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Shattered Hourglass

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Kisuke has no idea what he was doing here.

As the recently-appointed captain of the Twelfth arrives at the Shiba’s main compound, he can’t help but think, as he bites back a grimace, that he would really rather not be here. The two burly men posted as guards recognize him easily enough but still make Kisuke announce his presence and wait for one of them to go inside and inform the Clan Head. And then wait for said Clan Head to escort him in, apparently.

Nobles.

 

As he waits, his fingers tapping erratically against his leg, he can’t help but worry and wonder as to why he had been summoned. He hadn’t been doing anything particularly illegal lately. Not to any Noble Clan at the very least.

Was he being interrogated? Was it related to Kurosaki’s attention on him? Had Kurosaki said something potentially incriminatory about him? Had the Shibas deemed him a danger to their young, mentally unstable kin?

Just as he was thinking that, Shiba Kaien himself steps outside the building, looking imposing, straight-backed and haughty – but for Kisuke it is easy to read past that, to see the creases of worry, the dry skin, the sunken eyes. Something’s wrong.

At least it couldn’t possibly be Kisuke’s fault given the lack of hate in his eyes when Shiba glances at him.

“Ah, Shiba-sama. I have come, as per your summons. Whatever seems to be the problem?” Kisuke says with what tries to be an amicable smile. Shiba merely gives him a cursory glance before jerking his head towards the compound– a wordless invitation.

Kisuke has already scouted the entire place for any sort of trap during the moment it takes him to nod and fall in step at Shiba’s left, walking just one step behind him. He would have expected Shiba to start talking only when they were safely inside; but they’re barely past the gates, when he begins talking in a quiet whisper. “It’s not a courtesy call exactly, Ichigo has not been well.” He snorts as he corrects himself, humorlessly. “He’s been worse, more like it.”

“Worse? How?” Kisuke asks, polite curiosity on his voice even as he inwardly frowns. How was Kisuke concerned with this?

 

Lost, brown eyes stared at him from his mind’s eye. Staring as if he was the sun himself, and Ichigo a sunflower. Staring, confused and lost, as if Kisuke was both the puzzle and the solution.

 

“He’s always been a little lost inside his mind, as I’m sure you know.” Kaien hesitates. As if fighting to find the words. Kisuke has to wonder how much does he know, how much has Ichigo told him. How much does he thinks Kisuke knows? “It’s been getting worse. And… he hasn’t stopped looking for you.”

Kisuke is taken aback, almost faltering in his step. “Pardon? Looking for me? Whatever for?”

The glance Kaien directs at him is both shrewd and worried. “That’s what we’re here to figure out.”


 

They reach a room guarded by two more clan members (retainers, most likely, neither of them bearing the classic Shiba features). Kaien wastes time greeting each guard by name and a smile before opening the door. Kisuke was not blind to how he had masterfully unraveled the layers of kidou enveloping the room between one wave and the next. Protecting…

Or trapping?

Kaien opens the door just enough to let the both of them in, posture tense as if he was ready to pounce on someone. So the Shiba kid had tried to flee?

“Ichigo? Hey, it’s me.” Shiba says, voice soft and comforting, unlike anything Kisuke had ever heard from him. In contrast, the hair on the back of his neck prickles as the door is closed behind him, trapping them all in. “How are you feeling?”

The boy sitting on the huge bed taking up almost half the room, turns his head towards them almost as a reflex, his gaze blank, face void of emotion. He clearly couldn’t see either of them, even as his eyes flicker wildly, seeing something, someone in his mind.

“Ichigo? Can you hear me?” Kaien tries again, using the same calm tone, even as his brow furrows with concern. He very pointedly doesn’t attempt to get closer.

Kurosaki’s eyes stop moving erratically, but he’s still not with them. Still his gaze is lost somewhere else.

“Ichigo? Can you see me? I’m Kaien, do you recognize me?” Kaien says, trying to force his way into Kurosaki’s mind with some success. Kurosaki frowns as he very clearly struggles to look at him, wincing as if someone had struck him.

Kisuke is motionless as he watches this all play out. The child (Kurosaki Ichigo? Shiba Ichigo? Who was he really?) wavers in place, looking pale and tired with his cheeks flushed an unhealthy red.

Eyes half-closed with pain, and what quickly becomes a nosebleed, Ichigo finally focuses on the clan head.

“Kaien.” He whispers, and his eyes widen, a brilliant brown in contrast with the red on his face. “Kaien, do you know who Kisuke is? I’ve told you. Or will tell you. I don’t-“

Kisuke feels unnerved and exposed as the timeless eyes of the child finally fall on him. Words die in his lips as he just stares, a bottomless hunger in his eyes.

“Are you here now?” He asks, and there is a tremor in his words that Kisuke could maybe call fear. Kurosaki is staring unblinkingly at him. “I’ve spent decades looking for you, Kisuke. Where were you?”

Kisuke gulps, trying not to betray his nervousness. Decades? What was he talking about? Was he going insane? Had Kaien brought him to play along? “I… I am here now, Shiba-san.”

“No, I told you. You’ll call me Ichigo. Or you called me Kurosaki-san.”

“Right, my apologies, Kurosaki-san.” Kisuke smiles and nods and doesn’t miss Shiba Kaien’s sharp glance.

“Kisuke, Kisuke. “ Kurosaki says his name softly, like a hum. He wipes his nose absently with the stained sleeve of his nemuki. “Ishida was telling me yesterday that I’ve gone crazy. Do you agree?”

“I… what do you think?”

Ichigo stops looking at him, his eyes falling on something not quite there. “I’m lost.” He whispers. He frowns. “I know what I have to do… I have… I had? Why won’t time stay still?”

Time?

Not for the first time Kisuke has to wonder if this child was seeing things that hadn’t happened yet. He had long since stopped questioning if it was possible in the first place.

“What do you have to do?” Kisuke asks, not sure yet if honestly believing him or still playing along. Kurosaki continues wiping his nose. His sleeve is caked with dry blood. How many nosebleeds so far? He glances briefly at the grim-looking Clan Head. How long had he been sick?

“Hmm, something.” Kurosaki hums, the blood finally waning and he looks down briefly to his soiled sleeve. He looks confused by it.

“Oh? And how are you going to achieve it?” Kisuke asks with yet another smile, prompting Kurosaki to look back up and for one frightening second, the child doesn’t seem to be able to see him.

“Kisuke, where are you?” He whispers, tired and sad even as he finally focuses on him. By his side, Shiba Kaien sighs, restless and anxious.

“I’m here, Kurosaki-san.” Kisuke assures him, voice clear and calm. The smile he gets for his efforts is nothing but sadness.

“Hmm, not you.” He whispers. Sad and small and resigned. “Not you. You’re not him. Not yet at least. I think.”

Not yet?

Kisuke is suddenly assaulted by his previous memories with this child. Of his absent, but good-intentioned words, his smile, his ingenuity. He remembers Kurosaki sneaking his way into his office several times a month, sometimes just to take a nap on his couch, as if used to it. Other times he would seek him out and deliver cryptic messages.

And just one time, he had looked at him and had touched his cheek, longing and relief in his expression.

 

“I thought it looked weird when you first got them, and now I think it looks weird without them.”

 

“…” Kisuke stares at him, begging to understand. Everything slowly begins clicking in place, but he doesn’t quite know it yet. “Is this Kisuke the one with the scars?”

His eyes light up, for a brief moment he looks like the vivacious but distracted boy from all those days ago. “Scars! Yes! That’s it!”

“What is?”

“Something I have to do!”

Kisuke frowns and before he can really think on his words, they slip out. “…Are you going to give me those scars?”

Ichigo jerks forward and wobbles in his bed unsteadily. Shiba finally can’t take it anymore and rushes forward, catching the boy before he can slide off the immense bed.

“You’re running a fever, Ichigo, calm down. Take it easy.” Ichigo tolerates the manhandling but his eyes never looked away from Kisuke. As if afraid that looking away would…

As always, inexplicably drawn by this mysterious child, Kisuke finds himself walking forward. “What is your mission, Ichigo?” He repeats. “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know.” Ichigo replies, wiping a new trickle of blood with the back of his sleeve. “I know I have a mission, but I don’t know why.”

“What is your mission?”

Ichigo scrunches up his nose. “I don’t know. I have things to do here.”

“Why?”

The child focuses on him, reaching a hand to caress his cheek.  The touch is soft, ephemeral. “To protect your smile.”

Kisuke barely dares breathe, but he still whispers. “My smile?”

“Everything is to protect your smile.” Ichigo whispers back. “My life, my mission, my everything was to protect your smile.”

“Everything?” Kisuke insists. “Protect me from what?”

Who are you, Kurosaki Ichigo?

“I will protect your smile, from everything.” Ichigo says, his smile a promise for all eternity, as Ichigo stares at what he was, what he will be and what he would never, ever become. “No matter what.”

The sick child finally crumbles, falling into a fitful slumber as a stony-faced Shiba Kaien pulls up the covers around him and escorts Kisuke out.


 

Before Shiba can bombard him with questions, Kisuke rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly as he asks. “Was this conversation helpful to you, Shiba-sama? Did you follow through everything? Because I’m afraid that I still cannot understand him.”

“I somehow doubt that.” Kaien replies, looking the part of soldier of the Gotei. “Why would Ichigo make that promise to you?”

“Because he’s friends with Kisuke.” The blond man shrugs under the questioning glare of the Shiba. “I’m still only piecing the information together, but you heard him. I am not the Kisuke he knows. I’ve never gotten the scars he talks about. Are they visions? Memories? Or is he simply just delusional?”

“Would you believe them to be visions of the future?”

Kisuke looks back into his face before giving a noncommittal shrug. “Wouldn’t be the wildest theory.” They continue walking towards the entrance, as they both muse on their next words. “Shiba-sama, has Ichi… pardon me, has Kurosaki-san always been like this?”

“Ever since we found him, yes. Although it has been getting progressively worse. You saw him right now. Whatever it is that’s haunting him, it’s only getting worse.”

“Has Kurosaki-san told you anything… coherent?”

Shiba looks to the floor, his jaw clenching momentarily. “Are you going to help us, Urahara Kisuke?”

The blond isn’t too sure why he bows and says, “It will be my pleasure.”

The Clan Head actually smiles a little before looking forward again. His shoulders are straight again. “Good. Because I don’t think we have enough time.”

“Time? For what?”

“Sometimes he’s more lucid. He likes having me around because I don’t bring any visions with me.” Shiba pauses and licks his lips as the theories as to why this is flicker in his eyes. “But he’s told me that he has to act soon. Otherwise he fears that his whole world will fall apart and he won’t be able to do anything but stare blankly.” He grimaces. “I cannot fathom a lonelier fate.”

“Well then,” Kisuke says mildly, as he recalls the desperate promise of the child. He stops walking, forcing Shiba to stop and turn to stare at him, a question burning in his eyes. “Let’s get down to it, shall we?”



Between the two of them, it would take just one month to piece together the cryptic clues, the absent messages leading to one Aizen Sousuke. It is too surreal how everything adds up to it, how Ichigo’s words were like a fragmented prophecy, which Kisuke fulfills with tea and poison.

 

Ichigo is relieved when he actually remembers that Aizen is already dead, but his condition doesn’t improve at all.

Kisuke finds himself pouring all of his attention into figuring out what had happened to him, where did his visions come from, where did he come from.

To no avail.

It would only take one year for the distorted memories to finally break Kurosaki Ichigo.

(Kaien and Kisuke drift apart after they bury his small body. It was only to be expected. It still hurt.)

 

And it would take one lifetime for Kisuke to understand, why Ichigo had fought through everything, had managed to fight for something to give meaning to his incoherent mind.

“I will protect your smile,” Kisuke says, he echoes, smiling like a free man, as he had done for several decades now. Smiling down at the newborn child of a Quincy, and a Shinigami by the name of, “I will protect you this time, Kurosaki Ichigo.”

The child gurgles and smiles, and Kisuke understands.