“Joint patrol,” Ichigo grumbles, shifting an inch-high stack of paperwork away from him, and dragging the next heap closer. “Joint. Logically you’d assume that the paperwork was split, right? Half the usual amount? So why the hell do we have twice as much?”
Across from him, on the other side of the mess hall table they’ve commandeered and drowned in forms that need to be filled out in triplicate, Shuuhei snorts. “Because bureaucracy thrives on killing our souls,” he mutters, tipping his own forms into their completed pile. It’s already impressively high. “Doesn’t help that we encountered Hollows. Or that five squad members got injured.”
Because they’re morons, Ichigo wants to growl, but he’s Shiba Kei and that’s not something he’s going to say about those under his command. He settles for a subtle roll of his eyes and picks up his pen once more. “At least neither of us had to go to shikai,” he says, partly to console himself, and contains a wince at the thought of those forms, which would add another three inches to their respective piles.
Shuuhei winces, too. “Argh. Don’t even speak of that.” Then he looks up, eyes narrowing, and tacks on, “You say that like low-level Hollows could make you use your shikai when even a fight against a captain can’t.”
Ichigo battles the urge to laugh. “Are you offended on your captain’s behalf, because I didn’t draw my sword in our match, Hisagi?”
That gets him an eye-roll. “Please, Shiba. I’ve known him since he was a brat in the Academy. His swelled head needs regular puncturing. You doing it simply means that I don’t have to. I’m just…curious. Has anyone seen your shikai?”
“I don’t even draw my sword often,” Ichigo admits with a shrug, sidestepping the question neatly. For all that he’s living a constructed life, he’s still not all that great at lying. “I can use kido and that’s usually enough, so why bother waking the old man up if I don’t have to?” Zangetsu more than did his duty in the war, after all.
Shuuhei looks faintly sympathetic and nods, going back to his work. It’s one of the things Ichigo appreciates most about Shuuhei, that he knows instinctively when to let a matter drop.
He appreciates a lot of things about Shuuhei, actually. Chief among them is the fact that Kurosaki Ichigo never really knew him, so Shiba Kei has a blank slate as far as friendship goes. It’s been that way with several of the lieutenants, because for all that Ichigo fought with them he was never one of them, at least until now. Kira and Tetsuzaemon, Nanao and Matsumoto—they’re all people he’s not entirely familiar with, and meeting them like this is good, easier than it would be if Renji and Rukia or even Ikkaku were lieutenants.
A sharp clatter of pots dropping makes both Ichigo and Shuuhei look up, startled, and Ichigo manages to catch the tail-end of a glare from one of the cooks. Only then does he realize that it’s close to ten at night, and he shares a faintly sheepish look with Shuuhei as they hurry to gather up their work.
“Might want to eat elsewhere for a while,” Shuuhei murmurs as they all but lunge out the door. “The cooks all seem to carry grudges, and if we’ve held them up…”
Ichigo thinks of what they could do to his food, from simply burning it to all number of creative poisons lifted from the Twelfth, and grimaces. “Good idea.”
They slow to a walk once they’re a safe distance away from the mess, nodding their greetings to a few shinigami hurrying by. Otherwise, they’re the only ones out, because it’s the middle of the week and Yamamoto has been assigning extra patrols lately. There’s something killing people in the Rukongai, massacring groups of travelers and attacking shinigami squads, and it’s pissing off just about every shinigami in the Seireitei. Each division has at least six ten-man squads on active duty right now, and another four on call and in reserve.
Apparently thinking along the same lines, Shuuhei sighs and shifts his stack of papers to his right arm. “More patrols tomorrow,” he says a touch wearily.
Ichigo makes a noise of agreement, fighting another wince. Captains are generally too important to lead patrols, so the task falls to the lieutenants. With their current schedule, it’s only a matter of time before they start dropping like flies from exhaustion, and they’ve yet to even so much as catch sight of the bastards doing this. “At least they keep putting the Sixth and Ninth together,” he offers. If he had to suffer through an entire patrol with Nemu or Yachiru he’d probably end up blowing some inner gasket.
Shuuhei’s again on the same wavelength—and really, Ichigo isn’t used to such a thing, not even with Rukia or Renji or Chad. With them, the understanding always came in the form of a fight, against or beside them. With Shuuhei, it’s more of a shared ease, and only-sane-man mentality when dealing with the other lieutenants. It makes Shuuhei’s soft huff entirely translatable, lets Ichigo read the amusement and weariness and disbelief that they’re surrounded by people like Matsumoto and Yachiru and Omeada as lieutenants.
“At least,” Shuuhei agrees. At the intersection of two streets, he pauses and looks longingly at the brightly lit and clearly raucous bar just a little ways down. “Damn, after this last week, I really want to get drunk.”
Ichigo snorts. “Well, if thought of your captain’s reaction is holding you back,” he says dryly, “I wouldn’t worry. That’s his hair in there, right?”
Shuuhei chuckles, but after one more lingering glance keeps walking. “Yes, well, he doesn’t have a 54th District patrol an hour after dawn tomorrow.”
With a groan at the reminder, Ichigo rubs a hand over his face. They’re close to the Sixth, and when he looks up, there’s a light on in the captain’s office. “I’ll be there,” Ichigo tells his friend. “Entirely conscious or not. Night, Hisagi.”
“Good night, Shiba,” Shuuhei answers, lifting one hand in a halfhearted wave before continuing into the dark. Ichigo stares after him for a long moment, a part of him wondering how all of this happened, how everything changed so much. He’s a lieutenant now, a hardworking and dedicated one. He has dinner with Kukaku and Ganju every weekend that he’s free. He’s a full-fledged superior officer, leading shinigami on patrols and into battle.
It’s a long way from being the hotheaded substitute shinigami dragged into a war he wasn’t ready for, or the powerless drifter he became afterwards.
Byakuya is at his desk when Ichigo enters the office, sorting papers into what Ichigo has privately termed his answer-now, put-off-for-later, and can’t-be-fucked piles. Doubtless the captain has fancier terms for them, but Ichigo’s never asked, and he likes his names.
“Captain,” he says politely. “You should go to bed, sir. It’s getting late.”
Byakuya blinks twice, and then raises his head. He’s too dignified to look weary, but there’s a certain set to his mouth, a collection of new lines between his brows that tell Ichigo he’s been here for far too long already. “Lieutenant Shiba,” he says after a moment. “I believe you have patrol in the morning with the Ninth.”
The ‘who the hell do you think you are, telling me what to do’ is only implied, if strongly so.
Ichigo nods, settling his paperwork in completed and fucking-hell-that’s-a-lot-left-to-do stacks on his desk. The insane patrol schedule also means he’s dealing with roughly five times the normal amount of paperwork, and Ichigo thinks longingly of his bed. He hasn’t seen it in a very, very long time. “Yes, sir. Hisagi and I were just going over some paperwork.”
There’s no answer, which is unusual—Byakuya is generally too polite to leave a conversation, even an inane one, hanging. Ichigo looks up, slightly concerned, because surely the captain isn’t that tired. But instead Byakuya is watching him with sharp grey eyes, which have always seen far too much. He’s the only one to realize that Shiba Kei is actually a thin veneer hiding Kurosaki Ichigo, after all.
There’s a long, full pause, and then Byakuya stands. He takes three steps from his desk to reach the window, turning to present Ichigo with his back. Another pause—not quite a hesitation, though Ichigo would probably call it such with anyone else—and then he asks deliberately, “Are you adjusting well to this life, Shiba-kun?”
The question catches Ichigo off guard, and he blinks, hands stilling on the pen set at the corner of his desk. He looks down at it, tracing the lines and shadows, and considers his answer. Is he adjusting, one full year into being a legitimate shinigami? He’d like to think so, at least. There haven’t been any complaints about his tenure as lieutenant, at least, or his handling of the squads. Moreover, on a personal level, it’s a relief to have a job, to be doing something. Ichigo’s never been fond of idleness. He also remembers Rukia’s stories about the Rukongai, the hollows, the danger. At least this way he can make a difference, more than he ever could on his own. And he has Kukaku and Ganju. They’re not something he would have ever considered a bonus, before, but Kukaku is like some strange mix of Yuzu and his father with a dash of his mother and Tatsuki thrown in for good measure, and Ganju is a solid, dependable friend-slash-brother-figure. Ichigo cares for them.
“Your father,” Byakuya says, with strange care, “is not among the most dignified of the captains—”
It’s very, very hard for Ichigo not to snort loudly at that.
“—but he is still a captain, and trustworthy.” The Kuchiki lord half-turns, looking at his lieutenant, and finishes softly, “I know what it is to hold oneself at a distance from family, Kurosaki Ichigo. I have also become aware of the fact that it is a mistake.”
The use of his real name almost shocks Ichigo more than the meaning of the words, because it’s so close to careless, saying such a thing in what amounts to a public area, and Kuchiki Byakuya is anything, everything but careless. Then he grasps the content and swallows, heart suddenly lodged in his throat, because—
Because Yuzu and Karin and Goat-Face are all alive, are all here, and Ichigo hasn’t been able to keep himself from ghosting by their house in the middle of the city more than once, has had to physically restrain himself from asking Momo how the old man is doing. He’d thought, arriving in Soul Society, that a little bit of distance was good. They hadn’t come to see him, and he wouldn’t have been able to see them even if they had, back when he was human. And then in Soul Society he’d had Kukaku, and then Eiji and the Academy, and then the division, and he’s entirely stopped himself from thinking about his family.
They’re safe here. They’re safe and they don’t need him to protect them anymore. Surely their lives will be better without a reminder of the reason they were killed in the first place.
Apparently Byakuya isn’t waiting for a response, because he turns, picks up a few sheets of paper, and crosses the room to lay them on Ichigo’s desk. “Please see that those are delivered directly to Captain Kurosaki in the Fifth before tomorrow evening,” he says formally, and then inclines his head in an elegant farewell and sweeps out of the office entirely.
A little dazed, Ichigo wonders if Byakuya would consider teaching him to walk like that. It’s definitely impressive, in a fuck-off-I’m-busy-and-you’re-insignificant kind of way.
Almost without conscious thought, his eyes drop to the papers on his desk. They’re nothing urgent—should he chose to embrace his inner coward, he could send them off with a seated officer in the morning and it wouldn’t change anything. Except that it would, because Byakuya just gave Ichigo the best excuse he’ll ever get for facing his mistakes and putting them to right.
Ichigo’s never, ever in his life been a coward, and being in his afterlife now isn’t about to change that.
Taking a careful breath, Ichigo picks up the forms and quickly neatens them, then turns off the office lights and heads out the door. There are no second thoughts, no hesitations—Ichigo’s the type who doesn’t waver once he’s made up his mind. He’s faced down monsters and would-be gods and Kukaku in a snit. This…this won’t be easy, but as Ichigo hurries along darkened streets, the night breeze tugging at his shihakusho, he’s almost…relieved.
Byakuya presented it as a choice, a left-or-right kind of option, and those are the kinds of choices Ichigo’s always been good at. He picks one, sets his feet on the path, and doesn’t waver. Urahara said once that his greatest ability was his growth rate, but Ichigo likes to think that his growth rate is only what it is because of his determination.
He checks the Fifth first, but the captain’s office is dark and the building is empty—to be expected, perhaps, because Goat-Face has Yuzu and Karin waiting for him at home, and he’s not one to ask his officers to work late if he isn’t as well. Without letting himself think about it, Ichigo continues on, heading for the neat little house by the eastern wall, set up as a family residence when Isshin took control of the Fifth.
It’s a pretty house, neat and orderly, and Ichigo can see Yuzu’s hand in the decoration and cheerful hominess of it. He strides up to the door, settling his courage around himself like armor, and glances his fingers over Zangetsu’s hilt for luck. The sword hums at him, approving and supportive, and Ichigo only pauses to check that the lights are all still on before he knocks politely at the door.
The resulting ruckus inside is entirely familiar, and Ichigo is fairly certain he hears Karin kick their father into at least two walls before she calls, “One second,” and there’s the sound of a lock being undone.
“What do you want? It’s late?” she asks as she pulls open the door, and then her breathing stutters ever so faintly and she goes still, staring at him. Ichigo is staring right back, though, because Karin’s always been mature, especially for her age, but now…
Now she’s a teenager, a young woman, and Ichigo has seen her at a distance, teaching the kids around the city to play soccer and generally raising hell, but this—seeing her up close is entirely different.
“Can I come in?” he asks quietly.
Mutely, Karin steps back, opening the door all the way so he can move past her. Ichigo does, even as thundering footsteps sound and a voice cries, “Who is it, my beautiful darling daughter? If it’s a robber, Daddy will save you!”
That seems to jerk Karin out of her shock, and she growls, “Who the hell needs saving?!” as she turns, performing an impressive kick that knocks their father, captain of the Fifth Division, right back into the wall.
“Oh, what a good kick! Daddy is so proud!” Isshin warbles, pulling himself out of the plaster, and Ichigo snorts before he can stop himself. Instantly, Goat-Face shifts his attention to him, and like Karin, he goes still.
Ichigo takes an unobtrusive breath, steeling himself, and then looks at his sister. “Goat-Face still giving you hell?” he asks, mouth tilting up at the corner in the half-smile that Kurosaki Ichigo always reserved for his sisters alone.
“Ichi-nii,” Karin breathes, eyes wide.
The honorific is one she stopped using years ago, and it warms something inside of Ichigo to hear it. He reaches out and ruffles her hair with a faint smile. “Hey, Karin.”
With a sound that could be a growl or a sob, Karin launches herself at him and wraps her arms firmly around his stomach. Ichigo stumbles back a step and then hugs her in return, feeling warm all the way down to his toes. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about their reaction before, hadn’t wanted to consider blame and rejection, but the lack of it is still staggering.
There’s a gasp, a cry, and another small body slamming into his side. Ichigo chuckles and shifts his grip to accommodate Yuzu as well, murmuring, “Hey, Yuzu. You look beautiful. Both of you. Geez, when did you manage to grow up?”
Karin punches him in the ribs. “While you were off playing lieutenant and ignoring your family,” she growls at him, but tellingly doesn’t move away. “I—we didn’t know it was you, Ichi-nii. You acted so different, and… Why didn’t you say something?”
Ichigo looks up to meet his father’s eyes. Isshin is standing in the middle of the hallway, face unnervingly blank and arms crossed over his chest. The last time Ichigo saw him was right before the final confrontation with Aizen, right before Aizen’s high-ranking Hollows converged on the Kurosaki house and Isshin went down fighting, along with Ichigo’s sisters.
“You died because of me,” he says honestly. “Because I chose to fight. How could I come back, after that?”
Isshin closes his eyes as though in pain, but steps forward. He wraps a hand around Ichigo’s shoulder and tugs him fully upright, then holds him at arm’s length and simply looks at him. His gaze lingers on the black hair, the lieutenant’s armband, the white-wrapped hilt of the katana peeking over Ichigo’s shoulder. Then he meets Ichigo’s eyes, and the blank look softens into something warm and proud and unspeakably relieved. He smiles and Ichigo can’t help but smile back.
“Lieutenant, huh?” his father asks lightly.
“I think Kukaku-nee-san would have butchered me and used my corpse for fertilizer if I made anything below fourth seat,” Ichigo admits, fighting back a shiver. With Kukaku, such things are less threats and more inevitable promises to be avoided at all costs.
Isshin laughs, shooing the girls away and dragging Ichigo into a tight, back-slapping hug. “That would be Kukaku,” he says fondly, and grins at his son. “Welcome home, Ichigo.”
“I’m back,” Ichigo answers quietly, and for the first time in a very long while, it’s really true.
“You look like hell,” Shuuhei says promptly when his newest friend rounds the corner. “Did you get any sleep at all, Shiba?”
“Good morning to you, too, Hisagi,” Kei mutters, and really, Shuuhei’s seen him look bad before—they’re all running themselves down to the bone, these days—but this is entirely different. The normally pristine lieutenant is still neat, but there’s a nearly rumpled air to him, and deep, dark circles under his eyes. Still, regardless of that, he looks almost…light, as though some weight has been lifted off of his shoulders.
Still awful, but also happy.
Shuuhei studies his friend critically. The Shiba is usually keyed up before a patrol, but now he’s relaxed. The black ponytail isn’t quite as tight as normal, giving him a more comfortable look, and there’s a red scarf tied like a sash around his waist. That’s definitely new, and by the look of it it’s a woman’s scarf, so the obvious conclusion is…
“You got laid?” Shuuhei demands.
He gets the satisfaction of seeing Shiba Kei, genius and prodigy, flush a dull red from the tips of his ears down to his collarbones and start spluttering. “Wh-what? No! Why the hell would you think that?”
Shuuhei snorts, reaching out to touch a stray piece of black hair that has the audacity to escape its tie and frame Kei’s face. “Because for once it doesn’t look like you used a winch to pull your hair back, you’re wearing the same uniform as yesterday—don’t try to deny it, you spilled tea on the edge of your sleeve and I can see the stain—you’re wearing a sash that would make Rangiku envious, and you look like you got maybe an hour of sleep at the most. Logically…” He trails off meaningfully.
Kei’s face goes about four shades darker. “No! The scarf was a gift from my sister. I spent time with my family last night!”
“What? That’s boring,” Shuuhei complains, disappointed, but he takes a step back. “And here I was hoping to live vicariously through you. But I suppose if you had to endure a night with Shiba Kukaku that’s punishment enough.”
Kei mutters something Shuuhei is probably lucky not to catch, and drops the subject like a ton of bricks—and with about that much subtlety, as well. “We’ve got the 54th District today, right?” he asks, turning away and heading for where their squads are assembled. “Western quadrant?”
Because he’s feeling magnanimous, Shuuhei doesn’t call the other lieutenant on it, simply following the swaying ponytail with a faint, amused smile. “Of course. Akon says they’ve been picking up strange reiatsu readings bouncing around the district, and he wants us to check it out.” Seeing the fairly blank look on Kei’s face, Shuuhei rolls his eyes a little. The man is really terrible at matching names with faces. “You know, that guy I was eating lunch with the other day? Brown hair, horns, shares his skin color with an anemic corpse? Second in command of the Shinigami Research and Development Institute?”
With a matching roll of his eyes, Kei flicks a hand in acknowledgement and calls to his shinigami, “Squad Seven, all accounted for?”
The squad leader, a small woman with dark green hair, salutes as she steps forward. “Yes, Lieutenant Shiba!”
With a faint wince at the volume, Shuuhei takes a look at his own men. “Squad Fifteen, any problems?”
“None, Lieutenant Hisagi,” the young man at the front offers with a grin. “All present and prepared.”
Shuuhei and Kei exchange glances, holding a silent debate, and then Kei inclines his head, ceding control of the mission to the older lieutenant. With a nod of thanks, Shuuhei steps forward. “All right, let’s move out.”
“Something’s weird about this,” Shuuhei murmurs, just loud enough for Ichigo to hear.
Crouched on the ground in front of him, studying the markings in the muddy earth, Ichigo nods in silent understanding. The weird reiatsu signatures keep flitting around the district, pausing for barely a handful of seconds before they move on again, and it’s making Ichigo and Shuuhei both a little twitchy. It doesn’t feel like a Hollow, either, but the bodies of a group of travelers at the last site are more than enough to show it’s just as deadly as one.
“I don’t like it,” Ichigo agrees, looking back at the tracks in the dirt. There are no settlements around here, and the others have already checked the area for wanderers, of whom there are none. They’re not actually that far behind whatever the thing jumping around the district is, but these…
These are, without a doubt, human tracks. From several humans, if Ichigo isn’t mistaken. He can’t feel any reiatsu, either, which is another sign that something’s wrong.
An idea flickers through his thoughts, and he rises to his feet. “Hold on, I’m going to try something.”
Shuuhei steps back, looking wary. “What?”
Closing his eyes, Ichigo focuses on the reiatsu shivering in the air around him, rising in sparks and coils, and concentrates on compressing and visualizing the ribbons of reiraku. “Spirit ribbons,” he says shortly. “Shinigami show up red, Hollows are black, and everyone else is white. Even if we can’t track them like this, it will give us an idea of what we’re facing.”
“Seeing reiraku is a high-level technique,” Shuuhei says, but he sounds interested.
Before Ichigo can answer, the awareness just…snaps into place around him, and he opens his eyes with a faintly satisfied smile. “Got it,” he murmurs, surveying the whirl of red around him. It’s easy enough to pick out the familiar feel of his squad, and Shuuhei’s squad only takes a moment longer. Carefully, he drops into a crouch again, studying the air above the footprints, and consciously blanks his face to keep from scowling and/or swearing.
“Shiba?” Shuuhei asks sharply.
“What’s the body count these guys have racked up?” Ichigo asks tightly, rather than answering. He keeps his eyes fixed on the damning ribbons of power twisting across his vision.
“Over fifty civilians,” Shuuhei says, and he’s beginning to sound grim. Like he can guess what Ichigo found, but doesn’t like it. Ichigo doesn’t blame him; he doesn’t like it at all, either. “And they put two squads in the hospital before we started joint patrols. Six dead, eleven with serious wounds, three with no chance of recovery.”
Ichigo pushes to his feet again, trying his best not to grind his teeth. “Shinigami,” he explains flatly. “Their reiraku is red. Damn it.”