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"Is that him?" Rukia asks quietly, her face bleak.

Ichigo glances over at her and wonders how she must feel, watching her first love—the man she killed—reborn into the world of the living, even as she wears the ring that ties her to her second. Not him, of course, but Renji, who might very well have been her first love, had she recognized the feeling at the time.

But, after nearly four decades as a captain, he's polite enough not to remark on anything so personal while on a mission, instead turning his gaze back to the small, dark-haired boy clutching his mother's hand as they cross the street.

"Do you really have to ask?" he says instead, studying the brilliant aquamarine eyes and messy black hair, uncannily like his own save for the color.

Rukia lets out a sharp sound that might be a chuckle or a sob, and spins on her heel, throwing herself into a flash-step to get away from both him and her old lieutenant. Ichigo debates whether or not to be offended, and chooses not. He simply sighs, raises his communicator, and says calmly, "Juushiro, I believe that your lieutenant will be returning shortly, and in need of comfort."

There is a brief pause as static crackles between them, not unlike an old-fashioned walkie-talkie, and then Juushiro sighs as well. "Noted," he responds, and his voice is strained. "Is it really him, Ichigo?"

Ichigo pushes down his irritation—how should he know? He never met the man. But fifty years in Soul Society—thirty-eight of them as a captain—and the (admittedly somewhat brief) human lifetime before that have taught him patience and control, and he answers noncommittally. "So the techs in the Twelfth tell us. They predicted the other reincarnations well enough, so I'm inclined to believe that this time is no different."

It is a testament to Juushiro's distraction that he fails to notice the edge in Ichigo's voice. "Yes, yes, you're right," he agrees vaguely. "But is there any way to know for certain?"

Ichigo bites back the cool retort that tells him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Byakuya rubbed off on him far too much in their decade together. He's still smarting over the separation, too, which doesn't help his temper at the moment. Even though it was "amicable" and "mutual," there were still many ruffled feathers on each side, both before and after they decided to end what they had found together. For all that it was nearly a year ago, the wounds are still raw, and Ichigo has to restrain himself from snapping at the other captain.

"Well," he says, voice carefully measured, "I could stab him with Zangetsu, see if he has above-average reiatsu, train him for shikai, and then check to see if Nejibana appears, but I don't think that's the best method to use on a child."

There is a horrified pause on the other end, and then a sound like a slight scuffle. After a moment, Shunsui comes over the line, sounding both amused and vaguely chiding. "Now, now, Godslayer, be nice. You know we're just a bit tense over here. There's no need to snap."

Ichigo closes his eyes and counts to ten. It doesn't work. Neither does counting to fifty, and the mere fact that he is even trying to contain his temper only pisses him off more. More remainders from his days with Byakuya, no doubt.

"Can someone please take the communicator?" he asks, raising his voice so that whoever is chaperoning the idiot on the other end will hear him. "Nanao, beat him unconscious if you must. I give you full permission, and will answer to the Captain-Commander myself if he says anything."

There is another brief scuffle and a yelp, then the sounds of sniveling. The crisp voice of Shunsui's lieutenant answers. "I will hold you to that, Captain Kurosaki. Please, carry on with the mission. I've sent Captain Ukitake home with his third seats and alerted Captain Abarai to his wife's return. Captain Kyoraku will be no more trouble, either."

Almost despite himself, Ichigo chuckles. "Ah, Nanao, when will you leave that poor excuse for a commander and come to me? You can terrify my recruits all you want, and I'll make you my lieutenant right away, I swear. Whatever benefits you want, too. Anything to keep you happy. You have my word."

There is an outraged squawk in the background, but Nanao ignores it with the skill of a master, and Ichigo can almost see her flushing slightly. Nevertheless, her voice is as no-nonsense as ever. "Captain, thank you for the offer. I will consider it." Another wail sounds, and she adds sharply, "More seriously every time my captain makes a fool of himself."

He chuckles again, even as he keeps pace with the reincarnated soul and his mother from the air. Nanao know that Ichigo is only teasing, as much as he likes her, and Ichigo knows that Nanao will never leave her captain, as tempted as she might sound at times. She also is aware that he isn't really flirting, as she lacks the anatomy to interest him. It is common knowledge that all of his lovers have been men.

But movement draws his attention, his targets turning into the park ahead, and he refocuses. "Nanao, I'm going to go closer, see if I can detect anything. Let me know if anything comes up."

"Yes, sir." She is crisp again, entirely alert. He can hear her fingers clattering over a keyboard. The Twelfth Division members were probably too scared to tell her not to touch their equipment. "Keep us posted if anything changes. Good luck."

He doesn't believe in luck, not anymore—but the thought is nice, so he says simply, "Thank you," and shuts off his communicator as he alights on the edge of the playground. On the other edge, directly opposite him, a reincarnated Shiba Kaien tugs his mother's hand and begs her to let him play in the sandbox, and she relents with a soft smile, releasing him. He grins at her, gap-toothed and sweet, and scampers off. Ichigo watches, reminded fondly of his sisters when they were much, much younger.

There is only the faintest trace of reiatsu coming from the boy, so he settles back against a tree to wait and watch. It's peaceful here, pleasant, and he feels himself relax for the first time in over two years.

Perhaps this mission won't be so bad after all.

Kaien sees them all the time—sees him all the time, really, because after the first time there was only ever one man watching him, standing in strange places like on top of streetlights or garden walls or in midair. The man is not tall, not as tall as Kaien's daddy, or as broad, and he looks like the gymnasts that his mommy watches on TV sometimes. He also carries something on his back, nearly as tall as he is and wrapped in tattered cloth—except when he doesn't, and he carries a long, thin sword like samurai used to use. His hair is orange and messy, like Kaien's is when it's too long, and he looks tired a lot of the time.

No one else can see him.

His mommy writes the man off as an imaginary friend, and doesn't listen when Kaien says that he isn't a friend at all, but someone kind of scary. His daddy tells him not to be scared of anything, and ruffles his hair and sends him out to play.

Kaien plays, but the man is still watching, sitting lazily on the wall across the street. People walk right past him without noticing. After a long time, a black cat joins him, and the man talks to it like it's a person, even laughs, and the cat swats him like it's annoyed at the laughter, while the man just shakes his head.

Somehow, after that, he doesn't seem so scary anymore.

The man keeps coming every day until Kaien starts school, and then he comes less often. Kaien is surprised to find that he misses him, misses the constant watchful presence. It makes him feel safe when the man is around, because he knows the man will protect him—not just because he has a sword, but because Kaien has recognized that he is a guard of some sort. Against what, he isn't sure, but something in his mind whispers that there are real monsters out there, and that this man will save him from them, no matter what. An even smaller part—one that is pushed aside and ignored, because it is just too strange—recognizes the white haori he wears and equates it with power, and that power with safety.

As long as the orange-haired man is there, he feels safe.

Kaien is seventeen when he first meets the man face to face.

He still sees him, every now and then, and gets the feeling that he's often present even when Kaien doesn't see him. Once in a very long while, there will be someone else, a woman with short dark hair and a book under one arm and glasses, or a tall, broad man with tattoos everywhere and spiky red hair. Often, when they come, the orange-haired man will leave directly after their arrival, vanishing with an expression on his face that is even more tired than normal, and usually slightly worried.

Somehow, Kaien doesn't feel nearly as safe when it isn't the orange-haired man watching over him.

But then the accident happens—and Kaien hates that word, because it is too soft and gentle and clean and nice to apply to the horrible car crash that killed both of his parents and left him an orphan. Both of them are only children, and his grandparents passed away a long time ago, and so he is left alone in a world that suddenly feels too big and too bright and too much. He sits beside of the alter at the funeral, watching the horribly sympathetic mourners come and go, and feels empty.

And then there is a murmur from the doorway, mourners stepping back in surprise, and a lean, not-tall man with orange hair enters, his movements as quick and sure and graceful as a gymnast on TV. He does not go to the alter, or pay any respect to the pictures set up on it, but kneels in front of Kaien and says quietly, "I'm sorry."

They are simple words, ones he has heard a thousand times since the accident, but somehow, coming from this man, they sound real. Kaien feels the hot burn behind his eyes, and knows that his face screws up as he tries to hold back the tears, but then there are warm arms around him, holding him close, and calloused hands stroke his back, and he can't anymore. The man—his guardian, who seems visible to everyone now, which Kaien can hardy wrap his mind around—holds him gently, lets him bury his face in his should, and says nothing more. It doesn't matter that Kaien is the same height as him, or that his shoulders are wider, or that he has no idea who or what this man is.

He's comfort, and he's kind, and that's all Kaien needs right now.

Kurosaki Ichigo. That's the man who has been watching him for over ten years now. He gives no explanations, no excuses, and everyone seems to think that he's a bastard son of Kaien's father, from before his marriage. Because of this, it's very easy for Ichigo to get custody, and he takes Kaien home from the funeral to an apartment that smells new and looks far too clean to actually be lived in. Kaien's things are already set up in his room, and he goes and collapses on his bed, closing his eyes. The day has been far too much to bear, but it somehow feels…easier when Ichigo is nearby, as though he alleviates the pain.

At the moment, Kaien can just hear his voice as he stands in the kitchen, talking on a strange device that seems to be a cross between a cell phone and a walkie-talkie.

"I know…I know…I know, Rukia, leave me alone! I've been captain of the Third long enough that I think I can manage…If you're done, go punch your husband and put Kira back on…No, I don't want Renji dead, but you need to take your frustration out on something, and what else is he good for? Yes, I am a genius, thank you."

Then there's a short pause, and when Ichigo speaks again, he sounds like an entirely different person. There is no soft laughter or gentle teasing in his voice, only business. He sounds firm and crisp, a little sharp, but also encouraging.

"Kira? Yes…Yes, keep them on that schedule. Don't change the rotations unless you have to. The newest recruits just got used to it…No, it should be fine. Just leave it…I'll be back in a week to check in. If you need anything, go to Captain Kuchiki, Soi Fong, or Hitsugaya. Do not go to Captain Kyoraku, Renji, or Ukitake, no matter how helpful they seem. Thank you, Kira. I know you'll do fine…Yes. Thank you."

A sharp beep signals the end of the conversation, and Ichigo sighs softly. There is a sound like a body collapsing into a chair, and Kaien knows that if he goes out now, the orange-haired man will be looking more tired than ever.

He wonders, if only in the back of his mind, why he hates making Ichigo feel that way.

Ichigo does explain, eventually and vaguely. He tells Kaien about the Soul Society and the shinigami, but never mentions where he fits in. His friends explain more, when they come to stay with Kaien and Ichigo has to go back to make sure his division is running smoothly. They call him Godslayer, when he isn't around to beat them up for it, and say that he's a hero, and the most powerful captain to ever enter the Gotei 13.

Kaien never asks, but he wonders why such a powerful man is here, babysitting an orphan, instead of being a hero back in his own world, and suspects that it has something to do with the way the short, blue-eyed girl tends to stare at him with heartbreak in her eyes.

Then Ichigo tells him, and the not-quite-there whisper in the back of his mind—spouting words like plus and Hollow and zanpakuto and Kukaku and Ganju and reiatsu and other things he vaguely, distantly understands—makes far more sense, as does the girl's stare.

He's gone back to school, and works his way through that year and the next one, gradually adjusting to this new, hectic life, where Ichigo disappears at all hours, often leaving an empty body behind for Kaien to trip over. His friends think that his new guardian is awesome, after seeing him doing his physical training in the living room, and his teachers think that Ichigo—with his bright hair and single Hollow-fang earring and the starburst-pinwheel-marigold tattoo on his shoulder (the symbol of their division, the thin, pale Izuru Kira explained, and a symbol of his loyalty to it), and the number three tattooed above it—is a punk. But Kaien sees the kind, caring, mischievous man beneath the gruff, tired façade, and knows exactly why he is falling for him, and falling hard.

Ichigo is not untouchable, not out of reach. Kaien has seen his glances, every so often, though they didn't start until Kaien was older—nineteen, he thinks, inwardly rolling his eyes. It took thirteen years for Ichigo to notice that he was actually there and male and desirable, which is (from what he has been able to gather of his guardian's personality) just about normal.

Ichigo watches him, and he watches Ichigo, and thinks about the future—in Soul Society, in the world of the living, shared and separate and just-about-touching, together and not. And he smiles to himself, picturing it.

He already knows that Ichigo is good with children.

Maybe, someday, they will adopt children of their own, and make a family.

Now all Kaien has to do is ask him out.