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Know You Once, And Once Again

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On a bright autumn afternoon, a series of events take place:

 

1) In an outer district of Rukongai, eight captains and lieutenants are Hollowfied, saved, and brought back to the Fourth Division for treatment under the combined protection of Urahara Kisuke and Unohana Retsu.

 

2) Aizen Sousuke attempts to stage a coup against the Gotei 13 and fails. Very badly.

 

And 3) Shiba Kaien suddenly reveals never-before-observed Zanpakutou abilities, and his reiatsu levels absolutely skyrocket, all before single-handedly saving the Shinigami from Aizen's machinations, mental manipulations, and probably a drawn-out civil war just to round it out.

 

In the  chaotic aftermath of it all, it would've been shamelessly gauche to openly interrogate the Shiba Clan Head about how he'd figured out the insidious plot and how long he'd been monitoring Aizen Sousuke and even when his water-based Zanpakutou suddenly developed an affinity for shadows. And normally, that would never stop the Gotei or Central 46 or the Onmitsukidou from interrogating him anyway, but the man in question happens to be a Shiba, and not even just any Shiba but this Shiba.

 

Kaien is the public's darling and Ukitake's protégé, with an entire division of fanatically loyal Shinigami and a whole clan of explosively opinionated relatives to back him up, and in light of that, no one dares to press too hard. The fact that he also wiped the floor with a man who'd nearly killed half the Gotei elite on his way out of Seireitei is a very prominent bonus in the minds of many.

 

So nobody asks. They accept what Shiba Kaien tells them, and move on. It's not as if they don't have a hundred other things to deal with anyway when it becomes clear that Aizen had brainwashed a good portion of Shinigami from just about every squad in the Gotei.

 

Nobody asks.

 

But it's hard not to notice the roiling mass of reiatsu that brews like a storm every time the Thirteenth Division lieutenant trains his subordinates, or the way he scowls now, not always, and - probably - not because he's angry, but wildly obvious anyway when compared to his constant friendly grins and sociable nature from before, which still make their appearance from time to time but nowhere near as frequent.

 

And then of course, there's his new habit of talking to himself, too quietly for anyone to pick out the words, and never in formal settings or in company, but sometimes people would see him, eating a meal by himself in a corner of a restaurant, or patrolling the city on his own, and all the while muttering to himself on and off like it's a perfectly normal thing to do, oblivious to the stares he gets.

 

He's talking to his Zanpakutou, some insist, because at this point, everybody knows he could take over for Ukitake if not for his utter lack of ambition, and power levels like that surely comes with an extra strong bond with his soul spirit.

 

He's gone mad, others whisper, and that's not so far-fetched either when his opponent had been capable of affecting the minds of even the strongest Shinigami in existence without any of them ever realizing it.

 

But of course, nobody ever actually asks.

 


 

Well, almost nobody anyway.

 


 

Shinji pauses just outside the doorway of the dojo, reiatsu signature carefully concealed. The others are further back down the hallway, and even from here, he can hear their rowdy voices mixing with various Shibas as they wait for dinner to be served. The Shiba Clan compound's become something of a social hub for them - the Visored - these days; it's one of the few places left in Seireitei where they're not tailed by irritating flies from the Onmitsukidou or gawked at and avoided by those who know they're basically part-Hollow now.

 

The Shibas treat them just the same. It's partly because they're Shibas and they've never been anyone's idea of normal, but also because their Clan Head has made sure of it - that the government wouldn't come down on them like a sack of bricks, that they would keep their Zanpakutou and ranks, that people can whisper all they want but god help them if they do it within Kaien's earshot. And as always, the clan follows their leader's example.

 

Yet another thing to be grateful to Shiba Kaien for, and considering they were saved by the man to begin with, and then backed to the hilt every step of the way afterwards, that debt is getting uncomfortably heavier by the day despite the fact that the man himself would probably never hold it over their heads. Maybe even especially because of that.

 

No one actually brings it up of course. But the moment Shinji was back on his feet and released from the Fourth, he's tried to keep a closer eye on Kaien. They were already something like friends before, what with Shinji's ties to Ukitake and Kyouraku, so it's not exactly a hardship to bump into Kaien every few days, even when they aren't collectively hanging around the man's house.

 

Maybe that's why Shinji has noticed a few extra details that the populace in general has missed. He knew Kaien before Aizen; he knows Kaien now. And half the time, Shinji knows it's not Kaien looking back at him out of those eyes.

 

He's heard the rumours of course, that the Thirteenth Division lieutenant has so deep a connection with his Zanpakutou these days that he can hear the spirit even without meditating. Or he's just gone crazy, battle shock, or some lasting mental damage dealt by Aizen, and - Central 46 in particular likes to hint - Ukitake really should retire him soon.

 

All nonsense of course. Kaien's still as sane as ever. Or as sane as a Shiba can ever be. It's just that-

 

"-footwork's terrible, how can you fight like this?" Kaien's voice grumbles from inside the dojo, in a distinctly non-Kaien manner.

 

Without missing a beat, that same voice replies, but in lighter and more cheerful tones, "I use the standard Shiba style. We favour straightforward brawls most of the time."

 

And then, voice pitched low and irritable once more, "Your brawl against Aizen almost got you gutted like a pig before I took over. Everyone used to say you were a genius - I'm not seeing it."

 

" I've never said I was a genius," Kaien volleys back, sounding amused now, and not at all insulted. "Besides, dead martyrs always get a good rep, and I know my guys." His voice dips, not into that broody tone, but… more rueful than Kaien usually lets himself get in public. "The Thirteenth would've put me on a pedestal. My family too. And not a single one of them would've just said I died because I was an idiot."

 

"Kuukaku did," The other-same voice assures, more upbeat this time, if caustically so. "Kuukaku said her brother was the biggest idiot who'd ever lived."

 

Kaien laughs. "Well, I suppose if anyone would, it's her." There's a faint whistling sound of a blade slashing through air. "Now come on, show me that turn again. A Shiba trained by a Shihouin and Urahara. I'd be appalled if you couldn't kick my ass six ways to Sunday."

 

"I had Shinji too," Comes the retort, underscored by a bristling pride that fades to something quiet and wistful and young in a way Shinji hasn't heard from Kaien in at least a century. "Shinji helped me a lot. Yelled at me a lot too. Usually for being reckless. But he'd also stab anyone who looked at me wrong."

 

There's silence for a beat, too, and then it's Kaien again, voice gone soft and almost soothing. "Sounds like him. He's protective of what's his." Another pause, and then, "Hey Ichigo, you know, if you want, you could tell someone else. I wouldn't even mind if everyone knows - they already think I'm halfway insane at this point, and I'd like to see the old farts in Central 46 lay a finger on us. But if you don't want that, and you just want to tell a couple people, that's fine too. Hirako - he'd probably believe you, and he wouldn't do anything to hurt you. For one, I'd break his jaw if he did, but for another, if nothing else, you saved his life, and he's an asshole but he's not that kind of asshole. Honestly, I think he knows something's up already. Something that's not the gossip going around."

 

This time, there is no audible response, but Kaien must get one anyway because there's a sigh and a rustle of cloth and footsteps. "Okay. But if you change your mind, make sure you tell me. Just because your aim was a little off doesn't mean you don't have just as much of a right to be here as anyone." Another short silence ensues before Kaien makes a noise that's equal parts mirth and indulgence. "Yeah, well, you're family, Ichigo. And lucky for you, we Shibas consider that pretty important."

 

Out in the hall, Shinji silently slips away to rejoin the others after a trip to the bathroom.

 

Ichigo.

 

After months of eavesdropping, he finally has a name.

 


 

Dinner that night is attended mostly by Kaien, jovial and boisterous as he chatters with his siblings and friends. But once in a while, his open expressions would shutter into something more reserved and guarded, and he'd extract himself from the spirited conversations around him, plating himself some food before retreating to a corner that lets him put his back to the wall and the rest of the room in full view.

 

"A Shiba trained by a Shihouin and Urahara."

 

Shinji can see it. There is far more assassin in this second Shiba than any he has ever met before.

 

This one - Ichigo - eats quickly and mechanically, not a second wasted, nor a grain of rice missed. He wears a perpetual frown that those closest to Kaien have clearly started learning to take in stride since nobody reacts to it, and every now and then, his reiatsu would fluctuate, rolling out over the estate like a wave, relentless and heavy, but contradictorily harmless, at least to them. Shinji's even gotten used to the taste of it by now, the others too - when saltwater fades to the background and an increasingly familiar chill full of twilight shadows takes its place.

 

Kaien talks and gestures and laughs with an outgoing buoyancy that invites others to join in, and it makes him feel trustworthy and approachable. Ichigo clocks the exits of any room he's in, staring at them like he might stab the first uninvited guest that comes through, and he exudes threat in a way that automatically induces caution in anyone with sense.

 

It's so obvious that they're two people in one body. Sometimes, Shinji doesn't understand how nobody else notices, not even Ukitake or Kaien's own sister and brother. Then again, perhaps there are just enough similarities too that outweigh the differences. At the very least, at their core, they share the same kind of soul, and maybe that has something to do with what Kaien meant when he said Ichigo's "aim was a little off".

 

Kaien's very personality shines like the sun, and it attracts attention in much the same way, too bright to be ignored, and too warm to walk away from. In contrast, Ichigo is silent as moonlight and feels just as elusive; but deep in the dark of night, the moon is also often the brightest thing in the sky, and even as Shinji watches, Hiyori sidles over with a scowl, huffing about one thing or another, not at all deterred by the wooden look she gets in return, and soon enough, she's joined - one by one - by everyone else in the room, each one drifting over like they just can't help themselves.

 

And Kaien's face glowers back, hilariously jarring compared to his usual mien, and his words come out blunt and gruff when he answers at all, but when it comes down to it, he doesn't tell them to go away.

 

Shinji hides a wry smirk in his food.

 

Not so different after all then. Night and day, just two sides of the same coin.

 

He swallows one last mouthful and grabs his cup of sake before sauntering over to join them.

 


 

Three days later, Shinji drops by the Thirteenth and asks for a spar.

 

"From your lieutenant, Ukitake," Shinji grins. "No offense."

 

Ukitake rolls his eyes and waves in the general direction of the training grounds. "He's already there, training the newest recruits." He pauses, and the genial smile he's wearing remains, but his eyes go sharp with warning for a moment. "Be careful, Hirako."

 

Shinji eyes him for a long moment. …Maybe not so clueless after all. He shrugs and heads for the door. "I ain't that kinda asshole. It'll be fine."

 

Minutes later, he's making his way onto one of the training grounds, and it only takes a glance for him to identify which one he'll be dealing with, for now. The loud encouragement and supportive enthusiasm are a dead giveaway.

 

"Hirako-taichou!" Kaien calls out as soon as Shinji stops on the sidelines, and all the trainees on the field wheel around, hastily bowing in his direction when they spot him.

 

Kaien waves at his men to continue before jogging over, curiosity painting his features. "Is something wrong? Taichou's in his office if you're looking for him."

 

Shinji shakes his head. "I already saw him - he pointed me your way." He smirks and drops a hand to his Zanpakutou. "I have some free time today. What d'ya say, Shiba-fukutaichou? How 'bout a little spar?"

 

Kaien blinks at him, and physically, there's no indication of any kind of change, no flash of different eye-colour, no other face superimposed over Kaien's. But still, there's a… shift, so to speak, some invisible ripple in his regard and stance before his whole expression smooths into something far more neutral.

 

Mornin', Ichigo, Shinji doesn't say, opting to study him quietly instead. He wonders how old this Shiba is. On occasion, he's caught Kaien calling him "baby cousin".

 

"With your mask?" Ichigo asks, raking a critical eye over Shinji, and if Shinji had any doubts about this man (boy?) knowing him and knowing him well in some past life or alternate universe, this alone banishes it. Even Kaien, in his own home, has never quite foregone that last bit of hierarchical etiquette that's drilled into every Shinigami from their first day at the Academy.

 

Ichigo shows none of that. Ichigo looks at him with all the scowly concern of someone long used to checking Shinji over for injuries because Shinji sure as hell wouldn't speak up himself if he can help it.

 

"If you're alright with that," Shinji says, even as he knows he won't be refused. After all, Ichigo - and by extension Kaien - was the one who helped them merge with their Hollow halves properly once Urahara and Unohana had stabilized them. Mostly by kicking their asses and making sure they didn't harm themselves or anyone else while they adjusted. They’re much better now, even if practicing with their Hollow sides can still get a bit… out of hand, but that’s what their resident Visored expert is for, and no, Shinji isn’t talking about Urahara.

 

He knows Hollow reiatsu very well by now, and occasionally, even Ichigo slips up.

 

Ichigo grunts, casts an assessing look over his shoulder at his subordinates going through various warmup katas, then shrugs and points at an empty training yard to the right. "Yeah sure, why not." His lips pull into a grin, small, and it doesn't last very long, but genuine in a way Shinji has never seen from him before, if also edged with a wild sort of violence. "Don't blame me when you're picking yourself up out of a crater though."

 

A startled bark of laughter trips out of Shinji’s mouth before he can think twice about it. "Brat, you're a hundred years too early to be trash-talking to me."

 

Ichigo only smirks, wide and unrepentant, as a flicker of Hollow-yellow sears through his eyes. They make their way over to the training yard and take their places across from each other, and as they unsheathe their blades, Shinji absently wonders if he'll have to make a trip to the Fourth after this.

 

Because Ichigo might be young, but Shinji has seen firsthand what he can do, and he knows that when it comes to raw power, Ichigo has him beat by miles.

 

Still, Shinji's no slouch, and he at least has more experience, so he's confident that he'll at least put up a decent fight. More importantly though…

 

He looks up and catches Ichigo's gaze and notes the gleam in his eyes that hasn't gone away.

 

He lifts a hand to his face and hides a smile behind it as his mask coalesces under his fingertips.

 

This is the first time he's ever seen Ichigo - not Kaien - look so alive. And if a simple spar can drag that out of him, then the least Shinji owes him is a few hours each week on the training grounds.

 

Besides, it wouldn't do for him to get rusty. And really, with the way the majority of the populace shies away from him these days, his own subordinates included, who else can Shinji go to for a fight thrilling enough to get the blood pumping? If that results in cuts and bruises and a lecture from Unohana, he thinks it's a pretty small price to pay.

 


 

(He does end up picking himself out of a crater, but at least they'd torn into each other for a while before that, and when Kaien comes to help him up, cackling with a smug sort of delight all the while, Shinji could swear he can hear a second voice chuckling right along with him.)

 


 

The first time Shinji is cleared for a mission down in the Human World, they stick him with Kaien and call it a joint mission just to avoid telling him he needs a babysitter. Shinji would put up more of a fuss if he actually minded.

 

As it is, this gives him the opportunity to stretch his legs and continue figuring out the fascinating puzzle that is Kaien-and-Ichigo sharing a body. He sees no downside, and unfortunately for the government, he's never been ruled by excessive pride.

 

The mission is easy enough, and maybe that's a problem Shinji hadn't foreseen - it isn't difficult enough to require Ichigo to intervene, so Kaien takes centerstage and doesn't go away the entire time they're tracking and purifying the small band of Hollows trying to wreak havoc in some town in Japan.

 

It's not as if Kaien isn't perfectly nice company and a very competent colleague, but Shinji finds himself sulking anyway. He's gotten used to spending time with both Shibas for the price of one.

 

"Are you okay, Hirako-taichou?" Kaien asks as they make a final circuit of the area to make sure no other Hollows will be popping up and eating the Humans. "You seem kind of distracted today."

 

Shinji waves a dismissive hand. "I'm fine. Just glad to be out of Soul Society. That place can get a bit stifling."

 

He can feel the surprise in the look Kaien is sending at the back of his head. "…Do you want to leave?"

 

Well, that's a rather large jump. Shinji double-checks just to make sure it isn't Ichigo - whom Shinji is approximately 70% certain has never been an official Gotei Shinigami in his life - he's suddenly speaking to. Nope, still Kaien. Shinji snorts. "Even if I wanted to, where would I go? D'ya think Shinigami can just up and quit?"

 

Neither of them breaks stride, but there's a shift in the air, a shiver of reiatsu that - even this close - Shinji might've missed if he hasn't actively been keeping his senses honed in for it all the time nowadays. When he looks again, it's Ichigo in control now, pacing right beside Shinji instead of a step behind and to the side.

 

"If you wanna quit, you should quit," Ichigo insists, brow furrowed. "The other Visored too. Central 46 wanted to execute you even without Aizen's influence. I think that's a pretty good reason to tell them all to fuck off. And if anyone tries to stop you, I'll just stop them first."

 

Shinji has to laugh at that. Not because he thinks Ichigo wouldn't do it - even with just the things he's observed and overheard, he knows Ichigo would absolutely break every law in the books for those he cares about - but some ingrained instinct inside him, borne from centuries as a Shinigami of the Gotei, whispers impossible anyway. Everyone who's been in the military long enough knows that no Shinigami ever truly leaves the Gotei; retirement isn't an option. You serve and you fight until you die, and that is your life, no matter how much the propaganda can romanticize it. But Ichigo talks about it like it's possible, like he'd make it possible if it's what Shinji wants, and all Shinji would need to do is say the word.

 

He can see why his future self - or alternate dimension self? - liked this kid. He's always been a sucker for people willing to go that extra mile with a fearlessness that borders on stupidity and loyalty that some might call insanity.

 

(What else would you call someone willing to throw himself through time and space itself to prevent a madman's rise to power, all to protect a world full of people who will never even know him?)

 

He doesn't really think about it, just does what feels natural and reaches out to scruff a hand through Ichigo's hair, snickering when his expression goes comically indignant. It looks similar to Kaien's, when his sister or Lisa is teasing him, but there's an extra something when it's Ichigo behind the reins, a wary sort of vulnerability that looks a little like fear and a lot like grief and makes Shinji want to punch someone.

 

(There's no way he's not a fucking kid, not when he reacts like this every now and then, and for fuck's sake, what the hell were the whole useless lot of them doing in the future that it had to come down to one person carrying the weight of saving all their asses?)

 

"We're fine where we are, for now," Shinji says, pretending not to notice anything amiss. "But I'll let ya know if we ever decide on a career change."

 

Ichigo scowls at him like an offended - if also flustered - cat, and then he's gone and Kaien is back, and Shinji gets a smile next but it's gilded with something uncharacteristically calculating this time.

 

Shinji's never ruffled Kaien's hair.

 

Kaien looks away first, heaving a sigh as they land on a nearby rooftop. "Well, I did tell him you probably guessed already."

 

Shinji studies him for a moment. "…Can he still hear me right now?"

 

"Of course," Kaien confirms. "Sometimes he's sleeping even when I'm awake, so not then, but right now? Sure." His gaze turns inward for a few seconds. "He doesn't want to talk to you anymore though." He grins. "Guess he's shy."

 

Judging by the wince that follows, Shinji can only imagine the mental yelling for that last bit. Pity. He'd pay good money to see it.

 

"I won't tell anyone," Shinji says bluntly once it seems like both Shibas are paying attention again. He figures he might as well get that out there now. "Though, ya might wanna do a better job of hiding it if you really don't want people to know."

 

Kaien frowns. "Who else knows?"

 

Shinji rolls his eyes. "Your captain, for one. I can't say for certain about anyone else, but other people's probably noticed something off too, even if they don't know what. And not just that you've gone crazy or whatever you're trying to pass yourself off as."

 

Kaien shrugs. "Crazy works. Most people believe it, even if a handful think something else."

 

Shinji snorts but he can't exactly refute that when he’s been lamenting the same thing for months.

 

"You could tell Urahara though," Shinji says instead. "For a scientist and a former assassin, he's not so bad. And I think one of his projects has to do with Gigai. If anyone could figure out how to give a soul a body, it'd be him."

 

He pauses. Kaien shakes his head a second time, a faint grimace writ across his features. Shinji stares at him for a moment before dropping that line of conversation. "Anyway, I think we're about done; I'm not sensing anything else. What is this town anyway? It's rare for a place to attract so many Hollows."

 

"…Karakura," Comes the answer, and for once, Shinji can't tell who is talking to him. "This town is Karakura."

 


 

"So," Shinji says, hours later in the dead of night, seated on the roof of the Fifth Division's administration building. A tray of sake sits between them. And Ichigo is apparently asleep. "Does he just… not want a body? I mean it wouldn't matter to most people since they don't know anyway, and it wouldn't matter much to me since I can tell you two apart from a mile away. But if he doesn't want one…"

 

Kaien sighs, slouched forward with his elbows on his thighs, sake cup between his fingers. "It's… complicated." Shinji rolls his eyes but holds his tongue. "Look, I don't even know if we can be separated anymore. If we're actually two different souls in one body, people would probably be able to sense that wouldn't they? And our Zanpakutou spirits… They don't even just share a soulscape; they've fused."

 

Shinji takes a moment to mull over those implications. "Isn't that all the more reason to go to Urahara? If there's a solution, he could probably find it, and if there isn't, he can confirm it and maybe even find a compromise." He glances at the lieutenant. "Unless ya both prefer… sharing."

 

Kaien shrugs. "I don't mind it; it feels normal at this point. My balance was pretty shot at the beginning, and reiatsu control was… more or less nonexistent, but we got over it. Had to take two weeks of sick days though."

 

Ah, right, Shinji remembers that. It was about a month before the thing with Aizen had all gone down. The Shiba Clan Head had been inexplicably struck down by an illness nobody seemed to have any information on - for all that the Shiba Clan are a loud outspoken lot, they also have a knack for saying a lot without ever actually saying anything of substance - and the Thirteenth had just about had a meltdown by the time Kaien was fit to go in for work again.

 

Ukitake is an excellent captain who inspires adoration and devotion in every single one of his subordinates. But even he probably knows that the heart and soul of the Thirteenth is his lieutenant. Half the time, when the former is sick himself, Kaien is captain in all but name.

 

(If the Shibas have ever had even a fraction of the ambition Aizen had, they would've taken over the world a long time ago.)

 

"Ichigo doesn't not want a body of his own," Kaien says at last. "But… I haven't really gotten the impression that he does want one either. …I don't think he really expected to survive Aizen, and not because he thought the time travel or Aizen might kill him."

 

It's quiet for a few seconds, broken only by the howl of a cold gust of wind blowing past.

 

"Let's just say," Kaien sighs again and knocks back his sake. "If we weren't sharing a body and he didn't have me to consider during his fight with Aizen, I don't think he'd be here right now."

 

Shinji says nothing for a while. He pours them both another drink, and then stares idly at the rippling liquid in his own cup. "…Isn't that all the more reason to get him his own body and give him his own place in this time?"

 

Kaien huffs. "I know, I know. But like I said, it's complicated. We really are… I don't even know how to describe it. I know you can tell us apart - honestly, everyone can, they just haven't cottoned on to why we're so different - but that's just… surface stuff." He shrugs once more, looking equal parts helpless and unrepentant. "We're two people, but we're also one person. And honestly, Taichou, if someone tries to separate us, never mind me, Ichigo will probably gut them."

 

Shinji snorts. "Sounds like a Shiba."

 

Kaien grins. "He's more of one than he likes to admit."

 

Shinji blinks at him. "Likes to- Was he disowned?"

 

Kaien scoffs "Of course not. There were…" He grimaces and shakes his head. "It would take too long to explain everything. Let's just say Aizen's plans to destabilize Soul Society didn't end with wiping out half the Gotei elite in one night." His expression tightens. "Got me killed, made it look like an accident, and then later framed my clan for some trumped up crimes, and his illusions did the rest. From what Ichigo told me - and he heard it from Kuukaku - the Onmitsukidou practically cleaned our compound out overnight. The Shiba Clan fell, my siblings were banished to Rukongai, and Isshin went MIA during a mission. That last bit's only partially related though.  Ichigo was his son; his and a Human woman's." Shinji's eyebrows shoot up. "But the point is, our clan was pretty much gone, and Ichigo never even knew about us until he met Kuukaku and Ganju when he was like fifteen or something and Aizen finally kicked off a war. He went by Kurosaki. His mother's maiden name."

 

Shinji's head hurts. "Are you telling me Ichigo is a fifteen-year-old Shinigami-Human hybrid?"

 

"No!" Kaien says, looking affronted. And then he deflates. "He's an eighteen-year-old Shinigami-Quincy-Hollow hybrid."

 

Shinji… has no words. He reaches for the alcohol.

 

"Should you be telling me this?" He says, only after fortifying himself with two more cups of sake.

 

"Ichigo said I could," Kaien assures. "We worked it out a while ago, what we could say to who if we ever told anybody else. Or they found out." He pauses. "He trusts you a lot. Urahara too, but I managed to convince him that this Urahara might need a bit of… maintenance first. He got exiled for like a hundred years the first time around, along with the rest of you, and Yoruichi and the Kidou Corps Commander. Aizen framed him for turning you guys into Visored, and you guys would've been executed if you'd stayed."

 

Shinji isn't even surprised anymore. Sounds straight up dear Sousuke's alley. "…So then, I'm assuming his mom was the Quincy." Under his breath, he mutters, "What the fuck, Isshin, cradle-robbing much?" And then, louder, over Kaien's snort of derisive laughter, "And somehow, Ichigo managed to be born without getting torn apart in the womb from the conflicting reiatsu because… he somehow had Hollow reiatsu to bridge them together?" He turns that over in his head, along with the rest of what he's learned and several dots connect. "Urahara, I presume? Knowing him, he probably screwed with one of the parents' soul. Probably the Quincy."

 

Kaien smiles, a little rueful but mostly admiring. Shinji rolls his eyes at him. "It's not that hard to figure out, even if it is ten kinds of illegal and fucked up. What was Urahara thinking? Even with all three species introduced into his DNA, there's no way to be sure there would be enough reiatsu of each kind to prevent his body from just… disintegrating."

 

Kaien's expression darkens. "You know, I got some of Ichigo's memories when we… fused." He looks out over the rest of the city. "I think Urahara was pretty desperate for a weapon that could take down Aizen. And Ichigo - he's strong. You haven't seen even half of what he can do, and I think you were at least semi-conscious for his battle against Aizen. But in the future, that other future, it got pretty bad, even before Aizen revealed himself and the war officially started. It just… looked fine on the surface. But I think it started when he Hollowfied you guys, and then there were a bunch of unexplained disappearances or accidental deaths after that, and then almost every Shiba was gone, and there were just too many holes in the ranks to refill properly. After all that, a hundred years in the future, the Gotei 13 was… really weak, even if no one really noticed it until it was too late. That might've been Aizen's doing too. Urahara knew though. All of you knew. So even if it wasn't a sure thing, you guys had to take the gamble. I can understand that." Kaien sneers, and it's the angriest expression Shinji has ever seen on him. "I can understand it, even if it was one of my bloodline you bastards used. I'd make Isshin answer for his part, but he hasn't actually done anything yet. None of you have. But you'll understand why I don't want my cousin anywhere near the man who orchestrated it all, even if it was necessary. And even if Ichigo trusts him."

 

Shinji frowns down at his cup. He nods and takes a moment to wonder what kind of person he would've become after getting Hollowfied, and after the government he's served for centuries turned on him for something entirely beyond his control, and then getting kicked out of Soul Society for a century all while knowing the madman responsible was gearing up for something that could tear apart the universe as they knew it.

 

It's… not hard to imagine, a version of himself approving of using a child, in that scenario. He's done worse in his life, under the command of the very military that he's always known on some level would cut him loose in a heartbeat if their values or agendas ever outweigh his worth.

 

Still. A child born for war. The knowledge that he condoned this particular plan sits wrong in his gut. Maybe it's because he actually knows Ichigo, even if they've never been properly introduced. Especially since-

 

"Why the hell are you talking to me then?" He mutters. He checks the amount of alcohol left. Not much. Damn, tonight would be a good night to get drunk. Come to think of it, he never even got drunk after waking up with a Hollowfied spirit screaming in his head. How unfair.

 

Kaien aims a grim smile his way. "You and the other Visored helped him get his Hollow side under control. Ironic, isn't it?" The smile drops. He still doesn't look as angry as before though. Or at all, really. Just tired now. "You used him, but you looked after him too. Ichigo doesn't talk much about it, but like I said, I have memories, and… emotional impressions too. So I know Ichigo did most of the protecting - I mean, Isshin and Masaki, Ichigo's mom, they even named him 'First Protector', you know? And yeah, on one side of it, it's kinda cute. But on the other," And the anger is back, black and terrible. " What the actual fuck. Ichigo's whole goddamn identity was built around being everyone's sword and shield. Who even fucking does that."

 

For a second, it looks like he might continue ranting, or swearing, but then he sucks in a deep breath and swallows back the rest, squashing his temper until it's just a simmer again. He scrubs a hand over his face.

 

"You looked after him," He repeats. "He didn't have many people who did that for him."

 

"…You have low standards," Shinji mumbles. You looked after him, as if basic decency required gratitude.

 

" He has low standards," Kaien corrects, and his next smile is as sharp as Yoruichi's hidden knives. "I'm alive this time around to protect my clan. If history repeats itself with a whole other megalomaniac, I hope you'll remember that, Hirako-taichou."

 

Shinji levels a supremely unimpressed look on him. "Ya share a body with him now. Maybe a soul too, by the sounds of it, and you said it yourself - he's strong. I couldn't make him do anything even if I wanted to."

 

"You could," Kaien mutters, quietly enough that even Shinji almost misses it. "All you'd have to do is ask."

 

Shinji exhales irritably, and for a moment, he can't tell if he's more annoyed with Kaien or himself or Ichigo. "Then I won't ask, and you can punch me in the face if I do."

 

He sets his empty cup down on the tray. "So fine, no body, at least for now. But maybe you should at least introduce your new cousin to your family instead of passing him off as yourself."

 

Kaien is silent long enough for Shinji to start preparing to leave. He's not nearly patient enough to deal with this man's particular streak of overprotective coddling.

 

"I shouldn't really be here though," Kaien's voice says, and Shinji immediately stills. When he glances over, Ichigo has leaned back on his hands, and his gaze has stilled on the moon above them. "The Shiba Clan is strong, and Central 46 won't mess with them lightly. But I know better than most what those bastards are like when they're pushed into a corner. I don't want to make trouble when it's not necessary."

 

Shinji stares at him, waiting to see if anything else is forthcoming. When there's nothing, he doesn't hold back a loud scoff. "What does any of that matter? First of all, you're already here. Whether or not you should be here has nothing to do with it. You're here, so obviously, the only thing left to do is to make a place to fit you in. And Central 46? Weren't you the one who just told me today that they can fuck right off? If I don't owe them anything, then you sure as hell don't either."

 

Ichigo is staring at him now, Kaien's eyes but not, wide and startled and young, and Shinji hates it.

 

He doesn't let on. "You do what you want," He says instead, and he means every word, because is this not the very least of what they owe him? "And if those dusty old bastards take exception, then between the two of us, you're not the only one capable of cleaning house."

 

Maybe Shinji wouldn't have said something so decisively treasonous before. But these days, he has a Hollow constantly baying for blood inside him, and any faith and allegiance he'd held for his own government have been well and truly destroyed. He stays because he still has a duty towards the Fifth, because he couldn't prevent Aizen's influence from eating up a good chunk of the people he's supposed to be responsible for, and because at the end of the day, this is still his home, and his anger at the betrayal just isn't quite enough motivation to do anything so drastic as to turn Seireitei into a pile of smoking rubble, even if the urge does itch at him sometimes.

 

So for himself, he wouldn't do it. But for someone who saved his life and saved his friends' lives and never let Central 46 or the Onmitsukidou so much as breathe in their direction until they were well enough again to defend themselves? For someone who came back in time on his own to kill a man who very probably killed them all sometime in the next hundred years? For someone he's grown fond of even after just a handful of months of discreetly interacting with him, and who would do the exact same thing for Shinji, even though Shinji has in no way, shape, or form earned that kind of consideration from him?

 

For Ichigo, Shinji would happily dance on the ashes afterwards, and he knows the other Visored wouldn't be far behind.

 

Ichigo doesn't seem to know what to say, but at least he seems to take Shinji at his word. The kid blinks a few times, opens his mouth, then snaps it shut, and then bails and leaves him with Kaien again, who laughs, and there's humour in it, but it sounds as bloodthirsty as Sakanade was in the early days of post-Hollowfication when she was still trying to rip Shinji's face off. To be fair, she would've been glad to rip anyone else's face off too if she'd had access to them.

 

"This is why I like you, Hirako-taichou," Kaien tells him, and there's that glint of Hollow in his eyes again. "I love Ukitake-taichou, but sometimes, he's a bit too… diplomatic for my clan's tastes."

 

"Hey," Shinji says mildly, feeling vaguely bemused because even with his Hollow, it's not as if he's suddenly acting like one of the Eleventh. "I don't go around picking fights every other day either, do I?"

 

He thinks he's pretty diplomatic too, all things considered. He can't not be, with how long he's been a Shinigami. Politics is hammered into every captain eventually.

 

Kaien just shakes his head and finally moves to get up, scooping up the serving tray as he goes. Shinji rises to his feet as well, absently straightening his haori.

 

"You don't have to," Kaien says. "You just need to pick a fight when the people depending on you need you to." He stares out across Seireitei again, brow knitting into something wearier than he'd normally ever show. "Most Shinigami don't really do that anymore. If they ever did before."

 

A beat of silence passes, and then Kaien's shaking the gloomy mood away and replacing it with his usual - if slightly more subdued - good cheer. "Well, anyway, I think I've covered everything Ichigo wanted me to and everything I wanted to. I might do what you said, about telling at least the Shiba Clan. And Ichigo's not even arguing anymore. I should get you to win more arguments against him."

 

Shinji rolls his eyes and turns to leave. "All I did was tell the truth." He glances back. "Make sure ya let me know if I should start calling Ichigo Ichigo in public. And Ichigo," He meets Kaien's eyes, waits until Ichigo narrows them at him, and adds, "Don't be a stranger. The Fifth is always open if ya wanna drop by."

 

He lingers just long enough to receive another much more gratifying wide-eyed look, and then he's gone in a lazy rush of Shunpo, more than ready to roll into bed and forget the revelations of tonight for at least a few hours.

 

He can't not think about it when he's still awake though, and he wonders what he can do about it besides asking for a spar. He thinks eighteen, and child of war , and assassin-trained, and the way Ichigo moves like gravity couldn't touch him even without reiatsu, nothing at all like the grounded full-frontal style Shibas prefer. So maybe instead of a spar next time, Shinji can suggest a game of Shinigami tag. Ichigo obviously likes a good fight, but sometimes, it's nice too - and necessary - to focus on something else for a while.

 

Tag first, and then Shinji can start working on needling other hobbies out of Ichigo.

 


 

The next time they see each other, there's a streak of orange in Kaien's dark hair that stands out like a tongue of flame.

 

Shinji raises an eyebrow. Ichigo, perched on his office's windowsill like it's perfectly normal, grins back, small and reserved and a little awkward, but it's the most genuine smile Shinji's seen from him so far.

 

"I have orange hair," Ichigo explains. "And my face was practically identical to Kaien's, so we thought we'd give this a try."

 

Shinji tries imagining it in his mind's eye and sort of can and sort of can't. Shibas are all dark-haired and dark-eyed.

 

"It adds personality," He offers, and then, "Should I call you Ichigo then?"

 

Ichigo snorts, as irreverent as Shinji's half-guessed him to be for months now. "Don't you already?" He shrugs. "Future you did too so I'm not really used to anything else. Kaien's told his- our family a couple days ago. They took it pretty well."

 

He looks surprised. Shinji doesn't know why. It's the Shibas. He should at least be used to Kaien by now, and Kaien's the epitome of a Shiba.

 

"But anyway," Ichigo continues. "We've decided not to go out of our way to announce it from a rooftop, but everyone who knows now will call me by name if I'm the one walking around, and we'll see how long it takes for everyone else to catch on." He hesitates, eyeing Shinji carefully. "I still think it might be troublesome."

 

Shinji shrugs loosely. "Just give me a heads-up if I have to stick my sword in someone."

 

Ichigo doesn't laugh, but he also doesn't stop staring for a good twenty seconds. Whatever he's thinking, he doesn't tell Shinji, but eventually, he does ask, "Are you busy?"

 

Shinji doesn't hesitate. "Nope," He says blithely, ignoring the piles of paperwork in front of him. "Did ya need me for something?"

 

Ichigo's mouth twitches, not quite a smile this time, but the amusement is plain on his face all the same. "We're going for lunch. Come join us. With the other Visored too, maybe. We haven't seen them in a while."

 

"They've missed you too," Shinji says easily, quick to read between the lines, and it's not even a lie. Kensei was complaining just the other day that Ichigo - or Kaien, as Kensei calls both Shibas, but Shinji suspects that he has his own thoughts about the truth as well - doesn't spar with him anymore, and the Ninth is too swamped with deadlines for him to skip out. A couple of the others have said much the same, and Lisa keeps wondering if Kaien would still let her kidnap him now that he can actually stop her.

 

Ichigo looks down, then up again and nods. He looks at Shinji like he trusts him. "Okay. Now?"

 

It's about eleven-thirty. "No time like the present," Shinji says cheerfully, tossing his haori over the back of his chair. It'll only get in the way, and honestly, he doesn't much care for protocol these days either.

 

What can anyone possibly do to him that would be worse than what Aizen did? And what can anyone possibly do to him when he has Ichigo in his corner?

 

Ichigo brightens, and yeah, Shinji can picture that orange hair after all when the kid smiles like that, like the sun coming out after a storm.

 

"After you," Shinji gestures out the window, rounding his desk to join him.

 

Kaien surfaces for a moment, eyes warm and features soft with approval. "Thanks, Taichou."

 

Shinji scoffs and shoves him out the window. "Don't say pointless things."

 

It’s Kaien who laughs but Ichigo who leaps back up, disappearing in a blur that Shinji can barely keep up with.

 

Shinji grins and follows anyway.