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District Sixty-Eight

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(1)

 

The first time they met, Sousuke was getting beat mercilessly. He hadn't taken into account how much bigger these older boys were when he'd targeted them, nor had he known about the abandoned alleyway right outside the marketplace. An oversight. Two, in fact.

A particularly nasty kick to his ribs sent him rolling into the side of a dilapidated hut and left the satchel crammed full of apples unguarded.

An uproarious laugh soon followed, "That'll teach ya to steal from us! If you'd just stayed outta our way like a good little kiddy it neva would'a come to this!"

Hardly. The way they'd been flaunting those apples around had been so laughably idiotic, if Sousuke hadn't been the one to steal them, someone else would have.

All it had taken was an outstretched leg and a sleight of hand. Trip the leader and as he falls, slide the satchel off his shoulder. Then run.

Unfortunately for him, while a million times dumber, the boys had a height advantage over him. Their legs were longer, their muscles more developed; it'd taken them less than a minute to catch up, and when they did, they'd dragged him into the alley he was currently getting pummeled in.

He wasn't sure if he'd survive this. If he did, he wasn't sure if he'd survive the results; too weak to get food, to injured to defend himself. And if he couldn't reach his shelter before dark, there was always the chance he'd freeze to death after the temperature drops.

A sandalled foot stomped on the side of his skull, grinding and grinding over his ear in a way that made his skin pull and sting painfully and Sousuke was certain this was it, that he was going to die today.

A blow to his ribs knocked his breath away, then a blow to his stomach had him wheezing and curling in on himself.

He was able to see passed his attackers legs thanks to this, see passed them to the exit of the alleyway where adults were walking by without a care. Some glanced his way, most didn't bother. No.

He didn't want to die!

A blue-eyed girl locked eyes with him as she passed and he stretched out a shaking hand.

"Plea—"

A foot crashed into the side of his head, making the world tunnel and explode with pain.

No sounds of footsteps, no shouts to stop. No one was going to help him. No one.

These people were rotten. This world was corrupt. Filled with violence and hate and could Sousuke truly blame his attackers? (he did) Could he truly blame the adults who averted their eyes? (he did he did he did) They were a product of negligence on the soul reaper's part. A product of faulty leadership.

If Sousuke was in charge, if Sousuke had enough power, then surely he could—

"Hey! Knock it off!"

That. Was not one of his attackers.

Sousuke couldn't see them through the darkness edging his vision, but whoever they were, they made quick work of his attackers. He could hear the scuffling of a fight, heard their vicious words turn into ones of fear. Heard them run.

His vision cleared around that point, and with a hard blink, he forced himself to squint up at his benefactor. A boy who couldn't have been much older than him was scowling right back.

The boy stood with the sunlight pouring in from the exit behind him, making his orange hair and tan skin glow like he was the sun itself.

"Hey," the boy said, and despite the scowl etched into his face, he offered Sousuke a hand.

Sousuke cast the hand a confused look before taking it and allowing the boy to pull him to his feet. He was really helping him? Even to his feet? This wasn't some ploy?

"These guys seemed pretty upset," his rescuer noted with a pointed glance at Sousuke's already bruising cheeks and swollen nose. "What'd you do to rile them up?"

Sousuke opened his mouth to explain but before he could, the boy's searching look landed on the satchel filled with apples. It had been knocked aside during the scuffle and forgotten during the chaos. Several apples had spilled out of the flap, a green one rolling over to them lazily.

"Hm? Apples?" The boy was silent as he thought. "Hey... You stole those, didn't you?"

Despite his words, there was nothing condemning about them. He only sounded curious.

Sousuke wasn't sure how to respond. Was feeling fairly off-kilter, so it came as a relief when the boy shrugged.

"Well. Whatever. Anyways I got things to do. Later!"

And like that he was gone as fast as he'd shown up. Sousuke leaned against the wall as he caught his breath, feeling for all the world like a hurricane had just blown through. The boy had swooped in, rescued him, then left without giving so much as his name.

Forcing himself to his feet, Sousuke wondered what "things" the boy had to do.

 

(2)

 

Sousuke soon discovered that the "things" were fights. The boy always charged into fights that were not his own, defended people who did not matter, then left without taking anything for himself. He was an anomaly in this cruel world. No matter how he tried to rationalize them, the boy's actions did not make sense.

Sousuke didn't understand how he hadn't been bludgeoned to death any more than he did the fact he hadn't even realized the boy existed until two days ago. Was he new to Soul Society? Had he come from another District? Sure, the latter was technically illegal but it's not like the Shinigami diligently kept track of them. No, they couldn't be bothered with the lowly souls of the Rukongai.

Anyway. Hatred for the shinigami aside, Sousuke was curious.

That's why when he found the boy sitting at the riverside by himself, he couldn't help but ask.

"'Am I new here?'" The boy echoed, and Sousuke noted the bruises along his arms. "I guess you could call it that. I, uh... came here. A couple weeks back."

If that was true then he must've been around nine or ten.

"It's a long story, you probably don't wanna hear about it." His hooded eyes dropped to his lap as though pained.

At that, Sousuke tipped his head. "And if I do wish to hear about it?"

A beat of silence, two, three.

Sousuke was beginning to think the boy was ignoring him when he drew in a breath deep enough to lift his shoulders and said, "It was sorta an accident. Well, I guess you could say I tripped at the wrong moment." He looked up at the sky, gears visibly turning in his head. "It was stupid."

Ah. That... explained nothing.

"Are you angry over your death?"

It was a foolish question, he realized as the question left his lips. If the boy was angry over his death, he would've turned into a hollow.

"Hmm. Not really," as expected. "I just don't want anyone else to have to suffer like I did," completely unexpected. The boy shot him a smile that was equal parts strong and sad. "You know?"

He didn't. Sousuke had never been the type to let things go.

The boy, unaware of his thoughts, continued to murmur absently, "Besides, I'm not the kind of guy to obsess over crap like that." What he said next was spoken in a low murmur Sousuke could tell he wasn't meant to hear. "Just have to wait a bit longer..."

Wait? For what? For his family and friends to pass on and join him here?

For some reason, Sousuke felt compelled to help this boy, even if only a little. Maybe it was the soul-crushing loneliness in those softly spoken words that had moved him. Loneliness was an emotion Sousuke knew all too well.

"We're in a place known as District Sixty-Eight," he said. "Were you not informed of your whereabouts? Everything should have been explained to you by now."

The boy scowled at Sousuke like he was the one not making any sense. "No one told me anything about that."

Sousuke found that unlikely. The shinigami in charge of the group he'd been dropped off here with may have brushed him off, but the other newly deceased souls would have helped him. The boy probably hadn't been paying attention is all.

"Well," Sousuke sighed. "You are not in heaven nor in hell. This is the Rukongai. The Rukongai is where souls such as ourselves are brought after we pass on in the World of the Living."

Rather than the questions he'd expected, the boy only scowled deeper. "Tell me... Why do you talk like that?"

Now it was Sousuke's turn for confusion. "Is there something odd about the way I speak?"

"Sorta. You talk all prim and proper. It's weird."

All sympathy fled him at those words. He opened his mouth. Closed it. Turned his attention towards the sky before his irritation could leak through.

"Oh. My name's Ichigo by the way."

Sousuke hadn't asked nor did he care.

"Ichigo Kuro... Kuro..."

He spared Ichigo a glance out of the corner of his eye, noting the confusion in the other boy that was slowly morphing into horror.

"I... don't remember."

"It's not uncommon for souls to forget their past lives after a while, surnames included," he said in a tone sweeter than honey. "I'm Sousuke Aizen."

Ichigo was giving him that scowl again. "You're a real jerk, you know that? Anyways, I'm out. I've got things to do."

With a grunt, Ichigo stood and headed in the direction of the village. Sousuke figured "things" included getting the daylight beat out of him for people who would never be grateful. He did not voice this.

 

(3)

 

The next time they crossed paths, Ichigo was yanking him into an alleyway in such a manner, had he not caught sight of that familiar mop of orange hair, Sousuke would have thought he was getting kidnapped. For whatever reasons, Ichigo wasn't like that. He didn't mug or kidnap, he didn't lie or terrorize. Sousuke wasn't worried when Ichigo pulled him through the narrow space between buildings. Not even when he suddenly stopped.

"Hey," he said, releasing Sousuke's wrist and turning to scowl at him. "Why's no one eat around here?"

"We're dead," he said, slowly so as to not be misunderstood. "We don't have to eat."

"Don't you eat?" A question that was not a question. Ichigo already knew the answer to that.

He remembered their first encounter? Impressive for someone of his mental caliber.

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I'm a food connoisseur," he said, voice as dry as the desert sand. "Why do you think I'm asking!? I'm freaking hungry!"

With that massive spiritual pressure of his, Sousuke was only surprised Ichigo hadn't thrown a fit over this sooner.

"And no matter who I ask no one'll tell me crap! They just drive me off like I'm a stray dog or something!"

Well, of course, no one farther than District Fifty-Nine bothered with hungry children. They were sooner to stomp them to death.

"And all they do sell is just the small stuff like candy, and like, for an insane amount of money too! What is up with that!? And no place will hire me either so I can't even get any money to buy it with anyways!"

Sousuke had never seen someone rant like this before, cheeks blotchy with anger, hands waving around his head. It was amusing. He couldn't help the small chuckle that escaped. "You don't like candy?"

Ichigo's gaze snapped to him instantly, sharpening into a glare. "This isn't funny."

Another laugh escaped him.

"Whatever. You just keep laughing it up." With a sigh, Ichigo shoved his thumbs into the band of his ratty kimono and shifted his weight. "Darn it! Candy isn't enough to fill anyone up, what the heck am I supposed to do anyway!?"

"Let me get this straight," he interceded before the boy could fly off into another rant. "Rather than assume you simply have been frequenting the wrong marketplaces, you'd rather claim no one around here eats except for me?"

"Hm? Well. Yeah."

"How come?" Sousuke couldn't deny it. He was genuinely curious. When Ichigo didn't answer, he added, "I could simply be eating out of pleasure like the rest, you know."

This stirred a response out of Ichigo, though not the one he'd expected. Rather than backtrack or get angry, he met Sousuke's eyes with such unwavering confidence Sousuke nearly did a double take. His attitude didn't match his words, however. "I don't know how I know. I guess it's just instinct."

Instinct? Did that mean the boy had subconsciously picked up on Sousuke's own spiritual pressure?

"Well, you are not completely wrong," he admitted after a moment of stunned silence. He proceeded to mask his confusion behind a tight grin. "While I am one of the few who does get hungry, you can probably infer that I am not the only one, and neither are you."

The completely baffled frown Ichigo shot him said otherwise. "So even here I'm a veritable freak show? Well ain't that just my luck?"

"If you ask me, I'd say that your personality and hair color are what make you a freak show, not the fact you can feel hunger."

For a moment, they simply stared blankly at each other. Then Ichigo was lunging for him and grabbing him by the front of his gray kimono.

"What did you just say!? Take that back right now!"

He allowed himself to be shaken back and forth, a tad shocked by the lack of venom between them despite his own words. Normally, this was the point people lost patience with him.

"'Sides, you're the real freak show here! You're dead and you have glasses!"

Said glasses were jostled by the force of the next shake, sliding down his nose and hanging crooked. He blinked, confused. "My glasses are what makes me a freak?"

Most would state his behavior and abnormal spiritual pressure were the reasons.

Ichigo nodded in a manner that seemed clueless, but the knowing smirk he was trying to smother suggested otherwise. "Yeah. That's right."

A kid easily ten years his junior was insulting him. Sousuke wondered if he should feel offended. Before he could decide, a loud rumble sounded out.

Ichigo released him and turned away at the speed of light. His ears were turning red with embarrassment.

Something akin to resignation settled on Sousuke's shoulders at the sight. "Are you truly that hungry?"

"..."

"..."

"..."

"..."

"..No."

Another rumble.

Sousuke released a sigh hard enough to scrape his throat and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. What a terrible lie. Wasn't hunger the reason Ichigo had sought him out to begin with?

Taking a step towards the exit of the alleyway, he gestured for Ichigo to follow. "I have some bread stowed away at the place I'm staying if you wish to tag along."

He didn't miss the way Ichigo brightened, even if the boy tried to hide it behind a twitchy frown. Sousuke, again, wondered how Ichigo had survived this long by himself. Truly, he was a terrible liar.

 

(4)

 

Ichigo ended up staying the night. And the night after that. And the one after that.

The place he was staying at wasn't anything special; just an abandoned hut he'd chosen only because it was located in the forest right outside of the village. The hut was unkempt at best, the wooden walls covered in holes and sloppy patch jobs courtesy of its previous inhabitants. The windows were blocked off by dusty bookshelves that were filled with books he'd swiped, and the floor always seemed to be covered in a layer of dirt no matter how many times he swept. There was even grass growing between the floorboards.

Despite this, Ichigo hadn't been deterred for more than a fraction of a second, breezing in and making himself at home on the worn rug Sousuke had stolen last month. Then again, considering he couldn't get the boy to leave, perhaps "undeterred" was a bit of an understatement?

Well. It wasn't like Sousuke was trying too hard to be rid of him. As it turned out, Ichigo wasn't bad company. He was a lot quieter than expected, calm unless provoked, and though he was as dense as they came he possessed a curious streak on par with Sousuke's own.

Ichigo was different from everyone else. He wasn't scared of Sousuke. He even seemed to enjoy his company as well, which was certainly new. Nobody enjoyed having Sousuke around, that had become a simple fact of life.

And yet. Ichigo was their opposite in every way. Whenever Sousuke allowed his sharp sarcastic words to ooze out, Ichigo reacted positively and drew them into a playful sort of banter that had Sousuke feeling warm inside. When Sousuke faked his smiles and swallowed down the words he wished to say in place of pleasantries, Ichigo cast him dangerous scowls and poked and prodded until the words came crashing back out.

Sousuke was earnestly baffled.

 

(5)

 

"You know, you don't have to be all sunshine and rainbows all the time. It weirds me out Sousuke."

To his credit, Sousuke only hesitated long enough to close the book he'd been reading. He didn't waste his time trying to insist Ichigo use his last name; he could recognize a losing battle when he saw one.

"Then you too could do with less of your perpetual scowling. I find it unsightly."

Clothing rustled as Ichigo pushed himself off the floor. "That's different."

Sousuke didn't bat an eyelash, only rested his hands on his stomach with the book and stared up at the ceiling. "Is it?"

"Yeah. Scowling makes people leave me alone, all your smiling does is trick old people into liking you more."

Almost amusedly, he wondered who those old people that liked him were. Sousuke certainly hadn't met anyone like that, nor had he met anyone actually intimidated by Ichigo's chubby-faced scowl.

"And that's fine and all when you're trying to con a bunch of jerks outta food they don't need anyways, but you don't have to act like that when it's just the two us, you got it!? We're friends!"

Ichigo thought he acted this way to appear stronger? For some reason, a strange warmth began to bubble inside his chest, one he couldn't fathom. Was it because he'd called them friends, or was it because Ichigo, albeit falsely, had assumed the best of him? No one had done either before. Sousuke had to admit, being on the receiving end of either one was oddly refreshing.

"All right then." Pushing himself upright until he was sitting with his legs sprawled out along the mud-stained couch, he said, "From here on out, I won't put on an act when we're alone together but neither can you. Does that sound agreeable?"

Ichigo grinned, a slanted, awkward thing that had Sousuke feeling lighter upon seeing as if a pit inside his soul he hadn't realized had formed was having dirt shoveled in.

"Yeah, sounds good!"

Sousuke nodded, "Now, in the spirit of that, why don't you tell me how long you plan on continuing your uninvited stay at my hideout?"

Ichigo shot him a puzzled look. "Forever. Why?"

 

(6)

 

It took him another week to figure out the reason behind Ichigo's strange desperation to stay at his hideout. As it turned out, the other residents of District Sixty-Eight hated Ichigo just as much as they hated Sousuke, if not more. And didn't it make sense?

With that massive spiritual pressure and inability to control it, Ichigo was walking hollow-bait, no different than Sousuke had been when he'd first been sent to live out here. The fact Ichigo hadn't lured in an entire pack of hollows was a miracle in itself. For a moment, Sousuke reconsidered his decision to let him stay. These people were cruel but their concerns were warranted. The soul reapers wouldn't protect them if any hollows showed up, and with Ichigo around, the prospect became a "when" rather than an "if."

And yet. And yet when he saw the way Ichigo's fists shook as they walked through a crowd of angry glares and venomous whispers, Sousuke could not bring himself to change his mind. Ichigo called him a friend, and he had no desire to see that change. If that happened... If that happened he'd be alone again. Having finally experienced what it was like to have someone that cared about him, the thought of returning to that cold and bitter state of being was more than unbearable. It would kill him. Surely it would.

That's why, for the first time in his life, Sousuke chose to do the illogical thing and grabbed his friend's wrist to pull him away from the scathing comments and nasty sneers.

The threat Ichigo's presence posed made for a good distraction, and they left the village that evening with enough candy and fish to last them a week.

When they reached their hideout, Ichigo stopped in front of the tattered tarp that served as their door and bowed so low a piece of rock candy spilled out of its bag and smacked against his scraped up feet.

"Sousuke. Teach me how to control my spiritual pressure. Please."

And so he did, all the while repressing the ugly part of him that wanted to refuse and make sure Ichigo could have nowhere else to go, no one to abandon him for.

In the end, it was the knowledge that staying together would be pointless if they both wound up in a hollow's stomach that had him agreeing to help. He wasn't sure when it had happened or even how, but at some point, the thought of losing his friend had become totally and utterly unbearable.

 

(7)

 

They became quite the duo. They were alike and yet they were opposites. They were on the same page, just on different sides of it. Sousuke preferred green and brown kimonos, Ichigo preferred red and black.

Sousuke smiled and charmed whatever he wanted out of his hapless victims, Ichigo scowled and intimidated them; a feat much easier to accomplish after they aged a bit more. They were both smart and incredibly fast learners, but where Sousuke was patient and knowledgeable, Ichigo was brash and instinctual. Where Sousuke sought out power for personal gain, Ichigo sought it to protect others. Ichigo was loud and blunt, Sousuke was silent and put a lot of thought into every word he said.

Knowing that, what roles they fell into only made sense. Ichigo played the diversion, a role that wasn't a stretch in any way when one took into account the amount of trouble his friend drew in when he wasn't trying.

While Ichigo picked fights and broke things, Sousuke took advantage of the ensuing chaos to snag their intended target; be it food or water or clothing. Nothing was difficult to take. Not anymore. On his own, things had been rough, had been near impossible, but with Ichigo watching his back, he bet they could take on anyone. As always when he thought this, an image of Seireitei popped into his mind, and he quickly shoved it away.

 

(8)

 

Ichigo was in pain. Sousuke told him not to go off by himself, he'd told him there were hollows, that people hated them, that he shouldn't interfere in others fights, that it was dangerous out there but he never listened and now he was hurt and Sousuke didn't know how to fix it!

There were no bruises or cuts on him, no, Sousuke had checked that already, his friend was completely unscathed. So why was his skin so pale and clammy? Why was his breathing this erratic? Why was his body radiating heat!? His eyes were glassy and unfocused whenever they were opened—why was that!? Why why why!?

He'd been like this for days and Sousuke had no idea what to do! It'd gotten to the point he was too afraid to leave Ichigo's side, too afraid of what he'd come back to. He stopped going outside, not even to get food.

'He's sick,' a voice in his mind cried. 'Just like I was.'

Sousuke wobbled to his feet.

'Ichigo will die just like I did.'

He was going to be all alone again.

A jolt of terror shot up his spine at the thought, sending Sousuke into action before he could question it. Grabbing Ichigo's arm, damp and warm, he tugged his friend onto his back, ignoring the pained groan this elicited. Ichigo needed medical care. Care that Sousuke couldn't give, no matter how much he wanted to. He needed to take him to the village.

In the back of his mind, he doubted the villagers would truly help, but for some reason, his common sense was being overridden. For the first time in his life, Sousuke wasn't just being illogical, he wasn't thinking at all. His mind was nothing but a chorus of: PleaseNoPleaseNoPleaseNO!

Without bothering to put on his sandals, he tore through the tarp and into the forest. The rain outside was pelting him with enough force to hurt, his feet were sinking into the mud, making his legs burn from the extra exertion after only five minutes of this. But he couldn't stop. He wouldn't stop! Not with Ichigo dying on his back!

He reached the village in what had to be record time, skidding into the marketplace without an ounce of care for his surroundings, not even for the crowd rushing through, soaked to the bone with only conical hats to keep the rain from pelting their faces. He stumbled into the thick of them.

"Please! We need a healer!"

No one answered.

"It's an emergency!"

Still, the crowd continued to move around him, bumping him, nearly knocking him over on several occasions. In a bout of desperation, he grabbed onto the sleeve of an older man.

"Please!"

Without sparing him a glance, the man jerked his sleeve out of Sousuke's grasp with enough force to send him falling into the mud. Ichigo hit the ground behind him.

"Beat it, kid!" He was gone not a minute later.

Sousuke stared after him. Felt numb.

Slowly, he managed to tear his eyes away, looking to the ground where his glasses had fallen and were now covered in dirty water. Disgusting. He picked them up with shaking hands. Didn't put them on. What should he do?

A whimper and his attention shot to Ichigo, who had curled himself into a shivering ball as rain smacked into him and feet splashed him with mud. Sousuke was there in an instant, shielding him with his own body. Never once had he seen his friend this fragile. No matter how many times he'd been knocked down, no matter how many times he'd been beaten senseless trying to help other people, he'd always stood up and brushed himself off! He'd never stayed down like this! Never!

Ichigo was going to die.

The realization smashed into him with such force, he could almost believe one of the passersby had smashed a fist into his chest. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't, he—

This was—

This wrong, this was—

They were—

Ichigo was—

"How can you just keep walking!?" Someone was yelling. "He's helped so many of you! You disgust me! You're vile, all of you, you're lower than scum! You deserve to die, you deserve to—" It wasn't until he was choking on the rain that he realized the person yelling. Was him.

Struggling to draw air into his burning throat, he looked down at the fist he'd planted through a puddle, glasses and all.

 

"'Sides, you're the real freak show here!" Ichigo's voice played through his head, "You're dead and you have glasses!"

 

The world was spinning. He wanted to hurt these people. He wanted to dismember them, see what made them tick, what made them so utterly worthless. He wanted power, he wanted to storm into that place and make every last one of their so-called guardians suffer the most painful deaths imaginable. He wanted—

Someone was towering over them. The crowd that had previously been ready to stomp them to death in their mad rush to escape the rain had mostly disappeared, leaving behind only a few stragglers. A woman was kneeling in front of him when he looked up, dark hair cascading over her shoulders, eyes lowered.

"It's not much... but here, take this."

Sousuke recognized her as the woman who had refused to help him before, the one from the alleyway.

A carefully folded parchment was set in front of him. He stared at it uncomprehendingly. After several heartbeats of this, he looked up to find her gone, without any sign she'd truly been there at all. Had he imagined it? Was this a dream?

Hands shaking wild, he undid the parchment to find three decent-sized rice balls staring back at him. The kind that wasn't easy to buy in these parts where food was considered the highest of luxuries. Eyes stinging, he ignored the way his stomach rumbled, wrapping it up and tucking it away in his kimono. Ichigo needed the strength far more than he did.

Maybe, just maybe, they'd make it through this after all. For the first time in years, Sousuke bowed his head and cried.

"Thank you."

 

(9)

 

"What the heck are you doing over there?"

He paused in skinning the rabbit long enough to shoot Ichigo a disapproving frown. "You shouldn't be out here."

Ichigo, who was still two shades too pale, simply shrugged and plopped next to Sousuke without a care for the blood splattered across the grass in front of them.

"You know I can't stand being in the same place for too long."

"So I take it watching me dismember our dinner is much more interesting to you?" He drawled out, tone riddled with sarcasm.

Ichigo snorted. "Pretty much."

Sousuke sighed. That would've deterred him three years ago. "I would prefer it if you didn't try to thank me."

Sawing off a particularly fatty piece of flesh, he couldn't help remembering how helpless he'd been, how he'd let his emotions get the better of him. His friend had been dying right in front of him and all he could do was watch. It had been... upsetting, to say the least.

Ichigo blinked, baffled, then his jaw set in that stubborn way Sousuke was all too familiar with. "Thanks for taking care of me."

Sousuke slipped, knife smashing through the carcass and passing by his finger at a speed he didn't appreciate in the slightest. He cast Ichigo an annoyed look.

Ichigo crossed his arms unrepentantly. "You're not a healer, but you still took care of me until I was better again. I'm grateful so I'm thanking you. Deal with it."

Sousuke stared for a beat, two, three, four. Released a sigh filled with resignation. If someone were to hand him food every time he sighed like this, he'd have enough to feed the entire District. "Most people wouldn't thank others in such an antagonizing manner."

"I'm not most people," Ichigo replied with a hint of pride.

Sousuke bit back a sarcastic remark. At least, Ichigo was feeling well enough to be his old exasperating self again. That counted for something.

Giving his head a small shake, he returned his attention to the rabbit.

Not a healer, huh? Maybe it was time Sousuke remedied that.

 

(10)

 

The decision to attend the Soul Reaper academy was mutual, though their reasons differed. Sousuke wanted to study the art of healing and Ichigo wanted to become stronger. It didn't hurt that joining the academy was a one-way ticket out of District Sixty-Eight. For the first time either of them could remember, food was a promised thing. They no longer had to steal to survive—something that had always left Ichigo feeling guilty and sulky for hours after despite the fact those people hadn't needed what they took—they no longer had to worry about being ambushed by hollows or people who wanted what they had.

He'd be lying if he said leaving that hideout of theirs hadn't left him a bit... melancholy. They had spent ten years in that place, growing and learning, fighting and laughing. Sousuke had lived there before meeting Ichigo, but it was only after he'd opened his door to the boy that it had become something Sousuke had always wanted: a home.

It was difficult but. But, he had no regrets. He wanted this. Never again, would Sousuke sit there helpless as someone he cared about withered away in front of him. Sousuke would learn all he could about healing and medicine in this place, and after that, he would join Squad Four and learn under the best healer in Soul Society—Retsu Unohana. At the thought, he smiled. He would have that title soon enough. Sousuke would be the best healer, not only in Soul Society but in the entire world. What could he say? He was ambitious.

But, despite that, it didn't take them long to grow a tad disheartened. They were different from the others, and not just because most of the students were spoiled nobles who knew nothing of struggle. The fact that he and Ichigo were a tad faster on the uptake then most had been known by both of them, but what they hadn't realized, was just how fast that difference was.

What took the other students two weeks of practice, they could learn in two days. The power and skills the other students were working so hard to build, they already had.

After one month in the academy, they were already receiving recommendations to be bumped up another grade level, and even then, the other students presented no challenge. They were so weak, in fact, he could break them with a single finger if he deemed it necessary. And so, a rift opened up between them and the other students, one formed by envy and admiration.

As always, it was just the two of them. Not that he minded.

"You know, we could probably graduate from here in a year if we wished," he said, peering up through the branches to the one Ichigo was perched on.

Ichigo didn't bother to glance down at him, a wistful glint entering his eyes as he studied a passing cloud. "Nah, what would be the point of that? We came here to learn so that's what we should do."

Sousuke returned his attention to his homework, honing in on a particularly interesting problem. "I'm beginning to think you like classes."

"You like classes." Ichigo pointed out.

That wasn't a denial, Sousuke noted. "True. Even though we're stronger I do enjoy the history classes. That, and your Kidō is horrendous. Honestly, every time I see you try to manifest a spell, I feel my intelligence level drop ever so slightly."

At that, Ichigo finally deigned to look his way, telltale scowl having deepened into an annoyed glare. "You're a real jackass you know that? Seriously, I don't know why no one else sees it."

"That is because I do not allow them to see."

"Yeah, yeah," Ichigo waved him off. "Life is an illusion, whatever."

Sousuke couldn't resist adding, "The only true illusion here is that act you use to hide your soft and delicate heart."

The branches and pinecones chucked his way were worth it.

 

(11)

 

"Ichigo?"

Ichigo's attempt at softly closing the Library door was ruined by the startled flinch he gave, arm jerking towards him and in the process slamming it shut with enough force to be heard from down the hall. He cringed as several agitated looks were cast his way.

Sousuke set the textbook he'd been skimming through on the table and strolled over. "What was it the Headmaster wanted with you?"

Ichigo's eyes went round and darted to their spectators. "N-Nothing."

Sousuke took note of this, along with the searing glare the Librarian was currently sending them and elected to slide into the hallway with a gesture for Ichigo to follow. Ichigo trailed behind him, eyes glued to the floor even after they came to a stop beside a window.

"Nothing?" Shoving away the annoyance bubbling inside his chest, he put on the fakest smile he could muster. "Then I take it he called you to his office during the middle of class because he enjoys your company so much?"

Ichigo's jaw gave an odd twitch, fingers rolling into fists at his sides. "I thought I told you not to smile at me like that."

"I thought we agreed not to hide things from each other."

Ichigo opened his mouth as if to retort, froze. Drawing in a breath, he pressed his shoulder against the window frame and stared at the grass outside. "You're right. I'm sorry."

Ichigo was quiet after that, but Sousuke didn't interrupt. He could tell Ichigo was working himself up to say something.

After another minute of this passed, Ichigo released a gush of air, perhaps the same one he had drawn in, and stood straighter. "It wasn't... It wasn't the Headmaster that wanted to see me. It was the head of the Shiba Clan."

Sousuke blinked. Of all the possibilities he'd run over in his head, that one certainly hadn't made the list. "The Clan head?"

"Well, and a... a few others too."

A heavy feeling began to squirm inside his stomach. "What did they want?"

"They, uh, they said that I kinda look like the Clan head, which was weird because I actually kinda do, and they, uh. They said I looked too much like him for it to be a coincidence and..." For the first time since he'd arrived, Ichigo fully met his eyes. "They think I might be a distant relative and they want to adopt me into the Clan."

Oh.

Sousuke opened his mouth to snark something back, as was the custom between them, but he couldn't find any words. His mind was completely blank.

Ichigo seemed to pick up on this and mowed on, "But e-even if I accepted they're not gonna make me leave or anything! I'll still be attending the academy I'll just have other responsibilities on top of that..."

'And less time for you,' went unsaid. Sousuke doubted a bunch of nobles would want one of their own associating with 'Rukongai trash' anyways.

"Did you tell them you were once a human?"

A blink and Ichigo's eyebrows dipped into a scowl. "Well, yeah. That was the first thing I told them, but apparently, they've had a lot of relatives vanish in the World of the Living."

"Ah, so they're assuming you're a bastard child then."

The thought infuriated him. Sousuke knew how nobility treated such children. When he was human he had been the bastard of a well-off Clan, the result of a noble fooling around with prostitutes. The Clan had swept everything under the rug when the truth came to light, refusing to have any relation to him, even when he'd fallen ill and had been abandoned by his mother. Why would one of the four wealthiest Clans in Soul Society want to brand Ichigo as their own? He didn't trust this.

Ignoring the part of him that knew the Shiba Clan valued family above all else, he bit out, "They just want to capitalize off your skills to make their Clan look greater."

Ichigo didn't seem to believe his words either. "Maybe."

Sousuke was tempted to ask if Ichigo would accept. He didn't. They both knew the answer to that question. More than anything else, Ichigo had always wanted a family.

Sousuke loathed the Shiba Clan in that moment, and the usual urge to make his objects of hatred pay flooded his brain. They were going to take Ichigo away from him. Those greedy nobles already had plenty of family members, why did they have to take away the only person Sousuke had!? What gave them the right!?

"I'm not gonna lie," Ichigo said, and he was staring at Sousuke, nervous in a way that was so out of character. "I do want to join their family, but I..."

Sousuke's anger ebbed just a bit.

"After everything we've gone through together, we're kinda like brothers, right?"

For the second time this hour, his mind shut off.

Ichigo's face reddened a tinge, "I mean! Like, siblings look out for each other and stuff, right!? They grow up together! And if it wasn't for you, I probably would've gotten chowed on by some hollow by now or something, so I..." When he still didn't reply, Ichigo's voice went up several octaves. "It's not weird, okay!? Stop looking at me like that!"

Against his better judgment, the boiling in his veins finally settled, morphing into a comforting warmth that filled him from head to toe. He smiled in a way that wasn't the slightest bit fake. "Brothers, then?"

Blinking, Ichigo stared for a fraction of a second before a confident grin spread across his cheeks and he looked like himself again. "Yeah! Brothers. And you can bet your ass I'm not getting adopted by some rich family without you."

 

(12)

 

As it turned out, the Shiba Clan was every bit as crazy as Ichigo. When told they were being rejected, rather than get offended or annoyed, they simply extended the offer to Sousuke as well. There was no longer any doubt in his mind that these people were related to Ichigo, and the feeling only increased when Kaien Shiba, the Clan head, threw an arm around both of their shoulders and dragged them to the most fashionably questionable building Sousuke had ever clapped eyes on.

Ichigo gaped at the building like he was regretting every single choice that had led him here. Sousuke considered chucking his glasses, because at least if everything was blurry he wouldn't have to take in the full brunt of... that.

"Well, what do you kids think!?" Kaien spun around to face them, far prouder of this monstrosity than Sousuke deemed sane. "Still want to refuse our offer?"

Ichigo and Sousuke looked at each other, then in sync, "Yes."

 

(13)

 

They were forced to join the Shiba Clan for dinner anyways. As it turned out, the entire family was as lively as Kaien and brash as Ichigo. Hours into it, he found himself sneaking outside for a second of peace. He was not a social person by nature. He was not like Ichigo, who could animatedly argue with the entire table for two hours, knock their self-proclaimed "future cousin" through a wall and still have the energy to jump into yet another shouting match against Kuukaku. If the loud crashes and shrieks from inside were any indicator, Ichigo was currently receiving the beating of a lifetime. Sousuke shuddered. Few things intimidated him but that woman... she scared him.

Plopping into the silky grass, he pressed his back against the wall and stared up at the sky that was dotted with stars. Was the Soul King's palace up there, somewhere? He closed his eyes. How long had it been since he'd last allowed himself to wonder that? Revenge, hatred, bitterness, he still felt these things quite a lot but they no longer ruled him the way they once had.

Sousuke no longer wanted to hurt, he wanted to heal. He wanted to help those like him and Ichigo, wanted to be different from the adults in District Sixty-Eight. He wanted to make sure others didn't suffer the same way he had. At that, he opened his eyes, surprised at himself. He was starting to sound like Ichigo. Wasn't that a worrisome thought?

"You're a bit of a recluse, aren't you, kid?"

At that voice, Sousuke jumped, glasses spilling crooked down his face from the movement.

"Don't think I didn't spy you trying to sneak away from the party, you're a hundred years too early to pull one over on me!"

Fixing his glasses, he glanced at Kaien.

Kaien was leaning against the opened front door with a cocky smirk that he'd seen dozens of times on Ichigo's face.

Sousuke responded appropriately. "Does that mean you intend to keep us here against our will?"

Kaien's grin faltered and his arms dropped to his sides. "N-No! Of course not, I just thought I'd drag you both out here and show you a good time is all!"

Ah, so he was the kind of person who struggled to identify sarcasm. Sousuke made a note of that for future bullying purposes.

"And I may or may not continue to do so until you accept my highly generous offer," Kaien went on, oblivious to the fate that awaited him. "Us Shiba are infamously stubborn, you know."

Rather than dignify that with a response, Sousuke studied the man beside him, searching for signs of dishonesty, signs that the man was trying to use them. "Why me? Ichigo I can understand, but why would you want to take a random orphan from the Rukongai in as well? I am not a Shiba. Most noble Clans would sooner commit harakiri then do what you are."

"Eh, us Shiba aren't exactly traditional," Kaien waved him off in such a way, Sousuke couldn't help but believe him. "Besides, the family of my family is family too, and the brother of my soon-to-be little cousin is also my cousin."

Ah. So, that was it. "You eavesdropped?"

"Yup," he answered without an ounce of guilt. "He was acting funny about it, so I followed him after he left."

How shameless. He even ruffled Sousuke's hair with enough force to make his glasses go crooked again.

"Stick around for the night, kid. We're gonna shoot off a firework display that'll have you both begging to take our name!"

 

(14)

 

The fireworks were indeed incredible, and for some strange reason, the constant bickering and destructive brawls taking place around him only seemed to make it that much more amazing. Like the colors scattering across the sky, he too, felt the last traces of loneliness and hatred explode and fizzle out.

It took a single shared look between the two of them to decide.

"Fine," Ichigo sighed. "You win."

That night they joined the Shiba Clan.

 

(15)

 

"Why did you do it?" Sousuke asked later that night as the two of them set out the futons they'd been given. "Why did you really stick around back then?"

Ichigo raised a brow at him. "What do you mean?"

"We both know you care little for the opinion of others." He could list several examples off the top of his head. "That also leads me to wonder why you asked me to teach you control that day."

Ichigo's opened his mouth as if to say 'ah, that.' Hesitated. "You were like me."

Now it was Sousuke's turn to raise a brow.

"You were all alone," he clarified. "Like I was."

When Sousuke only stared, Ichigo sighed and said, "Look, it didn't take me long to realize everybody else at least had someone in their lives, okay!? Even the old guy that liked to chuck rocks at us! And those jerks that always tried to take our food had each other! But us? We didn't have anyone. Seeing you suffering from the same loneliness I was, I couldn't help but reach out to you, you know?"

The way Ichigo said it, he made his actions sound perfectly normal. Like anyone else would've done the same. Like anyone else wouldn't have gone on with their lives without sparing Sousuke a second thought.

"It's not like you were all gung-ho about me leaving anyways. If I recall correctly you were the one that invited me back to that hideout of yours in the first place!" He paused, then a smirk inched across his face. "And besides, I only wanted to learn control so the two of us wouldn't get devoured by hollows. Sheesh, didn't know you were feeling so sentimental today, Sousuke, otherwise, I would have just joined the Shiba's without you."

Sousuke promptly beamed a pillow at him.

After Ichigo's laughter had subsided and they'd settled into their futons, he couldn't resist asking one more question. "If I had ever decided to overthrow the Spirit King and take his place, what would you have done?"

"Easy," Ichigo answered instantly. "I would've kicked your ass and dragged you back. Why?"

“...No reason.”