tangodancer: (Default)
[personal profile] tangodancer
Rating: T
Fandom: Bleach
Pairing: Ichigo/Byakuya
Summary: "A lone tear ran down his cheek. He'd done it. He was back, back before it had all begun. Back when they were all still alive. This time, though, Aizen would be crushed before he could destroy everything." When all hope is lost, Ichigo goes back in time.
Warnings: Slight AU: Bleach canon occurred when Ichigo was 18, not 15, because I needed Karin to be older, and the twins are only 3 years younger than him.
This "hey" is spoken speech, and this 'oi!' is thoughts. Speech of Zanpakutô spirits and Shiro is respectively in italics, bold italics and bold.


Captain-Commander's office, 1st Division Barracks, Soul Society.

Yamamoto looked at the young man seated across from him. Amber eyes stared back calmly, showing no sign that he was affected by the old man's reiatsu. The Captain-Commander could see a proof of his power there, as most Shinigami were unable to look him in the eye without going into shock. They sat there for a long time, never turning away from one another, occasionally taking a sip of the tea which their reiatsu kept warm for them. There was only calm in the younger man's posture, his muscles completely relaxed as if he believed that Yamamoto would never do anything to harm him. Had they grown so close in the future? Had someone uttered such a ludicrous idea a few days –a few hours, even– earlier, Yamamoto would have sent them scramming with a mere pulse of his reiatsu and a glare, but now…

He sighed and put his cup of tea down, Ichigo following his lead and looking up at once.

"What happened?"

"Aizen escaped through a Negación beam with Tôsen and Ichimaru. He stayed put for a few months, building up his army of Arrancars. The top ten were called the Espada, and held unbelievable power. After a while, the Research and Development Bureau deduced that he was trying to create the Ouken, and so a team was sent to protect Karakura Town. It wasn't enough in the end. The war escalated, and we had to seal off the Living World to prevent the fighting from spreading down there." He paused. "Things were going pretty well for us, actually, until he managed to create an Arrancar, Wonderweiss Margera, whose sole use was to negate your power. You were killed by a mere Numero."

There wasn't the slightest hint of malice or mockery in his eyes, just a deep sadness and regret. Yamamoto frowned slightly in thought: did the boy feel guilty? It made no sense, he most likely had other things to deal with at the time, and the mere idea that he'd even been involved with their war while still alive was…

"It all went downhill from there. I was elected Captain-Commander, but for every enemy we fell, two more appeared, even more powerful than the last. He used the time we were fighting to experiment with Hollows and Shinigami prisoners, and let whatever he'd managed to create loose as soon as he deemed it bloodthirsty enough. It was a massacre."

His hands lay on his lap, a perfect picture of composure, though there were far too white to be natural.

"In the end, we set up an assassination. Shihouin Yoruichi, Soi Fon, Yadomaru Lisa and Mugurama Kensei were the ones chosen to infiltrate Las Noches and kill Aizen. We got them back in pieces."

Yamamoto's eyes widened slightly. The best assassins the Soul Society had ever seen had been destroyed so easily? How was that possible? And what exactly was the part of the exiled captain and lieutenant in all this?

"By then, most of the captains were dead, and the Soul Society was reduced to a bloody field of ruins. Hollows were running rampant all around Rukongai, and we had gathered the survivors of the districts in Seireitei to protect some protection, but it didn't last long. They managed to break the barrier and get inside, and that's when Urahara Kisuke sent me back."

Short, and concise. Yamamoto nodded to himself. This was military. This was experienced. This was the attitude of a true commander. He could see how attached to his friends the younger man had been, but there had been no trace of that in his narration, which had been more of a report than anything else.

"What of Ichimaru Gin?"

Ichigo pursed his lips. "Ichimaru was a double agent, though nobody knew of this. He had known of Aizen's plans for a very long time, before he even entered the Academy, and had planned accordingly. By getting close to the traitor, he would learn his weakness, and so he did, except that when he turned against him, Aizen had become too powerful and destroyed him."

His eyes darkened to an almost black as he said that, and Yamamoto had no doubt that he'd been there to pick up whatever pieces had been left after that. Not wanting to linger on those sad considerations, he changed subjects.

"What was the part of the exiles in all this?"

Kurosaki was blunt.

"Urahara Kisuke was wrongly exiled. The Hollowfication was the product of Aizen's schemes, and Urahara tried to save them and was framed. Though they didn't go back to normal, the group developed an inner Hollow just like I did, and became what we know as the Vizards. The antithesis to Arrancars."

"And what about your second Zanpakutô?"

He tensed slightly, fingers twitching as if he longed to reach for Muramasa, but controlled himself expertly.

"Muramasa chose to bond with me. Kuchiki Kôga was unable to hear him and understand the true nature of the relationship between Shinigami and Zanpakutô, and Muramasa could hear me."

"Did you ask him to lend you his power?"

"No. I will, however, protect him from any and all threats. He is as much part of my soul as Shiro and Zangetsu now."

Both Zanpakutôs hummed gently before settling down, and Yamamoto watched attentively as the young man lay a soothing hand on both blades, eyes softening as he looked at them. Such a deep relationship, it was extraordinary. Slowly, he nodded.

"If no trouble is to be expected from him, then no action will be taken."

Ichigo dipped his chin in thanks. "Thank you."

"Now. What do you intend to do?"

The young man remained silent for a bit, before reaching up and slowly taking off his haori to fold it and lay it gently on the table between them. "It was once yours and in a time where you still live and rule, I have no right to wear it."

It pained him, though. That much was obvious, though he tried to conceal it behind a carefully blank mask.

"Does that mean you will go back to your life in the Living World?"

Ichigo hesitated briefly.

"I doubt I could even if I wanted to."

"I see." And truly, he did. He knew firsthand the damage a war could create on one's psyche, and how too much reiatsu could destroy the body. Kurosaki Ichigo, from the day he had entered this war, had lost any and all chances to live a normal life, for either he would die in battle, or be plagued by nightmares of blood and death for the rest of his life.

"The Gotei 13 has lost two captains today, and disaster has been avoided thanks to you and you only. I would like you to consider taking over Aizen Sôsuke's division as captain."

He didn't explain that the young man would be his successor when his time came to step down. It was hanging unspoken in the air between them, and though there was the slightest hint of relief in the hybrid's eyes, he didn't know whether to attribute it to his future position or the fact that he would be allowed to stay in the Soul Society.

"I will gladly accept if your captains agree to it. I also would like it if a special subdivision were created."

"For people like you."

"People like me. And some Arrancars."

Yamamoto paused. There had been strange, foreign names in the list of people Aizen had murdered in the future, could those have been allies from the other side?

"They do not know you in this time."

"But I killed their leader. I will deal with Hueco Mundo." Ichigo stated quietly. "It will be no issue."

A pause, then the Captain-Commander nodded.

"Very well. I shall call a captain's meeting immediately, and send a Hell Butterfly once we have come to a decision. Where will you reside?"

"A cave under Sokyoku Hill."

They parted ways with a slight bow on either part, and as he watched the soon-to-be fifth captain's tall frame step out, Yamamoto felt the full brunt of his two-thousand years of existence weigh down on him more heavily than ever.

o-O-o

Sokyoku Hill, Soul Society.

It took only a couple of minutes to reach the cave under Sokyoku Hill, and with a quick check that he was alone, he took off his clothes and slipped into the soothing water of the hot springs, closing his eyes as they eased his tense muscles. He didn't need to open his eyes to know that Shiro, Zangetsu and Muramasa had materialized and were currently enjoying the bath just as much as he was. They all stayed silent. They didn't need words to communicate, and right now, they were all just trying to wrap their mind around a single thought.

It's over.

And really, it was. What they'd fought so many years to achieve, the end they'd almost given up on ever seeing, the death that would mark the start of a new life. But now, now that they'd done it, now that they'd saved everyone and everything, they found themselves feelings disoriented and almost bored, yet still on edge, fearful that it would all crumble away to reveal one of Aizen's intricate illusions which he would have, by some wretched method, would have managed to trap them in.

It was over, and now they didn't have a purpose, they didn't have a use, they were… lost.

Yet they were not.

They were in familiar territory, surrounded by familiar faces, familiar reiatsu and Zanpakutôs. But now they had a future, and those people didn't know him anymore. They weren't the ones he'd gone to war with, the ones he'd fought and bled alongside, the ones he'd seen hurt and mighty and dying and strong with the resolve to win which had pushed them forward till the very end. He had known, when he'd decided to put Karin in his place, that he wouldn't forge the same bonds he had in his past, and he'd accepted it as a necessary sacrifice, but it didn't make the sting, the hurt disappear, because they had been his comrades, and they had shared much together, and now, in the blink of an eye and two ridiculous months, it was all gone.

Years of hardship and comradeship vanished as if they'd never existed, remembered only by him. He scrunched his eyes tighter as the thought tried to weasel its way into his mind that his love was gone as well, back to his emotionless state, back to when he didn't know him and still considered him an annoying ant, except that now, it was Karin who'd opened his eyes about Rukia and maybe, just maybe, he would fall in love with her instead of never falling in love with him, and wasn't it so very selfish and horrible of him to wish that Byakuya never found love again rather than falling for someone else?

He had his family.

But they wouldn't understand. His father had been a Shinigami, powerful and renowned to the point that he'd been invited to become part of the Royal Guard but had declined, but that didn't mean that he'd gone through what Ichigo had in his mere twenty-eight years of life. Twenty-eight years, and still, he often got the feeling that he had lived centuries, which was actually possible given the amount of time he'd spent fighting in Hueco Mundo, where time passed five times faster than in Soul Society or the World of the Living.

Karin had just made her first steps in this world of death gods and Hollows and hybrids, and didn't know what, to him, was actually the basics. She was still weak, a baby in Shinigami terms, and still very much innocent, gazing at this world with innocence and the blazing flame of resolve which had once been his. War had taught him calm and patience, though, and so he'd become quieter, stealthier, the ultimate assassin and a fearsome warrior, bright and burning when in the heat of battle, giving hope to the troops relying on him to lead them to victory, subtle and slinking in the shadows when on reconnaissance or assassination missions.

Once before, his lover had observed that over the years, his growth had been surprising, and that it was now symbolized by the three spirits residing in his mindscape. All three utterly different from one another, but still so very alike and compatible. He was Shirosaki's mighty power, Zangetsu's quiet resolve, and Muramasa's calculating mind.

He had them.

They were the only ones he needed, he thought as he slid his eyes open lazily to gaze at them, only to find them all looking at him silently. Slowly, a small smile made its way on his lips, the motion foreign after years of grief and strife. As long as he had them, everything would be okay. And with that thought in mind, he drifted off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that he would wake at the slightest hint of a threat.

o-O-o

Urahara Shop, Karakura Town.

"Isshin, wake up."

"Uh, wha-?"

Brown eyes glazed over with sleep met uncharacteristically serious grey eyes, and instantly, the former captain was up and alert, looking around to find the source of his friend's tense demeanor… only to pause as he noticed the Shinigami –two of them– standing a few feet away. He examined them carefully, noting the spiky white hair and serious teal eyes, and the deep grey eyes shadowed by a straw hat. Immediately, he was on his feet, hand hovering over the pocket where his mod-soul resided, ready to defend his friend and his life here in the World of the Living.

"Urahara Kisuke. Evidence has come forth of your innocence regarding the matters for which you were exiled. Consequently, the sentence has been revoked, effective as of now, and the same is applicable to the group known as Vizards. Please pass on the information that they are welcome back in Soul Society if they desire to come back." The small captain said stiffly.

Isshin raised an eyebrow at his friend, who'd just about dropped his precious fan in astonishment.

"What?" He whispered.

"That kid, Ichigo…" Kyoraku spoke, looking up at Isshin from under his hat. "He's your boy, isn't he?"

He could only nod, too stunned to talk. Kyoraku sighed, tugging the hem of his hat lower over his face.

"I don't know what happened to him, but it wasn't good. At least he managed to clear all of your names."

Isshin dropped his gaze.

"Why aren't they back?"

The lazy captain chuckled. "Your daughter and her friends got beaten up pretty badly, so they're still in the fourth division, and your son had a talk with Yama-jii before he disappeared."

Both ex-captains perked up at that. A private talk with the Captain-Commander? What about? He wasn't in trouble, was he?

"Yama-jii offered him the position of captain of the fifth division. He accepted."

"Right off the bat?"

Kyoraku must have felt the hurt Isshin was trying –badly– to conceal, and shook his head.

"He said he wanted the captains to agree first. But he doesn't have his place in the World of the Living anymore, Isshin. Surely you have noticed that. Unless… you didn't know?"

Urahara stepped forward.

"We did know he was from the future, but he only stayed with us a few days. It was enough" he shot a glance at his friend "to notice that he is… different, though."

They fell silent for a while, before Hitsugaya spoke again.

"Well, I will be going back. If you wish to come along…"

Isshin looked torn, but eventually shook his head with a sigh.

"I can't leave Yuzu alone. She'd go mad with worry. You go, Kisuke, and send news a soon as possible."

Nodding, Urahara told Tessai the good news and that he was going to settle a few matters with the Captain-Commander, then disappeared into the Senkaimon, which closed as Kyoraku's pink haori fluttered through.

o-O-o

Soul Society, Sokyoku Hill.

He'd barely had the time to set one foot on Soul Society soil that he was tackled by a purple blur.

"Kisuke!"

"Yoruichi-san! What's the matter?" He asked quickly as he saw her wide golden eyes. She reared back instantly, cheeks darkening slightly, before clearing her throat. He smirked, making her blush deepen, much to his delight. Turning away, she coughed slightly.

"No matter. How is it, being back after all this time?"

He didn't answer immediately, eyes not leaving her lean form as he let himself be overwhelmed by the nostalgic feeling of spirit particles flowing all around him with an ease the World of the Living could never hope to achieve.

"It's… good." He murmured at last, and saw her eyes fill with understanding as she turned back to him. "Very good."

She smiled at him, very softly, and he couldn't help but smile back, a small upturn of the lips which was nothing like his usual stupid grins of wicked smirks, but a real smile, full of sincerity, warmth and affection, and Yoruichi couldn't help but feel her heart skip a beat at the sight. How long had it been since Kisuke hadn't smiled like that? How long since there had been any real happiness in their lives? They had given Soul Society their all, and Soul Society had cast them aside as if they were mere tools once something had gone wrong. But here they were again, once more free and clear of all charges, and it was all thanks to a lone time-traveler who had accepted to lose everything he once had for the sake of his loved ones.

"Where is he?" He asked at last.

She pointed at the ground under their feet, and he nodded, disappearing in a flash of Shunpo, while she followed silently. A few seconds later, they were standing at the entrance of the cave, but there was no one in sight.

"The hot springs." Yoruichi said quietly, and so they went to the far corner of the cave, behind a cluster of rocks, where they found an unexpected sight: the young man had fallen asleep in the warm waters, and with him were who could only be his Zanpakutô and Hollow spirits. It was strange, to see them all so relaxed and quiet, so very motionless, so very much so that were it not for the regular rising of their chests, they would have feared for their lives.

Ichigo's face was tight even in sleep. He would have looked slightly younger had his body not been a war veteran's, all covered in scars which spoke of harsh battles and rivers of spilt blood. There was a circular scar right over his heart, and they could only wonder what had happened, who had done it, how he was still alive.

Who, what, when, how? But the only one who held answers was the man asleep before them, and they couldn't muster the courage to wake him up, as he had deserved his rest. And so they left silently and went to meet the Captain-Commander.

o-O-o

Karin, Ishida, Chad and Inoue were sitting in Karin's room in the eleventh division barracks. The black-haired girl had been completely healed thanks to Inoue's talents, and they'd been invited by Zaraki to sleep over in his barracks so that he would have a sparring partner close by –though Karin always made sure he was far, far away before she ever came out of her room, and heavily relied on Ishida to tell her how safe she was. Though he kept mocking her for her abysmal reiatsu-sensing skills, the dark-haired Quincy obliged every time, and she suspected that he actually had a great time having her asking him a favor time and again, and seeing scared to the point of sneaking around to avoid a man she'd already beaten.

Damn Quincy and his dry wit.

There was a knock on the door, and she instantly hid in the cupboard, fearing it might be Kenpachi, though now that she thought about it, he most likely would have beaten her up first, knocked later. And, the door –along with a good portion of the wall, she was sure– would be lying in pieces on the floor.

"What is it?" Ishida asked calmly.

"Forgive me for disturbing you, Ishida-san, but the Captain-Commander has called for a meeting, and your presence is required."

The Quincy nodded at the Shinigami, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one slender finger.

"Very well, we will be there shortly."

The door slid shut, and he turned to the cupboard with a sigh. "This is getting ridiculous, Kurosaki. Hone your reiatsu-sensing skills instead of jumping at the smallest noise!"

She poked her head out of her hideout and cautiously surveyed the room before jumping onto the floor lightly.

"Sure, Ishida. It's obvious it's not you who has a crazy lunatic thirsting for your blood running around to beat you to a bloody pulp every single minute of the day!"

He rolled his eyes at that. "You know perfectly well that if Captain Zaraki really wanted to fight you, he'd have knocked the door down a long time ago. It's still whole and standing, though, so I don't see why you still act as though he was going to kill you. You did defeat him, after all, or was it all a fluke?"

She flushed in anger at that, and straightened up, fists on her hips as she tried to tower over him, which wasn't easy considering that he was far taller than her. He smirked at the failed attempt at intimidation, and she felt a vein tick on her forehead as she opened her mouth to yell at him…

"Karin-chan, Ishida-kun… We're going to be late…"

The Quincy turned to the healer, cheeks tinted a lovely shade of pink, pushing up his glasses again, and cleared his throat at Karin's feral smirk, turning away from her in what was obviously supposed to be a dignified way, but ended up looking more like a hasty retreat. Inoue watched on curiously, oblivious as always.

"Of course, Inoue-san. Let's go."

In a flash, he was out the door, Chad on his heels. Inoue followed at a more sedate pace, looking confusedly between Karin and Ishida, but eventually dismissed the issue as only she could, before leaving the room. Left alone, the Substitute Shinigami's smirked widened.

"You're so whipped, Ishida-kun…" she said in a sing-song voice.

A few feet away, the Quincy felt a chill run down his spine, and wondered what the cause of this sudden feeling of upcoming doom was.

o-O-o

Meeting Hall, Soul Society.

"What are you doing here, Goat-face?"

Ishida sweat-dropped at Karin's reaction to seeing her father in a shinigami uniform, Zanpakutô and all, with a folded haori slung over his shoulder and an idiotic grin on his face. "Shouldn't you be looking after Yuzu?"

"Aw, Karin-chan, so mean! Your sister decided to stay at a friend's for the night." And then, just as suddenly as the seriousness had come, it was gone, and the man was flying towards her with his arms wide open. "My darling daughter, how beautiful power makes you! Your daddy is so proud!"

He was instantly met with a foot to the face, and sent careening into a wall.

"Shut the hell up, moron!"

And then, out of nowhere, the man whipped out a pocket-sized picture of Masaki and started bawling his eyes out over how mean his daughter had become. Karin merely rolled her eyes and ignored his tantrum, along with the puzzled or annoyed looks from the captains who were slowly trickling in.

"Anyway, what are you doing here?"

But just as he opened his mouth to answer, brown eyes too serious for this to be good, setting her on edge, Yamamoto called the meeting to order, and the ryoka group took their place near the end of the room. It was amazing, how a simple bang of his staff on the floor was enough to silence a hall full with the most powerful individuals in the Soul Society.

The old man started discussing unimportant matters, and Karin soon found herself tuning himself off, wondering why they had even been summoned for this meeting if nothing that concerned them was to be discussed. She soon had her answer, though, as what seemed like hours after the beginning of this useless reunion, the doors opened to let her brother through, tall frame full of predatory elegance as he walked soundlessly towards the Captain-Commander and nodded at him.

"Sorry I'm late."

Yamamoto merely nodded at him, before turning to his lieutenant, who stepped forward, holding a white cloth carefully folded in his arms.

"Kurosaki Ichigo. With the agreement of the captains of the Soul Society, the Gotei Thirteen is honored to offer you the position of Captain of the Fifth Division."

Karin watched with in disbelief as her brother, amber gaze calm and face blanked, answered calmly.

"I accept the position and endeavor to serve the division to my best."

Briefly, she had the image of those cop movies where the motto written on the American cops' cars was 'to protect and to serve'. Her brother had just accepted a leading position where he would be the one in power, and yet, he vowed to serve and nothing else. He had been sober, but they could all hear the unspoken promise in his voice, and his acts had spoken for him anyway. Who would come back in time and renounce everything they'd ever had only to destroy the very thing they'd given up everything to save? This man was ready to fight to the last for them, even though they didn't know anymore, didn't know him yet, and it was mind-numbing to think of the depth of his loyalty and the possible bonds they might have forged in his time for him to willingly risk so much for their sake.

Mind-numbing, dazzling, unbelievable.

And yet so very, blindingly true.

"Accept this haori as a symbol of your new function."

Sasakibe stepped forward, slowly unfolding the cloth, and draped it over the other man's strong but lean shoulders, and they all noticed that the haori was cut in the exact same way the one he'd been wearing when he'd defeated Aizen had been, showing how far Yamamoto had gone to make him feel at home. The young man obviously noticed, for he dipped his chin in thanks to the old man, before letting out the traditional pulse of reiatsu as a token that there was a new captain in Seireitei, thus showing how deeply he knew the procedure, definitively sealing their belief in his tale.

"Welcome to the Gotei 13." Yamamoto said strongly, before adding with a gesture of his hand. "Stand with your fellow captains, Captain Kurosaki."

He did. And so a new page of history started, ready to be written anew.

o-O-o

"Why did you do this?"

They were in the Thirteenth barracks, where Ukitake had kindly offered they discuss and have a family reunion away from prying ears. Karin and Isshin were seated across from Ichigo, who was kneeling in a very formal position, fists on his thighs and back straight, completely unfazed by his sister's anger.

"I don't belong with you anymore, Karin."

"Of course you do." She countered fiercely, eyes blazing. "Always have, always will."

He shook his head gently.

"No, Karin. The things I've seen, the things I've done… You have no idea. I came back in time for a reason. We were desperate, allies were falling left and right, people dying wherever you looked. We had lost all. I lost everything."

"But you've got us back now!" She exclaimed uncomprehendingly.

"Yes." He smiled, gently, sadly, and it was enough to knock the breath out of her as if she'd been punched in the gut by Zaraki at full force. "And now you have a chance to live a normal life. This time, I have the power to protect you, to protect Karakura and the three worlds. But I can't go back to my old life."

"Why not?"

She didn't understand. She couldn't understand. She didn't want to understand, and she absolutely hated the look of near-pity in her brother's amber eyes, which were not the warm chocolate colour she had known and loved all her life, another proof that he wasn't the boy in his late teenage years he should have been. She hated that too.

"Inoue, Ishida, Chad… They were my comrades the first time around. I gave them my power, and they followed me, and together, we became a strong team. But it was only through the horrors of war, and they ended up dead."

"The power comes from you now too." She objected, but already, she could feel dread twisting in her gut as she saw where he was going with this.

"But they're your comrades now, not mine. They don't know me like they do you."

She scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous, Ichi-nii. They've been friends with you for years."

"Chad, maybe. But not Inoue. Nor Ishida. In my time, we grew closer saving each other's lives countless times. Hopefully, it won't happen this time around, but we already know if it does, it won't be because of Aizen's schemes." He paused, then continued in a very soft voice. "I am twenty-eight, Karin, not eighteen, and though I can't by any means be considered old, especially by Soul Society standards, I still feel very much centuries old. I have no place in the Living World. I have no place with your friends. Mine are dead, yours are not, and have yet to grow as wise and powerful as mine were. I gave you time, Karin. I gave you time to grow and live and enjoy a somewhat normal life. Please don't waste this chance."

She fell silent, bowing her head and blinking furiously to stop the angry tears from coming. This was so unfair! She had just lost her brother, who'd lost everything himself! He'd handed over everything to her, and why? Because some mad man had decided to rule the world. She cursed Aizen with all her might, hoping that if there remained anything of his being somewhere, then it was suffering an eternity worth of tremendous pain for everything he'd inflicted upon her brother.

"I'm so sorry…" She whispered as the first tear fell on the back of her clenched fist, and she frantically tried to stop herself, but it was too late, and suddenly, she was engulfed in the strong arms of her brother and burying her face in his toned chest, inhaling deeply to engrave his scent in her mind, and closing her eyes to always remember the feel of his embrace, how safe she felt held tightly against his chest, hearing his strong heartbeat pulsing under her ear, feeling the warmth of his body wrap all around her and his reiatsu gently reach out to her in comforting tendrils. Clenching her fingers on his clothes, she wished everything was different and none of this had happened, but knew it was not to be.

Ichigo had sacrificed himself to save them all, and he had managed, at the cost of everything he held dear. The least she could do, she mused as sleep slowly overtook her trembling form, was to be strong for him. But for now, just for now, she would allow herself to relish into the embrace of her beloved elder brother.

As Karin's sobs slowly subsided and she drifted off to sleep, Ichigo looked up and at his father, who hadn't moved a muscle and just sat there, watching his children and carefully listening to the confrontation. Sorrowful brown met smoldering amber, and a silent message passed between them as Isshin nodded, stood up and left with a gentle squeeze of his son's shoulder. He grimaced to himself as, apart from muscle, he could feel only bone under the skin.

o-O-o

Fifth Division Barracks, Soul Society.

Three days after Aizen's death.

The silence in the fifth division barracks was deafening. All division members were standing in the courtyard, ready to snap at attention at the slightest whisper that the new captain was there. The atmosphere was thick with tension and nervousness, and had been ever since the previous evening, when they'd heard the man who'd defeated their traitorous lead would come to meet them in the morning. Everyone had been running around to make sure things were perfect since the announcement, while trying to reassure themselves that the guy wouldn't hold them responsible for Aizen's treason and everything he'd lost, because frankly, had they been in his shoes, anything and everything remotely related to the man would have been destroyed on sight.

How they knew who he was and what he'd gone through? The answer held in a mere two words: Matsumoto Rangiku. Three more words –Shinigami Women's Association–, and there you had it, the rumour mill was buzzing like an overworked hive. Kurosaki Ichigo, elder brother of ryoka Kurosaki Karin, defeater of traitor Aizen Sôsuke and time-traveler. The tale seemed quite farfetched and many refused to believe it, scoffing at the gossipmongers and telling them to stop kidding themselves. There was no way nice, attentive captain Aizen could have hurt a fly, let alone betrayed anyone, and those who said otherwise were fools trying to cover up for a murderer. A murderer with unbelievable power, yes, but a murderer still.

And so the division –and most of Seireitei– was divided in two sides, those who believed in the story, and those who didn't. The fifth division, though, was the only one who got away with it, as the captains were quick to reign in their own men with a glare here and there and a few well-placed threats, but with its captain dead and its lieutenant still in a coma, the fifth division members had no such person to discipline them.

They were so absorbed in their discussions that they didn't even notice when a stranger soundlessly appeared in the middle of the courtyard, white haori tied to his waist with a blood red obi in the same fashion as Onmitsukidô captain Soi Fon, Zanpakutôs carefully sheathed on his back. He just stood there for a while, looking around and at the men, taking note of those who hadn't noticed him and those who straightened up upon his arrival, nodding in approval at those who'd been quiet and alert even before he'd come in. They made to bow, but he dismissed the greeting with a mere gesture of his hand, shocking them to the core, smirking as he saw their surprise.

Finally, he seemed to have had enough and let out a strong pulse of reiatsu which instantly shut everyone up and snap to attention. He let his gaze sweep over them once more, carefully memorizing their faces and those who seemed hostile, before he started to talk.

"Kurosaki Ichigo, new fifth division captain. Whether you believe it or not, I'm from the future and I killed Aizen, who was a traitor and stabbed your lieutenant. If you think I'm a fake and a murderer, nothing is stopping you from transferring divisions, but be warned now that the other captains and Captain-Commander Yamamoto himself have heard and believe what I just told you." He paused. "Now, I don't know how Aizen led you, and I don't care. If you're going to work under me, then you should know a few things. One, I don't tolerate incompetence. Two, I don't tolerate insubordination. The way I see it, officers are officers because they know better than you. Consequently, there will be a tournament to determine ranks in the upcoming weeks. Three, I don't tolerate weakness. If you're weak, train and become strong, that's all there is to it. Four, if you have a problem with me, speak now or stay silent forever. We clear? Good. Objections?"

No one spoke. He nodded to himself.

"Excellent. Now all of you except the third seat, scram."

He smirked as they all scattered like a flock of scared pigeons, then turned to the officer, who looked a bit pale but bravely stood his ground when he stepped closer. He liked that one, seemed to have guts.

o-O-o

Sokyoku Hill, Soul Society.

Four days after Aizen's death.

The Senkaimon opened, sending a pillar of blue spiritual pressure swirling into the sky, and the captains watched as the ryoka group said their goodbyes to the friends they'd made here, namely Rukia, who'd decided to stay, Renji, Ikkaku and Yumichika, Hanatarou, Shiba Ganju and his sister, and Zaraki, who claimed that next time they came over, Karin had to fight him. How that was supposed to motivate her into coming back soon, they didn't know, but they figured it didn't really matter anyway. With her brother as a captain, Kurosaki Karin was sure to come back at least a few times a year to check up on him.

Said captain was standing there too, hair fluttering gently in the morning breeze, his face unreadable as he watched them all go. He shook hands with Chad, nodded at Ishida, Inoue and Yoruichi, then made to turn to his sister, but she didn't even leave him enough time to speak, as she blurred into his arms and hugged him tightly. If the surprise flickering across his features for a split second was anything to go by, it had been a very long time since he hadn't really been embraced like that, and he seemed to hesitate for a second, before he slowly hugged her back, running a soothing hand through her black hair and murmuring in her ear which had her nodding tearfully.

When they parted, though, her eyes were dry, and she had a smirk on her face.

"Let's fight next time we see each other, Ichi-nii. I wanna see how strong you've become."

He smirked back, eyes burning with challenge.

"I'd love to see you try, squirt. I'll defeat you so fast your head will spin!"

"Right back at you!" She shouted, before running into the Senkaimon and disappearing into its light. Only Isshin remained now, and his eyes were determined when Ichigo's met his.

"I'll look after them. I swear it."

"You'd better, or I'll kill you."

Isshin merely gave a two-fingered salute, and it looked like he was going to leave it at that, when suddenly, he burst into tears and started babbling at his pocket-sized portrait of Masaki.

'Oh God, someone kick his ass for me.'

"Righ' away, Aibou!" And just like that, Shiro materialized and kicked Isshin's ass until he was scrambling into the Senkaimon, which promptly closed behind him. Ichigo sighed at his Hollow's smug grin.

"I didn't mean it literally."

"Sure ya did. And yar wish was granted, ain't ya 'appy?"

With an exasperated sigh, the new fifth division captain turned his back on him.

"Whatever. I have a division to reorganize, and a bunch of hybrids to find. Let's get to work."

They disappeared in a burst of flash-step, and the rest of the captains and lieutenants dispersed.

o-O-o

Fifth Division Barracks, Soul Society.

The captain's quarters in the fifth division were bare, and Ichigo assumed they had been emptied upon Aizen's death and his things disposed of after careful analysis so as not to miss anything important. It was made of two simple rooms, one with a small tea table, and the other with a futon laid on the ground. The walls were made of simple wood and the doors were traditional Japanese sliding doors, which led on a wooden pathway suspended above the ground by wooden pillars. It made for a secure location, as footsteps were more likely to be heard on wood than on hard ground, and combined with his war-honed instincts, there was no chance for him to be taken by surprise.

Still, one could never be too careful, and so the first thing he did upon entering his new quarters was to set up an elaborate Kidou alarm, so that anyone with malicious intent would trigger a silent signal so that he was warned beforehand –and woken up if by some miracle, he had failed to wake up.

Nodding to himself, he settled down to wait for dinner time. His third seat had offered to give him a tour of the barracks, but he'd been the fifth's unofficial leader before becoming Captain-Commander, and he already knew everything there was to know about the division. Consequently, he just sat in the lotus position, and took the hour left until dinner was served to meditate and check up on his inner spirits.

His inner world had changed a lot since the days of the sideways skyscrapers. It was now a dense forest at nighttime with a full moon tainted with blood red, and he usually landed in a clearing, by a pool where a few lotus flowers floated gently on the dark waters. A magnificent sakura tree let soft cherry blossoms drift down and onto the ground and the still water underneath, sorrowful reminder of the lover he had once lost and most likely would never find again.

Muramasa was lying on the grass with his head on Shiro's stomach and his eyes closed, the Hollow's pale fingers toying with his brown hair, and Zangetsu was standing by the edge of the pool, looking down at it thoughtfully. All three looked up as he appeared next to them, and gestured for him to join them. Zangetsu looked at them, then back at the pool, then went to lay on the grass by Shiro, and Ichigo sat down, only to be tugged backwards and end up with his head on the solemn Zanpakutô's shoulder.

He closed his eyes, enjoying the peace. It had been a long time since they'd had the opportunity to do something like this, free from the worries of Aizen's plans and what his next course of action might be. In the two months he'd been back in the past, he'd been too worried trying to elaborate a strategy in case things didn't go as planned to really just spend time with his inner spirits, but now that the threat had been dealt with, his more urgent matters were to run his division and get the Vizards and Espadas who'd joined him in his time on his side. The first, he thought, wouldn't be too much of a problem, but he might need to prove a few things to the latter. And he'd have to find Nel.

But that was to be considered later, and right now, he wanted to enjoy in his spirits' presence. His eyes slid shut as he immersed himself in the strong pulse of their reiatsu, the fingers carding through his hair and the hand wrapped around his, the heartbeat under his ear, and the soft murmuring of the water in the pool. A warm breeze blew gently around the clearing, and he let out a soft sigh.

Peace.

He'd forgotten what it meant. He guessed they'd just have to learn what it was again. But they'd always exceeded expectations, defying the limits of imagination and crushing the boundaries of the possible and impossible. There was no reason they couldn't adapt to this new context.

A small smile wedged its way on his lips, and he relaxed completely for the first time in years, his mind for once free of worries.

o-O-o

Silence fell over the dining room as he stepped in, but he just waved at his division members to go on with their dinner and simply sat at a table near the door, his back to the wall so that he could see the comings and goings of the room, and not have anyone sneak up on him.

"Mind if I join you?"

He looked up from his rice bowl at the short tenth division captain and gestured at the seat across from him.

"Please sit."

The white-haired prodigy nodded in thanks and helped himself to the dishes a nervous Shinigami had brought him a moment earlier, and they ate in silence for a while before Hitsugaya finally started talking.

"You don't have a lieutenant."

"I was under the impression Hinamori Momo held that position, but that she was currently… indisposed."

"She most likely won't like you when she hears you killed Aizen."

Very aware of the eavesdropping division members all around him, Ichigo ignored them and put down his chopsticks to take a sip of water.

"I am well aware of that."

The short captain hesitated, but continued. "How was she? In the future?"

Ichigo didn't answer immediately. He lay his goblet back on the table and straightened up before looking Hitsugaya straight in the eye.

"She died in the first few months of the war."

The prodigy barely held in a gasp and paled dramatically, aquamarine eyes wide with horror and disbelief.

"The division…"

"I ran it for a while, without the title, of course, then appointed one of my friends captain when I was promoted to Captain-Commander. He was Aizen's predecessor, actually."

"He's still alive?" Hitsugaya looked surprised. Ichigo nodded.

"He is. Aizen used him for… an experiment."

No further explanation was required, as all captains had been briefed on the subject of Hollowfication.

"I see." Hitsugaya said soberly, taking a sip of water. "What do you intend to do with lieutenant Hinamori?"

"I believe that is up to her, don't you think so?"

Aquamarine eyes softened ever so slightly at the answer, and he nodded. They fell silent again, before Toshiro spoke again.

"I heard about this… subdivision you asked the Captain-Commander to allow. What purpose would it serve?"

Ichigo shrugged.

"To right a wrong. And having operatives who know Hueco Mundo like the bottom of their pocket would be quite useful, wouldn't it?"

He snorted. "I think you already know it by heart, Kurosaki."

Ichigo smirked. "It's Kurosaki-taichou to you, Hitsugaya." He mimicked, and the white-haired prodigy stared at him. "I used to call you Toshiro all the time," Ichigo explained. "And your answer was always the same."

The short captain nodded, wondering what exactly had happened in this future that would never come to be. Maybe someday Ichigo would be willing to talk about it, maybe he wouldn't. Either way, Toshiro wasn't so sure he wanted to know: though he was insanely curious, he was still very aware that the story must be one of unfathomable horror. He shook his head with a sigh. The rest of the meal passed quietly, both captains saying something from time to time and staying quiet the rest of the time, which, considering that neither was very talkative, wasn't really surprising.

o-O-o

He was sitting in the fifth division's garden, by the pool, watching the koi fishes swim around. He'd been surprised to find this place the first time around, but delighted, because it gave him somewhere to retreat and get some time to himself, far from the chaos of the war, or the drama of the Gotei 13. The rumour mill was always running at full blast thanks to the Women Association, and he had no doubt that his arrival would be one of their main topics for quite some time before things settled down.

He looked up as his third seat sat down across from him, folders in hand, and reached out to take the top half of the pile. The creation of a new subdivision was cause for a lot of paperwork, and he had wanted to deal with it all by himself, only for his third seat to volunteer his help. Though he'd been sceptical at first, he'd agreed, and so here they were. It was also an occasion to show the man where he was to be found in case of emergencies, and to warn him that he was not to be disturbed whenever he came here.

They'd been reading and stamping for several hours when Ichigo raised his head at the feel of a very familiar reiatsu coming their way. Straightening up, he winced at the pop his back gave, then turned to his third seat.

"We'll stop here for the day, Ichimaki. Thank you for your help."

The man scrambled up and bowed, hurriedly gathering his papers as he caught sight of the captain walking towards them.

"Of course, captain. I will take those back to your office, then."

"Just take those who are complete, I'll finish the rest."

The Shinigami looked at the stack dubiously, then back at Ichigo. "Are you sure, captain?" He protested. "This is enormous!"

The corner of Ichigo's lips curled up. "It'll be fine, Ichimaki. Now go."

"Yes captain!"

He saluted and left, bowing to the approaching captain as he passed him.

Ichigo remained seated and looked up at his fellow captain, dipping his chin in greeting before gesturing to the seat Ichimaki had just vacated.

"Please take a seat. Tea?"

The man agreed and let Ichigo fill him a cup of steaming tea. He took a sip of it, humming under his breath in approval, then put down his cup and looked at the newest captain in the Gotei 13.

"I think we need to talk."

Weary amber locked with molten silver as Kurosaki Ichigo met the gaze of his dead lover head on.

"I suppose we do… Byakuya."


Part 4



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