After everything, it was an accident.
It was an accident that he died.
A day like any other, special only in its peaceful sameness. Yuzu had always insisted that he keep the kitchen well stocked, and—as ever—he couldn't go against her memory. If he had known, he might have done it that one time, instead of heading for the corner store when he got back from work.
Or maybe not.
He had finally begun to recover from the ache of loss that had started the moment the war ended. It had not faded, and he thought it would never fade, but he could come to terms with it now. Could come to terms with the fact that his family was dead and his friends were far behind him, left in Karakura as soon as the funerals were done. Chad, Inoue, Tatsuki—they had wanted to help, but none of them understood. They had not lost everything, including the power to protect.
Ichigo knew his family had gone to Soul Society. There was no question in it. He would see them again someday, and so that loss was not as striking as it might have otherwise been. But to no longer be able to protect the friends he still had—to be helpless and reliant on others for safety from the Hollows—that was agony.
He had ended up in Tokyo, far from anyone who knew him. Far from any shinigami that might try to "help," even if he could not see them if they didn't use a gigai. He liked the anonymity of the city, the fact that everyone was a stranger. It comforted and gave him time to grieve in peace. That kind of thing was selfish, he knew, but he couldn't resist it. He had lost all of his friends when he had lost his powers, right on the heels of losing his family. Even though he knew they were still there, that they still existed—and Urahara even gave him reports, once in a while, when he dropped by in his surprise, not-entirely-unwelcome random visits—missing them was like an empty, jagged hole in the center of his being, hot and sticky and heavy.
Ichigo truly had not thought to get through the war alive. Even now, it surprised him that he was breathing, that he was able to walk to the store to buy soy sauce and pretend that it was for Yuzu, and that if he waited long enough he would have to go tell Karin to stop abusing her friends in the name of soccer and come home for dinner. Always, he had imagined some final battle between Aizen and himself, ending with both of them dead. No matter his training, no matter his power, he always expected the Lord of Hueco Mundo to have one last trick to pull. And he had probably had one, but the shinigami—and Ichigo and his friends, in particular—had had one of their own that Aizen had never expected.
Ichimaru Gin, the former captain of the Third—though now, Ichigo supposed, he was a captain again, being reinstated by Yama-jii for his help. He was still under surveillance, and Ichigo suspected that Soi-Fong was probably viciously pleased, to have someone to watch so closely.
He didn't know firsthand, though. With his powers gone, he only knew what news Urahara felt fit to pass on, and had to be content with that.
The store was within sight, and Ichigo was half relieved and half disappointed that it was not the one in Karakura, that Oshima and his gang were not waiting for him, ready to strike. For all that he hated the war, he missed fighting, missed the burn and pulse in his blood, the heady rush that came with strength and a good fight and a powerful opponent. Despite how he had always wanted a normal life, he would not have surrendered the power he'd had for anything but the safety of all his friends. Ichigo clenched his hand absently, and even now it felt odd without Zangetsu there, the heavy hilt a soothing weight against his skin.
Odd, too—and weighing uncomfortably on him, constantly rubbing and pinching and nagging like a pair of badly fitting shoes—was the fact that he had saved all of his friends, but now half of the world was lost to him. He couldn't see the spirits anymore, couldn't feel the pulse and shudder of the reiatsu as the shinigami and Hollows broke through the boundaries between the worlds. As he walk down the cracked and crumbling sidewalk, he couldn't sense the ghost of the old man who used to own the flower shop on the corner, who had died sitting peacefully outside his store. Ichigo guessed he was there, or a spirit like him was there, because spirits were always there, but he didn't know.
He had never, never thought he would miss it, but now he couldn't help but think that he missed it just as much as he did the shinigami.
And then, of course, was the absence of the one man he cared for above all others, the one for whom he had fallen so hard and so quickly.
Kuchiki Byakuya, whom he had grown closer to over the course of the war. Who had even seemed to return his regard, but had never come to see him, never visited, never even sent a message.
That hurt worse than anything else.
And then brakes squealed, something releasing a metal-on-metal shriek, and Ichigo turned towards the noise automatically. There was no time to react, no way to dodge, as a car jumped the sidewalk and hit him full on.
He didn't even feel the impact. There was only darkness.
The sky is still blue.
Ichigo blinked, and wondered why that surprised him. Surely, a blue sky existed everywhere, even—
Which was not where he had been before.
It was somewhere different.
Carefully, Ichigo sat up and took in the sight of a familiar field, with trees in the distance. He had been here once, right after the first trip to Soul Society, when Inoue had come to tell him that Rukia was missing, and he had known where to look. The house that was just as odd as he remembered still stood in the distance—and, squatting a few feet from him in the grass, was a familiar face that he hadn't seen since that day.
Shiba Kukaku stared at him for a long moment, an unreadable expression on her face. Ichigo stared back, wondering why the fireworks expert—who he remembered as being loud, violent, and having a strong enough left hook to put Yammy to shame—looked almost… unsettled. He didn't say anything, though, keeping his peace as she surveyed him. For some reason, he was tired, more than he had ever been, and couldn't help but suspect that being in Soul Society like this—when he had been in his human form, without using a Senkaimon, and knowing without a doubt that the car accident had killed him—was the cause.
And then Kukaku sighed and straightened, rising to her feet and offering him a hand up. "From the lack of company I take it this isn't another one of Yoruichi's harebrained schemes. Did something happen?"
Ichigo hesitated for a moment before accepting the proffered hand. "I…died." It felt odd to say it out loud, but he knew it was true. Unlike what the majority of the Gotei 13 seemed to think, he wasn't stupid. He could be reckless sometimes, when someone he cared about was in danger, but he wasn't dumb. Drawing connections was simple enough. The only surprise was that now, here, he felt the stirrings of power around him that he had missed for so long, and the comforting weight of Zangetsu on his back. Dying, it seemed, had been enough to return his powers. Even the Hollow was back, simmering in his mind just below the surface. And for the life—or death—of him, Ichigo couldn't bring himself to find it anything but comforting.
Kukaku sighed again, pulling him to his feet, and nodded. "I thought it was something like that." Then she paused again and scrutinized his face for a moment, something in her expression turning wistful. "You…really do look like him."
Ichigo blinked at that, not understanding, and shot her a look. He had noticed a similar reaction in others, particularly Ukitake and Byakuya, when he faced them, but had never pressed them for an answer. But Kukaku noticed, and gave him a small, weary smile. "My older brother, Kaien. The one the Kuchiki girl killed."
There was no malice in her voice, no bitterness, and Ichigo wondered at how strong she was to push all of that aside. He had never managed it, and even now, he blamed himself for his mother's death.
Maybe someday, he thought a touch ironically, he could be as strong as her.
"Is there a relation?" he asked after a second, half dryly and half curiously. His father's death at Aizen's hand meant that the old man had never had gotten around to explaining his connection to Soul Society, so for all Ichigo knew, Kukaku could be his aunt. He just barely held back a shudder. As if there weren't enough violent women around him already.
Seeming to guess his thoughts, Kukaku grinned at him, squeezing his hand just a little tighter than she needed to. "Heh. That scares you, little boy? Shouldn't, though. We Shibas are a good bunch—mostly. And widespread! Or we used to be." She turned, not letting go of his hand, and dragged him back towards her crazy house. "You might be a cousin, for all I know. Never did keep a good enough track of the branch families, while they existed. Oh, well." Throwing open the door, she yanked him down the stairs, calling, "Oi, Ganju! We've got a guest!"
Her brother leaned around a door, and his eyes widened at the sight of Ichigo there, dressed not in shinigami robes, but a simple forest-green yukata, Zangetsu across his back. He took one step forward, looking confused. "Kurosaki? What are you…?" Then he paused, frowned, and opened his mouth again—
—Only to be cut off by his sister's foot slamming into his face.
Despite himself, Ichigo winced.
"Move it, dumbass!" Kukaku bellowed, hauling Ichigo past the sprawled form of her sibling and into the room he had just left. "He's a guest, and he just died! He needs comforting! Now get your ass to the kitchen and make some food! I'm hungry!" With that, she slid the shoji door shut, tossed Ichigo in front of the table, and dropped on the other side to face him. Planting her left arm on the table, she glared at him and demanded, "Well? What happened? If you're gonna cry, do it now, while I'm feeling charitable!"
Pushing himself upright, Ichigo cast her a half-wary, half-bemused look, and then settled himself correctly. "Cry? What the h—why would I cry?"
She raised an eyebrow at him. "You just died."
He raised one in return, wondering what it was she wanted him to say. "I know. I'm not an idiot. But it's not like everything ended, right? I'm here. My family's already here, too. And…"
And what? He suddenly couldn't think of anything. Wasn't he supposed to be fighting someone? Rescuing someone? Doing something? But instead of a driving urge to move, he felt relaxed. Peaceful. At ease, even, without the fate of Soul Society and the world of the living riding on his back, without the grief that had been tearing at him for over two years now. And, as much as he loved combat, and fighting, he didn't want to go back to that pressure. Even with his powers back, he didn't want to immediately plunge back into conflict. And somehow, he could guess that conflict was what would occur, if he walked up to the gates of the Seireitei and informed them that he was no longer a resident of the living world.
He had to bite back a groan. It was just occurring to him that it had not been the insane, power-obsessed, would-be god who had taken him out. It had been a car. Renji was going to laugh his ass off.
Yet another reason not to immediately present himself in Seireitei.
Kukaku, with a perceptiveness that belied her usual loud personality, seemed to guess what he was thinking again. She leaned over and flicked him on the forehead, then brought her fist down hard on the top of his head. While he tried to clear the ringing from his ears, she snorted and commented, "You know, there's nothing holding you back now, boy. You're dead. That means no more responsibilities. Sure, you have the power to be a shinigami, and you want to protect people—"
Ichigo didn't question how, again, she knew exactly what he was thinking.
"—but you don't have to march right up the Gotei 13 and let them take you in. You're different than you were before the war; they probably wouldn't even know what to do with you. So why don't you stay here for a bit? Ground yourself, think about your options? I'll even help you get that pig-sticker down to a normal sealed-size." She nodded towards Zangetsu, which was settled awkwardly across Ichigo's shoulders and nearly digging into the bamboo floor. "You don't have to be yourself, either, if you don't want to. There are enough bastard sons floating around, and you look enough like a Shiba that I can claim you as a cousin and adopt you into the family. Might make for a nice change of pace, huh?"
Ichigo looked at her in surprise for a second, then shifted his gaze past her left shoulder as he considered. Go to Seireitei, and back to being a hero of a war he had never wanted to fight? Or stay here amidst the peaceful insanity that was the Shiba house, as a Shiba himself, and take his time learning something, not for the sake of saving the world, but for himself?
It wasn't much of a choice, really.
"Thank you," he told Kukaku with a quick bow. "I'd be honored."
And Kukaku smiled, satisfied, and bellowed at Ganju to hurry up with the food.
Ichigo quickly came to the realization that training with Kukaku was akin to throwing oneself headfirst at a jet engine and hoping to come out on the other side with the ability to fly. Not that it wasn't effective—within the first two weeks of lessons, he was able to suppress and contain his reiatsu enough to seal Zangetsu into a normal shikai state (though it failed if he lost his temper), and to hide a few feet from a shinigami patrol without being detected (so long as he was careful and almost completely focused on hiding his power, which was inconvenient, as it left him struggling in a real fight).
It was even, at times, enjoyable. Ichigo had always been the older brother in his family, and Kukaku was like the older sister he had never had, gruffly affectionate, tauntingly supportive, and with a core—somewhere deep, deep, deep inside—of kindness and caring that was unlike anything he had experienced before. She pushed him hard, harder than even Urahara or old man Zangetsu, but for no other reason than because she could do it and he could survive it. There was no world to save, no friend to rescue, and Ichigo could focus solely on becoming strong for himself, instead of someone else.
Ganju, too, quickly became like family—although Ichigo was certain he was more the idiot cousin kept locked in the attic than anyone really close. They sparred together when Kukaku was busy, and as he had when Ichigo was struggling with the spirit orb on his first trip to the Seireitei, the boar-rider often stepped in to help Ichigo with some of the finer points of control and reiatsu manipulation. Ganju even helped him master the beginning steps towards kido, much more quickly than Kukaku had expected.
For the first time in a very long while, Ichigo was learning, and training, and advancing just because he could, and he couldn't remember being so content at any time since his mother's death. He pushed aside everything that he had been before—all the anger, all the surliness, all thoughts of weakness and strength and power and death—and Shiba Kei became the newly accepted youngest son of the Shiba Clan. And it was a change that he welcomed, shedding his old being like a set of old clothes, and donning a new personal to go with his new life. Kei—the name chosen by Kukaku, who had wistfully remarked that it was what Kaien had been planning to name his son, and left Ichigo with the distinct feeling that he had been played—was polite, and respectful, and liked to play jokes. He smiled and laughed, and did not worry about worlds or gods or anything but surviving his sister's training.
And Ichigo was, for the first time in years, really, truly happy.
It was seven months to the day since he first came to live with them when Kukaku stormed through the doorway of the dojo, interrupting Ichigo and Ganju's sparring session. They both turned to look at her—
—Only to be smacked in the head with the bottle and scrub brush, respectively, that she hurled at them.
This was hardly the first time that kind of thing had happened. Indeed, it was almost a daily occurrence, so Ichigo grabbed the bottle before it could hit the floor and Ganju peeled the brush off his face, and they only grumbled a little bit as they glared at her with all the wounded male pride they could muster.
Kukaku just smirked at them—and, specifically, at Ichigo. "There ya go, carrot-top! One dousing with that and your hair will look all-natural again! You'll fit right in with the rest of us!"
Ichigo transferred his glare from her to the bottle of black hair dye he held, and then scowled at her even more deeply. "What the hell! Why the hell would I want to dye my hair?"
The woman looked supremely unimpressed. "'Cause you're going to enroll in the Spiritual Arts Academy. I've got nothing left to teach you, since you've got all the basics down, and the sensei's at the school can help you go further than I ever could. I'm not a shinigami, halfwit! And with your hair dyed, you'll look just like Kaien. No one will doubt you're a Shiba. I'll get the paperwork out of the way, and you'll be free to go through the Academy just like every other shinigami admitted to the Gotei 13. No special favors, no war hero, just you." She grinned. "So get dyeing."
It would have taken a much stronger—or less sane—man to argue with Shiba Kukaku. So, with the obligatory grumbling and cursing, Ichigo got dyeing, and realized about halfway through that the whole idea didn't really sound so bad.
"You've got your sword?"
"And your uniforms?"
"And your kido books?"
"And enough yukatas? I can always bring you more if—"
The one armed woman smacked the dark-haired boy who stood with her in the head. "Shut up, brat! If this is what I get for worrying, I'll make sure not to in the future!"
Several of the families standing with them before the Academy gates stifled snorts. Ichigo narrowed his eyes at the vicious female monster posing as his sister and rubbed the much-abused back of his head. She had been "worrying," as she called it—though, in truth, it was far closer to nagging—ever since they had left the house that morning. Ichigo still wasn't certain why he couldn't just go alone—after all, he wasn't a kid, and he had already passed the entrance exam with ease. But Kukaku had said that family seeing him off was expected, especially since he was coming from a noble house—even if it was fallen, which she didn't seem to give a damn about.
Seeing the near-scowl that crossed his face, Kukaku leaned in with frightening good cheer, her grin one hair shy of terrifying. "Come on, Kei-chan, smile! You'll do the Shiba Clan proud, won't you? Hmm? Kei-chan?"
Under the circumstances, Ichigo felt that it was quite acceptable to stage a tactical retreat. Taking several steps away from the madwoman to whom he was claiming blood ties—and oh, how he was starting to wish that he had just enrolled as a nameless spirit from Rukongai—he moved safely out of reach. That had been Kukaku's way of subtly reminding him not to scowl in order to keep from being recognized, which was something they had been working on for weeks now—mostly her leaping on him whenever he let his expression slip into something Ichigo would have worn, instead of what Kei would wear, and stretching his cheeks or doing some equally demeaning and emasculating thing until he could force a neutral expression.
He'd become nearly as good at neutral as Byakuya, he suspected—though with Kukaku's form of motivation, he expected that anyone would.
"Damn it, you crazy woman! Don't call me that!" he snapped, though he did rearrange his face into something that didn't resemble a glower quite so much.
Kukaku just grinned at him, as she often did. "Oh, the little one's all grown up, eh? Well, Kei, I hope you're ready to leave the nest and all that. Got any last words before I push you out and let you fly?"
"More like push me out and drop a stone around my neck," Ichigo muttered, but straightened his shoulders and offered her a brief, challenging smile. "Why bother? You'll be back in a year to see me graduate anyway, and I'll come visit once in a while, to make sure you haven't drowned Ganju in the bath."
She waved her hand at that, wrinkling her nose. "Hell no! It'd be too smelly." Then her expression softened, and she reached out and dragged Ichigo into a gruff, one-armed hug. "Take care, otouto," she murmured in his ear. "Even if you aren't a Shiba, you're still my little brother. Make us proud, got that?" Releasing him, she took a step back, then waved and turned away. "And make sure you come back home once in a while! You're already a twig, and cafeteria food won't help! We'll have to stuff you every chance we get, so you don't blow away in the wind!"
Ichigo rolled his eyes at her retreating back, but it was fond. Kukaku might just have been posing as his sibling, but in reality, she was his sister in every way that mattered. And now he had three sisters to look out for, even if the newest one would kick his ass for thinking that she needed "looking after."
"Who was that? She looks insane."
The unknown voice made Ichigo turn. A young man with light brown hair pulled up in a ponytail stood a few feet from him, watching Kukaku's retreat with raised eyebrows. He wore the standard uniform of students, a blue shitagi, white kosode with blue accents, and blue hakama. A pale purple scarf, similar—though not identical—to the one that Ichigo remembered Byakuya wearing, was wrapped diagonally across his chest as a sash, holding a long-bladed katana in place across his back. Somehow, Ichigo got the feeling that it wasn't supposed to be worn quite that way.
Shifting his attention back to his would-be sister, he blew out a short breath of relief at being out of her violent and impossibly long reach, and nodded. "Yeah. She is. Absolutely, utterly, and completely nuts."
The other laughed and offered a short bow. "I'm Kuchiki Eiji. You have my sympathy."
Ichigo remembered enough of Kukaku's lessons to bow back. "Shiba Kei. And the monster was my sister, Kukaku. You're a Kuchiki?"
"Shiba?" Eiji sounded startled, enough that he ignored Ichigo's question—which, according to Kukaku, was an unacceptable offence in polite conversation. Not that she ever had ever been polite during a conversation, in all the time Ichigo had known her, but that was what she told him. "I thought there were only two left. You're from a branch family?"
It was close enough to the truth—probably—that Ichigo felt no hesitation in nodding, even though he could normally never lie. "She adopted me into her family, though." There was something liberating about not being Ichigo Kurosaki, about not being the ryoka and Vizard and half-human substitute, even more than he usually felt when he was being Kei. Right now, he was a simple soul and a new student, nothing more. And without his distinctively orange hair, there was nothing to set him apart from every other shinigami hopeful in the courtyard.
And he was talking to a Kuchiki. Without getting sneered at, no less.
Eiji considered that answer for a moment, then seemed to recover his manners and quickly offered, "I am, too. From a branch family, I mean, even though my cousin is the head of the clan."
Ichigo couldn't see any resemblance between the friendly young man in front of him and the cold, unfeeling captain he had fought with during the war, but he didn't say anything. Ichigo might have commented on it, but Kei wouldn't, and he had fully buried himself in his secondary persona now. Kei had the ability to bow his head to others, and Ichigo found that he didn't mind too much. After feeling so helpless when he had no powers, and being forced to rely on shinigami he couldn't see to keep those around him safe, he had come to terms with things.
Being defenseless was humbling, in all senses of the word.
Then again, he suspected that Kukaku and her left hook were a major part of that, too.
"Nice to meet you," he said instead, offering a friendly smile. When he turned to find the boards that held their dormitory assignments, Eiji fell into step beside him. Rather than ignore him, he asked, "Do you know what class you're in?"
"First," Eiji said, and there was pride in it—though not, Ichigo was happy to note, an overwhelming amount. "I got the third-highest score." Then he seemed to deflate slightly. "My mother wasn't happy. She wanted me to have the highest. But at least I got into the first class." As they reached the board, his eyes caught the first name on the list and widened. He turned to Ichigo in surprise. "You're the one who—?"
Ichigo shrugged, wondering for half a second if he was dealing with another Keigo. Eiji seemed just as bipolar and prone to hysterics, from the expression in his eyes. "My sister's a slave driver. She wanted me to pass on my first try, so we've been training for a while. She wants me to live up to the family name."
For a moment, he could see the Keigo-like reaction warring for supremacy, but the Kuchiki blood won out—marginally. His face settled into impressed lines. "You mean Shiba Kaien-fukutaicho, from the 13th Division? I can see why you'd want to graduate in one year—" Apparently eavesdropping was another trait he shared with Keigo "—with him in your family. Going to beat his record?" The look on his face said he doubted it.
Used to skepticism, though—and inwardly thinking that it made him look a whole lot more like Byakuya with his 'You will never surpass me' and 'You can never achieve bankai'—Ichigo just shrugged it off. "Ichimaru-taicho's, too, if I can." He checked the dorm postings and couldn't decide whether to smile or sigh. "Looks like we're in the same room. Come on. We've got our first class in two hours."
Eiji hurried a few steps to catch up with him. "You know, you could sound a little more thrilled. A member of the noble Kuchiki family is deigning to share breathing space with you. Be grateful, hmm?"
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "No way are you related to Kuchiki-taicho," he muttered. And wouldn't Byakuya be thrilled to hear him actually using titles? Though, now that he was Kei, it came far more easily.
Eiji just grinned, sword clinking as he walked. "That's what my mother says, word for word. But I already knew that." The grin turned wicked, which sat oddly—and yet somehow perfectly—on his face. "My life's goal is to be Zaraki-taicho's fourth seat."
Casting him a disbelieving look, Ichigo shook his head and slid open the shoji in front of them, leading his new roommate down the hall and to the correct room. "Then you're insane. The 11th is crazy to a man. But I guess it's good to have a goal." With a sigh, he dropped his bag onto the futon under the window, then unwrapped Zangetsu and sat down, bringing the blade across his knees. The zanpakuto's weight wasn't quite what it had been before, but it was still comforting, reassuring. He had been talking to the Hollow and the old man ever since he regained his powers, and they were all more at ease with each other now. Zangetsu had even agreed to change his outward form to something closer to his bankai form—which Ichigo hadn't known zanpakuto could do—so that Ichigo could perform shikai without giving himself away. And he had to admit, it was far easier to carry around a normal katana instead of a blade as long as he was tall.
"You've already got your zanpakuto? So do I." Eiji claimed the other futon and dropped onto it with a distinct lack of grace. "I can't wait until we can do shikai. Do you know the name of yours yet?"
"Hm." Ichigo did his best to ignore the other so that he wouldn't have to answer. Lying about himself was one thing. He'd have to talk with the old man before he started handing out any more false names.
Thankfully—or maybe unfortunately—Eiji was quite capable of carrying out a one-sided conversation. He was looking more and more like Keigo with every passing minute. "Wow. Maybe you will graduate in a year. So what division are you aiming for? I heard the 9th is looking for strong shinigami, what with having a new captain and all. Abarai-taicho seems like someone who would be fun to serve under. He's more like a normal shinigami than any of the others, even if he is a war hero. And I'm sure that Ichimaru-taicho would want a prodigy in his division, even if you beat his record. And Kyoraku-taicho is—"
There was more, and while some of it was interesting—they had made Renji a captain? He didn't know who had had that bright idea, but they would probably be regretting it before long—Ichigo tuned most of it out, focusing on the steady thrum of Zangetsu's sealed power against his skin.
'You there, ossan?' he asked silently, blocking out the sound of Eiji's voice.
Faint amusement echoed from the blade, like laughter just outside the range of normal hearing, but sensed nevertheless. I would hardly be somewhere else, Ichigo, the zanpakuto murmured as the outside world fell away, leaving then standing in the sideways cityscape. It had changed since Ichigo's death. There was green here now, spreading over the buildings and softening the starkness of glass and steel. The old man looked happier, more serene and less gruff. He smiled in welcome.
"You look well, Ichigo."
"So do you." Ichigo smiled back, taking in the bright blue sky. Then he dropped his gaze back to the dark figure in front of him. "Would you mind if I gave you a nickname that I could call during shikai? 'Zangetsu' is kind of a dead giveaway, and I don't want anyone finding out who I am yet."
Zangetsu chuckled, inclining his head in acknowledgement. "Hmm. I suppose that if Ruri'iro Kujaku can bear it, I can as well. Very well. Call me Kurotsuki, if you must. I will answer."
'Thank you,' Ichigo murmured, opening his eyes in the real world. Eiji was unpacking, and humming under his breath—which was one of the eeriest things he'd ever heard, Ichigo decided quickly. Kuchikis weren't supposed to hum. His shifting caught Eiji's attention, though, and the humming stopped as the other boy looked over and straightened up.
"Ready to go?" he asked cheerfully. "Our class starts in twenty minutes. I would have said something earlier, but you looked so intent that I didn't want to disturb you."
Feeling far stiffer than he should have—and inwardly damning Kukaku for her insistence on last minute torture-training—Ichigo got to his feet, rewrapped Zangetsu, and slipped the blade into the wide cloth himo that secured his hakama. "Thanks. Let's go."
Eiji grinned and bounced out the door, making Ichigo wince as he followed. He couldn't decide whether this year would be interesting, engaging, and good for his new identity, or even more tiring than fighting a power-hungry madman with delusions of godhood.
Watching his new roommate vibrate with excitement as their sensei handed out schedules, Ichigo rather suspected the latter.
Classes were simple enough, Ichigo was pleasantly surprised to find. Zanjutsu, hoho, hakuda, and kido were not hard to master, especially with the training he had received from Urahara and Yoruichi, and the foundation of control that Kukaku and Ganju had given him. The instructors were impressed with his grasp of their subjects, and his dedication to learning what he didn't already know, and he was quickly placed in the most advanced classes. Even his worst subject, kido, was simply a matter of practice, refinement, and control. Many of the higher-level spells were easier for him than the simple ones, because of the amount of reiatsu he had, and he adjusted his fighting style accordingly. Other skills came more easily, most of them just the polishing and refining of abilities he already had, such as hoho and its many variations of shunpo. It quickly became clear that his goal of graduating in one year was very close to becoming reality.
Because of his constant studying—for, in addition to the martial arts, students also learned history, politics, tactics, and lore—Ichigo had little time for other students, and while he was polite enough, most of the others were unsure how to deal with this new genius, who seemed poised to surpass both his own older brother and the prodigy Ichimaru. They tended to give him a wide berth, and only Eiji was willing to spend time with him—or rather, Eiji was the cheerful, energetic shadow that would never leave him alone.
They were friends, though, despite Ichigo's reluctance. Eiji was a lot like Keigo, but more of a smartass, and some of his exuberance—enough that Ichigo wasn't constantly tempted to strangle him—was held in check by his Kuchiki blood. Around him, Ichigo could relax his guard and enjoy being at the Academy, joking and sparring and playing games for practice. They even adopted Byakuya and Yoruichi's old pastime of playing tag, stealing each other's hair ties—as Ichigo had grown his own hair out so that the teachers wouldn't have panic attacks when he walked into their classes looking exactly like Shiba Kaien—and seeing who could outmaneuver the other while going at top speeds. Such games were a novelty to Ichigo, to whom training had always been deadly serious, and it felt strangely freeing to simply relax and have fun, enjoying the uncomplicated pleasure of the wind in his hair as he tested his abilities against someone with equal skills and the same frame of mind.
It was during one such game that Ichigo came face-to-face with the first real reminder of his former life. He and Eiji had been playing tag for several hours already, though neither had managed to get close enough to snatch a hair ribbon from the other. Ichigo was just rounding the edge of the courtyard, in close pursuit of his friend, when a flutter of white and black caught his eye. In the middle of his shunpo, he turned and flashed behind the corner of the building, acting purely on instinct. After a breathless moment, where his heart pounded fiercely in his chest—Have they found out? Have they decided to come and drag me back to Soul Society?—he steeled himself and looked out.
His heart fluttered, just a little bit, and he cursed it as he took in the identity of the visitor.
Kuchiki Byakuya stood in the center of the courtyard, flanked by two of his lower-level seated officers. Eiji, positioned in front of him and wearing a look as though he had been cornered in mid-shunpo, was in the process of stuttering out something that might have been a welcome. Ichigo rolled his eyes, then decided that he had better go and rescue his friend before the other boy made even more of a fool out of himself. Using his fastest shunpo, he flashed out of hiding, changed direction, and appeared behind Eiji, snatching his hair ribbon with quick fingers before he allowed his gaze to flicker to the captain. Putting on a look of surprise, he stepped back.
Eiji felt the rush of air behind him and the hair tumbling down around his shoulders. He spun, and something close to relief flickered through his eyes. "Oh, Kei, you'll have to excuse me for a moment," he said quickly. "We can finish later, after class."
Because he was watching, Ichigo saw how Byakuya's eyes widened when his appearance registered. It was a look he'd gotten many times before, mainly from the instructors who still remembered his "older brother." Despite the longer hair, he still looked uncannily like Kaien. But he pulled his gaze away from the noble and offered Eiji his ribbon with an apologetic smile. "Here. Sorry about that. I didn't realize that you were with family."
"Who is your companion, Eiji?" Byakuya's sharp tone cut off any response the younger noble might have offered.
With a wince, Eiji turned back to his cousin and bowed. "Forgive me, Byakuya-sama. This is my friend—"
"Shiba Kei," Ichigo interjected, bowing quickly. "The youngest. Kukaku-nee-san had me adopted into the main family a few months ago. I'm honored to meet you, Kuchiki-taicho-dono."
He pointedly ignored the quiet gagging noises that Eiji was making.
Byakuya nodded briefly, though his eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. "I am astonished. A Shiba with manners—that is truly something to behold. Perhaps Eiji will learn something from you, Shiba-kun." A faintly amused gaze shifted to the younger Kuchiki, who straightened a touch guiltily.
Ichigo was speechless. He remembered Renji once saying that Byakuya actually had a sense of humor, but he had never seen proof of it before. But…he could have sworn that Byakuya's words just now were a joke, almost bordering on teasing.
The feel of amusement deepened, and Byakuya looked between the two students. His lips twitched ever so slightly at their expressions, and he inclined his head. "I find that I desire a cup of tea. Will you show me where I might find one?"
Eiji shot Ichigo a look that clearly said, "Do we have a choice?" But he bowed and murmured, "We would be honored if you would join us in our rooms, Byakuya-sama. My mother sent us some green tea that you might enjoy, if you don't mind her personal blend."
Taking his cue to leave, Ichigo stepped back and bowed again, ignoring the near-desperate look that Eiji shot him. "Excuse me for a moment. I'll tell our sensei that we might not be in class." He stepped back, then turned and flickered back towards the classrooms.
The teachers were more than happy to allow them a free afternoon with a captain of the Gotei 13, and, that achieved, Ichigo turned and hurried to their room, wondering just who he was going to save—Eiji from Byakuya, or Byakuya from Eiji?
For the third time in as many minutes, Ichigo wondered whether it would be possible to drown Eiji in his teacup.
It was not so much that he had developed a sudden, irrational hatred of Eiji or the machta his mother had sent, and more to do with the fact that Eiji, when nervous, tended to babble. And few things, Ichigo allowed, were as nerve-wracking as sitting with the head of the Kuchiki Clan, sipping tea and watching as Byakuya's eyebrow developed the faintest tick from being subjected to the unending flow of somewhat incoherent words. Ichigo would have had more sympathy if he hadn't been dealing with Eiji—in varying states of nervousness—for almost seven months now, except for the rare free days when he could get away to visit Kukaku and Ganju.
Finally, it seemed that even Byakuya's patience reached its limit. He shifted his unwavering gaze from his cousin—one of the reasons for the babbling in the first place, Ichigo noted a touch sourly—and onto Ichigo. Cutting Eiji off mid-word, he asked calmly, "And you, Shiba-kun? Are you in Eiji's year?"
No matter how annoyed he was with the noble, Ichigo was grateful enough for the change in subject to jump on it gratefully. He nodded and set down his teacup. "Yes, Kuchiki-taicho- dono," he said respectfully. "We both started this year, but I'm slated to graduate in the spring. The teachers are pleased with my progress."
Narrow eyebrows lifted slightly. "Then you will beat your brother's record. That is well done for someone of your age."
"He's only missing Ichimaru-taicho's record by a few weeks," Eiji put in happily, obviously relieved that he was no longer expected to talk about himself. "He probably would have beaten that, too, but he's not as good at kido."
"Thanks, Eiji," Ichigo muttered into his cup, shooting his friend a narrow look, then glancing back at the captain and assuming a properly chastised expression. "Sorry, taicho. I lack the finesse that Ichimaru-taicho possesses, and my kido is rather hit and miss."
That eyebrow was creeping up again, and Ichigo was horrified to find that he liked the amusement in Byakuya's steel-grey eyes. "If you are graduating early, you no doubt have your pick of squads," was all he said, though. "Have you given a thought to which you will choose?"
Ichigo hesitated for a moment, and then reminded himself that he was Shiba Kei, not Kurosaki Ichigo, and he was expected to ask his superiors when he had questions. He steeled himself before asking, "Do you have any suggestions, sir? I don't know enough about the actual squads to be certain where I would be of the most use."
Instead of looking derisive and condescending, as Ichigo had half expected, Byakuya actually looked thoughtful, turning his cup in his hands. "You are good at hoho?" he asked after a moment. At Ichigo's nod—and Eiji's enthusiastic confirmation, he offered, "The 9th is looking for strong officers at the moment, but I believe that Abarai-taicho would overlook your manners because you lack brashness."
Ichigo almost choked at that, but managed to restrain himself in time.
Heedless, Byakuya continued, "The 3rd would be a good choice, as would the 13th, though with Ukitake-taicho you would most likely be living in your brother's shadow. The 1st rarely takes new members, as does the 2nd, and you are not a scientist, which excludes the 12th." He paused for a moment, as if considering, and then said, "Should you show enough leadership potential, I have no doubt that you will be offered command of the 5th Division, at least until they find an officer who can perform bankai. Hinamori-fukutaicho is still unwell. And if they do not, I would be willing to accept you into the 6th, seeing as I have yet to find a reliable fukutaicho."
It took a conscious effort for Ichigo to keep from gaping, dropping his cup, or blurting out his secret right there. Kuchiki Byakuya wanted him as a lieutenant? But—
The secret. Something hard and suspiciously rocklike formed in the pit of Ichigo's stomach. What would Byakuya do if he ever found out who Ichigo actually was? Would he hate him? Despise him? Reveal him to the rest of the Seireitei? It was with a sense of despair that Ichigo found his old feelings for the captain coming back, as strong as ever. He had thought he had pushed them aside after his death, but they were still present—stronger, if anything, from his long avoidance of them.
But, despite that, Ichigo found himself bowing to Byakuya, and murmuring, "I would mark your division as my first choice, Kuchiki-taicho-dono, if you do not object."
The faintest edge of a smile played around the corners of Byakuya's mouth, and he nodded, rising gracefully to his feet. "That is acceptable, Shiba-kun. Would you escort me to the gates? I would like to know more about your abilities."
Something fluttered in Ichigo's stomach at the words, but he shoved it aside and stood, as well. "As you wish, Kuchiki-taicho-dono." He ignored the worried look that Eiji shot him and bowed, waiting for the captain to sweep out of the room before he followed.
They walked in silence, Ichigo keeping a respectful distance behind the older man, wondering what this could possibly be about. Then, as they reached a secluded stand of trees that academy students often used for secret meetings, Byakuya halted, turning to Ichigo with a look on his face that the former substitute had never seen before.
"You are to be acclaimed for your acting skills, Kurosaki Ichigo," he said, and the bottom dropped out of Ichigo's world. He staggered back a step, eyes going wide, and his control on his reiatsu fluctuated wildly for a moment before he could recall how to breathe. Forcibly, he dragged it back under control, clamped his limits down on it, and faced Byakuya with his head held high.
"Taicho," he returned, and it was just barely civil. "I'd thank you not to use that name while in the Academy. I'm Shiba Kei right now."
Something akin to satisfaction settled deep in Byakuya's eyes, and his nearly nonexistent smile grew to become merely slight. He nodded once, gracefully, and said, "As you wish, Shiba-kun. But I would have you know that you greatly alarmed your watchers, when you vanished from the world of the living and could not be found in Soul Society. I am…relieved that you are well."
Ichigo studied him with slightly narrowed eyes that widened suddenly as he gasped what Byakuya wasn't saying. "You were…one of the watchers?"
The captain took a smooth step forward, one hand rising to touch Ichigo's black hair, and he nodded gravely. "I was. You were not alone, Kurosaki Ichigo, nor are you alone now. Your family has come to dwell in the Seireitei." A faint grimace crossed his face. "It seems your father will soon be taking control of the 5th Division, seeing as he is a captain."
Barely containing a shudder, Ichigo pushed away thoughts of what old goat face would do to his poor officers, and grimaced. "Yet another reason to list the 6th as my first choice," he muttered, then realized what he had said and flicked a wary glance at the man before him. "I man, if that's still acceptable, Kuchiki-taicho. If not, I understand."
"It is more than acceptable." Byakuya gave another quiet smile and let his hand drop to rest on Ichigo's shoulder. He leaned forward and pressed the faintest of kisses to the redhead's lips. "I believe I would be…disappointed if you sought to enter another division."
Steeling all the courage that had enabled him to face down madmen—and Kukaku, who was a thousand times worse—Ichigo leaned forward and returned the soft kiss, holding it just long enough to feel the warmth of Byakuya's presence like a touch of sunlight on his skin. As he drew back, he smiled.
"Thank you, taicho," he murmured.
Byakuya curled his long, elegant fingers around the back of Ichigo's neck, drawing him closer. There was something very close to tenderness in his eyes. "We will keep this a secret, of course," he said dryly. "I do not need to be known openly as a hypocrite, despite the fact that my…friends will know. It will most likely be better, should you wish to escape knowledge of your past."
"All right." Ichigo bit his lip for a moment, then gave in and grinned at the captain. "Just as long as you're the one to tell my new nee-san what's going on. I'm not going to be the first to break the news."
Byakuya grimaced. "Kukaku will…not be please," he said blandly, and Ichigo snorted at the understatement. "Though I suppose that circumstances could be worse."
"We are talking about the same Shiba Kukaku here, aren't we?" Ichigo asked dryly.
Byakuya rolled his eyes, just slightly, and shut him up with a kiss.