi said brightly, rising to her full height. Which only made the wind whip across her clothing and hair. “Shall we depart?”

Ichigo flicked a hand at her. “Lead on.”

Izuru glanced around skeptically. He stared at a field of grass and an empty plot of land where a house was supposed to be standing.

“This is where he said it would be… right?”

Beside him, Hisagi-san nodded slowly. “I’m sure of it,” the other vice-captain confirmed, also looking around. One hand traced the outline of a building on the grass. “Look, the ground is imprinted. Something was here.”

“How does one move an entire building?” Izuru demanded, waraji tromping through the grass as he walked the outline. “And so quickly?”

It had to have been quick. Only thirty minutes beforehand, he and Hisagi-san had watched a streak of light shoot overhead, aiming straight for Seireitei. And not long after that – seconds actually – they had felt the force of the power as it punched through the sekki-seki barrier and spilled invaders into Seireitei.

In fact, Izuru sniffed the air carefully. It still stank of gunpowder and kidoh, an intriguing mix of odors. He could still feel remnants of the spell in the air, tingling across his skin.

“I don’t know,” Hisagi-san commented, hand pressed to his chin in thought. “The Shiba have always been a bit secretive, even before they fell out of favor.” He shrugged. “Perhaps Urahara gave them something.”

Izuru hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose,” he murmured, kneeling to press a hand to the flattened grass and bare patch of soil. Energy and reiatsu thrummed at his fingertips. “I may be able to track this.”

“You can do that?” Hisagi-san blinked in surprise.

“If Shiba-san cast something to help herself relocate, it’s possible that I can track it. Provided it was reiatsu-driven and not scientific,” Izuru explained with a nod, closing his eyes to focus on the tangle of reiatsu clinging strongly to the air. “But then, I don’t know with all the other signatures still lingering…”

He rose to his feet, glancing around them and catching sight with Hisagi-san who inclined his head.

“Our orders were to find Shiba Kuukaku. I suppose that means we’ll have to keep chasing after her.”

“An unappealing task,” Izuru muttered more to himself than the other. His captain’s words still lingered in the back of his mind, and it bit his lip with indecision for a moment. “Senpai… do you think any of this is odd?”

Hisagi-san’s brows furrowed. “Odd how?”

Izuru shrugged, pinning down a stream of reiatsu that might prove useful to them and following along after it. “Ichimaru-taichou thinks there’s something else going on. Something underneath the ryoka invasion and Kuchiki-san’s imprisonment.”

“Like what?” Hisagi-san couldn’t quite hide the surprise in his tone. Or the curiosity.

Izuru was relieved. He needed to share this with someone. His senpai seemed his best bet. The other man was both older and wiser. Perhaps he could make more sense of it.

“Whatever Urahara-san did a hundred years ago, it was terrible enough to warrant exile,” Izuru replied as they walked further and further away from where the Shiba’s house used to be and hopefully towards their new location, deeper in Rukongai. “But taichou doesn’t think that the ryoka are here for revenge. He thinks that Kurosaki-san is here to save Kuchiki-san.”

Dark eyes widened with disbelief. “Save her?”

“You heard it right?” the blond questioned absently. “Before we left?”

“The announcement that Kuchiki-san was slated for execution? Yeah.”

Izuru lifted his shoulders and spread his fingers. “Execution? For failing to reveal the existence of a rogue Shinigami. Doesn’t that seem a bit much to you?”

“Chamber 46 must have their reasons.” His senpai shifted uneasily even as they walked.

Not quite convinced, the blond tucked a strand of hair behind his ears from where it had slipped free. He was silent for a minute as he trailed after the Shiba’s reiatsu.

“Yes, but it doesn’t it seem a bit extreme?” he pressed. “Even Ichimaru-taichou thinks so.”

“Tousen-taichou didn’t mention anything,” Hisagi-san countered.

Izuru was surprised. “Nothing at all?”

Pausing to glance in the direction of Seireitei, his senpai shook his head. “He doesn’t talk to me in the same way that your taichou does, Kira.”

He couldn’t quite fight the flush that threatened to steal into his cheeks. Izuru knew about the rumors. Even if he pretended that he didn’t. They were utterly untrue; Ichimaru-taichou would never do anything like that. But that didn’t stop the gossip mills from turning full force. The fact that Izuru himself had never so much as looked at a male cross-eyed didn’t even seem to help at all. Why must everyone think that he preferred men?

Izuru sighed, resisting the urge to square his shoulders. Hisagi-san didn’t mean anything about it.

“Did you know that Urahara never admitted to doing anything?” the blond continued. “He claimed that it was Aizen.”

Aizen?

It came out nearly as a squeak. And Izuru was surprised that his senpai’s voice could even get that high.

“Yes, that was my reaction, too.” Izuru gestured vaguely, not so much following an invisible trail anymore. He didn’t think they were going to find Shiba-san; she was simply too good at vanishing.

Hisagi made a noise in his throat. And it wasn’t entirely disagreement either. In fact, it sounded more like contemplation.

“You know,” Hisagi-san began slowly, one hand falling to rest on Kazeshini, “the ninth division was nearly wiped out a hundred years ago. At least, most of the officers.”

Izuru blinked. “No, I didn’t know that.”

Nodding slowly, the other vice-captain went on. “When Urahara betrayed us in whatever manner he used, he killed nearly all of the officers of the ninth. First, he took out a patrol of the lower-seats sent out to investigate. Then, the top officers when they went in to find the others. Tousen-taichou was one of the few to survive.”

“He was lucky,” Izuru responded honestly.

“Tousen-taichou probably wouldn’t call it that, but yeah, he was lucky.” Hisagi-san frowned, brow pulling into deep furrows. “He doesn’t talk about it though. Even now, with everyone suspecting Urahara is behind the ryoka, he won’t tell me what it was that guy really did. I mean, aside from killing so many people. But it had to be something really horrible for them not to say.”

“No one will say why the soutaichou is so afraid of what power that boy may carry either,” Izuru agreed in a soft murmur.

Hisagi-san inclined his head, dragging his fingers through his hair. “I suppose that’s not for us to figure out though. We just follow the orders we’re given.”

Izuru, however, wasn’t so sure.

Kisuke was sitting at the table, idly sipping at some tea Yuzu had brewed for him and flipping through a thick sheaf of notes. They were all musings, ponderings, and theories he had constructed over the last few years about his son. He’d hoped that a second glance might give him a spark of insight. Or really, he just needed a distraction. Something to keep himself from pacing back and forth in worry. He had told Ichigo he trusted him; now, Kisuke needed to prove it.

Not that his notes were making much sense. They only confirmed the things he already knew. Kisuke had been gifted with a categorical, file-like brain. He rarely forgot anything and only scribbled down pieces of data to have some physical confirmation of the information he stored in his head. But he’d been hoping – praying – that there was something he’d overlooked.

It didn’t seem likely.

Kisuke tipped his head to the side when he heard the doorbell ring. Not the one for the shop but the one on the side of the building for the residence. Probably one of Yuzu or Karin’s friends then. He heard Yuzu claim that she would answer it. But without knowing why, a trickle of dread traveled down his spine.

He put down his tea and his notes, tucking them safely away in a drawer on the low side table as he heard the door slide open. Footsteps pounded down the hallway – many footsteps – and seemed to head directly for the room he currently occupied. Kisuke turned slowly towards the entrance. But he was rather certain he knew what was coming, and the suspicion was only confirmed by a steady trickle of various reiatsu. No sooner had he climbed to his feet and contemplated escape than they poured into the room as though they belonged and without so much as a “how do you do?”

“You bastard!”

The screech was his only warning. Kisuke dodged with skills he hadn’t really used in years but still maintained. Watching as the blonde and red blur careened past him, missing his head by scant inches. She hit the floor, rolled to her feet, and sprang upwards in a defensive position.

Kisuke exhaled slowly. “So nice of you to visit!” he declared with fake cheer, eyes raking over the half-dozen or so men and women who had poured into the room.

“Where’s the kid?” Hiyori demanded in her normal tone. Just this side of belligerent.

No pleasantries. No greetings. Simply straight to business.

“He’s not much of a kid nowadays,” Kisuke countered automatically. But inside he was thinking hard. Why were they here?

Shinji, self-proclaimed suave gentlemen, just bowed shallowly and smiled. “Ichigo then. So where is he?” He looked around pointedly.

And Kisuke suddenly remembered something that he should’ve earlier. Every week or so, Ichigo went to his fellow Vizard for training. Usually just a chance to let the destructive bastard out to play that he couldn’t really do anywhere else. And it seemed that today was the special day. How the hell had Kisuke forgotten this tiny but important detail? Of course they would come looking for him.

Kisuke felt himself deflating just a bit. And suddenly, he was one-hundred years in the past. Just a rookie compared to the senior captains and even the lieutenants. Looking up at Shinji. Desperate for advice and clueless as to what he’d gotten himself into.

Hiyori glared at him with a twitching lip. Her eyes were little, angry slits. Effectively matching the rest of her.

“Where the hell is he?”

And really with a face and attitude like that, was it any wonder she’d been single so very long?

“Ichi-nii’s in Soul Society,” a voice answered from the doorway, and Kisuke leaned around his visitors to find Karin standing there. “He’s rescuing Rukia,” she added and folded her arms over her chest. In that pose, she looked more adult than he did.

“Soul Society,” Rose repeated with disbelief. “You let him go there. Alone?” His gaze was fixed on Kisuke. Accusing him of so many things, the least of which was being a very bad parent.

“Of course not.” Kisuke’s shoulders squaring in affront. “Yoruichi is with him.” He said it as if that made it any better.

“Along with Sado-san, Tatsuki, Ishida, and Inoue-chan,” Karin added, ticking them off on her fingers.

Kisuke couldn’t help feeling betrayed. He glared at his daughter. That traitor. He’d have to dock her allowance or ground her or something. Not that he’d ever really punished any of them. Not when they often acted more like adults than he did.

Kensei arched a brow, thoroughly unimpressed. “A handful of untrained teenagers, one Quincy, and your sister,” he echoed the sentiment of his fellow Vizard as they exchanged glances amongst themselves.

Way to make Kisuke feel small and insignificant and the worst father ever. Urahara Takuya – his own dad – was probably rolling in his grave. Or he would be if he hadn’t been cremated.

However, it was Hiyori who chose to speak for all of them. Which was always a bad sign. She strode right up to Kisuke, ignoring the fact that he all but towered over her, hands planted on her hips. And gave him a look like a snake would when eyeing a defenseless mouse. He couldn’t help but swallow reflexively and go very still.

“You fuckin’ idiot!” Hiyori shouted and aimed a well-placed kick right for his groin.

A dull thud echoed through the room. It was so very loud in the following silence.

“Still wearing the cup, I see,” Shinji commented with approval as a grin stretched his lips. “Smart idea.”

Kisuke chuckled. “One never knows when dear Hiyori might stop by for a visit,” he inserted as her eyes crossed and she twitched, whirling away from him with an obvious limp.

“I always knew you were the smart one,” Shinji continued, strolling across the room and slinging an arm across Kisuke’s shoulders. “Except for the part where you sent your only son into Soul Society practically by himself. That I’m not seeing as too intelligent, Kisuke.”

“It’s downright stupid is what it is,” Lisa put in as she adjusted her glasses with the tip of one finger. A motion that distinctly reminded Kisuke of both Quincies. “If you had just contacted us, we could’ve done something.”

“We wouldn’t have let him go alone, that’s for sure. Some or all of us could’ve gone with him,” Love added with a note of censure.

Which managed to make Kisuke feel about an inch high. Possibly less. As if he didn’t know how to raise his own damn son. He hadn’t seen any of them eagerly leaping forward to take care of Ichigo and his sisters when Isshin and Masaki had died. And yes, he was purposefully ignoring the fact that he would’ve fought the lot of them to the death before handing the three children over. He’d nearly come to blows with Ishida Ryuuken a number of times over Ichigo in particular.

“It’s not like I had much of a choice,” Kisuke murmured then, all but pinned by the combined force of their stares. “Ichigo asked and you know how stubborn he can be.”

The entire group shared a commiserating sigh at his statement; it was very true. They knew of no one more stubborn than Ichigo. Except perhaps for Hiyori when she was in one of her snits. Ichigo was just less violent about it. Not to mention better tempered in general.

Kensei noisily cracked his knuckles. “That brat doesn’t know what he’s getting into,” he muttered darkly. “Doesn’t have a freakin’ clue. Sure, he’s powerful. Could take out any of the fukutaichou and seated officers with one hand tied behind his back. Maybe even a taichou.” He shook his head. “But Aizen? Or worse yet… the old man? What if he had to fight Kyouraku or Ukitake or even Unohana? They’re all fine and good, but they’d blow through him like nothing.” He crossed his arms over his chest almost defensively.

“I’m not sure any of us but Shinji could even take them on,” Lisa put in after a moment. “They’ve been leading divisions for nearly two thousand years for a reason. And it isn’t just because of their sparkling personalities either.”

Kisuke sighed, long and deep. “I warned him. As best I could,” he assured, though even to him it fell flat. “About Aizen, Tousen, and Ichimaru. And about the hierarchy in general. He knows who to avoid.”

“You think it will do any good?” Mashiro bounced on her heels with the sort of energy even a child envied. She was the last of the Vizard to speak. Hachi was probably in the kitchen with Tessai as usual, catching up with his former superior.

Kisuke swallowed, unwilling to remind himself of all the things he hadn’t told his son. All the things he’d been afraid to say but Ichigo so truthfully needed to know.

“I can only hope,” he admitted softly.

“Why would he go anyway?” Rose questioned, one finger on his chin as his hair fell across his shoulder in auburn ripples. His gaze flickered to Karin. “You mentioned someone named… Rukia, was it?”

Karin nodded. “Ichi-nii went to save her. She… she helped me and Yuzu and got caught up in all our mess.” The girl waved a vague hand at the shop in general. “He said it was all his fault. All our fault.”

However, her words did nothing to answer the confusion that thickened in the room. And they all stood there in silence for a time, trying to puzzle it all out.

“That’s it,” Shinji decided finally, focusing a look on Kisuke that yet again made him feel every inch the rookie captain. “You’re telling us everything.”

[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.

[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 07

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.

“Tou-san?”

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.

“Tou-san?”

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.

[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 06

Chapter Six – Where Hollows Fear to Tread

“Who is he?”

The question better resembled a command, cracking sharply through the tense silence like a whip. Were he a lesser man, Byakuya would’ve been intimidated. But it took much more than an irritated captain-commander to unsettle him.

Even if the matter in question did involve his own sister.

“We are still trying to determine that, soutaichou,” Byakuya informed him as he stood stiffly before Yamamoto-soutaichou’s desk.

The old man merely puffed on a pipe, face drawn with perturbation. His eyes were narrowed, almost slits. His demeanor was commanding, harsh and stiff.

“At best,” Byakuya admitted, “we do know that he’s a rogue. No one recognized him for a deserter.”

Or if they did, they weren’t speaking of it. Though he didn’t believe that of any of his fellow Shinigami and most certainly not those in his division. What point would hiding the presence of a deserter serve?

“How did Urahara find him?” The captain-commander’s eyes narrowed further, a stream of grey smoke curling up from the edge of his pipe.

Byakuya could only grit his teeth. “Again, we are still investigating.”

Rising to his feet, the old man gazed at him, most likely finding it hard to believe that no information was available on a Shinigami this powerful. Truthfully, Byakuya was having trouble reconciling that fact himself. He had ideas, thoughts and suspicions, but…

“Although…”

Byakuya hesitated, unsure if he wanted to throw out something so absurd before the captain-commander. The idea alone was absolutely ludicrous. But the pictures clandestinely taken of the boy before Rukia’s retrieval were almost alarming in their similarity. Too much for him to ignore or rationalize away.

Hand lowering, Yamamoto-soutaichou prompted him to continue. “Yes?”

“He has a certain look to him. He is… vaguely familiar,” Byakuya conceded, though it pained him greatly to do so. A part of him felt as if it were a stab of betrayal, but to what, he couldn’t quite discern. It was something he would have to pick apart and examine later.

“What do you mean?” the captain-commander questioned, and again, it was more of a demand than a polite query. There was a crackle of coldness to his tone, a sure sign of concern.

Byakuya refused to fidget; it was against his nature. His Kuchiki pride demanded that he stand forthright.

“The boy has the look of a noble. Almost a Shiba if I did not know better.” He hesitated again, years of friendship clashing against the situation and attempting to restrain his words. “But Shihouin Yoruichi… she is related to the Shiba clan through both sides of her family. Her grandmother, her mother’s mother, was the aunt of the last head. And her father claimed many cousins among the Shiba when they were still numerous.”

He could only watch as the captain-commander turned away from him completely, walking to the window and gazing out. He puffed furiously on his pipe as a black butterfly fluttered up to him, but he ignored it for the moment and stared out at nothing but the deepening twilight sky. Agitation firmed the older man’s shoulders, brow drawn tight with thought. And as much as Byakuya didn’t want to add the next, he knew it was needed.

“And Urahara, though from Rukongai, was a true-born Shinigami. Further, his mother is unknown.” Byakuya felt an odd stab in his chest at revealing such a personal detail of a childhood companion, but he brushed it away. “It is possible that she was a Shiba. They were already dabbling in Rukongai even then. And I know of at least one other unintended child in their number.”

Silence swept through the captain-commander’s chambers as he considered, but even Byakuya believed his assumptions to be rather absurd. And dangerous. A child of the two of them? One exile and a woman known to be a troublemaker? It was a frightening thought to consider, especially since they couldn’t be sure that Urahara didn’t hold a grudge. But as illogical as it sounded, it also seemed to be the best answer. The one most coherent and cohesive with the facts available.

How else could a Shinigami so powerful suddenly appear in the living world when he hadn’t been noticed prior? And the timing itself was suspect. Judging by the boy’s physical age and power levels, he couldn’t be much older than Rukia. Maybe even a bit younger. Which would neatly slot his birth within the timeframe of Urahara’s disappearance. Perhaps the reason Yoruichi had fled with him in the first place. If she had already been with child when he was exiled, it was a reasonable conclusion for her to leave with him. She’d hardly wish to be an unmarried mother bringing the child up herself, even with the help of her clan. She was the head, yes, and that afforded her safety and security. But boys needed their fathers, and she wasn’t exactly the most stable parental figure on her own.

However, the captain-commander’s next words drove that line of thought firmly from his mind.

“Are you truly suggesting, Kuchiki-taichou, what I believe you are suggesting?” Yamamoto-soutaichou demanded, pipe lowered from his lip and now forgotten. His voice held no emotion save the barest disbelief. “That this boy, this rogue, is the son of either one or both of them?”

“I am merely… putting forth a possible conjecture about the boy’s origin,” Byakuya explained softly; though in reality, that was exactly what he was suggesting. Unless the captain-commander had a better explanation? “It is exceedingly farfetched-”

“I should think so!” the old man spat, whirling to face Byakuya. His was face filled with a myriad of emotions before they were quickly shuttered behind a mask of composure.

Byakuya inclined his head in a bow. “But I do not wish to discount the possibilities, slim as it might be. He did, after all, defeat a Menos Grande on his own and without any apparent support. That suggests the power of an upper-level seated officer. Perhaps even lieutenant-level.”

Not to mention the fact he had managed to remain hidden his long. Or that he couldn’t be found when Byakuya and his vice-captain had fetched his sister from the living world. Not even a trace of an unfamiliar reiatsu could be located. Which was either Urahara’s doing or the boy was skilled enough on his own to control his reiatsu. Possibly even a combination of both.

Frightening thoughts indeed.

Yamamoto-soutaichou, however, seemed to be taking things in an immediately sour direction. “Which only makes him that much more dangerous.”

“Or a potentially valuable asset and ally,” Byakuya suggested in his most even tone. “Especially if we were to separate him from Urahara’s influence. With the possibility of such a bloodline, we shouldn’t ignore his value.”

With both parents at captain-level, his potential for power was enormous. Even if he claimed only Urahara or Yoruichi, he would still be a force to be reckoned with, and as the data proved he was already quite skilled. It didn’t hurt that Urahara was a certified genius with Yoruichi not far behind. Hopefully, that intellect had passed on to the boy.

“Urahara has undoubtedly filled the boy’s head with all sorts of nonsense, but if he were brought to Soul Society and put under the guiding hand of someone like Ukitake, he could and would be easily swayed to our way of thinking,” Byakuya added logically, unable to abandon a potential asset in their ongoing struggle to find adequate Shinigami to fill positions. Certainly, he wasn’t the only one to notice that strong replacements seemed to be fewer and fewer with the passing decades? And that even fewer recruits were being drawn in from Rukongai?

Besides, if the boy truly were a Shihouin, his position in society would be cemented as the heir to the clan. With them at his back, the boy would have nothing more pressing than his next meal selection to worry about. And surely, the Shihouin would bend over backwards to have him. Especially since Yoruichi was still nominally their head and had no other children in line for succession, legitimate or otherwise. Her own great-grandfather, the head before her father, had been a bastard child himself. A fact often or purposefully forgotten.

This maneuver would very effectively prevent a war within the clan as well, and the fact that the boy was already on friendly terms with one of Kuchiki was an added bonus. Once Rukia had served her sentence, Byakuya could see to their reacquaintance. Perhaps even encourage more if the boy wasn’t a complete idiot or uncultured barbarian. A distinct possibility with all the time he’d undoubtedly spent with Urahara and his ilk.

Nevertheless, Yamamoto-soutaichou was not so easily impressed by all the opportunities. “He needs to be contained. That is our top priority. Right now, that boy is our only connection to the exile Urahara, whom we have only recently learned survived.” His aged fingers curled around the head of his cane tightly, and he crossed the floor, wood rapping with each step back to his desk. “Along with him, we need to learn the location of the former Shinigami and lieutenants that also disappeared. This boy undoubtedly knows their whereabouts. So first and foremost, he is to be brought in for questioning. Nothing else.”

Byakuya could only nod. “I will put together a team immediately.”

“Interrogate our prisoner first as she will hold information as to the rogue’s location, and then capture the boy.” Yamamoto’s face darkened. “We cannot have rogue Shinigami running wild in the living world. Not anymore.” He lowered himself into his seat and reached for the stack of half-finished reports. “You are dismissed.”

Byakuya fought to keep his reaction from his face, covering it with a firm bow. “As you so order, soutaichou.” He whirled on his heels and went for the doors, knowing that the discussion was ended.

For now.

They landed in a tumble that Yoruichi gracefully avoided, snickering at the pile of teenagers that struggled to disentangle themselves. Ichigo squawked from where he had landed in the bottom, someone’s ass squarely on his back and an elbow in his thigh. And damn but Chad was heavy.

“Get off me!” he growled and flailed beneath the combined weight of his four friends, damned certain that it was Ishida’s fucking bony elbow digging into his flesh.

“Oh, my gosh! Sorry, Kurosaki-kun!” Inoue shouted, and Ichigo’s breath left him in a whoosh as she scrambled to remove herself.

One by one, they detangled themselves, with Chad reaching down last and bodily hauling Ichigo to his feet. Scowling, he glared over his shoulder at the spot where the sky had all but spat them out, half-imagining he could see his father’s smirk from the other side of the endless blue.

Ishida was brushing off his clothing like some idiot, frowning over a brief spot of dust on his knee and then getting all red-faced over the tear in his cape-cloak gay thing. Whatever the hell that was. Ichigo wasn’t going to ask.

“Well, that landing was less than stellar,” Tatsuki drawled and turned, making it a point to look around her. “Where are we?”

“Rukongai,” Yoruichi answered, hands solidly planted on her hips as she waited for them to finish recovering from the journey.

Heads were already popping out from the surrounding dilapidated buildings, staring in wonder at the sudden and new arrivals. Ichigo couldn’t blame them. He and his companions were certainly more… colorful then the residents around them. They all looked haggard, oppressed and weary. It certainly didn’t look like any place Ichigo would want to spend his transitory life.

“So we’re not where we need to be?” Inoue asked, obviously confused.

Ichigo shook his head, rolling his shoulders to ease the throbbing where someone had stepped on him. “Not yet. Seireitei is there.” He lifted a hand and pointed to the large wall in the distance, too tall to be scaled. Not that they could do so.

He knew enough from his dad’s lessons that they couldn’t enter Seireitei through normal means. Only through one of the four gates, which were always guarded. And while Ichigo was confident he could probably take down one of the guardians, he couldn’t be sure someone wouldn’t be waiting on the other side. Nope, best to surprise everyone by dropping in somewhere unexpected.

Literally.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” Tatsuki announced, already lifting one foot to do just that.

“I don’t think that’s the plan,” Chad interrupted, one massive hand landing on her shoulder and stopping her from going anywhere.

Thank kami Ichigo had at least one sensible person on his mission… quest… whatever he wanted to call it. Between his aunt, Inoue, Ishida, and Tatsuki, he was sure he was going to lose his mind.

“By the way,” Ishida began, finally over his snit about the cloak-thing. He removed his glasses to wipe off a film of dust. “What is the plan? Or do you even have one?”

“I’m not stupid enough to come here without it,” Ichigo growled, agitation and annoyance merging together, making his shoulders ache with tension.

And Ishida just had to be a snot about things, didn’t he? Well, no one asked him to come.

The Quincy crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh? And what is it then?”

Ichigo glanced at Yoruichi, who merely grinned and titled her head. “We have to get past the sekki-seki stone and its barrier, but the gates will be heavily guarded.” He paused at their sounds of dismay. “But my dad still has friends out in Rukongai, the area we’re in now,” he clarified. “One of them is gonna help us get in.”

“Yeah. Kuukaku,” Yoruichi agreed with a sharp nod. “It’s been awhile, but I’m pretty sure I remember where their house is at.” She motioned them to follow after her. “This way, kids.”

Ishida rolled his eyes, but he squared his shoulders and started after her, while Chad and Ichigo exchanged a look and followed just behind. Inoue trotted along beside the two with a smile, while Tatsuki shot another glance at the gate but was quick to run after them. They hurried through the first district, still attracting some strange looks but fewer the deeper in they went.

“Ano…” Inoue began after a moment. “How is Kuukaku-san going to get us in exactly?”

Yoruichi kept looking straight ahead, which was why they missed her chuckle. “You’ll see. Don’t worry though; it’ll work. We did it before when we were kids.” She grinned at the memory.

Somehow, Ichigo wasn’t reassured. Knowing both his dad and his aunt, that didn’t exactly mean it was a safe way. Rather, that it was particularly dangerous and exciting. Possibly experimental even now. He shuddered as he thought about it. But then, his aunt wouldn’t put him in any immediate danger without reason.

Right?

“You knew him as a child?” Ishida questioned, displaying an unusual interest in something Shinigami. But then, perhaps he was just prodding for information, the little scholarly nerd that he was. “You mean that you once lived here as well.”

“Well, yes and no,” Ichigo’s aunt replied as she took them through a back alley and then out to a grassy area with a dirt road. “I grew up in Seireitei. The city inside the gates. But both Urahara and the Shibas, Kuukaku’s family, had homes in Rukongai. I visited quite often.”

“Wow!” Inoue commented with wonder, eyes nearly shining. “Kurosaki-kun’s dad is from here, too. How did he meet your mother then, Kurosaki-kun? Did she date him knowing he was a ghost?”

Ichigo stiffened. “He… er…”

But Tatsuki, feeling charitable for once, came in for the save. “He was adopted. Don’t you remember, Orihime?”

Once again, Ichigo had someone to thank. The last person he wanted to discuss was Isshin whom Ichigo would rather never mention again. Besides, he didn’t know the answer to that question anyway. Isshin had died before Ichigo was old enough to ask, and he didn’t care enough to ask his dad if he knew.

“Oh… Yeah.” Inoue’s cheeks heated up a bit as she recalled Tatsuki telling her that what had happened to his birth parents. “I’m sorry, Kurosaki-kun.”

He waved her off and quickly cast about his mind for another topic, more embarrassed by her heartfelt apology than angered at her mistake. It had happened before, people thinking that Urahara Kisuke was his birth father, and it would undoubtedly happen again. He just hoped that they stopped thinking Yoruichi was his mother. Aside from eye-color, something entirely coincidental, they looked nothing alike. Well… not really.

“So you spent a lot of time in Rukongai, Yoruichi-san?” he questioned, purposefully using the title she hated.

“It’s oba-san,” she corrected automatically, dropping back a little to walk next to him and giving him a nudge with her elbow. “And yes, I did. Kisuke and I played out here as often as I could sneak away. Kuukaku and Byakuya-bo often joined us.”

“Byakuya-bo?” Tatsuki piped up from the back. “Is that Kuukaku’s brother or something?”

Yoruichi laughed. “Not quite. A cousin more like. He was… someone younger than us who often tagged along. Our families were all friends.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice,” Inoue chimed in, having recovered from her embarrassment. “You must be happy to be seeing Kuukaku-san again then. He must have missed you.”

There was the sound of snicker as they passed by a rock outcropping. “I’m sure that he did.”

Ichigo shot her a look at that sudden emphasis. He didn’t like his aunt’s tone and knowing her mischievous nature, it couldn’t be good. He had the feeling she was out to embarrass him in some way. But he was interrupted before he could form a question.

“What’s he like, Yoruichi-san?” Inoue inquired with a finger tapping at her lip.

“Oh… I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” Yoruichi replied with a smirk.

And Ichigo inwardly groaned. A surprise? That was never good coming from his aunt’s lips. The last time that had happened, she’d randomly shifted from cat to human form, appearing fully nude and unashamed for it. Ichigo couldn’t stop blushing for hours afterward.

Needless to say, he wasn’t looking forward to her surprise.

“Well, it’s certainly… noticeable,” Inoue commented with a giggle, speaking when the rest of their group was left utterly speechless and dumbfounded.

“You forgot where something like that was?” Ichigo felt himself twitch as he threw a finger towards the building and gazed at his aunt accusingly.

Yoruichi shrugged, waving a dismissive hand. “Kuukaku moves it around all the time. How was I supposed to know?”

Ichigo wasn’t convinced. He glanced back at the building with the massive banner stretched up above it and held by even more massive hands made of stone. How could anyone miss this?

Beside him, Ishida drew to a halt, looking a little disturbed. “I refuse.”

Ichigo blinked. “Refuse what?”

“To go in there,” Ishida said, completely serious as he shifted his glasses on his face. “I would look like an idiot if I walked in there.”

The bastard seemed to be completely missing the point that he looked like one with the girly, Robin Hood rip-off he called an outfit. But whatever. Ichigo wasn’t going to argue with him. If Ishida wanted to be an annoying nuisance, let him. Besides, Ichigo agreed. Albeit silently.

“Why is there a chimney?” Tatsuki asked then.

She pushed between both Ichigo and Ishida to follow Yoruichi as she strode boldly to the front door with no hesitance in her step. Inoue trotted along gamely after them, loudly proclaiming at the architectural genius and how much she wished she had one for her apartment. Apparently, it would match the rainbow and frog decorations.

Ichigo’s aunt merely chuckled. “Oh, you’ll see,” she said, practically in a sing-song, only to holler over her shoulder, “Come on, boys! Kuukaku won’t help us if you insult the house!”

“Isn’t it an insult just to exist?” Ishida muttered, but he followed along anyway, tucking in his elbows as if he feared even brushing the walls.

Ichigo sighed. Why was everyone his dad knew in one way or another completely insane? Was it a Shinigami trait or something? Or did people just automatically lose all sense of reason after they died? Or even further, maybe it was true that power corrupted absolutely. Absolutely batshit insane.

“It can’t be any worse than Kanonji-san, can it?” Chad inquired, voice rumbling as he drew up beside Ichigo, the only truly sane one in the group.

Somehow, Ichigo was going to have to thank him for that once they all finally returned to Karakura alive and well. Since Ichigo would be damned if he let any of them die.

“Let’s hope not,” he grumbled, and tapping Zangetsu to assure himself of the zanpakutou’s presence, Ichigo forced one foot in front of the door. He and Chad arrived at the front just in time to witness a pair of burly, bald twins loudly proclaim their greetings to his aunt.

“Yoruichi-dono!” they near-shouted in perfect tandem. “What a pleasure to see you again! It’s truly an honor!”

His aunt grinned, practically preening under the attention, and lifted a hand in greeting. “Yo! Is Kuukaku in?”

“Of course!” they declared, and the one on the left snapped aside to reveal the doorway.

“I’ll take you to her,” the other added, though their gazes slid past Yoruichi to the group of teenagers accompanying her.

“Oh, they’re with me,” Yoruichi assured them nonchalantly, wrapping an arm around her nephew’s shoulder.

Still suspicious, the two guards didn’t argue. Which was a relief to Ichigo, who was already preparing to fight his way through. He didn’t have time to waste on underlings. Who knew how quickly they would decide to complete Rukia’s sentence? His father had hinted that they may strip her of her powers or possibly even do worse. Especially if Aizen was involved.

One of the twins led them inside while the other remained behind, and Ichigo watched as they were taken into a short hallway. And immediately following that was a ridiculously long stairway leading down. He really shouldn’t have been surprised by the strange design with what the outside looked like. But try as he might, he couldn’t remember hearing his dad talk about a Kuukaku either. He might have, but Ichigo was bad with names sometimes. Especially with people he hadn’t met. He couldn’t even remember the name of his dad’s first crush, even though his aunt had gone on about it for weeks after Yuzu had asked. What had it been again? Byakushi? Bakura? Eh… something like that.

The stairs bottomed out into another hallway with a large set of sliding doors instantly visible. The twin – who on the long walk down had identified himself as Koganehiko and his brother as Shiroganehiko – asked them to wait. But before he could even move a step towards the door, a voice poured out from behind it.

“Are those guests?”

A voice that was decidedly not masculine and well… just a bit bossy if anyone asked Ichigo. Which thankfully no one did.

“Open the door immediately, Koganehiko! Show them in!”

The man scrambled to obey, the voice brooking no argument. That uncertain feeling in Ichigo’s stomach niggled again. Great. Another crazy person. To be expected of the people his aunt and dad knew. She was probably related to them, too. That’d be his luck. All sorts of crazies coming out of the woodwork, and they hadn’t even been here a full day. He could only imagine what Seireitei would be like. Full of sword-wielding maniacs most likely.

The door slid open as their guide gestured Yoruichi and her accompaniment of teenagers inside. Ichigo entered warily, eyes sweeping over a massive empty space that better resembled a dojo until his gaze landed on a person sitting on the other side of the room, propped comfortably in a large pile of pillows and cushions.

A rather under-dressed woman and not a man as Yoruichi had led them to believe.

Clearly, this woman – who he assumed was Kuukaku – had taken the idea of wearing clothes as merely a suggestion. Her limbs were mostly bare, and her shirt dipped alarmingly in the front, highlighting her ample assets. Her hair was wrapped with cloth, and some sort of weapon was strapped to her back. The woman lounged comfortably but perked up when she saw her visitors. A grin that better resembled a leer split her face.

Oh, and the fact that she only had one arm didn’t escape Ichigo’s notice either. He had the strangest feeling that the loss of it had something to do with his aunt, though it was a story he found himself reluctant to request.

“It’s been a while, Yoruichi,” she greeted.

“So it has, Kuukaku,” Ichigo’s aunt returned, much to the shock of pretty much everyone in their group save Ichigo.

“So that is Kuukaku?” Ichigo all but demanded, jerking a thumb in her direction.

His friends echoed the sentiment, all four of them gaping in surprise.

The woman frowned, eyes flickering to him in confusion. “Don’t point. It’s rude, kid,” she chastised, gaze shifting between the teenagers and Yoruichi. “So is there a reason the first time I see you in decades you bring a horde of kids with you, Yoruichi. They aren’t all yours, are they?” She smirked then, amusement flickering across her face.

Ichigo could see the answer to that one coming. And though he tried to escape, Yoruichi caught him anyway. She hooked an arm around his neck and dragged him into her embrace. He squawked as she glomped him, all but pressing his face to her chest.

“Just this one!” she loudly exclaimed, ignoring all of his attempts for freedom. “Isn’t he adorable? Looks just like his tou-chan at that age, doesn’t he?”

“I’m not… your son!” Ichigo growled, voice muffled by cleavage.

But Yoruichi was relentless in her embrace, squashing his face further as she teased him.

“Ano… Yoruichi-san,” Inoue began hesitantly. “Kurosaki-kun needs to breathe…”

The reminder was only halfhearted, as though Inoue didn’t truly dare get between aunt and nephew. Some help she was.

No one seemed to care that Ichigo was flailing for his life.

Kuukaku straightened further, slapping her knee as she laughed. “Really? And here I thought Kisuke had finally gotten over his crush on Byakuya-bo!”

“Oh, he’s his, too!” Yoruichi gleefully declared, finally seeing fit to release Ichigo.

He scrambled away in an undignified fashion, sucking in air as he retreated to the safety of Chad’s presence with heat staining his cheeks. What sin had he committed to deserve an aunt like her? Murder puppies in a past life or something?

“This is the woman who’s going to help us?” Ishida muttered, looking askance at the barely-clad female as she and Yoruichi traded excited chatter back and forth.

“I think she’s nice!” Inoue commented with a giggle. “She and Yoruichi-san get along great.”

“Yeah, like two peas in a pod,” Tatsuki drawled and glanced at Ichigo. “Are you going to interrupt or are you too afraid?” she questioned with a pointed look to his flaming cheeks and his definite proximity to Sado.

“I have the feeling it’s safer for us to leave them be,” Chad rumbled, perfectly neutral as always.

Ichigo, feeling exceedingly frustrated, narrowed his eyes. And just when he was about to turn and say… something – he didn’t know what – the entire house around them gave a violent tremble. It started in the ceiling and worked its way downward, the walls rumbling as something came down the stairs with the force of a stampeding herd of buffalo.

As one, their attention turned to the doorway. Which suddenly thrust itself open with a loud sound.

“Onee-sama!” the burly man in the doorway yelled, covered with sweat and panting noticeably. “I’m sorry for being late. Please forgive me!”

He threw himself on the floor, prostrating himself before Kuukaku as four other men trailed along meekly behind him, murmuring apologies and skulking across the floor. Ichigo and company could merely gawk as they all bowed in supplication, seeking forgiveness.

“Forgive Ganju-sama, Kuukaku-sama,” the four apparent-underlings begged. “It was our fault!”

Ichigo felt his left eye twitch. “Err-”

“Idiot!” Kuukaku roared, swiping the prostrated man across the back of his head. “How hard is it to watch the time?!”

“I’m sorry!” The man – who probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds – trembled.

“Umm, I’d hate to interrupt your comedy routine,” Ichigo inserted loudly, trying to catch the attention of someone – anyone at this point –and get back to the matter at hand. “But we are here for a reason.”

Kuukaku blew air out her mouth, arching one brow as she looked at Yoruichi. “Are you sure he’s Kisuke’s? Boy doesn’t have a bone for fun in his body.”

Laughing, Yoruichi nodded. “He’s just a bit surly because of the… excitement,” she commented. And her voice pitched lower, turning serious. “I’m sure you’ve heard?”

“What? You mean the arrest and imprisonment of a member of one of Seireitei’s four great noble families?” Kuukaku asked, dropping back down into her cushions with a lazy air. “And not only that but dear Kuchiki-taichou’s own sister? Yes, I’ve heard.” She blew out a gust of air. “They haven’t talked this much or openly about the Kuchiki since the disappearance and apparent death of Byakuya-bo’s favorite cousin decades ago. Especially since he was in the running for headship before then.”

And just like that, the atmosphere turned sober. The air sizzled with tension. All eyes were focused on the two women as they spoke, finally getting down to business.

A hand planted on Yoruichi’s hip as she met her dear friend’s teal eyes evenly. “I figured you had. The fact of the matter is, whatever’s going on is a bit fishy. Though that’s not the entire reason we’re here.”

“You’re after the Kuchiki girl? To rescue her I suspect?”

“Yes.” Yoruichi smiled softly, gesturing briefly to her nephew. “Ichigo feels he owes her a debt of honor. She saved his sisters, after all. And who are Kisuke or I to deny him, ne? So we thought we’d ask you for a little help.”

Kuukaku appeared to consider this and hummed in noncommittal thought. “Kuchiki, hmm?” Her eyes narrowed.

“I know how you feel about them,” Yoruichi added quietly, a comment that prompted Ichigo’s curiosity as it was something he knew absolutely nothing about.

Tension sizzled in the air, more like an old sorrow than a rising anger, before Kuukaku drew in a slow breath. Her features lightened, less tense and friendlier.

“Well, if it’s you and Kisuke asking, I can’t exactly say no, can I?” She grinned, face taking on an evil gleam that Ichigo recognized as from his aunt. “So is it complicated?”

“Very,” Yoruichi affirmed with a tilt of her head to the side. She jerked a thumb towards the five teens crowded around behind her. “All six of us need to get into Seireitei, and the conventional means are out.”

Kuukaku studied them for several long moments before throwing her head back and all but guffawing, her one hand slapping the pillow at her side. “You always bring me the best challenges, Yoruichi,” she declared, rising to her feet with a bounce of her ample assets. “Ganju, on your feet!” she barked.

“Yes, nee-chan!” the large man launched himself to his feet, looking rather relieved that his sister had stopped berating him.

Grinning, Kuukaku turned towards a set of double doors opposite to where they had all entered. “I think I’ve just the idea.”

“I knew I could count on you,” Yoruichi returned with a fierce grin.

Ichigo, having watched the exchange with a growing sense of trepidation, groaned inwardly. It didn’t take a genius to figure that this wasn’t going to be good.

[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 05

Chapter Five – Crossing the Rubicon

It didn’t take Kisuke as long for him to find his son as he would have thought. It was pretty easy to understand Ichigo sometimes. He sought solitude when he wanted to think, and with the knowledge of what he planned to do in a few hours, no doubt Ichigo was off in deep contemplation. Only Kisuke wouldn’t let him this time.

He found Ichigo on the roof and just as he expected his son would be. He didn’t know how or when Ichigo developed a fondness for high places, but he could often find him here. He sat on the roof, staring up at the clear night sky, a few stars twinkling. His reiatsu was a quiet stream surrounding his body, not contained but not escaping either. Like a blanket of his own power surrounding him.

“Are you ready?” Kisuke asked quietly, having shed his geta for the sake of balance and safety. He moved to his son’s side, looking down at Ichigo.

The boy lifted a hand, clenching and unclenching it to form a fist. “I know bankai. Tessai-san’s drilled enough kidoh into me that I’m drowning in it. And Yoruichi-san is going with me. If I’m not ready now, I don’t think I will ever be.” He uncurled his fingers and looked at his palm.

The blond lowered himself to sit next to Ichigo, feeling the restless anxiety coming off his son in waves. “That’s just the physical stuff, Ichigo.”

“Yeah, well, it’s the only stuff I can really help,” he muttered, lowering one knee and leaning forward against the other, balancing his chin across his arms.

To Kisuke, he still looked very much like the broken and lost little boy he had taken in so long ago. He had aged, true. And he had learned, but Kisuke could never forget the sight of him on that day. They – whoever the hell “they” were – always said that time healed all wounds, but Kisuke wasn’t sure there was enough time in the world for his son who bore everything on his own two shoulders.

He reached up, taking off his trademark hat and looking down at the striped fabric. “Are you sure you really want to do this?”

“Dad…”

“It’s not going to be easy,” Kisuke continued, looking everywhere but at his son. “The Gotei 13 are powerful.” His fingers clenched, and worry crashed over him where he had tried to be so supportive before.

“I’m not a pushover myself.”

He cracked a small smile at that. Yeah, Kisuke knew that all too well. Most of the time, he was surprised by Ichigo’s growth rate. It far surpassed anything that he had ever seen or found records about. Then again, his condition was also very rare. Kisuke had only heard of one other instance where a human had enough reiatsu to become a Shinigami while still living, and that had not ended well. Certainly, Ichigo’s continued existence proved his rarity, and he had to admit half the time, Kisuke didn’t know what to do with his son.

He thought that if there were anyone who could possibly do this, it would be Ichigo. He was lucky in a way that Kisuke had never seen before, with more resolve in his pinky finger than the blond had ever witnessed in some of the more powerful members of the Gotei 13. He was probably exactly what Seireitei needed to shake things up, and were Kisuke a vengeful man, he would gleefully send Ichigo in to wreak havoc without a second thought.

Things were different. Ichigo was his son. And as such, Kisuke couldn’t just bid him farewell without fighting back worry so great it rattled through his veins. He knew the might of the Gotei 13. He knew what Ichigo would have to face, and there was a very real, distinct possibility that his son could die. And there Kisuke would be, in the living world, unable to do a damn thing about it.

That particular thought didn’t settle well with him at all. In fact, it churned his belly and forced him to swallow down rising bile.

“I’m just worried,” he admitted, though it was probably the last thing his son wanted to hear.

Ichigo looked at him. “You don’t think I can do it?”

“That’s not what I said,” Kisuke hurriedly corrected because that was the furthest from the truth. “You don’t know anything about them, about what who they are and what they are capable of.”

“So tell me,” Ichigo said as though it really were that simple. Like his father could summarize everything that happened in the past into a few easy sentences that would explain his entire existence.

Kisuke exhaled harshly, frustration warring inside of him. Where would he even begin? What would he need to hide? What could he tell to make Ichigo understand? How much was too much?

“You never talk about why you’re here and not in Soul Society,” Ichigo continued with a teenager’s dogged persistence. “It’s kind of important right now, right? So just tell me!”

“It’s complicated,” Kisuke retorted and winced because it was a lame excuse and he knew it.

Complicated was trying to figure out how to reconcile Ichigo’s three halves. Complicated was suddenly raising three human children on his own when he had no idea what to do with them. Complicated was the connection between he and Yoruichi, the truths they knew and the lies they told everybody else. Complicated was explaining to Yuzu why he would never bring her home a mother. Complicated was handling Karin’s turbulent emotions after the death of her birth parents. Complicated was so far from what he would use to describe one hundred years ago and all that Aizen had done to him that Kisuke didn’t even consider it in the same arena.

Ichigo snorted, obviously agreeing with Kisuke’s internal thoughts. “What? You do something terrible or something? Blow up a city with one of your experiments?” He gestured vaguely. “Cut off the soutaichou’s beard? Kill someone?”

It was the last that shoved him out of apathy. “No!” Kisuke denied and forced himself to pause to regain control, repeating himself a bit quieter. “No, I didn’t kill anyone. In fact, I didn’t do anything, and maybe that’s my sin, but I am not the only one to blame.”

“Then tell me!” Ichigo demanded, his voice reaching a higher volume that dared to echo in the night.

His son had a point, and damned if Kisuke didn’t want to tell him. But he would do it anyway because Ichigo had to know. He had to be prepared, to know who he could and could not trust. Kisuke refused to send his son in blindly.

He dropped his hat into his lap, abandoning the safety of its concealment, and raked a hand through his hair. His fingers tightened around the rim, but that only firmed his resolve.

“Ichigo, look at me.”

Though surprised by the request, Ichigo complied, something earnest in his expression.

Kisuke couldn’t help but fidget, though he’d prefer to be more restrained. “My exile was orchestrated entirely by the machinations of one man, though others were involved in his schemes. His name is Aizen Sousuke, and he is now captain of the fifth division. His co-conspirators – Ichimaru Gin and Tousen Kaname – are captains of the third and ninth division respectively. They are the three you must be most wary of.” His mouth was dry, the names falling like acid from his lips.

He tried not to think of that night to no avail, remembering his own failures. Aizen’s smug smirk. Tousen’s silence. Ichimaru’s unending grin. The cries of the betrayed Vizard, their pained moans as their bodies twisted and writhed, caught between forms. And night falling over all of them, concealing the truth.

Kisuke swallowed, forcing himself to continue. He had told Ichigo to look at him, but in truth, the blond could not return the demand. He found his eyes wandering away, to the safety of the vista easily seen from their roof. Rows and rows of buildings, the lights from the railroad tracks. All things that remained him painfully of his exile.

“Aizen is after something that Kuchiki-san has in her possession,” he continued quietly, guilt trying to swallow him whole. Ichigo still didn’t know, and Kisuke didn’t think he could bring himself to tell him. “There is every chance that what is happening may be part of his plan.”

Beside him, Ichigo straightened, his gold eyes flashing with a new anger. “They dragged Rukia away because of him?”

Kisuke could just see the boy adding Aizen Sousuke to an inner list of “Shinigami who desperately needed their asses kicked.” The fact that Ichigo’s birth father was currently the only other name on that list troubled him greatly.

“I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t dismiss it either,” Kisuke said and sighed, hoping he could impress on his son just how insidious Aizen was. That he shouldn’t by any means go picking fights with him. “Aizen is dangerous, Ichigo. More dangerous than you will ever know, and it’s entirely centered around his zanpakutou. Don’t trust anything you see when it concerns him; it could all be an illusion.”

He watched as Ichigo glanced away thoughtfully. “Aizen… He’s the reason Shinji and the others are here, too? No wonder they hate him so much.”

“Shinji’s mentioned him before?”

It was the first Kisuke had heard of this. He only wondered what else the Vizard might have told his son when he had begged their help. He hadn’t been able to “fix” Ichigo on his own those six years past. He’d had to rely on their assistance, and frankly, they hadn’t minded. Ichigo was one of their own, they still claimed. Though the boy himself didn’t really align himself one way or the other.

Kisuke dreaded to think that the time when he might have to choose was coming faster than he would have liked.

Ichigo shrugged, as though it didn’t really matter. “In passing. It’s usually joined with much cursing and Hiyori stalking off to destroy something.” His eyes narrowed, certain that it was so much more than that.

And he would be right.

“Aizen is powerful. Even back then, he was a force to be reckoned with, even if he was only a fukutaichou.”

Casting a high level kidoh with barely a chant and no concentration. Breaking another – Tessai’s spell, no less! – so easily, as if a student from the academy had been the one to throw it at him. Ensnaring all of them under the web of his reiatsu. Weaving illusions around them effortlessly for decades. Centuries perhaps. And finding others of like mind. Suborning them to his will.

Kisuke exhaled very heavily. “Aizen is very powerful. I’m not certain if even I or Yoruichi could defeat him without cheating. If it comes down to it and you have to fight one of them, go through Ichimaru. He’s the youngest of the three and was only a child last I saw him.”

Better than Tousen at any rate. Shinji and Kensei had told him firsthand of the things Tousen’s zanpakutou could do. And there was no way in forty hells that he’d want Ichigo to work his way through that.

“But-” His son began, only to be cut off by the blond’s sharp gaze.

One of Kisuke’s hands curled into a fist, entirely without his consent. “I know far less about Aizen than I would like, Ichigo. Far less. I can only surmise that he’s gotten stronger, and I don’t think he’d hesitate to kill you. Especially if he knew of your connection to me or even the other Vizard. So believe me when I say this: if you have to, just run.”

He knew the idea of flight didn’t appeal to his son in the slightest. He hated to run from anything. Not a fight with the local thugs. Not a particularly difficult Hollow. Not from his own inner troubles. Not a single obstacle that had been put in his way. Ichigo’s pride, his resolve, his determination were a strength for him. But Kisuke worried – no, he knew – they were not enough in the face of Aizen. His son was just so very young, and Aizen was a monster in the truest sense of the word.

Ichigo scowled. “If he’s after Rukia, then I’ll probably have to fight him. I don’t think I can avoid it.”

Ichigo.”

He sighed, a teenage exasperation of sound, and hauled himself to his feet. “But I’ll do my best to avoid him. Can’t make the old man worry.”

“Are we going by your definitions of old or mine?” Kisuke retorted, unable to explain the flash of relief that soared through him.

Ichigo might not like it, but at least, he would think before charging into the thick of things. And at least this way, he wouldn’t be blindsided as Kisuke himself had been. He would know about the sinister intentions lurking behind Aizen’s picture-perfect persona. He would stand a fighting chance.

The ex-captain watched as his son stretched.

“Mine,” the boy said, and there was a hint of humor in his voice.

“I’ll have you know that I’m younger than Yoruichi.”

Ichigo snorted. “That’s not really saying much.”

“I dare you to say it to her face.”

“I think I’d rather face Aizen.” A vague look of embarrassed horror crossed Ichigo’s expression, remembering with a tinge of red to his cheeks his aunt’s way of punishment.

Kisuke forced himself to chuckle, even if just hearing Ichigo say that name made his insides churn. What had happened to his carefree days? Gone in the wake of his children, he supposed. Sometimes, he wondered how anyone survived being a parent these days, what with the stress and worry his kids put him through.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” Ichigo assured him, already moving across the roof to the short ladder, no doubt to finish his preparations for the mission. His reiatsu was much calmer now than it had been before, which relieved Kisuke. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

It wouldn’t be soon enough, but Kisuke kept that to himself. He’d rather Ichigo think that he was entirely confident in him.

Silence – except for the usual noise pollution of a town in motion – surrounded him. A wind stirred, chasing away the lazy heat that lingered from the afternoon. And somewhere below him, his home practically thrummed with reiatsu.

He’d never known it would be this hard.

“Tenchou!”

Kisuke hauled himself to his feet, glancing over the edge. Tessai stood waiting at ground level, confusion furrowing his brow. He was probably trying to figure out what the shopkeeper was doing on the roof.

“They’re here,” his friend added when he caught Kisuke looking at him.

They…?

A spark of recognition flittered across his brain, and Kisuke couldn’t help but grin a little. He was sending his son into Seireitei, but he wouldn’t be going alone. And he’d yet to tell Ichigo. That at least should bring some amusement.

Ichigo wished he felt more certain than he did, nervousness twisting in his belly. It was easy to project confidence to others; he just wished he could make himself believe it as well. Contrary to his father’s opinion, he realized the danger that awaited him. He knew what he would have to face, and he understood it would be no simple task.

That didn’t mean he was going to turn his back on Rukia either. Even if he had to fight the whole of the Gotei 13, Onmitsukidoh, and Kidoushuu.

Squaring his shoulders, Ichigo padded through the mostly silent shouten towards his room, seeking out Kon. He didn’t want to put his body in stasis for however long it took. Besides, Yuzu and Karin would need someone to look after them, though he imagined the latter would deny that stridently.

He found Kon snoozing in the middle of his bed, a stuffed lion somehow managing to snore despite lacking a real body. Ichigo picked him up, and Kon woke immediately, flailing around like an imbecile and screaming something entirely random.

“The hippies ate my donuts!”

Ichigo blinked. “The hippies… What?” And then on second thought. “Wait. Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

Kon harrumphed, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared up at Ichigo from where the teen gripped him by the back of his neck. “What do you want?” he demanded, still sulking over Rukia’s disappearance. “I was sleeping, you know.”

It was only after Kon bounced around the room a few times that Ichigo reminded himself he couldn’t actually feel pain in his current form. “You want Rukia back, don’t you?”

“Nee-san?” He swore sparkles entered the plushie’s eyes as he performed a miraculous leap to his feet, squeaking across the floor back to Ichigo.

Ichigo nodded and raked a hand over his hair. “Yeah, I’m going to get her. But I can’t exactly leave this lying around.” He plucked at his chest demonstratively.

Ichigo knew all too well the pains of getting back into an untended body after a long period of time. Stiff and cold, it always felt unnatural. He loathed it with a passion, even more than returning after a temporary soul had been placed inside.

He watched as indecision wracked Kon, who warred with himself over helping Ichigo and helping his precious Rukia.

“Fine!” he declared, pointing a stuffed fist at Ichigo. “I’ll help you this once! But only so you can save nee-san!”

“Whatever.”

A few minutes later and Ichigo was in his Shinigami form with Kon performing his usual stretch-and-dance routine to get comfortable in Ichigo’s body. It always amazed the teen how quickly Kon made it is his own, his mannerisms showing clearly on Ichigo’s face. Sometimes, it was hard for him to tell that it was supposed to be his body and not Kon’s, and boy, didn’t that spark some strange thoughts.

Ichigo fidgeted, tugging at the ties of his obi and adjusting and readjusting Zangetsu over and over. His zanpakutou vibrated with his restlessness, and in the back of his mind, Shirosaki shook his head at his king’s foolishness. Bah, what would he know? He wasn’t all of fifteen and getting ready to declare war against the might of Soul Society.

Doesn’t sound too bad ta me, aibou.

He mentally told Shirosaki to shut up.

His bed squeaked as Kon dropped back onto it, eyes dropping in preparation to go back to sleep. Honestly, did he do anything useful?

Ichigo prodded him in the side with the end of his sheathed zanpakutou. “Oy?”

One golden eye cracked open. It was always eerie looking back at himself.

“What?” Kon practically whined, and Ichigo swore that his own voice didn’t sound like that.

“Watch them for me,” Ichigo commanded and then elaborated for the sake of Kon’s puny sense of understanding. “Karin and Yuzu. Jinta and Ururu too, though they can take care of themselves probably better than I can. I’ll kick your ass if anything happens to my family.”

Kon stuck out his tongue like a juvenile, promptly closing his eyes. “Whatever boss. I’ll kick yours if you don’t bring back nee-san.”

Empty threats. Ichigo wondered when they’d started treating each other like annoying siblings and not… well, two beings who didn’t really like each other too much. He looked at Kon again, but the mod soul seemed to be slipping back into sleep already. He should have known.

Ichigo looked around his room and at all the things he knew to be his. Schoolbooks stacked on the desk. Uniform hanging to dry. Quincy curtains, Ishida’s idea of a joke.

He better come back to this.

Ichigo left Kon to his sleep and wandered back into the hallway, passing by Yuzu and Karin’s shared room. This late at night, they were both asleep, but he looked in on them anyway. They knew he was leaving, and they knew why, though Karin was of mixed feelings about it. Yuzu made him promise to be careful, and Karin had socked him in the shoulder much like Tatsuki.

He had to come back for their sakes.

Ichigo had dawdled long enough. There was enough reiatsu being pumped downstairs that he could feel it in the floor. His dad and Tessai had the gate ready. All that was left was for him to go through it. And no doubt Yoruichi-san was waiting for him, too.

The shop was silent, and as he passed, he saw that Jinta and Ururu were asleep as well, the former sprawled out over the covers, half-under and half not. The latter was curled into a ball around a stuffed rabbit. They were like his siblings, too, but nothing compared to the connection he had with his sisters.

Ichigo pulled up the trapdoor with a slight squeak and dropped down into the basement, shielding his eyes from the sudden shift from dim to fake, bright lighting. He could just feel the reiatsu from the gate a short distance away, and a quick burst of shunpo took him there. He pretended he didn’t feel like butterflies danced a waltz in his belly.

His father was waiting. As was Tessai, standing and discussing something in low tones. Yoruichi-san was there as well in full battle regalia. And next to her…

Ichigo’s brain abruptly stuttered.

“Kurosaki-kun!” Inoue was the first to notice him, and she waved wildly, lips pulled into a joyous grin. “You’re finally here!”

“You’re late,” Ishida added with a grumble, one hand brushing down the front of his painfully white outfit that Ichigo highly suspected he had sewn himself. But he didn’t want to ask. Not at all.

Chad just looked at him, as though his presence didn’t need an explanation.

And Ichigo? He gaped.

“What? You think we’d let you run off by yourself, dumbass?” Tatsuki stated with a rough smile. She jerked up an arm, showing him her fist. “As if, Kurosaki.”

Ishida pushed up his glasses with one finger. “Kuchiki-san may be a Shinigami, but she does not deserve the type of a punishment they will inflict upon her.” He rubbed his arm in a manner that suggested there had once been more than skin there.

Ichigo belatedly recalled that Kon had mentioned Ishida was there when Rukia was taken. Yet another reason that Ichigo had to do this. He should have been there, too.

“And if Tatsuki’s going, then so am I,” Inoue insisted, eyes sparkling with determination, even as she set her jaw in that stubborn way that was uncomfortably familiar to Ichigo.

“You need someone to watch your back,” Chad added quietly, voice brooking no argument. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Ichigo struggled for words, wanting to deny all of them. Where did they get off thinking this was their fight? Hell, Ishida was the only one of them who even knew how!

“Don’t be so surprised,” Yoruichi-san said from behind him, the smile on her face wicked and her tone amused. Ichigo wouldn’t be surprised if he saw a cat’s tail waving behind her mischievously. “All that reiatsu you spill everywhere had to go somewhere.”

He scowled, whirling towards her with his brow drawn tight. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

His aunt shook a finger at him. “Tsk, tsk. Ichigo. Such language to your dear oba-chan. I know that Kisuke raised you better.”

He felt an eyebrow twitch as Tatsuki snickered behind him. “They can’t come,” Ichigo practically growled at her, though he sensed it would end up being a battle. “This isn’t a game.”

Yoruichi-san looked at him, and though there was a grin on her lips, her eyes hardened with sobriety. “No, it’s not. Which is why you’ll need all the help you can get. Where do you think I’ve been this past week? Or Tessai? Jinta? Ururu? You think they’ve all been here working on the one gate?”

“You didn’t think I’d send my own son in alone, did you?” his father asked from his position just in front of the unopened gate, voice light but holding a note of tension. He still didn’t like this at all. “Dear Yoruichi is the best at stealth, but she’s just one woman.”

“Face it, Kurosaki,” Tatsuki added with more than a hint of cheer, coming up and clapping him on the shoulder with a strong enough grip to nearly make him stagger. Damn, but she hit like a man. “We’re coming with you.”

“But… your arm,” Ichigo protested weakly, feeling like he was fighting a battle he’d lost long before he even knew there was a war.

Inoue giggled. “Oh, don’t worry about that! Thanks to Yoruichi-san, I helped her heal that right up!” She poked Tatsuki’s arm demonstratively, prompting the other girl to give Ichigo a thumbs-up with said formerly injured appendage.

“So quit gaping like a fish, Ichi-kun,” Yoruichi insisted, her amusement yet to fade, “and thank them for their hard work.”

Ichigo, for his part, couldn’t separate the conflicting emotions that ripped and roared through him. There was an embarrassing amount of gratefulness for his friends – their bravery and their loyalty and their dedication. That he didn’t have to do this alone warmed him in ways they could not understand. But for all that, there was an incredible sort of worry and trepidation. He would never forgive himself if they were injured for a cause that was his own. Or even worse, if they died.

He didn’t know what face to show them. So he was therefore relieved when his father clapped his hands, attracting their attention back towards the empty gate.

“Now,” the blond interrupted, “that it’s settled, we should get things moving. Kuchiki-san’s time is limited, after all.”

With that heavy reminder, Ichigo returned to business once again. “Fine,” he growled, though it came out less annoyed than he would like and more generally accepting. It prompted both Tatsuki and Inoue to grin like fools.

“Very good then,” Urahara continued, clapping his hands together once more. “Let’s get this started.”

He snapped his fingers, and to the surprise of everyone in the room, especially Ichigo, a gate suddenly appeared out of thin air just behind him. Slamming into existence with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. His dad liked to make a grand entrance that way.

“Now, this here is a Seikaimon,” Urahara began to explain for the benefit of those who hadn’t been subjected to years worth of lessons and explanations. “It’s not a normal gate, however, because there’s a tiny problem of attempting to send humans through here. Which just doesn’t work, so I’ve altered it.”

“And tested it, right?” Ichigo insisted, locking eyes with the blond and promising dire retribution if it were otherwise.

Urahara laughed, his damn annoying fan appearing with the same startling nowhere-ness as the gate. “Of course, Ichigo! I wouldn’t put my own son in danger!” He smiled, but it was suspicious. “Moving right along.” He gestured to the gate once more with a sharp twist of wrist and fan. “I am a genius; this is true. But even so, Tessai and myself can only manage to keep this open for four minutes. I hope you brought your running shoes.”

“Oh, no,” Inoue gasped and then whispered to Tatsuki, though pretty much everyone else could hear it. “Should I go back for mine?”

Tatsuki’s sigh was even more audible.

Ichigo simply pretended he hadn’t heard either of them. It was better for his sanity if he did. Why was it a good idea that they came along again?

“Four minutes,” Ichigo repeated and frantically tried to recall all the lessons that had been crammed into his brain. “That’s not long enough!”

“It’ll have to be,” his father stated. “There’s no other way, Ichigo.” He paused, sweeping his gaze out over the group, expression unreadable beneath the shadows of his horrid hat. “Don’t worry. I have no doubts that you will make it. Yoru-chan is your guide, after all.”

“That’s right!” She agreed amicably and draped herself over Ichigo’s back, completely heedless to Zangetsu, rubbing against the side of his face in a very cat-like fashion. “Just keep moving forward, and the rest will take care of itself.”

He lifted an elbow to try and remove his aunt from her clinging, but alas, it did him little good.

“Fine. We get it. Time’s wasting.”

“So it is,” Urahara agreed and stood silently a minute more, watching the assembled group and his son. Wishing he could reconsider. Wishing he didn’t have to do this.

Ichigo looked at him, arms crossed over his face. And though he didn’t waver, he recognized how hard this must be.

“All I have to do is win,” the teen added, Zangetsu and Shirosaki echoing the sentiment within him. “I’m coming back. All of us are coming back.” His eyes locked with his father in a silent promise.

“You had better,” the blond insisted, and reaching up to briefly touch his hat, he abruptly turned back towards the gate and gestured towards Tessai with the other hand. “Let’s get this started then, shall we?”

Tessai inclined his head and stood to one side of the massive structure, its squarish construction standing firm. Ichigo watched as they knelt on the ground and felt the faintest prickle of reiatsu in the air, sensed it swelling and drawing towards the gate, growing stronger with each passing second.

“Enter the instant the gate opens,” Urahara announced, voice taking on the edge of strain, though it retained its light and noticeably fake cheer. “And simultaneously. Once inside, run like hell. And follow Yoruichi.”

No sooner had he spoke than the press of reiatsu became an outright flood, slamming through the underground room. Energy and light exuded from the stone-surrounded walls of the gate, nearly blinding Ichigo and his entourage. He felt something inside of him tugging towards the gate, calling, demanding entrance. A strange sort of calm settled within him, where his nerves had been slightly rattled before.

He was going to do this. He was going to save her. And nothing was going to stand in his way.

“Here it goes!” Urahara shouted, and his announcement was followed by an even brighter flare of reiatsu.

Ichigo’s feet were moving before his eyes had a chance to adjust, and by the sound of footwear beside him, he knew that his friends were with him. He couldn’t see his father through the flash of reiatsu, but he knew that Urahara was there.

And then he was gone, swallowed by the gate.

They were through in a flash, and Kisuke felt an answering pull of reiatsu from deep inside his body as the gate called on more power to fuel their cross. Tessai suffered from the same draining tug, face painted with sweat though his expression betrayed nothing. Kisuke blinked to clear away the dots dancing in front of his eyes and rose slowly to his feet, the light fading.

The gate still rippled, just waiting for another to take a step through it. Four minutes really wasn’t enough time. Kisuke wished he could have given his son more. A lot more. As it were, any longer and Ichigo would face certain death upon his arrival. Soul Society would sense them coming in an instant. This unauthorized entry would certainly attract someone’s attention.

He walked forward, watching the portal where his son and his friends had gone, wishing with all his being that he could go as well. It rippled, almost invitingly, like the play of light over waves in the sea. Sparkling and gem-like, fleeting in its beauty.

Kisuke lifted his hand, barely pressing the tips of his finger against that enticing ripple. The response was immediate and violent. A ripple of pain that stabbed through his hand, and the ex-captain grimaced, taking an unconscious step back. Where he had briefly touched it, his skin was reddened and raw. Burned.

Exiled.

Kisuke chewed on his bottom lip, something sitting heavy and thick in his stomach. He worried. By Kami, he worried. How could he not? Ichigo was his son in everything that had ever mattered, and he’d just sent the teen against the might of the Gotei 13. For the sake of a Shinigami who Kisuke cared nothing for but seemed to matter to Ichigo very much.

“He’s going where I can’t follow,” Kisuke murmured, more to himself than anyone else, though Tessai plainly heard him. “How could I have let him do such a thing?”

“Because you know it was the best thing to do,” Tessai rumbled softly, reaching up to adjust his glasses and wipe a bead of sweat of brow. “And because you know you had no other choice. We both know this seems too coincidental.”

Shoulders slumping, Kisuke turned away from the gate as it shimmered one last time and closed, collapsing. He prayed to a god he didn’t believe in that Ichigo made it to the other side safely. He drew his hat down further onto his face, eyes slanting to the side as he considered.

Kisuke had done his best to warn Ichigo. He only hoped it was enough. That his knowledge of the situation would carry his son through. That he hadn’t made a mistake somewhere along the way and that he wouldn’t regret this decision.

“You’ll just have to trust in him,” Tessai added, already turning towards the ladder and the shop above where the rest of Kisuke’s children waited; the Kurosaki twins were anxious and apprehensive already.

“I do,” Kisuke murmured and was surprised himself with the absolute conviction his tone managed. “But will that be enough?”

And to that, Tessai had no ready answer.


[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 04

Chapter Four – A Jail Called Remorse

“You have to let me go!”

His dad looked at him, and Ichigo could tell that he was crumbling.

“Ichigo…” Urahara hesitated. “It’s not that simple.”

“It is, dammit,” he growled, curling his fingers into fists. “This is our fault. We screwed up.” He could feel the guilt in his chest, pushing and tugging, squeezing on his lungs.

Urahara shook his head, tugging off his hat and rubbing fingers across his forehead. “Fighting Hollows in the living world and sparring with myself or Tessai is nothing compared to facing the full might of the Gotei 13. You know that.”

Ichigo set his jaw stubbornly, wondering if he could even put into words the emotions that surged through him at the moment. Rukia was gone. Taken by her own and thanks to the information Urahara had given him, he knew she was slated for punishment. A long prison sentence at best and execution at worse. She had been accused of hiding their existence when Ichigo knew that she hadn’t known the truth.

It was their fault, their lies. He couldn’t condemn her to die because they had decided to save their own skins above all things. If he had just been there, he could have stopped them. He could have faced off against the Shinigami, rather than making it seem like she had been hiding he and his family.

Ichigo had been in the basement, doing nothing more important than practicing a few kidoh and arguing with Shirosaki about something that was ridiculous in retrospect. Zangetsu had been amusedly refereeing, as he usually did. Ichigo hadn’t known where Rukia was, but then, it wasn’t like they kept tabs on each other every hour of every day.

Until Kon came squeaking down into the basement, hollering at the top of his lungs about Rukia and yelling incoherently. It had taken several minutes for Ichigo to get the story out of him, and by then, it was too late. By the time he emerged upstairs, it was to the knowledge that they had already come and gone.

“Then I’ll fight every one of them if I have to,” Ichigo retorted stubbornly as he squared his shoulders in defiance. Dad would have to understand that he had to do this. Otherwise, he’d never be able to live with himself. “So open a Seikaimon for me.”

He could see the debate in Urahara’s eyes, the worry, the reluctance to thrust his son into a potentially lethal situation. Ichigo knew that his father didn’t want him to do this. But Ichigo had already made up his mind. He owed Rukia this. For all the lies they had told her, whether openly or indirectly.

“Let him go, otouto,” a voice announced from behind the both of him, light and lazy but full of an air of authority. “It’s something he needs to do.”

Ichigo watched as his dad whirled around, fixing his sister with a look Ichigo couldn’t quite interpret as he too moved to see Yoruichi reclining lazily against the doorframe. She was dressed in her usual battle regalia, rather than the occasionally casual clothes he saw her in. And the look in her golden eyes – a color not at all far from Ichigo’s own – was serious, far from her playful nature.

“Yoruichi,” his dad sighed and shook his head. “You know even better than he does how much of a risk this is. How can you expect me to do that?”

“What good was the training if not for this?” Yoruichi countered, sliding off the door frame and moving lithely into the room, every step careful and trained. Sleek. Like the black cat she occasionally appeared as. “He’s not going to change his mind.”

Sensing that his father was crumbling under the pressure, Ichigo once again tried to impress the importance of this to him. “If I let her die, I won’t be any better than them,” he ground out, squaring his jaw. “No better than what they did to Shinji and the others.”

Gray-green eyes widened fractionally at the comparison, the reminder striking to the core of bitter memories that Urahara and the Vizard rarely discussed. Yoruichi watched father and son, silent now, eyes passing between them.

Ichigo looked at Urahara and hoped that his determination reflected in his gaze. “I can’t not do anything,” Ichigo added, though it was more a whisper. Guilt weighed heavily, the burden clamping down on his heart and lungs until it felt like he couldn’t breathe through the oppression of it.

His father stared at him. “Ichigo… This isn’t your fault. Just like your parents weren’t your fault. You aren’t responsible for the world.”

“I know that!”

“No, I don’t think you do.” Urahara’s voice was gentle, echoing with things he’d tried to tell his son but to no avail.

Angry, Ichigo tore his gaze away, frustration biting away at him. Urahara didn’t understand. No matter what he thought, Ichigo had to do this.

Urahara sighed. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this, am I? You’d find some other method, I’m sure.”

Surprised, Ichigo’s eyes flickered back towards his father. Admittedly, he had been harboring thoughts of tracking down Shinji and the others if need be. No doubt they would know of a way for him to go.

He shook his head. “No. I’m going. I just want your help to get there. Please,” he added softly.

Shadowed eyes watched him for several moments longer before Urahara sighed again. He lifted his hand to his hat, drawing it down from his head.

“Fine,” he agreed, although it was clear he really didn’t want to do so. “On one condition.”

Ichigo blinked, honestly surprised it had been this easy. His dad must feel guilty indeed.

“Name it.”

“If you can’t reach bankai before the gate is completed, then I won’t let you go,” the blond stated firmly, his tone brooking no argument. “And believe me, Ichigo. There are methods of ensuring you can’t leave.”

Ichigo understood that perfectly. Between Tessai’s kidoh and his father’s scientific genius, there was no doubt they’d find a way to keep him in the living world. But it would be a fight to do that, and neither of them wanted it. His condition wasn’t unreasonable. The captains of the Gotei 13 had achieved bankai. If Ichigo didn’t at least have his, he would be slaughtered.

His hands uncoiled from their tight fists as he nodded. “Okay,” Ichigo agreed, relieved now that something was finally being done. “I’ll do it.”

“And I’ll help you,” Yoruichi inserted in the following silence, throwing an arm across Ichigo’s shoulders and hugging him against her side. “What kind of oba-chan would I be if I let precious little Ichigo storm Seireitei alone?”

The teenager scowled, struggling to free himself from her embrace. “Is that safe though?” he asked, secretly pleased that she had volunteered.

He had heard stories enough. And his father had taught him a lot of things about Soul Society, but there were still many things he did not know. He would need some help though he was loath to ask for it. A part of him was relieved that he wouldn’t have to do this entirely alone, even if he had been prepared for it.

Yoruichi rubbed her cheek against his, heedless to or perhaps because of his embarrassment at the proximity of her ample curves. “Don’t underestimate me, Ichigo. I still have several tricks up my sleeve.”

He shrugged out of her hold, desperate for distance as his face burned. He often wondered why he couldn’t have a normal family. No Shinigami. No Soul Society. No crazy aunts without the ability to keep their hands to themselves. But then, he realized his life would be pretty boring without them all.

“I don’t like this,” his father sighed, drawing Ichigo’s attention back towards himself. “I can’t accept it, but you are right. It would be cruel of us to condemn Kuchiki-san to her death.”

A flurry of emotions reflected in Urahara’s eyes before he replaced his hat, again shading them from the world.

Ichigo for his part couldn’t quite express the gratitude. “Thanks, dad.”

“Don’t thank me just yet,” Urahara countered, squeezing his shoulder briefly as he stepped past Ichigo towards the door. “Bankai is no easy task.”


A week was not long in the lifetime of a Shinigami and perhaps not even for a human. But to Ichigo it felt too long or short as it were. He felt as though he were on a time limit. That if he didn’t arrive in Seireitei soon, it would be too late. He knew that wasn’t the case, judging by the information Urahara had given him. But he couldn’t shake the feeling. It left him antsy and restless, unable to concentrate. Enough that Tatsuki noticed, and all Ichigo could do was keep rebuffing her.

A week of training and teaching and grueling lessons from Urahara left Ichigo tired and irritated. Bankai had been no easy hurdle to cross, even with his dad’s three-day invention and time-limit. Fighting against Shirosaki the entire way had made it even more complicated, despite having attained his Hollow’s compliance years ago. Only once did Ichigo consider asking the other Vizard for help. And just as quickly dismissed it. He needed to do this on his own.

It bothered Ichigo that no one remembered Rukia. No one at all. No one questioned her abrupt disappearance at the school. No one asked where his cousin had gone. No one looked at the empty seat in the middle of the classroom with a question in their eyes. As if her existence in his life didn’t make a whit of difference. And though he had always treated her as something temporary, an annoyance that he couldn’t be rid of, Ichigo realized that he had grown used to her. Fond of her even. Like another annoying sister, only one he couldn’t be free from.

Ichigo blinked. “Are you serious?” he demanded, staring with a vague sort of horror at the colorful depictions of… well, something that Rukia was showing him.

Slowly lowering the sketchbook, blue eyes darted from the paper to him again before she scowled. “I’ll have you know that my art is beautiful,” she declared haughtily, and huffing, she turned the artbook back towards her. Rukia proceeded to pick up her markers once more.

That’s… not art,” Ichigo countered, a strange and sudden urge to laugh bubbling up from deep inside of him. In fact, he was barely holding back on a grin right now, especially since Rukia tended to get violent if she was contradicted. “It looks like a child drew it.”

The sound of pen against paper stilled, and a chilly wind swept through the room. Rukia looked up from her newest drawing, an explanation of the latest rumors in Soul Society since it was obvious that Ichigo had been gone for so long he didn’t know the necessary gossip, such as their decision to extend vacation time. As if Ichigo cared about any of that. And why the rumors needed illustrations was beyond him. He suspected that Rukia just liked drawing and subsequently showing off her pictures.

And I suppose you could do better?” she demanded, her expression set with barely restrained fury.

Ichigo once again had the sensation of walking on thin ice.

He eyed the drawings once again. Bunnies – or at least what he thought were rabbits – danced merrily across the page dressed as Shinigami and wielding swords of different designs. One had tattoos – or what he assumed to be tattoos. And another had a bald head that sparkled in the sun – if that was what she called the yellow splotch in the corner of the paper. The homicidal urge to laugh rose again.

It must have shown on his face because the next thing he knew, Rukia launched herself at him with her black marker, eyes set with vengeance. And for such a small thing, she was rather difficult to fend off.

Ichigo scowled, rubbing at his face as ghostly remembrance of scrubbing to remove the marker made his skin itch. Of all things to be sensitive about, Rukia was particularly twitchy about her drawings. It didn’t help that he burst into laughter every time she shoved the pictures into his face. She thought it necessary to explain anything and everything with illustrations.

And then, there were the times she surprised him with her ability to think outside the box, giving him a hint that there was more than Seireitei-taught nonsense within her brain. He knew she was intelligent, though she took their half-hearted lies at face value, but he never expected that she could step away from the brainwashing of the Gotei 13.

Case in point: Kon.

We must destroy him.”

Ichigo nearly choked on his own tongue. “What?”

He’s a mod soul,” Rukia explained, as though that were all the answer he needed. She looked haggard after chasing the mod soul all around Karakura, perhaps leading to her exasperation. “There’s a standing order in Soul Society that they are to be destroyed.”

Ichigo scowled, feeling his reiatsu rise and slam against the coils of his control, one brow ticking in annoyance. “We’re not in Soul Society!” he reminded her.

She let loose an exasperated breath, hands set stubbornly on her hips. “Ichigo, that’s not the point. You have been in the living world too long. You should know this!”

He faltered a bit, knowing that she had a point. His denial now was different than what a Shinigami from Soul Society would declare. But he couldn’t sit and do nothing. He wasn’t a true Shinigami, even if Rukia didn’t know that.

Just because I know it doesn’t mean I should obey,” he retorted, voice lifting in volume and threatening to escape from the room. He struggled to keep it under wraps before he alarmed his sisters. “Is it his fault he was created? Why should we kill him?”

She gazed at him, and she didn’t understand, a strange sort of quiet reflected in her eyes. “He never should have been created in the first place.”

Ichigo set his jaw stubbornly because he wouldn’t allow this, even if it gave him away in some small manner. “That’s not a good enough reason. You can’t destroy something just because you made a mistake. That’s irresponsible.”

It struck all too strongly within him. He knew that she was merely reflecting Seireitei’s opinions of things they didn’t understand. He hated that it was a reminder of his own fate should the Gotei 13 and Chamber 46 ever learn of his existence, of the Hollow within him. He dreaded to think of what Rukia would believe of him if she ever learned the darkest secrets that Ichigo harbored.

His entire existence was a mistake, and Ichigo couldn’t help but feel a kinship to the mod soul. He didn’t want to believe that the mod soul should be destroyed simply for existing. Otherwise, Ichigo’s own life would be worthless. And he wouldn’t let her kill him, not even if it revealed the truth about himself. He wouldn’t.

It’s not my decision to make,” Rukia said, but it was weak, like she was already swaying to his side and only protesting for the sake of it.

Ichigo gestured around them, to the emptiness of the room other than his father who watched them curiously. “I don’t see anyone around here stopping you.”

Rukia’s eyes flickered to his father and to him and then back to the small sphere that rested almost innocently between them, except for the near-rampage he had taken through Karakura. He had only wanted freedom, to escape from destruction. Ichigo couldn’t fault the mod soul for that, and he would fight like hell before he let Rukia kill him.

He has the capacity to be useful,” Urahara offered from the doorway, attempting to sound casual, but the same fire burned under his words that prompted Ichigo’s argument. No doubt he thought the same, likening the situation to what could possibly happen to his son.

After all, Rukia still maintained some contact with Soul Society. They could not afford for her to send in a less than satisfactory report since Urahara would be forced to do something terrible to protect his family. And Ichigo didn’t want that.

Rukia sighed, her shoulders sagging. “He’ll need a body. It’s not fair to keep him trapped in that form,” she finally acquiesced, a gleam of pity in her eyes.

And Ichigo for his part considered it a battle well-won. Perhaps there was hope for the Shinigami after all.

Kon, as he later named the mod soul, never was too happy about their choice of form. No matter how much Urahara assured him he was hard at work at a sufficiently attractive gigai.

Ichigo had been prepared to fight, to lock her away if necessary to protect his family. He hadn’t wanted to, rather avoiding that whenever possible, but if he couldn’t make her understand, they would never get along. He had been relieved when she finally stopped fighting it, making him wonder if there was a possibility she might be worthy of a deeper trust.

And despite her appearance and her attitude, she dumbfounded him at the oddest of times by losing her Shinigami dignity and betraying her real personality beneath.

The crowd was obnoxious and noisy, loudly cheering on the fake reality show that had surrounded the old, abandoned hospital. Ichigo dug a finger into his ear, not understanding how Yuzu could enjoy this when she knew it was fake. Or Ururu and Tessai-san for that matter.

The spirits are always with you!”

Bwahahaha!”

Turning in annoyance, Ichigo could see that not only was half of his idiotic family participating in the event, but so was Rukia. Her arms crossed over her chest as she laughed boisterously. Worse was that, the entire crowd echoed Kanonji, and there was a swell of maniacal laughter that throbbed in Ichigo’s ears.

Why had he agreed to come along again? Because Yuzu had blinked those big eyes up at him pleadingly? Because he had to make sure Rukia didn’t ask the right – or wrong depending on how one looked at it – questions? Because he didn’t have anything better to do?

Bwahaha!” Rukia shouted, louder and longer than the rest, and looked over at him as she grinned like a fool. “Ichigo! You’re the one who stands out here!”

He scowled. “I’m not doing that.” His dignity would never survive, and honestly, he didn’t know why she was allowing herself to do this. She knew that Kanonji was a fake. Or if not, then only a minor spiritualist.

And holy hell! Was that a spirit! What was he doing with that cane!

Ichigo cursed under his breath. Things were about to get hairy.

Disastrous didn’t even begin to describe the mess that occurred as a result of Kanonji’s lack of understanding and proper teaching. The spirit had turned into a Hollow because of his poking and prodding at a place that should not have been touched. Ichigo had been forced to take action, Kanonji attempting to help and only making things worse.

Of course, it didn’t help that Ichigo trying to leap over the barricade as a human and stop Kanonji wasn’t understood by the general populace. And then Rukia leaping after him waving Kon like a madwoman certainly didn’t aid matters. It was a right mess for a week afterwards. But that’s what Rukia did, he noticed. Without even trying, she waltzed right in and disrupted their lives, insinuating herself into everything.

Ichigo stood in the doorway and stared, one eyebrow lifting and his mouth gaping open like a slack-jawed idiot. It wasn’t anything unusual to see Yuzu in the kitchen. In fact, she was damn good at cooking and baking, and Ichigo enjoyed trying her new dishes. She looked rather adorable in her apron as well, decorated with flitting black butterflies.

No, the unusual part of the scene was Rukia standing next to her, hands protected by thick oven mitts as she pulled something that smelled delicious out of the oven. Her hair was pulled back from her face by a band of some sort, and she and Yuzu ooh’ed and ahh’ed over whatever confectionery they had created.

Ichi-nii!” Yuzu chirped, finally noticing his presence and grinning in his direction. “Rukia-chan’s never made cookies before, can you believe it? So I’m teaching her!”

I think they turned out rather well,” Rukia added, her eyes not really on Ichigo but focusing on the sugar-filled goods in front of her. There was a bit of flour dusting one cheek, and that nearly broke Ichigo’s brain.

The Shinigami was baking cookies in his kitchen. Baking. Cookies. In his kitchen.

If only Shinji could see this. No, better yet… If only Hiyori could see this. She’d have an aneurysm on the spot.

You should try them,” Yuzu insisted then, swiping one right off the sheet with a spatula and thrusting it his direction.

Ichigo had to admit that they looked pretty good. And later, he learned that they tasted the same.

Domestic. That was one thing that Ichigo never thought he would associate with Rukia. Somehow, she had integrated herself into his life, into an existence of her own. Making friends with his classmates. Charming his sisters. Becoming important.

An unusual cluster. Where the hell were they coming from? Narrowing his eyes, Ichigo shook his head. No need to dwell on that. He just had to lift Zangetsu and charge forward again, slashing through one Hollow before turning to rip through another. Blood thick and pungent on the air. Their hunger heavy and throbbing.

Something attacked from the side, claws ripping, and Ichigo twisted to avoid, batting away the Hollow’s slash. His lips firmed as he leapt forward, Zangetsu cleaving through the bone-white of the Hollow’s mask with a sickening crunch. It had seconds to roar, the sound echoing through the air, before it dissolved beneath him.

His senses tingled, something approached from behind. He lifted his zanpakutou, ready to fight, when another Hollow dropped down in front of him. It snarled, and a viciously barbed tail whipped out at Ichigo. He gritted his teeth, blocking with the flat of his blade. The force of the blow drove him several feet backwards, waraji scraping in the dirt, straight towards the Hollow behind him.

Now would have been a really good time to have back-up. Ishida would have been nice, despite his less than agreeable personality.

Hadou no san-jyuu-ichi, Shakkahou!”

Ichigo felt a surge of reiatsu, barely a dip in the press of it scattered across the area, before the spell smashed against the Hollow behind him. Relieved, Ichigo batted away the attack of the one in front of him and managed a glance over his shoulder. Rukia. Not that he hadn’t recognized her voice.

Keep your eyes on the target!” she barked at him, but there was a note of relief in her voice.

It was almost nice having someone to watch his back.

Ichigo hated being reminded that he hadn’t been there for her. Ishida had been there and had barely survived the encounter. Even now, Ichigo wasn’t sure why the Shinigami had let the Quincy live. A moment of kindness on their part? Had Rukia said something?

Ishida certainly wasn’t giving up any answers. He had allowed Urahara to heal him to a certain extent, and then, he’d rudely walked away, declining any further assistance. Mumbling all the while about Shinigami and Seireitei under his breath. Though his actions clearly proved otherwise.

There had been no trace of Rukia. Nothing but the lingering presence of two unfamiliar people, the last vestige of a recently summoned gate, and blood spattered messily on the ground. He hadn’t known what happened at all, and even his father had been a little stumped until the truth emerged.

It was his fault. Their fault. His responsibility. He had to save her.

“Ichigo!”

At the sound of his name, Ichigo turned at the bottom of the stairs, tracking their ascent to find Tatsuki waving him down. One arm swinging through the air as she carefully descended, unwilling to fall and break her other arm.

Ichigo paused to wait, brow furrowing as he wondered why Tatsuki would chase him down. She usually walked Inoue home at this time, concerned for the other girl’s safety.

Nearly out of breath, Tatsuki gasped as she came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, something strange glinting in her eyes. “I have to talk to you.”

“You are talking to me.”

Tatsuki rolled her eyes, giving him one of her trademark looks and punched him lightly in the shoulder with her uninjured arm. Well, she probably considered it light. Ichigo, for his part, did his best not to wince, idly wondering if there would be an embarrassing bruise later.

“I’m serious, Ichigo,” she insisted, drawing up straight and trying to match him inch for inch. Her personality more than made up for her lack of height. “Don’t you think it’s strange?”

“What’s strange?” He watched her curiously and with a hefty bit of confusion.

“Your cousin. Kuchiki. No one’s even noticed she’s gone.”

Ichigo blinked. Tatsuki had noticed? That’s what he really thought was strange. When had she become sensitive to the spirit world? What was going on? He knew she was getting suspicious about some things, but for her to have noticed Rukia’s absence, that was far more telling.

And now, he was faced with an even bigger dilemma. Did he agree with her that it was strange, or did he claim the same lack of comprehension as their classmates? Ichigo didn’t exactly relish lying to Tatsuki, but he didn’t know what to say without revealing the entire truth.

He shifted uncomfortably, fingers tightening around his bag strap. She looked up at him, jaw set with determination. And she was one of his closest friends, one he had known longer than just about anyone, except perhaps Mizuiro.

“Why hasn’t anyone noticed?” Tatsuki pressed. “I know you know something, Ichigo.”

And really, no one could blame him for breaking. “I do,” he said and felt more than a little frustrated. What the hell was he supposed to say? “But I can’t really explain it.”

Her hand planted on her hip. “Try me.”

Ichigo sighed, moving away and rubbing a hand over his forehead.

It’s my fault,” that was the first thing that came to mind.

But he couldn’t tell Tatsuki that either.

She was arrested for a crime she didn’t know she was committing.”

Only that didn’t quite cover it either.

I’ll save her, so don’t worry.”

And that would only require more explanation.

“Rukia…” he started, faltering as words failed him. Not that he was usually eloquent. Damn, but his father could explain this a hell of a lot better. Why did all the difficult stuff fall on him?

“She had to go home.”

Tatsuki snorted, her eyes darkening as she watched him. “That I might be able to buy if everyone hadn’t suddenly forgotten her.”

“It’s complicated,” Ichigo retorted, frustrated more than he could voice. “It’s… grah! It doesn’t matter anyway because I’m bringing her back.”

It wasn’t until he said it that he realized that was essentially what he was going to do. If he saved her from certain death, Rukia couldn’t exactly return to Soul Society could she? She’d be an exile like his father and Tessai-san and the Vizard. She’d have no choice but to hide in the living world. Would she want that? Or would death be preferable?

Ichigo realized that he knew next to nothing about Rukia and her family. Oh, sure, he knew the superficial things. Like she couldn’t draw worth a shit and that she could be bossy. Her affection for rabbits was at an insane level, and he’d heard her go on and on about something called “Chappy” often enough that Ichigo had learned to tune her out. And for some reason, she liked being in high places. Ichigo thought that maybe she just had a complex about her height. Rukia was ridiculously tiny.

He knew nothing about her life in Seireitei though. Nothing about her family – except that maybe they didn’t get along too well – or friends, people who might care about her. But then, even if there were, they didn’t seem to be doing much of anything about her impending execution.

“From where?” Tatsuki asked and interrupted his thoughts.

It took Ichigo a moment to remember that she was still standing there, awaiting an actual explanation.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ichigo replied, shaking his head. “It’s a place only I can go.”

“You’re going alone?”

He knew where this headed. “Yes.” His fingers tightened around his bag. “No one can follow me.” He left out Yoruichi because she was a given, and besides, he would never be able to explain her to Tatsuki anyway, not in the short time he had to spare at the moment.

“Ichigo-”

He shook his head, cutting her off before she could even make the offer. He didn’t have time to stand here and argue with her all day. He planned to leave tonight, his dad having promised that the Seikaimon would be ready. And even if part of Ichigo didn’t feel as prepared as he would have liked, he was still going to go.

Tatsuki let out a frustrated breath. “Fine. Stubborn idiot.” She whirled on her heels, doggedly climbing the long staircase back towards the top. “Just don’t get yourself killed.”

Ichigo knew concern when he heard it, even if it appeared differently to the casual observer.

“I don’t plan to die.” A half-smile tugged at his lips.

She snorted and continued to climb, a hard tension to her shoulders. And Ichigo knew that he had to do just that, come back alive. If he didn’t, Tatsuki would find him herself and finish the job. He had too much waiting for him here in the living world. His family and his friends, his whole life. He couldn’t afford to die.

He shouldered his bag and headed towards home, mind awash with thoughts of his plans for the evening. He didn’t notice when Tatsuki turned at the top of the stairs, watching him go with a stubborn glint to her eyes.